Did you know that it takes longer to perform all five of Mozart's violin concertos in a row, than it does to play all 24 of Paganini's Caprices?
Chicago-based violinist Rachel Barton Pine, who just released a recording of the complete Mozart Concertos, should know; she's performed both cycles, in live-concert marathon form. Of course, for most of us humans, either task would be daunting. For Rachel, she's willing to take such challenges, even when piled onto other challenges, like having a newborn.
"I was invited to do a concert with all five Mozart concertos in a single evening, in October of 2011 -- before I found out that I was going to have a baby in September of 2011!" Rachel said. "So that first concert of five Mozart concertos ended up being three weeks after I gave birth, which is a little extreme. I thought, 'Couldn't I have done something easy for my first concert back, like the Brahms Concerto?' Of course, that's a joke, the Brahms isn't easy. But compared to all five Mozarts, come on!"
Rachel has been in love with the Mozart concertos since she was six, when she heard another student play the first movement of Mozart's Concerto No. 3 in G. At the time, she had never heard the music of Mozart performed live.
"That made a huge impression," Rachel said. "I thought this was the most beautiful music, and so happy. Actually, to this day, No. 3 remains my favorite, which I don't think is completely attributable to its having been my first impression. I think it's also because G major is such a friendly key. I admire the A major most of all, and probably 100 percent of people would agree. It's fabulous; it's so satisfying. But the G major just feels like my good friend. There's something comforting about it, and it makes me happy to play it."
The first Mozart concerto that Rachel actually studied was the fourth, in D major, and that was also the first one she performed publicly, at age 10.
"By that point, I had seen the Amadeus movie and had also seen a number of Mozart's operas on Live from The Met, which was one of the few (television shows) my parents would let us stay up late for," Rachel said. "The Amadeus movie is not necessarily historically factual, but I think they did capture the essence of Mozart's personality: his hyperactive persona -- the way he'd be bouncing down the streets with music playing in his head -- and also the drama that he brought to the opera, which was so well-captured by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and the other musicians in that movie."
Speaking of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and conductor Neville Marriner -- this is the very group with which Rachel recorded her recent release, which includes Violin Concertos 1-5 and the Sinfonia Concertante, with violist Matthew Lipman.
"It was such a great honor to work with Sir Neville Marriner, who has been one of my musical heroes for most of my life," Rachel said. "It was amazing, at age 89, that he has so much energy for the recording sessions. I'd be going back to my hotel to collapse at the end of the day, and he'd be running off to Cambridge to give a lecture, assuring me, 'Don't worry, I'll catch the train and be back in London by the time of our next session in the morning!' It was so inspiring, his suggestions and his commitment to this music. And of course, the orchestra was absolutely great."
Playing Mozart requires a bit of that drama brought out in Amadeus, but also a light touch. It can be a real challenge.
"Now that we've lived past the Classical era, into the Romantic era and beyond, the problem when we approach Classical music is that we want to get rid of a certain thickness and heaviness that we cultivate for later repertoire," Rachel said. "By doing so, Mozart becomes light, but it also can become a bit saccharine, a bit too pleasant. In fact, there's incredible drama and power and vibrancy in Mozart's concertos. Yet when you bring that intensity back, then the thickness returns. So how do you get that intensity without sounding like you're in the Romantic era? That is the challenge for students, and that's what that movie captured so well: this dramatic side of Mozart. If you watch Mozart's operas, you realize that he was, at heart, an opera composer. You can hear that in his concertos. You can almost sense the plots going on: the little moments of dialogue, little mood changes on a dime. He'll have two measures of being playful, then one measure of angst and then another measure of cuteness, then another measure of vivaciousness and then a little moment of calm and then the vivaciousness comes back -- continually mixing it up. To bring all of that out in a dramatic way, really brings this music to life. You can hear a plot happening: a flirtation scene, then the scene where the girl is upset because the guy was spotted with another girl, and then it turns out it was just his best friend in costume, so they get back together and it's okay again. You can hear all these things happening!"
Mozart did not leave any written cadenzas for his violin concertos, and though many violinists use various cadenzas written by violinists from the late 19th or early 20th centuries, Rachel wrote all of her own. (You can find the music for her Mozart Concertos 1-4 cadenzas in The Rachel Barton Pine Collection, along with cadenzas she wrote for the Beethoven, Brahms, and Paganini concertos.)
Rachel wrote most of her cadenzas for Mozart's concertos when she was a teenager, starting with Concerto No. 2, and she completed the last one more recently. She wrote the cadenzas for Concerto No. 1 "right after my daughter was born, so I had a little baby in the basket listening as I was improvising around," she said. "They say Mozart is good for children; she certainly got a healthy dose of it at the very start of her life!"
She feels that her cadenzas for Concerto No. 3 are her most adventurous, though "I didn't get harmonically too far afield; I didn't use any types of chords or chordal patterns that would have been obviously later than the Classical period. But I did push the envelope a little bit with some of the technical devices. Not that some of those things weren't already being done; if you look at Locatelli's Caprices from 1737, he was already using 10ths and all kinds of crazy stuff. So including a few 10ths in a Mozart cadenza -- it's not like adding a Paganini technique that wasn't being done yet. On the other hand, it's pretty certain that Mozart himself wouldn't have done it. If you want to be really strict, within the boundaries of what Mozart would have done, then you're going to do something more like the cadenzas that Robert Levin has published, the really stylistically correct versions. But I wanted to find a balance between something that would feel like it blends with a relatively historically informed approach to Mozart's music, but also true to my personality, because it's a statement about my feelings about Mozart, and who I am as an artist playing Mozart. It's a chance to bring some of my personality into the mix, without sounding like it's oil and water. It's not like the Schnittke cadenza to the Beethoven concerto, where now we've stopped playing Beethoven and we play Schnittke, then we go back to playing Beethoven -- I've never been quite convinced by that approach."
