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Laurie Niles

Applications Open for 2016 Menuhin Competition in London

April 22, 2015 09:00

The Menuhin Competition is accepting applications for its 2016 competition, which will be held in April 7-17, 2016 at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Click here for the application and repertoire information. The deadline to apply is October 31, 2015.

The Menuhin Competition, which includes a junior and senior section, is open to violinists of any nationality under the age of 22, as of April 17, 2016. Junior candidates must be under 16 years on April 17, 2016. (Violinists aged 15 may also enter the Senior Section.)

Yehudi MenuhinThe Menuhin Competition was started in 1983 by violinist Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999) -- who would have celebrated his 99th birthday this April 22.

Prizes for Senior Section include: First prize, £10,000 and a 1-year loan of a golden period Strad from J&A Beare; Second prize £7,500; third prize £5,000; fourth prize £3,000 and other special prizes. Prizes for the Junior Section include: First prize, £5,000; second prize £4,000; third prize £3,000; fourth prize £2,000; fifth prize £1,000; and other special prizes.

Jury members for 2016 will include Pamela Frank of the U.S., Chair; Joji Hattori of Austria, Vice-Chair; Ray Chen of Australia; Martin Engstroem of Sweden; Ning Feng of China; Julia Fischer of Germany; Dong-Suk Kang of Korea/U.S.; Tasmin Little of U.K.; and Jeremy Menuhin of Switzerland.

Past Menuhin Competition winners have included Julia Fischer, Nikolaj Znaider, Chad Hoopes, Isabelle van Keulen; Ilya Gringolts, Ray Chen, Alina Ibragimova, Daishin Kashimoto, Tasmin Little, Lu Siqing, Ning Feng and many others.

The 2014 Menuhin Competition was held in Austin, Texas. Winners in the 2014 Senior Section included 1st Stephen Waarts; 2nd In Mo Yang; 3rd Christine Seohyun Lim; fourth Stephen Kim. Winners in the 2014 Junior Section included 1st Rennosuke Fukuda; 2nd Daniel Lozakovitj; 3rd Ludvig Gudim; 4th Alex Zhou; and 5th Jaewon Wee.

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The Week in Reviews, Op. 79: Leila Josefowicz, Christian Tetzlaff, Rainer Honeck

April 21, 2015 12:59

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.

Christian Tetzlaff performed the Beethoven with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

  • The New York Times: "...the superb German violinist Christian Tetzlaff proved an ideal soloist. All the delicacy, lyricism and magisterial elegance of the music came through in Mr. Tetzlaff’s playing. Yet, being an artist immersed in contemporary music, he also revealed the experimental strangeness in this piece, especially with his impetuous dispatching of passagework. Mr. Nelsons and the orchestra were with him all the way."

John Adams
John Adams. Photo by Margaretta Mitchell

Leila Josefowicz performed Adams's "Scheherazade.2" with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John Adams.

  • Cincinnati Enquirer: "Adams' 'Scheherazade.2' is a Scheherazade for our time, and Josefowicz, Adams said, embodies the 'empowered woman.' ...Josefowicz was sensational in what is a marathon for the violinist. She entered with a rhapsodic line, playing with immense beauty, against a pulsating, atmospheric sound world in the orchestra. It wasn't long before her playing became agitated, as she dug into her strings and propelled her way through stunning technical fireworks, almost nonstop."

Rainer Honeck performed the Britten with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

  • Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "The violinist, also making his local debut, had a matter-of-fact style of playing that did not belie the technical difficulty of the work. His flexible, coppery tone yielded to steely harmonics and dizzying runs; the final movement offered a surprising warmth or even optimism for a poignant piece that expressed the composer’s despair during the Spanish Civil War."
  • Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: "The soloist gave an impressive performance, beautifully sung in the first movement, sharply argued in the Scherzo middle movement, and emotionally intense in the finale, a passacaglia with nine variations. The orchestra also played brilliantly."

Alexander Velinzon performed Schnittke's Violin Concerto No. 4 with the Seattle Symphony.

  • The Seattle Times: "Both contemplative and assertive, Velinzon demonstrated a secure technique with a fluid bow and clean fingerwork."
  • The SunBreak: "Velinzon’s violin sang throughout: mellifluous, lyrical in many areas, soaring or contemplative in others, fast, wild or arpeggiated in still more, peaceful or powerful, but always with a firm, rich tone, never scratchy, which fit the music like a glove."

