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Top BlogsBy james holmes
August 25, 2012 04:43
What is it that plagues musicians, even the healthiest ones, and at all levels?
I can not answer for the rest of you, but when I come down with these symptoms, I too begin to panic. The music comes out droll, forced, and blah! My mind races as I frantically rummage through all my music books to rekindle that creative luster. But even still those once meaningful notes appear to just be random black dots that look more like scattered ink droplets- far from those inherent values that once gave form and depth.
We are musicians, not self sustaining drones that play note-for-note, turned on like the mindless action of flicking a switch. We must, like artists, find the shades in between: the slight threshold of when it starts to change its hues, the texture, and the build up of form from the blushing gradation of its values. This is what draws a viewer to immerse himself or herself in the artist's work. We musicians need to find these shades in the notes we play and saturate those notes with our individual color.
To do this, we may need to look not at the score itself, but at what is around us. Take a glance out your window. Most likely, you will see greens of the grass, leaves and plants. We see this every day, yet we still can find the beauty in the landscape. Music is like this: we can always find the beauty
I say take a step back. Look away from the printed notes for now. Go enjoy what others are playing. It does not matter if they are less skilled or more advanced than you. It is a gift that is being performed. Listening to them will spark as of flint grazed. You will start to feel that churning inside. After a few false starts, your drive and creativity will burn once again.
Perhaps we get too wrapped up in perfectionism isolating ourselves
August 23, 2012 21:02
It was with great sadness that I learned of Ruggiero Ricci's passing on August 6, 2012. Ruggiero Ricci was truly the last great violinist of the 20th century. He was one of the great child prodigies, who gave his historic Carnegie Hall debut at age 11 and performed as a child for famous people such as Albert Einstein, President Theodore Roosevelt, and Fritz Kreisler. He was the first violinist to ever record the 24 Paganini Caprices. He premiered the Ginastera violin concerto as well as works by many other contemporary composers, and he discovered unknown works of the Romantic era. He made more than 500 recordings and performed well over 6000 concerts in 65 countries. He had a tremendous influence on the string world as well as on classical music world overall.
But Ruggiero Ricci's passing was also a tremendous loss personally for me -- I wouldn't be the violinist and person I am today without him. It was my mother, and my violin teacher, Abraham Jaffe, who encouraged and prepared me to audition for the first International Ruggiero Ricci violin master class festival and competition in my hometown Berlin when I was 12 years old. At the time, I was preparing for my debut at the Berlin Philharmonic Hall with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra. I was very excited to have the opportunity to audition for Mr. Ricci, who was already a living violin legend at that time. About 50 contestants from all over Europe auditioned, and only 10 would be accepted for a week of public master classes with Maestro Ricci, with a final concert and awards ceremony. The awards were solo engagements with major orchestras in Germany.
These master classes were highly publicized in the Berlin media, which gave an extra edge of excitement. I had prepared Bach's Sonata in G minor, Lalo's Symphony Espagnole, and Sarasate's Introduction and Tarantella, all favorite pieces of Mr. Ricci. When the results came out, I was overwhelmed with joy. I was one of the lucky 10 violinists selected for the privilege of working with the Maestro for an entire week. I was also the youngest.
A young David Yonan with Ruggiero Ricci in Berlin, 1987
Little did I know what an intensive week of work would lay ahead of me! Though kind and encouraging, Mr. Ricci's standards were the highest. He had no patience for faulty intonation or rhythm, for tasteless glissandos, or for unintelligent phrasing. He would make that very clear, even if it was in front of 300 people. At the time, he also did not believe in playing with a shoulder rest, and he made me play without one for the week. (Since then, he did change his approach on that subject.)
A vivid memory I have from that week was from one master class, when he did his notoriously famous "scroll-to-wall" test: I had to play Sarasate's Introduction and Tarantella with the scroll against the wall, and without moving the violin. The purpose of that very efficient exercise was to lessen the weight of the fingers of the left hand during shifts. Little did I know that Mr. Ricci would become an influential mentor to me for the next 26 years. It was he who recommended that I continue my studies with the renowned violin pedagogues Roland and Almita Vamos at the Music Institute of Chicago, and later with Professor Werner Scholz at the Berlin "Hanns Eisler" Music Academy, both whom Mr. Ricci held in the highest regard.
As the years went by, the Ricci master classes and competition in Berlin became more and more sought after. In 1995, more than 200 people from all over the world auditioned. He continued to accept only 10 violinists by live audition, no matter if one came from Berlin, New York, or China. These annual master classes and competitions were created by the late Guido Schlemmer and his wife Astrid, who continued this tradition for 10 years until 1997. Guido, a local violin teacher at a community music school in Berlin, had met Mr. Ricci at the Carl Flesch Academy in Baden-Baden, Germany, and was inspired by his artistic mastery and determined to create an annual festival to celebrate Ruggiero Ricci's art in Berlin, where Mr. Ricci had given his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at age 12 and where he studied for some time.
Again I competed, but this time against many more contestants than in 1987. I played the Sibelius Concerto, Kreisler, Recitativo and Scherzo Caprice and Wieniawski's Faust Fantasy, and I was honored to win the top prize: to perform in a subscription concert with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra at the Berlin Philharmonic Hall.
