NEW YORK - Say something!
That was the message from violin great Itzhak Perlman, who lent his generous presence to Juilliard's Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies on Wednesday.
"You need to say something, express your feeling about the music," Perlman said. "The minute you express it, your audience will know it."
He described the technically perfect performance, that somehow leaves the listener feeling empty. That kind of performance can be redeemed when the performer plays those same notes with an idea in mind.
"The minute you concentrate on what you are going to do, you will do SOMETHING," he said.
Unfortunately, many of us fall into patterns in our playing, patterns that become so ingrained that we don't know we have become a slave to them. This is especially true when we are playing composed music and practicing it frequently.
"The danger in re-creating music is that it can become stagnant," Perlman said. This is especially true when one has to perform the same piece over and over again.
"Let's take a nightmare scenario that happened to me long ago," Perlman said, and with his characteristic deadpan, "back when I played fast notes."
"I had six performances of the Paganini concerto, right in a row. That's hell."
How can one get through it? Certainly one must not just resign to playing it passively, or just getting through with the attitude, "That's the way it goes," he said. "Music should always be evolving."
"I want to see if we can play something, and then paint it in different colors," Perlman said. He described the painter ("Was it Monet?") who painted many sunsets, all with different colors.
"That's what I need in music," he said. "I need sunsets at different times of the day," the different brushes, different shades of paint.
Perlman had brought 10 of his students to demonstrate his point, not telling them in advance what he'd be doing with them. At this point, he chose to have each of them play a short part of their current piece, then try to paint it in new colors.
He polled the students on their current pieces, and when he came to the Elgar Sonata, he polled the Symposium participants about their familiarity with the piece. Not too familiar! So he chose the student playing the Elgar.
"It's a nice piece," Perlman said, and waiting a beat, "for the player!"
The young man played, with much head shaking and bodily movement. Perlman asked, "Has it ever occurred to you to give it a different flavor?" Perlman suggested making it "more intense."
"In general?" asked the student.
"No, in-tense!" Perlman said, making his audience laugh once again.
The student decided more vibrato speed, more bow speed and more... rosin would help. He quickly left the room for a quick rosin-up.
When he entered with the newly rosined bow, Perlman roared, "Now you're going to hear intense like you've never heard before!"
He played again, with much the same sound but even more movement. "Any different?" Perlman said. "No? Well you LOOK different..."
"Do it again, don't move!" Perlman said.
He still moved.
"There is a thing you constantly do," Perlman said.
"Yeah, 'cause I like it," the young man answered.
"Yes, but you are trapped!" Perlman said. "I want you to be flexible in what you do."
"How do we get out of our musical jail?" Perlman asked the audience. "It doesn't mean that freedom is so great, but it means we can do more."
To a girl who played the first movement of the Franck Sonata, he said, "For us to say something, we have to react to the music."
In other words, we have to listen when we practice and perform. Perlman gave an example.
"I was practicing the Mendelssohn concerto, and I realized I've been slowing down the second theme. Why have I been doing that?" Perlman said. "I tried not slowing it down -- I liked it."
"It only took me 40 years to realize that!" he laughed.
Another young man played the Beethoven Romance, not apparently fully aware of how much rubato he was taking.
"What would happen if you don't take time at all?" Perlman asked. Perlman had to wave his hand in front of his face to keep time, but when he played it rhythmically straight, it forced a different kind of color into several notes, sounding much better.
"When you do something right in music, it's contagious," Perlman said. It's like a chain reaction.
"Don't get used to playing it a certain way," he said. "Only get used to playing it. You did stuff that was new; you were not playing it as you practiced it. You were re-creating it."
To a girl playing a Vieuxtemps piece, he emphasized the need to experiment in the practice room. "If you don't experiment with other ways," he said, "you come to the concert and nothing else will occur to you than to play it the same way."
He asked a student playing the Devil's Trill to imagine she's performed it seven times, and "it's really beginning to bug you." Then for a final performance, she has to play it for the pianist's relative in a small village in Ohio, in a barn, for 30-40 people who love music. "How will you make it interesting for yourself?"
After she played, he said, "You should play in a barn more often!"
Another student played the quirky and rhythmically driven final movement of the Shostakovich. Without a melody to play with, what could she do to make it interesting?
"Try pretending that we can't hear you, that there is a glass wall here," he said, "And choreograph what you are playing."
She tried, and he said, "Now choreograph to THEM," pointing to us in the audience, "not to the floor, because the floor is not interested. You look at the floor only to dig a hole for yourself."
As she played, he came forward, pointing to the audience, trying to direct her playing to her audience.
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(Hey, you know I had to get a picture....)
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