When I spoke with Ilya Gringolts before he was to serve on the jury for the Menuhin Competition, I was very interested in the fact that he had just recorded all the 24 Paganini Caprices last November.
After all, here is someone who won First Prize in the 1998 Paganini Competition, also having received special prizes that year for being the youngest-ever competitor to be placed in the final and the best interpreter of Paganini’s Caprices. What is his take on these wickedly difficult violin works, 16 years later? Certainly his new recording has caused a bit of a stir, as it casts these much-recorded and studied works in new light and does not easily fit the old aural grooves.
So while I was in Austin to write about the Menuhin Competition and Ilya was there serving as a jurist, we sat down over coffee and talked about the Paganini. These days he is Professor of Violin at the Zurich Hochschule, and an International Fellow at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. We spoke about his history with the Paganini Caprices, the limited value these works have as a teaching tool, and also about the importance of consulting an urtext edition when preparing them for performance.
Photo: Tomasz Trzebiatowski
Laurie What is the first Paganini caprice you ever learned?
Ilya: I think it must have been 13, one of those easy ones, maybe 16, 14, those three, they kind of came in succession; I was 11 at the time. I actually picked those up at the same time as I picked up my first Bach, the first four movements of the D minor Partita.
Laurie: You started with the D minor, wow.
Ilya: My teacher thought they would be a good place to start; I kind of understand. It's straightforward, more straightforward than the others.
Laurie: How long did it take you to learn all the Caprices?
Ilya: It's a project that was on my mind for a long time. I didn't have a time frame; I took it bit-by-bit, very slowly. I would learn two or three Caprices a year, just practice them. I wouldn't even necessarily play them in public, it was just training. The first time I played them live in one concert was not until one week before the recording, and some of them, I just played for the first time right before the recording. Which is not to say that I didn't know them, because as I said, it was always on my mind and I always practiced them in kind of sessions. It's not like I would devote a period of time to just learning the Paganinis, there were always other things, overlap and so yes, it was a long-haul project.
Laurie: So maybe three caprices a year.
Ilya: Something like that. But I wouldn't say that I even thought of it like that; I didn't make any plans. I would take a caprice and practice it and then put it aside and then take another one, that's how it worked, for years. Until I thought, well, finally maybe this is the time.
Laurie: What do they do for a person's playing, to learn these?
Ilya: Not much, actually. There are a lot of things that are more useful.
Ilya: Yes. Any etudes that you could practice: Rode, Dont, you name it; they're more channeled towards improving technical facilities, because they're written for that. Paganini is not written for that.
Laurie: They're not pedagogical.
Ilya: No, not at all. I'm convinced that there is a higher kind of musical agenda there, that (Paganini) is after.
Laurie: Really? Because some people don't think so, they think they're just sort of fluffy technical pieces.
Ilya: Well, I think that's the wrong approach. For me, they are a bit like Schumann character pieces, or Chopin. You don't play Chopin to improve your technique. It's rather when you've already got your technique and everything is in place. Then you play Chopin. Because then you can use your technique for a higher purpose. You don't hone your technical skills on that stuff. They're just too high a level.
Laurie: There are a lot of people who play them who don't really get to that musical level. Like me. I don't even play them. I've tried but given up!
Which was the hardest one to figure out, musically?
Ilya: There are a few that are very challenging in many ways. Interestingly enough, they're all from the first set of 12. There are actually two sets of six -- he composed six, six then 12. The first 12 are so much more demanding and so much more complex than the next 12. It's incredible, it's almost like they're two different composers. If you just analyze it harmonically, they're so imaginative, and so experimental, the first 12 -- with some exceptions, like No. 9, which is rather straightforward. But the rest of them, you have modulations that take you to all sorts of keys within two minutes. It's not very typical for the beginning of the 19th century, actually. We're talking maybe about the beginning of Romanticism -- then it sort of became normal. But this was written in 1816-17, this was before Schumann wrote a single note, or Chopin for that matter, or Liszt. Beethoven was still in his middle period. It's actually pretty amazing. So we're dealing with something pretty new here, breaking new ground.
So I would definitely say No. 4 is a big problem to solve musically, just to sustain the form. Finding a common tempo is very difficult because obviously you have your kind of lyrical part and you have the virtuosic part -- there's no tempo change. It should be about the same tempo. And you see that in many of his caprices; he's quite meticulous in pointing out if there is a tempo difference or not. So in those that he doesn't write anything, you should really try to find a common tempo. (You should treat it) like something you would do in a Beethoven Sonata: you wouldn't play the middle section of a scherzo or a minuet at a different tempo, unless it says so. So it's the same. I think these pieces should be treated with that same kind of German meticulousness, because they're more German than Italian.
Laurie: Oh really? What do you mean?
