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At just 26 years old, Austrian-Persian cellist Kian Soltani just released his first album for the label Deutsche Grammophon. He kindly took some time to answer some questions for Opus Cello before his performance of the 3rd Meditation from Mass by Leonard Bernstein with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Christoph Eschenbach at the Tanglewood Music Festival.
How did you end up playing the cello?
For many different reasons. The first one is that I was born in a musical family. Everyone was playing music at home, my parents, my aunt, my uncle…everybody, really. My cousin, who is three years older than me, was a bit my idol and he played cello. Since I always wanted to do whatever he was doing, I wanted to play cello too! He started cello when he was four years old so when I had my fourth birthday three years later, that’s when I started as well. He always remained my role model as a cellist and we had many of the same teachers. My mother also loved the cello so she was very happy I picked it up, I think.
You spent your most important years as a cello student with Ivan Monighetti. Could you give us some insight into some of his core principles as a teacher?
I studied for 11 years with him and he really helped define me as a cellist. It was a very old school way of teaching, not looking for quick results. I think it’s very rare today that students stick with their teacher for such a long time. A lot of what he was teaching he had learned from Rostropovich, I think he talked about him in almost every lesson. He had studied with him in Moscow and he was trying to capture that spirit in his teaching. He was an incredibly slow teacher, so he would spend a lot of time with each piece, to really work on every bar and develop it. It has pros and cons of course, because even though you get to know a piece in depth, later on you may have to prepare pieces faster and effectively and I learned that on my own a bit later. He also never wrote fingerings, he thought we should practice it so much so that we could play it with many different fingerings. Now I have to be much more efficient, so I actually had to learn how to make fast choices. He also cared about so much more than cello for my education. I learned to play piano, he made sure I exercised, he would ask me to compose pieces for him, read certain books, learn poems, sing songs…I remember once, Sol Gabetta was his assistant, and he asked me to learn this Mozart aria and sing it to her on my knees in front of the whole class, it was the most embarrassing moment of my life! But all this is meant to help you overcome normal social fears and boundaries. He was really a mentor more than a cello teacher, almost like a father to me. That’s very special and unique with his teaching. I think when he sees someone with potential, he becomes very generous with his time and involvement.
He also pushed me a lot to do competitions, even if I didn’t want to. Without him, I wouldn’t have done some of the competitions that I did, because I thought I was not ready for them. And also, it was a good way to get his attention because then he could give you up to three lessons a week if you were going to a competition!
Speaking of competitions, you won the International Paulo Cello Competition in 2013 and the year before the Antonio Janigro International Cello Competition. How much did those matter for your career?
They didn’t matter at all for my career. But they changed everything within me, in my mind, my confidence, my determination. I think that’s the number one thing you can take away from competitions, it’s the personal growth. Preparing a big program can also get you to the next level. Actually, for both competitions, I didn’t want to go. I would go see my teacher and tell him “I am not ready, I am not going”. And he would just convince me to go. Each time, I thought I would end up being eliminated in the first round and I won both competitions! I was truly surprised each time I won, I had no expectations, which actually probably helped, because then you care less and relax. You don’t want to go with pressure. That’s why I stopped after Paulo, because I felt if I did another competition, I would care about the result this time around. When I won, I was nobody, so I didn’t care if I was eliminated. But after Paulo, I got some sort of artistic pride and I knew if I went to another competition, this time I would want to win First Prize, and I don’t think that’s the right mindset for competitions. It can only be negative. Then you will get very upset if you win Second prize. I wish I wasn’t like this now but it’s better to accept it and do something about it than to deny it. So those competitions did nothing for my career, but they gave me a lot of confidence. Those results didn’t mean I was the best in the world because there is some luck involved with competitions, but at least I knew I was on the right path. What really helped with my career was meeting Anne-Sophie Mutter and Daniel Barenboim, but anyway building a career is a very slow process. Of course, there are exceptions like winning First Prize at the Tchaikovsky Competition, but most careers take time, and I don’t mind that.
You already had many experiences with major musical figures, such as Daniel Barenboim or Anne Sophie Mutter. Do those great musicians have anything in common and what is it that you learned from working with them?
What they have in common is that they are absolute professionals, just like Yo-Yo or Gautier. They all have a very clear head and extreme intelligence, because that’s what you need to survive in this business. Knowing what you spend time on and where you won’t waste time. Of course, they have a lot of support, many assistants and basically full teams helping them with all the non-musical things related to their careers.
So it’s almost only the non-musical attributes that you notice with them?
I guess so because musically they are all so different and so unique! I cannot see any similarity between Barenboim and Mutter. But what they have in common is the human element.
There is a video of you on Youtube playing Gulda at fifteen years old and you already look so comfortable on stage. Has the stage always been very natural to you or did you improve over time?
