photo: Bogdan Iordache/ Cultura la dubă
20 years ago, the great German conductor Kurt Masur, while he was the musical director of the French National Orchestra, was naming as head of the orchestra a young lady violinist, of only 21 years old.
Sarah Nemțanu thus became the youngest concert master in the history of the National French Orchestra, a position she still occupies today.
100% French on paper, Sarah bears a Romanian name – Nemțanu – and has a Romanian-beating heart especially when she visits Romania.
“The first time I came to Romania and I heard people speaking Romanian, I thought everyone was my cousin. (laughing) It was like all the family was there, that was my feeling. I felt home.”
Her story is not only one of an accomplished musician, who has conquered the world’s greatest stages, but also a testimony of a universal Europe, in which millions of families break, in need, from their homes and grow roots in other places, that adopt them and give them wings.
Vladimir Nemțanu, born in Bucharest into a Jewish family, was a concert master in the George Enescu Philharmonic, and his wife had just graduated from canto at the Conservatory when they decided to flee communist Romania, that was under Nicolae Ceaușescu’s dictatorship.
They took advantage of The Most Favored Nation Clause, through which Ceaușescu allowed Romanian Jews to emigrate to Israel and The United States of America, and left for Israel themselves.
After a few months spent there, the two young Romanians were getting a chance in France. He got the position of concert master of the Bordeaux National Orchestra and she was hired at the Bordeaux Opera.
“When they got to France, they started a new life. They had nothing, they lived in a hotel for a while, until they rented an apartment. It really was starting from 0.
There were a few Romanians in the Bordeaux orchestra, there already was a cultural connection between Romania and France. And in the ’70’s, a lot of regional orchestras appeared. There were not so many French musicians, so they were completed by Romanian musicians.
Even to this day, the Romanian musicians communities in European orchestras are impressive. But especially in France, because there is this cultural friendship, there have been so many extraordinary Romanian artists who created in France, such as Ionesco, Enescu, Brâncuși.”
“It is the Latin side that binds Romania to France, our atoms intertwine.”
A year and a half after settling in Bordeaux, Sarah was born into the Nemțanu family.
“I’m the oldest of three children and first learned to speak Romanian at home. Then, when I went to school, French became my first language.
But I would say that until about the age of 12, at home I would speak Romanian. Especially when my grandparents were visiting, about a month every year, we would only speak Romanian. Also, my parents’ entourage was formed exclusively of Romanians.”
Although she was fairly young, Sarah vividly recalls her first visit to Romania.
“I went to Romania with my mother and sister when I was six, I have memories, but they are not nice. It was around 1987, my mother already had a French passport, but she was afraid that they wouldn’t let her get back to France, at the airport.
My memory is of my mother crying in panic. She was questioned: why are you married to a Jew? Why are you living in France and not here? I remember all the questions, it was something very violent for me.
Then, I remember it being cold, winter, a lot of snow. The only pleasant memory is riding the sleigh with my grandfather in Bucharest. That was cool!”
She pronounces the word “sleigh” (săniuță) perfectly in Romanian. More so, even though when we started the interview she said that she will be speaking French, because she does not manage speaking Romanian so well, Sarah mostly answers in the language that her parents taught her when she was a child.
As a child, information about Romania was vague, as it would have been for any other child to understand why her parents had to flee their own country.
“I have this memory of being in the car when Ceaușescu was executed, my mother stopped, turned up the volume and stood still. I knew that they had fled Romania because it was not good, but I didn’t understand why.
On the other hand, I was aware that they were happy in France, with a double culture, that they passed on to us, their children.”
Sarah and Deborah, her sister, took on their father’s passion for violin, while their brother became a jurist.
While Sarah leads the National French Orchestra, as a prime violinist, Deborah Nemțanu is, as well, concert master of the National Chamber Orchestra in Paris.
“I implored my father to teach me violin. He was very passionate, he would study a lot, and when we heard him play, we would run to him.
To me, the violin is like a voice. I’m trying to say something through music, through a universal language, without precise words. And people understand what it wants.
I can’t remember wanting to do anything else.
“The most wonderful thing that our father passed on was to be independent, self-critics, knowing on our own whether what we’re doing is right or not, listen to ourselves, without anyone else telling us that we were off-key.”
From 16, Sarah moved by herself in Paris, where she graduated from the Conservatory. And recently she was made a violin teacher at the prestigious school. She enjoys teaching the youth and says that she got this gift and this joy from her father.
She was also a violin teacher for Melanie Laurent, the actress, for the film Le Concert, directed by Radu Mihăileanu.
Sarah Nemțanu is the one playing the music in the film – Tchaikovsky’s concert for violin and orchestra – and had enormous success, along with the film. Le Monde were saying at the time: “Sarah Nemțanu, the true violinist from The Concert”.
“Radu is very precise, he knows exactly what he wants and what I loved was that he made the entire final scene of the film on the timed rhythm of Tchaikovsky’s concert, he first played the music and built the script based on the musicality of the work.
I had never seen that. Usually, in films, they add the music after the shoot.”
