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Gustavo Dudamel, Robert Vijay Gupta, and Gil Shaham backstage at Disney Hall (Photo from Robert Vijay Gupta)
Violinist Robert Vijay Gupta of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Brings Music to the Street and to Our Hearts, on LAist
LAist met Robert Vijay Gupta at a show in November at a Casual Friday concert where the LA Philharmonic played an Alban Berg violin concerto with Gil Shaham and a Mozart Symphony No. 41 "Jupiter". Then when the audience was invited to stay after for a discussion of the music, we learned that Dudamel could play the theme from the Simpsons on violin and that the deep respect between Gupta, Shaham, and Dudamel has an authenticity that makes everyone envy not only their talent, but the deep bond that is formed between great musicians who play together. To make the evening even more magical, later in the lobby, we met Robert Gupta and shamelessly asked for to come to rehearsal and interview him.
Sitting in a Los Angeles Philharmonic rehearsal proved to be every bit as intense and amazing as you might imagine. That day conductor Bramwell Tovey led the musicians through "A London Symphony" by Vaughan Williams, a piece that sounds like the score to an extremely entertaining movie. Then Andre Watts came out to rehearse Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2. Sitting close and watching Andre's Watts' hands- now that's truly amazing.
Through it all, from his place in the string section, Gupta's expression went from intense to relaxed to jovial, a display of incredible talent and poise for someone who has only just turned 22 and plays with a world class symphony orchestra. Gupta plays a violin made for him by master luthier School Orders of K.C. Strings in Merriam, Kansas.
After rehearsal, LAist sat down with Robert Gupta over a cup of coffee to ask him about his experiences with the LA Philharmonic, his life's work as a violinist, and all he has accomplished in his short time in LA.
LAist: We just watched rehearsal. How was your experience playing with Andre Watts?
Robert Gupta: It's incredible. I grew up hearing Andre Watts' name all over the place. He is one of the idols that I grew up listening to his recordings. He is one of my idols and I grew up listening to his recordings. So to play with him is very special. That is the way I feel about the artists that we meet here. At the Casual Friday performance that you came to, we played with Gil Shaham. Gil was someone who inspired me to become a musician. He played a piece I know at one of the first concerts I went to when I was nine. The way that he approached it, the way that he expressed himself was so fresh that it inspired me. Andre Watts is another person like that.
Andre Watts made the Brahms piece sound contemporary.
That is the whole point. This music is still alive today. The character of Brahms is still alive today. The idea that classical music describes something very old and ancient is not true at all. You listen to works by Bach and Mozart and you understand that they wanted the same things that we want. They were in love. They had spiritual respect. They were composing for some motive. We share the same human motives. Music is humanizing. That is the whole point of music. A great artist understands that as well. They make the music their own.
Let's go back to the beginning. How did you pick violin as your instrument?
My dad made me a toy violin from a Cracker Jack box and a ruler. My parents tell me that we had a tile parquet floor in our kitchen. They would put on music and I would dance between the tiles. I think I was two or three years old. My parents were not musicians. They are not very musical, though my mom always knew when I was playing the wrong notes. Both my brother and I- my little brother is a pianist- would practice in rooms next to each other. She would always know when we were goofing around.
So they saw me dancing between the tiles and took me to a local high school music teacher. The only two instruments available were a violin and a piano. When I saw the piano I started bawling because it was this big gigantic dark huge piano. I wanted to dance around with my instrument. So I am very happy that I picked the violin.
What is your earliest memory of music?
Some of my earliest memories are of playing and going to my lessons. I started with the Suzuki method. It was developed by a very gifted psychologist in Japan, who had the idea that music should be learned like children learn language. It should be something that is so ingrained and so automatic. You think about a child learning a language, like Japanese, or my mother teaching us Bengali. If we wanted to learn those languages today it would be so difficult, but starting young it's easier. Same thing with music. I remember going to Suzuki lessons and having group lessons and feeling an enormous amount of joy from playing. There was no questions of me not playing. It was something that was as natural to me as breathing. It just happened.
You have played in Israel, Spain, Mumbai, and now Los Angeles. Where is your dream place to play that you haven't played yet? Which country? Concert hall?
When you can go closer to the source of this music, where it comes from, what it means to these people, it changes you and it changes the way you feel about the music. I am very excited because the Philharmonic is going on tour to Vienna in 2011. This is why this job for me is a dream come true. We had a tour last year to Seoul, Tokyo, Singapore, and Hong Kong. It was incredible. First of all, I love going to Asia. I had been to Tokyo and Hong Kong before performing solo and to India several times, but touring with an orchestra is very different. It's like a team going to compete in a stadium. We have to present our best, no matter what.
Even when traveling.
