A conversation with Eckhard Roelcke, Journalist and Musicologist, in April 2020

Eckhard Roelcke: we are having this conversation on 21st April 2020. As a result of the Corona-crisis, life has been greatly restricted. In a matter of days, a few of these restrictions will begin to be lifted but the situation can change at any time. When we met for our first conversation in Essen on the 7th March, the virus had already reached Germany but there were no official restrictions. At that time, we spoke about your concert at the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize ceremony on the 11th May. Since then, the ceremony in Munich’s Prinzregententheater has been postponed indefinitely. The plan was for you to travel directly from Essen to the UK for two concerts, followed by a long tour in the USA and Canada. What has happened to these plans?


Tabea Zimmermann: Daniel Sepec, Jean-Guihen Queyras and I did in fact travel to Liverpool. We had been preparing various Beethoven string trios for two years. It thus would have been sad if this milestone concert hadn’t been reached. When my subsequent travels were cancelled, I was a bit disappointed. It would have been a great opportunity to tour the USA with the sonata-evening programme. On the other hand, the potential for ending up trapped in the US due to a travel ban didn’t enthuse me.

Since then, lots has changed. I am feeling a positive calm. The time-pressure is gone, and I have lots of opportunities to reflect. The situation is very bad for the cultural world, as all activities will likely be unable to take place for a long time. For many self-employed artists, this is extremely worrying. Especially for younger musicians, as the motivation has been swept away. Without a well-planned next season, many are asking themselves: why am I practicing at all? That is something I can hardly imagine. As a teacher, I also find it very difficult to talk to my students. For it to function, you need to be in a room, similar to when one is playing chamber music. There are just certain things which can’t be done on the phone or via video conference, as they require too much precision.

“Now I have time to read and play the piano. Additionally, I have sorted out a pile of sometimes almost 15-year-old documents and find it exciting to look at them again.”

Tabea Zimmermann


A market crier

It is fascinating how – through this voice – a third person appears on the stage. Berio recorded this simple material on the street with a tape recorder and didn’t clean it at all. The onomatopoeic side of the music is very beautiful and as a soloist, I have lots of room for fantasy. The percussion is clearly composed with an accompanying role.

Is that a criticism of Berio’s composition?

No, I’m not criticising the piece. It functions brilliantly! I am very thankful to Berio for this large-scale viola part, but sometimes I do wish that there were more interaction with the percussion.

The vocal lines of the Sicilian singer is coloured with microtones. That is not tempered.​

As a string player, I find the topic of intonation fascinating. I see tempered tuning as a necessary compromise when playing with the piano, but also as a negative. Implementing fine microtonal inflections enriches our audio experience. I let myself be inspired by the vocal part in Naturale and, in certain sections of the piece, respond in kind to the colouration of the voice.

Intonation, as a deliberately applied tool during a performance, is also a significant topic for me when teaching. My first teacher taught me even then to set the tone where it belongs harmonically, melodically or expressively. So, no searching for dots on the neck of the instrument. That is the difficulty, but also the advantage when playing a stringed instrument – everyone needs to set the tone themselves.

That means you have to hear ahead.

That is the most important part, otherwise I can’t get the tone. The finger has to lead to the idea! I find playing-by-numbers on a stringed instrument completely wrong.

You also started playing the piano at an early age. Was that an ideal addition?

If I play music in my limited spare time, I tend to play piano. It may sound surprising, but I don’t find the viola to be the ideal instrument, it is just the instrument with which I can express myself most clearly. I do also enjoy placing the viola in the centre of the action and highlighting its merits.

For me, music has always given me the energy to connect the inner with the outer.

Tabea Zimmermann


And do we experience music differently as listeners?

As I have such little communication with my listeners at the moment, I’m not really able to answer this question. We all have a certain hunger for audio-experiences! I have seen how some people go to the internet and – with a certain fever – search for a replacement for the musical experience. It does grate with me, however, when pieces of music are assembled using individual sound tracks. That isn’t chamber music for me, when a Beethoven quartet is played by four people in four different locations. It is in fact the opposite of chamber music, as it requires very fine tuning in real time: one player makes a small movement in one direction and the others follow. That is missing in multitrack-track recordings. Ravel’s Bolero can maybe be presented that way, as its rhythm enables everyone to follow via a click-track. But that doesn’t work with Beethoven.

