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Laurie Niles

Master Class with Laurie Smukler

May 28, 2015 22:52

When Laurie Smukler finished teaching her master class Thursday at the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies, the audience full of teachers clapped -- and clapped, and clapped and clapped.

Originally from Cleveland, Smukler studied with Ivan Galamian at Juilliard and was appointed to the faculty of The Juilliard School last fall and also is on faculty at the Manhattan School of Music, Mannes College of Music and Bard.

Smukler had a way of engaging with students, eliciting their point of view on the subjects she raised. She then administered a mix of action and encouragement that led to immediate results. She often told them what she observed in their playing, asking, "Did you want to do that?" When the answer was "yes," she helped them do it better. When the answer was "no," they worked on making a change.

The first piece we heard was Walton's violin concerto, a piece less famous than the composer's viola concerto but always a treat to hear. It was played by Ashley, who showed solid control and a range of playing in this piece, from high-volume doubles stops to just an intimate thread of sound. The last note seemed like all air, a real feat of control.

Laurie Smukler-Ashley

Smukler began by asking Ashley how she would describe this piece. Dreamy, she said. "I wonder if the dreaminess could get more fervent sometimes," Smukler said.

Smukler set about accomplishing this by focusing on Ashley's shifting: putting more energy, volume and confidence into those places when the music requires a shift to a high note.

"There are a lot of shifts in this," Smukler said. "I think you missed one in the whole thing, and just barely." The music in between two notes can be very potent -- "Walton's intervals are filled with emotion."

They worked on increasing the sound during shifts, rather than backing off on the high note. Also, sometimes Ashley would lean backwards when shifting to a high note, which actually functions to make the bow weaker at the tip. Instead, she asked Ashley to take the bow and "power straight down through your abdomen" for that big landing on a high note.

In one part of the music, the mood changes to something more optimistic when the note change to F sharp. Smukler asked: Does your finger feel optimistic? Does your bow hand feel optimistic?

"I know it's weird to say, but it does matter -- a lot!" she said.

Smukler talked about being tentative for big shifts. "You're a little scared, even though you never miss it," she said. Ashley tried it again, this time with better confidence. But Smukler wanted more. "I still hear just a hair of you saying, 'Did I get it? Okay, now I can vibrato.'" She advised her to bring all the other fingers with her on the shift rather than extending just one. "Now all your friends are there with your third finger, it helps."

The last shift went very well, and Smukler commended her. "That's real passion! Do you like that? I do, too!"

Then came an astonishing performance by Elizabeth, 12, of Paganini Concerto No. 1, first movement. To say that her playing was beyond her years is an understatement; the high-level demands of this piece -- 10ths, ricochet, double-stops, chords, up-bow staccato -- poured from her violin with ease, and yes, with solid musicianship.

As with the student before her, Smukler interviewed Elizabeth for a little bit before going into any teaching points.

Laurie Smukler-Elizabeth

Since Elizabeth was executing all the pyrotechnics accurately and without tension, they decided to look at some of the more lyrical sections. Laurie worked with her on holding the musical tension before orchestra entrances, and about evoking emotion or changing the mood during a change of key.

Next was a change of pace, with Beethoven's Sonata No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 12, No. 3, played by Angela and pianist Evan Solomon. As with many pieces by Beethoven, it's pretty piano-centric, and Smukler took issue with the fact that Angela played the piece by memory. When playing a sonata or other chamber music, "unless you have a partner who is playing by memory, don't play without music," she said, bringing over the score, rather than just the violin part, to put on the music stand. "It's a sign of respect for your partner, because it's not your show." Even if you intend to play by memory, "at least put the music on the stand."

That said, Smukler complemented Angela on her intonation and the character of her playing. To take it a step further, Smukler wanted her to integrate everything she was doing more with the piano.

"I feel like you know that you're accompanying, but it doesn't sound any different," Laurie said. "There's a way to play supporting material in a supportive, interesting way."

Smukler directed Angela's attention to Solomon, at the piano. "Do you feel like you're playing his part? Are you singing it?" Smukler asked. "This is what we do in chamber music: we play everybody's part -- emotionally, and almost physically." They played the introduction several times, with Angela lengthening the first note and trying to feel the piano part more.

"Do you feel a little happier?" Smukler asked Angela. "You seem happier." This was an interesting thing to observe in a masterclass, but it seemed quite true. Working on Smukler's ideas seemed to have cheered Angela up, and then when Smukler acknowledged it, she seemed to relax and cheer up even more.

Laurie Smukler-Angela

Smukler mentioned an interview she'd seen with Perlman, where he talks about drumming the fingering for parts of the Tchaikovsky, not with his left hand, with his right, and even doing so while holding the bow. She suggested that when walking around the grocery store playing your piece in your head while drumming fingers (admit it, we all do this), to drum the fingering with the right hand rather than the left, to get that sense into the right hand.

Smukler asked Angela to play a passage, but to be thinking about feeling the lefthand fingering in her bow hand as well. Angela did so, with good results. "That's exciting!" Smukler said, adding rhetorically, "Would you like to play that way?"

Even when the violin just has repeated accompanying notes, those notes should take the dynamic and musical shape of the melody notes in the piano part, or at least acknowledge an awareness of those things. She emphasized experimenting and listening -- "If it doesn't sound good, there's always a way to fix it."

Next was Enrique, 13, who played the Polonaise de concert in D Major, Op. 4 by Wieniaswki. It's a piece with a lot of string crossings, for which he was very accurate and kept the violin stable. Smukler worked a lot with him on making a crescendo through the string crossings by increasing the bow length with each one. They practiced this by slowing it down and really attending to bow length.

Smukler also spoke about playing in tune (which Enrique did well): "Intonation is about sound. Good intonation rings better," she said. "We need to play in tune, not to be better people, but to sound good."

They also worked on a slower part, high on the G string, striving to connect the notes. "Can you feel this finger aching for that finger?" she asked, referring to the finger down and the one that would go down next.

To close the class, Felicity played the last movement of Concerto No. 3 by Saint-Saëns, with great intonation and speed.

"You have a lot of energy," Smukler said. Sometimes that extra energy equates to extra muscle use. "You have to decide what muscles you need to use to do what you do." Smukler said she was using more muscles than needed, and that was causing tension.

She observed that Felicity also was thrusting her head backwards during big shifts to high notes. She suggested pushing the vioin forward, into the bow, instead, and to have a sense of both thumbs coming together.

Again, she emphasized feeling the music in both hands. "Do you always feel like you're making the sound with both hands?" she said. "Concentrate on that; feel it in the palm of this hand, and in the palm of that hand."

Violinists sometimes tend to play from the upper torso, she said. It helps to have a broader awareness of the body, including the whole torso and the legs supporting it. "We use the small muscles for articulation," she said. "We use big muscles for strength and energy."

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Master Class with Ronald Copes

May 27, 2015 21:57

In a manner both persistent and assuring, Ronald Copes returned to themes of musicality and connection during a master class he gave Wednesday at the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at Juilliard. Copes is chair of the Violin Department at The Juilliard School and has been a member of the Juilliard String Quartet since 1997.

He began with Emily, 16, who played the fiery second movement of the Franck Sonata.


"I love your use of colors -- and wonderfully different colors," Copes said. "You could use more of that."

In order to match the violin part better with the piano part that is so important in this sonata, he had pianist Pamela Viktoria Pyle play the (extremely difficult) piano introduction for Emily, in order to show how the piano articulates the music. He felt that Emily's version of the same material was legato, as opposed to the scattered and percussive piano version, and the way to reconcile this was to "enunciate each of the 16th notes, even feeling it in the arm, almost like a nervousness, that gives a little bit of bow speed to each of those notes."

She tried it, to good effect. When he asked what she thought, she said that it makes the music comes out more. "Some of it is projection," he said, "and some of it is giving us a sense that it's in that same character as the piano."