That said, Mozart was more modern than people sometimes know. For example, in Concerto No. 3, "it's this very pastoral concerto, then the last movement is a sort of tune that you might find in a tavern, with these fiddly variations," she said. "A few years ago I performed No. 3 in Vermont, at a festival, and afterwards the reviewer took issue with my having added some modern touches to the last movement, with various chromatic variations and left-hand pizzicato. I had to restrain myself from sending the guy the manuscript of Mozart's concerto, showing how Mozart himself had indicated the chromatic variation and the left-hand pizzicato! The take-away for me: Isn't it marvelous that this concerto, written at the end of the 1700's, still sounded so fresh and contemporary to this reviewer's ears, that he thought that something must be from our time? It's a great statement about Mozart; his music is not dusty and outdated."
Speaking of the manuscript, there are a lot of editions of the Mozart Violin Concertos out there, and it's quite useful to look at the manuscript and urtext editions (versions that follow the manuscript strictly, with no added markings from an editor) when studying these pieces.
"I made the shift to unedited editions at the age of 14, and I never looked back," Rachel said. "I definitely collect edited editions -- because it's like having a masterclass with the guy who edited it. Most of the time, that guy is dead; sometimes that guy is so long-dead that he -- and I say "he" because when was the last time you saw an edition edited by a female? Especially an historic one. A lot of times he is so long-dead that he never recorded it. Or maybe it's a professor-type, like Galamian, who didn't make a recording. So those editions are very useful for us to compare to the unedited version and see what various people's ideas were."
"But having a blank slate over which to make your decisions is absolutely critical," she said. Mozart left few bowings or dynamic markings in his violin scores, though he included more in the orchestra part, which makes it important to look at the score as a whole. "A student, especially in high school, should not be studying a concerto without owning and studying a copy of the mini-score; that would be like learning a play by reading only your lines and never seeing anybody else's lines. Or seeing a movie of the play but never actually looking at the text of the entire script. And by the mini-score, I mean an unedited version. And you can get a good urtext edition of the mini-score without breaking the bank. What you don't want to do is go online and get some random version that you don't know how scholarly it is, it might be edited, it might be unedited, it's free so you think you're getting a bargain, but that's no bargain if you don't really know if you're even getting the right notes."
Back when Mozart was writing his concerti, there were no conductors, as there are today.
"Mozart assumed that whoever was playing the violin solo part would have been leading the orchestra," Rachel said. "Therefore, the violin soloist would have been studying the score just as much as a conductor would, and the violin soloist would have been absolutely aware of all of the dynamic markings in the orchestra parts. The soloist would make decisions about interesting dynamics to do in their solo part, with the orchestra dynamics as a jumping off point."
And to get a bit technical, edited versions sometimes write appoggiaturas as straight eighth notes. "It makes you inflect them differently, if you know that it's an appoggiatura and a quarter note, as opposed to two even eighths," Rachel said. "Why didn't Mozart just write two even eighths? Well the reason is that he wanted you to know that there's a certain special emphasis on the appoggiatura note."
There's another problem with using an edited version: not knowing which was Mozart's idea, and which was the editor's. "If Mozart himself wrote a dynamic, you should make every effort to try to make it work for you, before discarding it. However, if it's an editor's idea, then you can take it with a healthy grain of salt and experiment with other options and maybe use it and maybe not and not feel guilty about it you decide not to use it."
What about the idea that Mozart simply didn't have time to write down all his markings? After all, some of his bowings are quite awkward. Rachel said she had an epiphany about Mozart's bowings, after she acquired a replica of a classical-era bow, back in 1993, using her prize money from the Queen Elisabeth International Competition. "It really revolutionized my understanding of a lot of these markings," she said. "Up until then, I thought, maybe Mozart didn't actually put everything down exactly as he would have played it himself. But when you start playing it with (a classical-era) bow, you realize very quickly that it doesn't have just one bounce point, like our modern bows -- slightly below the middle, more or less. Instead, it also bounces equally as well in the upper half -- you bounce in the upper half, you bounce down in the lower half, and you can do exactly what's on the page. It's just so springy."
Even though she uses a modern bow to play Mozart on her modern violin, "having experienced the earlier type of bow, now I do what I can to replicate some of that. Basically I can do most of Mozart's bowings, but the bow distribution is going to be different than what I would do with the real thing," she said.
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Why is Bach still relevant today?
This has been the subject of a six-year project for Grammy-nominated violinist Jennifer Koh, called Bach and Beyond, initially inspired by Bach's 325th birthday in 2010. The project took the form of a three-part series of recital programs that Jennifer devised, exploring the history of the solo violin repertoire by pairing Bach’s Six Sonatas and Partitas with related modern-day works and new commissions.
This weekend she celebrates the third and final installment of this series with a concert at 8 p.m. Saturday at 92Y in New York. She will take the recital program on the road, with "Bach and Beyond, Part III" recitals this spring at Oberlin College, at Strathmore Hall in North Bethesda, for the University Musical Society in Ann Arbor, for Cal Performances at UC Berkeley, and at the Athanaeum Music and Arts Library in La Jolla.
Photo by Jeurgen Frank
"My initial hope for this project was to create programs that highlighted the rich possibilities for solo violin recitals," Jennifer said, "My personal goal was to make programs that create a historical journey that illustrates Bach's influence over repertoire written for solo violin and to expand that repertoire through new commissions."
Importantly, Jennifer's "Bach and Beyond" project has been the inspiration and showcase for some wonderful new music and music-related projects, featuring the following world premieres over the last six years:
"I think my relationship with Bach is constantly evolving, and I am grateful to the new works from all the composers," Jennifer said. "I was incredibly happy to see how each composer took singular aspects of Bach and then made those works completely their own. It is inspiring to realize that everyone has truly individual responses to Bach’s music, whether it be composers, listeners or players. It’s a great testament to the depth in Bach’s music, but maybe even more importantly, it’s a testament to the evolution and relevancy of music."