We probably all know what we were doing on 11th September 2001 when terrorists flew two aeroplanes into the Twin Towers in New York. Shocking pictures that leave a deep impact. The Corona-crisis doesn’t have a fixed date, but rather a concrete timespan: Early 2020. Do you think you will associate this period with a musical experience? With works you have been working on in these weeks?

At the moment, I have the desire to maintain my technical abilities. The pressure to learn new pieces on the viola for future performance hasn’t reached me yet. I will therefore think about this time as a period in which I busied myself with non-musical activities. It is very enjoyable to absorb oneself in a really long book.

In March, we spoke about how important your work with your students is. How does that work function at the moment?

I produce short videos which I then send to my fifteen students. In essence, I simply practice in slow motion and explain my thought process. That can be either a technical or musical aspect. It is a chance to try out alternative working methods. In a normal lesson, the student simply states what they are playing, to which I go to my score-cupboard, choose a score and then enter into a discussion. Now, the route is different. I send reading materials to all of my students and, a week later, they all practice something similar. Additionally, they can all send me a video of their individual tasks.

That isn’t chamber music for me, when a Beethoven quartet is played by four people in four different locations. It is in fact the opposite of chamber music, as it requires very fine tuning in real time ...”

Tabea Zimmermann


In the same way that we couldn’t imagine our current lives six weeks ago, it is hard for us to now imagine what our lives will be like in six weeks’ time, at the end of May. And then in summer, and autumn. How can you make plans?!

The planning for next season was already complete with a tour until summer 2021. At the moment, all I can do is wait. There are many foreign trips in the calendar for which we cannot know if they can go ahead. For example, it was my intention to fly to Australia for six weeks in the summer and work with students at the ANAM, the Australian National Academy of Music. The project will, of course, probably no longer take place as there are no international flights and everyone who flies to Australia has to undergo fourteen days of quarantine.

I honestly don’t know what will happen. What I miss the most, however, is playing with others. I am not a natural soloist. I can certainly work well alone from home, but I have no desire to play viola alone indefinitely. I find that a bit saddening.

Friday, April 17th, 2020 – 8.30 pm

Tabea Zimmermann (viola) and Francesco Piemontesi (piano)

Schumann, Phantasiestücke op. 73
Reger, Suite No. 1 op. 131d
Liszt, 1. Legende
Schumann, Märchenbilder op. 113

Should life, to a large extent, be normalised again, will the concerts, trips and teaching function largely as before?

I cannot imagine that we will return to what it was like before. I fear that many event organisers and cultural institutions will not survive the crisis. A few big players will still be there afterwards. But for small ensembles, event organisers, recording companies and agents, it is a case of fighting for their very existence. Whether musical life after the crisis can simply return to how it was, this is something I doubt. 

For musicians, there is another element too: self-belief, the power to get onto a stage, is dented after four weeks. A few days ago, I played in a live-streaming concert with the pianist Francesco Piemontesi here in Berlin in the Schinkel Pavilion and noticed that even after four weeks, it requires significant determination to get onto the stage and play. Much like pilots and their required flying hours, musicians also have to be able to fall back on those abilities in the given moment.

Many colleagues are saying the same thing: they are fighting against self-doubt and are unsure if they can give a concert with the desired perfection. Practice and a certain level of routine are requirements for high-quality. It would be no different for circus performers. Also with surgeons: I’m not sure I’d want to be the first patient a surgeon operates on after a hiatus of several weeks! Of course, a musician is not a surgeon and it is not a matter of life and death. But a musical performance can sometimes feel existential. This is why I was pleased about Francesco Piemontesi’s idea to play together on the internet. It was wonderful! However, streaming this live round the world did rather produce its own stress.


Many colleagues are saying the same thing: they are fighting against self-doubt and are unsure if they can give a concert with the desired perfection. Practice and a certain level of routine are requirements for high-quality.”

Tabea Zimmermann


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