By Donald Liebenson
Kian Soltani, one of classical music’s rising stars, is in a committed new relationship and they are making beautiful music together. She has accompanied the 27-year-old cellist to some of the world’s most celebrated venues, including the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall (where he made his acclaimed recital debut last spring), and now Ravinia, where he will be the featured soloist for the annual Tchaikovsky Spectacular.
How do we put this delicately—she is considerably older; born in 1694, to be exact. She is the “London ex Boccherini” Stradivarius cello, and, Soltani enthusiastically insists she is even “more fantastic” than his previous instrument, a 1680 cello by Giovanni and Francesco Grancino. “I’m very happy to bring her to Chicago,” he says.
They are still in the getting-to-know-you phase, he admits. “I wish I could tell you it was instant love, but it was not at all like that. There is no such thing as a perfect instrument, but I could feel the potential. It’s like when you meet an incredibly beautiful and interesting woman; you must win her heart. I knew it would not be easy, but that’s what I had to do. Sometimes the instrument is in a bad mood; sometimes I’m in a bad mood. But we get by and we accept each other, flaws and all. It’s all worth it because the payoff is so great; just like a good relationship.”
Soltani has been earning raves for his impassioned performances. Earlier this year, DC Metro Theater Arts praised his “superlative and charismatic mastery of the cello” when he played with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center. His Carnegie Hall recital was met with a standing ovation.
He looks forward to his Ravinia and Chicago Symphony Orchestra debuts under the direction of Itzhak Perlman. “A lot of my friends have attended [Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute], and they have told me about their great experiences,” he says. “Meeting Maestro Perlman will be a special honor. It will be another chance to meet one of my idols.”
He has already met and played with almost all of them. “That’s one big luxury we have in classical music,” he says with a laugh. “Unlike with rock music, the biggest stars are actually reachable.”
He cites among his role models Daniel Barenboim, with whom he performed as principal cellist in the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, comprising student musicians from Israel, Palestine, and other Eastern nations. He joined in 2014. That experience was “life-changing,” says Soltani, who is Austrian Iranian. “I grew up in this bubble; Europe. I only heard about conflicts on the news or read about them in books. Entering this orchestra, I encountered people who had seen the real conflict, and it was interesting to see how it shaped them, how they managed to overcome adversity and become stronger. That inspired me a lot. The whole idea of this orchestra is we’re all equal in music. It’s important to live by that ideal and have this dream of how it could be.”
Yo-Yo Ma is another. “A great inspiration,” Soltani calls him. “I will never forget the first time I heard him perform live. He inspired me to explore outside classical music and not just stay in that box.”
While Ma and Barenboim are “incredibly different artists and personalities,” Soltani reflects, “the one thing that they share is that they are incredibly hard working. They have a plan and they are doers. It’s not just sheer talent; it’s the ambition they have and the willingness to act on what needs to be done. They are not just resting on their achievements.”
Neither is Soltani, whose own list of achievements is steadily growing. Born in Austria in 1992, he began playing the cello when he was 4 years old. An older cousin whom he calls a role model played the instrument.
When it is suggested that the cello doesn’t attract many groupies, Soltani jokes back, “You’d be surprised.” He continued: “Cello is the ideal instrument—it can do it all—and there are many people who have made it quite popular: [just look at] 2Cellos.”
Soltani grew up in a musical household. His parents were professional musicians. They played classical music in Tehran and earned a scholarship to continue their studies in Vienna, where they became teachers. His aunt and uncle and sister were also musicians. “Even before I picked up the cello,” he says, “I was making music somehow; singing, playing on the piano.”
Cello recordings by Mischa Maisky and Jascha Heifetz were influential, but, growing up with the dawn of the internet and YouTube, he listened to a wide variety of music, including rock, heavy metal, jazz, Persian folk music, and hip-hop. “I try to take in every kind of music there is,” he states. “Michael Jackson was, for me in my teenage years, huge. You can take inspiration from all kinds of music.”
His wide-ranging musical tastes, Soltani reflects, have shaped him as a cellist. “Aspiring musicians sometimes focus too much on their instrument and they forget to be human and who they are without it. In the end, the instrument is an extension of ourselves; it shouldn’t be the other way around.” The most interesting thing a musician can be, he offers, is a storyteller, rather than just technically accomplished. “Different musical genres speak of different experiences and emotions,” he says. “If you only focus on classical music, you miss out on different aspects of life. Hip-hop culture has a different story to tell than a Beethoven symphony.”
Nevertheless, Soltani considers himself a good audience for other classical musicians. “I’m critical of myself,” he says, “but I can always take away something from listening to other artists. I like to learn. I’m easy to inspire.”
Soltani has won several international competitions, including the Lucerne Festival’s 2017 Credit Suisse Young Artist Award and the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival’s 2017 Bernstein Award, and he records for the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label. The 2018 release of his first CD, Home, was an indelibly special moment, he says. “It’s something you hold in your hand and it’s you on the cover. It’s an important moment that you only experience once.”
As for his joint Ravinia and CSO debut, he will be performing Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello and orchestra. “Tchaikovsky’s melodies are so full of emotion,” he enthuses. “He was a composer of ballets, of course, and there is a dance-like character to his music. This piece shows the cello from every angle.”
The annual performance of the 1812 Overture with cannon shots, a highlight of the Ravinia season, also has Soltani’s attention. “After I finish playing, I’ll pack up my cello and sneak into the audience and enjoy the show,” he says. ▪
Donald Liebenson is a Chicago-based entertainment writer. His work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Los Angeles Times, and on RogerEbert.com. The first Ravinia concert he attended without his parents was Procol Harum in 1970.