He asked her to keep tighter control of dynamics; for instance, a crescendo lasting one bar should truly only last that long.

At one point he asked her how she could get more intensity on a sustained "A." She suggested vibrato, and he said that she could also do something with the right hand: "When one is passionate about something, one doesn't breath evenly," he said. Use "an unevenness, an irrational quality of bow" to increase the level of intensity.

He also suggested digging deeper to find what in the music inspires the dynamics that are written on the page.

"A large part of what we do is tell stories," Copes said. One doesn't really notice when a good storyteller speaks slower or louder; instead, one receives their words because they are so well-delivered. The same can apply to telling stories in music. "What is it -- in the notes, the harmony, the rhythms -- that inspires the dynamics? Share with us what that impulse is."

Next Elena, 17, played the Largo from Bach's Sonata No. 3. By the end she held the audience's attention so well, the room went absolutely silent.


"You have a wonderful way of pulling us in and making sure we enter your world of musical ideas," Copes said. He wanted her to work that same magic at the beginning of the piece as happened at the end. He focused on her vibrato, asking her to vibrate on notes that add harmonic importance, not simply on notes that are easy to vibrate. Also, "find a way for your vibrato to be a more integrated part of your sound," he said.

She also played Paganini Caprice No. 2 that was so impressive that -- "I'm going to say very little," he said. He suggested she might have an easier time, holding her bow six inches higher, but "what you are doing works." So maybe don't change a thing!

Léo, 19, gave a captivating performance of the Fuga from Bach's Sonata No. 2. This is (if I'm correct) the longest fugue Bach ever wrote and arguably one of the most difficult movements in all the S and P's. Léo played it with ease, accuracy, a nice sweep of the bow. Despite its length, it was unhurried and captivating for the duration. I noticed, also, that Léo plays a 2013 violin made by his sister, Juliette Marillier. Nice-sounding fiddle!


Copes applauded Léo's ability to handle the piece's myriad difficulties; then he had much to say.

"You take your ideas and are very clear about them; you have a strong point of view and strong commitment to it," Copes said. To Copes, Léo's playing felt angry in places, and "you have an artistic arc to it, but you interrupt it more than you probably intend."

"A fugue is difficult to hear, as well as to play," Copes said. "It takes a lot of concentration from us listeners, to be pulled into this logical world." Most mentally taxing are the contrapuntal sections; then the episodes should provide the listener some relief -- "you can play them fairly simply." Knowing the complexity of the episodes is an advantage, but that complexity doesn't need to be brought out in performance.

Copes had Léo isolate different voices of the fugue and play them by themselves, then asked, "If you were in a chamber group, how would you respond to the second voice?" Léo definitely seemed to be feeling things different, playing as if in a chamber group.

"What we're trying to create is a sense that these voices don't defer to each other," Copes said. "A fugue is a chase, and in a chase, you don't say, 'You go ahead.' There is that sense of competition, in a fugue."

He also worked with him on a transition section, making it connect better instead of sectioning it off. "Before, we had what I call an 'orphan phrase' -- it didn't belong to the section before or after it."

Next came an excellent performance of Paganini Caprice No. 1, the one full of spiccato bariolage, played by Takumi, 15. If Paganini can be called elegant, this was.


Copes told Takumi that he could go farther in demanding that the timing fits the music. "It is a technical thing," Copes said. "It felt like you were making room for the left hand, with the right." Instead, it is possible to get the timing you want, without taking quite so much preparation time.

Takumi also played the third-movement Gavotte from Bach's Partita No. 3.

"What is a Gavotte?" Copes asked. Takumi knew that it was a dance.

"It thought you got a lot of dance-like elements, but I'd have a hard time dancing to it." Why? "You stopped a lot," he said. It's possible to delay beats and not make it feel like stopping, as long as the sound keeps going, he said.

"I think about the meter as being fabric; you can stretch this, but you don't want to rip or tear it," Copes said.

Next came the third movement ("Lebhaft") of Hindemith's 1939 Concerto, played by Alyssa, 20. It's a piece that is rarely played, so it was a treat to hear it live.


Copes had some interesting thoughts about the cadenza. He reminded her, "You're improvising this; you've never heard this before." Some parts of the cadenza quote material from the concerto, and the others are meant to be more improvisatory. To help the listener understand this, he advised playing the quotes from the concerto more metrically and the improvisatory gestures with more freedom.

Also, he asked her, "When you end an improvisatory gesture, do you know what you are playing next?"

"No," she smiled.

So, don't give that away, either with physical or musical gestures.

While some teachers lose wind toward the end of a master class, Copes' energy seemed to increase the longer he taught. He remained deeply analytical, persistent and clear, right to the end of the master class, with the last student getting every bit as much attention as the first.

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Master Class and Interview with Sarah Chang

May 26, 2015 22:41

On Tuesday, superstar violinist Sarah Chang returned to her alma mater, The Juilliard School, to conduct the first master class in the 2015 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies and to talk with participants about her own career. She was generous in her support for the young artists who played for her and open about what she has learned from a career that began when she was a tiny child and continues at full throttle today, some 30 years later.

Sarah Chang Master Class

The master class began with Angela, 17, who performed the first movement of the Brahms Violin Concerto. She played this piece, with its many technical and musical challenges, with care and control, and the lyrical parts were sweet and singing.

Afterwards Sarah applauded her efforts, adding, "I like your shoes, too!"

They started by working on the opening, Sarah asking for more shape and drive in certain places, "so it feels like you are going forward and not just playing perfect."

They worked on the first iteration of the movement's melodious lyrical passage. Sarah said that Angela's playing already "goes straight to your heart, it's so beautiful." In this piece, though, "it needs to be so pure -- no slides, no glissandos, nothing. Imagine looking at your face in the morning -- no makeup."

In working on a passage with many triple-stop chords, Sarah said that Dorothy DeLay once told her that "when you have a chord, the E will ring regardless. So use your bow arm to emphasize the lower notes."

Sarah Chang and Angela

For one musical line, Sarah asked her if Angela was aiming for a long line, or for a series of steps, dynamically, adding that either concept was acceptable, but she felt she needed to commit to one or the other. Angela said she was aiming for steps. "If you want steps, you need to have definite steps."

Next was Felicity, who played the third movement of Mozart Concerto No. 3.

Sarah Chang and Felicity

It's a piece that requires a light touch, and Felicity had it, as well as accuracy and good musical humor. This movement has several fast passages that are played twice, first loudly and then with an echo, which is generally played off the string. Felicity was doing this, but Sarah advised that with an orchestra or in a large hall, the difference needed to be clearer. Making the soft part bouncier made this difference more apparent.

Next, Valerie played the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Concerto. "Now that's ballsy playing!" Sarah Chang said. (Wouldn't it be cool to have Sarah Chang say something like that about your playing?) Then, "There's really not much to say, but since we're here..."

(It's true that the students who play at Starling-DeLay tend to be at such an extremely high level, I personally do wonder sometimes what I would say, as a teacher. They come to this event very polished!)

One thing they discussed was a certain passage, before the first big tutti, which is marked "Poco più lento." There's been a bit of a movement lately to play that passage on the slower side (you can read Hilary Hahn's comments on the matter, for example.) Sarah, who also has played the Tchaik literally thousands of times, finds this not to be Tchaikovsky's best writing. (It's not exactly Swan Lake). She advised not to slow down much there, rather "lighten up a little and coast over that section" and focus more energy on emphasizing the fortissimo high trills that follow it.

We also got to hear the last movement of the Tchaikovsky, played by Emily, 16, whose set-up is so picture-perfect that I include this photo at right to show my students (and everyone else's). She played with excellent concentration, musicality and intonation; and Sarah just wanted more drive from her.

"It almost seems like you are being so polite to your instrument because you don't want to hurt it," Sarah said. "Don't be afraid to dig in and give it some guts!"

