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Hitting a High Note
Hitting a High Note
The widely successful and critically acclaimed violinist Baiba Skride continues to freely express her passion for music. Critics, too, have fallen for her charms. Reviewing her performance of Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Washington Post wrote, "Skride was completely unfazed by the work's myriad technical challenges, playing not only proficiently but with flair and a nearly improvisatory freedom."

Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times praised her recording of Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto as "the most sophisticated performance of the concerto I know." When I meet with Baiba Skride, the day before her October debut at London's Wigmore Hall, she looks very pretty, very relaxed-and very pregnant, with the birth of her first child a scant two months away. Her advanced stage of pregnancy had required her to cancel an autumn US tour, about which she is quite apologetic: "It would be four weeks before the due date. I never cancel anything, but this time I had to cancel!"

With the birth of her son, Emilien, in December, she already has made amends: at press time, she was scheduled to perform the Mendelssohn Concerto with the Minnesota Orchestra in April, the Tchaikovsky with the Oregon Symphony in October, and two Mozart concertos in Detroit in November.

Born in 1981 in Riga, in the small Baltic republic of Latvia, Skride comes from a musical family. She's the second of three girls, all of whom are professional musicians: younger sister Lauma is a pianist and frequent duo partner, while older sister Linda is a professional violist. Their father is a choir conductor and their mother a pianist.

"We got our first introduction to music from my grandmother, who used to teach singing to little kids," Skride says. "She taught us our first song together, we three sisters."

The love of music, especially vocal music, is a vital part of Latvian society, Skride says. She tells me about the 1991 Singing Revolution, during which the Russians were trying to regain control of the Baltic republics. "People were standing in front of [the main buildings in Riga] and singing, not with any weapons or any anger, just using the force of music," she says. "Now, every five years, we have this huge singing festival, where 30,000 people sing together.

"It's amazing."

The three Skride sisters began playing instruments when they were very young. "When we were kids, my mother was accompanying a lot of violins in schools, so my older sister picked violin. I, of course, as a younger sister, wanted to do exactly as she did. I took the instrument and played on it as much as I could, and completely ruined my hands because I had no idea how to do it!"

Younger sister Lauma, however, was steered to the piano. As Skride recalls, "My mother said, 'No more violins. That's enough now. She has to find something else.'"

When Baiba was three years old, she began studying in a local music school, making her first public performance as a violinist at age four. With the encouragement of her family, she started entering competitions. At one of the competitions, she met the noted teacher Petru Munteanu and in 1995, at age 14, Skride left Latvia to study with Munteanu in Rostock, Germany.

Skride is grateful for her time with Munteanu, who, she says, tried to bring out the individual personality of his students. "He always tried to ask questions and make you think about what you want to do with the piece and never imposing anything," she says. "We had lots of arguments about tempos and things, but finally he makes you understand why, so it actually comes from you. That's the most important thing he taught me: be very convincing to yourself and don't be scared that some people might not like you."

She kept competing while studying with Munteanu, winning, among others, the Jeunesse Musicales International Music Competition in Bucharest in 1997. She wasn't obsessed with winning, she says, but rather she competed because "in most of the schools, you have so little opportunity to play in front of the public. For me the competitions were a way to have a goal, to prepare the big repertoire, which I always liked anyway.

"My parents always told me a competition is a competition, you never know what's going to happen-hearing other people, hearing the level of playing, seeing some professors, maybe meeting some of the great musicians. I think you can do competitions only if you're really not obsessed with winning them, otherwise you can really ruin your life!" for the finals of the Queen Elisabeth, she chose the Tchaikovsky Concerto over the more popular Shostakovich First Concerto, a fiery 20th-century masterpiece that offers room for deep expression, but that is also relentlessly demanding.

"I wanted to do the Shostakovich, but I'm happy that people told me, please, don't do that," she says. "I think Tchaikovsky is actually harder, because there are fewer breaks where you can calm down. Anyway, the Tchaikovsky is one of my favorite concertos."