Alexi Kenney performed the Sibelius with the Santa Fe Symphony.

  • The Santa Fe New Mexican: "Violinist Alexi Kenney was an impressive soloist in Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, playing throughout with technical precision and meticulous intonation."

Gil Shaham performed the Britten with the London Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Guardian: "Shaham was technically impeccable, also drawing on an ample range of colour and articulation to encompass the music’s needs while being consistently vividly supported by Vänskä and the LSO players."

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

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Laurie's Violin School: Nine Tips for Preparing for a Successful Recital Performance

April 20, 2015 07:54

Recital success

Whether you are preparing for a long solo recital or to play as part of a studio recital, here are some tips to help you prepare for a successful performance:

1. Commit to your repertoire well in advance.

What will you play for the recital? The time to answer that question is at least a month or more in advance of the performance, and perhaps even a year in advance, for a larger program! Knowing what you are going to play allows you to fully commit to preparing it. If you are still choosing between pieces, then you will waste precious preparation time vacillating between one thing and another. Moreoever, the indecision can put you on an emotional roller coster, changing your mind every day and questioning your strengths and weaknesses in relation to the pieces in question. With commitment comes a sense of assurance, and it also allows you to make your plan of action, with conviction.

2. Prepare your piece(s).

This may seem obvious, but it bears saying: You must thoroughly learn your music. Listen to your piece(s), study the score, learn the notes, break down the difficult passages and in a word, face the music! Attend to the nitty-gritty details early in the process, so you aren't still learning notes in the two weeks before the performance.

3. Memorize a month in advance.

If you plan to play by memory, then get your piece(s) memorized a month in advance, so that you can have a good month to practice playing it by memory. Warning: once it is memorized, be sure to still use the music on occasion. I often recommend that students play the whole piece twice, once with music, once without. Why? Because occasionally, when playing something many times by memory, it begins to change without your noticing. Small (or even big) sections get left out, or additional little phrases creep in. Notes get changed, dynamics get forgotten...So even when something is memorized, find a consistent way to check that memory.

4. Check the easy stuff.

It only makes sense that we focus on the most difficult and intimidating challenges in the music we are playing -- those places generally do require more work. In doing that work, it's natural to take for granted the "easy" parts -- but this can haunt you in performance. I can still remember one of my college recitals, when I was so worried about playing the Wieniawski Concerto that I didn't really focus too heavily on the Mozart Rondo I was also playing. Much to my surprise, I had several memory slips in the "easier" Mozart!

5. Rehearse with your accompanist and know the score.

If you are playing a piece or pieces that require accompaniment, you need to schedule time to put that together. Even if you've listened to the piece and know the score, it's important to come to a series of understandings with your collaborator about tempos, pacing, balance, rhythm and more. Give yourself adequate rehearsal time for this.

6. Play for other people.

Isn't it enough to play for a teacher? It's not the same thing as playing for someone else. Play for a relative or friend, and if your friend reads music, give him or her the score and a pencil, to write down suggestions. It's amazing how quickly any weak spots will come to your attention, when playing for someone else. And consider playing for someone who really scares you -- someone very knowledgeable, or someone whose opinion you regard highly. As Perlman once said, "15 minutes on the stage is worth 2 hours in the practice room." It's not exactly the same as being on stage, but it does have the effect of clarifying your practice.

7. Get a good night's sleep.

Once you are through practicing for the day, then set it aside and take care of your health. Eat well, sleep well, exercise a reasonable amount, and avoid too much caffeine, sugar or alcohol in the days before the recital. You want to give yourself the best chance of being alert, relaxed and physically ready to perform.

8. Wear something comfortable.

For some (sorry guys) this isn't possible -- if you are required to wear a suit with a tie. But even so, you might consider bringing your violin when picking such things, just to be sure you can play comfortably. As for me, I try to pick a dress that looks very nice but actually feels like pajamas! Avoid any clothing that makes it hard to play.

