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Classical Album of the Week: Travel the World with Violinist Lisa Batiashvili in City Lights

August 10, 2020. Even if you're staying home this summer, you can still take a trip around the world with violinist Lisa Batiashvili and her innovative new album, City Lights—a wonderful collection of musical portraits of cities that have played a part in her life and career. The album takes its name from Charlie Chaplin's famous film, and sets the tone for the tour with music by a wide range of composers including Chaplin himself.

There are stops in Paris (where Lisa currently lives), Berlin, Vienna, Rome, London and New York—as well as Munich, Helsinki, Buenos Aires, Bucharest and Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia (where Lisa was born). The album includes music by J.S. Bach, Ennio Morricone, Astor Piazzolla, Michel Legrand, Johann Strauss, and Nikoloz Rachveli—who also arranged many of the works on the album.

Each selection was inspired by Lisa's own experience and memories, and has a very personal feel. So, for example, New York doesn't sound like the bustling stereotype you might expect, but instead is represented by Dvorak's Largo from his New World Symphony, arranged by Lisa's father, Tamas Batiashvili. Others incorporate sounds of a jazz club (Berlin) and taped vocals (Tbilisi).

I talked on Zoom with Lisa, who was in her backyard near Paris, about this very personal album.

Setting the tone for the narrative feel of the music is the first track, where Lisa uses the music from Charlie Chaplin films to introduce the musical stories of cities that have captured her heart. She calls the album 'probably the most personal and complicated but rewarding project' of her life.

Here's an edited transcript of excerpts from our conversation:

Could you talk a little bit about the concept and how this album evolved?

Well, first of all, I love music by Charlie Chaplin. I love movies. And I think a part of me was always a little bit sad not to be able to play this great tunes from the movies from the beginning of the 20th century. Of course we play most of the time, classical repertoire, concertos, sonatas, chamber music.

And at some point I was sitting in the kitchen with my friend from Georgia. His name is Nikoloz Rachvili, who basically was the person who inspired most this album and also made most of the arrangements. And he and I were talking about all this great music. And I said, I would so much love to record it. Is it possible for you to make a couple of arrangements? And then we can put them together? And he said, yeah, let's do that.

It just started with an idea, but then we became so ambitious to create for each track a special arrangement: find the music, find the tunes, make even like medley-like pieces. And at the end it became probably the most personal and most complicated, but most rewarding project of my life.

So the idea started with film music, but not all the music is by film composers.

No, there are all sorts of different things. I think the exciting thing about it was to mix the genres, the styles, and actually even include music by Bach or Dvorak. In the beginning, I wasn't sure if it would match, and it had to be thought through so well, in a careful way so that we wouldn't just bring something out that would be a mix of different stuff, but would have a storytelling character as well.

It's interesting you say storytelling. Each city has a very personal story behind it, is that right?

Absolutely. Sometimes it makes a kind of real sense. Of course, if you take Piazzola for Buenos Aires, for example. But, in many other tracks, it was just either a personal memory or the first thing I would think about a certain city.

For example, if I go to Berlin, there is so much music. This was probably one of the most important cities all my life. And then we suddenly thought, Marlene Dietrich, she was the singer that represented this city in such an incredibly unusual, extroverted way. And she sang this beautiful song called 'Ich hab' noch einen Koffer in Berlin,' which means, 'I still have a suitcase in Berlin.' It's a kind of incredibly nostalgic song, always missing this city. And this is also what I feel for Berlin.

And then to mix it with jazz, with a jazz trumpeter Till Bronner, who is an incredibly fascinating musical personality and a very Berlin-style jazz player. I was so lucky to have all these amazing guests who contributed to this album and brought something new to it as well.

Some of the pieces that might be a little bit surprising, musically, for the average listener, include the one for New York, Dvorak's Largo. And that was arranged by your father.

Yes. Well, of course it could have been so many different compositions for New York, something typical American, Frank Sinatra, Gershwin, or Bernstein, but I thought it would be also nice to look at New York from the point of view of an Eastern European person who is dreaming of this new world, and what an incredibly important place America was in the development of the composers in Eastern Europe. It maybe a bit surprising, but also something that I think is part of me, because it's just how I saw America as a child.

Did you work with Nicholas Rachveli in creating these arrangements?

Yes. Sometimes he just brought music day before the recording, because I trusted him! We talked about the overall ideas of course. But what really surprises me personally, each time—whether he was working on the Paris track or Berlin or the Chaplin track they all had such different characters and personalities by themselves.

And for me, for sure, I would not have been here now if I hadn't met all these people in those places, or I hadn't been those places and played with those orchestras. These were probably the most important things in my life to actually be a traveling artist and make all those experiences all over the world. 

So each piece actually feels like a little story in itself.

Absolutely. Yes, yes. And especially of course, Tbilisi [birthplace of both Batiashvili and Rachveli]. And this is a track that was also created just for this recording, but with the themes of great Georgian composer, Giya Kancheli, who was a very close friend.  I have performed a lot of his works. He was a composer for classical works, a lot of symphonies, chamber music, choral music, but also lots of film music.

I wanted to play some of his tunes that usually a violin player wouldn't play, because there were songs with text, and that was a way to also come close to this music.

And I think it's quite expressive because it talks a lot about the pain for your own country and the war and keeping together and making sure that we protect our country and our roots. So in a way, at the end of the album, I'm going back to my roots into my childhood.

So any other stories behind the other cities that you'd like to talk about?

I would say Helsinki. Helsinki was an important city for me when I was 16 years old. That was when I participated in Sibelius competition and I go to prize there and that's where my whole musical career started. I didn't choose to record any, let's say obvious music like, Sibelius, but chose a song, a very typical Finnish song.  It's an evening song; a beautiful, simple melody and very beautifully arranged by Jarkko Riihimaki.

For Munich, I choose Bach not because Bach ever had been in Munich but because Bach had to be part of this album.  And I dedicated it to the city where I live and I've spent most of my time; where I had my children and where I spent most of the time learning to play music by Bach with my wonderful teacher, Anna Chumachenco. That was probably the most essential time of my studies.

Is that why you say Bach had to be part of this album, because Bach is so central to your musical development?

I think Bach is inspiration for all sorts of music everywhere. And [on the album] Bach comes right after Chaplin and before Michel Legrand; one could think, Oh God, how does that go together? But I think it's because it's the essence of music, universal music, i t actually matches very well. And it doesn't feel like it's all as if it was a completely different universe. 

And Bucharest is represented by a very different kind of folk song. 

Yes, well that culture was so important for the violin playing all together. I think it was to emphasize that in Eastern Europe and in Romania, the whole kind of violin playing was such a natural and incredibly passionate thing. And that was the most virtuosic piece of the entire album, arranged by Stephan Koncz, a cellist from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. 

I had never played any gypsy music in my life, but it was also something I experienced for the first time. And in general I would say that whole experience of recording music like this on this album was incredibly interesting for me. I learned so much about all these colors, and characters, and to give yourself to music a hundred percent without any fear. 

So you made discoveries of your own while you were recording?

Well, I think the life, I mean, if you can afford to always try something new, and also find out more about yourself and what you like and never stop with the things that you feel comfortable, but always try to discover something new —that's I think that's the most exciting thing about being an artist.

Right. And this album is so perfect. The concept, so perfect because the idea, especially now, when people are not traveling, but realizing that we're all kind of connected. Sharing music of different places, but through your eyes, it's just such a wonderful gift to give people.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.