BERN, SWITZERLAND — Patricia Kopatchinskaja would rather be known for the passion and virtuosity of her violin playing than for the fact that she often performs barefoot — or that sometimes she hums along with the orchestras while accompanying them on stage.
“This speaks to the stiffness of classical music,” the 39-year-old Moldovan violinist said recently in Bern, where she makes her home. “People remember you because you came without shoes — they do not listen, they just look at your feet.”
Despite the fact that the classical music world has dubbed her the “wild child” of the violin — or, perhaps, because of it — she has been steadily been piling up concert gigs, recording contracts, and professional praise from many corners.
Part of her charm and charisma, say her colleagues and collaborators, is that there is an otherworldliness to her — not just in performance, where her face is as expressive as a stage actor’s, but also in the way she speaks. She often uses poetic turns of phrase to describe everything from how her daily morning run went to how she gets ready for a performance of Beethoven.
Ms. Kopatchinskaja has performed with some of Europe’s top orchestras, including the London Philharmonic. Her awards include a 2012 BBC Music Magazine award for her performance with the Orchestre des Champs Élysées, a 2013 Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award and a Grammy nomination in 2014 in the category of Best Classical Musical Instrumental with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra.
After performing this summer in London and at Austria’s Bregenzer Festspiele, she will spend the autumn in Europe touring with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, where she has been an artistic partner since 2014, and the Luxembourg Philharmonic. She will also be artist in residence at the Konzerthaus Berlin for the 2016/2017 season.
Kyu-Young Kim, the artistic director and principal violin of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, said a lot had been made of “this barefoot thing.” “There is a certain amount of rebellion, but it comes from a very sincere and deep place of trying to find new meaning in the works that have been played for centuries,” he said. “I think that is important for any artist.”
One side effect of her burgeoning career is that Ms. Kopatchinskaja is rarely at home in Bern, where she lives with her husband, Lukas Fierz, a retired neurologist, former Swiss politician and amateur cellist, and their 10-year-old daughter.
“I am in Australia one day, Italy the next,” she said during a recent, rare stroll through the Swiss capital with Dr. Fierz on a drizzly day. “So you are going from one day to the next to a completely different climate— which also affects my instrument. It’s unnatural.”
What is natural, however, is her talent, according to those who perform with her.
“Music is not something artificial that comes with education, but exists like a cell in the spirit’s body,” the Greek-Russian conductor Teodor Currentzis wrote in an email. “It either exists or not. Patricia is full of these musical cells.” The two have recorded together and are scheduled to go on tour next March.
“She is a force of nature,” said Thomas Morris, artistic director of the Ojai Music Festival in California, where Ms. Kopatchinskaja has been named music director for 2020. “She exudes energy — you feel it, you see it, you hear it. And she is a brave and forceful performer and does not shy away from what she believes, which I think is an asset.”
Ms. Kopatchinskaja was born in what was then the Soviet Union into a musical family: Her parents were both folk musicians with the Moldovan state folk ensemble. Her sister is a musician, too.
“So I had no choice,” she joked during a recent interview in her spacious and comfortable Bern apartment, where multiple cellos share space with Orthodox icon paintings and portraits.
“My mother studied classical violin. When she was pregnant with me she was studying the Mendelssohn concerto, so when I came into this world I was full of practicing Mendelssohn.”
To escape tough economic conditions in Moldova, the family emigrated to Vienna in 1989. On a few occasions, Ms. Kopatchinskaja said, she would play with her mother in restaurants to earn pocket money.
“I think being an immigrant is a very strong experience that does not ever come out of your nature,” she said, reflecting on her teenage years in Austria. “You know the dark side of life, so you appreciate so much light.”
At 17 she enrolled at the Vienna Academy of Music, where she studied violin and composed her own pieces, sometimes on the tram home from school. When she was 21 she won a scholarship to the Hochschule der Künste Bern, and in 2002 she won the Credit Suisse Young Artist Award. The prize helped catapult her to an international career, where she has made a reputation for being something of an experimenter even with a classical repertoire. “She can’t do something two times in a row because she just does not want to,” Mr. Kim of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra said. “She wants to find something new in the moment, which makes her a great improviser.”
This spirit is something that intrigues fellow artists, conductors, composers and collaborators. “I think it is an interesting sign that many of the world’s most interesting conductors and musicians want to work with her,” said Gillian Moore, the director of music for London’s Southbank Centre. “There is something about her that almost makes you think that she just has thought of the music herself — that she has just made it up and that is the most exciting thing she can do.”
Ms. Kopatchinskaja is also known for having unusual ideas when it comes to programming. In April she and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra did a mash-up of Heinrich Biber’s 1673 suite “Battalia” with George Crumb’s 1970 “Black Angels,” both musical expressions about war. A local critic wrote that “what could have been a jarring clash was instead an epiphany” and that it was an “engrossing musical meditation.”
Mr. Kim said he liked to give her room to push the boundaries. “She and I spoke several times on how to mix these movements and she asked me at one point, ‘Is this too crazy?,”’ he said. “I said we should go for it because it was crazy, but that was sort of the point to it.”
Ms. Kopatchinskaja seems to enjoy pushing them, too. “This is the great power that music has,” she said. “It opens our sense for something that we cannot verbalize. Music uses another vocabulary. It has direct connection to your emotions.”