9. Focus on the music.

In the few days before your recital, shift your focus from fixing the details to performing the music. On the day of the performance, it's all about the music. As Lara St. John quoted a friend telling her: "When all else fails, lower your standards!" The time for being a perfectionist is in the practice room; once you walk on stage, your job is to be in the moment and bring whatever you have to your audience. Let go and enjoy your time on stage!

I hope you find these tips to be helpful. Please share any tips you have for preparing for a successful recital!

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The Week in Reviews, Op. 78: Joshua Bell, Leonidas Kavakos and Sarah Chang

April 14, 2015 17:15

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.

Joshua Bell performed the Tchaikovsky with the San Francisco Symphony.

  • San Francisco Classical Voice: "The packed Davies Symphony Hall could be heard breathing a collective sigh of amazement as he finished a flawless and captivating first movement cadenza. Violinists on stage could be seen shaking their head in awe tinged with bewilderment. To hear a musician of Bell's caliber can be as humbling as it can be inspiring."
  • The Berkeley Daily Planet: "...he was positively dazzling in his virtuosity."
  • San Jose Mercury News: "Bell gave an eloquent, luminous account of the solo part, and he and Heras-Casado were in accord throughout as to pacing and emphasis."
  • San Francisco Chronicle: "And for the more traditionally minded, there was violinist Joshua Bell, who wound up the concert with a splendid performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, marked by fastidious precision and broad, eloquent phrasing. That, too, is a way to do honor to the creative artists of the past."

Joshua Bell
Photo by Phil Knott

Leonidas Kavakos performed Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Guardian: "He plays it...like one born to it, with every technical challenge fearlessly met and the emotional trajectory unwaveringly delineated. His dark lyricism spoke volumes in the severe opening nocturne and in the haunting passacaglia, with its hints of formal ritual and collective grief."
  • The Independent: "And if Kavakos’s way with the Passacaglia – in which the solo line moves from desperate eloquence to a kind of serenity – was masterly, what he did with his long cadenza even took the LSO leader’s breath away – and he too is no slouch as a virtuoso."

Sarah Chang performed the Bruch with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Sydney Morning Herald: "On Saturday, this venerable score enjoyed full-blooded treatment, the soloist surging through the Vorspiel and maintaining momentum in its pendant Adagio, keeping Sir Andrew Davis and his forces on the move."

Janine Jansen performed the Tchaikovsky with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

  • The New Zealand Herald: "Those who profess to be jaded with Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto should have experienced Janine Jansen in full flight."

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

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Intonation, a Physical Phenomenon

April 13, 2015 05:00

Is it possible to have beautiful tone and play out of tune?

Not on the violin, viola, cello or bass. And the physical proof lies not just in our ears, but in the science of acoustics.

John Burton
John Burton, cellist and music professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, explained how the physics of sound relates to good tone in a lecture about "Resonance, Intonation, Tone: The Secret to Playing In Tune" at the 2015 ASTA conference in March. Introducing the subject, he asked how many in the audience of about 30 music teachers had ever taken a class in acoustics, and only three in the room raised their hands. (I was not among them!)

Though string players tend not to have formal education on the subject, the science of acoustics lies at the heart of what we do and how we do it.

"When you are playing the violin, viola, cello or bass, you're playing a complex standing wave," Burton said. "We have the ability to be very discriminant, when it comes to intonation."

Playing with good tone involves producing sound waves that resonate with the instrument and its strings -- it involves precision of pitch and just the right amount of force and motion with the bow.

What exactly happens, when a string player bows a string? In terms of physics: when the string is still, it is in equilibrium. The force of friction from the bow disrupts that equilibrium and makes the string move. Watching a down-bow in super-slow-motion: the bow moves the string a tiny bit to the right, then the "restoring forces" of the string make it break free of the bow and snap back to the left. These happens over and over, as the bow moves across the string, constantly grabbing and releasing it along the way.

The string resists the force of the bow; it wants to be in equilibrium. If you were to simply pluck a string once, it would vibrate but then return to equilibrium. The bow, by contrast, sets up a continuously oscillating system, whereby the string is "plucked" hundreds of tiny times and kept in vibration by applying that friction continuously from the bow.

The length of the string determines the pitch at which it vibrates. When we put down a finger to make a note, this in effect shortens the string to change the pitch.

