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Violinist.com Interview with Rachel Barton Pine: the Complete Mozart Concertos

By Laurie Niles
January 29, 2015 20:54

Did you know that it takes longer to perform all five of Mozart's violin concertos in a row, than it does to play all 24 of Paganini's Caprices?

Chicago-based violinist Rachel Barton Pine, who just released a recording of the complete Mozart Concertos, should know; she's performed both cycles, in live-concert marathon form. Of course, for most of us humans, either task would be daunting. For Rachel, she's willing to take such challenges, even when piled onto other challenges, like having a newborn.

"I was invited to do a concert with all five Mozart concertos in a single evening, in October of 2011 -- before I found out that I was going to have a baby in September of 2011!" Rachel said. "So that first concert of five Mozart concertos ended up being three weeks after I gave birth, which is a little extreme. I thought, 'Couldn't I have done something easy for my first concert back, like the Brahms Concerto?' Of course, that's a joke, the Brahms isn't easy. But compared to all five Mozarts, come on!"

Rachel Barton Pine

Rachel has been in love with the Mozart concertos since she was six, when she heard another student play the first movement of Mozart's Concerto No. 3 in G. At the time, she had never heard the music of Mozart performed live.

"That made a huge impression," Rachel said. "I thought this was the most beautiful music, and so happy. Actually, to this day, No. 3 remains my favorite, which I don't think is completely attributable to its having been my first impression. I think it's also because G major is such a friendly key. I admire the A major most of all, and probably 100 percent of people would agree. It's fabulous; it's so satisfying. But the G major just feels like my good friend. There's something comforting about it, and it makes me happy to play it."

The first Mozart concerto that Rachel actually studied was the fourth, in D major, and that was also the first one she performed publicly, at age 10.

"By that point, I had seen the Amadeus movie and had also seen a number of Mozart's operas on Live from The Met, which was one of the few (television shows) my parents would let us stay up late for," Rachel said. "The Amadeus movie is not necessarily historically factual, but I think they did capture the essence of Mozart's personality: his hyperactive persona -- the way he'd be bouncing down the streets with music playing in his head -- and also the drama that he brought to the opera, which was so well-captured by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and the other musicians in that movie."

Speaking of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and conductor Neville Marriner -- this is the very group with which Rachel recorded her recent release, which includes Violin Concertos 1-5 and the Sinfonia Concertante, with violist Matthew Lipman.

"It was such a great honor to work with Sir Neville Marriner, who has been one of my musical heroes for most of my life," Rachel said. "It was amazing, at age 89, that he has so much energy for the recording sessions. I'd be going back to my hotel to collapse at the end of the day, and he'd be running off to Cambridge to give a lecture, assuring me, 'Don't worry, I'll catch the train and be back in London by the time of our next session in the morning!' It was so inspiring, his suggestions and his commitment to this music. And of course, the orchestra was absolutely great."

Playing Mozart requires a bit of that drama brought out in Amadeus, but also a light touch. It can be a real challenge.

"Now that we've lived past the Classical era, into the Romantic era and beyond, the problem when we approach Classical music is that we want to get rid of a certain thickness and heaviness that we cultivate for later repertoire," Rachel said. "By doing so, Mozart becomes light, but it also can become a bit saccharine, a bit too pleasant. In fact, there's incredible drama and power and vibrancy in Mozart's concertos. Yet when you bring that intensity back, then the thickness returns. So how do you get that intensity without sounding like you're in the Romantic era? That is the challenge for students, and that's what that movie captured so well: this dramatic side of Mozart. If you watch Mozart's operas, you realize that he was, at heart, an opera composer. You can hear that in his concertos. You can almost sense the plots going on: the little moments of dialogue, little mood changes on a dime. He'll have two measures of being playful, then one measure of angst and then another measure of cuteness, then another measure of vivaciousness and then a little moment of calm and then the vivaciousness comes back -- continually mixing it up. To bring all of that out in a dramatic way, really brings this music to life. You can hear a plot happening: a flirtation scene, then the scene where the girl is upset because the guy was spotted with another girl, and then it turns out it was just his best friend in costume, so they get back together and it's okay again. You can hear all these things happening!"

