Leonidas Kavakos


As our artist-in-residence, Leonidas Kavakos will play violin concertos by Beethoven, Shostakovich and Berg during the 2018-19 season and another with soloists from the Bavarian RSO. His instrument is special, being older than any of the works he will play.

Leonidas Kavakos (c) Marco Borggreve

Leonidas Kavakos is recognised across the world as a violinist and artist of rare quality, known at the highest level for his virtuosity, superb musicianship and the integrity of his playing. He works with the world’s greatest orchestras and conductors.

The three important mentors in his life have been Stelios Kafantaris, Josef Gingold and Ferenc Rados. By the age of 21, Leonidas Kavakos had already won three major competitions: the Sibelius Competition in 1985, and the Paganini and Naumburg competitions in 1988. This success led to him recording the original Sibelius Violin Concerto (1903/4), the first recording of this work in history, and which won Gramophone Concerto of the Year Award in 1991.

Leonidas Kavakos was the winner of the Léonie Sonning Music Prize 2017. This prestigious prize is Denmark’s highest musical honour and is awarded annually to an internationally recognised composer, instrumentalist, conductor or singer. Previous winners include Leonard Bernstein, Benjamin Britten, Arthur Rubinstein, Yehudi Menuhin, Dmitri Shostakovich, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Mstislav Rostropovich, Pierre Boulez, György Ligeti, Alfred Brendel, Daniel Barenboim and Sir Simon Rattle.

In the 2017/18 season Kavakos is Artist in Residence at both the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and the Vienna Musikverein. He tours Europe with the Filharmonica della Scala and Chailly and tours Europe and Asia with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig and Blomstedt. Elsewhere, he performs widely as soloist including with the Berlin Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Czech Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Kavakos also gives the European premiere of Lera Auerbach’s Nyx: Fractured Dreams (Violin Concerto No. 4) with the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra.

In December 2017 Kavakos embarked on a European recital tour with Yuja Wang, and in February 2018 he tours North America performing Brahms and Schubert trios with Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax. He will also appear in recital with regular chamber music partner Enrico Pace in Asia and Europe. Latterly, Leonidas Kavakos has built a strong profile as a conductor, and has conducted the London Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Houston Symphony, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Gürzenich Orchester, Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Filarmonica Teatro La Fenice, and Budapest Festival orchestras. In the 2017/18 season he will conduct the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, and Vienna Symphony.

For Decca Classics, Leonidas Kavakos has recorded Beethoven Violin Sonatas with Enrico Pace (January 2013), which was awarded the ECHO Klassik ‘Instrumentalist of the Year’. This was followed by the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig and Riccardo Chailly (October 2013), Brahms Violin Sonatas with Yuja Wang, (March 2014), and “Virtuoso” (April 2016). He was awarded Gramophone Artist of the Year 2014. In September 2017 Leonidas Kavakos joins Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax on a record of Brahms Trios released by Sony Classical.

Leonidas Kavakos’ earlier discography encompasses recordings for BIS, ECM, and subsequently, for Sony Classical, Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (ECHO Klassik ‘Best Concerto Recording’) and Mozart’s Violin Concertos, conducting and playing with Camerata Salzburg.

Born and brought up in a musical family in Athens and still resident there, Kavakos curates an annual violin and chamber-music masterclass in Athens, attracting violinists and ensembles from all over the world and reflecting his deep commitment to the handing on of musical knowledge and traditions. Part of this tradition is the art of violin and bow-making, which Kavakos regards as a great mystery and to this day, an undisclosed secret. He plays the ‘Willemotte’ Stradivarius violin of 1734 and owns modern violins made by F. Leonhard, S.P. Greiner, E. Haahti and D. Bagué.


Mr Kavakos, how are you today?
Fine, thank you. I’m a bit tired, having just returned from an exhausting tour, plus the jet lag. At the moment I’ll have to recover.

Do you sometimes feel your violin has to recover, too?
No, not at all. It’s much stronger than we are.

