Learning next to individuals

Iason Keramidis

A country’s thirst for classical music depends on its tradition

Text: Dimitra Kehagia || Photographs: Iason Keramidis's archive
Iason Keramidis

At eight years old, he visualized his audience as pumpkins to get over his stage fright, following his mother’s advice. Iason Keramidis recalls how the sound of the violin has always filled their house. After all, his two older brothers are also violinists. He feels great gratitude to them, as well as his parents and, of course, his instructors: the late, great Stelios Kafantaris and Professor Ulf Hoelscher, who helped him along the way. “I remember three violins playing for hours at home. We took every opportunity to listen to classical music.”

Though having a mathematician father and a sociologist mother, everything in his childhood home revolved around music. The violin echoed through the rooms, practiced by the three siblings. As Iason explains, after the family moved to Germany, his two brothers helped him learn, as they themselves studied under Stelios Kafantaris.

He was only 28 when he earned his spot among the 1st violins of the distinguished Munich Philharmonic. “I remember how happy my parents felt when I first told them, as well as my first rehearsal with the orchestra – a demanding program under Lorin Maazel’s direction. I was very stressed and in awe to be playing next to important colleagues, and for a legend of a maestro.”

As soon became clear, his stress was all but productive; five years later, he was that same orchestra’s Deputy Concertmaster – a role that requires “great responsibility, discipline, consideration and preparedness,” as he notes. “Maintaining a high level – let alone improving – requires immense effort and toil. At any moment, I need to be ready not just to perform but to take on the mantle of Concertmaster. After all, that is the point of the deputy: if there is a need – if the Concertmaster falls ill or is in an accident – you take their place. I was once informed that I had to stand in for my colleague just three hours before a concert.”

Seminal to his career were Maazel and Gergiev, the illustrious conductors at Munich. With a long tradition in Anton Bruckner’s music, the Munich Philharmonic primarily performs German and Austrian symphonies, such as works by Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. “The orchestra has integrated so many of Sergiu Celibidache’s attitudes and approaches, especially when it comes to Bruckner’s work, that you still feel his presence among us. Through the years, I have practiced this repertory so much; I have become so close to a style of music that a while ago would have felt impossible to me.”

Iason Keramidis is also a member of ESCUALO5, a quintet that played the Thessaloniki Concert Hall in December 2021. They are professors from the

Munich University of Music, members of the Munich Philharmonic, and musicians from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, who tour Europe’s festivals together, playing Astor Piazzolla. Under normal circumstances, most of his life is concert after concert, but this was turned on its head because of the pandemic. “I miss the contact with the audience, performing in big concert halls, being with exceptional colleagues. Even music for bigger orchestras has stopped: Because of the pandemic, we’ve all had to play pieces for smaller ensembles. You know, routine is very useful in that regard, in any field. Friction comes from routine, and with friction comes improvement.”

He still misses the applause, which he labels irreplaceable. “It is completely different to be performing in an empty hall for a recording or for live streaming, compared to a concert with an audience. The result is different because you don’t interact with the audience. You could say it’s like comparing theater and cinema; one takes place before your eyes, in your presence, and the other is something that’s maybe happened at a different time and was then edited, or in real-time but in a different place.”

He thinks that the quality of violinists in Greece has soared in recent years. “You know, quality increases with quantity: The more people play, then study, then choose it as a profession, the more the level improves,” he explains, adding that even today “unfortunately, it seems that classical music in Greece only concerns a very small minority of the public. Each country’s tradition is unique and their thirst for classical music depends on it. It happens though, sometimes, that audiences show more enthusiasm and gratitude in low income countries, as I have seen in Honduras, for example. Of course, the fact remains that the tradition of central and north European countries – along with Spain and Italy – affects social approaches to music, both in terms of education and of professional musicians and performances.”

Iason Keramidis has received awards from numerous national and international competitions – all useful distinctions yet, as he explains, “they are not the be-all and end-all. Competitions should just be a motive for young people; an objective on the path to improvement, progress and professional maturity.”

To this, he adds how some musicians may have failed because they focused too much on winning competitions – as did those who relied only on their talent or didn’t listen to their teachers. “At a young age, when the groundwork of technique, hands and body is set, some used to – and still do – choose pieces not for art but because of competitions, school demands, or teachers’ ignorance. Because, let’s not kid ourselves, not all teachers are equally skilled. It is good for new musicians to have balance in their study – technique and music should go hand in hand”, he emphasizes and recommends that they listen to a lot of classical music. “Not just music for their instrument but more generally – symphonic music, chamber music, contemporary, baroque, etc. They should also play a lot of chamber music. It improves collaboration, musical dialogue, comprehension and ultimately, the performance of the work.”

In early 2022, BIS released a CD album of music by Astor Piazzolla performed by Iason Keramidis while this coming April and August, he’s performing with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. He also has in the works a Brazilian tour with the Munich Philharmonic’s String Quartet, and is set to start teaching the violin at the High School of Music Studies in Galicia, Spain. Of course, this is when he can find some time away from the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, which remains his top priority.

Short bio

Iason Keramidis was born in Kavala, Greece. He studied violin performance at the music academies of Karlsruhe and Stuttgart with Ingolf Turban and Ulf Hoelscher, as well as chamber music with Michael Uhde and Markus Stange. As a soloist, he has performed with the Baden-Baden Philharmonic, the Deutsche Staatsphiharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, the Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra Sofia, the Athens State Orchestra, and the Greek National Opera Orchestra, among others. He has given recitals across Europe as well as the USA, China and Japan. In 2013, he created the Astris Piano Trio, which in March of the same year won the second prize at the International Chamber Music Competition at Mulhouse, France. Since April 2018, Iason has been Deputy Concertmaster of the Munich Philharmonic. He is also a member of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and the World Orchestra for Peace.