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Brian Hong

The Hampden-Sydney Music Festival: A Weekend of Concerts and Friendships

June 9, 2009 at 7:53 PM

       I just spent one of the most amazing weekends of my life at one of the greatest, most intimate music festivals I have ever been to.  Located near the homey, country-like region of Farmville, Virginia, the Hampden-Sydney Music Festival directed by Maestro Ethan Sloane is a fine blend of socializing and absolutely fabulous chamber music.


    This is not a festival where student’s are particularly involved, (although I think that would make it even bigger and more popular); this is a festival where anyone can come and spend a weekend watching rehearsals of some of the greatest musicians alive, socializing on the beautiful campus of Hampden-Sydney College, and watching world class performances that will inspire you to no end.


    I was originally coming to this festival to have lessons with one of my teachers, Shmuel Ashkenasi, who is in my opinion one of the finest violinists and teachers alive today.  I planned to be inconspicuous, practice during the day, have a lesson or two, then go home, but that was impossible, as there was so much to do and enjoy.


    The day I got there, I checked into my hotel room and talked (through Facebook) to one of my teachers who was participating in the festival, Michael Klotz.  Mike is an especially gifted musical violist and a precious member of the internationally-acclaimed Amernet String Quartet, which resides at Florida International University.  He is also an incredibly generous person.  Another teacher of mine, the violinist Misha Vitenson, first violinist of the Amernet Quartet and one of the most passionate and fiery violinists I know was also participating in the festival, and I looked forward to seeing him and Michael very much.


    Michael invited me to dinner at the Hampden-Sydney cafeteria with him and the rest of the artists, and of course I had to accept.  While I was there, I saw Professor Ashkenasi again which was a great honor.  I was also introduced to several other world class musicians, the pianist Elizaveta Kopelman, and the cellist Marc Johnson of the former Vermeer Quartet (Professor Ashkenasi was also a part of that group).  I spent over an hour sitting with them and conversing, soaking in as much of the great musicianship as possible.  Michael Klotz and Professor Ashkenasi said that I was welcome to watch the rehearsals the next day, so I eagerly accepted.


    The next morning, I was at the Crawley Forum of Hampden-Sydney College bright and early, as that is the place where the groups were rehearsing and performing.  It is large, yet very intimate, and has some gorgeous acoustics that compliment chamber music spectacularly.  I walked in that morning to catch Professor Ashkenasi, Professor Johnson, and Professor James Kidd, piano professor at the college, rehearsing Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D Minor.  It was absolutely magical- the sounds of their instruments blended together perfectly, creating a seamless musical phrase that blossomed into the hall.  As the piece came to an end, I was disappointed because I wanted it to continue forever.  However, the fun wasn’t over yet.


    The stage was reset for the next rehearsal to take place-Ernst von Dohnányi’s Piano Quintet No. 1 in C Minor.  I was not familiar with the piece, and I looked forward to it eagerly as the players mounted the stage: Shmuel Ashenasi and Misha Vitenson playing first and second violin, respectively, Marc Johnson on cello, Michael Klotz on viola, and Elizaveta Kopelman on piano.  Their rehearsal took a little longer, because there were more ensemble issues to sort out, but the piece itself was absolutely gorgeous.  The way each player played his/her part, and worked to blend it into a seamless sound was magical.  The highlight of the group for me was Professor Ashkenasi; his sound was possibly the most gorgeous sound I had ever heard out of a violin.  His musicianship and technique cannot possible be matched by any living violinist of today-he is utterly unique and bewitching.  I knew that the concert that night would be absolutely brilliant.


    Later that evening, I was back at the Crawley Forum after a day of practicing and hanging out with the musicians to watch the concert.  I got a wonderful seat, second row in the center, so I could see every single musician and how they played.  I sat and fidgeted…not being able to wait for the concert to start.  I was rewarded about 30 minutes later with the lights dimming, and two people introducing the music festival and asking all attendees to turn off their cell phones.  Finally, Mr. Ashkenasi, Mr. Johnson, and Mr. Kidd walked onstage to start off the program with the Mendelssohn trio.  I could sense the excitement from the audience, even before the playing started.  And were we rewarded!  From Mr. Johnson’s first notes carrying the gorgeous theme, we were hooked.  The three masters took us on an emotional musical journey that brought out the young Mendelsson’s genius and dark musical ideas.  Even the light, seemingly happy parts seemed to have an underlying anguish to them, not overdone, but just barely there, as if to tell us that he was not who he looked like on the outside.  Only musicians of this caliber could do this fine a job.