Tours are strenuous: 14 days, 11 concerts, 5 different cities. It's tough but, you've got to do it. It's a lot of fun. I would also love to play in Germany. One of my dreams is to play the Wagner Ring Cycle in Bayreuth where it was written. I played a Wagner Ring Cycle in Spain in May and June last year. A couple of the players were from Bayreuth. They have a different mentality. Wagner wrote it for Bayreuth and you can go back to the source. I have a personal feeling for it, but when you get the feeling the composer had, this idea of tradition that has been continuing for centuries, it makes the music so much more powerful.
What is one important a piece of advice you were told by one of your teachers?
I played in Israel for Zubin Mehta's 30 year anniversary with the Israel Philharmonic. It was the most amazing concert I will ever play in my life. I know that already because Daniel Barenboim, the great pianist and conductor, was playing Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto, the late amazing world class cellist Rostropovich played a Bach cello suite. For me these were gods. I was 11 years old. To have the three of them there all giving me advice was...it will never happen again. On the same program I played a Mozart concerto with "these guys", Mehta was conducting and the Israel Philharmonic was playing.
It was in the Hilton Hotel in Tel Aviv. Sophia Loren was the emcee. I was having trouble projecting sound. I was used to playing in concert halls. It is different when you are in a carpeted ballroom. Daniel Barenboim walked right in front of me and he said to me very quietly, "Don't force." Then he just walked away. The guy is tiny, birdlike. That advice redefines my playing everyday, because you come to a new situation, a new hall or you are playing a new piece of music, and the first emotion you have is tension. Tension doesn't work with music. Physically for us, occupationally, if we are tense and playing, we can get hurt. We can get carpal tunnel, tendonitis, it can do things that will ruin our careers.
Isaac Stern, who is another idol of mine and teacher of mine, redefined my playing by saying similar things. He said, "Just let the music flow through you, through your fingers." It seems very simple, but it changed my life.
You mentioned that you had a story about Sophia Loren.
Sophia Loren was the emcee. I had no idea who she was. I was 11. If I'd been two years older I would have known exactly who she was. After we played, we were having a gala and dinner and my dad said to me, "Robert, go up and take a photo with that woman." Also if I'd been two years older I would never have had the courage to walk up to Sophia Loren and ask for a picture. So that night I walked right up to Sophia Loren and asked for a picture, but before I went, I remember questioning my dad. I asked him, "Who is she? Is she a musician?"
So I went up to her. I am very happy I went because my dad snapped a picture at the prefect moment. Now it is framed big in my living room and is one of my prized gems. It is something that is very very special to me and I am happy I listened to my dad.
And to see that level of elegance outside the realm of classical musicians, which I hadn't seen up to that point in my life, was very eye opening.
When you were nineteen, you came to Los Angeles to audition for Salonen. Did you picture yourself being here? When did you realize you wanted it?
Instead of diving right into med school right after finishing my undergrad, I was 17 when I finished my undergrad and decided to take two years and do what I love- play music. I went to Yale and did a Masters there.
For me music was always like oxygen. It was like my blood. It was something that I could not live without. There was a time when I was finishing up my undergrad that I didn't play for about a year and a half. This was very painful for me. It was physically painful when I went to go back to play the violin. I couldn't move my fingers. It was emotionally painful. I'd lost that outlet for expressing myself.
What happened next?
So I felt this was my chance to play music. I wanted to try. I had played competitions, I had played solo, but I had never done an orchestral audition before. I kept hearing from all of my friends and teachers how an orchestral audition was the hardest thing a string player or a wind player would ever do because you are not performing.
In the audition, you are by yourself. You are playing a part. You are playing on a stage where you can see nobody. It's a screen. It kind of freaks you out because you are not performing. You are not practicing, but you've got to deliver something that makes people behind the screen say," Wow!" So I wanted to try. I had an approach. I said, "Look, I don't care what happens. This is the last time I will play the violin professionally." I wanted to prove myself and see what I could do, and I got the job!
I was sort of in shock for about two or three months. Even after I started here. It was something that I was still grasping as to what this really meant. I was playing music and I had a stable job. I was in a sense luckier than if I had taken that $200,000 loan to go to med school. It was something that allowed me to do what I loved and have stability, but also really make a difference. I grew up, "thinking I want to be a doctor. Doctors help people." This was the idea. My grandparents were doctors. My great-grandparents were doctors.
And you had the facility for science.
Exactly. It was something that my parents said that I would do. What nobler profession, I thought then, could there be than being a doctor? I felt there was a utilitarian benefit to being a doctor and that being a musician was somewhat selfish. You are an artist. You are by yourself. It couldn't be further from that, because I came here and I now understand the impact that music has on these audiences.
I started working with Nathaniel Ayers who is the subject of Steve Lopez's book "The Soloist" and the movie. When I saw Nathaniel and understood the affect that music had on Nathaniel, I understood what the whole point of playing music was. Why do I play? For the fact that this paranoid schizophrenic, sometimes violent man, who used to be a musician and is suffering from all of this pain...living on the streets for 30 years here in LA- that music soothed him. Music is his medicine, where medicine itself had failed. This was very poignant for me.
