An Interview with Julia Fischer
Look through older interviews with violinist Julia Fischer, and you’ll find a disturbing mix of chauvinism and sleaze: “A desirable German export with doe eyes and blond, angelic hair”; “young, sexy, and classical”; “ready for the runway.” One television anchor says she has the “looks, talent, and intelligence of a superwoman,” only to ask her later if she’s able to change a tire. In another interview, she’s asked to explore the question of “visual stimuli”—in other words, her looks—in music. Fischer’s indifference towards both pop culture and making artistic compromises for the sake of pandering to the audience often leaves journalists projecting onto her some kind of desperate bourgeois cultural fantasy.
But Fischer hasn’t let it get to her. Now 37, the violinist has been considered one of the world’s best violinists for some 20 years—and she has the concerts to prove it. For the last 14 years, she’s also been a professor, teaching first in Frankfurt and, since 2011, in Munich, where she studied herself.
On the November Monday that we spoke, Fischer was originally scheduled to play in Moscow. Instead, I reached her on Zoom in Gauting, Bavaria, where she grew up and now lives with her family. As we spoke, package delivery men rang the doorbell.
VAN: Has there been a neglected artistic project you’ve been able to find time for since the shutdown?
Julia Fischer: I have two school-aged children, so: No. [Laughs] I went straight from the concert rat race to the homeschooling rat race…
As a musician, what are you suffering from the most right now?
Working in the void. There have been countless programs this year which I planned, practiced, and then never played. For an artist, it’s a tragedy not to be able to share your work. There are few professions which are currently as dependent on politics as ours. All we can do is wait for the various decisions to happen. Then we act. I’m not a virologist, it’s not my place to say whether the lockdowns are justified or not. I trust the people who know what they’re doing to make the right decisions. But there have been decisions made since March that I don’t get.
The role of public radio and television. It’s sobering: They’re not willing to give us any time. Recently, I played a concert with the [publicly-financed] NDR Symphony Orchestra. Not even the station itself was willing to broadcast the concert on live TV during prime time. It’s nuts.
They probably think the audience won’t be big enough.
That’s not how I see it. A few years ago a study came out showing that more people go to concerts than to the soccer stadium. But when soccer games were cancelled [due to COVID-19], public television showed the finale of the 1990 World Cup during prime time. And we’re all supposed to watch it, because that’s how we’ll “make it through” the period without any sports.
What would you do differently?
The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, for example, is financed publicly. They play concerts each Thursday and Friday in Munich. Why don’t they say, “If the audience can come, great. If not, we’ll show the concert every Friday live on TV”? That would give the orchestra a completely different perspective and improve morale.
Many musicians seem to have a love-hate relationship with traveling. Did you have a hard time letting it go?
Not at all. This year I was supposed to be in New York, Cleveland, Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai, London… all cancelled. But it really doesn’t matter to me where I play. I don’t have the feeling that one city is more important than any other.
Even before COVID-19 hit, classical music was starting to question its jet-setting culture. Do you think the pandemic is an opportunity to make the industry more climate-friendly and sustainable?
I really hope so. I was never a fan of measuring the success of a career by the number of frequent flyer miles you racked up. I think it’s nuts that each orchestra thinks they need to play in New York and Tokyo every single year.
In Asia in particular, where funding is good, I could have done five tours a year. But that’s not the point. I’m in favor of cultural exchange, but it needs to be something special. If you go there every three months, it gets worn out.
What do you think could replace that kind of thinking?
It’s important for us to rebuild our identification with our “hometown orchestras.” For us in Munich to relate to the Munich Philharmonic or the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. It needs to be something special when an orchestra comes through on tour. Right now it isn’t. 20 years ago, when the Boston Symphony visited, we’d be talking about it for months.
I also think it’s wrong that conductors have multiple orchestras. It’s something I never understood. In my opinion, a conductor should be so deeply identified with their orchestra that they really dedicate themselves to it, including the city and its musical culture.
You once did a conversation with violinist David Garrett for public radio where he talked about a crisis he went through in his early 20s, which resulted in him stepping back from the classical music business. Both you and Garrett started your careers early and progressed very quickly. Did you ever have a comparable crisis?