As the years went by, I attended every concert he gave at the Berlin Philharmonic Hall and elsewhere, and I continued to play for Mr. Ricci when I had to prepare for important concerts. At this time, he was professor at the Mozarteum Academy in Salzburg, Austria. I realized then that individual lessons with Mr. Ricci were very different from a public master class. A lesson might last six hours or more, ending only when his wonderful and devoted wife, Julia, would call him to dinner (and students were always invited to join.) I will never forget the generous hospitality of the Riccis. After a lesson, we would listen to recordings of all of the violin greats: Kreisler, Heifetz, Oistrakh, Heifetz, Milstein, Gitlis, and Pikaizen, all with whom he had friendly personal relations. Those were truly inspiring years.
In 1995, the International Music Festival in Iserlohn, Germany, presented an International Ruggiero Ricci Competition, under the auspices of the European Union. Mr. Ricci immediately suggested that I compete. As in most international competitions, the competition had three rounds, with repertoire that was very demanding. The jury was of the highest caliber: Ruggiero Ricci (president of the Jury), Igor Oistrakh, Victor Pikaizen, Herrman Kerbbers, and Igor Ozim. After months of preparation with my teacher Werner Scholz in Berlin, he suggested that I play for Ricci before the competition. I traveled to Mr. Ricci's house in Salzburg, and he gave me his blessings.
I took a train to the competition wearing jeans, sneakers and a T-shirt, listening to recordings. At some point, I fell asleep. By the time I woke up and arrived, my entire suitcase with my concert attire was gone! There was a press conference for all the contestants and judges, and everyone was surprised to see what I had come to the competition wearing. I was terrified! Obviously I couldn't perform like that. Mrs. Ricci immediately announced that she had to buy new clothes for me. She took me to the best boutique in the town and said that I should choose the best tuxedo and suit for each round. I felt rather intimidated and obliged by her offer, and I asked Mrs. Ricci how I could ever pay her back. She responded that I could pay her back by winning a prize in the competition. To this day I remember how I played the fiercely difficult Ysaye Sonata No. 6 in the semi-final round, with one thought: that I had to make it to final round to pay back Mrs. Ricci! I eventually won second place and paid her back in full.
In 1998, I was selected to compete in the Indianapolis violin competition, and Mr. Ricci was on the Jury panel. I was happy to see him, his wife Julia, and his poodle, Pamina, again. Pamina was the Riccis' beloved mascot and would often give her approval with a howl at my performances -- I noticed this also during my performance in Indianapolis. She was a special part of Mr. Ricci's life, and traveled with him and Julia in a little handbag, wherever they went.
Mr. Ricci was a very kind, humble and generous person; he didn't have an aura of arrogance or snobbism around him despite all of his legendary accomplishments and popularity. He didn't have a big ego, which was something I always admired about him.
Often when I hit a roadblock in practicing and preparing certain virtuoso pieces, I would pick up the phone and call him. Even over the phone, he would always have a solution to the problem. Several times I played for him the 24 Paganini Caprices, knowing he was the absolute authority on them, having been the first person to record them in 1947 and then recording them four more times throughout his life. His approach to the left hand was one of utmost elegance, economy and style. His left hand pizzicato was hard to believe and impossible to beat. Even in later years, watching his technique was like observing a natural phenomenon. You would learn so much by just watching and listening to him.
His modest lifestyle and matter-of-fact attitude made it rewarding to be around him. On top of that, he had a great sense of humor. He was always interested in hearing about my latest accomplishments and developments in my career, often giving me important career and life advice. For example, in 2000, the famous violin pedagogue Dorothy Delay invited me to continue my studies with her at the Juilliard School with a full scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Program, and Mr. Ricci recommended I take that offer. Delay's class was for decades the mecca for every young violinist from around the world, and I was excited to come back to the United States, where I had studied as a teenager with the Vamoses.
When I began lessons with Ms. Delay that year, I had no clue that the next year -- in 2001 -- America would be hit with one of the greatest tragedies in its history, on Sept. 11. The following year, Ms. Delay passed away from cancer. With the passing of Ms. Delay, I had to make some very difficult life decisions: whether I wanted to continue my career in the U.S. or go back to Germany. In 2002, I decided to move back to Chicago, which has been my home ever since. That same year, Mr. Ricci moved from Europe to Palm Springs, California, to enjoy a warmer and drier climate. I made annual visits to Palm Springs, to play for him and spend quality time together.
Meanwhile in Chicago, the late Geoff Fushi started a master class series in his legendary violin shop, Bein and Fushi, in the historic Fine Arts Building. In the same building, I started my own concert series, the Fine Arts Music Society, of which Mr. Ricci was an honorary member of the advisory board. The Chicago media publicized those master classes and I established myself quickly as a concert violinist in the city by performing all 24 Paganini Caprices in a tribute concert to Mr. Ricci during one of Mr. Ricci's visits to Chicago in 2002. I had already performed them successfully at the Aspen Music Festival and was excited for the opportunity to perform them in Mr. Ricci's presence in Chicago. The day of the performance was hit by a blizzard, and I doubted whether or not the Maestro would arrive. Needless to say, I felt honored when he walked through the door, with snow on his coat, despite the unfortunate weather. When Mr. Ricci promised to be somewhere, he would be there. Similarly, if I asked him to write me recommendations for competitions or conductors, they would usually arrive within a couple of days after I requested them, in the mail.
In 2003/04 I became very interested in Mr. Ricci's solo transcriptions, some which have been never published. During a visit to his home in Palm Springs in 2004, we went over his famous Tarrega "Recuerdos del Alhambra" and "Spanish Romance" guitar transcriptions, as well as his cadenzas for the Brahms concerto.