This is why I play music. I think I am very lucky to have a defining moment like that because I don't want to be the type of person who takes for granted that I have a job. We get tenure here. We have jobs for life. I make a nice salary. I live in Los Angeles where it is 70 degrees in January and I can stay here for the rest of my life. If I had stayed just for that reason, it would have felt selfish. The fact that I am here and understanding the fact that I make a difference in the lives of our audiences and that they change me as well. I am able to give back. That's what matters. That is the power of this music and how we perform it here.
You were hired by Salonen and then recently the transition was made to Dudamel. Tell us your impressions about working with them.
And then The Dude. The music comes from a different place. It comes from his heart. It comes from his hips. It comes from his eyes. He is pulling it out of us. He wants different things in the orchestra. He wants to establish an LA Philharmonic sound. Philadelphia has a sound. Chicago has a distinctive sound. He wants to build this here in LA. He wants to develop a different approach to making this music. It's very organic. It's very natural and it just sort of works, but we understand how much work we have to do. It's a change in consciousness, in how we approach making music. A continental shift. It comes from a different place. We have to do different things.
It sounds like it builds upon the "let it flow, don't force" ideas...
It's not just that. That is very true, but the problem with playing in an orchestra is that everybody has a different idea of how they should play. That's why there is a conductor there. because the interpretation is his. Musicians have to come together and play their feelings with his downbeat. Music flows differently for different people. The greatest challenge of playing in an orchestra is that we have to be flexible. Now with Gustavo, we understand what he wants from the music and we all have to conform to that. That takes a bit of adjusting. We absolutely adore him. Now we are going to start working. Things are moving.
In today's rehearsal, watching how the orchestra works together is fascinating. Two musicians share one music stand.
Of course in Disney Hall, they're are groovy music stands.
Who were you sitting next to?
In our section we rotate. Today I was sitting next to Mitch Newman, who is a very dear friend of mine. Mitch and I read chamber music for fun, we cook, we go out to restaurants all the time. He is one of the sweetest guys. His wife is an amazing pianist. Mitch was one of my first friends in the orchestra.
What is your system for turning pages? Do all of the pairs have the same system?
What happens is we have an outside player and an inside player. The inside player is the one who turns the pages, so if you are coming up to the end of a page he will stop playing, turn the page, then pick up his violin and keep going. In Europe it is different. It is the opposite. When I was playing in Spain I was sitting with this guy from Germany. He was sitting inside. I was waiting for him to turn the page. He wasn't turning the page when we were playing. He was sort of looking at me and I was looking at him, then I noticed all of the outside stand players turning the pages so I quickly turned the page.
Not every musician has two players on the stand. The wind players play from individual stands. So does percussion. It is just for the sting sections. We develop a relationship with our stand partners and music strengthens that relationship. We have to make our own distinctive sound, but still blend with each other. That blending changes with every person you sit next to. That is another challenge but it can also be very fun.
You have been in LA now for three years?
This is the middle of my third season. I started here in June 2007.
Where do you live?
I live in Brentwood. I love it. My parents came out and helped me look at a bunch of places. We just loved Brentwood. I love the fact that I can go out and walk. There are a whole bunch of Italian restaurants right there. I live close to V.I.P. Harbor, an amazing dim sum place. I also live near Pizzicotto on San Vicente, one of my favorite restaurants in LA. There's sugarFISH for great sushi. There is a Whole Foods right there.
What other places have you discovered since you moved to Los Angeles?
I will never forget when the Getty had the Bernini exhibit up. That blew my mind. I love finding new places downtown. I love the Gorbals. Wurstküche is a regular for us. We go there every Sunday and fall off chairs and drink too much beer. I love Little Tokyo.
Do you have a favorite sushi joint in Little Tokyo?
Hama Sushi. And I was just at Omasa. When the chefs know you and you start respectfully learning Japanese and it's great to get to know them. I love cooking and I love reading about food and reading about tradition. When I read Corson's book on sushi, I gained so much respect for these people and what goes into it. It's very beautiful. It's very Japanese. It is something that I respect and adore and it tastes good. I love sushi in this town. I could live on that alone.
I love jazz. Miles Davis is an absolute genius. I love listening to his music and understanding how it is related to what came before it. I don't see classical music as a sort of block. I see it in periods. Jazz will become part of classical music two or three hundred years from now. Things that are happening today come out of things that happened before. There is a very clear trajectory and it works its way into bands like Radiohead and Death Cab for Cutie. Sometimes we have a chance to play with them. We just played with Death Cab at the Bowl which was a lot of fun for us. I listed to salsa, merengue, Indian bhangra. I love Indian hip hop and traditional Indian music. I would love to take the time to learn to play traditional Indian music.
I think it is important that music is not for high society, but for the people. That was Beethoven's idea.