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Violinist.com members may keep personal journals on the website. Violinist.com's editor selects the best entries for the column below. Links to all other recent blog posts may be found in the column on the right.

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Violinist Philippe Quint Interviews New Yorkers about Classical Music

By Laurie Niles
November 24, 2015 09:52

In September, violinist Philippe Quint conducted an experiment. He took a microphone out on the streets of New York City and asked about 30 random young people what they thought about classical music.

Philippe Quint interviewing

The results were rather sobering.

His first question was, simply, "What music do you listen to?"

"Out of approximately 30 people interviewed, not one person mentioned classical music as their choice," Quint said. Some of the answers included: hip-hop, rock, house music, dubstep, rap, alternative, R and B, jazz fusion, electronic music, pop, metal, trap music, Bollywood music....

When asked if they were familiar with classical music, many were not familiar with it at all, and some had never heard of the names Beethoven, Mozart or Bach.

"In our generation people don't really listen to (classical music) because I don't know where they would go to hear it," one young woman said. "If somebody gave me a ticket to a classical music concert I'd definitely go, but it's not something I'd think to buy for myself."

Another mentioned that "You turn on the radio, and that's not what's going to come on, you have to really search for the station that is playing it."

The upshot? We have a long way to go, to promote classical music.

"Even though we have folks who are tireless supporters for arts and education, I feel that many, many more must join forces to prevent complete extinction of classical music," Quint said. "Chances are that the kids of those kids I interviewed won't even know that classical music ever existed. That IS scary."

Here is Quint's video, "Violinist interviews New Yorkers about Classical Music":

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Violinist and conductor Joseph Silverstein, (1932-2015)

By Laurie Niles
November 22, 2015 23:15

Violinist, conductor and teacher Joseph Silverstein, former conductor of the Utah Symphony and former concertmaster of the Boston Symphony, died Sunday after a heart attack. He was 83.

Joseph Silverstein

Born in Detroit, Silverstein studied with his father, Bernard Silverstein, a public school music teacher. He later studied with Efrem Zimbalist, William Primrose, Josef Gingold, and Mischa Mischakoff. In 1959 he won a silver medal at the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition and in 1960 was awarded Naumburg Award.

Silverstein joined the back of the second violin section of the Boston Symphony at age 23, moving up to principal second violinist and eventually concertmaster in 1962, serving in that capacity for 22 years. He became assistant conductor, as well, in 1971.

Silverstein came to Salt Lake City in 1983, where he was Music Director of the Utah Symphony for 15 years.

As a teacher, was a professor of violin at the New England Conservatory of Music and the Curtis Institute. He also led the faculty at Tanglewood and was a regular faculty artist at the Sarasota Music Festival.

He played on a 1742 Guarneri del Gesù.

Violinist.com member Nat Little described a lesson with Silverstein: "He told me some old stories about Szerying and things he noticed while watching Heifetz from the concertmaster seat of the Boston Symphony. His main observation about Heifetz was that his left hand never stopped moving.... So from that day on I made sure to vibrate every note. If you listen for this in Silverstein's playing, you will not hear a note go without vibrato. He is very aware of this element of making the instrument shimmer."

* * *

What a sound. Joseph Silverstein performs Bach Sonata No. 3, Largo, as an encore after a concert with the Boston Civic Symphony in March 2001:

And in his capacity as concertmaster, this beautiful solo from Swan Lake:

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Sourpuss at the Symphony; or, how NOT to treat your fellow concertgoers

By Graham Emberton
November 20, 2015 14:26

Let me set the scene for you. I am taking my seat in beautiful Symphony Center, the home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The program features Baroque concerti performed by Pinchas Zukerman and Stephanie Jeong, and is bookended by two Mozart masterpieces. I’m excited! I’ve never heard Zukerman live before and am looking forward to this experience.

Leaning in, I watch the CSO musicians warming up. TAP, TAP. I am poked by someone behind me. “Excuse me, do you have trouble seeing or something?” An older woman asks, a tetchy edge to her voice. “Nope!” I reply. “Then lean back in your seat because I have trouble seeing when you’re so far forward.” “Oh, sorry about that” I reply, and make sure the small of my back reaches the end of my seat. A bit surprised since this has not happened to me before, but I decide it’s no big deal. The first half of the program goes by, performed beautifully by all on stage. It cramps my style to try and sit in one position for the concert, but I’m doing my best.