It occurred to me that permission from Sarah Chang is likely a powerful thing!

She also advised her to put more shape into the thicket of notes that appears as an exchange with the piano (at letter L) toward the end of the piece. It's a fast passage with double-stops and string crossings. Sarah asked Emily to watch the pianist, Pamela Viktoria Pyle, who was clearly increasing the volume and energy with each statement.

"Watch her hands," Sarah said. "Every time she plays that, it gets more and more, until the point where her whole body is involved and her hair is flying...It's all about drive, and making this huge accelerando at the end."

And speaking of the end -- five measures of octave D's repeated in 16th notes -- "there's no reason to play pianissimo there," Sarah said. "They're never going to hear you unless you're blasting the heck out of that!"

* * *

After the master class, Symposium Artistic Director Brian Lewis interviewed Sarah, who also took questions from the audience. Both Brian and Sarah had been students of Dorothy DeLay, the extraordinary Juilliard teacher who also was the founder of this symposium. Brian had been a student when Sarah was very young, and he had even sat in on many of Sarah's lessons with DeLay. Here are some of the highlights of that interview from Tuesday.

Brian Lewis and Sarah Chang

First Brian asked Sarah: How did you start playing the violin?

At three, Sarah started piano lessons "It wasn't my choice, not to!" Her first violin lessons began at age four and a half, with a 1/16-size violin -- "a toy -- it's like one of those Christmas ornaments!" Her first teacher was her dad, also a violinist. The family soon realized that "it's a colossally bad idea to study with a parent," Sarah said. Her father had taken from Dorothy DeLay, so in order to find peace in the family, they Sarah would audition for DeLay. So at age 5 1/2, she auditioned at Juilliard, playing the Bruch Concerto and Mozart Concerto No. 3, and "they let me in, for some reason," she said. From then on, Dorothy DeLay "was everything. Our teacher, a third grandmother..."

What was the most important advice Dorothy DeLay gave her?

"To date outside of the business," Sarah said, making everyone laugh. "I was older when she said that."

Sarah described DeLay as being gentle and yet demanding and persistent.

"She would never tell you what to do. She would say, 'Sweetie, could you push that D up a little?' and you thought, 'Sure, I can push that D up a little!' Then you would get home and realize, oh, she was saying I was playing out of tune!"

Brian asked if there were any pieces that she hasn't played, that she'd like to play.

Sarah said she tries to schedule one piece every season that is new to her; recently it was the Barber Concerto; next season it will be Astor Piazzolla's "The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires." She also said she'd like to commission more new pieces.

Brian asked her if she had any helpful advice for teachers of prodigies.

Sarah said that when she was young, "there was a moment when I was so overwhelmed. I was upset every time I had a concert and had to miss a slumber party." She was also having to deal with managers, publicists, record companies and all kinds of stress at a young age.

At this point, DeLay took her aside and told her to "surround yourself with really good people who can take care of 'the noise' so you can concentrate on what's important: the music."

"I loved that she took a moment and explained that to me," Sarah said. DeLay then helped her assemble a team of people.

Has she ever needed a break?

That moment came when she was 17. "I'd been going so strong for 10 years," she said. "I wasn't tired of being on stage, but I was tired of traveling. It sounds really glamorous and cool, but you end up flying more than flight attendants and pilots."

So they scheduled a break for her. "I finished what we had contracted, and planned a good solid two months off," she said. During that time, "I did nothing, I ate, I went to the movies. But after about a week or so, I started to miss the violin. So that allowed me to start missing it and wanting to go back to it."

How does she feel about competitions?

"To be honest, I am not a product of competitions. I never entered one, never won one, never lost one. I did not go through that whole process. But I had so many friends who did," she said. "How do you judge a musician? It's not a tennis game; it's all interpretive. In a general way I'm not a huge fan, but I do realize the benefits of participating in one, especially if it comes with a cluster of concerts, that might give that artist the start they need. Or a recording contract, or other benefits might come with it."

Brian Lewis added that DeLay thought that competitions were a necessary evil.

"Did you know that David Oistrakh won second in a competition? That shows you right there," she said. "Cindy Crawford won second place in a beauty contest. Do any of us know who got first place? "

Brian Lewis asked her how much she practiced, when she was seven.

"Probably about one or two hours, maybe three if I had a concert," she said. "I had school until 4 p.m., and I had to have my mandatory one hour of television after school - that was non-negotiable! Saved by the Bell. And then I would do about 45 minutes of the basics: etudes, scales, arpeggios, chromatic scales, thirds, sixths, octaves -- all the drill Ms. DeLay gave her students."

"I found that focused practicing is more effective than long, drawn-out hours of practicing," she said. "I think one of the reasons I haven't had major problems with my hands or arms or neck is the fact that I don't practice more than an hour. I'll do an hour, then I'll put the violin down and do something else, and then go back for another hour. But I always give myself a break, just because violin is such an awkward instrument -- everything is asymmetrical."

Sarah also talked about the audiences for classical music.

"I think that audiences for classical music are really smart, they're sophisticated," she said. They aren't fooled by hype. "I think we have the most loyal fan base out of any musical style. I have had people come up to me after concerts and say, 'I saw you play at Aspen when you were six years old.' These fans are the most loyal anywhere."

And how many times has she played the Tchaikovsky Concerto? "Probably in the thousands," she said, with all those repeated subscription concerts.

An audience member asked about her bows.

"I collect bows," she said. "With a different bow, you get a completely different sound." Sometimes, she will change bows between pieces. "There are times when I'd use a different bow for Brahms than I would use for Mozart. I travel with four because you can fit four in your violin case." She uses different ones for heavy concertos played with orchestra than with a lighter concert played with a small group or recital situation. Different climates call for different tensions, for example, Aspen vs. New York. "It's really where you are, that determines the tension." Even being in a warm room with stage lights requires different tension than a practice room.

She said she rehairs her bows "ALL the time. It's ridiculous how often I rehair my bows. Every two weeks." That means she often has to have it done while traveling, and though she has people she regularly goes to in certain cities, she occasionally has to go to one she knows only by reputation.

How often does she change strings?

"I used to use Dominants and changed them twice a month. I have new strings now, from Thomastik. They are trial strings, they custom-made for me and are not on the market, but they last a little longer, I change them maybe once a month," she said. "But it depends on how hard you are playing, and what you are playing. If you're playing Mozart, you can go for at least a month. If you're playing Shostakovich, two days, that's it!"

Asked about her most memorable performance, Sarah described a performance in Berlin. She'd been accustomed to American audiences, who clap between movements, show great enthusiasm and give frequent standing ovations. But in Berlin, there was complete silence between movements, and no standing ovations. "You're wearing a little pink dress your mom made you wear and these matching pink horrible shoes, and you walk on stage and if you're that small, people clap. I was so used to that." But in Berlin, no one stood up. Yet after the performance, people applauded and applauded, "until I had 12 curtain calls. Then the orchestra left!" she said. "The audience gave me another curtain call. There is a photo -- all these empty chairs because the orchestra had left, and me, this tiny little figure on stage alone, taking a curtain call. It was a different sort of audience reaction, and was equally as moving."

Sarah Chang and student artists
Sarah Chang had dinner with all the student artists chosen to perform this week at the Starling-DeLay Symposium, then took them for ice cream! Here she is with them and with Symposium Artistic Director Brian Lewis.

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Snapshots from New York

May 25, 2015 20:31

NEW YORK - I arrived Monday in New York for the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies, which begins on Tuesday at Juilliard. Tomorrow is a master class with Sarah Chang and a recital with Sean Lee, so check back for articles about those events.

