Julian Rachlin, a string virtuoso, calls conducting ‘a whole new world’

Conducting now figures prominently into the schedule of violin and viola virtuoso Julian Rachlin. “But I’m still not ready to put the fiddle totally aside," he says. "At 47, I think that is still too early."

Janine Guldener

Some instrumental soloists attempt to conduct now and then. But for Julian Rachlin, it is a serious pursuit. 

While Lithuanian-born violinist and violist devotes about one-third of his schedule to solo instrumental engagements, the rest of his time on the stage is spent conducting, either from his instrument or on the podium.

“The conducting has taken a very prominent spot on the yearly calendar,” he said from Vienna, where he has lived since he was 3 years old. “But I’m still not ready to put the fiddle totally aside. At [age] 47, I think that is still too early. As I agreed with my wife, who is a wonderful violinist and violist herself, she’s going to let me know when it is time.”

After making his conducting debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in October 2019 (he first appeared as a soloist with the ensemble in 1992 at the Ravinia Festival), he will return May 12-14 to lead the orchestra and perform as a violin and viola soloist. “The idea was to bring out the three elements that I love doing — playing violin, playing viola and conducting,” he said.

He is especially excited about picking up his viola and joining Stephanie Jeong, the CSO’s associate concertmaster, in Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante in E-flat Major for Violin, Viola and Orchestra, K. 320d (364). “Stephanie Jeong is a fantastic violinist and musician and a great personality,” Rachlin said. “The viola is such a fulfilling part in this piece.”

He will also take the solo in the Meditation, the first of the three pieces that make up Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir d’un lien cher, Op. 42. It was originally written for violin and piano, and it will be heard here in an orchestral arrangement by Glazunov. Bookending the program are Beethoven’s Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43, and Mozart’s Symphony No. 36 in C Major, K. 425 (Linz).

“What is there to say about the orchestra?” Rachlin said of the CSO. “It’s one of the very few, maybe a handful, of legendary orchestras which have played one of the biggest parts in music history. What a great honor it is to come back, what a great joy. I’ve been very lucky that the chemistry seemed to be really good last time, and this is a continuation. I’m looking forward to it.”

When he was 8 years old, Rachlin began studying at what is now known as the Music and Arts University of the City of Vienna and taking private lessons from celebrated violinist Pinchas Zukerman. Five years later, he won the title of Eurovision Young Musician of the Year, which thrust him into the international spotlight and gained him some notable engagements, including a performance with the Vienna Philharmonic and Riccardo Muti, now the CSO’s Zell Music Director.

“What a great honor it is to come back [to the CSO], what a great joy. I’ve been very lucky that the chemistry seemed to be really good last time, and this is a continuation.” — Julian Rachlin

Rachlin’s career as instrumental soloist was soon on his way, but the conducting came later. One of the first opportunities to move in that direction came in the late 1990s, when he was asked to perform a Mozart concerto with the London-based chamber orchestra, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, without a conductor. The group’s concertmaster asked Rachlin if he had any preferences for the performance, a request that took him by surprise because he was used to conductors setting the direction. “I was like, ‘what? Someone wants my ideas?’ Because as a soloist, you are never asked for your ideas.”

He immediately shared some of his thoughts about the concerto. “And that was this very small start, when I felt the musicians were willing to try certain ideas that I had, interpretation-wise, phrasing-wise and character-wise,” he said. “So one thing led to another.”

He collaborated with a few more chamber orchestras in much the same way, but he soon realized that if he were going to conduct in any meaningful way that he needed training. “I didn’t want to go down the road of ‘Yeah, I’ve played with so many orchestras and I’ve worked with many conductors and I’ve seen so much that now I’m going to step in front of the orchestra and wave my arms around.’ I never wanted to do that,” Rachlin said.

For help, he turned to Mariss Jansons, one of the leading conductors of his time. Jansons, who died in 2019, held several major posts during his career, including music director of the famed Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam in 2004-2015. Rachlin described Jansons as a family friend and as something of a second father. The elder conductor made clear the differences between the worlds of conducting and soloing and emphasized the need for in-depth studies if Rachlin really wanted to take the podium.

Jansons told Rachlin to spend five years studying with his mother, who was a choral conductor, and then come back to him. Sophie Rachlin graduated from the St. Petersburg Conservatory in Russia, where she received a diploma in conducting and piano. Jansons and she had been classmates there and were subsequently friends, and the famed conductor trusted her. Her son balked at the idea, but Jansons insisted. “Why don’t you think about it, because she is who I trust,” Rachlin remembers the conductor saying.

So he gave it a try around 2005 and was “pretty shocked and impressed.” At first studying just one symphony a year, he learned how to analyze a score, carry himself on the podium and much more. After the five-year period was up, they made a video for Jansons, and the elder conductor took over the lessons, squeezing Rachlin into his schedule whenever he could. “It was really very touching to see how he made time,” he said. The budding maestro also received guidance from Daniele Gatti, another esteemed conductor.

Rachlin has gone on to guest-conduct major orchestras around the world, including the Royal Philharmonic in London, Moscow Philharmonic and China Philharmonic in Beijing. In addition, he serves as principal guest conductor of the Turku Philharmonic in Finland, the Kristiansand Symphony in Norway and the Royal Northern Sinfonia in Great Britain.  

“It’s a whole different world,” he said of his conducting. “It’s been quite a long journey for me and an exciting one.”

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