Sollima – Performer as Creator

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Published: 18th April, 2014
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On the eve of his Melbourne appearances with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, composer and performer cellist Giovanni Sollima talks about recording, improvisation, and being called a rock star. In their comprehensive discussion interviewer Adam Szabo discovers a truly unique voice in music.

When I speak to Giovanni Sollima, he is three performances into a twelve-concert tour with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, performing three demanding concertos in the same program. (That’s 36 concerto performances in just under 25 days, for those playing along at home.) He is also an oasis of calm. The ACO, he says, is an orchestra full of freedom and knowledge; he is treating the three (extremely virtuosic) solo works as one continuous story that he tells together with the orchestra.

This quietly spoken introduction is definitely not what I was expecting from the man that the wider media has dubbed “The Rock Star of the Cello”. In a recently published article, The Sydney Morning Herald ran the headline: Is “crazy Sicilian” Giovanni Sollima the world’s coolest musician? Sollima is surprisingly awkward when I ask him about his reputation.

“I don’t know about this,” he says. “I am uncomfortable with this label. Of course there is an incredible energy in the music, in the space, in the audience …” He interrupts himself: “Of course, you know about Corelli. He used to have a huge orchestra at the time, and he really was like a rock star. When he was on the stage, the audience would scream so loudly that he would have to play a D and a D sharp together very loudly to make them be quiet! But I am not a rock star like Corelli.”

Composing, like cello playing, is in Sollima’s blood – Giovanni’s family is full of musicians, going back for several generations, and as a young musician he was taught to compose and to play piano simultaneously with his cello lessons. Perhaps it is for this reason that he is very critical of the highly vocational model that has been adopted by tertiary music schools. “You have touched on something that has been quite painful for me in the past. In the past, everyone was a performer-composer. Everybody. I was also brought up this way, and for this reason, the system was quite hard for me. They told me: ‘You have to decide. You can be a composer or a cellist’.”

Along with the concept of the performer/composer, Sollima also a great proponent of the lost art of improvisation. For anyone who has seen him play, this is not a surprising revelation – Sollima is utterly fearless in his approach to performance. In a world where classical musicians obsess over perfection and wrong notes, he dares to take the musical risks that others will not.

Today, Sollima tours a great deal, playing concerts and giving masterclasses all over the world. Although he does not have as much time to compose as he would like, he tells me he grasps every possible opportunity to write. It is clear however, where his heart truly lies. On the tricky balance between his writing and his playing, he says: “If you ask me to quit cello and keep composing, I would quit all music completely. If you ask me to quit composing and keep playing cello, I would be happy. For me, everything is from the cello. Even when I write for other instruments, for the flute, for the chorus, it is from the cello. It is my home.”

I ask him about his thoughts on a recording industry that seems to churn out sanitised carbon copies of the same young, flawless artists. There is no cynicism in his voice when he answers: “Of course these days there is a so called ‘perfect style’ – the perfect agent selling the perfect CD with the perfect sound. This is very superficial. But there is not only this. There is another way – the products of the little labels are very attractive. I don’t think this is a problem. I like it when the world is full of information – better than one information.”

It is clear that the prospect of contributing some of his own “information” greatly excites Sollima. He speaks of a project currently in the works; a recording of the complete Bach Cello Suites recorded on an analog medium, without cuts or edits in the final version – an approach that is unheard of in the highly digitised industry of the 21st century. “I think of this recording as a photograph of a moment, capturing one possible version of a piece,” he says. “This is not a recording that is the definitive version of a work. It is a snapshot.”

It is an intriguing idea – a new approach to recording that gives equal weight to the performer and the composer. In this, as in all of his work, Sollima is the embodiment of the performer as part of the creative process. Not content to merely reproduce someone else’s work, he creates and contributes, radically, through performance – a truly unique voice in music.

Giovanni Sollima performs in Melbourne with the ACO on May 4 & 5, at Hamer Hall. Check the Calendar for details.