We also went over the complete solo Sonatas of Eugene Ysaye, which he recorded in their entirety. I vividly remember how he stopped me after the first page of Ysaye Sonata No. 2, the movement "Obsession," which is based on Bach's Prelude from the Partita No. 3 in e-Major. He stopped me and shouted, "Do you have rushitis?" It took me a moment to understand what he meant and that he was referring to my rushed playing. We both laughed -- that was his way of loosening you up during a lesson.
It was a great honor, when he allowed me to make a copy of his "Spanish Romance" transcription's handwritten dedication -- it is now framed and will always remind me of that particular visit, in which we covered mostly violin solo repertoire.
Mr. Ricci continued to perform until 2003, when he gave his last public performance at the Smithsonian Institute in New York. He continued to listen to and teach young violinists until the very end of his life. In fact, he continued to perform in public master classes up until 2010. His home in Palm Springs remained a very inspiring place, where he would share his knowledge of the violin with visitors from around the world. Often a lesson would last an entire day, with shared meals and listening to recordings. By that time, I had established a String Performance Program for highly gifted violinists in the Fine Arts Building, and I would prepare deserving young students of my program to play for him at the Bein & Fushi Ricci master classes. It was a very inspiring and rewarding experience for them as well. I became even more interested in Mr. Ricci's recordings, especially re-releases from his early years, which were not available for some time. All of the major record labels such as Decca, Vox, started to put out tribute compilations albums of his music, and I became more aware of his significance in music history -- and the time spent with him was becoming more precious.
A major milestone for Mr. Ricci was when he published his second book, Ricci on Glissando, with Indiana University Press, which is a continuation of his first book, Left-Hand Violin Technique, published 20 years earlier by Shirmer. The book is accompanied by a DVD and explains in great detail Mr. Ricci's philosophy on the artistry of his left and right hand technique. While acknowledging the publications by the significant pedagogues Carl Flesch and Ivan Galamian, he makes the case of a more fluid approach to the violin by going back to the art of Paganini, Spohr, Wieniawski, Vieuxtemps, Ernst, and other great Romantic violin virtuosos whose works he performed like no one else and which he knew from the inside out. I preordered it and immediately shared it with my students.
In 2007, I planned a trip to "Casa Ricci" with three selected young students from my program to do a chapter-by-chapter review the book with the author himself, all filmed on DVD. Every day, my students, their parents, and I would meet the Maestro at noon, for an entire week. He would teach until dusk, teaching the great violin repertoire and going over each chapter of the book. It was for me the most intensive week with the maestro.
At Mr. Ricci's home in Palm Springs, 2007
This was also the last time that I performed the 24 Paganini Caprices for Mr. Ricci. He pointed out 26 misprints in the Paganini, which I had not realized before, although I had studied them with the critical Urtext Editions by Henle and Ricordi. The trip was truly inspiring for me and my students and thus in 2009, I approached my teachers Roland and Almita Vamos to present the book in Chicago for their students. We arranged a Fine Arts Music Society master class and book presentation in April 2009, given by Mr. Ricci at the Music Institute of Chicago, which was attended by many prominent musicians in Chicago.
For one last time we all witnessed a musical legend. A legendary man, who made the difficult and successful transition from world-famous child prodigy to one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. It was a wonderful celebration of his art and his life, and it was his last trip to Chicago. Afterwards we celebrated with a dinner in a local Italian restaurant, accompanied by students and friends, with whom he shared many humorous anecdotes of his amazing long life with a chuckle in his voice and his witty, dry sense of humor. He loved sharing his vast knowledge and wisdom with the younger generations, whom he inspired with his extraordinary artistry and generous personality.
That is how I will always remember him.
By Emily Grossman
August 23, 2012 20:31
Over two weeks later and I admit, I'm still basking in the afterglow of the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra's performance. I've played in better symphonies, but I've never been more proud to see what returns could be yielded when choosing to invest in my little widespread community. Take a handful of dedicated musicians scattered throughout a wilderness about the size of West Virginia, assemble them for just two weeks to do battle with Tchaikovsky and Dvorak, and I dare you to accomplish as much as our ensemble managed to produce on the stage that night.
If I wasn't already before, I'm now a believer in magic, miracles, and dreams come true. I kid you not: the three violists managed a perfectly matched solo in the third movement of the New World Symphony. If you don't believe me, I have recorded proof at 24:08. If we could manage a feat like that, I can't help but think maybe anything's possible. What better way to begin the school year, than with a teacher that believes in miracles? My students are in for a real treat.
Now is the time to make things happen, and I'm striking while the iron is hot. Here's my ensemble hit list:
Brahms, horn trio
You know who you are. Resistance is futile; I will prevail. So, you'd better be practicing. (18 hours so far this week, but who's counting?)
And some day, mark my words, the cellist of my dreams will fall from the sky with a copy of Brahms in his hands. Anything's possible. I believe, I believe...
By Karen Allendoerfer
August 23, 2012 15:24
One of the reasons I know that fall is coming is that the ArlPO yahoo group, the email list for the Arlington Philharmonic Orchestra, where I play violin, is getting active again. And one of our long-time members posted this: "The Mountains and Music committee of AMC's Boston Chapter sponsors three weekends each year that combine music-making and outdoor activities." There is one of these weekends coming up in October, and they are playing Beethoven's Eroica and Schubert's Rosamunde overture. I check my calendar, I'm free that weekend, I could register. But hmm, Eroica again? I just played that last December here in Belmont, with an orchestra so good that they were doing a favor by opening participation up to the likes of me . . . And then I catch myself: am I really thinking that ("again")? About *this* piece?