    The next piece was a piece I was not familiar with: Märchenerzählungen, (“Fairy Tales”), by Robert Schumann, scored for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano.  The players were Michael Klotz on viola, Ethan Sloane on clarinet, and Elizaveta Kopelman on piano.  Maestro Sloan is the Artistic Director of the Festival, and is a very fine musician.  He is a very warm-hearted man whom I immediately liked, and his demeanor matched his playing-a warm gorgeous sound from his clarinet that just cut right through the room to the listeners in the back.  The trio was perfectly timed, and all three musicians were playing in a perfectly refined style that fit Schumann’s ideas wonderfully.


    After that performance was the finale-the great Dohnányi quintet.  I could barely contain my excitement as Ms. Kopelman, Mr. Ashkenasi, Mr. Vitenson, Mr. Klotz, and Mr. Johnson briskly stepped onto the stage and prepared to perform.  As the first notes from the piano, followed by the pizzicato from the strings, everyone, including me, was immediately mesmerized from the beauty of the sound of the five musicians working together.  As the piece progressed, I had to consciously close my mouth due to my awe for these people.  They were truly masters of their instruments.  Mr. Ashkenasi sat back in his chair, and didn’t move much, although he was perfectly fluid.  The sound from his violin was gorgeous, and his musical ideas were perfectly formed, yet not overstated.  For him, a perfect motto would be, “Let the music speak for itself”.  On the other hand, Misha Vitenson, second violin, played the violin as if he was the devil himself.  His sound was molten lava spurting from his instrument.  He is an incredible consummate chamber musician, and he has the ability, along with his absolutely spectacular technique, to fit in with any musician he plays with spectacularly.  Michael Klotz shone in this performance as well despite his somewhat understated viola part; he still brought it to its maximum emotional level and presented it with dazzling clarity.  Mr. Johnson is also a very consummate musician-his sound, musicality, and technique just soars to the back of the hall effortlessly.  However, the one instrument that was necessary to hold this piece together, the piano, was played brilliantly by Elizaveta Kopelman.  When she accompanied, she was still audible, and the sound was still full, but she blended into the back of the wall of sound very well, but when she had a solo, she let rip with the piano and she was the star.


    As soon as the piece finished with a flourish, the entire audience (several hundred people) jumped to their feet cheering, prompting the quintet to come back onstage three times.  It was a memorable night-and watching Mr. Ashkenasi play made me more intimidated to have my lesson with him the next day, playing the first movement of the Dvorak Concerto.  
The next morning, my last day at the Festival, I decided to skip the morning rehearsals to practice, but the only available room was a conference room in the Forum that was right above where the musicians were rehearsing.  Needless to say, I was kicked out immediately because either I was too loud and the sound was leaking, or my playing was hurting their ears.  Because of the musicians of that incredibly high caliber rehearsing right below me, it was probably the latter.  However, my slight embarrassment was quelled as I watched the rehearsals.  That night’s concert consisted of a clarinet quartet in E-flat major by Bernhard Henrik Crusell, with Misha Vitenson playing violin, Mr. Sloan playing clarinet, Mr. Klotz playing viola, and Mr. Johnson playing cello.  The next piece was the famed Viola Sonata by Dmitri Shostakovich, with Mr. Klotz on viola and Professor Kidd on Piano.  Finally, the last selection, and arguably the most exciting, was the Piano Quintet in A Major by Antonin Dvorak, played by the same stellar quintet as the last night.  I only caught snippets of the rehearsal, but from what I could tell, it was pretty darn good.