Mozart did not leave any written cadenzas for his violin concertos, and though many violinists use various cadenzas written by violinists from the late 19th or early 20th centuries, Rachel wrote all of her own. (You can find the music for her Mozart Concertos 1-4 cadenzas in The Rachel Barton Pine Collection, along with cadenzas she wrote for the Beethoven, Brahms, and Paganini concertos.)

Rachel wrote most of her cadenzas for Mozart's concertos when she was a teenager, starting with Concerto No. 2, and she completed the last one more recently. She wrote the cadenzas for Concerto No. 1 "right after my daughter was born, so I had a little baby in the basket listening as I was improvising around," she said. "They say Mozart is good for children; she certainly got a healthy dose of it at the very start of her life!"

She feels that her cadenzas for Concerto No. 3 are her most adventurous, though "I didn't get harmonically too far afield; I didn't use any types of chords or chordal patterns that would have been obviously later than the Classical period. But I did push the envelope a little bit with some of the technical devices. Not that some of those things weren't already being done; if you look at Locatelli's Caprices from 1737, he was already using 10ths and all kinds of crazy stuff. So including a few 10ths in a Mozart cadenza -- it's not like adding a Paganini technique that wasn't being done yet. On the other hand, it's pretty certain that Mozart himself wouldn't have done it. If you want to be really strict, within the boundaries of what Mozart would have done, then you're going to do something more like the cadenzas that Robert Levin has published, the really stylistically correct versions. But I wanted to find a balance between something that would feel like it blends with a relatively historically informed approach to Mozart's music, but also true to my personality, because it's a statement about my feelings about Mozart, and who I am as an artist playing Mozart. It's a chance to bring some of my personality into the mix, without sounding like it's oil and water. It's not like the Schnittke cadenza to the Beethoven concerto, where now we've stopped playing Beethoven and we play Schnittke, then we go back to playing Beethoven -- I've never been quite convinced by that approach."

That said, Mozart was more modern than people sometimes know. For example, in Concerto No. 3, "it's this very pastoral concerto, then the last movement is a sort of tune that you might find in a tavern, with these fiddly variations," she said. "A few years ago I performed No. 3 in Vermont, at a festival, and afterwards the reviewer took issue with my having added some modern touches to the last movement, with various chromatic variations and left-hand pizzicato. I had to restrain myself from sending the guy the manuscript of Mozart's concerto, showing how Mozart himself had indicated the chromatic variation and the left-hand pizzicato! The take-away for me: Isn't it marvelous that this concerto, written at the end of the 1700's, still sounded so fresh and contemporary to this reviewer's ears, that he thought that something must be from our time? It's a great statement about Mozart; his music is not dusty and outdated."

Speaking of the manuscript, there are a lot of editions of the Mozart Violin Concertos out there, and it's quite useful to look at the manuscript and urtext editions (versions that follow the manuscript strictly, with no added markings from an editor) when studying these pieces.

"I made the shift to unedited editions at the age of 14, and I never looked back," Rachel said. "I definitely collect edited editions -- because it's like having a masterclass with the guy who edited it. Most of the time, that guy is dead; sometimes that guy is so long-dead that he -- and I say "he" because when was the last time you saw an edition edited by a female? Especially an historic one. A lot of times he is so long-dead that he never recorded it. Or maybe it's a professor-type, like Galamian, who didn't make a recording. So those editions are very useful for us to compare to the unedited version and see what various people's ideas were."

"But having a blank slate over which to make your decisions is absolutely critical," she said. Mozart left few bowings or dynamic markings in his violin scores, though he included more in the orchestra part, which makes it important to look at the score as a whole. "A student, especially in high school, should not be studying a concerto without owning and studying a copy of the mini-score; that would be like learning a play by reading only your lines and never seeing anybody else's lines. Or seeing a movie of the play but never actually looking at the text of the entire script. And by the mini-score, I mean an unedited version. And you can get a good urtext edition of the mini-score without breaking the bank. What you don't want to do is go online and get some random version that you don't know how scholarly it is, it might be edited, it might be unedited, it's free so you think you're getting a bargain, but that's no bargain if you don't really know if you're even getting the right notes."