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A childhood rich in language and music education wires a person's brain better to perceive the meaning in sounds -- and it's a clarity that lasts a lifetime. But when deprived of meaningful sound in childhood, a person perceives static around sounds and is less able to render meaning from them.
This was one of the fascinating points brought up by professor and researcher Nina Kraus, who is Principal Investigator at Northwestern University's Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory in Evanston, Ill. She was speaking a forum called "Music and Your Brain – the Science of Change," at the KPCC Crawford Family Forum, a public radio event in Pasadena, Calif. (You can watch the whole program here.) She was joined by Suzanne Ginden, founder of the Boyle Heights Community Youth Orchestra in Los Angeles; Kristen Madsen, Senior Vice President of the GRAMMY Foundation and Musicares; and moderator Mary Plummer, Arts Education Reporter for KPCC.
A person's childhood exposure to meaningful sound appears literally to wire his or her nerves for sound perception, Kraus said.
L-R: Mary Plummer, Nina Kraus, Kristen Madsen and Suzanne Ginden
"With unprecedented precision, we can measure how the neural system responds to sound," Kraus said. Using electrodes, researchers have measured neural responses to language among two groups of children: those whose mothers had a high level of education, and those whose mothers had less education.
"Children of moms with more education heard more words and more complex language," Kraus said. "Kids who had moms with less education had more neural noise -- the neural response to noise was less precise."
Kraus played two recordings, representing how each of those two groups heard language: in one recording, the language came through clearly; in the other, the language was embedded in static and more difficult to discern.
If every time you hear a sound, you process it in a different way, then it's hard to get any consistent meaning from that sound and the result is a fuzziness in perception. That "fuzz" has profound implications for a child's future ability to learn from a teacher in a classroom setting and even to learn to read.
How can a child who starts out with that kind of a disadvantage turn things around? One possibility might be music education.
"It turns out that musical experience -- the activity of making music -- changes how the brain processes sound," Kraus said. And those ingredients in sound processing track with language and reading development. "The learning of music might translate to becoming a better communicator," she said.
But to have any effect, one needs to actively play or sing music, and over an extended period of time.
In studying children in music programs, "we didn't see any measurable changes after one year of music-making," she said, but after two years of music-making, they were able to measure fundamental biological changes in auditory learning.
"Biologically, we are what we do," Kraus said. "It's the repetition, the constant reinforcement of neural circuits that shape us." (Hey does that sound familiar? 10,000 times?)
Research found that children who can match drumbeats have better language potential than those who could not. "There's a lot of rhythm in language," Kraus said. "The simple ability to track to a beat, tracks with language development." It is possible to see, measuring the brainwaves of a two-year-old child, if that child can track the rhythm of sound, and if not, that child may be at risk for language problems in the future.
Learning rhythms doesn't require a lot of training, but the skill can get stronger with practice and instruction.
Given that music education is scientifically proven to boost a child's brain development in myriad ways; it would make sense for communities to devote enormous resources to ensuring the success of music programs, in all schools. Sadly, it isn't so. Music education programs, at least in the United States, tend to be piecemeal, poorly funded, rarely supported for more than a few seasons, and always positioned directly under the budget-cut ax.
But music teachers keep trying.
Music teacher Suzanne Gindin described the program that she founded two and a half years ago in one of Los Angeles' poorest neighborhoods: the Boyle Heights Community Youth Orchestra. Based on an El Sistema model, the program provides music instruction and instrument loans, free of charge, to children aged six to 14. About 65 kids signed up for the program in the beginning; that number later dropped to about 25. After the initial enthusiasm of signing up, kids and parents discovered that "it's hard to play an instrument," Ginden said.
Boyle Heights Community Youth Orchestra student, Daisy, plays a solo
The people who stuck with it tended to have parental support, or they lived close by. "Those who are sticking with it, see real results," she said. Not only are those children getting proficient on their instruments, but their parents also report improvements in math grades, reading skills and sociability.
Kristen Madsen, of the GRAMMY Foundation, said that oftentimes for local music programs, "The threshold of making a difference financially is small." Combine a reasonable-sized grant with a dedicated teacher, and a lot can happen. An overwhelming majority of Americans believe that music should be a regular part of educational curriculum, "and yet, it gets marginalize," Madsen said.
Because music and the arts have been marginalized in education for so long, "a whole generation of teachers is not versed in teaching the arts," moderator Mary Plummer said.
Imagine, if a music curriculum (or any curriculum, for that matter) could be developed, based on the groundbreaking information that scientists like Kraus know about brain development, instead of based on politics and marketing. Imagine if the teachers and the programs at a school weren't pitted against each other in a zero-sum fight for time and resources, but viewed as combined disciplines.
"What if our school curriculum was based on her science?" Ginden said, gesturing to Kraus. One could create symbiotic lesson plans that matched a child's language and math development to the child's musical development. For example, a music teacher could be teaching kids to track a beat in preparation for the reading teacher to introduce various concepts in phonics.
One audience member was a teacher at a charter school with no music education. Her only option so far had been to have the kids sing to computers, which wasn't exactly active music-making. She asked the panel how she, a non-musician, could add some music to her classroom. Ginden, who has had experience teaching music curriculum to non-music teachers, suggested starting a recorder program, which is relatively inexpensive and allows kids to learn to play an instrument and possibly even do some music reading. Also, "Sing songs about everything you do," like from putting away papers, etc. She also pointed her to LessonPlans.com and also the Little Kids Rock program.
Students from the Boyle Heights Community Youth Orchestra, Suzanne Ginden, director
In conclusion, we heard a lovely concert from 12 of Ginden's students, who had waited patiently and silently through the talk, then played with with steady confidence and competence, sang a song in Spanish, and answered questions from the moderator in English. From my vantage, both their musical and language skills were well on their way.
