One on One: Cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton

Classic Arts Features   One on One: Cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton
A conversation with French-American cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton, who explores songs from Slavic lands with her recently released solo debut album for naÇve, Chants d'est, and is set to perform at NY's Poisson Rouge Nov. 23.


Wieder-Atherton, whose questing spirit and imaginative conceptual programs have set her apart as an artist of unique vision, is one of naÇve's new exclusive artists.

Her solo debut album for the label, Chants d'est _ Songs from Slavic Lands, is an evocative collection of works and arrangements spanning Mitteleuropa _ cultures born out of the vast, oppressive Austro-Hungarian Empire where composers _ like so many other creative artists _ fought to retain their own language and identity.

The wide-ranging repertoire, from Russian composers such as Prokofiev and Rachmaninov to Mahler's otherworldly "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" and Jewish traditional music, conveys many diverse emotions and moods, from the passionate and earthy to the sublime and transcendent. Christophe Mangou leads the Sinfonia Varsovia in a new release that Gramophone has called "an intriguing and often amazingly beautiful collection."

She discusses the album and her approach to music and programming:

Q: Was the cello always your instrument of choice?

SWA: I came to the cello little by little. I always needed sounds _ that's what I reacted to. At first I played the piano but I wanted a string instrument so I began the guitar. I wanted to be able to keep the sound going as long as I wanted. Already I was striving for a "singing sound." Then, one day, when in Paris, I put a record on and it was a Vivaldi sonata for cello and I was hypnotized. I was ten. From that moment I knew it was my instrument.

Q: You live in Paris now, but you were born in San Francisco and lived in the States for a while.

SWA: Yes, I was born in San Francisco and from there we moved to New York. I was four when we moved to New York and eight when we moved to France. My strongest memories of the States are linked to sounds: from my childhood, I remember the different ways of talking in the North and the South. I can describe that particular sound of American cars cruising the avenues of New York.

Q: Is it true that neither of your parents were musicians?

SWA: My father is American and taught American studies in the States and then in France. My mother is French but was born in Romania, left for Lebanon, and moved after the war to Paris where she studied and taught philosophy.

Q: So what feels most like home?

SWA: I always try to make a single unit out of many different influences. My parents are from very different cultures, and French was for neither of them their native language. For various reasons, not only musical, Russia is also very important in my life. To answer your question, I could say that home is where my cello is.

Q: So, finding connections between seemingly disparate things is something that apparently comes naturally to you.

SWA: I think that's true. One of the things that brings me happiness is to look at the big puzzle of life and begin to see a complete picture!

Q: Why and when did you go to Russia?

SWA: I went to Russia because I wanted to discover the secret of how Russian musicians, and in particular string players, made their sound. I could hear that it was a completely different sound, a much more vocal way of playing, and that the body was more involved. It seemed that the sound was made by the weight of the body.

Q: So, your debut album for naÇve, Chants d'Est, takes you back to Russia?

SWA: Yes, Russia and Mitteleuropa. Two ways of surviving. Mitteleuropa is that rather small part of the world that struggled under the weight of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. There were so many different countries, identities, cultures, and languages that were encompassed in that Empire, that had to fight to stand up for their rights to remain themselves. This meant holding on to their own language, their own way of talking, their own traditions, their way of getting married, of being happy, of being sad. As an interpreter, I tried to transmit these different languages: find the right rhythm, the right rubato, the right tone. Sculpt the phrase...

Q: You've said the specific order of the program of Chants d'Est is important to you and that it embraces the sensation of a day passing.

SWA: The sense of time in the music is very important. The strength of music is that it exists the moment it exists and then it is finished: a particular piece is very colored by what you hear before and after it. That's why I spend a lot of time working on the form of a program, like a film editor would do.

Q: So can you relate that more specifically to the program on this recording?

SWA: I imagined a journey of 24 hours _ beginning with the Vespers. A sound that takes you in its arms, just by the depth of the harmony and the slow rhythmical swing like the swing of a cradle... Then a "personage" appears and begins to tell a story, like a psalmody, with melancholy. Then a Tatar dance, and so on... The end of the 24 hours is with Mahler and his questioning of life.

Q: What happens if you play the works on this disc in a different order?

SWA: The way the album is organized is one journey. But, as always, there are other ways to make the journey.

Q: In live performances of this program you've also introduced some staging elements.

SWA: Yes, we have a staging that suggests that we are in a clear space in a forest, surrounded by trees. The lighting helps musicians appear or disappear depending on who is playing. In the Janšcek piece, the woodwind players begin with their backs to the audience and, as they play, they turn around and the sound grows as if it was coming from far away and then they arrive and join the other musicians.