Ilya: They stand out, in that the whole bel canto part of it is not really present, unless you are talking about kind of a gimmicky interpretation of it, like in No. 23, where you would just kind of parody it. This is not a real "bel canto" -- to me it isn't. And it stands out from his other works as well.
Laurie: He did a lot of opera transcriptions…
Ilya: He did. And everything else -- you take the concerto, for example, that's clearly kind of Rossini, Bellini-infused music -- which makes it, in a way, less original and actually less valuable, in a way, too. I mean it's fun…
Laurie: A little more derivative.
Ilya: Yes. It's not instantly recognizable as Paganini; it doesn't have its own sound world. But the Caprices do. And the whole genre, the small character piece, that's very much a Romantic thing. The Romanticism started in Germany; it started with Goethe and Schiller and all those people. There was no Romantic music in Italy at that time; and there wouldn't be until Verdi.
So that's something that Paganini, as a traveling musician from his early years, would have been exposed to.
Laurie: I didn't know that bit about the first two sets of six being quite different from the last 12, did he compose them over a long period of time?
Ilya: Well, about 3-4 years. But no one really knows, it's sort of speculated, when he wrote them. They were published in 1820, so would be safe to say that it was a few years before that, that he was composing them. He never played them in public.
Ilya: No. They are inscribed, "Alli Artisti," or "For the Artists." So they were dedicated to the artists, and he never performed them himself. Which, again, sets them on a pedestal, in a league of their own.
Laurie: I wonder what he meant.
Ilya: I suppose it means someone who can give them justice, not just technically, but really make -- not make anything out of them because they are the way they are -- but just really do them justice, musically.
Laurie: Just to play them the way they're written is a pretty monumental task.
Ilya: That's right. But I think, again, you treat them without any patronizing, just like you treat a Mozart Sonata. And it starts with selecting an edition. People just don't care what edition they play Paganini from. You just get your International Edition fare, which ..
Laurie: I have Ricordi, I think.
Ilya: That's nice, but you're definitely in the minority. I'm hearing, now at the (Menuhin) competition, so many Paganini caprices that were learned from the wrong edition. There were only about two people who played from an urtext edition. And there is the Henle, which has been out for 20-something years!
Laurie: And just this year, Barenreiter also came out with an urtext of the Caprices.
Ilya: The Henle has been out since the end of the 80s. I was preparing for the Paganini Competition in '98 and I had the Henle; it had been in the market for a while. That's the edition that's been directly copied from the manuscript; you need to look no further. It's right there.
And there are so many differences. There are a lot of performing traditions that have kind of molded themselves into these works and found their way into later editions -- and lots of mistakes, too. Some are first-edition mistakes that were copied throughout. We're talking, really, about wrong notes. Just wrong notes, all over the place. And, of course, the bowings -- stuff like that.
At this point, most people would not play a Mozart Concerto from an International Edition or even Peters -- they would get their hands on the Henle and the Barenreiter. It's not a question of money, it's a question of mindset. But somehow people don't think about it as much when they play the Paganini; they think it's just a circus piece -- just learn my craft and go and perform it -- that's not good enough.
Laurie: So you can tell, when you hear someone performing these, if they're not using the urtext.
Ilya: I know where all those wrong notes are.
For example, there are about five or six wrong notes in Caprice No. 1 alone. Then you go to No. 5, and there is this bowing that people have kind of heard about, but no one is really sure what it is, in the middle section. I think about 99 percent just play it spiccato throughout. The middle section is this perpetual mobile kind of passage, which is written in a bowing which is three notes ricochet, one note up. That's the bowing throughout the middle section. Some people choose not to do it because they think it's difficult, which it is, although I personally find it easier than playing spiccato for two minutes straight -- I find that more taxing. But there are also a good chunk of people who have no idea it even exists. When we were listening to it (at the competition), there was one contestant who played that Caprice with the right bowing -- I was very happy about it, did a great job. But in the jury there were some funny looks, like…
Laurie: …what's she doing with the bowing?
Ilya: Exactly. Someone asked me, 'Is this really the way it is written?' So that awareness is not really there yet. If we have people so high up in the field who -- they've played that before, but they're not aware of the urtext. So there's that kind of wall which has to be broken.
As far as the urtext is concerned, the manuscript is out, it's not like there are three different sources they're combining, I think there's only one source. The question (between using Henle or Barenreiter) might be, how they edit it, the fingerings they provide.
Laurie: You said that you started learning the Paganini at the same time as you started learning the Bach. How do they measure up? Does the Paganini do something for the violin in a similar way that the Bach did something for the violin?
Ilya: Do you mean in a historical sense?
Laurie: I guess in a historical sense; we think of the Bach as having done something for the violin that really hadn't been done before...
