“I wanted to do my best at every concert”

A concertmaster says goodbye

Daniel Stabrawa during a rehearsal
(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

He played under four chief conductors: violinist Daniel Stabrawa came to the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1983 and took up the post of first concertmaster three years later – a position that the musician from Cracow filled with engagement, enthusiasm and passion. 2021, after 38 years with the orchestra, it is time for him to say goodbye. During our interview, Daniel Stabrawa looks back on his time with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

We are sitting here in the concertmaster’s dressing room, the room you used before and after concerts for 35 years. After our interview, you will give back the key. How do you feel at the moment?

Very relaxed, free and relieved. I spent many years here. It was a wonderful time, but it was also quite stressful. Stress is simply part of our job.

What exactly makes it stressful?

It is above all a question of maintaining this professional and musical excellence – and at the highest level! I had to work very hard at that and continually asked myself: “Am I still up to the job?” I wanted to do my best at every concert. This high demand on yourself means stress.

There is a film portrait about you in the Digital Concert Hall in which you say that Herbert von Karajan did not initially agree that you should become concertmaster. He threatened to leave if you came to the rehearsal. You didn’t let yourself be intimidated but appeared at the rehearsal, and afterwards Karajan shook your hand. Where did you find this mental strength?

I thought: “I have nothing to lose.” I came, felt free and played my music. I believe I impressed Karajan by doing that. In retrospect, I think he wanted to test me, to see whether I was psychologically strong enough to fill this position in this orchestra.

Daniel Stabrawa
(Photo: Stephan Rabold)

Karajan then held you in great esteem. He trusted you completely. How did you achieve that?

Karajan knew that the orchestra was changing. Young musicians were suddenly filling the top positions, and he sensed that his era was coming to an end. When he realized that my perception of the music was similar to his in terms of phrasing and tempos, he was reassured and satisfied with me.

When you joined the Berliner Philharmoniker as a violinist in 1983, the relationship between Karajan and the orchestra was no longer the best. How did you as a “newcomer” experience the conflict between conductor and orchestra?

I didn’t concern myself with it at all. And when the orchestra played under Karajan, you didn’t notice the conflicts.

What changed for you as concertmaster when Claudio Abbado and later Sir Simon Rattle and Kirill Petrenko came? They are very different conductor personalities.

That’s true. And it wasn’t easy to adjust to that at first. I also had my own musical ideas. But it was my responsibility as concertmaster to be guided by our chief conductors, to understand what they want. Claudio Abbado was a great musician, but he wanted to change the orchestra completely. I couldn’t accept that at the beginning; only gradually did I understand his ideas. From Sir Simon Rattle I learned that there are very different facets of musicmaking. My horizons as a musician broadened enormously under him. With Kirill Petrenko I have the impression that he is coming back to the musical style of my early years. In my opinion, we’ve come full circle here.

What was the most challenging situation you had to cope with as concertmaster?

There was a situation once, in a work by Schubert, when everything was on the verge of collapsing. I had to react very quickly. I showed everyone where we were with a decisive motion. But fortunately something like that happens very rarely.

Daniel Stabrawa as a soloist
(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

As concertmaster you were also responsible for the violin solos. Which solo passages did you look forward to the most?

I looked forward to every solo passage, to every note that I could add something extra to. In a solo, you’re making the connection between what was before and what comes afterwards. You have to stay in the music, continue and shape the phrase. When that succeeds, I’m happy. I remember a moment at the close of Strauss’s Heldenleben – Karajan actually cried.

There is something very moving about the Philharmonic violin sound. What makes this sound so special for you?

I can’t describe it in words. It’s a mystery. I can say one thing: you cannot be too cautious, you have to take risks. And our section risks a lot. . . To a certain extent, we also owe the distinctive violin sound to our chief conductors, who even in the softest passages call for an intensity and passion that characterizes our playing.

You were also very active as a chamber musician, as first violin of the Philharmonia Quartet, and you conduct as well. How did this triad of orchestra musician, chamber musician and conductor affect your understanding of the role of the concertmaster?

Playing in a quartet was in a way a cleansing from the orchestra position: in this way, we were able to regularly refine our intonation, phrasing and bowing. Furthermore, it was exhilarating to play this wonderful quartet literature. And since I have been conducting, I understand that conducting is at least as difficult as playing the violin. Conducting has helped me a great deal in my position as concertmaster. I think every concertmaster should be able to conduct.

That is naturally a good tip to close with. What other advice would you give your successor?

I don’t give advice. If someone is good, is the right match for the orchestra, and enjoys this responsibility, it will be successful. People are different, that’s the beauty of it. Everyone finds the way in his or her own fashion.

Nicole Restle

From the current issue of Phil – Das Magazin der Berliner Philharmoniker

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