Name: Tahlia Petrosian
Nationality: Australian
Occupation: Violinist, curator
Current event: Tahlia Petrosian is currently presenting Resonate, a series of performances combining live music with real-time creation of a piece of visual art. Stay on top of future concerts by following Resonate on Facebook.
Recommendations: Book: Margaret Atwood, “Writing with Intent”; Music: Beethoven, String Quartet “Große Fuge” op. 133

If you enjoyed this interview with Tahlia Petrosian, visit her personal website for more information, music and media.

When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

I started learning the violin when I was 3, and switched to the viola at 14. I love the idea of sound as a form of expression, and as a child I was captivated by classical music.

I was drawn to the deeper sound of the viola and what I regard as its more contemplative and philosophical personality. I also really enjoy being the middle voice in the centre of music-making. When you play viola in ensembles, be it chamber music or in an orchestra, you are really at the heart of the music.

For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?

I was fortunate to have teachers throughout my training who encouraged me and, at the same time, gave me a degree of latitude for the development of my own voice. I also played in youth orchestras and in chamber music groups with other young musicians. I feel this is particularly important because otherwise the process of studying an instrument can be a little isolated.

Throughout my early development I never intended to become a professional musician. When I finished school in Australia, I went to study law, and it wasn’t until I finished my law degree and then moved to Berlin to study viola full-time that I seriously considered focussing on music.

How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?

I feel that my sense of identity, my character and my personality all influence my creativity. The projects I create, or the manner in which I express myself playing my instrument, are representations of my identity.

For example, many of my projects involve combining classical music with art forms that one wouldn’t normally associate with classical music, such as street art or video installation. In this way, my sense of identity as someone who is open to new ideas and not constrained by accepted parameters comes through in these projects.

What were some of your main challenges when starting out as an artist and in which way have they changed over the years?

As an artist it can be very difficult to forge your own path. Once I decided to pursue a career as an orchestral musician and joined the Gewandhaus Orchestra in 2012, it allowed me more space and opportunity to see how the classical music world worked from the inside. I was then able to see in what ways I could express my creativity by creating new projects at the same time as being a viola player in the Gewandhaus Orchestra.

In 2016, I created the series “KLASSIK underground” which became very well-known and, in 2021, I created the new online concert series “Resonate”. My present challenge is to work out how to stay at the forefront of developments in classical music and to try to move classical music forward, whether it be in developing new concert formats or in experimenting with presenting classical music in the digital world.

As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first instrument?

I started on the violin and then switched to the viola when I was 14. I have only ever had two violas and my present instrument is one with which I am very happy!

Tell me about your instrument, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results, including your own performance?

My viola was made in 2004 by Hiroshi Iizuka, who is a Philadelphia-based luthier. In 2009, I purchased this viola from a colleague in Berlin, for whom Mr Iizuka had made the instrument. My viola is an unusual shape: the bottom of the instrument is particularly wide and, in fact, the instrument requires a custom-made case as it does not fit into the standard viola cases. Due to its unique shape, which Mr Iizuka describes as “Rubenesque”, the instrument is immediately identifiable, even to audience members who might be quite far away from the stage.

The sound of the instrument is amazing, I love that it has such a big and substantial sound that fills the hall. If something doesn’t go well, or doesn’t sound good, it’s my fault, not the instrument’s!

How would you describe your approach to interpretation? Where do you start and how do you develop your view on a piece, what are some of your principles and what constitutes a successful interpretation for you?

I think interpretation in classical music is something that is deeply personal, but at the same time it needs to find resonance with the listener and it also needs to fit into certain stylistic traditions and the framework of the composer. I am open to any interpretation as long as it well-considered and both powerfully and convincingly presented.

Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?

I find collaborations with artists who are not working in classical music particularly interesting.

For many of the concerts in the series I created in 2016, “KLASSIK underground”, I collaborated with artists who work in art forms including street art, video installation, dance, theatre and light installation. I always begin by discussing the other creative’s artistic practice with them and then we talk about how this might work together with classical music. For example, I worked together with street artists who used quite violent movements to put paint onto very large canvasses. Discussing their creative process with them and watching them work led me to suggest that they might consider creating a piece of street art live to a live performance of Shostakovich chamber music, because Shostakovich’s sometimes violent musical gestures mirrored their own physical gestures while painting.

In the online concert series I have just created, “Resonate”, I work together with a guest international visual artist for each 45 minute concert. Each visual artist (many of whom are working in mixed media) creates a visual response to a live music performance. Again, we discuss their artistic practice and how we can find aspects of their practice that I can then tie to a programme of classical music. It is really fascinating to work with other creatives in this way, and I thoroughly enjoy the new perspectives that they bring to classical music.

Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?

Right now I am working on a number of different projects with people in different timezones. I am very fortunate that I have a fabulous assistant, Manfred Ludwig, who is in Germany. I am in Australia at the moment, and I have many online meetings. These can be at any time - midnight, 2am, 4am - whatever time it needs to be to get it done and move things forward.

I don’t have a fixed schedule but I normally get up very early because I have a lot to do. I have many diverse interests and they all feed into each other, there’s no doubt about that.

Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?

There have been many wonderful performances that I have really enjoyed being a part of. For me the most special event was a special KLASSIK underground charity concert I organised in 2016 with Anne-Sophie Mutter, Lambert Orkis and musicians of the Gewandhaus Orchestra. This concert was to support young refugees who were arriving in Germany and, at the time, this was becoming quite a contentious topic in the media.

I initially suggested this concert in early 2016 to Anne-Sophie Mutter to be presented in 2017, but she requested that it be put together in 6 weeks, which was both incredibly exciting and an enormously large task. I had never done anything like this before, but I really thought it was important that we present this concert to support the ideas of tolerance and openness, and this was my motivation in putting this special performance together. This will forever remain one of the most special events in my career.

There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?

I don’t think that there is an ideal state of mind for being creative. On the one hand, when I am practising viola and preparing for a concert or putting together my interpretation of a piece, this requires absolute concentration and focus. On the other hand, when I am putting together new ideas for a project, I like to have a lot of activity and distraction. For example, I might watch a documentary or a film or read something in the newspaper or read a novel or go to an exhibition, and all of a sudden I think, that could be the start of a great project!

Normally, my living space is just a mess with ideas everywhere for different projects or collaborations. I like working with pen and paper and I have recently purchased a large scrapbook so at least I can keep the projects in one place. I also have a very large whiteboard where I can write or stick things as I think of them.

Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?

Music and music performance accompanies all of the most important moments - or rituals - in our lives. For example, at celebrations, at weddings, at funerals, at church services etc. Every time people come together, music is part of the gathering. It is an incredibly powerful uniting tool and I also think that it can be an incredibly powerful tool for cultural exchange and this is something that we could explore further.

In particular, I see a lot of potential for more projects to bring western classical music and other nationalities’ or cultures’ music traditions into contact with each other. In our globalised world, music has enormous potential as a form of cultural exchange and as a tool for greater cultural understanding and we should explore this further.

Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?

For me, sound of course is the most important sense! Naturally, our senses are interconnected, but I think that if we are able to isolate one sense and focus solely on it - for example, our sense of sound - we see just how powerful and expressive sound and music can be.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?

I certainly think that art and music can take on social and political roles. This has been demonstrated throughout history and continues to be seen. To my mind, artists do have a certain responsibility to utilise their creativity not only to inspire people but also to make people aware of social and political causes.

What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?

Music is the most powerful form of expression because it transcends language. Everything that can be expressed about life and death which cannot be communicated through words can be expressed through music.