As a head of orchestra, she works directly with Christian Măcelaru, the Romanian musical director of the French National Orchestra. He believes her to be one of the finest violinists of the world, who could easily transition to a solo carrier.
But Sarah loves working in an orchestra and can not see herself doing anything else.
“I knew that I wanted to be a concert master. In my mind, I could’t see myself playing alone. My father was a concert master. When I finished school, I loved going to rehearsals when I knew that the orchestra was also there.
My life philosophy is that we all form a chain in which each is a link, we are very different, but only together we can form this chain.
When we will accept that each has his own personality, then everything will be alright. The main priority is the common good, that of the orchestra.
And I love the orchestra, I love the orchestra repertoire, and it shows and my colleagues see it.
I am both head of the orchestra, and part of it, I’m a crossroad that creates connections and this is owed mainly to my education.”
I ask her how many Romanians there are at the moment in the French National Orchestra and she effortlessly answers:
“- Oana, Teodor, Eduard, so 1,2,3,4.
– 4, counting me.
– Do you count yourself?
– Of course. (laughs)”
With a Romanian conductor at the helm and a Romanian-born concert master, the French National Orchestra took on an important project, dedicated to the great Romanian composer George Enescu.
The entire work of Enescu will be recorded during the next 10 years at the prestigious record label Deutsche Grammophon.
“In Enescu’s music you can find images from his childhood, birds singing, a violinist playing on the street.
I believe that George Enescu wrote so that he would never forget his memories and did it in the smallest details regarding folklore.
It is, obviously, also classical composing, savant music. But in his music there is always this transparent veil of folklore, which he managed to integrate.
Romania is making all these great efforts to be a European country in all aspects and I believe that the artists are te first that succeed, artists are the first creating connections between countries. Enescu did this perfectly.
In his music there is a lot of freedom, but it is in a special frame, a deeply personal one. This is truly special at Enescu. And that is how I see freedom. We are free on this Earth, but we are also limited on this planet.”
Last year, Sarah Nemțanu opened the International George Enescu Festival, along with the George Enescu Philharmonic, which her father had led, 44 years prior, as a concert master.
And as of this year, Cristian Măcaleru took the helms of the festival as the artistic director. They both wish for a refreshing of the event, but also more attention to young Romanian musicians.
“The Enescu festival is truly impressive. What I find to be a shame is that there is but one such festival in Romania.”
“All the funding goes to one place. I wouldn’t see a single event once every two years and then nothing. And, as we mentioned the youth, if there were larger investments in the system, I would like to see professors from all over Europe teaching in Romania.
Sure, there is the Enescu Contest, but the stakes there are a prize. Who is helping the young artists for the rest of the year, who is teaching them?
At the Enescu Festival I’ve met wonderful young people, volunteers, staff. The youth want to learn, they are fascinated by the European educational system.
Unfortunately, there are many leaving. The best of the youth are leaving Romania.
Here is where I believe that the Enescu Festival with Cristian Măcelaru as an artistic director will bring changes.
It is an enormous hope. It is something I feel.”
Sarah lives in one of the most bohemian neighborhoods in Paris – Montmartre. She walks daily, on her way home, on the wavy streets that were once walked by the great European artists – Monet, Manet, Renoir, Picasso or Van Gogh, and is at home in the vivid atmosphere of the place filled with tourists, right next to the Sacre Coeur Cathedral.
She is the mother of two, a wife and an artist who enjoys live through everything she does. She loves cooking, jogging with her husband and traveling. She lives a typical Parisian life, but equally loves each of her trips to Romania, which she sees as a fundamental part of her identity.
“I’ve went to Romania each of the last 6 years and every time I felt like home. It is something that cannot be explained, can only be felt.
I feel like home, I even took Georges there, my son.
Romania is at a European crossroad, it is a unique country through the fact that it is Latin in the east, and this gives it a special identity and in the same time it is a country of adaptability.
That is why I think many artists leave the country and are very evolved culturally.
And if we were to mention musical particularities, I think that the Romanian style has a certain elegance, something that my father absorbed and passed on.”
Sarah Nemțanu is the result of a family of Romanian migrants in France, in the same way as thousands of children are born in Romanian families overseas, and take on different paths than what their lives would have been, would their parents have stayed in Romania.
Art, in this case, has fundamentally contributed to the conservation of a cultural identity that Romanians carried along in their adoptive countries.
In a world where foul history repeats itself and millions of families are forced to flee from war or dictatorial regimes, Sarah is a believer in the good in everyone, and the power to bring a little light around us, be it through art, or through simple gestures.
“I believe that when you do good and are positive, there is an effect around you. For example, I have some friends that are constantly complaining about Paris taxi drivers, that they’re bad, this and that. I often take a taxi after concerts and I only meet wonderful taxi drivers, really nice.
Once I had a taxi driver that had came to see me at a concert. He was 50 years old and he listened to classical music on the radio, he had just enrolled in music school, to learn an instrument. I invited him to a concert, he came, waited for me at the end and cried.
To me, this is real life. If you do good, keep a positive attitude and don’t let all the negativity in the world influence you, than everything will be better.
***This story is part of the “France Week” series, a Cultura la Dubă project supported by BNP Paribas.