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A high-level music program trains its graduates to be the finest in their fields -- but does it train them to go out and make a living?
The Juilliard School intends to increase its commitment to doing just that, with the announcement last week of a $5 million gift from Juilliard Board Trustee Michael E. Marks and his wife, Carole, to create the Alan D. Marks Center for Career Services and Entrepreneurship. The gift was given in memory of Michael Marks’s brother, the late Alan D. Marks, who earned his Bachelor of Music in Piano from Juilliard in 1970.
“Part of Juilliard’s mission is to provide our students with the skills they need to realize their fullest potential not only as artists, but also as leaders and global citizens," said Juilliard President Joseph W. Polisi in a press release. "Michael and Carole’s gift will reinforce and expand our current programs, allowing us to better equip our students to succeed as young professionals in a rapidly changing world.”
The Alan D. Marks Center for Career Services and Entrepreneurship will include:
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Congratulations to Yu-Chien ‘Benny’ Tseng, 20, of Taiwan, who has won first prize in the first Singapore International Violin Competition, held Jan. 10-21. He will receive $50,000 in prize money, as well as a recording with Naxos, the three-year loan of a fine instrument from the Mr. & Mrs. Rin Kei Mei collection, and other performance opportunities.
* * *
Here is Benny’ Tseng's performance in the Singapore Semi-Finals, from Jan. 15. (Skip to 7:00 for the beginning of the performance)
Program: For more videos of performances, click here for the Singapore International Violin Competition's Youtube page. You might also like:
For more videos of performances, click here for the Singapore International Violin Competition's Youtube page.
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Our very first interactions with the smallest of our kind are so important, and yet they often go by without notice. When we speak to a baby, when a baby tries to speak back -- we send a message and we set a precedent about how much we are willing to tune in to each other.
It might be even more important than violin lessons.
Every child learns to speak. In fact, that was the entire premise of Shinichi Suzuki's "Mother Tongue" approach: every child learns to speak his or her native language, without fail (excepting situations like deafness or severe disability). German children run around speaking German, Japanese children run around speaking Japanese. Children soak it up from their environment, and by the time they're about five, they speak with proficiency. Replicate that patently obvious situation with music -- fill the environment with violin music and supportive parenting and community -- and they can learn to play the violin with the same kind of fluency as they learned to speak.
Except that it's not actually patently obvious to all parents, how to teach language to a child. And the outcomes, in terms of a child's vocabulary and ability to effectively communicate, differ greatly. A recent New Yorker article called The Talking Cure, by Margaret Talbot, made me think more deeply about this. Her article describes an effort to help low-income parents speak more to their children, to give them a better foundation for their education and life.
When I was taking Suzuki pedagogy classes some 18 years ago, I probably learned as much about teaching my own children to speak as I learned about teaching my students to play the violin. In fact, my two-semester Book 1-4 training at the University of Denver, with the excellent pedagogue James Maurer, coincided directly with my first pregnancy -- I had quite the large belly by the end of the school year, and my daughter was born in July.
When Mr. Maurer (I can't call him Jim, none of us can) enumerated the patently obvious ways in which parents support their children's language learning, a lot seemed completely obvious. But -- I would not have acknowledged it at the time -- I might not have actually instinctually known all of it. Here are some of those ideas about language-learning:
I embraced all of these ideas about language learning, but in the back of my mind, I had the vague idea that not all parents do this. Hadn't I'd seen people talk in frustrated tones to their small children, for using the wrong word? Hadn't I witnessed parents withholding something from a child, saying, "Use your words!" The New Yorker article provides more such examples: berating a child, "Quit copying off of me," or discouraging a child who wanted to repeat a favorite word.
Perhaps an underrated component of Suzuki's genius was not just that he translated language learning to music learning, but that he recognized what it was that is actually effective, in teaching children to speak and communicate.
I've been a parent long enough to know that my children's successes are not mine to claim; they are an occasion to give thanks. But I still think Suzuki's ideas helped me do a better job of teaching my kids to speak. My daughter starting speaking when she was eight months old, and it was probably all that Suzuki training that allowed me to see her efforts as words and communication. I loved our interactions. When she pointed at the moon and said, "Ba!" I said, "Yes! It's round like a ball. It's the MOON!" Then her baby voice, "Mooo!" By the age of one, she was kind of the amazing talking baby. Not all kids will speak so early, but they all can be encouraged in the same way: nurtured by love.
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What is the point of the Sibelius Violin Concerto on a Sunday in mid-winter -- in Los Angeles, with the weather a cheerful and sunny 78 degrees?
This question came to mind as I watched Nikolaij Znaider perform the work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Andrey Boreyko. The concert also featured the U.S. premiere of Henryk Górecki's Symphony No. 4, "Tansman Episodes," and a performance of a work by Alexandre Tansman himself, written upon the death of his friend, Igor Stravinsky, "Stèle in memorium Igor Stravinsky."
I sat in the very back of Disney Hall, the second-to-last row, so high that there's even a slight sound delay. What a perspective one gets from this perch -- a sense of seeing and hearing all as a whole; like a view of planet Earth from space.
As I hinted, Znaider's was a Sibelius for a sunny day, and not just because of the weather outside. Perhaps it was due to the old-world sweetness of his violin, the 1741 "Kreisler" Guarneri del Gesù, or the warmth of his vibrato, or the unfaltering energy in his stage presence. But Sunday's Sibelius didn't have that icy edge, and somehow I didn't mind at all (the person next to me did, it just wasn't in line with how he thinks of Sibelius!) I thought about the last time I heard Sibelius at Disney Hall, an excellent performance by Joshua Bell. Afterwards, in a room downstairs, teachers were using the Socratic method on a room full of California schoolchildren to get them to come up with the idea that this music is about winter, about an icy, still, Nordic landscape. Innocently, they kept answering that the music made them think of "Spring?" Noooo...."The desert?"....Noooo.....