Q: You performed this program recently in Paris, in the Th_atre de la Ville, but in December you'll be doing it someplace else in the city.

SWA: Yes, we will play Chants d'Est in the Chapiteau [a circus tent], of the Romanes family, a family of gypsy musicians. You can feel that particular warm atmosphere as soon as you get in: caravans all around the tent, the round scene that opens its arms to the public who sits on red benches. It is a world where the "show" is part of life. And there is a real intimacy with the public.

Q: It seems that you are very attracted to doing conceptual programs.

SWA: That is true. For example, "At the Beginning Monteverdi" is a program for cellos, weaving together Monteverdi madrigals that I transcribed for two cellos and continuum with contemporary works for cello solo by Berio, Kurtšg, Dutilleux, and Dusapin. Resonances begin to appear between the works as if Kurtšg's sublime and simple phrase was a continuation of Monteverdi's line, or the answer to a question. For me, that is how music exists, not through an encyclopedic approach.

Q: You've made several recordings in the past for BMG, (sonatas, concertos, Schubert, Liszt, Shostakovich, Bart‹k, Ravel...) but this recording is your first for naÇve. Do you already know what you'll be doing next for them?

SWA: naÇve is planning to release an album of Jewish liturgical music that I recorded a while ago. I was doing research for the soundtrack of a film by Chantal Akerman _ Histoires d'Amerique _ and came across the art of singing of Jewish cantors or "hazzans". Once again, music opened a new door for me: that specific sound, the very expressive, but very contained, very interior way of singing really moved me and influenced my bow technique. It felt also as though I was coming home to my origins, as though I had always known this music, even before I was born. It was a very strange sensation.

My next project is a program of music from countries that border the Mediterranean Sea. This new program would then be a part of a triptych: the "Jewish Songs", the "Songs of the East", and the "Songs of the Mediterranean Sea."

Q: Tell us more about your musical influences.

SWA: Maria Callas. I listened to her for hours and tried to get closer to her way of building a phrase, to her colors. She was the first person who I heard explain clearly that a sound does not always have to be beautiful _ it could be a scream, a groan, a caress _ it is an expression of something that is related to life. When you're 16 years old, it's really something that changes your life.

Apart from my teacher at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow, Natalia Shakhovskaya, an extraordinary pedagogue, there is also, of course, Rostropovich. When he gave me lessons, he was a huge inspiration because at that time he really explained music-making as being in your "workshop". You take the work in your hand and you really enter in it with an immense respect for the text. He encouraged us to ask ourselves lots of questions. He explained how to work on a contrast _ not just the idea in your head, but a physical sensation.

I would say that Rostropovich's way of teaching was close to the work at the Actor's Studio: I studied the work of the great acting teachers Stanislavski and Strasberg. I think it helped me to understand the task of an interpreter, that demands knowing yourself, your fears, your "plus and your minus," and to work on them.

And there is Thelonious Monk: there is something in his music-making that makes you feel he is inventing the music right there as it's happening. He is modeling the sound, doing the sound, in the moment! Virtuosity with him is never the aim.

Q: So it's safe to say you've had a wide range of influences!

SWA: People often say that I am eclectic. I would answer to them that when you are in front of the sea, you see water but the sea is made up of water that has come from mountains, down streams, along fields, into coves, around reefs: it is not just water, on the surface, directly visible to us. When you hear a great interpreter and you recognize his sound, it is because it is the expression of his inner world, of all the worlds that have influenced him, and that make him unique. I am not talking about beautiful sound, I am talking about a sound that talks.

Q: How do you compare the experience of performing music in America to that of performing music in Europe?

SWA: Europe has a deep and rich culture, which is, of course, a source of inspiration. But when you express your own creativity, you need to forget about it. The weight of that culture can clip your wings! America allows that freedom. It is a very fertile place for creativity because there is an opening toward the future, a tremendous energy, and far fewer codes to break _ codes that inhibit _ to achieve what you try to do. As soon as I arrive in America, I feel it! And that is why I like so much being here, and playing here.


Sonia Wieder-Atherton will be in New York City on Monday, Nov. 23 performing excerpts from the album at the popular downtown musical club (Le) Poisson Rouge. She will be joined by members of the New York Niguna Ensemble, a septet comprised of strings, harp, and oboe assembled by the cellist (Niguna is the Hebrew word for improvisation).

Monday, Nov. 23
[Le] Poisson Rouge, NYC

Chants d'Est: Songs from Slavic Lands
Sonia Wieder-Atherton, cello
With New York Niguna Ensemble

Doors open at 6:30 PM and event begins at 7:30 PM; general admission tickets are $15

Tickets here.


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