Thomas Zehetmair, Ruth Killius: Music always finds a way

Modern works should be joined together with classical works, contrast should be sought

Photo: Thomas Zehetmair and Ruth Killius

Music is such a beautiful thing that it is tantamount to committing a sin if you keep young people away, say the musicians Thomas Zehetmair and Ruth Killius in an interview with the journalist Svetlana Dimitrova from the Bulgarian National Radio.

You are together both in life and on stage. Who has the leading position?

Thomas Zehetmair: I think we are a good combination because Ruth is a great organiser for some of the things while I am more chaotic in nature.

Ruth Killius: And on the contrary.

When you both have to perform a concert, how do you decide what music to play?

Thomas Zehetmair: We have discussed the idea for our Sofia programme with maestro Nayden Todorov. We have done this programme several times. What Bartok's Concerto and Mozart's Requiem have in common is that they are the last musical works in the lives of both composers. The similarities are so frightening that it is even scary. The way the work was first created in composer's head, then recorded on paper, and completed by his pupils is amazing.

Ruth Killius: The great virtuoso violist William Primrose asked Bartok to write a piece for him. Bartok had several ideas about it. They discussed them and decided to meet each other. Primrose travelled to New York, but that day he could not find a parking space and decided to come back in two-three days. Then Bartok died. This is a very touching story.

You conduct various orchestras. How do you prepare programmes for them? Are you interested in attracting young audiences and how do you do this?

Thomas Zehetmair: Such a wonderful music is there that the selection is always difficult. In many of the orchestras I have worked with, I have been a conductor, and we have discussed the programme with the artistic director and the musicians as well. In my opinion, modern works should be joined together with classical works, contrast should be sought. As for the young audiences, I have conducted many such concerts myself. It is such a beautiful thing that it is tantamount to committing a sin if you keep young people away of it. Music has a wonderful effect on their thoughts, minds and hearts. I think it always finds a way. Certainly, you need to look for suitable and attractive ways to reach out to them. In Paris, for example, we had an event where Beethoven's music was played first, and then the children read letters written by him. This gave them the opportunity to be actively involved in the music experience. I consider that this is the main way to work with young people.

Viola in your hands sounds amazing. You have performed many pieces written especially for you. Is there something you have not played yet and you are about to do?

Ruth Killius: Many projects failed because of the travel restrictions. I had the idea to do a concert where I would only perform solo viola pieces written by friends for me and then to record them. We will see when this can happen.

Could you tell me about your musical instruments?

Ruth Killius: My viola is Italian, from the 18th century. According to the label, it is made by Lorenzo Storioni, but it is not clear whether he made it himself or his pupils did it.

Thomas Zehetmair: (Laughing and pointing to his baton) It is Japanese and made of pure wood and cork. It is ecological… I love modern violins. I have several instruments. Now I play a violin made by Patrick Robin especially for me in 1993. I also have a very valuable Stradivarius. I play it, but I think it is my duty to pass on this real treasure which I own to the next generation. My role is to take care of it. For the concerts, I prefer to travel with modern instruments. (abridged)

(The interview was originally published by


Thomas Zehetmair enjoys international recognition not only as a violinist, but also as a conductor and chamber musician. He is a chief conductor of Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra and the Orchester Musikkollegium Winterthur. He has an active solo musician career and he has founded the Zehetmair Quartet in 1994. The last album he recorded included Bach's Six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin.

Ruth Killius is a famous violist who has recognised as her mission to perform contemporary musical works. Many composers create music especially for her. She began her career as the first viola at Camerata Bern.

She and Thomas Zehetmair often perform works for violin and viola. Last spring, under the baton of Thomas Zehetmair, the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra performed a Concerto for Viola and Orchestra by Bella Bartok with soloist Ruth Killius as well as Requiem by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

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