Ilya: That's definitely the case with the Paganini. I think that contemporary music as we know it, with all the wonderful sound effects that they're using now, most of it is inspired by Paganini in some way. He used the violin as a kind of an orchestra, to parody all the other things we hear in nature and in life: birds singing, the harmonics, the double harmonics, the pizzicati …all the sort of stuff that had actually been used before him, but not to the same extent, and not for the same purposes. If you look at people like Locatelli, he was even more ground-breaking in purely technical terms, but he wasn't a musician of the same caliber of Paganini, his music never grows to those heights. (Locatelli) never used those effects for a higher purpose, unlike Paganini, who did.
When I perform, I like to combine Paganini Caprices and for example, Caprices by (Salvatore) Sciarrino (1976) or by (Jörg) Widmann. They wrote works for solo violin that are directly inspired by the Caprices, and in Sciarrino's case they are called Caprices, too, and that combines perfectly with the Paganini because you really see the connections, in the same way that you can combine Bach and Ysaye, or Reger and Bach, and you can see the connections very clearly. Or Hindemith and Bach. Actually pretty much everything and Bach!
Laurie: And you've also played the 24 Paganini Caprices alone, as a cycle, all in one concert.
Ilya: You feel like an athlete, preparing for (that kind of) concert. Recording is one thing, you can take your time and -- recording anything is a relaxing experience because you're in control. Or at least, you can make it a relaxing experience; you don't have to, but you can, you're in the driver's seat.
Playing (all 24 Paganini Caprices) in concert is another matter. It's stressful and very taxing for your body and mind. Lots of concentration, and actually, it's very difficult to practice as a run up to a concert. First of all, you have to practice much more than you usually do, just because it's so much material. But secondly, it's a kind of a balance between slow practicing and running things through endlessly, to make sure you've got the stamina for it. But once you play things through, you're kind of done for the day. It's hard to plan.
Laurie: Do you teach the Paganini Caprices?
Ilya: Sometimes, but again, I don't prescribe them to fix technical problems. If I have a student who is already at the level that could allow him or her to play Paganini, and let's say that they're preparing for a competition and they're required to play Paganini, then I'll teach it.
I don't really encourage it, so much.
Laurie: You don't, why not?
Ilya: Well, because if they're at that level, they'll play it anyway, and then I'll teach it. If they're not, they won't help them get to that level. So I'd rather give them something that would help them first to get to that level.
Laurie: What if you want to get to that level? What kinds of things would be prescriptive to get to that level? What do you need to see in place in a student, to feel they are at that level?
Ilya: I think the age of the student is important. If you have a master student that doesn't have that level, frankly it's going to be hard to get there. The muscles are much less responsive at that age. It really requires a kind of a routine from an early age. I would say a bachelor student could still do it, with the right mindset.
To me, there are actually more important issues. You have to be realistic, you have to know what each student is geared to do and what they want to do. Because playing Paganini Caprices is not a given. It's not obligatory; it's not necessary to survive; you don't need it to get a job. So for a lot of people who want to get a good orchestra job, for example, it's better not to even go there. I mean, why? Why the heartbreak?
There are so many great fiddle players that actually struggle with these things. Why? For what?
Laurie: They're just too hard to play! (Said with drama and heartbreak)
Ilya: They are very hard to play, that's exactly what I mean. They're incredibly taxing on every level. I have a great student now that is preparing for a competition, and she plays No. 2, and she does a great job with it. I'm happy to consult her on whatever issues she might have, musical as well as technical. But otherwise, I have more important agendas for my students. For one thing, you have to learn to play Mozart Concerto convincingly. That to me is a hugely difficult task, and it can take a lot of time. And then of course there are also all sorts of other problems to solve. So to me, teaching Paganini is not a priority.
Laurie: How about the other side of "Why the heartbreak?" Obviously, you decided to do it yourself. Why?
Ilya: For one thing, I really love those pieces. It takes a while and yes, it is a bit masochistic. But I find them so special, musically. They're great fun to play, after all.
* * *
To sum up what is available, as far as Paganini 24 Caprices urtext editions are concerned: In addition to the Henle urtext edition of the caprices, Barenreiter just published its own urtext last December. And if you'd really like to get authentic, you can find the composer's manuscript on IMSLP. (Does anyone else find that a little amazing, all those tiny notes, in Paganini's hand?) Here also is a link to the Ricordi edition, which I was only able to find on UK Amazon, but perhaps some European members have more ideas about where to find that?
* * *
Ilya Gringolts plays Caprice 24 live in February 2014, at sala Verdi del Conservatorio di Milano:
Ilya Gringolts plays (part of) Caprice 1:
Violinist Nigel Armstrong will perform this weekend with the American Youth Symphony at UCLA's Royce Hall in Los Angeles, as part of the Symphony's Alumni Project. He was the group's concertmaster from 2009 to 2011.