You play a violin built by Antonio Stradivari. How long have you been playing it?
For about a year. The violin was built in 1734, when Stradivari was already 90 years old. But he was still fit, and in his final years he experimented with the arching of the back and belly, giving the sound more space to unfold inside the instrument. The late Strads are the best. The combination of maturity, knowledge and skill in this violin is unique. Building something like this is an achievement not just for an individual, but for the whole of humanity.

If you’ve only played your violin for a year, have you formed a complete acquaintance with it?
No, not in the slightest. It takes years. Sometimes I think I’ll never be finished with it, for it always offers me something new, a new nuance. I never tire of it, and it never stops being an inspiration.

You sound head over heels in love!
It’s a similar feeling, that’s for sure. You find something, or meet someone, and it changes your entire life. That’s exactly how it was.

How and where did you find this instrument?
Though I only started playing it recently, I’ve known it for a much longer time. In 1994 there was an exhibition of Guarneri del Gesù violins at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. There it was, lying in a glass showcase. I asked if I could play a couple of notes on it – and was overwhelmed by its sound. It had an extremely powerful tone, but with the noblesse and elegance of the Stradivarius sound. What especially impressed me was the darkness of the low strings – something you rarely find on a Strad. But it wasn’t available at the time.

How did the story continue?
For years I saw and heard nothing more about the violin, until one day I visited a dealer friend of mine in London. He placed it on the table and said, Don’t you recognise it? I hadn’t really been looking for an instrument, but at that moment I knew I’d found one.

Do you tend to view the violin, all things considered, as a friend? a companion? or more like a tool?
Neither the one nor the other. It’s my voice. And it’s also a magnificent artistic achievement. I play on a work of art. That’s what sets string instruments apart from other instruments: they’re unique creations. At the risk of sounding over-emotional, it’s a great honour and privilege to hold something so marvellous in my hands every day, to live with it and to grow with it.

What would your instrument be like as a human being?
I can’t say, I don’t know it well enough yet. What I can say is that it has an enormously strong personality. And that I can learn a great deal from it.

How does that work: learning from a violin?
They’re older than all of us by a long shot. This instrument had already been built before any of the concertos I’ll be playing in Munich were written. Mozart hadn’t even been born yet. And a lot of knowledge accumulates in the material over such a huge stretch of time. It’s passed through many hands.

Do you know who played it before you?
Its history can be traced back to roughly 1880. It had various owners, but none of them was a famous virtuoso. The best-known was the 19th-century Belgian violinist Charles Willemotte, a musician who became wealthy and went on to collect instruments and play for fun rather than professionally. He owned nine or ten Strads – a truly great collector.

And today? Is an almost 300-year-old violin in top form every day?
Yes, it is. A good healthy instrument is practically immune to weather and climate. A bit, of course, but not seriously. I don’t have any special tricks or methods of treatment: I simply listen to it, that’s all.

In Munich you’ll play Beethoven, Shostakovich, Berg – all works much younger than the instrument you’ll be using. How can it be that the colours you need are already there in the instrument?
Let me try to explain: Look at the early 18th-century piano and the piano of today. The difference is huge; it’s a completely different instrument. But the violin has remained unchanged. It was already perfect at the time. A work of art, not just a tool. And to my mind, a miracle as well.

Concerts with Leonidas Kavakos

Leonidas Kavakos playing concerts with the BRSO

Leonidas Kavakos (c) Peter Meisel
Leonidas Kavakos (c) Peter Meisel
Leonidas Kavakos (c) Peter Meisel
Leonidas Kavakos & Mariss Jansons (c) Peter Meisel
Leonidas Kavakos (c) Peter Meisel
Leonidas Kavakos & Mariss Jansons (c) Peter Meisel
Leonidas Kavakos & Mariss Jansons (c) Peter Meisel
Leonidas Kavakos (c) Peter Meisel


John Corigliano: Fantasia on an Ostinato for Orchestra
Erich Korngold: Concerto for violin and orchestra D major op. 35
Surprise piece
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Die Glocken (Kolokola), op. 35