Back when Mozart was writing his concerti, there were no conductors, as there are today.

"Mozart assumed that whoever was playing the violin solo part would have been leading the orchestra," Rachel said. "Therefore, the violin soloist would have been studying the score just as much as a conductor would, and the violin soloist would have been absolutely aware of all of the dynamic markings in the orchestra parts. The soloist would make decisions about interesting dynamics to do in their solo part, with the orchestra dynamics as a jumping off point."

And to get a bit technical, edited versions sometimes write appoggiaturas as straight eighth notes. "It makes you inflect them differently, if you know that it's an appoggiatura and a quarter note, as opposed to two even eighths," Rachel said. "Why didn't Mozart just write two even eighths? Well the reason is that he wanted you to know that there's a certain special emphasis on the appoggiatura note."

There's another problem with using an edited version: not knowing which was Mozart's idea, and which was the editor's. "If Mozart himself wrote a dynamic, you should make every effort to try to make it work for you, before discarding it. However, if it's an editor's idea, then you can take it with a healthy grain of salt and experiment with other options and maybe use it and maybe not and not feel guilty about it you decide not to use it."

What about the idea that Mozart simply didn't have time to write down all his markings? After all, some of his bowings are quite awkward. Rachel said she had an epiphany about Mozart's bowings, after she acquired a replica of a classical-era bow, back in 1993, using her prize money from the Queen Elisabeth International Competition. "It really revolutionized my understanding of a lot of these markings," she said. "Up until then, I thought, maybe Mozart didn't actually put everything down exactly as he would have played it himself. But when you start playing it with (a classical-era) bow, you realize very quickly that it doesn't have just one bounce point, like our modern bows -- slightly below the middle, more or less. Instead, it also bounces equally as well in the upper half -- you bounce in the upper half, you bounce down in the lower half, and you can do exactly what's on the page. It's just so springy."

Even though she uses a modern bow to play Mozart on her modern violin, "having experienced the earlier type of bow, now I do what I can to replicate some of that. Basically I can do most of Mozart's bowings, but the bow distribution is going to be different than what I would do with the real thing," she said.

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Jennifer Koh Concludes Her Six-Year Bach and Beyond Series

By Laurie Niles
January 28, 2015 07:48

Why is Bach still relevant today?

This has been the subject of a six-year project for Grammy-nominated violinist Jennifer Koh, called Bach and Beyond, initially inspired by Bach's 325th birthday in 2010. The project took the form of a three-part series of recital programs that Jennifer devised, exploring the history of the solo violin repertoire by pairing Bach’s Six Sonatas and Partitas with related modern-day works and new commissions.

This weekend she celebrates the third and final installment of this series with a concert at 8 p.m. Saturday at 92Y in New York. She will take the recital program on the road, with "Bach and Beyond, Part III" recitals this spring at Oberlin College, at Strathmore Hall in North Bethesda, for the University Musical Society in Ann Arbor, for Cal Performances at UC Berkeley, and at the Athanaeum Music and Arts Library in La Jolla.

Jennifer Koh
Photo by Jeurgen Frank

"My initial hope for this project was to create programs that highlighted the rich possibilities for solo violin recitals," Jennifer said, "My personal goal was to make programs that create a historical journey that illustrates Bach's influence over repertoire written for solo violin and to expand that repertoire through new commissions."

The new commission for Saturday is the world premiere of John Harbison's "For Violin Alone," co-commissioned by 92Y. "I think there is definitely influence of Bach’s Partita form, as there are dance movements which are inspired by an array of American influences like folk and blues," Jennifer said of the new work. The program also includes Bach's Sonatas No. 2 and 3, and Berio's Sequenza VIII.