The vibration from one string can set into motion other vibrations, and this is called "resonance." It happens on our instruments when, say, you play the note "G" -- third finger on the D string. When played perfectly in tune, the vibration of that "G" will also set the "G" string vibrating. In fact, it could also set anything in the room that is tuned to a G -- a string inside a piano, a string on the mandolin on the wall -- vibrating. If you hit a tuning fork, and another tuning fork set to the same pitch is sitting across the room, it will likely vibrate in sympathy, or "resonate."

"Anything tuned to that pitch should vibrate," Barton said.

But consider this: the "complex standing wave" that is a string produces many frequencies, not just that "G." The "G" is called the "fundamental frequency," and that's primarily what we hear. But because of all those vibrations, many other notes are present, and these are called "overtones," or the "harmonic series." The overtones are not quite as audible, but they can be magnified if they resonate well with another string or with the wood of the instrument (or even that pitchfork across the room).

Each note has its own set of overtones, and the overtones for any note follow a pattern, based on physics. The overtones of a vibrating string are 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, etc., of the string's "fundamental" wavelength. For us musicians, those fractions represent notes that are certain intervals above that "fundamental" note. They always follow a pattern (look at this chart from bottom to top):

Overtone Waves

So in this case, the G would be called the "fundamental" wavelength, and the overtones are portions of that wavelength and would produce the additional frequencies at higher octaves: G, D, G, B, D, F, G and it goes on.

What's remarkable, and what I did not know, is that you can see this phenomenon! With our instruments right under our chins and with the vibrations so high and small, we don't have as much opportunity to watch, but on a cello, the demonstration is a real revelation. So for the cello, let's talk about the note "C." Here is the "harmonic series," or the overtones, that are produced by the note "C", this time written as music:

C overtones

"When I play a 'C,' those harmonics are present in the sound," Burton said. We mostly hear the fundamental (the C), but we also hear a lot of other vibrations: The "C" that is an octave above, the "G" a fifth above that, the next "C" a perfect fourth up, an "E" a third above that, and this continues for some 16 fractions of wavelengths and beyond. Those overtones can be magnified if they resonate with another string.

cello vibrationsBarton showed that when he bows the "C" string on the cello, the overtones cause the "G" string to resonate, because G is an overtone (the "third partial") of C. Looking up close, one can see the "C" string vibrate, and also, one sees that the "G" vibrates. Interestingly, it vibrates in a way that looks a lot like the third example up on the wave chart: at two points of amplitude. Since I was sitting at the front of the class, I got to go up close and look at the string, vibrating in those two places. Physics in motion, check it out!

So not only can you make another string vibrate sympathetically with a specific note, but any of that note's overtones can also set a string vibrating.

This science demonstration has some implications for what we call "good tone" on our stringed instruments. Basically, "we're trying to create resonance on our instruments," Burton said. The best players make their instruments resonate as much as possible. And science shows us that our instruments resonate when we create pitch in a way that gets the overtones to ring.

"Resonance happens in two directions," Burton said. "If I play a fundamental, the notes that are predisposed to vibrate at that frequency will vibrate." On a cello, playing the note "D" on the C-string will cause both the D and A strings to vibrate, because those notes are overtones (the second and third partials) of that D.

It also happens in reverse: if you play a note that is an overtone, you can make the fundamental resonate. For example on the violin, a well-played "D" on the A-string might cause the G-string to resonate because that "D" is an overtone of "G."

Of course, this does not happen with every note on the instrument.

"All notes are good on cello, but some notes are gooder than others!" Burton joked. Not every pitch will have a harmonic series that relates to the instrument's strings.

Burton pointed out some really cool stuff on the cello, like: If you play a high G, then the G string will vibrate in four equal lengths, something you can feel better than you can see. Also, the vibrations on the G string have two points of amplitude, when you play the "G" that is one octave higher. You can also finger a note to make the string vibrate in sympathy with another note on another string.

Though these phenomenon are integral to the violin as well, they aren't as easy to demonstrate because "the shorter the string, the greater the tension, and the harder it is to see," Burton said.