Does it have to be about the bleakness of winter, every time? Is a little spontaneity okay? My hearty reaction Sunday was "yes." In Znaider's hands it was pure and beautiful, unhurried in its virtuosity, with dizzying runs going by in one sweep and the dramatic tension sustained throughout. The second movement particularly was not going to put any frost on the windows; it was rich and even a bit soupy in spots. I suspect he had to work to project on that del Gesù (all the way up to me in the space station), but he succeeded, and I was rapt. The fast-moving lopsided dance that is that last movement unfolded with ease, Znaider completely given over to the task, fully committed and in the moment.
He played the Sarabande from Bach's Partita in D minor as an encore.
Laurie with Nikolaij Znaider, after his performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the LA Phil.
The Sibelius was actually second on the program; first was the three-movement piece by Alexandre Tansman, an appealing and well-edited work, in honor of Stravinsky. The first movement was chime-y and spooky, with a few washes of piano that made me think of Stravinsky's "Petrouchka." The second movement was more frenetic and punctuated with barking horns and xylophone. As John Henken wrote so eloquently in the excellent program notes: "It is in his orchestration -- particularly the hard glitter of glockenspiel, xylophone, bells, celesta and piano -- that Tansman most obviously honors his friend." The muted brass and high violin soli in the third-movement "Lamento" brought to mind little forest creatures, coming out of their cubbies. It occurred to me that the Disney animators probably would have as much fun with this piece as they did with Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and then later Firebird in their various iterations of "Fantasia."
I have a feeling that this concert's main draw was Górecki's Symphony No. 4, kind of a sequel to his break-out hit from the 1990s, The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, written in 1972. "Break out hit"? Yes, a 1992 recording of this symphony, featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta, sold more than a million copies and climbed the pops charts in Europe. (I played the work in an AIDS memorial concert in the 90s, a very moving experience.)
Symphony No. 4 was commissioned by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Southbank Centre, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Zaterdag Matinee concert series at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, according to the program notes. The symphony was to be premiered in 2010, but Górecki fell ill and died that same year without completing the orchestration. He left behind a piano score, with detailed instructions, from which his son, Mikolaj, completed the work. It was premiered in April 2014, with Boreyko conducting the London Philharmonic.
The work, in four movements, begins in dark harmonic territory, with strings in parallel motion, punctuated by drums, noisily churning out a much-repeated motive -- I'd call it "large-scale minimalism." Onto this was eventually layered a loud and painfully discordant organ chord. I thought that, like the train-roar of a tornado tearing out the foundation of my house as I huddled in the cellar, the organ chord would move on, but it persisted straight overhead, long after my desire to see it gone. At last it resolved, and suddenly all noise was reduced to piano and xylophone. I was metaphorically peeking my nose back out of the cellar when again the organ slammed back in jarringly with the same chaotic chord. Then came another respite, with quietly gloomy celli, and again the organ reared its gargantuan head, stressfully. This happened for some time, during which there seemed to be nothing in between full-on panic and near-dead static, gloomy and lacking in pulse, for the duration of the second movement.
The third movement brought more forward movement, awake and repetitive. Then came a piano-cello duo, slow, simple and lovely with just a little dissonance around the edges. Eventually the solo violin joined in this circular, hypnotic episode. The fourth movement started with a sense of purpose and triumph, with some interesting syncopation and falling chromatic figures in the strings. The end echoed the beginning, complete with the return of the monster chord, which had at least a few people adjusting their hearing aides. After a thundering drum roll, it resolved.
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Does America have its own school of composition, a lineage of classically-trained composers?
Certainly, it has many. But without evening knowing it, Anne Akiko Meyers seems to have stumbled upon one with a particular affinity for violin writing, when putting together her latest album, The American Masters. The album features works by Samuel Barber (1910-1981), John Corigliano (b. 1938) and Mason Bates (b. 1977).
As John Corigliano writes in the program notes, "Both composers have shared the intimate quality of mentorship with me -- Samuel Barber was my mentor, and I was Mason Bates' mentor....Three generations of friendship and shared ideas are captured in this recording."
Did Anne plan it this way? Did she know about their connection, a lineage in itself?
"No! This was a total coincidence," Anne told me, speaking over the phone last month from Austin, where she lives with her husband and two small children (when she is not on tour!). "It was just fate. It was amazing how it all worked out, with the lullaby being created in 2010 and Mason's (Violin Concerto) in 2012. We recorded in 2013, and that's when it all came together."
That album, recorded with London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Leonard Slatkin, features the easy-to-love Violin Concerto by Barber, as well as the two new works Anne described: a work that Anne's husband commissioned Corigliano to write for the birth of their first child, "Lullaby for Natalie," (2010) and the CD premiere of Mason Bates' "Violin Concerto," (2012). The Bates concerto takes its inspiration from a dinosaur-bird hybrid called the Archaeopteryx with both earthbound and airborne themes that sometimes have a modern "electronica" feel, but using all acoustic instruments and tonal language.
In all, it's been a good year for Anne, who finished 2014 as the top selling instrumentalist on Billboard, following the success of this album as well as The Four Seasons (2014) and Air: The Bach Album (2013).
We spoke about Anne's long history with the Barber Concerto, about her daughter's love for the lullaby that was composed for her by Corigliano, and about what it's like to portray the soaring, "sexy dinosaur" in Bates' Violin Concerto.
Anne: In this album, I was trying to explore the past, with Samuel Barber; the present, with John Corigliano; and the future, with Mason Bates. The Barber Concerto is head and shoulders, the most popular American violin concerto performed today.
Laurie: Do you remember the very first time you heard the Barber, and how you felt?