It might be one of the last opportunities to hear this excellent young violinist before he goes on a hiatus of undetermined length.
Photo by David Fung
In December, Armstrong, 24, turned in the Scarampella violin he'd been borrowing. "I don't have any concerts planned past May, and I'm planning on exploring a bit of the Buddhist monastic life this summer," said Nigel, speaking with me over the phone on Tuesday from Boston. He's worked intensely on the violin for an extended period of time: studying four years at the Colburn School followed by two at the Curtis Institute; performing as a soloist with numerous orchestras; and winning awards international competitions, including the 2010 Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition and the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition. "…As I embark on my post-school years," he wrote on his Facebook page in March, "I'd like to move in a direction in which I'm able to find peace within myself. And, by doing so, to be able to share it with others." This summer he plans to spend some time at Plum Village in France, a Buddhist practice center in a Vietnamese Zen tradition.
Will he return to the violin? "Possibly, if I feel like I can do so in a way that I feel is fundamentally positive, in terms of what I'm doing, not just in terms of what I'm playing, but in terms of how I go about my life that supports that playing," he said.
One thing is for certain: Nigel has reached an extremely high level of violin playing, which he has spiced with a sense of adventure and individuality. Take for example: this recording from the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition, in which he plays "Stomp" by Corigliano:
Written by John Corigliano especially for that 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition, "Stomp" has became a go-to showpiece for Nigel, who not only mastered how to negotiate the scordatura violin and foot stomping required by the score, but also added his own dimension of complexity by playing a portion of it with the violin behind his back.
For the piece, the E string is tuned to E flat, and the G string is tuned down a minor third to an E, so the strings from bottom to top are E-D-A-Eb. When he played it for the first time at the Tchaikovsky Competition in St. Petersburg, "the judges were up on a balcony, and then the rest of the audience was in the main level," Nigel said. "I remember looking out, when I put the violin behind my back, and a lot of people were craning their heads backwards, to see what the judges were thinking!"
Apparently they were thinking good things: Nigel was awarded the Best Performance of the Commissioned Work for his performance of "Stomp." But what made him take that crazy risk, the behind-the-back stunt?
"When I was young, when I was 8, 9, 10 or so, I used to go to fiddle contests in northern California," Nigel said. "I remember there was this man, perhaps 80 years old, who got up and did a trick fiddle show. He would play the violin, starting by just moving it down his shoulder and side, and then playing on his hip, and then playing on his head, playing behind his back, playing under his leg…" (he laughs)
"When I got the score for 'Stomp,' Corigliano had written a very nice note for performers on the introduction page, before the music starts. It gave some Youtube references, to give an idea of what the stomping would be like and what the style would be. Then he ended by saying: 'I hope you have as much fun playing this piece as I had writing it' -- and that got to me a little bit. I forget when the idea struck me, but soon thereafter I was thinking about maybe working in something, like putting the violin under my leg, behind my back, or something nontraditional, something more fiddle-like, in the performance. I experimented with a few different things, but I thought the best place (for something non-traditional) would be this place in the middle (of the piece) and the easiest position for me to get to was behind the back, so I started practicing that."
Nigel still enjoys playing fiddle and jazz, and in fact "I'm doing a couple jazz recitals in the Central Valley, the weekend after this next one," he said.
And which jazz and fiddle players does he most admire? One of his favorite recordings is The Goat Rodeo Sessions, with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, bassist Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile on mandolin and Stewart Duncan on violin. "I really enjoyed that CD," he said, and while playing with a fellow Curtis student who was a bassist, he had the opportunity to take a few lessons with Edgar Meyer. "It was great to get to know him a bit. It's really imaginative, what he and that group has done, taking the traditional feel for music and bringing so much creativity to it, and seeing where it can go. One of the tracks on 'Goat Rodeo Sessions' is called '13-8,' -- it has these very complex meters, yet it retains this kind of fiddle feel."
Nigel, originally from Sonoma, Calif., started playing the violin when he was five and a half, after asking for lessons for about a year, he said. "My first teacher lived across the street, and I would hear her students playing, and also my mother played a bit in the house," he said. He started with Suzuki lessons, then went on to study with Zaven Melikian in San Francisco, Robert Lipsett at Colburn, and Arnold Steinhardt and Shmuel Ashkenasi at Curtis.