The first time I played Beethoven's 3rd was about 30 years ago, with the Greater Buffalo Youth Orchestra. It was a bright spot in an otherwise rather difficult year, musically. It was a stretch for me technically, and to be frank, a stretch for most of the orchestra at that time. I don't think our tempos were very fast, and we didn't have any trouble endowing the second movement with appropriate dirge-like qualities. But to this day, I don't think that--the imperfect struggles of an ambitious youth orchestra that may have bitten off a little more than it could chew--was what I was hearing when I played it.
I had a cassette tape (yes, I remember those) that I had made of a recording that I begged or borrowed from someone, or maybe got from the library. I have no idea now which orchestra it was. I listened to it all the time when I wasn't in school or practicing. I listened to it while I was getting dressed in the morning. This doesn't sound at all remarkable now--and I think in fact if I'd had my current teacher back then, she would have recommended against it. She says to listen to 3 recordings and not to let any one interpretation have too much influence. My adult, iPod-owning, iTunes-and-YouTube-using self, awash in recordings and interpretations galore, agrees with her and thinks this is good advice.
But it's hard to emphasize enough how different it was for me back then. My family didn't listen to music at home, except for pop radio in the car. We didn't go to concerts, either. Most of my days were spent in quiet, and the only classical music I heard was when I practiced or rehearsed, or when my teacher played for me. I had only recently acquired a radio/turntable/tape player with a decent stereo sound. And so this recording, imperfect and unknown though it was, *was* the Eroica. If I had to answer to my current teacher, I'd tell her that I wasn't listening for "interpretation." That would come later. I was listening for much more basic things: rhythm, pitch, tempo, when to rest and when to come in. I was just learning what the piece was *about*.
Nevertheless, when the concert came around, I knew what I was doing. At one of the later rehearsals, the conductor, frustrated with how the orchestra was playing generally, singled me out for public praise, saying there were a few players, like me, who "were getting every note." I was a little embarrassed, but I was also gratified that he could see me all the way back there. At the break, my stand partner looked at me too, with large eyes. "Wow," she said. And added something like "you've been practicing a lot, haven't you?" I don't know for sure, but I assume that the people up in the front of the section--those who were headed to conservatories and music majors--always played like that, always knew when to come in, generally "got every note". That level of playing was apparently remarkable coming from me, and for the first time, I began to understand why. This time I knew the music better than I ever had before. I had spent a lot of time with it, day in and day out. I even thought about it when I wasn't practicing. I heard echoes of Boromir blowing his "great horn" in the Fellowship of the Ring, which I was reading at that time. This wasn't what I usually did for orchestra music.
After that, I didn't play the piece again for 30 years. I heard it in concert several times, played by good pro orchestras, I bought recordings. I enjoyed all these performances, but it wasn't the same as playing it. And then last winter, over Christmas, I got the chance again. I blogged about it a little bit here: it was a 4-day festival with an orchestra consisting primarily of high-level student musicians who'd known each other in the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra (I got in by virtue of being a town resident and member of the local community orchestra). Three long, consecutive rehearsals and then bang, the concert.
I've thought about which performance I liked better. It's hard to say. The 1982 version had its charms, but the 2011 version was musically and technically superior, and a privilege to be playing with such accomplished musicians. And even though the last time I'd played the piece was before most of the other players were born, and the tempos were brisker, the muscle memory came back. I didn't get "every note," but I kept up, I didn't embarrass myself. What I think tips the scale in favor of the 1982 version for me, however, is the timing. Back then, you had months, rather than days, to prepare for a performance. You could do what I had to: sit with the music, spend some quality time with it, get to know it. There was time to let it become part of you. Even now, I prefer the community orchestra schedule, which allows for a concert about every 3 months. When concerts are more frequent, and the program changes from week to week and even day to day, I start to forget what they are about and why I am there. I lose interest. The music goes, literally, "in one ear and out the other." There is no way I could have played Eroica the way I did either time, from scratch in 4 days.
I have a natural tendency towards the traditional and the deliberate. I like recordings, I like to reminisce. And, especially, I like to take my time, anticipate, experience in depth, and savor afterwards. It has always been upsetting to me, after an entire month of Advent, to see Christmas trees kicked to the curb before the New Year. Sure, I like closure and all that, but I don't like being pushed to "move on" before something is really over. And I especially dislike aspects of our disposable culture, and the inordinate value placed on experiences and trends being "new." So in that way, studying classical music has been a natural fit for me.
But as I've gone further in music and the world has speeded up, I've also been introduced to a concept that I'm still getting used to: being "in the moment." And, the idea that some things, like art and music, are more beautiful because they are fleeting and cannot be captured and recorded. People say this in particular about live performances. The 2011 live performance of the Eroica was made all the more lovely by the 19-year-old conductor's pre-concert comments. He talked of the composer as Prometheus unbound; he asked us to play for the audience short excerpts that illustrated new and daring musical innovations that Beethoven had introduced with this symphony. He was discovering and conducting the symphony for himself for the first time--and made it new again for all of us. If I play it again in October, will I be able to capture some of that fleeting magic too? Maybe, with these two performances under my belt, freer of having to think so much about the logistics of bowings, fingerings, and intonation, I'll be able to interpret more, and to connect.
Classical music is so rewarding for me because it is timeless, because it doesn't have to belong to a particular era, because it is not disposable, because it doesn't matter if it's new. Because once a piece of classical music becomes part of you, 30 years between performances makes so little, and so much, difference.