Anne: I do. When I was about 12 years old, another student was working on it with my teacher at the time, Alice Schoenfeld in California. I wanted to play it so much, but I got stuck with Mozart and Mendelssohn, and I had to wait until I got to Juilliard to sink my teeth into it! When I was 18, I programmed it as my debut CD work, along with the Bruch Concerto. The Barber really wasn't performed much then, as it is today. Last year (2014) was the 75th year of its creation.
The music is just so gorgeous, and then there's the whole controversy of the last movement.
Laurie: It's so fast and different from the first two movements; people sometimes say that it doesn't go with them.
Anne: I'm a fan of mixing it up; I'm so glad that Barber decided to stick to his guns and keep the third movement the way it is. It's really challenging to play.
The concerto has so much muscle in it. It's so Romantic, and the second movement reminds me of the Adagio for Strings, which he wrote a year prior to the Violin Concerto, interestingly enough.
I think I've performed the Barber the most, of any concerto in my repertoire. To record it on the Vieuxtemps (Guarneri del Gesù) was a dream for me because of the color palette that's available on that violin. The G string is so rich, like a cello. Being able to soar and sing in that second movement, with that incredible melody, was just spine-tingling. That's how I've always imagined hearing it, and to be able to play it and record it that way -- it was kind of full-circle for me.
Laurie: What violin did you use in that original recording, when you were 18?
Anne: I was playing on the Guadagnini for that recording.
Laurie: Not a bad fiddle!
Anne: Not at all! It's such a different performance, very fresh. But now, after living my life, it's greatly matured. I feel like I almost embody the Barber Violin Concerto now.
Laurie: Was it anything beyond the maturity of being in a different place in your life; did the new possibilities that were available with the "Vieuxtemps" cause you to play the piece differently?
Anne: Absolutely. It just opens up new doors, new possibilities within your mind and your heart that you didn't think were possible. It's always an exploration, and an experimentation. You think you're going to go in a straight line somewhere, then you realize, it's going to take me 50 light years to the left, and then to the right. It's amazing, how much more you're learning that way, instead of just going straight -- and what you think is the great goal.
Laurie: I understand that "Lullaby for Natalie" was written to celebrate the birth of your first daughter, Natalie.
Anne: Instead of jewelry, my husband thought it would be interesting to ask John to write a lullaby. It came as a big, big surprise gift for me -- I was really stunned that John agreed to do that. He didn't even know her name -- we didn't know her name! He had finished the lullaby, and then afterwards he put her name in the title. But I really hear her name in the motif throughout it all: "Lullaby, for Natalie...." (she sings)
Anne: Now Natalie is four, and she religiously plays the lullaby, all throughout the night. You will be injured if you even try to change the track of the CD -- it's on repeat from the time she goes to sleep until the time she wakes up. It's such a tremendous gift -- my husband's idea, and the fact that John agreed to work with such a different vehicle: a lullaby. So many people have attempted to write a lullaby, but few have been so successful. He originally wrote it for violin and piano, then he orchestrated it especially for the recording. Once I was in the studio, it completely came together, like it was always meant to be for violin and orchestra. Now I can't even imagine it any other way!
Laurie: What makes it a successful lullaby?
Anne: (John Corigliano's) writing is so beautiful. It tells a story, and I also hear her name throughout it. I love how you feel like you're descending into sleep, when (the musical line is) ascending. That's interesting to me, and how you can create something so lush and melodic -- in four minutes. It's a four-minute work, and that's a big struggle, to create something that's original in four minutes.
Laurie: The "Violin Concerto" by Mason Bates is completely new, and written for you. How did that come about?
Anne: I have been friends with for several years. Back in 2007, I asked him to re-write the cadenzas for the Beethoven Concerto. I have a history of that -- I asked Wynton (Marsalis) to write the cadenzas for the Mozart G major concerto. I love to have a contemporary, living composer's take on something that's incredibly traditional, and I was so curious to see what he would write. It's very much his signature. I took it on tour to the Netherlands, but at the time I planted this seed in his brain, of a violin concerto.
Bringing it to fruition was a long process. It became more serious after I sent an email to Leonard Slatkin and told him that Mason would be very interested in writing this concerto -- his first concerto for any instrument. That immediately helped get a co-commission with the Pittsburgh Symphony, and we premiered the concerto there in December of 2012.
It was a very 21st-century collaboration: we had many Skype sessions. He would be very frank with me: Does this work, or not, technically? And I would tell him: This just won't fly. Or: I am trying to be a contortionist, but that just will not work. There were many exchanges back and forth, but when I heard the midi that he sent me in the summer of 2012, I was blown away. I was so excited about what I heard. The premiere was so thrilling because it had gone through so many transformations and so many revisions already. Even from the time that I premiered it, it's been through many revisions. Even in the recording studio, in London, he wanted to change the ending, on the spot!
Anne: This was after performing it with Chicago Symphony, Richmond Symphony, Nashville, Detroit, everywhere! At this point I said, "Uh, um, no. It's so great, let's just keep it the way it is!" (Laughing) Thankfully, he felt the same way! It's just a really interesting process, to work with a young composer like Mason.
Laurie: How old is he?
Anne: He's 37. He's composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony. I read recently that he is the most-performed composer today, after John Adams.
Laurie: Why, do you think?
Anne: His music has a really interesting vibe and a story. Even the story of the Violin Concerto is one of a prehistoric, hybrid dinosaur bird that takes flight -- an Archaeopteryx. How do you come up with that idea? (she laughs)
Laurie: I see a lot of metaphor in that: the old music and the new music, and taking flight.
