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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 14, No. 7

Caroline Chéhadé Takes on Sibelius

by Wah Keung Chan / April 1, 2009

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When Canadian violinist Caroline Chéhadé talks about playing the Sibelius Violin Concerto, her eyes light up. For Chéhadé, the 2007 Prix d’Europe winner, it has been a two-year journey of discovery, culminating on May 4 with performances of the concerto with the Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal (OMGM).

The most important element of Chéhadé’s discovery of the Sibelius concerto was her visit to a friend in Finland this past December. “It expanded my imagination. I was struck by the beauty of the Finnish countryside,” says Chéhadé. “I can feel myself in that nature, the colours, the melancholy and stillness.” Chéhadé found the Finnish people much like the concerto, which starts quietly and still. “They don’t reach out when you meet them, but when they get to know you, they make you feel very comfortable. They have organized their lives around the nature that surrounds them, with the cold and lack of light. The conditions are not always easy; somehow they have made their life very warm, family oriented.”  In a similar way, Chéhadé found the concerto cold at first, for, as she observes, “ there is so much emotion underlying it, for you to get to know, and for you to vibrate with those emotions.”

Playing the First Theme

When Chéhadé recently played the concerto in New York, she thought of her visit. “I have pictures of the countryside and there is not much light – the sun doesn’t go through the trees, but when I look at them, I find them so beautiful, bringing so much joy. It’s so clear, like diamonds on the snow. There is so much more that you can hear at first.” For Chéhadé, that opening is the key. “It’s about getting the pure quality of tone that’s called for,” she explains. “I do it up bow; I have long arms so I can start at the tip without feeling stuck.”

She goes on, “The second theme is very passionate and very technical in the middle. You have to figure out how long the chord should be; which notes to put vibrato on. The third movement is like the snowstorm I experienced when I was going to the cabin in the middle of the woods and I thought we weren’t going to make it. The weather comes in waves and they know how to deal with it. I find that when I have fun, the third movement goes by faster and easier.”

The Process

Chéhadé started working on the Sibelius concerto after winning the 2007 Prix d’Europe, where the jury included OMGM’s artistic director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. As a happy coincidence, six months later, Nézet-Séguin offered her the concerto, not knowing that she was working on it.

Having already mastered the Bruch, Tchaikovsky and Brahms violin concertos, Sibelius was a natural next step. “I like the Prokofiev too, but I felt the Sibelius came first,” says Chéhadé.  “Tchaikovsky needs the most endurance, as the technical difficulties are everywhere. Often the hardest part is what seems the easiest.” She finds the second slow movement the hardest, “Keeping the intensity and emotion in that line. The Brahms feels so dense, a block of sound. The key is endurance and keeping the intensity after finishing the first movement.”

In preparation, Chéhadé listened to recordings of David Oistrakh, Isaac Stern and Jascha Heifetz. “It’s always Oistrakh that inspires me for the confidence and stability. He draws you to his playing. He is a magician. You feel every change of emotion in every tiny bar; it’s about striving for simplicity.”

Being on Stage

Since winning the Prix d’Europe and graduating with a Master’s from the Manhattan School of Music, studying with Lucie Robert, Chéhadé has continued her studies at the Mannes College of Music in New York. “Every good violinist ends up in New York,” said Chéhadé. “You’re always in contact with other people and you learn how to stand up for yourself. The competition is faceless; people come and go at a fast pace. You’re given high standards. NY draws the top intelligentia for every field. It gave me confidence and the opportunity to show that I had what it takes as a violinist.”

Confidence is something that Chéhadé has been working on with her manager, and she exudes it subtly on stage. “I used to look at the stage experience as a sacrifice of will power to some sort of god. It wasn’t conscious. It was a lot of pretending and uses more energy. I’m trying to get rid of this pretense. It demands lot of vulnerability, knowing that your own worth is not in question. Playing the violin and being confident on stage are really about being at ease with oneself – being confident that you don’t need to be loved by everyone around you. Accepting me for myself, working as a human being, accepting my limitations, expanding my horizons, having confidence in myself in my greater knowledge and expanding my curiosity, all of this would show on stage. It’s something I have been searching for lately,” she adds.

Her Faith

One thing Chéhadé hasn’t been searching for is her love of music. As the oldest of four, Caroline shared a special relationship with her amateur violinist mother, who still plays with I Medici di McGill. “When I was two, I remember being at a concert and not falling asleep,” said Chéhadé. Since picking up the violin at age 5, Chéhadé has developed a growing love affair with the instrument. She was a member of Les Petits violons, and remembers completing her homework early in order to finally practice. Growing up in a family of doctors, she studied science at Cegep before pursuing music full-time, when she continued at the Montreal Conservatory of Music with Anne Robert. Her advice: “I would encourage kids to find their own way to relate to the instrument, to become the person they want to become.”

The person Chéhadé wants to become is a conduit of music. “Most people focus way too much on the left hand because they want accuracy,” she explains. “The beauty of the violin is in the bow, which is the hardest part to master. There are so many variables, the pressure and whether to play closer to the bridge. Unlike a piano, the violin can sustain the notes and you can vary this to convey the different emotions. Moving the bow across the strings is like breathing.”

And what kind of music does Chéhadé listen to? “Music that comes as a genuine way of expressing one’s self. I love beautiful melodies. I love klezmer and gypsy music. Done from the soul and saying something different, it should be a glimpse of unearthly things. When I play, it’s as if a corner of eternity were lifted and I could see a little further, and I want to share with the audience what I’ve seen. Music is an expression of the soul that cannot be expressed in words, that can move me, that makes me want to listen to it again.”

Her favourite piece is the first movement of the Beethoven Violin Concerto. “Every time I listen to it is like the first time. I get a sense of a beauty from it that is not visible. It gives me the desire to strive for beauty in my own life, my ideals.”

Caroline Chéhadé plays Sibelius’ Violin Concerto with l’Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal:

› ‑May 4, 7:30 p.m.; Place des Arts, Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier; www.pda.qc.ca; 514-842-2112, 514-598-0870

› ‑May 8, 7 p.m.; Pierrefonds Comprehensive High School, Auditorium; 514-624-1100, 514-598-0870

› ‑May 10, 4 p.m.; Centre Leonardo da Vinci, Théâtre Mirella et Lino Saputo; www.centreleonardodavinci.com; 514-328-8400

› ‑Caroline Chéhadé will participate in Vivaldi's Four Seasons on July 4 as part of Rendez-vous de la relève at Festival Lanaudière.

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