In the Pit: Roberto Cani, Concertmaster

BRAVO 42 Interview

By Diane Eisenman

Experiencing a violinist on stage performing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in Milan, Italy, 7-year-old Roberto Cani determined then and there he would someday play that concerto. Attending Milan Conservatory, he practiced diligently to fulfill his dream. It was here that he remembers meeting Plácido Domingo, who was recording Otello but still took time out to greet young Roberto. 

Moving to Moscow at age 20, he studied violin at the Gnessin Institute. He also traveled throughout Europe as a concert soloist, his repertoire including the Tchaikovsky Concerto, which he still enjoys playing. During the Paganini Competition, which he won, Abram Shtern heard Roberto perform and invited him to become his student. Roberto followed Mr. Shtern to Los Angeles in December 1992. Eventually receiving an Artist Diploma from the University of Southern California, Roberto continued to perform concerts in Europe and also served as guest concertmaster at La Scala, the London Philharmonic, and the Radio and Television Orchestra in Milan. 

2010 was a milestone year for Roberto. He was hired as Concertmaster of Los Angeles Opera, and met his soon-to-be wife Helen, an opera lover from Kiev, at Kendall’s after an opera performance. Roberto and Helen now have a 16-month-old daughter Sofia who already listens to opera and watches ballet. He says of this special year, “Everything comes when you don’t expect it!”

The physicality of the violin makes it a challenging instrument to play. It requires a stable posture in uncomfortable positions. “You need to be in shape, like an athlete.” The violin repertoire can be quite difficult, requiring considerable practice. “Today I feel quite lucky that I used to practice 10 hours a day, so most of the challenging music is still in my hands.”

Roberto deepens his understanding of the violin as a craftsman. Discovering that he likes to work with wood, he now makes violins and violas in addition to his own bows. “Making these instruments has made a big difference in my performance.” 

Like his father before him, Roberto especially enjoys Italian opera. He wishes LAO “would do more Rossini operas, and more happy and comedic operas, not so much the sad ones.” The length and technical demands of German operas, especially Wagner and Strauss, provide the most challenging opera music to play. 

As Spalla, or Concertmaster, he stands on the “shoulder” of the Maestro. The Spalla must prepare the bowing and dynamics for the whole string section before the first rehearsal. He sits on a short riser and makes large gestures to direct the orchestra members, listening for changing responses according to the Maestro in each moment.

Since becoming concertmaster, he has been working with the Maestro to create a more “Italian” sound – more expressive and emotional. After four years, the Maestro and Roberto are excited that it is really happening. “It is something you can’t describe, but you can feel.” In Italy, the audiences are critical, often knowing every note of the opera. Preferring the “old style” of performance, which is more about feelings and emotional expression, Roberto finds that “this is where the magic lies. And this magic fulfills my soul.”

Author: Thomas Lady

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