Tetchy lady’s friend mutters darkly during intermission, “My friend Prissy [name changed to honor privacy] had this exact problem at the theatre last week. Could hardly see the stage.”

Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 begins the second half, and it’s glorious. The music swirls with energy and life, and each movement is concluding with a resonant chord that one can savor even after the musicians put their instruments down. I get a TAP TAP from the woman behind me at some point, perhaps 3rd movement, and I try to remember to lean back again. The last movement commences, and the violins are nailing it (it’s devilish to play) and I nod my head enthusiastically in admiration and in time with the rhythmic drive of this exuberant finale. The program ends and the CSO receives a well-deserved ovation. While I’m getting ready to leave I receive a final TAP TAP from the lady behind me, whom at this point is seriously aggravating me, and we have a little confab.

“Don’t you realize when you lean forward and move your head [she lolls her head about grotesquely] around that I can hardly see the stage? I could hardly see the timpanist half the time! Is this your regular seat?” I’m on the receiving end of a rather withering condemnation from this patron. “I’m sorry about this; I come here two or three times a month and have never had this problem before,” I reply. “Is this your regular seat!?” she demands again. “No, I usually move around this section. I’ve never had this problem before, but I’m sorry I impaired your view today.”


Kitty Catty

This dialogue is absolutely accurate because it’s the sort of thing you replay over and over in your head, wishing you could have said something cooler, or more witty at the time. I think this woman’s behavior was pretty shocking for numerous reasons, listed here in no special order. Hopefully I’m not projecting too much.

  1. She was very rude and positively dripping with entitlement. Don’t talk to people with condescension or venom.
  2. She believed and preached that proper concert etiquette is to sit nice and still. Like a statue.
  3. She was worried that I was a subscriber and was going to mess up her view from then on.

Other issues I found (less objective): she needed an unimpeded view to enjoy the concert (you hear best when your eyes are closed, actually!), and she was territorial about her seat area. On a lighter note, she was, in my opinion, also misguided in her fascination with the timpani, especially since this was a Mozart symphony.

Now, some concessions.

  1. I am 6’ 3’’ and it’s entirely possible that I was blocking a fair chunk of the stage if I moved from the back of my seat. I’ve been an avid concertgoer for about five years now and have never had this issue before, but I suppose there’s a first time for everything.

Ok, that’s it from me.

Some excuses I’ve concocted for her rude behavior:

  1. She was a timpanist in her youth and was giddy at the thought of watching David Herbert perform his craft.
  2. She was David Herbert’s mother and hadn’t seen her son perform in many years.
  3. She just got LASIK surgery and was titillated at the thought of watching every single musician on stage that night without her glasses.
  4. She just donated $10m to the CSO and thought she darn well deserved an unblemished vista.
  5. She is a marvel of modern medicine, and, at 245 years of age, she wanted to compare the CSO’s rendition, particularly the timpanist’s version, to the premiere performance.

But in all seriousness, I’m so glad that it was me who was on the receiving end of her behavior rather than a newbie, because that sort of attitude would have scared me off from attending another performance.

I think concertgoers should absolutely be allowed to lean in their seat to catch every nuance in the music. I think bobbing your head in time to the music is great! It’s catchy, this classical music stuff! A topic for another blog is applause between movements. I think this is fine, except at the end of slow or intimate moments. When your outward appreciation of the music is curtailed and derided by others it makes for an awkward and unpleasant experience. Classical music is dying, we hear all the time. I don’t believe this, but I do think some of the unfortunate and hurtful stereotypes associated with classical music are grounded in truth. Stuffy and snobby beliefs about concert etiquette are something we’re obviously still dealing with, and I hope these can fade away, ASAP.

All right, vent complete, thank you much for sticking with me here.

I’d love to hear your stories, positive or negative, about recent experiences as an audience member in the comments below!

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V.com weekend vote: Can you sing?

By Laurie Niles
November 20, 2015 14:16

I'm guessing some of you are quite good at it, but not everyone is! In fact, it is possible to play the violin very well, yet sing like a frog.

singing vs. playing

But singing is still a part of our education, and it should remain an influence, when playing an instrument that sounds so much like the human voice. We can help our concept of just about any musical line by singing it, even if we are singing it badly!