Today, I could not resist the allure of perfect weather, so I wandered around a bit. Here are a few scenes from a gorgeous afternoon in New York:

The Juilliard School

View of Lincoln Center from the Meredith Willson dorms at Juilliard

Lincoln Center
Lincoln Center, ground level

Central Park
Central Park

Busker in Central Park

Columbus Circle
Columbia Circle

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Laurie's Violin School: Scott Slapin's Innovative Étude-Duets for Violin or Viola

May 20, 2015 12:07

Imagine playing études, just for fun.

Violist Scott Slapin has found a way to both drill the skills and sneak a little play into this genre of technical study: he has composed a set of 24 Progressive Études for violin or viola that also works as a book of duets.

"I see études as a challenge," Slapin said. "Playing violin or viola is not only an art, it's also a sport. Études are a dare: 'Can you do this?' Paganini even dedicated his set to 'the artists.' He was daring other violinists!"

Scott Slapin

Knowing the benefits of études, Slapin wanted to get students motivated to practice them more and prepare them better.

"My first thought was to write accompaniments to Wohlfahrt études," said Slapin, who teaches violin and viola privately in western Massachusetts as well as worldwide via Skype, along with his wife Tanya Solomon. "I like and use the Wohlfahrt etudes, but they are often musically boring. That's not because of any deficiency on the composer's part, but they have to be boring because when the student can only play eighth notes in one key, there's not much a composer has to work with there."

Then it occurred to Slapin to simply write his own. He set out to write a book of études in which the first half of the book could be played with the second half -- étude No. 1 with 13; 2 with 14, etc. "Midway, the student and teacher would reverse roles," he said. "The idea is at the end of the week the étude might turn into something more musical with the teacher. Also, I've found that when students have to 'perform' at the end of the week, they're a little more diligent."

Slapin's 24 Progressive Études start around the level of Wohlfahrt No. 1, then they progress a little more quickly than the Wohlfahrt études. "They're aimed to be more or less a student's first book of etudes; something someone would start maybe in the second or third year," Slapin said.

Did Slapin enjoy playing études, when he was a student?

"I did! Not at the very beginning, but by somewhere around Kreutzer 6 or so I began to," he said. Études are not all created equal, in terms of being both good exercises and good music. "Études always have a range. Kreutzer No. 13 (in the Urtext 12, the one that starts with the same chord changes as the first Bach Cello Suite) is good enough to perform on a recital. Kreutzer No. 9 (Urtext 8) definitely isn't. Paganini 13 is, 12 isn't. I think it's fun to take the less musical ones, though, and try to make music out of them."

"With my own students, after they've covered the entire fingerboard through scales, I like the étude always to be the most difficult thing that they're working on," Slapin said. "They shouldn't struggle so much technically with repertoire, where I'd rather we talk about the music -- phrasing, vibrato, etc. I see the étude as the engine that pulls the train forward, technically speaking."

Slapin is an experienced composer; he has written three albums of what he calls "violacentric" recital music: Reflections; All Viola, All the Time; and Violacentrism, the Opera. His viola trio, Capricious, quotes half of the Paganini Caprices and was commissioned by the American Viola Society as a tribute to Slapin's late viola teacher, Emanuel Vardi.

"Mr. Vardi and I were the first two to record all 24 Paganini Caprices on viola, he over forty years before I did," Slapin said. "I also made the first recording of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas on viola, which along with the Paganini, I consider the twin-bibles of upper string playing."

Nonetheless, Slapin's étude-duets presented a composing challenge. "It was a lot of things to juggle at once. It had to seamlessly line up so that Étude No. 13 was just a little harder than Étude No. 12," Slapin said. "They had to be true etudes, not duos. These each needed to focus on a technical issue." That being the case, they couldn't follow some of the normal conventions for duets, like parts imitating each other. "Still, I like to think they work well enough as duos, and I think there's some music in there that will make the experience more satisfying for the student and teacher."

He did make one set sound more étude-ish: "The last set (12 & 24) is just a fun, crazy homage to Wohlfahrt. I thought that in a book of twenty-four études, at least something should sound like an étude!"

* * *

Here, Scott Slapin and Tanya Solomon play Slapin Études Nos. 1-3 and 13-15 on viola, as duets.

Here are links to videos of the Slapin's other étude/duets:

Slapin Études Nos. 4-6 and 16-18
Slapin Études Nos. 7-9 and 19-21
Slapin Études Nos. 10-12 and 22-24

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The Week in Reviews, Op. 83: Ray Chen, Lisa Batiashvili, Stefan Jackiw

May 19, 2015 09:47

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.

Ray Chen performed Lalo's "Symphonie espagnole" with the San Diego Symphony.

  • U-T San Diego: "Ray Chen’s program bio talks about his “unstinting efforts to break down barriers between classical music, fashion and culture” through his affiliations with companies like Giorgio Armani and his appearances in publications like Vogue. But really, Armani and Vogue have nothing to do with it. Chen crashes through any supposed barriers erected around classical music with his playing. As he demonstrated in an especially satisfying, Spanish-themed San Diego Symphony Masterworks concert at Jacobs Music Center Friday, he’s a performer who knows what he wants, knows how to get it, and knows how to communicate it to an audience."

Ray Chen
Ray Chen. Photo by CAMI Music.

Lisa Batiashvili performed Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

  • Philadelphia Inquirer: "Violinist Batiashvili was never reckless in Shostakovich, but she continually pushed the piece toward maximum expressivity, not in the confessional manner of Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg but in a way that seemed to burn from within. The big cadenza that ushers in the finale, dramatizing a massive mental meltdown while never losing its musical through-line, was a concert in itself. The frenetically-paced final movement seemed to go as fast as the music possibly could, with orchestra and soloist playing as if a single entity."

Stefan Jackiw performed the Mendelssohn and Bottesini's Gran Duo Concertante for Double Bass and Violin with bassist Maxime Bibeau and the Australian Chamber Orchestra

  • The Sydney Morning Herald: "Jackiw returned to end the concert with an earnest, breathless and strikingly accomplished performance of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in an arrangement by Richard Tognetti for 10 string instruments plus soloist. Jackiw's sound is lean and transparent, with thrilling glow in the upper register and characterised by brilliance and refined colour, more than warmth and breadth."
  • The Daily Telegraph: "Jackiw is an exciting talent who is on the verge of classical music stardom. Once he starts building his discography the world should be hearing a lot more of him."

Kristin Lee performed the Fung with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

  • Journal Sentinel: "Opening with faint, atmospheric sounds, the piece is an endlessly interesting tapestry of contrasting sounds, rhythms and moods that delivers bits of the gamelan musical tradition of Bali, Tibetan chant and even phrases reminiscent of Stravinsky. The solo violin part ranges from ghostly harmonics to big, forceful statements. Lee brought a perfect balance of finesse and vigor to the piece, giving a driven, commanding performance that demanded and got rapt attention from the audience."

Sergey Khachatryan performed the Khachaturian with the London Philharmonia Orchestra.

  • The Armenian Weekly: "On the stage, the artist was absorbed in moments of emotional enjoyment, which also engulfed the audience. Khachatryan’s violin produced sounds that were magical, captivating, and mesmerizing. He is truly an exceptionally talented artist."

Ilya Kaler performed the Rozsa with Ars Viva, in its final performance.

  • Chicago Classical Review: "Ars Viva’s 'second concertmaster' Ilya Kaler delivered a sturdy and largely impressive performance, playing with singing tone and fervent attacks. Kaler was clearly in synch with the rhapsodic tenderness of the central Lento, and, with equally propulsive accompaniment by conductor and orchestra, threw off the fireworks of the Bartok-meets-Hollywood finale with worthy fire and panache."

Elina Vähälä performed the Sibelius with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.

  • Nashville Scene: "She has a technique that seemingly knows no difficulties, so she blazed through virtuoso passages with seeming effortlessness. And yet, her interpretation never came across as showy. Rather, it was the haunting beauty of her tone and the warm, patrician elegance of her playing that made the biggest impression."

