Alexandra Soumm

Let's play for hope

People

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Alexandra Soumm is a serious artist — and a wild dreamer. She wants to change the world. Why not use her violin?

  • Author: Janna Cramer
  • Photos: Alexandra Soumm
  • Video: Alexandra Soumm
„When I was six, I wanted to go to Africa to play for poor children“

Alexandra Soumm loves Franz Liszt. She looks to the Hungarian composer as a role model, not only in terms of music — he was incredibly gifted — but also humanity. „He said we have to play for all people,“ the young violinist explains. „He even said we should teach music to everybody for free.“

Almost 130 years after Liszt’s death, Alexandra Soumm tries to help make his dream come true. Like her 19th century inspiration, she, too, is considered a prodigy (at nearly 26 years of age, she already has performed as a soloist with several of the world’s top orchestras, including the German Symphony Orchestra Berlin, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and London Philharmonic). Her thoughts, though, lie outside famous symphony halls and audiences sparkling in jewels and evening attire.

Liszt’s companion, Carolyne zu Sayn Wittgenstein, once said Liszt had „genius in abundance, but (he) was was missing discipline.“ In this, Alexandra differs dramatically: No flighty ambitions mire her talent; rather, her steady, strong will fortifies it. „I have gone against the tide many times,“ she says.

„My love for giving music to the people started when I was six,“ Alexandra recalls. „I told my dad I wanted to go to Africa an play for poor children. He just looked at me as if I was crazy.“ She never let go of the idea, of sharing music. Though yet to make it to Africa, someday she will go.

But first, she focused on sharing music within France, her second home country. Her family had emigrated from Russia to France when Alexandra was about two years old; at five, her father, a violinist, began teaching her the art, setting her on a path to follow (overtake, actually) in the footsteps of her musician grandfather, also a violinist, and mother, a pianist. Alexandra performs to rounding applause on grand stages and in beautiful concert halls. But found herself wondering, „How come I never see homeless or handicapped people (at my performances)? And where are all the children?“

In 2006, she toured with an orchestra across Paris that played in the banlieues, impoverished suburbs. „I figured, these people wouldn’t come to me, so I have to go to them.“

Ideas began clicking inside her. She thought of Liszt. „If we have something to eat, a place to sleep, and a job to earn money, there is no excuse for us,“ she says. „Of course, we cannot solve every problem. But we can do our part.“

Two of her girlfriends felt similarly. Maria Mosconi, a viola player, Paloma Kouider, a pianist, and Alexandra — „We are like sisters!“ — brainstormed: How to actually make a difference? Not do some flash in the pan; no, create a continuous, supportive project.

In 2012, Esperanz’Arts was born. Members of the art collective — dancers, photographers, musicians united — travel to places where life can be difficult: hospitals, homeless shelters, senior centers. „We want to give hope,“ Alexandra says. „Everyone today is so pessimistic. But we are the young people: We have the knowledge; we have the internet; we can accomplish anything.“

Esperanz’Arts stands not only for hope but also unity of multiple arts forms. „Everybody in our network is an established artist“, she explains. „People don’t participate to further their careers, they do it simply for philanthropy.“

„I wrote hundreds of emails offering that we come visit and play for old people and patients. I got about three replies. Two of those were no’s.“

A few days ago, Esperanz’Arts performed in a school in the outskirts of Paris where handicapped and healthy children ages 6 and 25 learn together. „All the kids are friends with each other; it doesn’t matter if they are handicapped or not,“ Alexandra says. How it works out? She has no idea but seems very pleased about the experience.

Esperanz’Arts ran into opposition at first. Several shelter and institution managers and directors eyed the young artists — not to mention offers for free performances — suspiciously (nothing in this world is free, after all). „In the beginning, people didn’t want to hear from us,“ Alexandra says. „I wrote a hundred of emails offering that we come visit and play for old people and patients. I got about three replies. Two of those were no’s.“ Dedicating precious time and resources to hosting a traveling troupe, not to mention figuring out a place for them to perform, were not priorities at the institutions: Why music, our patients don’t need music, seemed to be the pervailing thinking. But the joyful Esperanza bring everything, as it turns out; only a piano would be helpful, thank you very much. „But no microphones, no stage — all of that would only increase the distance between the audience and us.“

The goal is for the audience to be part of the performance. It’s something Alexandra likes most about her art form. „At an art exhibit, the painting is already there, it already exists. But with live music, the audience can become part of the performance.“ At the school, for instance, the children clapped along during the uptempo pieces, then relaxed during the quieter ones. They became part of the performance.

Esperanz’Arts will return to the school. The heart of the program, after all, lies in not merely showing up, having fun with the kids, then returning home to perfect worlds and leaving the audience behind. Rather, the collective seeks to build trust and relationships; they plan meticulously and discuss thoroghly where to play, where to build connections, and they plan to keep those connections going. At the school, children and teachers expect the artists to come back — soon. And Alexandra and her friends will.

„As she plays, it almost looks like a flirt with her violin“
„Why can’t people clap, dance, and laugh while we play?“

Alexandra Soumm continues also performing on major stages and to sellout audiences throughout the world with her „ex-Kavakos,“ a 230 year old violin built by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini, one of history’s three finest craftsmen of string instruments. End of May, Alexandra will play Tokyo; in July, Colorado. She will perform in halls with phenomenal acoustics to bejeweled women in elegant gowns and gentlemen in tailored tuxedos; perfume will waft around marble beams, and audiences will come undone by the sounds of the orchestra and pretty young soloist.

When performing, Alexandra swings her long hair over her shoulders; at some points, too, she raises her eyebrows and smiles, eyes on her instrument, almost as if flirting.

She considers performing in both these worlds — in guilded salons, in linoleum-floored rooms; before connoisseurs paying top dollar, before people who have never heard of her or often the composers she plays — gifts. And necessity. Her agents know they must always leave room in her schedule for Esperanz’Arts. Whereas other soloists play 150 concerts a year, Alexanda declares she wants „to have time to live, to write poetry, to enjoy.“

Stating this, she makes clear that she belongs to generation Y. While she indeed is classically versatile in both orchestral and chamber music and tutored by the best in the business (Boris Kuschnir in Vienna korrigiert von Vieanna),some of her ideas are rather revolutionary for the classical industry.

But it is not only the rising instrumentalists who change. The music industry also re-considers. And it has to, as otherwise its audience will soon die out. Young classical artists today — German David Garrett, for instance — increasingly step beyond the confines of Mozart, Beethoven, and Wagner to foray into playing and recording pop music as well. Music executives promote sexy classical artists performing pop tunes; barriers between classical and pop topple — and millions of records sell. But these are sidetracks: The musicians all the while consider themselves traditional, classical artists. When asked for her favorite composers, Alexandra, for instance, names Brahms und Schostakowitsch. Like Garrett, her heart belongs to classical music. But she and other young classical artists are bringing a fresh, sexy, forward-thinking energy to the genre. „Why can’t people clap and dance and laugh while we play?“ is just one of her questions.

At Esperanz’Arts performances, she not only plays but also sometimes reads — Robert und Clara Schumann’s love letters, for instance — to the audience. It’s not enough to perform in places and to people normally not privy korrigiert von privvy to classical music. No, the audience should have the opportunity to understand the music. „This wall between the audience and performer,“ Alexandra says, „I want to break it.“ No matter the venue.