Recently Los Angeles Philharmonic violinist Paul Stein mentioned in his blog about bow distribution that "teachers should ask the students to sing during lessons, even if the voice is not developed. Someone with a bad voice should be encouraged to sing something resembling the rhythm of the music. This helps create a connection between the origin of the music in the ear, and what goes in and comes out of the instrument."

I do agree that it's a good idea to make the effort to sing, and also to vocalize rhythms.

So can you sing? Do you sing well?

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Bow Distribution and Dealing With the Shy Bow Syndrome

By Paul Stein
November 18, 2015 23:08

I had only one teacher who said, "Don’t think so much when you play." I imagine all of us have heard that at least once. But "not thinking" doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

In fact, in a perfect world, the violinist’s mind would automatically shift from thinking about the left hand one moment, then the bow arm the next. The shifting of concentration would take place with the regularity of a windshield wiper.

I’ve learned the hard way -- by hearing a recording of myself and noticing that my sound isn’t full and rich enough -- that bow distribution can’t take place unless I’m thinking about the bow arm with full concentration. The moment the windshield wiper is swinging to the right, it’s time to observe the bow arm and do whatever it takes to get the desired sound.

bow distribution

First (and Last) Bow Distribution Exercise

Bow distribution can be introduced early in violin training with the simple exercise of three beats on a down-bow and one beat on the up-bow. (In comparison to exercises for the left hand, there are hardly any other bow distribution exercises, except for the bowing variations in etudes, which aren’t particularly musical or inspirational.)

Two problems emerge during this simple, introductory exercise: the long bow doesn’t go far enough to the tip, and the short up-bow doesn’t get back to the lower half. This isn’t so much a problem of the bow arm, but the result of feeling the beats too quickly. Instead, each beat should be allowed to breathe and complete its cycle.

If the bow stops in the middle instead of traveling the necessary length, start the process again, thinking only of the bow arm. You have to have enough intent at the beginning of the stroke to over-ride whatever is stopping the bow from reaching the tip. Natural blockages like the bow stopping unwittingly can be overcome by will power, and then avoided in the future by feeling the length of each beat.

Left and Right Hand Independence

It wouldn’t be difficult to distribute the bow efficiently if you were playing only open strings. But the left fingers can fight with the bow arm, and with one hand going a different direction than the other, the bow arm stop suddenly and cause the bow to bounce. However, there is one way of thinking in which the two hands are more likely to be compatible, and when this blending occurs, it makes both hands move smoothly. This unifying force -- which is capable of guiding the hands naturally -- is the music itself, which guides the bow into gliding and swooping. The music and the ear are one entity, an organic, viable expression which exists to guide and discern.

Every bow distribution is linked to how you hear the music. If you’re mathematically dissecting a measure, the bow may change harshly and abruptly. If you’re hearing the phrase as if you were singing it, the speed and distances of the bowings will feel more natural.

Teachers should ask the students to sing during lessons, even if the voice is not developed. Someone with a bad voice should be encouraged to sing something resembling the rhythm of the music. This helps create a connection between the origin of the music in the ear, and what goes in and comes out of the instrument.

Free and Unencumbered Bow Speed

Knowing the correct bow speed and when the bow is going to change directions takes both artistry and astute observations of space and time. Here are three reasons why the player runs out of bow:

  1. The bow speed never changes from one end to the other. To overcome the inconvenience of running out of bow, the player should recognize there is an ebb and flow in music, and the speed and distance covered can change numerous times in one stroke.
  2. Slurred sixteenth notes use too much bow. Very tiny increments of bow length are all that are needed. It is possible to measure time with a legato bow just as accurately as left fingers do when they drum the fingerboard. Like conductors who learn that all subdivisions can be conveyed in the movement of the baton, a violinist can feel and measure each sixteenth note, even in legato passages.
  3. Bow length is often wasted at the moment of changing direction. Since the bow speed and distance should always be measured, start the bow measuring at the moment of change. Don’t change too abruptly. Instead, finish one direction naturally and completely, then change direction as simply as a saloon door swinging back and forth.

