"Genre has never been important to me" – Mari Samuelsen interview

The Norwegian violinist on finding her path, surviving lockdown and helping launch IDAGIO's Global Concert Hall

Mari Samuelsen (Photo © Deutsche Grammophon)

"A garden there … an old Viking house … and a view over the lake." Mari Samuelsen is giving me a quick Zoom tour of the family home, a farm not far from Lillehammer in the heart of Norway. "I can't complain," she adds, acknowledging her good fortune. "For me, as a nature person, I find comfort and stability in natural surroundings. It's about inhaling, taking a breath, trying to get perspective – however stupid that sounds. It's a time for reflection as well." It's the first time in a long while, the violinist explains, that she's been able to be in one place for any longer than three or four days. "Usually I'd be going to studios, meeting people. I'd have concerts. I'd have projects."

Clearly she is trying to find the positives in the chaos the world – and not least the musical world – now finds itself in. "I think people will always need 'live'," she admits, "to attend something and feel the interaction of human beings in the same room. I cannot really do that at the moment. But the time we're in has forced many businesses to change quickly and adapt to platforms and ways of working and communicating that would otherwise have taken much longer. It's interesting to see how music and culture always find their way to the people: it seems to me that human beings cannot be without listening to music, without viewing art."

It's no surprise, perhaps, that this innovative musician takes such a forward-looking approach. Her career has been nothing if not innovative, with a debut album released on Deutsche Grammophon last year, entitled simply "Mari", which juxtaposed the works of Bach with music by contemporary figures including Philip Glass, Brian Eno, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Peter Gregson and Max Richter. Her newest release on the yellow label might ruffle traditionalist feathers, too: a new version of the first movement of Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata. She's unapologetic, in a straightforward way that it's difficult to take issue with: "It's a brilliant, genius piece," she says simply, "and I just felt like playing it!"

And this new track might form part of another innovation, although that decision is ultimately out of Samuelsen's hands. On May 29 she will perform in the Global Concert Hall, powered by IDAGIO, in a concert streamed across the world from Oslo's Newtone Studios. "I'm very much looking forward to it," she says. "The people I'm working with are musicians I've worked with quite a few times, and the programme I'm doing is obviously right up my street – pieces that I can hopefully communicate to many people."   

Indeed, the programme represents a classic Mari mix: an arrangement by Christian Badzura of music by a little-known German Baroque composer (Johann Paul von Westhoff) rubs shoulders with works by Eno, Einaudi and Glass. There'll be a live premiere of a piece from her new recording, while the audience themselves will be able to decide on the encore: either that new Beethoven track or Brian Eno's "Emerald and Stone". A further bonus for ticket holders will be the chance to stay online to meet her after the concert in the "Virtual Green Room", where she'll answer audience questions. "I look forward to answering – almost everything! – and to trying to create an atmosphere where everyone can feel as though they're part of this."

Photo © Stefan Höderath

But there's an important further impetus for being involved with the Global Concert Hall: giving music-lovers a chance to support artists in an online environment where content is arguably too readily distributed for free. "I've seen many of my colleagues jump in to sharing their music very early on various platforms. I've been holding back a bit, also because I think it's nice for people to be able to buy a ticket, that it isn't given away for free. No other professions are given away for free, and how can we then defend going back and taking our fees in the concert hall? It's time to find the right balance, and I think setting up concerts like this is important also for the future."

Talk of the programme leads me to ask further about repertoire choices, about how people might define what Mari Samuelsen does and what she plays. "The genre of music has never been important to me," she explains. "I'm not sure if I like the terms 'classical' or 'neo-classical'. But I try to communicate music by taking it out of its expected surroundings, for people to listen to it and look at it a bit differently. When we see a soloist play on a concert stage with a huge orchestra behind, we immediately – subconsciously or consciously – look for, or listen for, mistakes and things that aren't correct. But if you take it out of that more formal setting, I think you might listen to it differently."

She agrees that this also extends to performing arrangements, and I ask specifically about her work with Christian Badzura, Vice President A&R and new repertoire supremo at Deutsche Grammophon, and the arranger of many of the tracks the violinist performs. "We spend a lot of time in the music together," she says. "We disagree, we agree, we discuss and we work at things; and I come with my input. He's worked with so many artists and helped create interesting paths for musicians I admire: Víkingur Ólafsson, Daniel Hope, Jóhann Jóhannsson, and Max Richter, obviously. It's a very important relationship, not just for me as a musician. I feel extremely privileged that I'm so free to express my taste."

But all this, I ponder aloud, after a background that corresponds to the traditional route taken by so many budding young violinists? "What happened?" She jokes. "What went wrong? But yes, absolutely: I'm a classically trained violinist. I went to the Russian professor in the tough school" – she studied with Zakhar Bron at the Zurich University of the Arts – "and I was in a fantastic class, where my colleagues went to the Tchaikovsky Competition and won. It was high level with a lot of pressure, and I loved it!

"But I've always had a thought in my mind: there are so many good violinists, so many fantastic Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn concertos being played all the time. I wanted to do something else. And that's been in my brain for I don't know how long." Such a move from the traditional path, I suggest, takes a certain courage. "And it takes time!" She adds. "I admire everyone that's out there, and everyone is sort of an inspiration to me, whether core classical or being completely out there. Maybe I'm crossover. I don't really care."

This openness clearly informs her sense of her own identity as well. This Norwegian musician shies away from provincialism – "I'm not a Grieg girl and I don't feel at home with fjord music" – and, though a fan of minimalist Scandinavian design, she quickly points out its signature traits are just as prevalent in Japanese design. "I feel rooted, of course, in where I come from," she continues, "but I feel at home in so many places. I feel like – and I hope I am – a global citizen."

As such, she's especially excited that she can continue to be a global musician even during these lockdown times. "It's fantastic, now that I cannot travel around, that you can still open up and bring everyone in, that I can reach out through this concert to many people who want to come and see me – and do so with a chamber music concert with friends that I maybe wouldn't otherwise have a chance to do."

"MARI LIVE" streams in the Global Concert Hall on May 29, 20:00 Berlin / 14:00 New York. Click here for tickets.

Hugo Shirley · Published
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