Lovers of classical music know Anne-Sophie Mutter as one of the greatest violinists of this or any age. Since her discovery as a young teenager by legendary Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan, she has enthralled the world with her astonishing musicianship and her deep feeling for the works she plays.
Less well known, and by design, is the fact that Mutter is hands-on when it comes to making the word a better place. She received the Erich Fromm prize for the work she did creating orphanages in Romania and performing other acts of humanitarianism.
She will be performing the Tchaikovsky violin concerto and a relatively new piece by a Japanese composer with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in late April and early May. She took a few moments from her performing schedule to talk with Huffington Post about the upcoming concerts, the orphanages she has built, and her feelings about the many humanitarian crises the world faces today.
Michael: What led you to create orphanages?
Anne-Sophie: As a mother, I feel a sense of responsibility toward children growing up in challenging circumstances. It’s meaningful and satisfying for me to see at least a small group of children slightly more cared for and looked after. Life is only meaningful if you share it with others. I can do that through benefit concerts which shed light on issues and life circumstances facing people. These events highlight these issues for members of society. For example, every three seconds, a child somewhere in the world dies of malnutrition and starvation. So we have to start somewhere. I wanted to do more than benefits, though. That led me to create the orphanages.
Michael: How many have you built?
Anne-Sophie: There are two, both in Romania. One takes care of 80 boys, and the other takes care of 150-160 boys and girls. Not all the children are orphans. Some come from very dysfunctional homes. Both carry the name of my late husband.
Michael: Why Romania?
Anne-Sophie: I was reading about the fact that girls in certain parts of Romania were not getting an education and obviously had no future. They would have to marry someone or end up in prostitution—they had no other real options. About 10 years ago I called the German Red Cross. I said, “What can I do and where can we do it?”
Michael: What’s the hardest part about creating orphanages?
Anne-Sophie: The biggest challenge was finding partners who were reliable, with transparent bookkeeping, so that they could be trusted. I was very fortunate to partner with the German Red Cross on both of these orphanages. They have been wonderful partners throughout.
Michael: Where did the money come from?
Anne-Sophie: From benefit concerts, from my own pocket, and from individuals I have brought into these efforts. I was astounded to find out how expensive it is to build in Romania. I thought it would be less expensive, but it’s practically like building in the center of Munich! I have to keep at it. I can’t pay for everything myself, and we have to find ways to keep things running, pay for repairs, and so on.
Michael: What differences do you see between the American and European approaches to philanthropy?
Anne-Sophie: Americans should be very proud because your philanthropic approach is much more deeply rooted than the way things are in Europe. Your approach is healthier. The tax deduction system in the United States is much better than that of my native Germany, where it’s practically laughable.
When I come to the United States, I’m very impressed to see all the pro bono work that people do, and all the donations people make. In your country, orchestras live off private funding, so I’m always amazed by the generosity of Americans. If we had a different tax deduction system in Europe, it would greatly help.
Many people do wonderful pro bono work in Germany. But our taxation system makes it so expensive to donate that you feel almost as if you’re being financially punished if you want to donate.
Michael: Germany is undergoing a great deal of conflict due to the immigrants from Syria. What’s your feeling about that?
Anne-Sophie: It’s a great gesture to accept immigrants. We are thinking like human beings, embracing these individuals who come from a war zone.
I remember when the Berlin Wall fell. It was such an incredible moment of joy. I hope people who were not alive then realize how much disaster, hatred, and unbelievable horror led to the building of that wall. I’m totally against any fences and any walls.
I understand that from a security perspective, people are concerned about terrorists entering my country or the United States. But remember that in the 1970s, Germany had a huge domestic terrorism problem. The Baader-Meinhof group were Germans who attended our schools and churches. Putting up fences and excluding people because, say, their feet are too large or their hair is not curly enough— that’s inhuman. The ancient Greeks pointed this fact out and we should follow their guidance. It’s more important to emphasize strong education, not to build walls. We need more music, more art, more activities together to open up different ways of life. We need to have more open-mindedness and respect.
Michael: We are seeing a swing to the right politically all over the world today.
Anne-Sophie: That’s very true in Germany. We ourselves are having a swing to the right, particularly in the East. What we need today is integration through education. For the young people fleeing from the war zone, they need to go to school. They need help with their homework. They need to understand the society where they now live. They need to understand our customs. If that happens, they will be productive members of society, not terrorists.
Michael: You’re performing Tchaikovsky and Takemitsu with the Boston Symphony Orchestra later this Spring. Tell me what draws you to the Takemitsu piece, and tell me how you keep the Tchaikovsky violin concerto fresh after having performed it so many times.
Anne-Sophie: The great conductor Seiji Ozawa and the composer Toru Takemitsu were friends. In fact, Ozawa introduced him to Boston and really started his career in the Western world. I’ve always admired this wonderful Japanese composer because he uses traditional instruments like flutes and percussion. He has given many of his compositions a wonderfully original and purely Japanese feel. For us Westerners who are not incredibly educated in Japanese music, this is very unusual and enriching.
Michael: Tell me about the piece you’ll perform.
Anne-Sophie: It’s very subtle. Not flashy at all. It’s meditative. I see it as an enormous addition to a violin repertoire of the last 100 years. I had the privilege of performing it with Ozawa at a benefit last year. He gave the music a deep and moving interpretation which will forever shape my impression of the piece. I fell in love with it so much that I’m on a mission! I’m playing it quite a bit both in the United States and Europe. Orchestras are very open to it. Presenters can be a little deaf, but I can be rather persistent! It’s such a strong piece, very subtle, all about privacy and whispers. It goes well with the Tchaikovsky.
Michael: So how do you keep the Tchaikovsky fresh after all this time?
Anne-Sophie: There’s a theory in music that if you’ve played something more than five times, it must become boring, automatic, and routine. That thought has always been extremely alien to me. The longer I play a piece, the deeper is my need to get it right, to find a different angle on it, and to fulfill everything about the piece I have heard in my inner ear. With the Tchaikovsky, at this point, it’s also about finding more technical perfection and more speed! I love speed and playing it almost senselessly fast. Joke aside, it is always about bringing out the depth of emotions in the piece.
Michael: I have to ask you about Herbert von Karajan, the great conductor who launched your career. What was it like to play for him?
Anne-Sophie: Everyone has this image of von Karajan as someone who was utterly autocratic and uninterested in what anyone else did or thought. That impression is completely false. He would win us over in rehearsals. He would work us so hard, and sometimes he would have so many things to say about a piece even before it was time to perform that I barely had time to get into my dress!
But after all those rehearsals, he totally trusted his musicians. He would rehearse us until we were totally exhausted so we could work together and trust each other. He would say, “Being a great conductor is like riding a horse. The horse has to do the jumping, but I have to bring the horse into the right position to jump.”
Once all that rehearsing was done, and he was tough to work with, tough as nails. He would stand there and conduct with a minimum of movements. He would keep everything in flow so that as a performer you could bloom like a flower.
Michael: What’s your feeling about playing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra?
Anne-Sophie: The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s new conductor, Andris Nelsons, has that same gift—to work you hard in rehearsals, and create a wonderful sense of trust and teamwork on stage. I love performing with him and Boston is very fortunate to have such a wonderful conductor. I have many happy memories performing with other conductors in Boston, and Andris is a worthy successor to all of them.