Competitions have provided a wonderful way to see the world, he said. "A lot of these competitions pay for people's travels and put people up," he said, "so you can, as a young musician, visit many different places all over the world." When he played the Menuhin Competition in 2010, it was in Oslo, Norway. And the Tchaikovsky, of course, took place in St. Petersburg, Russia. "That's been my only time in Russia, and getting to know St. Petersburg -- it was wonderful. The first three rounds were held in the Glazunov Hall at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and everything is light and larger-than-life: the walls, the organ, and beautiful fresco ceiling on the top, and then on one side they have these almost floor-to-ceiling length windows. Because it was in June, people would be playing recitals that ended at 10:30 or 11 at night, and there was still sun streaming in! It was really beautiful to be there."
Another way he has explored the world has been through language: in addition to English, he speaks French, German, and some Chinese and Spanish -- and just a bit of rudimentary Italian and Korean. "What I find fascinating about language is the light it sheds on how we think and how we communicate," he said. "I see speech as a type of improvisation. It rides upon these thoughts we have, which are translated into these words that come out. It also works the other way, in that we learn to have certain thoughts or see things in a certain way because of the words that we use."
Though he has had many successes as a soloist, he also greatly enjoys orchestra playing.
"What I love about orchestra playing is the ability to be part of something so grand, so wonderful," he said. "The composers who wrote for orchestra had so many colors at their disposal. Some of my most profound, my most powerful moments as a performer have been being part of an orchestra, playing pieces like Beethoven Nine, which I played with American Youth Symphony, or being part of a Brahms Symphony -- I love the ending of Brahms Symphony No. 2. To take part in some of these grand, expansive pieces, to be a member of this huge instrument, it's really thrilling."Tweet
The New York Times headline says, "A Strad? Violinists Can’t Tell." USA Today's headline said, "Violinists can't tell new violins from old, study shows." The Daily Mail: "Is it all just a fiddle? World's leading violinists CAN'T tell the difference between a Stradivarius worth millions of pounds and a modern instrument."
They are talking about a study by Claudia Fritz, Joseph Curtin, Jacques Poitevineau, Hugues Borsarello, Indiana Wollman, Fan-Chia Tao, and Thierry Ghasarossian, whose results were published online April 7 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study was conducted in September 2012 at the Auditorium Jean-Pierre Miquel (Coeur de Ville) in Vincennes.
Even the study itself, entitled "Soloist evaluations of six Old Italian and six new violins," claims, "The current study, the second of its kind, again shows that first-rate soloists tend to prefer new instruments and are unable to distinguish old from new at better than chance levels."
Is that really what this study proved? I thought it might be a good idea to read the actual study and look at the details of the process and supporting information.
Here are some thoughts, after doing so.
First, the luthiers and social scientists who did this study picked a nice group of people to participate: the 10 soloists who tested the violins were: Olivier Charlier, Pierre Fouchenneret, Yi-Jia Susanne Hou, Ilya Kaler, Elmar Oliveira, Tatsuki Narita, Solenne Païdassi, Annick Roussin, Giora Schmidt, and Stéphane Tran Ngoc. (That's seven males, three females). Based on the information given, two of those people normally play new violins, one plays both a modern and a new; and seven play old violins.
This framegrab image from video, provided by Stefan Avalos, shows soloist Ilya Kaler wearing welder glasses so he can’t see the violin during a test of old and new instruments outside Paris in September 2012.
In two 75-minute sessions, players were asked to evaluate 12 violins -- six old, and six new -- and choose which one they would want, if they were replacing their own violin. In the final seven minutes of the last session, they were given violins in rapid succession and ask to identify which were old and which were new. The whole experiment was "double-blind," players wore goggles and could not see the instruments. The study listed no information about the preparation of the violins; whether the makers of the new instruments were hovering nearby, ready to adjust the soundpost and bridge, whether luthiers even looked at the Strads before they were used (this was a problem in the first test). Also, we don't know how old the strings were on any of the violins, and if they were all the same age. That can make a huge difference in the perception of a violin, whether the strings are brand-new; new but nicely broken in; or just plain old. I'd be curious, and maybe there's an answer for that.
When it came to preference, six violinists preferred new violins and four preferred old ones. The players did not do better than the roll of dice when it came to the seven-minute guessing game at the end.
What does all this prove? To me it proves that new violins do better than 300-year-old ones in brief, blind tests. I'm not in the least bit surprised by this. Time and time again, violinists tell me that the 300-year-old Italian violins, such as the Strads of the Golden Period, take time to learn to play -- years, even. The rewards come over a long period of active partnership, which also involves experimenting with set-up, strings, etc. If the period of time is a couple of hours, then I would imagine that yes, new violins would be easier and more preferable. Even so, just 6 of the 10 soloists in the study preferred them. It was nice, though, that the players had a bit more time to evaluate these violins than in the first study.