By Laurie Niles
August 23, 2012 14:09
Here's a performer who brings a sense of assurance and enjoyment to his audience, not to mention masterful playing -- that was what I thought when I first heard Benjamin Beilman perform live during the 2010 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.
Just three months before that performance, Benjamin Beilman had won first prize at the Montreal International Music Competition, and he won the Bronze Medal at Indianapolis. Two years later, Beilman, 22, has graduated from Curtis Institute and also received a 2012 Avery Fisher Career Grant and a 2012 London Music Masters Award.
This fall, Benjamin has a busy season with performance engagements all over the world: a recital September 7 in Cold Spring Harbor, NY; a performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto Sept. 14 in Switzerland with conductor Sir Neville Marriner and the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra; a performance at New York's Alice Tully Hall on Sept. 24, playing Kodály's Serenade for 2 Violins and Viola, Op. 12, with violinist Ani Kavafian and violist Paul Neubauer; and on Oct. 20, his Wigmore Hall debut, a recital with pianist Yekwon Sunwoo, as part of his London Music Masters Award.
Benjamin spoke to me over the phone from Philadelphia last month about how he juggled long-distance violin studies with the Vamoses at the Music Institute of Chicago during high school, about his time at Curtis Institute, about coping with the rigors of the competition circuit, and about being one of the first violinists after Hilary Hahn to play the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2008 Violin Concerto by composer Jennifer Higdon.
Laurie: How did you get your start, playing the violin?
Ben: I first started playing violin in Houston, with a Suzuki teacher. My sister, who is two years older than me, had started violin when she was five, so by the time I was five I wanted to play as well.
Shortly after I started taking lessons, we moved to Atlanta, and I studied with a former Atlanta Symphony player. We lived there for five years, then when I was ten, we moved to Chicago. A lot of moves! Three years later we moved up to Ann Arbor (Michigan), where I went to high school.
While living in Ann Arbor, I was actually studying with Almita and Roland Vamos in Chicago. My dad and I would leave after school on Friday -- it takes about four and a half hours to get from Ann Arbor to Chicago. We'd get there in time for the performance class Friday evening. The performances classes are kind of legendary for running until two or three in the morning. Then I'd have lessons all day on Saturday; I'd play in the little string orchestra that the Vamoses had assembled, and then Saturday night my dad and I would drive back to Ann Arbor and spend the rest of the weekend there.
Laurie: That's dedication! So, you studied with the "Vami" -- I understand that they often work together with a student.
Ben: Usually, yes. They like teaching in tandem, especially in their pre-college unofficial program. Typically, Mr. Vamos really focuses on technical aspects: etudes, Sevcik, Paganini Caprices, Locatelli, Dont -- all those kind of things. Mrs. Vamos usually hears the standard repertoire pieces.
Laurie: What a nice combination.
Ben: It's amazing. The foundation that Mr. Vamos gave us is pretty incredible; I still rely on that so much. He would supplement a lot of those etude books with his own practices, and he'd take it to the next level. Both of them had such an appreciation that was infectious, for playing from the heart. Mrs. Vamos could always talk about scores and what's going on in the orchestra, but a lot of times it was: 'It just doesn't sound genuine, I need you to play more honestly, without trying to do something, just make it happen.'
I graduated high school a year early because I was so eager to start at Curtis. I had originally wanted to audition at Curtis a year earlier, after my sophomore year of high school. But my mom wisely, wisely put her foot down and said, 'No. You should have as much time being a normal kid as possible, and then when you go to Curtis you can use all that time to focus on music.' You don't want to have a couple years of high school (requirements) lingering, because then it's just going to complicate things. So I went to Curtis when I was 17, and I studied primarily with Ida Kavafian for the first four years.
Curtis allows, and almost encourages, students to stay a fifth year during the Bachelor's program. There are so many opportunities at Curtis to take advantage of that it's hard to do that in four years. So in my fifth year at Curtis, I added Pam Frank as a teacher. Curtis also encourages that kind of sharing of students. Even before I officially started studying privately with Pam, I worked a lot with her in chamber music, on sonatas -- So I had worked with both of them for a long time.
Laurie: You have done a lot of competitions, and I was curious about what you've learned from that process -- about preparation, about performance, about yourself. They seem very grueling!
Ben: They can be -- especially the bigger ones that I most recently have competed in, the Montreal and Indianapolis Competitions. Those are the only ones of that magnitude that I've done, on the international circuit.
Before that, I was doing a lot of national competitions. Those are still very high pressure, but not as grueling as a two-week-long competition. In general, you learn to accept that it may not be your day, at all times. You have to focus on what you're getting out of the competition, regardless of the winners. My teachers really emphasized the idea that a competition is for you to get a lot out of just practicing for it. You have that deadline, you have that big date marked off on your calendar. You know that by that date, you need to have a huge list of repertoire -- the Brahms Concerto, Bach's B minor Partita, Ravel Sonata, whatever it is -- ready to go.
In my early years, the main thing I got out of competitions was just having to balance a lot of pieces at once like that. But in the bigger competitions, Indianapolis in particular, I remember thinking, even before the final round came: How am I going to do this? I am just so tired, I feel like I've given it my all. Even though you only play three or four rounds, it feels like every day you are competing. You are always in the competition mindset. You have very limited time with the pianist so you always have to be on for that, you have to be ready for the meetings with the conductors or with the orchestra -- you're constantly going at 120 percent. And that's going for 17 days, in some cases.
Laurie: That's a long time to sustain that.
Laurie: You must feel like a completely wrung-out towel by then. But I suppose it prepares you for the life of a soloist.
