An interview with Roman Simovic, LSO Leader and soloist

Roman Simovic has been Leader of the London Symphony Orchestra since 2010. Last December he took centre stage as soloist at the Barbican, performing the Violin Concerto by Hungarian-American composer Miklós Rózsa, and on Friday 17 June he performs it all over again at LSO St Luke's!

Hannah Fiddy spoke to Roman about the stress of being a musician, tips for managing a heavy workload, the music he listens to at home, and how being a soloist with the LSO compares with being Leader.

A quick-fire round of questions to start:

  • Non-musical hobbies? Running and photography
  • Top three composers? Schubert, Mahler and Prokofiev
  • What’s your guilty pleasure? Netflix 
  • Favourite season? Difficult to say!
  • Excluding your violin, what would be the one luxury possession you’d take to a desert island? My family!
  • If you weren’t a musician what would you be? A conductor

You’re playing Miklós Rózsa’s Violin Concerto on 17 June. Can you describe the piece for anyone who hasn’t heard it before?

It's like watching the movie Ben-Hur and the incredible music played when the doors of Rome are opened! It has a very rich and beautiful orchestration that’s very effective. It makes you feel like being in Hollywood in the 1960s. It’s probably also the most difficult concerto I've played ... I’m very grateful to Sir Simon Rattle for introducing this piece to me.

Roman Simovic on stage at the Barbican, conducted by Kirill Karabits

Roman Simovic performing Rozsa's Violin Concerto,
conducted by Kirill Karabits, 9 Dec 2021. © Mark Allan

Which have been your most memorable LSO concerts during your time with the Orchestra? Any unexpected moments?

Playing Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto in front of 15,000 people at the open-air concert in Trafalgar Square, without rehearsing it with maestro Gergiev beforehand. One of a few stressful moments! 

You’ve said that during the first year with the LSO you had times when you literally thought you’d die on stage because of the stress. Is that something that got easier after your first year or do you still get moments like that now? 

At the beginning the pressure was huge. I still feel it from time to time. Expectation to deliver, fear of failure. It never gets easier.

Any tips for how to manage this or is it something you’ve got used to and include as part of the process?

‘Mileage’ helps, playing on stage often. Proper preparation also helps. But I also believe that good musicians who are exposed so much need psychological support and physical therapy, like a good sports person, a chance to talk to somebody who can help and reassure, anything that helps fight this problem. I think every orchestra should employ a physiotherapist and a psychologist to help musicians. It's easy to take for granted that we musicians go and play Mahler 9 and the like ten times in a row and deliver every time, without understanding what it’s like being on stage.

What makes for a successful orchestra leader? What qualities are needed?

I ask myself this question a lot. Players in the world’s top orchestras are at the very highest level, so it's definitely not about teaching them how to play. Rather it's about uniting players, inspiring them, leading them towards the same goal, and transforming all of the conductor’s wishes into reality. For me it's not about banal things like writing bowings or whether it’s too loud or soft, and do we play something on the string or off the string. That is, for me, a very square bureaucratic approach.

How does that compare to the qualities needed to be a superb soloist?

I am trying to have a similar approach as a soloist. I think that the times when the famous Jascha Heifetz played as a soloist and didn't seem to care much about the orchestra have changed. Even the way recordings were made before was having one microphone close to the violin, and the orchestra was kind of in the background. I am trying to play chamber music, match colours with the musicians from the orchestra, listen and enjoy music-making. 

What’s it like performing as a soloist with the LSO compared with your usual role of leading the orchestra? How do you make that shift?

It’s probably more stressful to play as a soloist with beloved colleagues. But it's equally stressful if not more to play something like Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben as a leader. The responsibility is huge in both cases. But this is something I love doing and this orchestra made me a better musician!

You’ve previously said that being a musician, you’re never fully satisfied with your performance and you criticise yourself after every concert, sometimes too much. Is this something you’ve had to work on and manage, or do you think it just comes as part of the job? 

I believe that being totally satisfied will give you no chance to improve. Saying how good I am could be a problem. People often compliment me and say ‘you are amazing!’ but I know there's still huge work to be done. There is always room for more improvement.

There are weeks when you’re playing a different piece every day. How do you cope with learning and performing such a wide variety of repertoire and all at the highest possible playing standard? It must be very difficult to have an off-day …

It’s not easy. I concentrate on what comes next. If I think about the whole patch of work I start panicking, so I do piece by piece, movement by movement, and think of it as a part of my life. A healthy lifestyle helps a lot.

As a violinist, are there particular pieces and music by particular composers you love to play? How does this compare with the music you enjoy as a listener?

I love Russian repertoire a lot: Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Stravinsky ... But I also love German repertoire and American repertoire like Korngold, Barber, and now Rózsa. When I listen to music at home it's almost never classical music. It's jazz, bossa nova, Coldplay, Simply Red, Sting … anything good, but not classical.

And finally, can you tell us more about your wonderful violin?

I am a privileged person and a lucky man. For many years I have been playing a beautiful Stradivarius from the collection of the incredibly generous Jonathan Moulds. It's a dream of every violinist and I am one of very few people who are living that dream. 

LSO Leader Roman Simovic performs Rózsa's Violin Concerto on Friday 17 June at LSO St Luke's.

Friday 17 June 7pm
Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke's

Rózsa Violin Concerto

Sir Simon Rattle conductor
Roman Simovic violin
London Symphony Orchestra

Tickets: £15

£0.60 online booking fee

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