In harmony

  03.09.2020 Profile

Sol Gabetta, world-renowned cellist and recipient of numerous awards celebrating her exceptional artistic achievement, was in the Saanenland for a pop-up concert organised by the Gstaad Menuhin Festival. Sol carved time out of her rehearsal schedule to talk to GstaadLife.

What attracted you to music as a child?
I was surrounded by music from a young age. My mother was a pianist and my brother played violin, but my love of music started with singing. From the age of two and a half I sang in a children’s choir; I also learned violin until I was seven.

I started to play the cello at five, using the Suzuki method. This is a hugely important approach for young children. At the start you don’t read music – you just copy your teachers. This is fantastic because at the age of three you can play a whole book of music, even if you can’t read the notes.

This gave me an incredible ability to learn music by ear. When I played in a children’s orchestra, I even found it quick and easy to learn by heart all the pieces we would play over the course of the year! Eventually this became counterproductive – after all, if you want to continue with an instrument and explore new compositions, you need to be able to read music.

I made this transition at the age of nine when we moved to Europe and I met Ivan Monighetti. He was to become my teacher for the next ten years. I believe that one of the biggest reasons for my success has been my luck in meeting the right people at the right moments in my life. Monighetti was like my ‘music father’. He taught me the importance of carefully structuring each day and creating a plan for what I wanted to achieve.

When I prepared for competitions, I would initially practice for eight hours a day. In time this grew to 13-14 hours a day. My motivation was certainly to play well in the competition, but winning was not the most important thing.
I was always asking myself: how much can I achieve in one day? I wanted to push the limits of my capacity.

Please tell me about your ties to the Saanenland.
I have a very long tradition with the Saanenland and have always been fascinated with the Gstaad Menuhin Festival held in the beautiful Bernese Oberland.

I first came to Gstaad around 15 years ago. At first I mainly listened to concerts and didn’t play much as I was very young. This changed as I came back year after year. By now I think I know almost every church in the region, but I’m sure there is still so much more to discover. This is a really magical place and I hope to be able to visit one year in the winter, too.

What is your experience of the Gstaad Menuhin Festival from an artist’s point of view?
When you’re famous it’s easy to get invited to festivals. But it’s more difficult when you’ve just finished your studies and nobody has heard of you.

The Gstaad Menuhin Festival showed a lot of trust in me at the beginning of my career. They gave me opportunities to try new programmes, new repertoires and to play with different pianists. They gave me a platform to develop myself. To have a festival director say: “You’re not famous but I’ll give you a concert, and we’ll see how it goes”, is an attitude I admire tremendously. And something I will never forget.

When I had few concerts, the Gstaad Menuhin Festival was there for me. This is why it’s my joy to return here and why I will always make time to play in Gstaad, however hectic my schedule.

You are playing in a pop-up concert in Saanen?
Yes. Even though the main Gstaad Menuhin festival was cancelled, I’m performing one concert in the Saanen church with Alexander Melnikov on piano. This will be incredibly exciting. Not only will I be playing a fantastic Stradivari from 1717, one of ten cellos constructed during the ‘gold period’ of Stradivari, but I’ll be using traditional gut strings instead of the usual metal strings.

It’s the first time I am using gut strings for a composer as important as Beethoven. Unlike metal strings, which are secure and stable, my cello will need frequent tuning. But it is fascinating to play an instrument with the strings that were available in its day.

What have been your career highlights to date?
One of the most impressive moments was the opening night of the 2016 BBC Proms. To be surrounded by so many people exhibiting such warmth in the unbelievable location of the Royal Albert Hall was a wonderful experience. Musically speaking it was also a high point to be working with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the leadership of Sakori Oramo.

In 2014 there were two tremendous highlights: working with the Vienna Philharmonic (my first time in 14 years) and also the Berlin Philharmonic. Speaking as a musician, these are two of the most famous orchestras to work with.

Finally, this year I gave a concert in Paris on Bastille Day. While only a limited number of people could attend the concert in person because of Covid-19, it was televised live to six million people, and later broadcast around the world to an even larger audience. For a concert such as this to reach so many millions of people shows there are still huge opportunities for classical music.

Please describe the life of a professional musician.
Before the lockdown it involved an immense amount of travel.

I realise that not everyone who wants to hear my music has the ability to travel extensively, so I move to them. I accept this is the way I build my public and my schedule is planned many months or years ahead.

I used to play between 80-130 concerts each year. Although I didn’t make huge changes to the number of concerts after my son was born three years ago, life definitely became more complicated. I found it required increased levels of energy to manage my schedule, my concerts and my family life.

My goal now is to make my travel schedule more practical. I feel incredibly privileged to have a full calendar, but I have become more focused when it comes to deciding which concerts to play. Instead of travelling to Japan for three days before coming back to Europe then heading to America for two days, I want to focus more on a country by country basis. This can make things more complicated to organise, but I think it’s better for nature, for our bodies and for the whole world to travel less.

What advice would you give to young musicians who want to make a career in music?
When I was starting out, music competitions and record labels were very important. They went hand in hand: if you won a major competition, this brought you to the attention of the broader music industry.

It’s always been hugely important for me to gain the respect of my peers, even if they are also my competitors. By contrast, I think there are fewer opportunities to rate your capability against other players today, although it’s possible to become famous by promoting yourself online through social media.

I encourage everyone to take the career route that feels right for them, even if it’s not the easiest approach or takes a bit longer. Not everyone feels good posting videos across social media and that’s OK. Quickest is not always best. The millions of people who ‘like’ your videos online are not necessarily the same people who will come to your concerts.

We each have the same 24 hours in a day; decide how to use them to your best advantage in a way that’s right for you.


Sol’s pop-up concert in Saanen will be available on later this year. See concert review.


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