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Laurie Niles

Musings from a Musical Mudblood

January 1, 2008 at 7:44 AM

My parents called to say that they spent the last hours of 2007 watching Live from Lincoln Center, featuring Joshua Bell and the New York Philharmonic, and they just loved it.

I took this as a good sign for 2008.

My parents are what I'd call well-meaning Music Muggles, who for reasons few can explain, gave birth to a musical daughter with a freakish passion for the violin. They enjoy violin music, though they aren't always sure why. Whenever my mom expresses enthusiasm for a classical performance, she tempers it with, "But I wouldn't know; you know I have a tin ear!"

The fact that they spent two full hours glued to a symphony orchestra concert tells me that this performance appealed not only to those of us who already adore the NY Phil, Ravel, Josh Bell, and the violin; but it also appealed to a broader audience.

I was actually explaining this concept to 50 first-grade beginners several weeks ago. As we prepared for what was their very first violin concert, they wondered if they would be playing the piece they learned most recently, which, of course, was not ready for Prime Time.

"Performing is different," I explained. "You have to know what you can do really well, and then you have to use that to give your audience something they will enjoy."

You have to do both things: show what you can do, and use it to create an experience for the audience.

I thought the New Year's concert did this well; and I was reminded of how well Josh Bell does it: showing superb technique, but also lending that technique to the creation of an experience for the audience, not just a showcase for the performer.

I caught the last half of the Live from Lincoln Center performance, arriving at my T.V. set just as Renee Fleming started chatting with Joshua Bell, and I thought they handled the interview quite well, giving insight, but with an audience in mind. If anyone is wondering why Bell has been so successful as a soloist for so many years, you can watch this very short interview for a few clues why: he knows his topic, he can explain it with depth but without condescension; he is sincere. And despite his huge following and lifetime of building violin technique, he is humble about it. "I'm not a gypsy violinist...I'm not a jazz violinist....I could never be a Fritz Kreisler," basically I am what I am, and I hope you like it, he says. She also spoke with Lorin Maazel, and they did a nice job of putting the second half of the program in context, talking about Tzigane being a gypsy piece born of Ravel's best creative impulses, while Bolero was the bane of his existence.

Bell played a really nice Tzigane, geez, where is the wolf on your G, man? Really, it was full of great effect, smooth sound, energy, and yes, movement. I decided that the best way to film Josh involves having a cushion of space around him; that the close-close-ups cause dizziness and nausea in the viewer, for all the camera jerking. Give the man some leeway; it's his prerogative to move. My parents especially loved Intro and Rondo Capriccioso and "Leibesleid," ("But honey, we like the way you play Leibesleid better," my mom said. This, for me, is the tin-ear advantage...;) ) I was sorry to have missed that.

But on to Bolero.

I detest Bolero. I hate playing it. I hate listening to it. I hate having it worm its way into my head. And yet, tonight I watched it from start to finish. I found that T.V. was a good medium for this piece. Though the music and the harmony does not change but once during the entire 15-minute piece, the instrumentation does. So the camera panning from instrument to instrument helped temper the mind-numbing repetition that otherwise drives me totally mad. It's all too easy to doze off into this mesmerizing vapor and start botching notes, entrances, etc., so I enjoyed hearing this piece performed by an orchestra that has more than a passing interest in detail, if not for love of this piece, at least from professional habit. It's not my kind of music, but it was an experience.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on January 1, 2008 at 8:49 AM
Joshua Bell made one of the points you did: Technique is difficult, sometimes dazzling, but it's not the most important thing in music. Technique is something close to athletics, for example, running the four minute mile. The really important thing about music, he said, is conveying moods or emotions to the listeners.

I especially liked his playing of Tzigane followed by None But the Lonely Heart. Those must have been some very athletic, assertive gypsies. The next piece was so sweet and melancholy. It worked its way right into my heart and made me cry. It also took my breath away -- literally. I had a mild asthma attack, something that strong emotions can precipitate in me.

From Sung-Duk Song
Posted on January 1, 2008 at 1:59 PM
One of my young students (the prodigious 6 year old) watched this program last night. He got furious when Josh Bell mentioned during the interview that he doesn't consider Kreisler a virtuoso. I thought it was funny how such a young child took a remark very seriously and said, "Well Josh can't play Kreisler's music anyway".

I'm not a big fan of Lorin Maazel. But a comment he said during the interview had me develop alot more respect for him. When Renee Fleming asked "Do you think the musicians of today are respecting composer more by adhering to the instructions by the composers?" Maazel answered "I think we're being DISRESPECTFUL. The composers composed the music during their era taking into consideration that there will be individual interpretations with use of rubato, etc."

From Andrew Bergevin
Posted on January 1, 2008 at 5:46 PM
I especially liked Maazel's description of the trend in violin playing today as being "antiseptic". ;)
From Sydney Menees
Posted on January 1, 2008 at 5:58 PM
I watched it, but my brother and I wouldn't allow ourselves to watch Intro/Rondo because he's playing it with the KC Symphony in... uh... 17 days. Haha.
From Albert Justice
Posted on January 1, 2008 at 6:45 PM
I liked "Leibesleid" best too I think, and he played if so very smoothly. It was "Bolero" however, and that 'tap-tap-duh-luh tap' never ending I found equally nice, as an environment without effort that can be really whatever one imagines, or nothing at all.
From Shawn Smith
Posted on January 1, 2008 at 9:07 PM
Laurie, you and I seem to come from similar family backgrounds. Because I have been playing since I was a child, people have always asked me if I come from a "musical family", as if musical ability is a genetic inheritance. I reply with the truth; "My parents can't play a radio." I play in a string quartet and my dad asks, "Who plays the banjo?" He thinks a string quartet is comprised of a fiddle, banjo, guitar and bass.

Having said that, when I called my mom last night, she was enjoying Joshua Bell's performance. As a Kreisler fan, I enjoyed "Liebeslied" and "Libesfreud" very much. Bell did a good job on Ravel's "Tzigane" as well.

Maybe our parents should go to concerts together. Happy New Year!

From Eugene Chan
Posted on January 2, 2008 at 5:09 AM
Bolero: the world's longest crescendo.
From Christopher Ciampoli
Posted on January 2, 2008 at 6:03 AM
I especially liked Maazel's description of the trend in violin playing today as being "antiseptic"

My former teacher used to say this too haha

From Karin Lin
Posted on January 2, 2008 at 6:53 AM
Laurie, my two-year-old daughter loved the "Tzigane" too. She was screaming and fussing during the interviews about how it was "boring" and asking me to put in her penguin video instead, but as soon as Josh started in with the first notes, she sat transfixed for the whole piece, then joined the TV audience in clapping and made her stuffed cow clap too. If anyone can reach the "music Muggles", it's Joshua Bell.

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