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Răzvan Popovici: ”It’s crucial for culture to resume its activities as soon as possible”

Interview by Oltea Șerban-Pârâu, published in Adevărul Journal, on 4.05.2020

Oltea Șerban-Pârâu: Răzvan Popovici, since mid-March, quite unexpectedly, and at the beginning without any forecast regarding this new situation, the artistic life of Romania, but also of Europe, the United States, and not only, froze in full spring. Where was Răzvan Popovici then, and when should he have been now, in May?

Răzvan Popovici: I had the great joy to be, on March 8th, on the stage of Radio Hall. It was the last concert that took place in Bucharest before the lockdown. It was a Mărțișor concert, and, together with the pianist Mara Dobrescu and the violinist Sarah Christian, we offered a joyful musical bouquet to the ladies in our capital city. It was a day full of adventure: the uncertainty of performing, due to the potential interdiction of the concert; getting the permission short time before it started; and, finally, a full house, in spite of the panic that had begun to spread in the city. I will never forget the pleasure I took from playing that night of 8th March, and I can only hope that I will experience it again, as soon as possible. Now, at the beginning of May, I should have been at the Royal Conservatory in Antwerp, Belgium. I’m a professor in residence there, since three years ago, and for some days I’d be working in various masterclasses with the students, I’d have performed in a couple of concerts, and been part of a jury for the final exams. Right after this, there should have been the annual tour of my Ensemble Raro, in Japan. Unfortunately, both events have been canceled for an undetermined time.

For many months, I got free time – the most valuable thing in a dynamic and fulfilled life. I had time for myself.

O.Ș.P. What kind of impact had the cancelation of postponement of all your ongoing projects – to talk about the present, for now?

R.P.: The impact is as unexpected, as it is violent, because, for now, all my engagements, be it concerts, tours, festivals, masterclasses, were canceled or postponed by mid-July. This means that, for many months, I got free time – the most valuable thing in a dynamic and fulfilled life. I had time for myself.

O.Ș.P. The closing of concert and show halls and the avalanche of canceled seasons, festivals, or great national and international events, in some cases till August, were all indirect effects of the pandemic that blocked the public events of almost the whole world. Cultural and artistic life was shut down the first and, most probably, will be the last one to resume – as will be sports. How do you think actors and musicians will spend this time, and how will Răzvan Popovici spend it?

R.P.: What we experience at this time is without precedent, so everyone’s reactions, including artists’, have been proportional, ranging from unexpected to fully visceral. Being in contact with many colleagues from various artistic branches, I figured out that there are only two ways through which we can overcome this crisis. There is no middle way. We can become much stronger, or extremely weakened and frustrated. The impossibility to play, to be on stage, to share these magical moments with our audience has paralyzed a lot of us. A part of those who had concerts and debuts canceled, who were forced to quit well-paid tours or captivating festivals became sad and depressed, they lost the joy to hold an instrument in their hands. Others, among which I count myself, have seen a unique opportunity: a period of grace, some free time granted by somewhere above – maybe what we have been wishing for, and what we were really needing.

I hope that, after the pandemic, culture becomes one of the most supported activity fields, that it’s sought after by a wider audience, and taken much more seriously by the authorities.

O.Ș.P. Artists are not great in numbers, proportionally, within the active population, anywhere in the world. How do you think public opinion should place itself in relation to the artists at this atypical time we are living? You know very well the situation in Germany, and what happens there, compared to what happens here. What models could we import, in the economic circumstances in Romania, to support art and culture?

R.P.: I believe the whole world figured out that, without art and artists, these two months of quarantine would have been insufferable. I hope that, after the pandemic, culture becomes one of the most supported activity fields, that it’s sought after by a wider audience, and taken much more seriously by the authorities. Thus, culture could play its role: it can be the beacon of society. Compared to Germany, and moreover to Switzerland, who support independent artists and cultural institutions as no one else does, the Romanian state doesn’t really implement support means for artists. I think the authorities should finally realize the importance and the potential of culture, and to decide in favor of unprecedented support of the cultural field.

The emotion you can perceive in a show hall is impossible to replicate in a digital space.

O.Ș.P. A lot of things are happening online in these two months, in what concerns music and theatre. How important will it be, in Răzvan Popovici’s opinion, the impact of this time spent exclusively online and of the recent history of entertainment arts in Europe and America?