Anne: He wanted to have a duality of roles. There's the elegant, melodic, shimmeringly beautiful melody, but then at the same time there's this very rhythmic propulsion and real texture in the orchestra. The time signature changes almost every bar. He has mentioned that he finds the orchestra to be the world's largest synthesizer -- because of his background as a deejay. You really feel this kind of energy, this very quick-footed energy throughout the concerto. And then there are these incredibly lush, cinematic themes, played in the first movement and then repeated in the last movement. The second movement is very funny because he asked me to be this prehistoric creature, going through a muddy swamp, but he wants me to be incredibly sensuous -- a sexy dinosaur! Okay, I'll try that, why not?
Laurie: Is it playable, is anybody besides you going to be able to play this?
Anne: I am looking forward to hearing a violinist play it because it's a real tour de force; it's 30 minutes long and it has practically no break. It's sort of like the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto: all strung together. Just when you think you can't take any more, he put this wicked cadenza at the end! By then you're just bringing everyone with you -- you're taking flight together with the orchestra, leaping off a canyon or leaping off a cliff, together. There are many exotic sounds throughout the concerto as well: the start, with the bass players slapping their basses - it sounds like godzilla-esque footsteps. There's an Oriental element in the second movement, as well.
Laurie: I'd love to hear it live, it sounds like a real experience, with the basses slapping...
Anne: Even in the recording session, Leonard (Slatkin) was saying, "...we need a little more 'hi-hat' there and a little more 'egg shaker' there..."
Laurie: "Egg shaker"! Sounds like he utilized every button on the synthesizer of the orchestra!
Anne: Without it including electronica, we sounded like electronica. In the last movement, the violin is spewing out so many notes, it almost sounds like computer code, spilling out of the violin. It's just fascinating, to be in his head and to have witnessed and collaborated with him throughout it all.
Laurie: To ask a leading question, it sounds like he was using all kinds of tricks, but you feel it was all in the service of something? I've certainly heard new pieces that did just sound like a pile of tricks.
Anne: It comes from an organic place for him. I think that this concerto is really one of the most important works that has been written in the last 50 years. Since the Barber concerto.
Laurie: Why do you think that?
Anne: It really speaks to audiences, it's highly accessible. It doesn't feel like, "This is new music, it's bitter and it tastes like kale, but I'm supposed to like it anyway." It's not that kind of music. It's music that is moving. It's contemporary, but purely acoustic. And the orchestra sounding like electronica, it's a very unique sound, all to Mason.
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If mastery requires 10,000 repetitions, how does a student continue to treat repetition No. 8,739 with the same care and attention that went into the first few hundred? How does he or she muster the willpower to do it at all?
Somehow treading old ground never feels quite as exciting as navigating a new adventure. Unless you make it feel like a new adventure! But how do you do that?
I was thinking about this, while planning my Suzuki group classes. The classes need to have a balance of new, more-challenging pieces and deep review, hitting on things with attention to detail yet a sense of fun. Whew! How could I work in regular review without meeting resistance -- no, how could I sneak in review?
I came up with something that has worked pretty well: I built a "Re-Cap Time Machine." It looks like this:
I call it the "Re-Cap," for short. I came up with 20 creative ways that we could play old tunes, wrote them on little pieces of paper, and put them in the hat -- er, "cap." At the designated time, we simply get out the Re-Cap, and whoever happens to be standing tall and being quiet at the moment gets to pick a paper at random and read it. Then the group must do whatever is written on the paper.
This class happens to be a group class for Late Suzuki Book 1-Early Book 2, so their review level (pieces already pretty well-mastered) would be the music in Early Book 1. As is the Suzuki way, most of many ideas came from colleagues. Some of the things that I've written on the papers include: Play Twinkle theme, all down-bows. Then all up-bows. Play "Song of the..." Breeze, Wind, Tornado, Hurricane (getting faster with each repetition). Play a tune on the D and A strings instead of A and E. Sad "Aunt Rhody," play with low 2s (low 1s, too, if we're in the mood. Or it can be more of a modal-Rhody.) Plus about 20 more.
The Re-Cap is a fairly simple idea; it can be tweaked to include review activities for any level of playing, and it could be used for home practice, private lessons, a class at school, etc.
This works nicely for me because it's all planned in advance, for weeks. It sneaks in a lot of repetition and adds a little challenge to the task. We draw only about three papers a week from the cap (then I take those papers out of the rotation until next semester). This has given us a nice routine for doing 10 minutes of review, every class. And I can add ideas to the cap, whenever they come to me.
So if your "review" time has become routine (or fallen away entirely, gasp!), try something creative to punch it up a little!
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Violinist Leonidas Kavakos is suing Los Angeles-area luthier Nazareth Gevorkian over an 1850 J. Henry Bow for which he'd paid 65,000 euros (about $80,000) in August 2012, according to Courthouse News Service.
The report said that "he brought it to Gevorkian in January 2013 to find out why the bow was curved." The complaint says that Gevorkian "began applying pressure to the Henry Bow, at which time the Henry Bow snapped into two pieces." Kavakos said Gevorkian did not heat the bow first, as he should have, to make it more responsive to bending.
Though this is an extremely unfortunate incident, it is certainly not the first time a good shop has accidentally broken a bow; colleagues have related stories like this to me before. Usually it's settled with insurance companies; it's interesting that this one has gone so public.
I can attest that Gevorkian is a luthier with a fine reputation (he has done work for and sold violins to my colleagues and even to my own students in LA). What thoughts do luthiers have on this incident? What is the cause for a bow being overly bent? How common or rare is it for a 165-year-old bow to snap? Does one routinely heat a bow when evaluating its curvature or attempting to bend it? Would the bow's fine provenance make it any more or less susceptible to breaking? Any features of this bow maker that are of interest, bearing this incident in mind?
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Check the Jan. 2015 Strings Magazine for my article and a review of my book! It also has plenty more to recommend it, like the cover feature on Philippe Quint, a review of the strings set-ups of 16 artists, and more. For me, it was fun to write a print article; as editor of Violinist.com, most of my work is online these days!