Importantly, Jennifer's "Bach and Beyond" project has been the inspiration and showcase for some wonderful new music and music-related projects, featuring the following world premieres over the last six years:

  • Tal Rosner (video artist)
    • Ligeti Synergy: Video art collaboration with Ligeti’s Violin Concerto, Poeme Symphonique, and Le Grande Macabre using motion capture with Tal Rosner, video artist (2016)
    • Violin/video collaboration project of Salonen’s lachen verlernt as part of Bach & Beyond Part 1 (Oct. 2009)
  • Kaija Saariaho
    • Recording of Frises for violin and electronics on Bach & Beyond Part Two (Spring 2015)
  • John Harbison
    • For Violin Alone as part of Bach & Beyond Part 3 at 92nd Street Y (Jan. 2015)
  • Phil Kline
    • Dead Reckoning: Partita for solo violin as part of Bach & Beyond Part 2 (Nov. 2012)
  • Missy Mazzoli
    • Recording of Dissolve, O my Heart for violin on Bach & Beyond Part 1 (Oct. 2012)
  • John Zorn
    • Passagen for solo violin at Miller Theatre (Dec. 2011) -- performing in Bach and Beyond Part Three

"I think my relationship with Bach is constantly evolving, and I am grateful to the new works from all the composers," Jennifer said. "I was incredibly happy to see how each composer took singular aspects of Bach and then made those works completely their own. It is inspiring to realize that everyone has truly individual responses to Bach’s music, whether it be composers, listeners or players. It’s a great testament to the depth in Bach’s music, but maybe even more importantly, it’s a testament to the evolution and relevancy of music."

* * *
Jennifer Koh plays Chaconne from Bach, Partita No. 2 in D minor

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How do you get to Symphony Hall? Practice Your Viola!

By Karen Allendoerfer
January 27, 2015 19:44

I had been meaning to blog for a while and not doing it, but I have a good excuse: too busy practicing.

I last blogged about being accepted to the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Onstage at Symphony program, which may start tomorrow, or may not, depending on the weather conditions. Blizzard Juno hit the Boston area early this morning, and delivered quite a bit of snow. This cardinal took refuge from the storm in a pine tree right outside my window:
From violinist.com blog

Back in Western New York where I grew up, though, I don’t think we would have called this a blizzard, let alone had two snow days. (Yes, in my day, I really did walk to school uphill both ways in the snow carrying a heavy VSO. Ha!) By tomorrow night, even Boston should be dug out enough to find Symphony Hall.

So, it’s the night before the first rehearsal, and frankly, I’m nervous. I applied to the program for both violin and viola, thinking I’d have a better chance with two instruments to choose from. It was a good strategy, apparently, but that means I’ve spent the past 7-8 weeks learning difficult music on my 2nd instrument and getting reacquainted with alto clef. Back in December it seemed like I had a lot of time, too. The concert wasn’t until next year! And there was even winter break in which to practice.

From violinist.com blog

So I brought my fresh, shiny, smooth music (Marked “Boston Symphony Orchestra”) along to my lessons. I have a separate viola teacher now, because my violin teacher retired from playing the viola a year or so ago, but she also thought this was a cool experience and wanted to hear all about it. Both teachers recommended that I not only listen to the piece and follow along with my part, but that I get a score and follow along with that.

From violinist.com blog

I don’t know why I had been so resistant to the idea of reading a score previously. Maybe I was just afraid of all that paper. Or all those clefs. But once I got into it, I couldn’t stop. I read the score in bed. I read it while exercising on the elliptical. I read it on my ski vacation. It’s like a cheat sheet for when the conductor asks you, annoyingly (and annoyed), after stopping for the 3rd time in rehearsal, “so, violins, who are you playing with during that passage?”

I’m sure reading the score is helpful for violins too, but it seems especially helpful for violas.

Sometimes we’re with the violins.

From violinist.com blog

Sometimes we’re with the horns.
From violinist.com blog

Sometimes we’re just by ourselves, but it’s still helpful to know what everyone else is playing so you know not to come in with them and make a fool of yourself.

From violinist.com blog

Sometimes your ear fools you, especially if you’re also a violinist and used to listening to violin parts. Violas don’t always play the highest note at the highest point of the phrase.