The soloists certainly were not given much time, when it came to identifying which violins were old and which were new. In fact, that part of the experiment took place for a total of 7 minutes, at the very end of the second of two 75-minute sessions. Instructions for the players were: "We will now present you with a series of violins one at a time in random order. Play each for 30 seconds then guess what kind of instrument it is." In other words, at the point where they would have the highest amount of fatigue from playing all these violins, they were given a half-dozen or more violins in rapid succession, in random order, and asked to identify them as being old or new in 30 seconds apiece.
You can tell me how legitimate that sounds to you. I welcome your thoughts, and certainly I'd recommend that everyone read the actual study before letting the headlines do the thinking.
Let me add, I would agree with many people who have said that the present moment is also a golden period of violin making. There are some amazing luthier/artists out there whose extraordinary work deserves the highest praise and whose instruments deserve to be in the hands of the finest players. I also respect the old Italian instruments for what they are: shining examples of the art of lutherie that have withstood the test of time.Tweet
I would have liked to have had all of you to my "Book Signing Party" Sunday for Violinist.com Interviews, Vol. 1, but since you couldn't all make it, I'll tell you about it!
First of all, it took place at the lovely Pasadena, Calif., home of my friends, David and Cheryl Scheidemantle, both extraordinary violinists themselves, whose three children also are young musicians. About 40 friends and colleagues came to help welcome my book into the world, enjoy some wine and cheese and talk violin. I couldn't be more grateful! I had a lovely time signing books for violin fans, players and students - even a couple of violin makers!
I also read a few passages from the book, including the one below, which was from my interview with Esa-Pekka Salonen and Leila Josefowicz, about the Violin Concerto that Salonen wrote for her.
I would love for you to get this book, it's available through Amazon. And I promise to sign it for you, next time I see you in person! :)
(If you are wondering which violinists are interviewed in this book, they are: Hilary Hahn, Joshua Bell, Sarah Chang, David Garrett, Anne Akiko Meyers, Ruggiero Ricci, Maxim Vengerov, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Gil Shaham and Adele Anthony, Rachel Barton Pine, Nicola Benedetti, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Zachary DePue, James Ehnes, Simon Fischer, Augustin Hadelich, Janine Jansen, Leila Josefowicz and Esa-Pekka Salonen, Philippe Quint, Tasmin Little, Elmar Oliveira, Stanley Ritchie, Lara St. John, Philip Setzer, Clara-Jumi Kang and Judy Kang.)Tweet
As art objects, Stradivari violins create a stunning lineup of masterpieces, each instrument with its own 300-year-history:
Photo: Lee Salem Photography
That was the magic of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's four-day Strad Fest Los Angeles, which featured (from left to right, pictured above at Saturday's gala concert) Margaret Batjer on the the 1716 "Milstein" Strad; Ray Ushikubo (age 12) on the c. 1720 "Beechback"; Xiang "Angelo" Yu on the 1666 "Serdet"; Chee-Yun on the 1714 "Leonora Jackson"; Martin Chalifour on the 1711 "Kreisler"; Philippe Quint on the 1708 "Ruby"; Cho-Liang Lin on the 1715 "Titian"; and Elizabeth Pitcairn on the 1720 "Red Mendelssohn" (not pictured above).
I attended two of the events: a concert Friday called the "Stradivarius Fiddlefest" at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, featuring five of the fiddles; and the concert portion of Saturday's "Stradosphere: a Strad-Studded Gala Evening," which included all eight performers and violins at The California Club in downtown Los Angeles. The festival honored the violins of Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737), who made some 1,100 instruments -- violins, violas, cellos, guitars and harps -- in his Cremona, Italy workshop. About 650 survive, and some 500 of those are likely violins.
When a violinist plays a Strad, a unique chemistry occurs. It's not always good -- and yet it can be sublime. It sounds nutty to say it, but after talking with so many violinists over the years and also test-driving a number of Strads myself, I can attest that these instruments have rather complicated personalities. An instrument that sings for one violinist might put up a fight with another perfectly good musician. It's a relationship, a lot like a relationship with another human. There are those "love at first sight" kinds of situations, but time and careful attention tend to help.
So in some ways, this meeting of so many artists and instruments felt a bit like a chemistry experiment: chemistry between artist and instrument, between artist and artist, between composer and artist, perhaps between composer and instrument, maybe even instrument and instrument! Some of these violins and violinists were long-time partners; others were meeting for the very first time.
Friday night's "Stradivarius Fiddlefest" was billed as a face-off, featuring Margaret Batjer, Chee-Yun, Cho-Liang Lin, Philippe Quint and Xiang Yu, who played in teams and as soloists, with LACO Music Director Jeffrey Kahane at the piano when needed. The Broad Stage, a contemporary theatre that opened in 2008 and has exceptional acoustics, was sold out for the event, with a crowd of 499 people.
