Cellist Anna Litvinenko wins 'Start in Splendor' prize

9 June 2022

Alumna Anna Litvinenko (MM '20) is an American cellist. Before coming to The Hague, she completed her studies at the Juilliard School (New York) and Royal College of Music (London). We spoke with her about winning the Start in Splendor Prize which was originally awarded to her in 2019, however postponed until now due to the pandemic. The Start in Splendor Prize, part of the Dutch National Cello Competition, is awarded on behalf of the Cello Competition, the Amsterdam Cello Biënnale and Splendor Amsterdam. The concert series 'Playing with Words' with her trio 'Kaleo' was based on her Master Research project at the Royal Conservatoire and is indeed the redeeming of this Prize. The concerts take place this June 10 and 11 in Amsterdam.

You completed your master’s degree at the Royal Conservatoire in classical and baroque cello in 2020. Tell us, what was the first year after graduating like?
In the year after graduating, I knew I wanted to stay another year in the Netherlands to immerse myself in the Dutch music scene. With the pandemic still being very much present, it made it quite stressful and difficult to envision my future and what that would imply. I didn’t know whether to stay or leave, what would happen next since there was so much uncertainty. I didn’t go back to the USA since I didn’t know if boarders would close and I wouldn’t be able to come back to Europe. Around graduation I was contacted by a violinist, Emma Rhebergen, who was looking for a cellist for a piano trio, called the Chekhov trio. The past two years I’ve done a lot of chamber music with the traditional classical repertoire. I was also a fellow with Holland Baroque and I have done other chamber music performances in Poland and the UK. I’ve also been working with the Kalea trio, where we improvise, compose and create material together. We are all classically trained, although our music has influences of folk, experimental and contemporary music. I've used this period to prepare the show we are doing in Splendor with the Kalea Trio.

Your project with Kalea started out in London and you further researched this multidisciplinary project during your master research at the Royal Conservatoire called ‘Playing with Words’.
Can you tell us a bit about Kaleo and these concerts you are doing in Splendor?
This group came together when we were studying in London and I decided to use it for my master research at the Royal Conservatoire. It was my first time leading a project, which was quite difficult initially. I am used to having the role of following instructions in an orchestra or in large ensembles. With this trio I often proposed material of how I envisioned the songs. Since our trio plays partly improvised music based on poetry, I was trying to find a balance between leaving things open enough for them to feel free to add improvisational ideas and for me to have ideas to structure the songs. My initial directional role has transformed into each musician's input being equal to the other, which has been nice.

For the show in Splendor, Playing with Words, we are working together with UK artist Phoebe Pryor who is based in The Netherlands. Playing with Words was inspired on Julian Rosefeldt’s film "Manifesto". When I saw the movie I was sold on the concept. It was so cool how one actor (Kate Blanchet) played 13 different roles, and I wanted to do something like that with music, finding and capturing the characteristics of every poem. The show consists of re-imagining music through literature, original compositions, improvisation, and live drawing. Romanticism, Existentialism, Symbolism, Cubism, Futurism... just about every art and literature movement of the 19th and 20th centuries will pass by, while inspiration is drawn from the poetry and writings of J.W. Goethe, Søren Kierkegaard, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and W.H. Auden, among many others.

You have a double degree in classical and baroque music and you have a strong desire to have your own group where you can experiment, improvise and collaborate with other disciplines like poetry and visuals. When and where did this desire come from?
I started improvising when I was studying cello at Juilliard. We had these classes in a chamber music format where we would take a chamber music score and we would take a chord progression and they asked us questions like ‘what would happen if we kept playing this chord progression or stayed on this chord?’. It was just so much fun. We would create our own structure and chord progressions and kept creating variations on that. I always wanted to continue that and have a stable group. When our group came together in the kitchen of my London flat, I was so eager to continue with them. It’s a pity that the musicians live in different countries because I would love to rehearse every week. I love working with poetry. Poetry sparks the imagination; it helps you to go further musically and give structure to the partly improvised format we have. My baroque cello teacher in London eventually connected us with a poet, who wanted to work together with musicians.

Your trio and team exists of people living abroad, how do you manage to keep the creative flow going?
During the pandemic we have successfully come together, but at times it has been somewhat of a struggle with the vaccinations and covid tests. One of us lives in Portugal, another in England and I live here in The Hague, and this distance makes it more difficult for us to meet. In the second lock-down we took a scene from a movie and one person started recording their improvisation to this clip, sent it to the next person and recorded an improvisation on top of that and the next person in turn on top of that. When we wanted to rehearse with the drawer artist, the trio joint together in one screen and the drawer artist in another. She connected her iPad to the online screen and in that way, we could rehearse our performance.

What has your experience been to produce an autonomous project like the one with the Kalea Trio?
The problem with these projects is that there is not enough funding. It is often difficult to get paid, we want to do more things. We are not students anymore and we have to be very selective in what we decide to do. That’s why the Splendor Prize (Cello Biennale) was an amazing opportunity for our trio. The prize entails being given a space and a small budget. This project was supposed to happen two years ago, but because of the pandemic things kept being postponed. Unfortunately, we spent much of the budget on travel expenses and doing PCR tests but overall, we are just happy the concerts can finally go ahead. Something I kept in mind is when you start an ensemble, you don’t aim for profit.

It’s quite nice to have an association with Splendor and Cello Biennale. It’s an honour to play there and extremely exciting for us. I’m quite shy about these things, I don’t want to advertise like ‘oh I won a prize’. This prize is to show that you are an entrepreneur, and you learn how to curate your own show. With this project I learned so many things. I learned what is means to work with advertising, hiring people, emailing, making posters, etc. So many things I have never done, especially being used to work for organizations in orchestras and chamber music groups where they have different people who do that for you. Looking back, it’s been a good learning experience, now I know what it means to produce your own show, but it was exhausting as I didn’t have much time left to be creative and work on the music. It’s very time consuming too. It's scary to convince people to come to our show and that we are worth listening too, coming from a culture where you always strive for perfection. I think that classical musicians feel the pressure for everything to be perfect.

What are your future plans?
I think it can be scary to think too much ahead in the future. I have my piano trio here and we have been going quite well. I love working with them, I feel at home with them and I would like to continue with them for as long as possible. I do see myself in this area future wise, because of that. And because of the fact that I am able to work as a baroque musician, as a modern cellist ánd do my fun improv stuff. I don’t think my life is just my career at all, but it’s a really great place for me to be.

My plans for the coming year include touring with my classical trio along exciting places such as the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and Bozar in Brussels. I recently obtained a fellowship with the Dutch Bachvereniging, which I feel is a great opportunity for me as a musician. I’ve done a couple of projects with them this year, which has been just spectacular. I want to keep that going. I want to keep building my network and engage in interesting collaborations. I want to find improv stuff that is more local. To keep my work as varied as possible. I had my first jazz cello lesson the other day! I want to keep exploring and learning all that is possible.

More information on 'Playing with Words'
More information on Anna Litvinenko and the Kaleo Trio

The Start in Splendor Prize, part of the Dutch National Cello Competition, is awarded on behalf of the Cello Competition, the Amsterdam Cello Biënnale and Splendor Amsterdam. It is aimed at promising young cellists who – besides an exceptional ability on their instrument – show extraordinary programming talents. The strongest, most creative performance concept is awarded the Start in Splendor Prize: they are granted the means to realise and produce their unique concert programme in Splendor. Previous winners included Lidy Blijdorp (2016) and Kalle de Bie (2017).

This interview with Anna and interviews with other alumni are published on the Royal Conservatoire alumni portal.