Simone Briatore has been guest performer with many music associations and has performed with musicians of the calibre of Martha Argerich, Enrico Bronzi, Mario Brunello, Bruno Canino, Giuliano Carmignola, Enrico Dindo, Ingrid Fliter, Ilya Grubert, Ilya Gringolts, Alexander Lonquich and Enrico Pace. He has played as first viola for important orchestras, including the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, the Filarmonica della Scala, the World Orchestra for Peace founded by Georg Solti, the Orchestra da camera di Mantova, the Camerata Salzburg. Since 1998 he has been first viola in the RAI Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale, and since 2009 first viola with the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome.
At the Accademia di Musica Simone Briatore teaches advanced courses in viola. As part of our section A Career in Music, we interviewed him to ask what advice he would give to our students, who are set to become the future generation of music professionals.
What were the key experiences that marked your development and training as a musician? At what time of your life did they take place? Why were they significant?
There are so many I could mention, but I’m going to choose three. I was just an awkward adolescent when I attended a summer course with a famous violin teacher. I only saw him once; the rest of the time I was farmed out to his two assistants. One of these was giving lessons on Bach that really made an impression on me, so I went to lots of them. The way he saw and approached that music was so intimate and delicate, so far from the macho approach that informed the playing style of “superstar” violinists. It was only later that I understood that his particular sensibility had its origins in deep research into the performance techniques of the historical period. I also realised that my contact with him contributed to the formation of the musical character I have today, even though I attended his lessons for just a few days. This teacher was Adrián Chamorro, and I am very grateful to this day for what he gave me. Several years later (when I was perhaps a little more aware) I found myself studying with Vadim Brodski. From the Russian school, he was a violinist of extraordinary quality and his charisma was so strong it was almost as if he cast a spell over you: just the fact of being near him during a lesson made you vibrate at a higher frequency. His personality was so generous and overflowing that you were inevitably swept up in it, and permeated by it … in short, you only had to stand beside him on a little stage – in a deconsacrated church in Senigallia – to play at a much higher level. Incredible but true (only in tales of Zen masters have I heard of anything similar). And the effect of this spell was long lasting and developed within you over time. This man opened a door for me into a world that by then belonged to the past, connected to an era and a school of music whose memory seemed already lost in the mists of legend. Never since that time have I felt the enchantment of the art that lies at the heart of music, its limitless scope. And then one day I met Tabea Zimmermann, an otherworldly creature who lives in perfect symbiosis with her instrument, the viola. The mysterious, enigmatic processes that work within her to produce extraordinary music - no one who hears her can fail to be struck by this - are certainly extremely complex. But what the concert audience hears (and sees) is nothing less than the harmony, beauty and pure simplicity of a phenomenon of nature. The infinite range of expressive registers, the power, the subleties of the music: through her hands all these things were continuously transforming, like a living creature. I learnt many things from Tabea, most importantly the immeasurable importance of imagination: the sound that emerges from the instrument, is only the last phase of a process, its tangible (so to speak) manifestation. But the music, the space it occupies, its shape, its emotional charge, every tiny detail, the piece in its entirety: all these things already exist. The more this “image to be traced in sound” is complete and clear within us, the easier it will be to find the path to realize it as music.
Can you describe one or two turning points in your career? What impact did they have on your career? Why were they important?
If we’re talking about turning points, undoubtedly one of the most important was when I met my first viola teacher. We have to go back to the mid 1990’s, when I was studying violin and the time came when, as was customary, I had to take the course in complementary viola: a year to be dedicated to discovering what kind of creatures lurked in the shadowy depths below the G-string. You might ask the question: What’s the use of studying viola for a year? Evidently, the Conservatory teachers who constructed the curriculum for the diploma (under the old system – a century ago, literally!) believed that you could not be considered a good violinist unless you acquired some knowledge of how to play the viola. And it’s not such a strange idea. To tell the truth, in many cases, the idea of this foray into realms of the medium frequencies did not fill the hearts of young violinists with joy, keen as they were to explore the high notes and dazzling virtuoso acrobatics of their own agile instrument. In fact, it usually resulted in a kind of half-hearted sight-seeing excursion where the tourist just glances at things out of the window of the bus And that’s how it probably would have been for me if I hadn’t encountered Maestro Davide Zaltron. He had just tranferred to Turin, from I don’t remember which conservatory, and I was in his class. I first met him as I came down the stairs from the violin classroom, and from that very first meeting he changed my whole perspective on things! He was intelligent, provocative, perceptive: a revelation for me, in short. So much so that when I had finished the complementary viola course, I didn’t hesitate for a moment before enrolling in the viola major course, parallel with my violin major. I graduated in both majors and gradually, almost imperceptibly, I found myself feeling so much at home in viola country - no longer foreign to me - that I moved there.