Nicola Benedetti performed two movements from Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 with the London Symphony Orchestra, outside in Trafalgar Square.

  • Classical Music Magazine: "The event received a positive reaction from those watching, with many taking to social media to express their enthusiasm." (Wondering if the reviewer even went!)

Caroline Goulding performed the Barber with the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Sentinel: "The gifted Goulding, now in her 20s, may still be considered precocious by some, but her exquisite play on Barber’s groundbreaking 1939 work, which marries two lyrically sumptuous opening movements with a strongly dissonant finale, displayed a fine and mature touch."
  • PennLive: "Goulding ably demonstrates why the concerto is such a singular showcase for the virtuosic capabilities of a violinist. Her minute-long standing ovation was well earned."

Anthony Marwood performed the Britten with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

  • Stuff: "The Violin Concerto saw Sondergard in complete sympathy with soloist Anthony Marwood. This gave us a subtle, beautifully inflected performance of a work that is not easy to bring off, and few could have remained unaffected by the depth of feeling in the finale - a passacaglia that dies away to nothing."

Bella Hristova performed Paganini's Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

  • NUVO: "She managed all the 'stuff' with aplomb that Paganini threw at her, and did it with a nicely centered tone, all but equaling the finest laureates to emerge from the competition. Plus Trevor's orchestra easily held up their end of the bargain."

Sergej Krylov performed Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 5 with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

  • ArtsATL: "...Krylov performed with an amazing brilliance. There was also opportunity aplenty for lyricism, particularly in the slow second movement, but Krylov’s approach retained a sense of an inner tensile strength, never allowing the lyricism to become languid or sentimental. Krylov took multiple bows for his exceptional performance, then played Paganini’s “Caprice No. 24” as encore, with even more personal musical investment than the concerto."

Christian Tetzlaff performed the Widmann with the Cleveland Orchestra.

  • The Plain Dealer: "Tetzlaff was impressive as he tore into the demanding work, his tone full-bodied and sure, even when required to navigate the very highest reaches of his instrument."

Janine Jansen performed the Mendelssohn with the San Francisco Symphony.

  • San Francisco Chronicle: "Her Mendelssohn sparkled, once past the underpowered sonorities of the first movement, and she shaped the melodies of the central slow movement with lyrical grace. But the whole thing felt light and airy enough to float away with the next breeze."

Alexandre Da Costa performed the Sibelius with the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra.

  • Lexington Herald-Leader: "The LPO performed the work creditably, with beautiful contributions throughout by the woodwinds, and by the French horns in the second movement, but less so by the soloist. To give Da Costa the benefit of the doubt, it seemed that the Sibelius is brand new to his repertoire, as he did not perform from memory, rather keeping his eyes fixed on the music stand."

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

2 replies

Stolen: 1936 Gaetano Sgarabotto Violin and Rolland Bow

May 17, 2015 15:51

Please spread the word! Police are still looking for leads in the disappearance of a 1936 Gaetano Sgarabotto violin and Benoit Rolland bow. The violin and bow, in an oblong blue canvas M.A. Gordge case, were stolen in the early morning April 13 near the Ritz Carlton hotel, in Georgetown, Washington D.C.

The instrument is orange-brown, with a two-piece pine top and two-piece flamed maple back. The 1999 octagonal bow has an ebony frog and is inscribed with the serial number 983.

If you have any information, you can e-mail Gtownviolin@gmail.com, or call D.C. Police Officer Roberto Corchado at (202) 730-1901 or cell (240) 422-2108.

Here are pictures of the violin:

missing Sgarabotto

Archive link

Finalists announced in the 2015 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Belgium

May 17, 2015 00:24

Congratulations to the 12 finalists in the Queen Elisabeth Competition! The finalists, announced at midnight Saturday in Belgium, are:

QE Finalists 2015

  • William Ching-Yi Wei (Chinese Tapei)
  • Tobias Feldmann (Germany)
  • Thomas Reif (Germany)
  • Mohri Fumika (Japan)
  • Kenneth Renshaw (U.S.A.)
  • Kim Bomsori (Korea)
  • Wang Xiao (China)
  • William Hagen (U.S.)
  • Lee Ji Yoon (Korea)
  • Oleksii Semenenko (Ukraine)
  • Lim Ji Young (Korea)
  • Stephen Waarts (The Netherlands / U.S.)

The finals will take place at thee Brussels Centre for Fine Arts from May 25 to 30. Finalists will perform with the National Orchestra of Belgium conducted by Marin Alsop. On May 30 the laureates will be ranked at the end of the evening.

Here is the schedule for the finals.

Videos of the semi-finals can be seen in the Queen Elisabeth Competition digital archives.

Watch the live stream here.

We will be bringing you live coverage of the Finals from Belgium, with Heather Kurzbauer.

2 replies

The Week in Reviews, Op. 82: Baiba Skride, Joshua Bell, Ben Beilman

May 12, 2015 14:56

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.

Baibe Skride performed Mozart's Fourth and Prokofiev's Second Violin Concertos with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

  • Birmingham Post: "The Mozart was neat and crystalline, Skride’s bow resourceful and articulate in communication, her dovetailing with the orchestra triumphant at the end of the first movement cadenza. The Prokofiev brought piercing purity of intonation in an amazingly empathetic collaboration with the CBSO under Andris Nelsons (Skride’s old schoolmate)."

Baiba Skride
Baiba Scride.

Joshua Bell performed the Glazunov with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

  • Cincinnati Enquirer: "He played in the old-world style, sometimes lingering on a phrase to allow the sound of his violin to resonate. And what a glorious sound it was. The most demanding passages of arpeggios and double stops were effortless. The finale, a jaunty contrast to the other movements, was scintillating."

Leonidas Kavakos performed the Sibelius with the National Symphony Orchestra.

  • Washington Post: "The dynamic contrasts and contrasts of intensity characterized a performance that was alternately authoritative and wild."
  • Communities Digital News: "Mr. Kavakos’ inventive mastery of this work is a force that other violinists will have to reckon with. Confident, passionate and with a skill set that proved endless in its variety and inventiveness, he attacked this concerto’s wildly varying moods with passion and ferocity when required and with an almost nano-delicacy during other more intimate moments.

Benjamin Beilman performed the Sibelius with the Orchestra of St. Luke's.

  • The New York Times: "But this performance, strong and uncannily accurate, could stand proudly alongside any (other NY performances this spring). Mr. Beilman speaks double and triple stops as if they were his first language."

Augustin Hadelich performed the Mendelssohn and Haydn’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

  • Montreal Gazette: "Augustin Hadelich applied a single-minded sound to Mendelssohn’s familiar Violin Concerto, to the great satisfaction of the audience. This 31-year-old Italian-born son of German parents gave a stronger impression of mastery in a virtuoso encore, Paganini’s Caprice No. 5."
  • Toronto Star: "Hadelich’s playing was dainty and agile. He easily manoeuvred the rapidly ascending runs and ricochets bowing on the Allegretto, which started off slow but was bubbling in no time with hints of the opening theme."
  • Ottawa Citizen: "His musicality is easy but not facile, and his tone is uniform and attractively produced right up into the highest register. Hadelich tossed off a Paganini Caprice as a fast and furious encore."

Vadim Gluzman performed Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 with the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra.

  • The Columbus Dispatch: "Throughout Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, Gluzman’s characteristic intensity of line never slackened, and his technical virtuosity shimmered in an aura of velvety sound."

Jonathan Chan performed Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra.

  • KelownaNow: "To say the audience was speechless during Chan’s performance would be an understatement, as the man of many talents elicited a whirlwind of emotion from his bewitched admirers."

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

1 reply

Winners announced in the 2015 Fischoff Chamber Music Competition

May 11, 2015 10:50

Congratulations to the winners of the 42nd annual Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition! The competition was held over the weekend at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., with 49 ensembles from around the world competing (narrowed down from 133 ensembles from 29 countries) in junior and senior divisions.