There are two types of bowing that occur during bow distribution:

  1. The bow retains its speed from the beginning to the end of the stroke, and keeps the same speed in the reverse direction. This strong and consistent bow speed is an important component to strong leadership, whereas hesitancy and unwanted speeds create confusion.
  2. In a slow melodic passage, the bow speed, by necessity, varies often, even when the bow is traveling in one direction. The various bow speeds help the sound and phrasing match the inflection inherent in the music. Be prepared to slow down or speed up the bow a little. Music has similar inflections as speech. The big difference between the two is that speech is produced naturally and without effort, while music must be created and manufactured to match what is in the ear. Two things must be trained, the ear and the body’s ability to recreate what the player hears.

Etudes for the Fluid and Flexible Right Hand

The bow arm is the expressive half of the body, and requires different movements for every measure and every dynamic. Unlike the left hand, nothing ever stays the same. Yet most of the Kreutzer, Wohlfahrt, etc. exercises require nothing more than changing bow direction multiple times. One excellent source for learning bow distribution is Melodious Etudes by Doris Gazda, a collection of singers’ vocalises from the 18th century, arranged for the violin. Deceptively simple looking, Gazda’s collection makes an art of strategizing each measure and being ready for anything.

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Violinist Itzhak Perlman to be Honored with Presidential Medal of Freedom

By Laurie Niles
November 18, 2015 14:13

Congratulations to violinist Itzhak Perlman, who will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honor, in a Nov. 24 ceremony at the White House.

Itzhak Perlman
Itzhak Perlman. Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Perlman’s medal citation says that "Itzhak Perlman is a treasured violinist, conductor and sought-after teacher. Among his many achievements are four Emmy Awards, 16 Grammy Awards, and the 2008 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He was awarded a in 2000 and a Kennedy Center Honor in 2003. A native of Israel, he came to the United States at a young age and was introduced to Americans broadly when he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1958. Mr. Perlman made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1963 when he was 18. In addition to performing internationally and recording the classical music for which he is best known, Perlman has also played jazz, including an album made with jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. Perlman has been the soloist for a number of film scores such as Schindler's List, which subsequently won an Academy Award for Best Original Score. Alongside his wife Toby, Mr. Perlman teaches talented young musicians through the Perlman Music Program. Through his advocacy and his example, he has been an important voice on behalf of persons with disabilities."

Click here for a complete list of the 17 recipients of this year's Presidential Medal of Freedom, which also includes Barbra Streisand, James Taylor, Steven Spielberg, Stephen Sondheim, Gloria Estefan and Emilio Estefan.

It's been a big year for Itzhak Perlman, who celebrated his 70th birthday in August. In honor of that milestone, Perlman released two major box sets:

  • Itzhak Perlman: Complete Recordings On Deutsche Grammophon, a set of 25 CDs from 1968 to 2001 which includes his Berg/Stravinsky Concerto recording with Ozawa; Elgar Concerto with Barenboim; and recordings of the Saint-Saëns, Wieniawski, Lalo, and Vivaldi “The Four Seasons” concertos. It also includes a recording of Bach Arias with Kathleen Battle and Perlman conducting Ilya Gringolts in the Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich Concertos.
  • Itzhak Perlman - The Complete Warner Recordings (77CD), which reunites Perlman's EMI and Teldec recordings made over a period of more than 30 years, including violins concertos as well as Perlman’s commissions from living composers, Perlman’s own commissions from living composers, crossover repertoire such as jazz, ragtime and klezmer, and more.

Itzhak Perlman boxed sets

* * *

Recently I heard an older recording on the radio of Perlman playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto. For someone my age, Perlman's recordings pointed the way, gave us something to aspire to. These recordings and live performances are a product of their time, and times and tastes have changed. But Perlman created enduring and beautiful moments in time (still does!). Here he plays the Tchaikovsky with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

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A solution for teaching and practicing scales!

By Rob Lewis
November 17, 2015 04:06

When I was young I hated learning my scales. I took grade exams and it was the part that I least looked forward to. I can remember my teacher saying ‘your scales are the most important part of playing’. I disagreed! I could practice the pieces all day. It was easier, there was a melody to follow, an accompaniment that put it in perspective and a sense of depth and excitement that drew you in as a young musician. Scales always seemed to be the ‘punishment’ for enjoying the pieces!