Often our mistakes teach us important lessons. If you could go back in time in your career what would you do differently?
Sometimes, when I was very young, I refused some very interesting opportunities because I was afraid that they were beyond my capabilities. That was so foolish. Fear and self doubt are very bad counsellors: they prevent you from having a clear vision of what really interests you and they stop you from confidently taking up challenges. Viceversa, every time that I made a daring choice I was amply rewarded in terms of personal satisfaction and of progress in learning. But in my case, this determination to welcome challenges only works if I have a clear conscience, that is to say, if my technical preparation is up to the mark!
Along a musician’s career path there are always many important decisions to be made and these often depend on and result from the opportunities that are offered to them. What helped you to stay focused and not to lose sight of your goals?
Like everyone else, I’ve had high and low points. At certain times I’ve found myself wondering what could possibly be the use of our playing music, this activity in which we invest so much effort and time, with the sole purpose of distilling a rarified essence, one of the most intangible and ephemeral things on this planet. I would say to myself: “Wouldn't it be better to be a carpenter, or a bricklayer, who can see the solid, physical result of what they have created?”. I think it’s a phase we all go through. But then what won through was my love for music, which I have always experienced as a direct channel for expressing what is in the depths of the soul, perhaps more so than any other art. As Debussy, whom I have adored since I was a teenager, used to say, “Music begins where the spoken word ends.” This mystical (if we wish to so define it) component of music is one side of the coin. The other side is the craft, the physical work of making music, which is embodied in our daily practice. These two components interpenetrate absolutely and it has been my good fortune that for me the first factor, contact with spiritual depths, has nurtured the second aspect, physical work every day. When I decided to enter the audition for first viola in the Orchestra Nazionale della Rai, I had not really thought about the possible consequences. At that time I was studying abroad and I was finding this immensely stimulating. I wanted to learn, to try new experiences, and that was the spirit in which I came to my audition on the day set, not so much because I was looking for a job (even though today that seems a foolish thing to say). The result was so unexpected that I was stunned, confused. This wonderful “accident” upset all my plans. Before then I thought that I would be living in Basel for a while, and then, who knows, would go on to study somewhere else. This new development forced me to reconsider all my plans, and … to take a crucial decision. So I began working in a symphony orchestra, which gave me the opportunity to get to know, “from the inside”, many of the splendid works of music that up till then I had only heard from recordings and at concerts. Once again, the spiritual was embodied in the physical: the music that had previously, through my ears, managed to touch hidden and unsuspected depths in me I was now creating through my instrument, working together with the other orchestra members. At the same time I continued to study with master musicians who were a great inspiration to me, to play a lot of chamber music, to follow my path. Still today I sometimes wonder what would have happened if at that fork in the road I had taken the other way.
Apart from studying with great passion and dedication, what advice would you give to young musicians who are starting out on a career in music?