R.P.: To be honest, I don’t think that online time will have a long-term impact on entertainment arts. The emotion you can perceive in a live show is impossible to replicate in a digital space. The only condition is to make artistic life possible again.

Chamber music, opera or symphonic music are not possible online; following the same logical thread, sports cannot happen successfully with the tablet in your lap.

O.Ș.P. Will there be a mutation of the manner of perception and will be switch mostly to the online space, or the force of together, of the live element, specific to the arts of show and entertainment, to sports, will triumph where possible?

R.P.: This time proved loud and clear what we can do well, partially or totally, in online, and what doesn’t have any chance to continue. Many businesses understood, after just a couple of weeks of quarantine, how efficient and beneficial it is for a sound part of their employees to work from home, so I imagine that, post-pandemic, the models that combine working from home to working on location will diversify. The state could see how easily can we solve administrative issues of all kinds online, and if they will manage this seriously we’ll see a consistent reduction of bureaucracy and will make citizens very happy. Teachers have realized the limitations of online education – efficient only up to a point. Online musical education is also very limited, due to the impossibility to broadcast quality sound without professional equipment. I can firmly state that the arts of show will triumph, without issues, once limitations are gone. What happens in show halls, between artists and audience, it’s impossible to recreate in an online environment. The liveliness, the warmth, the vibration, the magic cannot be experienced through a screen. As much as cinema industries have tried, engaging their unlimited financial resources, they didn’t manage to replace musicians who recorded soundtracks with a robot orchestra, which says a lot about the force of art, when it’s applied collectively. Chamber music, opera or symphonic music are not possible online; following the same logical thread, sports cannot happen successfully with the tablet in your lap.

I suppose we will re-evaluate our life priorities, we will become more empathic, and we will perceive quality and meritocracy as we should. We’ll need to gather up the courage to build.

O.Ș.P. What benchmarks do artists, musicians, and actors have now? What does Răzvan Popovici think about responding to what surrounds us, as artists, at this time?

R.P.: After six weeks of quarantine during which I very seldom left home, I can say that music is the best companion, no matter how peculiar times are. So, all losses caused by the complete paralysis of artistic life counted, I believe that most artists profit from this pause. We shouldn’t forget that, for many of us, life had started spinning so quickly that we could barely cope.
We could barely navigate it, and understand its messages. Moreover, rediscovering a calm family life meant a pleasant return to le charme discret de la bourgeoisie for many of us, and this is a beneficial revelation that could bring in a lot of added value in the future. I suppose we will re-evaluate our life priorities, we will become more empathic, and we will perceive quality and meritocracy as we should. We’ll need to gather up the courage to build on an honest ground, and with substance, our newly restarted life.

We didn’t have to adopt tough decisions yet; only sad ones.

O.Ș.P. As a cultural manager, what tough decisions were you forced to make at this time?

R.P.: We didn’t have to adopt tough decisions yet; only sad ones. We were forced to cancel the 17th edition of our festival in Germany, Chiemgauer Musikfrühling, as well as the 10th edition of the SoNoRo Festival in Arezzo. We are waiting for the day when the concerts will resume under any circumstances, in order to re-plan all SoNoRo initiatives of the year, currently postponed: The SoNoRo Interferențe workshops, the series of concerts SoNoRo Conac, and the 2nd edition of SoNoRo Musikland Festival.

I couldn’t possibly forget the debut at Carnegie Hall, 10 years ago, when I saw my face, next to my colleagues’ from Ensemble Raro, on the legendary New York building.

O.Ș.P. As we stay at home, and the present doesn’t really have too much to say, there is the tendency to re-evaluate the past. This is a good pretext for a retrospective. What does Răzvan Popovici remember with the greatest pleasure from what he has achieved so far, artistically speaking? Are there stages or moments in your artistic development?