My article, an overview about playing without a shoulder rest, appears on p. 75-76. It features advice from Dylana Jenson, Patricia Ahern, Julie Lyonn Liebermann and Thomas Metzler, as well as from Stanley Ritchie's book, Before the Chinrest. The main point: if you're going to play without a shoulder rest, there are specific techniques involved and you'll need to adjust your playing a great deal. Simply chucking the shoulder rest, without adjusting your technique, could cause you pain and problems!
The review by Megan Westberg of my book, The Violinist.com Interviews, Vol. 1, appears on p. 87, and she said some nice things like, "Given Niles' skill at developing a rapport with her subjects, her book will prove a must-have for readers looking to get a deeper understanding of what makes their favorite artists tick." Gosh thanks! :) It was a pleasure to write for Strings.Tweet
If you are a student participating in a studio recital, your job is to give your best performance. But you have a second job, and it's very important: to be part of an engaged audience, in support of your fellow students and their work. This also goes for your parents and any friends or fans who have come to see the recital on your behalf.
Certainly, your performance, which is likely the culmination of months (and really, years) of practice and work, will command most of your energy and attention. But your role as an audience member is extremely important.
Here are the basics: Plan to stay for the entire recital, to see everyone's performance. Listen actively. Show support with your applause. Plan to hang around a bit after the recital, congratulating your fellow students (or your child's fellow students). Pay one another truthful and thoughtful compliments. Foster collegiality in what ways you can. You might have to cancel the soccer game on recital day to commit time to this, but if you miss this, you miss a unique way exercise a kind of citizenship and arts appreciation that should go along with learning to play well.
I ask my students to be looking for how they can compliment their peers after the recital: think of at least one truthful thing that you can say, which is good about their playing. "Good job!" is nice, but weak. "What a straight bow arm, well-done!" is a real compliment. Or "I'd never heard that piece, but you made me enjoy it." Or, "Your spiccato has improved so much in the last year!" In fact, sometimes I have students practice this, in the more casual setting of group class. We'll have 10 minutes at the end of class, where people can play a little solo, on condition that everyone in the room has to produce a thoughtful remark. And I do critique the thoughtful remarks; if someone says, "Good job!" I'll insist, "What made it a good job?"
Of course, sometimes there are more critical remarks to be made, but I don't think a final performance is the time for negative remarks. But if trained well and given a safe environment, young students can learn to offer each other constructive criticism. I have had very, very young students, after doing this complimenting thing for a while, gently tell each other things in class like, "If you played closer to the bridge, it would sound better." And then the student's response, "You are right, I have a hard time with that." Somehow, when you are both the recipient and giver of comments, you tend to frame the words more kindly and delicately, even when you are seven years old. Chalk it up to the Golden Rule!
Cultivating a supportive-audience attitude does take some training and attention.
The incident that made me realize that I had to teach not only violin-playing, but audience etiquette, was a one of my studio recitals, many years back. It was the very first recital for two new students, young girls who were good friends at school. During the recital, the girls were sitting together in an aisle, giggling, and one of the parents started taking pictures of them, giggling so adorably while another child was taking the stage! I actually had to interrupt the course of the recital to go over to the parent and quietly point out, "This is actually a recital for all the students here. I need you to stop taking pictures and set an example as an audience member, and also encourage the girls to watch and listen." I sensed that the parent was suddenly awakened, he simply had been caught up in his own child and had been impervious to the other students, their work, their nervousness, the importance of this for them. The good news is that after that, those parents and students were some of the best-behaved of the bunch.
How can you, or your child, be a good audience member? How can you listen deeply? And after the recital, instead of just grabbing a cookie and rushing to the next activity (or the worst, leaving early, without listening to others) consider talking to three or four other students, telling them what you enjoyed about their performance. Or telling their parents what you enjoyed. Together, you can cultivate this supportive attitude within a community of students at any level (it's important at college, too!).
I'll leave you with one more thought: even at the highest level, the best musicians tend to be those who also sit in the audience and listen to others.
Participants in the Menuhin Competition applaud one another last spring
Last spring I attended the Menuhin Competition in Austin, Texas, and I noticed that, even while having to give so many high-level performances themselves, these young musicians made time to sit in the audience and watch their colleagues. Many of them spoke about doing so in previous competitions, and they had nothing but the highest praise for their fellow competitors -- their fellow musicians. Both winners told me, "I learned so much, watching everyone else!"
Music is a collaborative art, and live music is nothing without live ears listening to it. It's easy to get caught up in one's own work and to stop listening. Don't! Instead, find those opportunities be part of a live audience, to listen and seek out the best in your fellow students and colleagues.Tweet
U.S. Transportation Dept. Officially Approves Rules Requiring Airlines to Allow Musical Instruments on AirplanesJanuary 2, 2015 13:46
Good news: Air travel with a musical instrument should be a lot easier this year in the United States after a final rule issued earlier this week.
On Tuesday the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a final administrative rule that fully implements section 403 of the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2012 – the law authorizing musical instruments as carry-on baggage onboard US air carriers.
In other words, law now requires that airlines allow passengers to carry musical instruments on board. And this is no longer just a "proposed law" or law waiting to be implemented; it's now official FAA policy regarding musical instrument transportation.
Here are some of the most important points in the rule, according to Ray Hair, International President of the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada:
Read the announcement from the FAA here and read the entire final rule here: Final Rule on Carriage of Musical Instruments. I would personally recommend printing out this ruling and carrying it in your instrument case (or with you somewhere) when traveling. Alternatively, you could just wear the rule -- get a T-shirt from Time for Three with section 403 of the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2012 printed on the back! (In their typical good humor, the musicians of Time for Three came up with the shirts after the unpleasant experience of being denied on a plane with their violins and being left on the tarmac in Charlotte last spring.)
The Department of Transportation also created a webpage with tips and information for consumers on how to prepare for air travel with musical instruments.
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Previous entries: December 2014
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Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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