Here are the prize winners:

GRAND PRIZE ($7,500)

Zorá String Quartet
Bloomington, Ind.

Zorá Quartet
The Zorá String Quartet. Photo by Josef Samuel.

* * *


GOLD MEDAL ($3,500)
Zorá String Quartet
Bloomington, Ind.

  • Dechopol Kowintaweewat, violin
  • Seula Lee, violin
  • Pablo Muñoz Salido, viola
  • Zizai Ning, cello

Calla Quartet
The Colburn School
Los Angeles, Calif

  • Michaela Wellems, violin
  • Amelia Dietrich, violin
  • Aiden Kane, viola
  • Karissa Zadinsky, cello

Autana Trio
Cleveland, Ohio

  • Yuri Noh, piano
  • Ruben Rengel, violin
  • Anna Bowman, cello

* * *

Incendium QuartetJUNIOR DIVISION
(Ages 18 and under)

($2,300 scholarship)
Incendium Quartet (pictured, right)
The Colburn School
Pasadena Conservatory
Los Angeles, California

  • Geneva Lewis, violin
  • Mei Zhan, violin
  • Emma Wernig, viola
  • Atticus Mellor-Goldman, cello

($1,800 scholarship)
Trio Adonais
New England Conservatory Prep School
Boston, Massachusetts

  • Sammy Andonian, violin
  • Mari Nagahara, cello
  • John Gibson, piano

($1,300 scholarship)
Alegrar Quartet
Barratt Due Institute of Music
Oslo, Norway

  • Inga Vaga Gåustad, violin
  • Oda Holt Günther, violin
  • Michael Andreas Grolid, viola
  • Brage Botn Seim, cello

Isolde Quartet
New England Conservatory Prep
Boston, Massachusetts

Atara String Quartet
Music Institute of Chicago

* * *

The competition was founded in 1973 by Joseph E. Fischoff and and members of the South Bend (Ind.) Chamber Music Society. This year, National Public Radio’s From the Top will tape a special program called From the Top Backstage at Fischoff for broadcast beginning June 15 on member stations.

Read about winners in the Junior and Senior Wind Divisions here.

* * *

The Zorá String Quartet performs Robert Schumann String Quartet Op.41 No.1 IV: Presto:

The Incendium Quartet performs Brahms String Quartet No. 2 In A Minor, Op 51:

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Violinist.com Interview with Rachel Podger

May 7, 2015 15:14

Violinist Rachel Podger, one of today's most-respected period performers, once had to hide her Baroque life from her modern-violin teachers and colleagues.

"I had to keep those worlds completely separate," she said, speaking to me in March while in California to play several concerts. This June she will return to the U.S. for all-Bach concerts with Masaaki Suzuki and Juilliard415 in Boston and New York.

"I just remember this attitude from the other violinists, that if you played Baroque violin, it was actually an admission that you couldn't play properly on your modern," Rachel said. "I remember walking through the school with these two cases, and people saying, 'Why have you got two?' and I could not bring myself to say, 'I've got a Baroque violin in there that I'm playing.' I'd just say, 'Oh, I'm trying out another violin.' I was ashamed. It was partly just me, but it was also the mentality at the time: that if you ended up playing a Baroque instrument, it was because you hadn't made it."

At this point, Podger has not only "made it" but she's also helped make it cool -- no one has to hide his or her Baroque fiddle case any more. Podger has been breaking ground in the Baroque movement ever since she was a student at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where she studied with David Takeno and Micaela Comberti. She was still in school when she co-founded the well-known Palladian Ensemble and Florilegium Baroque chamber groups. This spring she released a recording of 12 Vivaldi Concertos called L'Estro Armonico with Brecon Baroque, a group she founded in conjunction her Brecon Baroque Festival in South Wales. She also teaches at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff and at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

Rachel Podger
Rachel Podger. Photo by Jonas Sacks.

Born into a musical family, Rachel started playing the violin with a Suzuki program when she was five, starting at the same time as her brother, Julian, who was two years older. Both of her parents were amateur musicians -- her father had been a choral scholar at King's College Choir in Cambridge who played the piano; and her mother, who is German, also sang and played the cello.

"They made lots of music together at home, and it was very normal for us children to learn an instrument," Rachel said. "It would have been strange for us not to! Once Julian and I had advanced a little bit, it was very easy to do Baroque music because of the trio sonata formation: we'd have two violins, and my mother played the cello and my father played the piano."

At the time, her parents were singing in the Monteverdi Choir, directed by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, "and they were quite familiar with stylistic issues already, but it was just really about playing music together. We also had recorders; we used to play recorder quartets, and we'd sing together as well. So I got a very early experience of performing in that kind of relaxed environment, either in services or charity concerts at Easter or Christmas."

The family moved to Germany, and Rachel continued her violin studies, with many opportunities to play at school.

"Then I remember coming home one day, in the early '80s, and hearing a new record that my father had bought," Rachel said. "Having left England, they still followed John Eliot Gardiner's career, his latest releases." Gardiner had gone Baroque, and this was a revelation. "I remember hearing this Bach cantata -- I know exactly what it was, it was Christ lag in todesbanden. It's a really beautiful piece with a slow and rather lengthy beginning, just the strings. I remember thinking, 'Oh my goodness, this sounds so different! They're not playing with much vibrato, and the sound is really clear....' It felt like cool water, somehow. And it really impressed me, this sound of gut strings."

At the same time, Rachel was singing in a choir in the German town where they lived, Kassel. "The director of this choir was extremely into the whole performance practice idea," she said. The director talked about the Italian concept of messa di voce -- the shaping of the note, starting soft, growing to the middle of a long note and then receding again at the end. "That's one of those devices that was talked about a lot in the 16th century by Caccini, an Italian theorist, teacher, polymath. He also wrote a rather important treatise on performance practice of the time, which people would refer to a lot during the next century. It was all about how to use the voice, how it works naturally, how it resonates, and also about ornamentation, phrasing, and uses of harmony -- all those kinds of things that you would need to know about historic music."

"So this choir conductor was getting us to sing a little like this," Podger said. "As a result, I actually learned how to phrase, and a little about styles, from singing. In retrospect, it was a really good thing to do. When you learn that with the voice, you're learning physically, with your body -- you natural instrument, rather than learning it from scratch on an instrument that's not part of you. To transfer that onto the violin, was very natural."

"Of course, there was a time in the Baroque movement when people might have gotten a little bit carried away with 'messa di voce' -- this kind of swelling idea!" she laughed. People came to expect these perhaps exaggerated "sound bellies" from period performances. "It was just one of those things," she said. "It happens in various movements and revivals; people go to the extreme in one direction." The Baroque-style revival began around the 1950s, drawing on ideas first presented in a 1915 book by Arnold Dolmetsch, called The Interpretation of the Music of the 17th and 18th Centuries. Other early leaders of the movement were European conductors such as John Eliot Gardiner; Christopher Hogwood; Trevor Pinnock and Roger Norrington.

"These people who were really interested in this way of thinking historically about Baroque music and Renaissance Music -- early Baroque and also early Classical as well," Rachel said. "It was so exciting, a new discovery. And I think people just took things to the extreme a little, which kind of had to happen for it to develop."

Singing in the choir had made her more aware of this emerging movement, and it had also brought her in contact with instrumentalists who came to play with the choir. "There were a couple of violinists who came to stay at our house, and I just asked them loads of questions," she said. One even got out his Baroque violin and showed her a little bit about how to play it.

"I was extremely interested and intrigued by this, and I wanted to know more," she said. "So I started asking some questions."

And that's when the trouble began.

"My regular, modern teacher was Russian, and had he had a high work ethic," she said. In typical 20th-century fashion, students were to copy his fingerings and bowings into their music for pieces such as the Bach Sonatas and Partitas.