R.P.: I couldn’t possibly forget the debut at Carnegie Hall, 10 years ago, when I saw my face, next to my colleagues’ from Ensemble Raro, on the legendary New York building. And then there was the overwhelming feeling when I got to enter the building the first time, and I clearly felt the omnipresent vigor of the numerous musical moments, all of them epic. In my green room, on the wall, I have the original posters of one of the first concerts Antónin Dvorák conducted in the same hall. I’m extremely grateful for the last years, so generous with their artistic experiences, as they helped me each time to progress and improve. A couple of these experiences are: playing Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante – conducted by Shlomo Mintz in Argentina, my debut concerts with Ensemble Raro from Suntory Hall in Tokyo or Lucerne Festival in Switzerland, participating at the opening gala for the Europalia Festival in Brussels, in front of the Belgian Royal Family and the President of Romania, or the first interpretation of the amazing Harold in Italy of Hector Berlioz with the Cluj Philharmonic, conducted by Gabriel Bebeșelea. An emotional moment was the innovative interpretation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s masterpiece, The Master and Margareta, with the Austrian actor Karl Marcovics (who has won a sensational Oscar Award), in the renowned Musikverein Hall in Vienna. The position of professor in residence for the Royal Conservatory in Antwerp, which I hold since 2018, made me think already to a future more consistent pedagogic activity.

O.Ș.P. If we’re talking discographies, what are the key moments in Răzvan Popovici’s evolution?

R.P.: Up to now I recorded 10 CDs, mostly with my colleagues from Ensemble Raro, for the Munich based record company Solo Musica/SONY. Of course, I still hold my first project very dear. I’m talking about Songs and Dances of Life, a musical portrait of Sibiu as a cosmopolitan cultural pole of Transylvania – our way to celebrate the European Cultural Capital in 2017. Rhapsodie Roumaine, the homage dedicated to the Centennial of our Great Union, reunites masterpieces of George Enescu and Béla Bartók and is the disk that we carried the farthest in the world, from Ateneul Român or Bozar in Brussels to Carnegie Hall in New York or Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. Last year I had the great joy to see the record label SONY releasing a live recording of The Transfigured Night, composed by Arnold Schönberg for a string sextet.

After such a break, the population will truly get well at the pace of the art, culture, and wellbeing their society can produce

O.Ș.P. Were Răzvan Popovici to decide on European or national level when and how the concert and show life should resume, how would he propose to have everything paced after 15th May? Let us imagine.

R.P.: First of all, I would acknowledge that, after such a break, the population will truly get well at the pace of the art, culture, and wellbeing their society can produce. I would figure out that, without beauty, you cannot get rid of the pain caused by isolation, and I’d gradually allow cultural events to take place. At first, I’d open museums, bookshops, libraries, and art galleries. Then I’d allow cultural events, starting in June, by a well-thought calendar, with certain distancing rules: first for 50 people, then for 100 and 300. As we’re already in May, I’d favor concerts and artistic events in the open air, even if sometimes the acoustic quality is not the best. I’m sure that artists would be happy to resume their activities and would agree to play, sing, or act even under atypical circumstances. It’s crucial for the activity of the cultural sector to resume as quickly as possible, as the vibration and energy of a concert or play are, probably, one of the most efficient manners to heal people emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. In a couple more weeks, if the evaluation of the status is positive, I’d take the next step and allow cultural events up to 1000 people to happen. Towards the end of the summer season, I’d re-evaluate all the decisions taken during it and, after a close analysis, I’d continue by a set of clear, simple, and efficient measures, that would allow the cultural field to keep going fluently and securely, in the coming fall/winter.

Let’s unite and draw the attention of the authorities that a society without art and culture is meaningless, lacks substance, and can present the risk of making things worse

O.Ș.P. Let us finish our dialogue optimistically. What would be the message of the cultural manager Răzvan Popovici for the community of independent artists in Romania?

R.P.: Let’s unite and draw the attention of the authorities that a society without art and culture is meaningless, lacks substance, and can present the risk of making things worse. Only with a common voice can we influence political decisions, often taken by people without true sensitivity or affinity for art, and contribute to its healing, so necessary after such a major break. I truly believe that we need to be one step ahead and offer politicians viable solutions and alternatives through which they can allow this country’s cultural life to resume. Germany and Switzerland communicate daily happy news about the initiatives and visions in the cultural field, which were well-thought and which are considered and implemented by the authorities.

Otherwise, try to maximize this free time! This is a peace we won’t find very soon in our lives again, and which should be an unlimited source of inspiration, energy, and creativity for the future. We’ll be stronger, day after day, through what we learn, what we gain, what we read, and through reflection, introspection, compassion, and love. We will understand why it’s good to rethink the machine that used to lead our lives and not go back carelessly to the past ”normal”. We should dream and shape a new world.