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A conductor with his back to the orchestra

July 3, 2010 | 10:00 am

Nik No conductor likes turning his back on an orchestra, but when the 34-year-old Danish violinist Nikolaj Znaider makes his Hollywood Bowl conducting debut Thursday with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he will have no choice. The program includes Brahms’ “Tragic” Overture and Schumann’s Symphony No. 2, but its centerpiece is Mozart’s Second Violin Concerto, which Znaider will also perform.

Will he conduct with his bow, while holding the violin?

“It’s a big challenge,” Znaider said recently. “You have to turn your back on the orchestra, because the f-holes [on either side of a violin’s bridge, from which the sound emanates] need to be turned out or the audience won’t hear a thing.”

According to Znaider, pianists who conduct from the keyboard have it much easier. And not just because they face the orchestra and can stand or sit according to their mood in the work or passage they are playing.  “A piano is open and the sound goes everywhere, but violin sound goes forward, so even the orchestra will hear you delayed or very soft. So there’s a limit to how much repertoire you can play on violin without a conductor, more so than with piano for exactly this reason.”

As a soloist, Znaider prefers conductors who can “make a big statement” during the orchestral passages when the violinist is silent. His own experience and his mentors – conductors Daniel Barenboim, Valery Gergiev and Colin Davis – taught him that “something needs to be said” during that time “if the violinist is to enter into a dialogue with the orchestra.”

“If a conductor tries to bend a soloist to his will, you feel somehow violated,” he added. “And the ones who try just to follow – it’s even implied: You follow somebody, you’re late. I don’t need a conductor to follow me. I would love somebody to go with me.”

On Thursday, with Znaider serving as both conductor and soloist in the Mozart concerto, that shouldn’t be a problem.

For my Arts & Books section article looking at the phenomenon of instrumentalists who make the transition from soloist to conductor, click here.

-- Rick Schultz

Photo: Nikolaj Znaider performing last summer at the bowl. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times.