One of the world's most famous violists is an all-round musician who has inspired much contemporary music and many composers — not as a diva but through solid work for the cause of music.
She began playing the viola at age three and was later Germany's youngest professor. She's premiered the works of a number of contemporary composers. Her home pages lists a repertory of 60 works, and her name is on roughly 50 CDs.
But the art of the German violist Tabea Zimmermann is expressed by music journalists in terms far removed from numbers but instead in descriptions like "pleasure and ardent energy" or "intensive and sensual." The Swiss daily Le Temps wrote in 2016: "Sometimes you need nothing more than a viola to make the audience speechless." And in the Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung in 2018: "When Zimmermann plays, you hear with your stomach, your teeth and with the tips of your hair," and get "an impression of what musical perfection can be."
Many prizes, and in good company
After having received Germany's National Medal of Honor, the Frankfurt Music Prize, the Hesse Culture Prize and several other distinctions, Tabea Zimmermann, 53, now has won the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize.
Going with a cash award of €250,000 ($277,000), it is sometimes called "The Nobel Prize of music" and has recognized, since 1973, outstanding achievements by composers, performers and musicologists. Past winners include the composers Benjamin Britten, Olivier Messiaen, Witold Lutoslawski and György Ligeti; the conductors Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim and Mariss Jansons, and the instrumentalists Mstislav Rostropovich and Maurizio Pollini.
After studying at the Freiburg Music Academy, Tabea Zimmermann learned under the legendary conductor and violinist Sandor Vegh at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. Winning several competitions, she later became a professor at three different institutions, since October 2002 at the Hanns Eisler Music Academy in Berlin.
In demand as a chamber musician, Zimmermann plays in her own string quartet. She's also performed with major orchestras such as the Orchestre de Paris, the London Symphony and the Israel, Czech and Berlin Philharmonics. In the 2019/20 season, Tabea Zimmermann is Artist in Residence with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. She has also been long associated with the Ensemble Resonanz.
Insiders' jokes and viola glamour
The viola — the butt of many musicians' jokes — is in the mid-range of pitches: lower than the violin, higher than the cello. Accordingly, violists tend to sit in the middle of orchestras and string quartets, playing neither the shrill notes nor fundamental, low ones. The instrument seems instead predestined for a supportive, conciliatory role. To Tabea Zimmermann, that means, "I can effectively mediate between the outer voices, which doesn't mean that I hold back during rehearsals. I can adapt well if I find it musically suitable."
But the viola's humble image has also been thoroughly burnished by this artist, not only awakening the interest of many young people for the instrument but also inspiring a number of composers to write works for her. They include Wolfgang Rihm, György Ligeti, Heinz Holliger and Enno Poppe.
Zimmermann's signature in the Beethoven Year
Named president of the Beethoven House in Bonn in July 2013, Tabea Zimmermann has served as artistic director of the Beethoven Week every January since. Years of preparation went into this year's three-week edition, marking the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven's birth in Bonn with nothing less than performances of his complete chamber music — a project probably unprecedented in this form.
A mother of three, she is perhaps the world's best-known woman violist but isn't drawn towards the glam side of the classical world. "I'm more for the niche than for the big scenes," explained Zimmermann in a DW interview in 2018. "We have to be choosy and can't just assume that everybody is interested in real music. If you go to the more business-oriented concert series and the big, well-financed festivals and give your best there, trying to do justice to the score and to your colleagues, sharing it with the audience only to get the impression that it doesn't matter because people are just there to show off their luxury items — that is deeply frustrating."
Zimmermann's musical communication may be stark and uncompromising, but her words are relatively low-key. "I've learned through music," she says. "The best thing would be to have children play quartets in all the conflict zones of this world. That's where you learn to stand up for your point of view, but when it comes to the crunch, put it in the service of a common idea."