    After lunch, Mr. Ashkenasi escorted me to his campus apartment loaned to him by the College.  It was very nice; two stories, although it was very small.  I was shaking because I was so nervous, although there was nothing to be nervous about, as Mr. Ashkenasi is one of the nicest men I have ever known.  He was very matter of fact, sitting down in a chair and motioning for me to play as if he was only asking me to hand him something.  I only got through the first two phrases before he stopped me and started working with me.  He pointed out several bowing problems that I had, and gave me many fingering suggestions.  His style of teaching is very straightforward, yet in no way blunt or harsh.  He once told me that there is no reason that a teacher should be mean to or humiliate a student-and I agree.  He also said that fear brings strong results, but “for what?  Who cares if you play the violin well as much as how you develop as a person?”  He is full of wisdom.  Our entire lesson was jam-packed with musical ideas, suggestions, and technique tips.  Mr. Ashkenasi is huge on expressive intonation-and he pointed out that I was out of tune in literally every bar; not saying it in a mean way but in a very caring and friendly way.  I learned much about the correlation of notes to open strings, of notes in relation to chords, and many other intonation devices.  In short, I believe that his point was that it’s not what we hear under our ear that’s important, but predicting and conforming our intonation to what goes out into the hall takes far more precedence.  I came out of the lesson mentally dead, but at the same time motivated and refreshed. I couldn’t wait for the concert that night.
    That night, the concert was as stellar as the night before, if not more.  Everything I mentioned about the last concert pertained to this concert-if not more.  The Crusell Quartet was beautiful.  Everyone played together perfectly, beautifully, and intelligently.  The star of the quartet was definitely Mr. Sloan.  His motto could also be to let the music speak for itself; he doesn’t move much, but if one closed his/her eyes and listened, they heard nothing but passion and phrasing.


    The Shostakovich Sonata was mesmerizing.  It is not a piece that is not meant to be enjoyed-it is meant to linger on the heart.  Michael Klotz did the piece justice; this was Shostakovich’s last piece he ever composed, and all of the composer’s sorrows, pains, and struggles were poured into every note.  Mr. Klotz poured his soul into the sonata just like Shostakovich, so much so that when he finished the last haunting note, several audience members were gasping, and the meek clapping that started at first grew into a thunderous applause that shook the rafters.  I was the one clapping the most-never had I been moved this much by a performance.


    I did not know how any performance could emotionally top that sonata, but I was soon to be surprised with the Dvorak.  The audience remembered the exciting quintet from the previous night, and they clapped enthusiastically as the performers mounted the stage.  Again, the first notes that were played immediately took the attention of every single person in the room, and we were mesmerized.  The performance itself was one that kept everyone on the edge of their seat. The same qualities in each performer from the night before prevailed, but to a seemingly greater extent.  Needless to say, this was the greatest interpretation of the famed Dvorak A Major Piano Quintet I had ever heard.  Now, I may seem like I am gushing about everyone, but every word I speak is absolutely true.  After the concert (around 10:30 PM), I had to leave to get home as I had a rehearsal the next morning, but I stuck around to say goodbye to all the musicians who had given me such an amazing time that weekend, welcoming me to their wonderful festival with open arms and inviting me to spent time with them.  Mr. Sloan and Mr. Kidd both host such a wonderful gathering, and kudos to them, both for their musicianship and directorship.  Finally, I said a warm goodbye to Mr. Ashkenasi, who had so generously given up over an hour of his busy schedule to teach me (a violinist who is really nothing special and lacks many things, musically and technically).  And as we left, he told me, “You have a wonderful path between your brain and your heart in your playing, and you have the potential to be very good”.  That was the nicest compliment I had ever received, especially coming from a god of violin who rarely gave compliments.  I was touched.  A few minutes later, I was in our car, heading home, smiling to myself and thinking, “What a great time”.


    I really think that anyone on the East Coast and beyond should consider attending this festival, held in the late spring.  It is such fun to come and spend time with these musicians and learn from them, and to converse with them.  I felt like I learned so much here, even if it wasn’t a student oriented festival.  I would love to come back as a member and music lover sometime to support it.


From LUIS CLAUDIO MANFIO
Posted on June 10, 2009 at 12:16 AM

Wow, I would love being there too!!!  Vivek Kamath, violist of the NYP told me that Michael Klotz is a very fine teacher and player.

www.manfio.com


From Stephen Brivati
Posted on June 10, 2009 at 1:26 AM

Fantastic writing (and experience)

Thanks Brian


From Jude Ziliak
Posted on June 10, 2009 at 3:09 AM

It saddened me to see the H-S fellowship program go under this year. I hope it will be resurrected soon.


From Royce Faina
Posted on June 11, 2009 at 2:31 PM

What a Treat & Privlege!!!!  How special you are indeed!  To have teachers like you do!  wow!  And you have such good writting skills also!  Keep up the good work!

royce

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