I started performing on stage very early, so it was very natural for me. I wouldn’t get too nervous. It’s better to start early and overcome your fears. I think fear comes only around 12-13 years old, before that age you don’t care. So you just have to power through that year and get over it. Now I am really not nervous anymore. Actually, for that Gulda, I was very nervous because the whole school was there, all my friends and family, and I really wanted to play well. But as soon as I played the first note, the nerves went away, which is usually the way it is for me.
You had your first album come out for Deutsche Grammophon last January. A very smart program, exploring your own roots in both Austria and Iran. It even features a piece of your own, Persian Fire Dance. Do you compose regularly or was it a one-time challenge for you?
I don’t compose regularly. That’s one of the rare cases where I actually wrote down something on paper. I wrote it when I was fifteen years old and it changed a lot over the years into the version that is on the album today. I wrote another piece before, the one I wrote for Monighetti, but I lost it so it’s gone. Since then I haven’t written anything except my own cadenzas. I like improvising to Persian music with my father regularly but it’s not something I write down.
You also play the Kamancheh, which seems to be the Iranian version of the cello. Have you played it since you were a child or is this something you explored later on? Will you keep performing on that instrument?
I started playing as a child and then I stopped. The Kamancheh teacher told me it wouldn’t be good for my cello technique! Only recently did I pick it up again, but I don’t have time to practice it so I just apply my cello technique to the instrument. In that sense, I am not a real Kamancheh player, maybe that’s what the teacher meant when he made me stop! The only reason I play it is for the unique colors of its sound so I can play with my dad and his ensemble. We play a couple projects together every year, but it’s not a regular thing.
I noticed the cellists of your generation connect assiduously with fans on social media. There are many videos of you playing with your cello pals Pablo Ferrandez and Santiago Canon Valencia. Do you feel it is part of your job now to connect more directly with the fans?
I don’t have to do it but it’s a question of connecting. Before, the only way to connect with the public was through a live concert but today there are so many more ways of connecting with your audience. I am almost addicted to connecting. I don’t see it as a negative thing, I need that. That’s why music is there, it’s to share it with somebody. Social media has created this next level of sharing. Even if you are far away, you can connect with people. There are people who don’t like it and think if people want to hear them they can come to a concert. But many people can’t come to a concert, so social media is a great way to share music, especially with young people. 90% of my followers are under 30 years old! And maybe you can entice them to come to a concert through social media, that happened to me so many times. You share your location, say you are about to play a concert, and if they are there they may come listen and meet you after and thank you for telling them about it on Instagram. You can also give away tickets on social media and encourage young people this way to come to a concert. It is also a way to remove the fear from classical music, to show that we are normal people, that we have other interests outside of music. I am not as much of a pro with social media as my friend Pablo, he is at another level!
Is there any chance those fun times together with Pablo will lead one day to maybe albums together or commissions of new pieces for multiple cellos?
Definitely. We are already thinking about making an album, maybe tours together. The only tricky thing with a duo album is that you don’t know who plays what when you listen. Video is fantastic for a cello duo but a CD is confusing. Or maybe it doesn’t matter. What matters is the music, after all!
Beyond those social media posts, you just played a cello ensemble concert in Dresden with other great cellists and are also going to the Cello Biennale in Amsterdam next Fall. Why do you think cellists like so much playing together?
I don’t think any other instrument sounds as good in an ensemble as the cello. The range of the instrument is the most complete of the string family so you can really imitate an entire orchestra. You don’t want to hear a violin ensemble, the bass is missing, and it’s the opposite problem with the double bass.
Do you have any cello heroes? No pressure that Yo-Yo Ma is playing on the same concert as you are tomorrow!
He is definitely one of them, ever since I am a child. His ability to communicate across cultures, his ability to choose the right projects, his skill at switching through different genres while keeping a high quality of playing is inspiring. I also love Steven Isserlis, who is an absolute purist, has this ability to go so deep in a score, exploring the harmony, the structure. Every note belongs somewhere, he really sings beautiful phrases. And then Giovanni Sollima is my third cello hero. He is incredibly creative and he is reinventing what it means to be a cellist, to write your own music, to perform your own music, basically to become a piece of art yourself. This is my holy trinity of cello, three very different people, but each very interesting in their own way. I try to learn from each of them.
What do you like to do when you are not playing the cello?
I love movies, it’s my biggest passion. I watch them all the time. I love going to the movie theater in Berlin, I love the experience of sitting in a movie theater perfectly designed for sound and image. It’s like a going to a concert, instead of staying home listening on your phone, it’s a whole experience. And then I like to relax and eat with my friends, go out and eat good food. I play a bit of piano or listen to other styles of music like jazz or hip-hop.
Anything else you would like to mention?
Well maybe we can mention the Hulk method that we talked about over lunch before this interview. Otherwise I think we covered many things already.
Thanks for making the time to do this with me!