When Rachel was about 15, "I remember turning up to a lesson with him, having encountered this other way of thinking about things," she said. She had begun to think more critically and look more closely at the music, asking questions like, Is this a downbeat? An upbeat? Where is the emphasis, where is the phrase? What kind of figuration is this?

She took issue with a bowing in the Sarabande from Bach's third Partita: he wanted to start up-bow on the chord so to emphasize the second beat; she wanted to start down-bow because it was a downbeat.

"I remember asking questions in the lesson, and he really did not like that, at all!" she said. "He didn't like the kind of critical thought, independent thought. I remember then thinking, this is a real kind of clash! I didn't mean to upset him, it was just kind of coming out of me.

"Then my parents received a letter from him, that he couldn't teach me any more," she said. "I remember my mom saying to me, 'Tell me about what happened last lesson? And so I said, 'Oh, I just asked loads of questions and I didn't like the way that piece started on up-bow because it's a down beat.'"

"I was a little shocked, but I had my fingers lots of different pies, luckily, with choir, and I was leading the school orchestra and I was doing concertos with them," she said. "I was pretty involved and pretty busy, so it wasn't like my whole world fell to bits. I didn't have a teacher for a couple of months and then we found another teacher who was a little bit more open-minded and she didn't mind that I was doing all this Baroque stuff. I carried on with my normal modern studies and changed my technique slightly with her. She was just a very methodical, really good teacher, honing in on lefthand technique."

But the impression lasted -- "I kind of realized that this 'Baroque ideal' thing might not be the thing to talk about with teachers!" she laughed.

When she arrived at the Guildhall, she was more than ready to dive straight into Baroque studies. But even then, she was put off for a few years, as they didn't offer a Baroque course for undergraduates. So she found herself a Baroque instrument and set about finding opportunities to play it. "I didn't have lessons, but I started playing with other like-minded people in school," she said. That was when she co-founded the Palladian Ensemble.

She was still studying "modern" violin, but she found more sympathy for her Baroque leanings with her teacher David Takeno. "He was the most fantastic teacher," she said. "He wasn't just a violinist-teacher, but he was an all-around musical teacher. He knew a lot about everything and was always hungry for more information. When he realized that I was interested in all this stuff, he just asked questions. He got me to find out things, and that was a wonderful way for me to learn. Something would occur in the lesson, and he'd say, 'Well hey, how about that...?' He wouldn't even say, 'Go and find out about that and write that down and do your homework,' it would just kind of occur. I would go off to the library and find out and answer, and then I'd see him later that day and say, 'Hey look, I found this!' It was all very exciting, a wonderful time at the Guildhall."

While still officially studying "modern" violin, she had a chance to enter a Bach contest at school, and for her, this presented a conundrum.

"I remember talking to David, my teacher, saying, 'Should I do that on modern? Or should I do that on Baroque violin?' And he just said, 'Hmmm...'" she said. He wasn't the kind of teacher to tell her what to do. "I can't quite remember what he asked me in the lesson, but somehow he kind of made it obvious to me, you need to do what's best for you; do what you want to do. I do remember the day before, thinking, 'Should I do it on modern? On Baroque?' Everyone else was on modern."

She picked the Baroque violin, and they picked her as the winner.

"It was a victory for everyone," she said. "After that I, had some kind of recognition, which was nice. I wasn't particularly bothered about winning, but it was quite important for everyone else to see, 'There's someone who can actually play this thing! Perhaps you don't just pick it up when you're not doing so well on your Brahms Concerto or something.' You could see them turning their minds round."

Eventually, Rachel got what she's been wanting for so long: Baroque violin lessons, with Micaela Comberti. "She showed me all the things I needed to know, technically: how to manipulate a Baroque bow, how the bow shows you, how to hold it, the use of the first finger, how to do shapes, how to come out of the string how to go into the string, the use of the wrist, which is very much talked about in all the violin treatises -- Geminiani, Leopold Mozart," Rachel said. "And so yes, she was exactly what I needed."

Since that time, Rachel has played in many Baroque ensembles; besides the Palladian Ensemble and Florilegium, she led The English Concert from 1997 to 2002 and has been a a guest director for many ensembles around the world. She has made numerous recordings (you can find a full list here) with a few recent ones including Perla Barocca (2014); Bach's Double and Triple Concertos (2013); Guardian Angel (2013); and Bach: Complete Sonatas & Partitas for Violin Solo (2002).

Rachel plays on a 1739 violin made by Pesarinius, a student of Stradivari. The violin had been modernized when she found it at a London violin shop about 17 years ago, so she had to have it "Baroqued" -- the neck was replaced, the bass bar shortened, the fingerboard shortened, a new bridge made, etc. She uses a Baroque-style bow by the late modern French maker, René-William Groppe, who made a number of different styles of period bows for her.

She remembers one of the first bows she commissioned from Groppe -- she received it, but she just wasn't sure. "After two days, I rang him back and I said, 'Well, it's a really beautiful bow, but I'm finding it quite tricky to make it speak.' Then he said to me, 'Okay, that can happen. If it's a good bow, it will tell you how to approach it and play; it will show you what to do. So you just need to listen to what it's doing and you need to try and find a way to make that happen.' That's exactly what I did, and it was the best advice ever," she said. "He really knew what he was talking about; it completely showed me what to do, I just had to hold on in a completely different way from the bow I had before. This bow, you picked it up and it felt like it was alive. That's the bow I still play, and I absolutely adore it. I've recommended his bows to so many people, all of my students a lot of them have bows by him."

Her most recent project is all about Vivaldi; a recording with Brecon Baroque of the set of 12 concerti called L'Estro Armonico. "What's so striking about this collection is that it's just full of invention," she said. "They were published in 1711, so that's quite early on. He was in his 30s, and he a job at Ospedale della Pietà, a charitable institution, school for girls. He was music director there, and that gave him a lot of opportunity to try things out, he had to write music for them. So a lot of the music that he wrote is pedagogically sound and very approachable, figurations that you can relate to when you're learning -- rapid notes and then lots of interval leaps. They're always entertaining, these figurations. Then he'll also surprise you, as well; he uses the usual rhetorical devices, he does repetition and then he cuts it short and does a surprise, turns the corner at a kind of different moment when you don't expect it and things like that. It's really sparkly, and it's also really fun to play, I must say."

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The Week in Reviews, Op. 81: Anne-Sophie Mutter, Joseph Swenson, Baiba Skride

May 5, 2015 14:17

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.

Anne-Sophie Mutter performed the Berg and Moret's "En Rêve" with the New World Symphony.

  • New York Times: "It was an inspiring statement, as well as a smart artistic choice."
  • New York Classical Review: "The pleasure of hearing this tremendous musician play two of the finest violin concertos of the 20th century was equalled by the pleasure of hearing Tilson Thomas’ great orchestra. Mutter’s artistry is peerless, and hearing her in person constantly impresses how fine and rare is her musicianship."

Joseph Swenson
Joseph Swenson. Photo by Jack Dine.

Joseph Swensen performed the Barber with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

  • The Arts Desk: "...for the most part this was a performance carefully rehearsed and beautifully executed. It was tightly controlled, yet within Swensen’s structure there was room for spontaneity and lyricism."
  • Herald Scotland: "... the City Hall was bathed in the Romantic warmth and open-hearted honesty of Swensen's gorgeous playing of Samuel Barber's luxurious Violin Concerto; and, for the record, I have never heard an account of the racing finale which so took my breath away, all without cornering on two wheels."

Baiba Skride performed Bartók's Violin Concerto No 2 with the London Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Guardian: "A passionate, heart-on-sleeve player, she attacked the opening with such richness of tone that her Stradivarius sounded more like a viola than a violin. The subsequent swerves between lyricism and aggression were superbly negotiated."

Yuliya Smead performed the Bruch with the Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra.