From violinist.com blog

I may not get every note. I may still have some occasional violin moments with the clef, but now I always know where I am in the piece. Learning the score, even a little bit, is the best insurance I’ve found against getting lost. Echoing the good advice from other violinist.com bloggers: do what your teacher says.

For a while I got into a little practice routine. My regular orchestra started up again at the beginning of January, and out came the violin. On days I wasn’t teaching, I would practice the viola in the morning when I had more time, then put it away for half a day and take the violin out in the evening. Every day, the switching. In the morning: this thing is so huge. It’s clunky and I have to stretch my fingers. This bow is heavy. In the evening: this is a toy. It’s so tiny and the bow is so bouncy. Next morning: this thing is huge and clunky. Evening: tiny and bouncy. Morning: huge and clunky. Now I remember why I stopped trying to play both instruments at the same time. Not much longer now. The viola concert will be over soon.

I confessed my nerves to my viola teacher earlier in the week at my lesson, rescheduled just ahead of the storm. I dithered about even going to the lesson at all. Shouldn’t I just stay home and keep woodshedding the parts? But maybe he’ll see something I wouldn’t have thought of. I should go. I went.

And I’m glad. While I have some pre-rehearsal jitters, I feel okay. I know I’m not going to drown. My teacher was reassuring and kind. At the lesson we did indeed work on some things I never would have thought of on my own. He gave me some bow hand exercises to increase finger flexibility and recommended using more finger/wrist and less arm in some troublesome passages. Even my first fumbling attempts at that in the lesson resulted in a clearer and more focused sound in those passages. We also worked on my longer-term project: relaxing my vibrato and making it more continuous.

Now, on the eve of the first rehearsal, what I’ve decided to do is to play through the whole program a few times to build endurance. Sometimes I can spend so much effort breaking a piece down into its component parts that I don’t realize until the dress rehearsal, or even the concert, just how looooo-ooong the program really is, and I get tired just sitting there and daunted by how much is still remaining. None of these pieces is particularly bad. At 17:00 exactly, my recording of the Liszt is the longest of the four. But I still find that it’s helpful to know what to expect in terms of length, and to make sure to build in relaxation accordingly.

And you know what, sometimes it’s just great to be playing the viola part. Have fun, violinists!

From violinist.com blog

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Music and Your Brain

By Laurie Niles
January 27, 2015 16:08

A childhood rich in language and music education wires a person's brain better to perceive the meaning in sounds -- and it's a clarity that lasts a lifetime. But when deprived of meaningful sound in childhood, a person perceives static around sounds and is less able to render meaning from them.

This was one of the fascinating points brought up by professor and researcher Nina Kraus, who is Principal Investigator at Northwestern University's Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory in Evanston, Ill. She was speaking a forum called "Music and Your Brain – the Science of Change," at the KPCC Crawford Family Forum, a public radio event in Pasadena, Calif. (You can watch the whole program here.) She was joined by Suzanne Ginden, founder of the Boyle Heights Community Youth Orchestra in Los Angeles; Kristen Madsen, Senior Vice President of the GRAMMY Foundation and Musicares; and moderator Mary Plummer, Arts Education Reporter for KPCC.

A person's childhood exposure to meaningful sound appears literally to wire his or her nerves for sound perception, Kraus said.

L-R: Mary Plummer, Nina Kraus, Kristen Madsen and Suzanne Ginden

"With unprecedented precision, we can measure how the neural system responds to sound," Kraus said. Using electrodes, researchers have measured neural responses to language among two groups of children: those whose mothers had a high level of education, and those whose mothers had less education.

"Children of moms with more education heard more words and more complex language," Kraus said. "Kids who had moms with less education had more neural noise -- the neural response to noise was less precise."

Kraus played two recordings, representing how each of those two groups heard language: in one recording, the language came through clearly; in the other, the language was embedded in static and more difficult to discern.

If every time you hear a sound, you process it in a different way, then it's hard to get any consistent meaning from that sound and the result is a fuzziness in perception. That "fuzz" has profound implications for a child's future ability to learn from a teacher in a classroom setting and even to learn to read.