Suffice it to say this: "intonation and tone are synonymous," Burton said. When you play a note that is even slightly out-of-tune, "it's dead, it has no ring," he said. An out-of-tune pitch will not set any of those resonances in motion. If one plays pitches, with no awareness or feeling for resonance, it's very hard to find the voice of the instrument. "The more I can drill the sound of this cello, associated with the resonance of these notes, the more I can teach pitch."


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Frank Huang Named Concertmaster of New York Philharmonic

April 8, 2015 20:17

Congratulations to violinist Frank Huang, who was named concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic on Wednesday, replacing Glenn Dicterow, who retired last year after 34 years with the orchestra.

Huang, 36, has been concertmaster of the Houston Symphony since 2010 and said he plans to come back to Houston for part of next season, as his schedule as allows. Huang also is on the faculty of Shepherd School of Music at Rice University and the University of Houston.

Frank Huang

A native of Beijing, Huang moved to Houston at age 7 and shortly after began violin lessons with his mother. Huang studied with Donald Weilerstein at the Cleveland Institute, where he earned his Bachelor of Music, and with Robert Mann at The Juilliard School. He won first prize in the 2003 Naumberg and the 2000 Hannover competitions.

Huang's audition involved played guest concertmaster in three New York Phil programs earlier this season.

It's apparently a very busy week for Huang, whose marriage to violinist Sarah Ludwig is planned for this Friday, said the New York Times. The Times also reported that Ludwig plans to keep her position as a violinist with the Houston Grand Opera.

* * *

Enjoy this 2002 recording of Frank Huang playing Franz Waxman, Carmen Fantasie:

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The Week in Reviews, Op. 77: Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Christian Tetzlaff, Lisa Batiashvili in concert

April 7, 2015 21:37

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.

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg performed the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

  • Urban Milwaukee Dial: "Taking a page out of Marilyn Horne’s book (“If you want to get people’s attention, sing softly”), Salerno-Sonnenberg floated her sound out in the opening bars at the faintest dynamic, grabbing everyone in Uihlein Hall by the ear and not letting go for forty electrifying minutes."
  • Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "Salerno-Sonnenberg was captivating, in the hushed, introverted sounds of the concerto's opening — which had the audience leaning in as if listening to someone telling a secret — and a vigorous, unbridled, thrilling energy throughout, which she punctuated with a few emphatic foot stomps in the piece's final bars."

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

Christian Tetzlaff performed the Beethoven with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

  • Boston Musical Intelligencer: "Tetzlaff showed a keen sense of the soloist’s place in Beethoven’s large-scale conception, making it clear when his solos were ornamenting or commenting on an orchestral line (and the rhythms at those moments were appropriately a little freer), and when he had the lead."
  • Boston Globe: "Here is a soloist who can confer on the most standard repertoire a sense of occasion, and there is never even a whiff of the autopilot all too commonly heard from certain celebrity virtuosos. In this case, Tetzlaff gave the impression of having pulled apart every phrase and turned it over in his hands for fresh consideration."
  • Boston Classical Review: "The soloist rushed ahead or held back as the fancy struck him, while the conductor looked for a lifeline, often finding it in the four steady drum taps that opened the piece and recurred frequently thereafter."

Lisa Batiashvili performed works by Schubert and Beethoven in recital with pianist Paul Lewis.

  • Vulture.com: "...the concert, part of Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series, was a quietly shocking marvel....Lewis and Batiashvili were in agreement about every odd turn, their shared sensibility emerging in the exact shading of a pianissimo, or in the momentary loosening of a tempo."

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

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Violinist.com Interview with Hilary Hahn: Bridges to the Past

April 7, 2015 13:29

What a year it's been for Hilary Hahn -- in February she won a Grammy for her recording of commissioned encores, In 27 Pieces, and in March she announced on Facebook that she and her husband are expecting their first baby mid-summer. Now she has released a recording of two classic violin concertos, Mozart's Concerto No. 5 in A major and Vieuxtemps' Concerto No. 4 in D minor, with The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and conductor Paavo Järvi.

It's a recording that represents another important year in her life: when she was 10 years old, in 1990.

"The year in which I learned both these pieces was really pivotal for me," Hilary said, speaking over the phone from Baltimore last week. During that year, she left her childhood teacher, Klara Berkovich, to study at the Curtis Institute with Jascha Brodsky. "This is where I began that path to being a professional violinist."