SmartScales In Action

I started learning with Selma Gokcen at Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, and she opened my eyes to new ways of practicing scales. Suddenly I was hooked. Everywhere I looked I saw scales; Bach, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky. I got obsessed to the point that fellow students would often ask if I ever practice pieces!

When I graduated I started teaching. No matter how much enthusiasm I put in to my lessons, I still drew a blank as how to inspire young pupils to engage with scales. When you’re 18, you are mature enough to see the parallels between different elements of your practice and the repertoire. However, the 8 year olds I was teaching weren’t playing Dvorak or Tchaikovsky. I found myself remembering when I was their age and thinking, what a shame we have to go through this!

I spoke to Selma, one of the most creative and dedicated teachers on the planet, and she said she had the same problem. I knew if she felt this, then I was in good company! We set about finding a solution. The books with backing tracks always seemed to engage pupils to listen whilst they played and most importantly keep a pulse. They also listen to their intonation, so with this in mind, we wrote a few accompaniments for scales. I was shocked at the result. Pupil’s eyes lit up as they played along to the first jazz accompaniment. A pupil said, “But I don’t like jazz, I want to do one in a hip hop style”. I went home and wrote one. Next week I was challenged to write a tango, the next funk. This pattern continued week after week until I was building up a catalogue for each scale, following the Associated Board of Royal Schools of Music’s syllabus.

Over 2 years I wrote around 300 accompaniments (I didn’t sleep much coincidently!) for every scale and arpeggio, dominant and diminished 7ths, chromatic scales, etc in a variety of octaves for every string instrument. When I got to the end, I realised that there's not a CD on earth that could take this many tracks. An app was the obvious solution.

Smart Scales iPad

I was fortunate enough to reach out to two extremely talented and passionate software developers at the top of their games in their relevant fields, who happened to have a window for a new project. And SmartScales was born - an app for iPad (iPhone coming soon) designed to make learning and teaching scales fun and interactive. The software developers blew my mind with their ability to vary the tempo and pitch, produce a scrolling score and create an app so visually appealing that I would have happily hung it on my wall!

Now when I go to teach, it is hard to get pupils to play their pieces. I urge you to give it a go in your practice or lessons. It’s free to download the try and very modestly priced for purchase thereafter (cheaper than sheet music!). I’ve used it in both individual and group teaching situations. It has also proved to be a great tool to teach improvisation. The huge variety of genres means that pupils can explore scales in any style and experiment rhythmically too.

Not every pupil will be a superstar. There are a million factors internal and external that will get in the way. If we as teachers can make the process of learning scales inspiring and fun, we’ve done our job.

Smart ScalesDownload SmartScales for FREE to your iPad!

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The Week in Reviews, Op. 107: Leonidas Kavakos, Tai Murray, Zehu Victor Li

By Laurie Niles
November 16, 2015 22:42

In an effort to promote the coverage of live violin performance, Violinist.com each week presents links to reviews of notable concerts and recitals around the world.

Leonidas Kavakos performed the Sibelius with the San Francisco Symphony.

  • San Francisco Classical Voice: "Kavakos stripped this extravagant work of all indulgences to deliver a lean, purposeful, and deeply absorbing performance. The sense that something different was about to happen was apparent right away. From a quietly insistent opening phrase to an early cadenza, Kavakos staked out his territory with a woody, fibrous tone – reminiscent of a fine baritone’s probing, amber-toned voice – that seemed to stride into the score instead of sailing across its swooping surfaces."
  • San Jose Mercury News: "...the performance simply failed to cohere. Kavakos is an undeniably skilled musician, and his lustrous tone and facility in the score's challenging passagework were evident. But it was hard to escape the sense that he and Thomas never quite saw eye to eye on matters of tempo and emphasis."
  • San Francisco Chronicle: "It was an awkward, unpersuasive performance, wayward of pitch and rhythm and marked by what seemed like the violinist’s utter indifference to what the orchestra was doing at any given moment. Thomas’ efforts to keep everyone together were practically poignant."
  • Terez Mertes, Violinist.com: "Kavakos had found that place of haunting, bittersweet beauty, where technical brilliance meets vulnerability, and he played the concerto, particularly the second movement, from that space."

Leonidas Kavakos
Leonidas Kavakos.