She's modest about her triumph. "It was lucky for me to be there at the right time at the right point and with the right people around," she says. "I don't think it's only because I played well-of course, you have to play well in competition-but there were lots of factors that came together and I was extremely lucky to have won it."

After that competition she gave the Russian masterpiece a breather, but now she's returned to it, recording it with Andris Nelsons and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the British orchestra put on the map by Simon Rattle. "The Tchaikovsky has been recorded millions of times, of course, but it is a piece I've played since I was 12 or so," Skride says. "I remember seeing Oistrakh play it on TV, and I remember taking the music and following each note and wondering why he was playing a different note than Auer did or something, and why is he doing that, and where did he get that?"

The Tchaikovsky disc is her fifth for Sony Records. Her first featured such Classical repertory as the Mozart Third Concerto; her second was a solo disc of Bach, Ysaye, and the fearsomely difficult Bartok solo sonata. "There are actually places in that sonata that are impossible to play and nobody has ever done it," she says, including in this list Yehudi Menuhin, the work's dedicatee.

Skride is especially happy with the live Shostakovich First Concerto on her much praised third recording. Playing live "teaches you a lot and you learn about yourself so much . . . you create something onstage, and it doesn't have to stay in a box somewhere, it's much more my thing."

On her fourth disc, she teamed up with sister Lauma for a sonata program, with music by Schubert, Beethoven, and Ravel. Knowing that Skride is in high demand as a chamber musician, I ask if there's something special about playing with her sibling. "As good as it is to play with others, with my sister, there's not so much question of how we do things, we just do it," she responds enthusiastically. "Of course, there are times when we fight a little bit about some phrase, but it usually just ends up that we decide not to say anything to each other and we just play until it works out by itself.

"We've been on the stage together more than 20 years. That's a connection I cannot get with anyone else." at only 26, Skride still has plenty of repertory to explore. Her tastes are wide-ranging, and encompass solo, chamber, and even orchestral repertory. "Sometimes I envy people in orchestras-I don't have the chance very often to play in orchestras-because there are these amazing symphonies, the Mahler, Bruckner symphonies," she says. "These composers, you cannot discover them otherwise."

She recently performed "Distant Light," a violin concerto by her compatriot, Peteris Vasks, a work she found deeply moving. "It really makes you feel the atmosphere and what people felt in those hard years during the Soviet Union, the desperation, and the hope behind the desperation," she says. "Sometimes it's very emotional, very hard, ironic, and not nice, then come these moments, these harmonic moments when everything is still, and you just hold your breath and you feel these harmonies. It brings you to a different world."

That magical time onstage must surely be paid for by hours of practice, I suggest. "I was never a fan of the practice room," she laughs. "Normally when I'm traveling I don't have a practice routine at all. It's sometimes a lot, sometimes not at all. And I'm not a fanatic at all about it. I practice when I feel I need to. After years of playing you know when you need to practice and when you need to leave yourself at peace and just not do anything. A lot of the time you just practice in your head. You can practice all you want but you still need time without your violin just to think about it and get it in your head and working in your body.

"I always hear some kind of music in my head, a lot of people have some kind of melody in their heads at some point. I just use it consciously that when I'm walking in the street I try to sing it through in my head, or some certain passages that I can't do fast enough or don't know exactly by heart I try to find them out without the music."

There's little time in her life for teaching right now, though a recent encounter with a young player who sought her out for help with preparing for a competition piqued her interest. "When I play for myself," she says, "I'm not used to formulating why I'm doing what. And then when you actually want to say to someone what you want them to do, you have to have a clear idea of what you want them to do and that helps when thinking about it. Most of the things I do intuitively, I don't think about them intellectually, neither technical nor musical things, so it's very interesting work. I would never do only teaching. I would miss the stage too much.

"But I think it's a nice thing."

Copyright 2008, Strings