We should not be in such a hurry to gloss over the question of practising, and those two sisters Passion and Constancy. Let’s take some time to talk about this. Experience tells us that not all students are equal. To simplify, we can divide them into two categories: those who practise too little and those who practise too much. Ask a student who does too little practice, “Why do you practise so little?”, and the reaction you get is a) angry denial: It’s not true that I don’t study! I played it fine at home! Or b) a litany of excuses that are sometimes very imaginative: I was at the police station all night because somebody stole my friend’s car and then I fell asleep. But if a teacher has the patience to dig a little deeper, they can discover some interesting things. When a student doesn’t practise, it’s sometimes because a dynamic (not necessarily conscious) has come into play that is more complicated than mere laziness. Simply, the student does not believe that practising works. Not that they don’t believe this in general, but in their specific case. They don’t believe it works for them, and, this is the point, it is because they lack self esteem. They believe they have little talent and so they think that however much effort they put into practising, they will make little or no progress. It’s like a boy giving up on courting a girl because he thinks she is so beautiful that she’s out of his league. It’s a huge mistake, and the effects are more damaging than for any other error. We think we are absolutely clearheaded in our perception of our limits, and we don’t realize that the mind is ingenious in constucting limitations that are artificial, and therefore false, but that seem extremely realistic to us. The result is that we draw a line in the sand and decide that we can’t go beyond that mark, simply because we are convinced that we haven’t got the talent to go further. Many students enroll in a course, or more than one: I knew a student who was having lessons from five teachers at the same time. By so doing, perhaps they keep their conscience quiet, convincing themselves that they are doing something that will help them progress. But, actually, until they decide to assume an active role in determining their own path towards personal growth, they won’t be going anywhere! In their desperate search for someone who will give them some answers, some tricks, some magic pills, they are looking for an alternative to the one thing for which no possible alternative exists. For musicians, practice is our research, our daily activity, our path to follow; it’s something intimate and personal, something that belongs intrinsically to us that we cannot delegate to others. Playing music is an experience, not a ready-made package that you can receive or buy. This is a long explanation that boils down to the supreme truism: practice works, and how! It requires curiosity, and also courage, because it forces you to venture into unexplored territory. To take responsibility for what you are doing. And it requires you to be conscious; to be aware and alert at every moment, ready to pick up new impressions and ideas as they come through; to observe your inclinations and reactions; to be surprised by sensations that are completely new to you; to deepen your awareness just that little bit more. It’s wonderful when, at a certain point, you realize that your limits, your real limits, are essentially elastic – they stretch. But let’s deal now with our other category of students: the ones who practise too much. I have some advice for them too. Let it never be said that we neglect minority groups. First of all, beware of the syndrome of the obsessive housewife, always compulsively tidying and cleaning. What’s the point of a house that’s sparkling clean, if you have to tip-toe around it, if you can’t sit on the sofa for fear of messing up the perfectly arranged cushions, if you’re rigid with fear of disturbing the perfect order? Come on, you have to be able to throw yourself into the music, to roll around in it, like dogs romping on a lawn, without being terrified of breaking some precious object. In other words, experience your music intensely. And you won’t be able to do that if while you were practising you were only worried about not getting anything dirty. Because life abhors what is sterile and sanitised. So let’s discover a way to practise that is active, sensitive. Break away from the routine. I’m not praising disorganization … Quite the opposite! But let’s leave some space for imagination, for inspiration, and not place all our trust in soulless repetition! Let me make one thing clear: practising doesn’t just mean hours spent hunched over your instrument, infuriating your neighbours. When I ask a student to bring me the score of a piece they are working on, more often than not they hand me a book that looks brand new, not a mark on it, still with that new book smell! While the viola part is like an illuminated manuscript, written over with thousands of notes for fingering and a succession of bowings one on top of the other, with greasemarks, with dog-eared and crumpled pages. So, why don’t we ask the score a few questions? In the beginning you may not get much out of it, but if you persevere, little by little you’ll discover that it has a thousand fascinating things to tell you, and this questioning will become a constant, continuing dialogue that you won’t be able to do without. Most of the music we study was written for more than one instrument, so we should respect this sociality of music, and not restrict ourselves to our own little patch. And you can widen your horizons: what else did this composer write around the same time? And earlier? And how did their music develop afterwards? What was happening in the music world at that time? And in the world of culture, in society in general? Lastly, the advice I give to so many students is to take a break sometimes from their instrument, if necessary consoling it with reassuring words, and to go out into the world. See friends, experience beauty, go somewhere to breathe in pure air, lie out in the sun, look at the view from a mountain top, or swim in the sea. Again, let me quote from Debussy, whose Monsieur Croche says provocatively: “You gain more from watching the sun rise than from listening to the Pastoral Symphony.”