Tai Murray performed the Sibelius with the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra.

  • Duluth News Tribune: "The masterful performance of guest violinist Tai Murray had the locals jumping out of their seats, and that was after she had played just the opening movement of the Sibelius Violin Concerto."

Zehu Victor Li performed the Sibelius with the Allentown Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Morning Call: "The Sibelius concerto is a virtuosic musical storm through which Li, at 18 the youngest-ever Schadt winner, piloted his way with striking finesse. Even at a young age he commands all the trappings of a seasoned artist — a richness of tone, a finely crafted musical line and the apparent nonchalance that only the finest performers seem to muster."

Sergey Khachatryan performed the Beethoven with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

  • Orange County Register: "He played it beautifully, with a gorgeously full and silken tone, in long, singing, connective phrases, but on Saturday he seemed to broaden a phrase whenever possible and to stop to smell every rose along the way. His reading clocked in at 48 minutes, several longer than many and, at any rate, too long here. Pick up the pace, just a tad, young man."

Vilde Frang performed the Brahms with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

  • EdinburghGuide: "Vilde Frang gave us a superb performance, and the audience loved it."

Tianwa Yang performed the Brahms with the Florida Orchestra.

  • Tampa Bay Times: "Yang's palette is vibrant. She handles every part of the instrument, on every level of intensity. She attacks entrances fearlessly and stretches interpretation to something beyond a command of the material."

Yoonshin Song performed the Khachaturian with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

  • Detroit Free Press: "(Concertmaster) Song's impeccable but unforced technique, long-breathed phrasing and full-bodied sound — espresso rich and powerful enough to cut through the orchestra or soar above it — were all perfectly suited to the music's songful lyricism. You could bring in many of the star violin soloists on the circuit to play this concerto and not hear a more compelling performance than what Song delivered."

Isabelle Faust performed the Schumann with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.

  • The Guardian: "Whether or not you give credence to its supposed rediscovery in a seance, Schumann’s long-suppressed Violin Concerto finally seems to be gaining a toe-hold in the repertoire. Isabelle Faust is one the piece’s most eloquent advocates, though her recent recording divided opinion, owing to the quixotic decision to perform it with a baroque orchestra. Petrenko’s gossamer accompaniment ensured that Faust’s filigree lines were always audible and the concluding polonaise danced where it is wont to drag its feet. Reintroducing the shimmery vibrato suppressed on the recording, Faust sounded far more at ease with a symphony orchestra playing softly than a period band scrubbing hard."

Christian Tetzlaff performed the Lindberg with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

  • The Guardian: "Christian Tetzlaff’s imperious playing of the piece was edge-of-the-seat compelling from first to last, brushing all uncertainty aside. From the high, rapt opening to the scintillatingly vigorous finale, Tetzlaff played with a vehement authority that never wavered, and at times was almost overwhelming."

James Ehnes performed Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2 with the National Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Washington Post: "He executed the solo part effectively without actually being spectacular in it, with a few moments when, despite Noseda’s notable restraint, he was actually hard to hear. The overall result was a reading that felt slightly distant; the third movement, from both soloist and orchestra, lacked the sense of vitality and bite that characterizes so much of Prokofiev in his up-tempo mode."

Please support music in your community by attending a concert or recital whenever you can!

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Why the Critics Aren't Always Right

By Terez Mertes
November 16, 2015 14:38

This past weekend, acclaimed violinist Leonidas Kavakos performed the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony. If you read my last blog, you'll know I’m a big fan of this concerto. I found Kavakos’ interpretation to be magnificent. Soul-stirring. No, not perfect. Sometimes a note didn’t land precisely right on the money. And there were moments where the pacing seemed to involve conductor Michael Tilson Thomas trying to keep up with Kavakos’ propulsive playing. But that’s the third movement of the Sibelius for you. In my mind, the performance transcended the tiny flaws; it transcended everything. It had such power. Kavakos had found that place of haunting, bittersweet beauty, where technical brilliance meets vulnerability, and he played the concerto, particularly the second movement, from that space. The performance was so wonderful, in some ways, because there were some imperfections. It lent the piece humanity.