Ben: Absolutely. Looking back, everything else after that will seem that much easier. When you have to go play Bruch Concerto and then play Sibelius and Brahms in a two weeks' span of time, you think, okay, I've done this before, this isn't my first time.
Laurie: I think it's really neat you have this musical relationship with your Curtis colleague Chris Rogerson, and I wondered if you could tell me how that started and how you've worked together with this composer.
Ben: We first met at a workshop sponsored by the National Foundation for Advancement of the Arts, called Young Arts. They hold this weeklong seminar for artists of all disciplines who are seniors in high school. They have writers, they have dancers, they have singers both classical and popular, instrumentalists, jazz….they have all arts included. It's sort of a competition, but more than anything, it's supposed to introduce you to all these different disciplines. Chris and I met there, obviously he was a composer and I was a violinist there. Then when I came to Curtis, he had been a student there for two years before me. So we started hanging out a lot and became friends.
The first time I played his music was about three years ago. Curtis has this program called Curtis on Tour. They send students alongside faculty members around the United States or sometimes around Europe, just to get that valuable experience of doing the whole touring process. For that tour, they commissioned two student composers, and I was selected to play Chris's piece, a violin and piano piece called 'Lullaby, No Bad Dreams.'
I very quickly took to his musical language and general approach, and it was something I really enjoyed working on and playing for eight or nine performances. Then, serendipitously, both of us joined the Young Concert Artists roster -- he joined about a year before me. I talked with my managers there and asked if they'd be willing to help me commission Chris for a violin sonata to play for all of these very important debuts that I had coming up last year, at the Kennedy Center, in New York and just around the country. They went for it, and so he and I got to work together again. He's a close friend. He's a Michigan football fan, so we'd watch football games together outside of music, we'd hang out, we'd go to parties together. So it was kind of the best of all worlds.
One of the best things for me about commissioning a piece is how much influence you can have on it. Obviously, you're not dictating everything, but you can give the composer ideas. For example, let's say you have a Schumann sonata or something on the program that's very dark: you can suggest writing a piece that would contrast that, or maybe a series of little vignette pieces that are lighter in character. Or, you can say, 'I want you to listen to the way Debussy treats violin and piano in the Debussy Sonata, because I like that idea.' It's cool, helping to frame these new pieces.
Laurie: I understand that you recently performed the violin concerto by Jennifer Higdon with the South Dakota and Glens Falls symphonies. That concerto is a pretty new baby isn't it? Isn't that the concerto that Hilary Hahn commissioned?
Ben: Exactly. That was a really cool process. Hilary commissioned Jennifer, with the help of the Baltimore, Indianapolis and Toronto symphony orchestras. The piece was written for Hilary, and Jennifer had Hilary' playing style and technique in mind. The piece was originally workshopped with the Curtis Orchestra, so that both Hilary and Jennifer could hear what it sounded like, how things fit, how things were balanced. At the time, I was sitting in the first violin section of the Curtis Orchestra, experiencing all this. I had no idea that I would eventually be playing the piece as well! It was fascinating to see the logic and the whole process of a soloist going about the question of: How do I make a piece perfect, for myself? For example, I got to see, in the second movement, how Hilary didn't like how some of the trombones were balanced, and so some of those things were edited out. Some things were added in, as well. I also was in the orchestra when Hilary performed it with the Curtis Orchestra at Carnegie.
After that, I started working on it with Jennifer, so I got to see up close, how Hilary maneuvered around these things. Just as a little side note: Jennifer would send Hilary drafts of the movements and I guess it was three or four times, Hilary sent it back saying, 'No, this needs to be harder. Make it harder, make it harder.' So you could imagine, if someone like Hilary is asking for something to be more technically challenging, it's going to be impossible to play!
Laurie: And so was it?
Ben: Sometimes, yes! Again, Hilary was so nice. She gave me her personal fingerings and recordings, so I had kind of a leg up on tackling the piece.
Laurie: Did you meet with her in person or anything?
Ben: I did, I asked her about a couple of fingerings and sections, and she also gave me really great advice about how to prepare it with the orchestra: certain things to focus on at each rehearsal. You have three full rehearsals with the orchestra, and the first time you meet with them, you don't do any rubato obviously, you just get it so they can feel the rhythms out, feel the pacing, and just kind of how to work with the orchestra, which obviously she is so skilled at. So it was great. I couldn't have gotten it from any better source. I had private sessions with Jennifer as well, so I had all I could possibly get.
* * *
Benjamin Beilman's winning performance of the Sibelius Concerto during the final round of the 2010 Montreal International Musical Competition. Here is the third movement:
By Jim Hastings
August 23, 2012 09:06
"How can you listen to such exacting music?"
My big brother, 6 years my senior, once asked me this when he and I were still in school. As far back as I remember, our parents played classical music on radio and recordings. They didn't ram it down our throats. They just happened to like it. So did I. For me, hearing it was a normal part of life -- like walking and breathing -- not strange or exacting.
Of course, receptivity to this music varies among kids, even in the same family, as my experience shows. Big Bro' shows little or no interest in classical, while his twin sister is an avid fan of it. Our younger sister is somewhere in between. You can plant the seeds, but not all soils are equally favorable. And, as we know, there are other influences on kids besides those in the home.
The v.com blogs and threads on childhood exposure to classical music keep reminding me how fortunate I was to hear this music from a very young age. It's crucial -- and shouldn't be too hard -- to keep sharing it with the next generations, preserving the fine side of it, but without the stuffy snobbery and elitism that turn kids -- and adults -- off to it.