No, and I think that’s related to the fact that, compared to David for example, I had a completely normal childhood. I finished high school, I was never homeschooled or anything. Because of that, I couldn’t have a full concert calendar until I was 19. I always had to consider school. At the time it was hard, but with hindsight it was extremely healthy. I wasn’t simply thrown into an adult world at the age of 14.
One of your new students was recently dubbed “Munich’s new wunderkind” by the local press. Why can’t we retire that term?
I can’t answer that. Maybe it’s part of human nature: putting people into categories, looking for the sensational. The same term was applied to me, and I always resisted it. I found it hurtful, because at the end of the day it meant that I have been given something “from God” and that was why I played how I played. It annihilated the work I put in. For me personally, it wasn’t a wunder that I could play the Beethoven Concerto when I was 12. I could play it because I worked hard and practiced a lot.
In terms of your career as a violinist, you’ve achieved pretty much all there is to achieve. What comes next?
The older I get and the longer my career lasts, the stronger my feeling becomes that my focus should be on raising the next generation, and not on my own success. At the moment I’m dedicating all my time to my students and my youth orchestra. I absolutely love working with the students. Now it’s almost more important and more wonderful for me when my students are onstage instead of me.
What motivates you in your own career?
I try to only play concerts with partners who inspire me. For example, when I play a tour with Vladimir Jurowski, that carries me through the next weeks and months. There’s so much inspiration: so many ideas, so much musical input. Then, when the tour is over, you’re fired up instead of exhausted.
Reading through old interviews with you, many of them are pretty boorish or even sexist. You were put into a box as a sort of well-bred defender of classical music, a role which seems to have fed into a certain bourgeois male fantasy.
Yes, but I think, as a young woman, that’s impossible to avoid. It’s the sad truth. Of course I’ve experienced things that would have been impossible after #MeToo. I do think that it helps us women in terms of having a career or being in the public eye that some things don’t happen nearly as much as they did ten or 15 years ago.
The trial of Hans-Jürgen von Bose, a former professor of composition at the University of Music and Performing Arts Munich, has just begun. He’s accused of rape. The former president of the same school, Siegfried Mauser, who hired you there, was convicted of sexual abuse. How does that influence your work at the conservatory?
When those stories came out, I told my students that, if there was something that had happened to them that they wanted to talk about, first, my door is always open, and second, there are specialists at the school they can talk to.
Do you think the teacher-student relationship at music conservatories is especially vulnerable to abuse of power?
I think that every teacher needs to know how important they are for their students. When I was studying, there was a phase in which my teacher [Ana Chumachenco] was my absolute authority. She led me, but she could have also manipulated me. Every professor must be aware of this power. A student chooses to study with me because they think I’m the one who can help them the most. That’s often connected to a form of admiration or respect. Because of that, I become an authority figure, and with authority comes power—that’s just a fact.
Three years ago, you left your label to start the JF Club. New recordings of yours are only available there. What was your thinking behind that?
It’s not like I left Decca because they were bad. Instead, I thought, it’s possible to make this simpler. Now I can share my recording when I want to share it. I’m my own boss. The whole apparatus of a large recording label… I had to talk to the repertoire person, the publicity person, I had to make sure I wasn’t recording the same piece as another artist… It’s simply not necessary to restrict yourself that way.
Recently, a series of dubious agencies and labels have started popping up with, it seems, the express purpose of taking advantage of young musicians. Are you keeping an eye on your students in that regard?
I’m pretty sure I’d recognize these dubious agencies and labels. Some students are so goal-oriented that they know exactly what they want and how they want it. They don’t need my input on these issues. But there are some who are easily manipulated. And then you have to be extremely careful about whose hands they end up in.
As their teacher, I’m responsible for their musical training. I’m there to make sure they become good musicians, that they don’t have back problems in five years, hand issues in 10, burnout after 15. That they’ll be able to maneuver their way out of every crisis, technically, musically, and mentally. That’s my job. I’m not an agent. Agents do valuable work, if they really do what they’re there for: seeing an artist and realizing where their art can take them. Is the artist a person who likes to experiment; to be alone; or who needs someone at their side? That’s what an agent is there for. If someone asks me about an agency, I’ll say what I think. And that’ll be it. ¶