Joshua Kosman, longtime music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle didn’t like Kavakos’ interpretation quite so much as I. Here’s what he had to say. “It was an awkward, unpersuasive performance, wayward of pitch and rhythm and marked by what seemed like the violinist’s utter indifference to what the orchestra was doing at any given moment. Thomas’ efforts to keep everyone together were practically poignant.”

Everyone's a Critic

Well. Ouch. I should mention that I saw Sunday afternoon’s performance and Kosman reviewed Thursday night’s performance. I understand what Kosman was saying, however; I saw glimmers of this within Sunday’s performance. But, even reading this, I will stand my ground. This was one of the most stirring performances of the Sibelius I’ve ever seen.

So. Was it a wildly successful performance, or an uneven one? Should the critic have bashed Kavakos’ performance so unequivocally, or was he simply doing his job?

He was doing his job, of course. I myself have a gig as a dance reviewer for Bachtrack.com, whereby I attend ballet performances as a member of the press. It’s a funky feeling, being there as a judge. After the first review I submitted, back in October 2013, the editor responded by saying, “well, it sounds like you really enjoyed it -- this is a very kind review -- but it’s got to have something you found lacking, for balance. It’s got to be objective. You’ve got to be objective, as a member of the press.”

Dang. Not my skill. And it’s one of the reasons that I love attending the symphony simply as a subscriber. I like not being objective. I like riding the storm of my subjectivity. I like getting weepy and effusive and gushing out, “it stirred my soul,” and “whoa, Kleenex box, please!”

So. I loved Kavakos’ performance. I was so blown away by its power that I all but leapt to my feet right at the end, cheering Kavakos and the SFS musicians. What an astonishing ride he’d taken us on. But I looked around me and realized not everyone seemed to feel the same. Others in the audience were sitting, clapping politely. That was all. Really? I thought. Really? Was it those missed notes that had people thinking it was like a figure skating score in the Olympics, where points got deducted, and therefore the performance didn’t merit a standing ovation? Did he not look glossy enough, or sway enough, for their tastes? Eventually others rose, some in an almost dutiful sense, and Kavakos got the standing ovation his performance merited.

A first bow, amid now-enthusiastic applause. Called back for a second bow, amid the applause. But then the applause died down, too soon, which filled me with dismay. The guy deserved to come out for a third bow, minimum. I clapped more furiously, but alas, I am but one pair of clapping hands.

Then something interesting happened. As the applause died, there was a low, soft rumbling sound, and I realized it was coming from the stage, the musicians’ feet. It was their way of applauding, because of course their hands are full of instruments. The musicians were in agreement with me, apparently. Kavakos’ performance was far too good to let him walk off with only two bows.

It was the coolest thing, that soft thudding sound of their feet, the string players’ bows tapping against their music stands, broad smiles on all the musicians’ faces. Watching it, my heart swelled. Can a soloist have any greater compliment paid than this? A roaring audience, okay, fine, good for the ego. But there’s a sort of herd mentality about a roaring standing ovation. I have succumbed to it myself, rising to my feet because everyone around me did (usually this is one of the superstar soloists with a household name who’d produced a technically flawless performance, quite possibly at the expense of a sense of genuine heart). But when every member of the orchestra is beaming, thumping their feet, well, that’s saying something. Because a fellow musician understands. It’s not about the missing notes. It’s about finding the heart of the piece, the burning core, the composer’s intention, and sharing this gem with the audience.

Happily, the audience picked up the applauding pace once again, keeping at it till Kavakos came back onstage for one more bow. And as a reward, we were treated to a gorgeous, crystalline Bach partita encore. Nice.

Kosman’s review went on to praise the rest of the performance, and indeed, the two other pieces, Sibelius’ “The Swan of Tuonela” and Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony, were both brilliantly rendered. I loved everything about the entire afternoon’s performance. But I’ll tell you what. During that 100 minute ride home, down the Peninsula and through the mountains, it was Kavakos’ rendition of the Sibelius that still gripped at my heart. That, and the image of all the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony stomping their feet in praise of another artist.

Well done, San Francisco Symphony.