Hilary Hahn
Photo by Michael Patrick O'Leary, Deutsche Grammophone

She learned the Romantic, virtuosic Vieuxtemps concerto with Berkovich, and she remembers it as an exciting milestone.

Here was a piece that was well-known, that professional violinists recorded and played in concert. "It's such a classic violin work and it's so gorgeous. It's written so well for the violin, and it's a pleasure to play. The orchestra part is really colorful, too, so when you're playing it live with orchestra, it's just so vivid," Hilary said. "As I learned the piece, I grew very familiar with Heifetz' recording of the Vieuxtemps, which is phenomenal. I felt so excited to be playing a piece that Heifetz recorded. It occurred to me: Wow, this repertoire is the big league!"

Hilary had begun working with Berkovich when she was five, after meeting her at a summer music camp. Berkovich had recently emigrated from Russia, where she had taught for 25 years at the Special School for the Musically Gifted in St. Petersburg. For the next five years, Hilary took two lessons a week from her, for a total of about 500 hours.

"I remember, at that age, little things -- like how she would consider everything she said, before she said it," Hilary said. "She was not rash about anything; she knew exactly what she wanted to communicate. She would pause and put her fingers on her temples to think, and close her eyes. Then she would come out with a sentence that was concise and exactly what she wanted to communicate. Those sentences would stick."

Berkovich had a philosophy: that you never stop learning. Even when playing something already familiar, "you try to look at each piece that you're playing as if you've never seen it before," Hilary said. "She also taught me how to analyze music, how to understand the musical structure, how to break it down into big sections that made musical sense and then smaller sections within those big sections that would be phrases."

Berkovich also taught Hilary to think beyond music. "She encouraged me to think of each piece as a story instead of just the music," she said. "I remember thinking, what kind of story do I put to this? It was a good challenge because it made me go across genres to think about music. She also encouraged me to go to museums, to look at the art work. She had a collection of art cards from the Hermitage Museum, and she would show them to me. At the time, I didn't entirely understand the connection, but she planted in my head that there was a connection. Now when I go to art museums, I see exactly what she was planting in my mind. Other art has parallels, and sometimes you can't really say what they are, but you just kind of take them in, you have an artistic sensibility."

Hahn-Berkovich
Hilary with Klara Berkovich

Berkovich was an affectionate, grandmotherly figure, "but also tough, demanding," Hilary said. She also was sparing in her praise. "She would say, 'Here's what you need to work on for next week,' and as a kid, I responded to that well. I didn't respond to, 'That's great! But bring it back next week," because I thought, 'Why should I do it again, if it's great already?' But knowing exactly what I had to work on, having two lessons a week, and having these goals along the way, really helped me to improve a lot."

Also, Hilary really wanted to hear Berkovich say, "Good."

"If she said something was 'good,' then it was cause for celebration. I would keep trying for 'good.' When she said something was 'good,' I felt like I'd arrived," Hilary said. "If I could move on to another piece, I felt absolutely great, because I knew that she wouldn't do it dishonestly. If she thought I was ready for a new piece, then I was ready for a new piece. My dad would take me out after the lesson and get a soda or fries to celebrate."

Hilary's relationship with Berkovich is still important to her. "I still see her from time to time because she lives in Baltimore," Hilary said. "When I go home to visit my parents, I might stop by her house and say hi and have tea. So I still see her and her husband, and the studio is the same as when I studied there, down in the basement. She's very much still a presence in my life, and I think that's not something that everyone can say of their early teachers, just due to many different circumstances." In fact, the two of them even appeared recently on NPR together.

So why did Hilary switch teachers at age 10?

"I think I could have continued to study with her and still learn a ton more, but she felt it was important for me to have the experience of developing further with someone else," Hilary said. "I was sad to not study with her, but it was a very wise thing for a teacher to do, to realize the point at which a student would benefit from something else. And she never closed her door to me; she was always very happy to see me. If I wanted to play for her, I would just check with Mr. Brodsky, and he never had anything against it. She was always very deferential to him and didn't step on his toes. I never felt like I lost her as a teacher or as a role model."

To Hilary, getting into Curtis seemed like a long shot.

