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Sex and violins

Julia Fischer leads a new flock of "violin babes." Just don't call them that.

Photograph: Kass Kara
FIDDLE STICKS Fischer is the youngest full professor at Music Academy in Munich.

Julia Fischer’s performances send critics scrambling for superlatives. In 2007, Britain’s Gramophone magazine dubbed the violin sensation its youngest-ever artist of the year, choosing the then 24-year-old over entrenched superstars Claudio Abbado, 74; Daniel Barenboim, 65; and tenor Rolando Villazón, 35.

The youthful Bavarian joins a new wave of fresh-faced violinists poised for major careers. For generations, male virtuosos dominated the instrument, but now the spotlight falls mostly on women. The crowded field includes Lisa Batiashvili, Jennifer Frautschi, Hilary Hahn, Janine Jansen and Leila Josefowicz. For the moment, Fischer wears the crown of first among equals. Anne-Sophie Mutter, an elder statesman at 45, clearly played a pivotal, pioneering role for female soloists. Yet the focus on the gender swing irks some artists. Josefowicz told us in a recent interview that she sees it as probably little more than male critics’ chauvinist fixation.

That may seem too facile, but fans need only click on beautyinmusic.com for further proof of Josefowicz’s theory. Beyond a fix of sexy thereminists, the website—“the ultimate guide to the hottest women in classical music”—offers 12 pages of alluring photos of 60 “violin babes.” And a quick glance at retail racks shows a plethora of classical-crossover girl groups such as All Angels, Bond, Mediæval Bæbes and the Opera Babes.

Fischer offers a more pragmatic take than Josefowicz. “A large part is PR,” she tells us over the phone. “Record marketing directors see attractive women selling more CDs.” Fischer believes the trend toward a more accelerated, image-driven pop-music climate in classical has its obvious downside. “We are living in a time when musical careers are very short, only five or ten years.” To her, one’s twenties are a critical time for promising musicians, better spent furthering studies, not cranking out performances of canonical pieces they’ve known since childhood. Fischer looks to the long-term; she wants a career spanning several decades, like that enjoyed by one of her idols, Austrian piano master Alfred Brendel.

At age four, Fischer switched from piano to violin so she could accompany her mother, Viera Fischer, an accomplished pianist; her elder brother already played the keys. In 1972, Viera Krenková had emigrated from Slovakia to West Germany, where she met Frank-Michael Fischer, a mathematician; 11 years later, their daughter Julia was born in Munich. At age six, the precocious Julia had already chosen a concert career after seeing Mutter play and learning that she got paid for it to boot.

Today, Fischer is particular about which of the 40 works in her repertoire she plays with certain orchestras. She avoids Mozart with Italian orchestras and abstains from Bartók with rhythmically weak groups. For her debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra this week (she first appeared at Ravinia in 1999), the Bavarian chose Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto. “The Shostakovich is a piece where you need the very best orchestra,” she says. “Especially in the second section, you need a fabulous flute and bassoon player.” In the CSO, she has both with Mathieu Dufour and David McGill, respectively. Like Fischer, the CSO recently topped a Gramophone list: The magazine named it America’s best orchestra of 2008.

The performance marks one stop on Fischer’s season-long tour of the U.S., playing recitals and solo engagements with top orchestras. In February, she will lead a 50th-anniversary tour of the Academy of St. Martins in the Field orchestra as both soloist and conductor.

Though her early training consisted solely of classic works for violin, Fischer began playing Shostakovich just three years ago. The Russian composer was denounced and banned by Stalin before he reluctantly joined the Communist Party in 1960. “Both my parents came from communist countries. I was brought up knowing all the faults of that system”—faults, she says, that find their way into her interpretations. The music is “sometimes cruel, yet it must be played without compromise,” she says. “Whenever you try to make it nice or beautiful, you lose whatever Shostakovich had to say about the system.”

When they meet, Gramophone’s top U.S. orchestra and artist of the year should produce soul-stirring music. Just don’t expect pretty.

Fischer solos with the CSO Thursday 11 through Saturday 13 and Tuesday 16.

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