This blog first appeared at The Classical Girl

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Shelf Life for Musicians/Performers

By Michelle Jones
November 15, 2015 10:07

Everyone has a limited shelf life, not just athletes. Musicians and performers suffer for their professions every day. As a concert and rock violinist, my physical pains include much more than the visible calloused fingers and neck hickey, which is actually a large and permanent 3D bruise on the left side of my neck based on holding the violin and moving around intensely while performing. There's the neck and nerve pain directly associated with supporting the instrument that is heavier with electronics and batteries than a standard acoustic violin. There are repeating headaches from damaged nerves, among other constant pains associated with our injuries from repetitive motions. The dental bills alone could buy a nice house! We don't hold up a violin or viola with our hands; we clench our teeth and jaws to hold it between our shoulder and jaw so that our hands and arms are free to move up and down the instrument to create the notes you hear. The constant pressure and vibrations to our teeth and jaws means micro-fractures in every tooth, and overly strong bites that could pull a tractor like the James Bond villain, Jaws. Our right arm is busy holding a bow and balancing pressure and speed while moving around.

on the shelf

Unlike symphonic musicians, the Violectric and Fretless Rock rock violinists and violists stand and dance while performing, in 5"-7" heels, often for over 3 hours at a time. Dancers (especially ballet dancers) understand that the costuming and footwear are part of the show to do the job entertaining audiences. The constant dancing leads to calloused and sore feet, as well as lower back pains. This is in addition to the upper back issues directly related to playing violin/viola. Have you tried holding up your arms for 3 hours straight? How about while holding something in them? Then moving them around a lot?

Then there's the fingers and hands themselves. Sure, they are strong enough to support my weight only on my fingertips (yes, I try this regularly), and they are agile enough to move quickly across strings. But I know they are not the most beautiful fingers like hand models. They are short and stubby from the constant pressure since early childhood, and prone to arthritis due to the actions we must take for our profession. It takes me longer to warm up than in the past. My muscles are developed, but they are also older and less flexible with age. Diet and exercise keep them working, but like athletes, I know I have a "shelf life" for performing.

Equipment hauling deserves its own book, but I will mention that when you hire an amplified musician, you are paying mostly for them to haul their gear to your event/venue. The time, physical labor, and expense of amplified instruments is far greater than anything for an acoustic performance. I appreciate the days when all I have to do is sling a violin case on my shoulder and head out to a gig where I only have to unpack and tune, then I'm ready to play. With amplification, I have to: 1. own the proper equipment and gear to put on a great show; 2. own and maintain a vehicle large enough to hold all the gear; 3. load said vehicle 30 minutes before I have to leave; 4. allow enough time to find adequate parking and loading zones for said vehicle; 5. be at the venue 2-3 hours before I am supposed to play to allow time for setup and sound check; 6. deal with challenges at said venue (power, lighting, technicians, etc.); 7. put on a great 3-hour show after schlepping and setting it all up; 8. tear it down, pack it up and load it out and back into the vehicle; and finally 9. unload said vehicle when I get home. For most events, it's over 2000 pounds of gear total. And that's the normal, small events.

Mentally, we are constantly challenging ourselves to be better musicians and maintain playing abilities as we get older. Between the balance of constant self-doubt and self-confidence, we put ourselves "out there" for every performance. We are subject to criticism and praise. We are subject to haters and appreciators, especially within our own circle of friends and family. As performers, we have to leave our families on special days (like holidays) to entertain others. Most of us don't have regular schedules or can make plans more than a few days out at a time. I cannot count how many times I have made plans for a vacation and had to cancel due to gigs and opportunities. Or how many gigs I have missed after I made plans that could not be canceled. It's the mental state of mind of instability, and I have actually learned to thrive on that. For many, it's not enjoyable. But that's the risk of being a freelance performer. Many entrepreneurs in other fields understand the risk, too. Of course, that leads to financial and fiscal pains, for which I shall only mention that I continue to have my fair share of them.

It's these challenges and many more that we as performers face every day, and usually suffer in (mostly) silence. Why? Because we don't want to do anything else but our art/music/dance/performances. Each is a profession and a career.

SUPPORT THE ARTS means SUPPORTING THE ARTISTS with your time (attend live shows), your talents (volunteer whatever your talent may be), and your money (give to the arts you enjoy and purchase artists' work and recorded music). And remember to thank the people who do it for your enjoyment understanding the sacrifices they continue to make every day.

- with my sincerest appreciation to those of you who read this and continue to be arts supporters and fans. Love to you all! Vinylinist

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