"Sylvia Rosenberg, who was teaching at the Peabody Conservatory at the time and whose master classes I was attending, said, well there's a wonderful teacher in Philadelphia named Jascha Brodsky, and I think he would be perfect for Hilary. He teaches at Curtis, so she should take their audition," Hilary said. "Mrs. Berkovich prepared me for that audition, and I'd just played my first full recital, shortly before it. So a lot happened really quickly: I found out I was accepted by Curtis and Mr. Brodsky chose to teach me -- it was a surprise. It wasn't something anyone around me or I myself expected."

"When I started at Curtis, it was eye-opening," she said. Suddenly, the idea of a career in music was no longer an abstract dream -- "at that point I was around a lot of people who, instead of imagining being on a career path to classical music, were actually on a career path. A lot of those kids were about to graduate and take jobs in classical music. At that time I didn't know if I'd be a soloist, a chamber musician or an orchestra player, but I could see that there were these options and that this could be very possible, if I just kept going with it."

The first concerto Hilary studied with Brodsky was Mozart's Concerto No. 5. "It probably wasn't the first piece by Mozart that I played, because I started with Suzuki and there are some Mozart adaptations in the Suzuki repertoire, but it was definitely the first larger work by Mozart for violin that I learned," Hilary said.

Hahn-Brodsky
Hilary Hahn with Jascha Brodsky

The way violinists approach Mozart has evolved over the past 20 years, and Hilary's approach has evolved as well.

"Mr. Brodsky was born in 1907, and I learned a way of playing that was very classic in his generation and I think was a good basis for me," Hilary said. "Since then, I've changed my approach to tempi and also to the general flow of the music. But I think having that basis definitely shaped where I wound up with it."

"Playing Mozart involves such a delicate balance, and when you first start playing Mozart, you feel like you have to be delicate with it," Hilary said. "But in fact, it has its own refinement built in. I find that I have to be more energetic and courageous when I play it, as opposed to deferential. If I shy away from it, it just doesn't bring out this rebellious energy that I find so compelling in his writing, especially in that concerto."

"I do remember starting to learn that piece and being faced with these somewhat conflicting tendencies when playing Mozart, that I'd never anticipated when listening to it. It was really exciting, but it was also much more complex than I'd expected," Hilary said. "I remember trying to find that balance in, for example, the opening Adagio. I remember thinking, what do I do with this part, and how do I get into the next one, are they relative tempi, or are they separate? Just the classic things that you continue to think about."

In this recording, she felt she was able to find the ideal balance, in collaboration with Paavo Järvi and The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen.

"People play (Mozart) so stylistically different from each other; if you have a soloist playing it one way and an orchestra and conductor inclined another way, or if the orchestra and conductor are inclined a different direction from each other, it can be very hard to find your place in the interpretation as a soloist," Hilary said. "It's not a matter of just waltzing in and saying, 'Here's how we're going to play Mozart!' Everyone has to be able to believe it when they're playing it. I like playing Mozart with people from different backgrounds in the repertoire because I learn about different ways of playing it. But it's also great to play it with people who are similarly inclined, so we can dive into that particular style. That's what I had with Bremen and with Paavo."

And where is Hilary, on that continuum between historic and modern styles of violin playing?

"I like to play Mozart in a gutsier way. I have a very direct approach to tone production in Mozart, and I find that with my playing I have the most clarity when I'm direct, in this repertoire," Hilary said. "The music speaks for itself, regardless of what you do, but I think you can make it really flat, if you're not careful. It's very important to keep the dimension in it and the forward drive."

She also chose to perform the popular cadenzas by Joseph Joachim for this recording.

"There are so many great (cadenzas) out there," she said. "I sometimes write my own, but never for this concerto because (the Joachim cadenzas are) just such a part of that piece for me. In the history of violin playing, they're important. It's not that we all have to play them, but they're historic, and it's interesting to see how Joachim, who was such a close friend of Brahms, interpreted Mozart's music. It's a bridge between Mozart's time and our time; it shows how far back Mozart goes and how many people have played Mozart over the centuries."

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The Fry Street Quartet: Chamber Music as a Pedagogical Force

April 1, 2015 15:11

Making music requires collaboration, and chamber music builds that skill especially well.