I like other musical genres, too; but classical, more than other types, is what helped me get through the typical ups and downs of childhood, and it continues to be a therapeutic force in my life. I know firsthand how the strains of a Mozart symphony or Beethoven sonata or Donizetti aria can boost my confidence or help me shake off fatigue and malaise and bounce back to full energy.
At age 7, I started piano lessons, but soon the violin muse grabbed me when a professional orchestra played at my elementary school. Now I witnessed firsthand how string players brought to life some of the scores -- Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Borodin -- that I'd heard at home.
We could undoubtedly fill many pages with creative ways, conventional and electronic, to share the music. Josh Bell's busking experiment at the Washington, DC, metro station comes to mind. Remembering my own childhood experiences, I'm not at all surprised that plenty of young kids wanted to stop and listen. If it hadn't been rush hour, more parents might have been willing to let them.
My city doesn't have such a station, but there are other offbeat venues for sharing the music. One of mine these days is my own garage. Playing the violin out there in the evening -- the rough equivalent of singing in the shower -- is something I look forward to each day. Unlike buskers, I don't get paid, but that's not the object. Neighbors and passers-by keep saying that they like it, so the years of study and hard work continue to pay off.
A few evenings ago, something happened that I wish you could have seen. There was a knock on the garage door. It was a neighbor's kid, about 6 years old. He'd been riding his bike around in the driveway and had stopped to listen. You guessed it -- he wanted to try out my instrument.
It was like watching a replay of my preadolescent self. I knew what he was feeling -- the same curiosity and delight I had felt as a kid -- and still feel. Of course, the fiddle isn't the only instrument that fascinates him at the moment. My tenant sometimes plays his guitars in the garage, too, and has given the little visitor some demo sessions.
What, if anything, will develop from these different musical seeds planted by two different musicians? Time will tell.
By Adam DeGraff
August 22, 2012 11:22
“Classical Music.” Whewwww. What does that even mean?
Is it the era of Haydn and Mozart?
Is it a style of playing?
Is it feared? Is it chided? Is it misunderstood?
Is it fulfilling to me?
I love music. And I love what I think we are calling classical music in this case. But for me, classical music is more than just the music. It is a lifestyle that taught me so much. It is discipline which brought me so far. It is travel, and networking, and auditioning, and performing, and explaining, and sharing, and learning; which has added so much flavor to my life. But “classical music” is also rife with elitism, unnecessary competition, and narrow minded judgmentalism . And though I catered to the elite, excelled in competitive settings, and was righteous in my former, judgmental views, I now have emerged from the world of “classical music” with a very different view on the subject.
Lately, I’ve been in a “simple is better” mode. However, I know that is not always true. In fact, in comparison to pop music, classical music is quite complex. And this is really the crux of the issue. Classical music IS complex and it takes an investment of time and energy to enjoy. (Especially the more complex works.) So I think I’m going to answer the original question now. Why is classical music so fulfilling for me? Because though I have had to put a lot into classical music, I have gotten so much from classical music. So much more than just the music itself. It was, and is, so very much worth the investment.
By Asher Wade
August 22, 2012 04:15
Today, Aug. 22nd 2012, is Ivry Gitlis' 90th Birthday.
Mazel Tov!!! - Had the pleasure of meeting him several time and chatting with him after master-classes here in Jerusalem (he even asked "me" to be photographed with 'him'(!)
Here's Ivry Gitlis, playing "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso" by Saints-Saens:
By Emily Grossman
August 21, 2012 19:33
This would be our last night to play together. The previous night's performance in Homer had been a bit shaky in spots because I had so much energy that I couldn't manage to calm down. I also got this deer-in-headlights notion that I couldn't read alto clef, but thankfully, that went away once I realised I knew the music anyway. We made it sound good, but I knew I could do better.
Things were different today. Today, for the first time, I pulled out my viola to run through the parts, and it suddenly sang as my native tongue. All the notes clicked naturally into place, the tone clearly focused, sweet, and deep. After a quick run around the lake to off-load the usual accumulated energy, I donned my concert black, grabbed the peanut butter bars for Susie, a latte for Michael, and an americano for myself, and headed for Kenai High School. First would be the New World Symphony followed by intermission, then Mozart's Divertimento in D and 1812 for the grand finale.
We are facing the audience now, with Susie on my left and Michael on my right. Under the golden brightness of the stage lights, we check our A's at the concertmaster's request. I carefully match my own C with Michael's as the bustle hushes into anticipating silence.
This is it. I've spent a large part of my life reaching for this, dreaming about it, haunted by it. I crave it with such heartache during the long, silent winters under the taunting moon that I cannot sleep. My deepest longing is for musical companionship from someone or some group who can make me play to my potential. I strive for that connection, and in those rare moments when I find it, just for that little space in my life, all is right with the world for a change. I will enjoy this moment, and every moment I can have of it.
The conductor takes the stage. I'm beaming from ear to ear. We are about to give her the performance of a lifetime.
By Emily Hogstad
August 21, 2012 17:38
Most of my practice time lately has been spent prepping the forty-odd-page viola part to Mahler 6. I've listened to the piece once a day since I learned I'd be playing it, and I'm now wrestling with a very basic question: do I, or do I not, like this music? I listen again and again, trying to discern some kind of narrative in this ninety-minute mass.