The evening began with a good piece for comparing four violins: Telemann's Concerto in D major for Four Violins, with Lin, Chee-Yun, Quint and Batjer. The motives in this Baroque-period piece repeat throughout the four voices, allowing one to hear the same bit played by different players. My first impression was that here were four really different volume levels and rather individual voices. I wondered, was it the soloists, or the instruments, that have such strong individual voices? Does a Strad tend to stick out in a group, kind of like a soprano singing in a boy's choir?
Throughout the evening, various players spoke about the instruments they were playing, giving history and also their own impressions about playing the instrument. LACO concertmaster Margaret Batjer talked about how the 1716 "Milstein" Strad landed in America five years ago, when Pasadena resident and owner of Brighton Collectibles Jerry Kohl fell in love with the idea of owning a Strad. Batjer and Martin Chalifour, concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, were enlisted to help Jerry and Terri Kohl choose the Strad they would buy. They spent about eight hours testing eight different Stradivari violins -- brought by dealers from Chicago, London and Austria -- at LA's Disney Hall. "We had an amazing day," Batjer said. But for her, the most amazing part was when she took the "Milstein" Strad from its case and recognized it immediately as the violin that the great Nathan Milstein once played. "I cried. I couldn't believe what I was seeing -- I knew that it had spent 15 years in a bank vault." The Strad now resides in the Los Angeles area, where Jerry and Terri Kohl lend it locally, most often to Batjer and to Chalifour.
Cho-Liang Lin then spoke about his 1715 "Titian" Strad, made just a year before the "Milstein." "Very conceivably, they sat on Stradivari's work bench at the same time," he said of the instruments. And here they were, reunited after nearly 300 years. "I think the old man might be pleased, but he also would be flabbergasted by the price!" That is, in the $ millions. Lin's violin received its name from a dealer, who felt that its color reminded him of the paintings of 16th-century Venetian artist, Titian. Once played by Efram Zimbalist and Arthur Grumiaux, the violin was in the hands of a private collector when Lin came upon it. Lin already had a nice violin, but he fell madly in love with the "Titian." "I felt like I was committing violin adultery by loving this instrument!" he said. He wrote the collector a letter every year, offering to buy the violin, and every year, the collector graciously turned him down. "It was like asking a girl on a date, and she keeps saying no!" Lin said. When the collector died, though, his will gave Lin first option on the instrument. When the executor of the will called to tell him this, "I didn't sleep that night!" said Lin, who now owns the violin.
Cho-Liang Lin plays the "Titian" Stradivarius and Margaret Batjer plays the "Milstein" Stradivarius, LACO Music Director Jeffrey Kahane on piano. Photo: Jamie Pham
Above, Lin and Batjer played the last two movements from Moszkowski's Suite in G minor, Op. 71, after Philippe Quint and Xiang Yu had played the first two movements. This is a heavy piece in places, full of double stops and easy to overplay. I enjoyed Quint and Yu's second movement, where the beauty of these violins' voices emerged best in the softest passages, as did their camaraderie in the cute "pluck, pluck" of an ending. Lin and Batjer likewise achieved some real beauty in the slow threading in and out between their lines in the third movement, and in the stillness they achieved by the movement's end. Their accelerando at the end of the fourth movement also was nicely paced and very exciting.
Philippe Quint took the stage alone to play a work which is too new to awaken any sleeping ghosts from the "Ruby" Strad's long past: John Corigliano's Red Violin Caprices, Variations 4 and 5, composed after the 1997 movie music. The "Ruby" is on loan to Quint through The Stradivari Society of Chicago.
"It gives me great pleasure to play the music of a composer who isn't dead," said Russian-born Quint with a smile.
The 1666 "Serdet" Strad, currently owned by the Beare family in England, is the earliest-known Strad, and its label solved a mystery. "We knew that Stradivari was a woodmaker, but we didn't know for sure that he was a pupil of Nicolò Amati," Batjer said. That is, until the label inside the Serdet came to light; it says, "Antonius Stradivarius Cremonensis Alumnus Nicolais Amati, Faciebat Anno 1666." In other words, it credits Amati as the then-young Stradivari's teacher. Batjer quoted the 20th c. Italian luthier and Strad scholar Simone Sacconi: "All my life, I wait to see this violin -- it must be Number One."
Violinist Xiang "Angelo" Yu, who was playing the "Serdet" for the first time during Strad Fest, said, that "I believe every instrument has an individual soul, and I'm always trying to see, 'What are you trying to tell me?' This is a wild, gorgeous horse -- you never know what is coming next." To show its qualities, he played the last movement of the Franck Sonata, with its long unbroken lines. This piece is known for its fiendishly difficult piano part (Franck was an organist) -- what a treat to have Kahane at the piano, nailing those notes.