Members of the Fry Street Quartet made a convincing argument for the heavy use of chamber music in teaching college students during a lecture they gave called "Chamber Music as a Pedagogical Force" at the 2015 American String Teachers Association conference. The quartet teaches in residence at Utah State University's string program, which has a unique model that requires strings students to participate in chamber music for the entire duration of their studies.

"That sustained and consistent emphasis on chamber music is a powerful tool in helping them build their instrumental skills," said Fry Street violist Bradley Otteson.

Fry Street Quartet
The Fry Street Quartet: L-R Robert Waters, Rebecca McFaul, Anne Francis Bayless and Bradley Otteson.

Chamber music builds collaborative spirit between musicians, holds each person uniquely responsible for his or her part, and cultivates diplomatic problem-solving skills. All those skills manifest visibly, as well as audibly, in a high-functioning chamber group. For example, when playing for outreach and kids' concerts, the Fry Street Quartet kept encountering one particular question from the kids: Why do you move so much when you play?

One way to answer that question is explore what happens when they don't move: "It becomes so obvious that there are so many things missing, from character to cueing," said second violinist Rebecca McFaul. The group played a passage from a Haydn string quartet to demonstrate, remaining stock-still. Certainly, much of the energy and direction went missing.

Also, when one of the musicians gives a cue, it must not only give the tempo, but "it must inspire my colleagues to play in the character of the piece," said first violinist Robert Waters. They demonstrated what it was like to follow a cue that was stiff and lacking in movement. "It's almost impossible for them to come in, in the same stormy character," Waters said.

Not only that, but a cue is only as good as the people following it. "Everyone must look," Waters said, "and everyone must be physically involved. If I'm the only one who does it, then the music suffers."

"No cue is a solo effort," Otteson said, "we're all moving and breathing together. We stop and make eye contact -- that way we know we're stepping into this together. With my back turned, it's hard for me to know if we are sharing the pulse in the same way."

And in fact, one of the great rewards of playing chamber music is "when I get the sense I'm really locking in with the others in the group," Otteson said. "It's that visceral connection to another human being."

In fact, chamber music is a conversation, and it's not that different from a conversation that one might have with words," Rebecca said.

What happens when you carry on a spoken conversation, without anyone looking at each other? Quartet members demonstrated this, but they couldn't carry on for long because it felt so awkward and wrong -- they started laughing. A spoken conversation requires those elements of gesture and mutual attention, just as a musical conversation does.

In a quartet or other chamber group, just one person has full responsibility for each part; there is no hiding in a big orchestra section. If a player has trouble playing off the string, plays with a weak tone or bad intonation, or has any other deficiencies, "there's a whole other motivation in the string quartet setting, where, if they can't do it, they're the odd man out," Waters said. In these cases, the motivation to impress peers -- or at least to avoid embarrassment in front of them -- can work wonders. "Information means a lot when it comes from another students rather than from a teacher."

A string quartet also provides opportunities to lead, and to follow. If everyone tries to lead -- well, the Fry Quartet members demonstrated this, with every member trying to out-play the other, the violist even standing up in order to out-do and overshadow his peers. It was very funny, but what chaos!

"It throws the chemistry off-balance," Otteson said afterwards. "It's not only about playing strongly, but also listening to those around us," Waters said.

Conversely, a lack of leadership also has consequences. "If I lack courage and conviction, my quartet is left out at sea," he said. "Without engagement from the whole group, the music just doesn't come to life." They demonstrated the tuned-out quartet: everyone playing with low energy, avoiding connection, cellist Anne Francis Bayless stretching and yawning during her measures of rest, the violist checking his phone and taking a selfie. It was also a funny demonstration, but the music (of course) fell apart.

A chamber group thrives when it sets and shares goals and expectations together. Most conflicts arise from conflicting goals.

"Problem-solving becomes much easier when the goals are clear," Bayless said. "Everyone is motivated and committed to solving problems along the way."

Those little things like having a pencil, knowing the score, using the metronome and practicing before rehearsal, "they all lead to something bigger: professionalism."

For the Fry St. Quartet, "it's all about the sharing of a unified voice that communicates effectively with an audience."

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String Quartet in F minor, Op. 80 - III. Adagio - Felix Mendelssohn (2012):

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