The first movement begins with a march. It seems to presage the Great War with its grandiose character of pomp, brass, and militaristic pageantry. The grandiosity, however, intimidates more than it inspires. The melodies seep a kind of brave, romantic defiance. They are beautiful at first listen, unnerving at second, and terrifying by twentieth. A strange, listless chorale comes and goes. After five long minutes, just when the thirst for musical violence finally seems to have been quenched, the brutal opening is...repeated. And not just partially so: it is completely, totally, turn-the-score-back-to-the-beginning repeated, with all the strength and savagery of the first go-through. Eventually, a full ten minutes after starting off, we finally move on, but even then the same vicious mood persists for quite a while. After a long protest the music slides into a kind of dreamy moonscape, lit by high tremolo, soft woodwinds, magical celesta. But the dream's seductive beauty never feels quite right; the memory of that march is always lurking. When the dreamer is awoken, abruptly and without mercy, the militaristic sounds returns, apparently inescapable, inevitable. Things come to a terrifying head at 16:50, when one of the majestic primary themes is twisted in the grandest, most terrifying manner imaginable. As the movement comes to a close, the moods wildly seesaw between heavenly and hellish, wrapping up with a manic, wild-eyed sprint to the end.
At this point, twenty-five minutes into the symphony, an emotional respite would be more than welcome. (Hint, hint, Mr. Mahler.) Chances are, however, you're not getting one; many conductors opt to move on to the weighty mid-tempo scherzo instead. (I questioned this decision when I first listened to this piece. Surely the slow movement should be put here, I thought, so I can take a breather from that massive introduction! But then when I found out - spoiler alert! - that the last movement was even bigger than the first, I quickly changed my mind.) At first glance the score looks relatively simple...until you realize that every line contains a new rhythmic pitfall with the capability to derail your whole performance. The emphasis hops from first beats to third beats; fourth beats are sprinkled throughout; the tempo yanks back and forth. The only way I've found to keep it all half-straight is by screaming "ONE!!! two three ONE!!! two three" in my head in an attempt to ignore that frequently off-balance third (or fourth) beat. Mahler's wife Alma famously compared the rhythm of this movement to children playing. As you listen, the metaphor seems apt, even charming...until the orchestra's bows begin playing a spooky col legno passage, conjuring up the image of little clattering skeletons.
Well, you might say. Bleak ambiguity only goes so far. Things have to start feeling a little more optimistic in the third movement (at 39:30). Right? Wrong. Here we get a theme that is neither major nor minor, neither happy nor sad, neither hopeless nor hopeful, neither yearning nor satisfied...neither black nor white. The only indisputable thing about it is that it is achingly, impossibly beautiful.
So. Apparently Mahler was waiting until the last movement - roughly an hour into the symphony - to express the inevitable heroism, certitude, catharsis, that we've come to expect from our monumental symphonic music post-Beethoven.
It certainly seems that way when, at the beginning of the final movement, an emphatic line rises from a misty tremolo (55:00). The stage seems set for a grand resolution indeed. However, before long we realize there will be no straightforward Beethovenian triumph. Instead we find ourselves skidding down the rails on a fast, frantic, frenetic ride, clearly uncontrollable (59:00). This is music determined to charge the gates of hell...regardless of the futility of the task.
Then the terrifying militaristic percussion from the first movement comes back...as well as the creepy celesta-laced dreamscapes. There are some uncomfortable moments of deja vu. We've tread a lot of water in the past ninety minutes, but you have to wonder: have we really gotten anywhere?
Then, if you were delusional enough to think you had any idea where this was all going, a percussionist raises a person-sized hammer above their head, and you realize, well, clearly all bets are off. At this point absolutely anything could happen and it wouldn't be surprising.
In case you haven't heard how Mahler 6 wraps up, I'll save you the surprise and stop there. Next time you have ninety minutes to spare, look it up. Just make sure you're not suicidal at the time.
I've read so many conflicting opinions about this symphony. Some feel it's Mahler's masterpiece. Others see it as seriously flawed: maybe fatally so. Some find it to be fatally flawed...and yet cite it as their favorite anyway. It is said that Mahler cried at the first rehearsals for it, unable to come to terms with what he'd unleashed. Alma alleged that the hammer blows prophesied the catastrophes that would later shake their marriage. Heck, even now, a hundred plus years after its composition, we can't even agree about something as fundamental as what order to put the movements in. I imagine I'll get a dozen comments on this post sharply disagreeing with my opinions, and with everybody else's. Because that's just the kind of conflicted reaction this massive music seems to engender.
Personally, I go from loving it to loathing it back to loving it again...sometimes within the span of a few measures. Nothing about it is clear. Everything is difficult. A forceful ambiguity reigns supreme. Mahler assembles us in the concert hall, asks humanity's most important questions, raises an envelope, announces all the answers are within, takes out a sharpened knife, carefully slits open the flap...
And then throws the envelope into a raging bonfire.
What to think?
Yesterday I said to my mother, impulsively, "I haven't felt well lately."
"In what way?" she asked.
"Mm," I said.
"How don't you feel well?" she pressed.
I thought for a moment. "I don't know," I said, and I didn't. I wished I hadn't even mentioned it.
A moment passed.
"Maybe it's all the Mahler I've been playing," I finally said.
I'd said it as a joke. But as soon as the words were out, I realized they had an uncomfortable ring of truth to them, and I frowned.
I thought she'd laugh at me, but she didn't. "That could very well be," she said, and we both fell quiet for a while.
Violinist Frank Almond tells the life story of the 1715 Lipinski Strad in his new recording, "A Violin's Life."
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Confessions of a Former Suzuki Teacher by Pamela Wiley - May 2013
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