How can a child who starts out with that kind of a disadvantage turn things around? One possibility might be music education.

"It turns out that musical experience -- the activity of making music -- changes how the brain processes sound," Kraus said. And those ingredients in sound processing track with language and reading development. "The learning of music might translate to becoming a better communicator," she said.

But to have any effect, one needs to actively play or sing music, and over an extended period of time.

In studying children in music programs, "we didn't see any measurable changes after one year of music-making," she said, but after two years of music-making, they were able to measure fundamental biological changes in auditory learning.

"Biologically, we are what we do," Kraus said. "It's the repetition, the constant reinforcement of neural circuits that shape us." (Hey does that sound familiar? 10,000 times?)

Research found that children who can match drumbeats have better language potential than those who could not. "There's a lot of rhythm in language," Kraus said. "The simple ability to track to a beat, tracks with language development." It is possible to see, measuring the brainwaves of a two-year-old child, if that child can track the rhythm of sound, and if not, that child may be at risk for language problems in the future.

Learning rhythms doesn't require a lot of training, but the skill can get stronger with practice and instruction.

Given that music education is scientifically proven to boost a child's brain development in myriad ways; it would make sense for communities to devote enormous resources to ensuring the success of music programs, in all schools. Sadly, it isn't so. Music education programs, at least in the United States, tend to be piecemeal, poorly funded, rarely supported for more than a few seasons, and always positioned directly under the budget-cut ax.

But music teachers keep trying.

Music teacher Suzanne Gindin described the program that she founded two and a half years ago in one of Los Angeles' poorest neighborhoods: the Boyle Heights Community Youth Orchestra. Based on an El Sistema model, the program provides music instruction and instrument loans, free of charge, to children aged six to 14. About 65 kids signed up for the program in the beginning; that number later dropped to about 25. After the initial enthusiasm of signing up, kids and parents discovered that "it's hard to play an instrument," Ginden said.

Boyle Heights Community Youth Orchestra student, Daisy, plays a solo

The people who stuck with it tended to have parental support, or they lived close by. "Those who are sticking with it, see real results," she said. Not only are those children getting proficient on their instruments, but their parents also report improvements in math grades, reading skills and sociability.

Kristen Madsen, of the GRAMMY Foundation, said that oftentimes for local music programs, "The threshold of making a difference financially is small." Combine a reasonable-sized grant with a dedicated teacher, and a lot can happen. An overwhelming majority of Americans believe that music should be a regular part of educational curriculum, "and yet, it gets marginalize," Madsen said.

Because music and the arts have been marginalized in education for so long, "a whole generation of teachers is not versed in teaching the arts," moderator Mary Plummer said.

Imagine, if a music curriculum (or any curriculum, for that matter) could be developed, based on the groundbreaking information that scientists like Kraus know about brain development, instead of based on politics and marketing. Imagine if the teachers and the programs at a school weren't pitted against each other in a zero-sum fight for time and resources, but viewed as combined disciplines.

"What if our school curriculum was based on her science?" Ginden said, gesturing to Kraus. One could create symbiotic lesson plans that matched a child's language and math development to the child's musical development. For example, a music teacher could be teaching kids to track a beat in preparation for the reading teacher to introduce various concepts in phonics.

One audience member was a teacher at a charter school with no music education. Her only option so far had been to have the kids sing to computers, which wasn't exactly active music-making. She asked the panel how she, a non-musician, could add some music to her classroom. Ginden, who has had experience teaching music curriculum to non-music teachers, suggested starting a recorder program, which is relatively inexpensive and allows kids to learn to play an instrument and possibly even do some music reading. Also, "Sing songs about everything you do," like from putting away papers, etc. She also pointed her to LessonPlans.com and also the Little Kids Rock program.

Boyle Heights kids
Students from the Boyle Heights Community Youth Orchestra, Suzanne Ginden, director

In conclusion, we heard a lovely concert from 12 of Ginden's students, who had waited patiently and silently through the talk, then played with with steady confidence and competence, sang a song in Spanish, and answered questions from the moderator in English. From my vantage, both their musical and language skills were well on their way.

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