Sarah Chang performed the Dvorak with the Auckland Philharmonia.

  • Stuff Nation: "While we saw and heard flashes of brilliance and Chang's trademark clarity throughout the performance, something seemed out of place. Chang's body language on stage seemed to indicate discomfort with something, particularly in the first movement."
  • The New Zealand Herald: "Last week, in an interview, the American violinist justified her obsession with haute couture as a desire for the audience to feast with eyes as well as ears. While a glittering Roberto Cavalli gown certainly delivered ritzy visual pleasure, what we heard was too often the equivalent of a rough and ready takeaway."

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

4 replies

Laurie's Violin School: Master Class with Danielle Belén

May 5, 2015 07:37

"Though you can see when you're wrong, you know you can't always see when you're right..."

It's an old Billy Joel lyric, but it fits most of us violinists all too well. We obsess on our mistakes and can barely concede our successes -- and where does that leave us, in performance?

So imagine a teacher who can make us see both things clearly -- now that's a gem.

Such were my thoughts, watching violinist Danielle Belén teaching a master class last week at Metzler Violin Shop in Glendale, Calif.

Danielle Belen

When Danielle described a student's strengths, she did so with genuine regard for the student's abilities. When she addressed a student's problems, she did so with clarity and immediacy -- and solutions at the ready.

The crowd of about 40 people at Metzler were happy to see Danielle, who had spent many years in the Los Angeles area before she recently became an Associate Professor of Violin at the University of Michigan. She remains on faculty at the Colburn School and also runs a summer music camp in Three Rivers, Calif. called Center Stage Strings.

For last week's master class, she worked with three high school students from the Los Angeles area. First up was Maeve, 17, who played the lyrical first movement of the Barber Violin Concerto.

Danielle first commented on the excellent control that Maeve had over her vibrato, correctly guessing that she had worked on it with the metronome in the past. "That's a huge asset to you, that's already in place," Danielle said. She then also correctly guessed that Maeve had not played the piece before with piano. She encouraged her to always rehearse with piano before a performance, and also to play off the score and really know the other part or parts, so that there is no confusion in performance.

Danielle suggested that the Barber is a Romantically-inspired piece, and thus it's all right to slide the fingers in certain places. She compared a good slide with ombré hair or an ombré skirt, which gradually fades from one color at one end, to another color at the other end. When you slide from one note to another, it starts out "not quite real; it's fuzzy, then it becomes very real."

To try fading one note into the next, sliding from a first to a third finger, she had her place the first and third fingers so they were touching each other, then slide up the fingerboard, letting up the pressure and subtly switching along the way from the first to the third finger.


When a baseball player slides into second base, she asked, does he or she bend the knees or extend the leg? The baseball player extends. That said, the same principle applies to sliding fingers: flatten the finger slightly, get on the fat of the finger, pitch the elbow around and slide. "That gives you room for error," she said. The more adept you get at it, the less likely you'll be to miss the note.

She also took the opening of the concerto and asked Maeve to focus on the notes that need vibrato and that need time, or "rubato." "Barber wrote a lot of music for voice, and this is singing, to the max," she said. "What note needs lingering?" she asked.

One way to discover what needs lingering is to know the intervals between notes -- which ones are unexpected, and lean on those interesting notes.

As a cure for a locked bow thumb when doing spiccato, Danielle suggested practicing spiccato "every day in your scales. It's kind of like abs -- if you don't work out, even one day, those muscles get weak." She demonstrated almost a collé stroke, but from the air. "I really think of it as if I'm shooting an arrow," from the bow, using all fingers. Aim for ringing, quick and intentional-sounding strokes (not the kind of bouncing bow that sounds like an accident).

Next, Jaimee, 15, played "Polonaise" by Wieniawski -- a very virtuosic piece.

Danielle first complimented Jaimee on her up-bow staccato, asking her if she'd been working on it long, or if it came naturally. "This bow is just really good with up-bow staccato," Jaimee said.

"Trust me, it's not the bow."" Danielle said, giving Jaimee full credit for her good technique.

They then worked on a difficult run, with fingered octaves. Whenever music presents a roadblock, Danielle said, it helps to mix things up a little.

"Start fresh," Danielle said, "Do a different fingering, or a new bowing." It's okay if it's different from what your teacher recommended, or even from what you will ultimately do in the end. Practice something different for a while, and then when you go back to your original, it tends to be easier, better and stronger.

"We have to listen to our teachers, but that doesn't mean you can't experiment," Danielle said. "Experimentation is key."

Danielle asked Jaimee to play the octave run with no fingers -- on open strings. Then they worked a nice crescendo into the open strings.

Once the bow arm was moving fluidly, they added the fingers, and Danielle asked her to resist the temptation to squeeze at the top -- "you don't have to press the strings all the way to the fingerboard, let it be fuzzy," she said.

In performance, "the bow needs to be your savior," Danielle said. The bow arm can stay loose and relaxed, even when the left hand has to negotiate difficult things such as fast double-stops and octave runes. "Then when you perform, you just think about the bow," Danielle said. "It's all too easy to clamp, so talk yourself out of it."

Danielle then focused on vibrato width -- and how very wide we can make it.

"Wide vibrato is volume," Danielle said. In a good vibrato, the pitch oscillates from the intended pitch downward. How low does the pitch go? As wide as a full half-step, she said. What is the percentage of time that we spent on that lower note? 50 percent.

"Half of our sound is on that lower pitch," Danielle said. "So listen to that bottom note -- love it and crave it!" The widest vibrato is reserved for the thickest string; in the case of the violin, the G string.

A wide vibrato requires really flattening the finger -- Danielle showed us a string indentation in her own finger that went all the way past the knuckle. Impressive! The hardest finger to vibrate, she said, is the first finger, because of its angle and placement as the last finger on our hand. She recommended practicing a very wide vibrato on long notes, to strengthen and widen the motion.

Christine, 16, played the "Preludio" from Bach's Partita No. 3, a piece that is challenging for many reasons, one being that "there's no hiding," Danielle said, "no moment to rest or breathe."

To create more variety of dynamics and color, Danielle suggested lowering the center of gravity on her bow, from playing most of the piece close to the tip to playing more in the middle, especially for louder passages.

This piece has a great many string crossings which require "blocking" and "bridging." Danielle defined "blocking" as keeping a finger down while others are in motion, and "bridging" as holding a finger down on both strings, in fifths. Blocking and bridging are techniques that prevent the little whistles and extra notes that poke through when fingers are scrambling around the fingerboard, lifting from one string to get to the next. Danielle suggested playing passages as double stops -- very loudly -- to nail down the motions of the left hand.

"I would go through this whole thing and play double stops everywhere," Danielle said. "Turn it into the Brahms Concerto, and it will be easy to relax it back into Bach." It's much more difficult to play with strength and volume; once you have that strength you can back off. But if you practice small and light, you won't be building the strength needed to do all this fingerwork with accuracy and solidity.

Having worked several years ago with Christine, Danielle noticed a big change in her bow hand, which had gone from being stiff and locked to being strong and flexible. Danielle wanted to give her a public thumbs-up for this accomplishment. "You should have taken a 'before' and 'after' picture," Danielle said, "It's the equivalent of losing 300 pounds!"

Mixing things up a little also helps in Bach. She suggested, just as an exercise, changing the fingering of the opening of the Preludio to 4-3-4-2-1-2 etc., all on the E string. It requires putting the fingers at different angles and trying new things.

Then when you go back to the old way, it will be much easier.

Belen master class
Jaimee, Maeve, Danielle Belén, Christine and Thomas Metzler

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Previous entries: April 2015

Brian Lewis and Sarah Chang

Coverage of the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies

Violinist.com Editor Laurie Niles is in New York to cover the biennial event at The Juilliard School, including classes by Brian Lewis and Sarah Chang.