Chee-Yun brought out a nice, strong sound from the 1714 "Leonora Jackson" Strad -- a violin that was somewhat darker in tone than the other Strads in the room. As she played Saint-Saens "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso," the earth shook -- literally! A 5.1-magnitude earthquake hit Los Angeles just then, and the floor moved as all heads and seats visibly swayed side-to-side. At least half of the people I surveyed afterwards said they were so captivated by the music, they didn't feel it or notice at all! (Absorbed as I was, I did notice it -- I've lived in CA only 15 years and these things still faze me!)
Afterwards, Chee-Yun described her anxiety over her first meeting with "Leonora," owned by William and Judy Sloan of Los Angeles. She would be meeting the violin for the first time upon arriving in Los Angeles for "Strad Fest" and was concerned about having enough time to get to know the instrument, which was played by Joseph Joachim, then by Leonora Jackson, who was a turn-of-the-20th-century soloist and among the first American violinists with an international career.
"What if she doesn't approve of my playing?" Chee-Yun wondered of "Leonora's violin." But after playing it, "I felt immediately warmed by her violin. I'm living the dream right now!"
Chee-Yun and Philippe Quint then took the stage together, noting that despite their long friendship, this was their "debut" as a duo. Nonetheless they made an ideal team for Sarasate's "Navarra," Op. 33, which they played with great joy, chemistry and precision in a billion tiny fast notes. These two should play together more often!
Chee-Yun plays the "Leonora Jackson" Stradivarius and Philippe Quint plays the "Ruby" Stradivarius. Photo: Jamie Pham
Cho-Liang Lin showcased his "Titian" with the more quiet and elegant "Habanera" by Ravel, played with heart and lucid trilling; followed by Kreisler's "Tambourin Chinois."
The violinists gathered in groups of four for two tangos: Piazzolla's "Oblivion," which was so sultry and effective that members of the audience gasped at its conclusion, following that with mad applause for Quint, Chee-Yun, Batjer, Lin and bassist Nico Abondolo. Quint switched out with Yu for the second tango, which never really got back on track after a bad count-off. (Fortunately, when the group played this piece again at the Gala on Saturday night, it went much better.) Friday's concert concluded with Bartok's Rumanian Folk Dances, each dance played by a different violinist, with the last dance played by all. (Quint's beautiful, dead-on harmonics were a testament to the fact that it's possible for that movement ("Pe Loc") to sound gorgeous and other-worldly rather than to pierce the ears and summon all neighborhood dogs to the door.)
The following night's Gala concert was held in a beautiful room with high ceilings, giant chandeliers and antique furniture at at the California Club, with about 300 guests. Added to the roster of violinists that appeared on Friday night were Martin Chalifour, playing the 1711 "Kreisler" Strad that is owned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic; and 12-year-old Ray Ushikubo, playing the 1720 "Beechback" Strad, so named because the back is made of beechwood.
The evening began with the seven violinists playing Bach's "Preludio" from the E major Partita, passing the musical line from violinist to violinist. Again, styles varied greatly, but it was a nice way to hear the differences between the violins and the violinists.
One of the best moments in this concert was when Margaret Batjer joined Xiang Yu to play the slow second movement of the Bach Double. They found surprising drama in this familiar piece, which was well-suited to their partnership.
Then came a Bach Triple! This piece, the "Allegro" from Concerto in D major for Three Violins, was played by Lin, Chee-Yun and Chalifour. It's more of a virtuoso Baroque vehicle than is the Bach Double, providing each soloist the opportunity to play a note-y and treacherous solo -- no problem for this crowd.
Batjer joined those three for Ludwig Maurer's "Allegro from Sinfonia Concertante in A minor for Four Violins." What an adorable piece; it sounded as though it were written with the express purpose of making a child smile by showing trick after trick, all with a certain degree of comedy. It worked. As the violinists took turns executing downward cascades in pairs, as if trying to out-do each other, the audience actually laughed out loud.
Near the end of the evening, the youngest violinist, Ray, was asked how it felt to play a Strad for the very first time. He summed up the feeling well:
"It feels awesome!"
* * *
After dinner, violinist Elizabeth Pitcairn showed her violin up-close to those at the Gala. Here is a picture of her, with her violin that inspired "The Red Violin" movie, with the Gala's co-chairs:
Violinist Elizabeth Pitcairn shows her "Red Mendelssohn" Stradivarius to Sandy Gage (left) and Pat Gage. Photo: Lee Salem Photography
I'm glad someone has finally figured out how to dance the "Presto"! Stephanie Cadman dances all over Toronto to Bach's G Minor Presto, played by Lara St John. Bach out, ladies!
Previous entries: March 2014
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