In all the nauseatingly ubiquitous election coverage on the radio, one statement about the voting system made me laugh out loud:
"It's not so much that the voting technology is flawed, it's how the actual voter interacts with the technology that is flawed," the expert said.
In other words, voters are instructed to fill in a bubble, and they circle it. The segment went on to describe a voter who actually kissed the ballot, leaving her selections to be deciphered in lipstick. Some folks understand the instructions, some misunderstand the instructions, some don't bother to listen to instructions at all.
Does this have a parallel with the violin? It's not the violin, it's how we interact with it. How do we figure out how to interact with it?
For some reason I thought of this when I was trying to describe to one of my students how to hold her left wrist. I told her not to bend her hand forward or backward, but to keep her wrist straight. I even had nifty terms made up to describe how NOT to hold it: flipping the hand backwards creates a "pancake wrist," and flipping the hand too far forward makes a "goose neck." Holding it straight was "just right."
She's a smart student who listens to instructions. These were not bad instructions, either. Pretty thorough, if I do say.
But every time I reminded her, "Straighten your wrist!" she would flip her hand forward, making that "goose neck." So I would start over, explaining it. Finally, I had her look in the mirror, and I positioned her wrist exactly the way I was seeking.
"Oh!" she said, the light bulb over her head illuminating the entire room. "I get it! You want me to hold it diagonally!"
To me, "straight" meant no kinks, to her, "straight" meant straight up and down, perpendicular to the floor.
"Exactly," I said. "Diagonally!"
New vocabulary = Problem solved!
That guy is totally checking me out.
It's 10:30 p.m. and I'm at the grocery store, wearing sweats and a T-shirt, no make-up and a ponytail. I'm buying Egg Beaters and whipping cream.
But it's unmistakable. Twenty-something black guy, well-dressed - he's still smiling at me. Hmmmmm. Well, I suppose even we forty-year-olds can attract attention at the end of the day; that does give me hope. Must be these flattering fluorescent lights. Maybe he digs the frumpy look. I'll give him a little smile back.
"Yeah!" he says, nodding. Okay, this is a little over the top. Now he gives me a thumbs-up. What's he seeing here?
Who would have thought of a mariachi symphony?
I wouldn't have, but a composer named Jeff Nevin did, and his piece was at the center of the Pasadena Symphony's all-Mexican concert – the symphony's only concert this fall because of financial difficulties.
So yes, I play in the Pasadena Symphony, and I confess that my first thought about this piece was, "what the...?"
"You have to understand," said conductor Jorge Mester, a native of Mexico City himself, "that the mariachi concept of rhythm is..." he paused for a moment to look skyward, "Well...you'll need to watch me like a hawk."
The rhythmic attitude that Jorge was trying to describe became clear when symphony met mariachi in rehearsal, as we put together this piece, called Concerto for Mariachi and Orchestra 'Pasion Mexicana'. It reminded me of my Mexican friend Gabriel Pliego, with whom I attended a Suzuki workshop in Colorado. "You can't park THERE!" exclaimed a carload of us, as he nonchalantly maneuvered his auto into an incredibly illegal and improbable space. "Oh don't worry, ¡Es bien!" he assured us. "You should see how they drive in Mexico!"
Gabriel never got a ticket. He always got a great space, too.
Likewise, I noticed, for example, that mariachi music will amble along happily, when suddenly, two bars in 3/4 time will sneak in, and before that has even registered the music accelerates into some new flurry of notes that takes off and flips around until, to the listener's surprise, everything is back as it was, ambling happily along. It's like walking down the sidewalk, then suddenly turning three cartwheels, stepping on a cat and jumping over an old lady, and then resuming walking, as though nothing ever happened. Certainly, mariachi has an ebb and flow all of its own.
This is not to mention that when one is playing repeated notes, one just goes with the gravity of the down bow, creating an almost "swing" kind of lopsidedness throughout.
So squaring this with the tidy precision of our symphony ways, in which we all try never to get parking or speeding tickets of any kind, was interesting.
For example, the first time we rehearsed together: the orchestra has a long introduction, all orchestra and then, as if out of the smoke, the mariachi band comes in, sounding exactly like a mariachi band: open strings, fluctuating tempi, bright and nasal, rough edges around the pitch. It was a meeting, not a melting, of styles. Then. They...they sang! Full-throated, from the gut, glorious Spanish: "Soy la voz de mi pueblo, de mis padres, de su alma...soy Mariachi, soy Mariachi, soy la voz de Mexico!" I am the voice of my homeland, of my ancestors, of your soul, I am Mariachi, the voice of Mexico!
We blinked. Is this gonna work?
The second movement put the Mariachi against exotic bird sounds, atonal rumblings, bells chiming random non-consonant notes -- basically a strange environment. So THIS, I thought, is what happens when you give a composer all the tools of the orchestra to carry the Mariachi concept fully to its grandest state. It wasn't what I expected. And yet, why not?
The composer described it as a depiction of a tiny Mexican village at night. As my husband Robert put it, "It sounded like the primordial soup from which Mariachi evolved." The darker undertones cut the sweetness of the Mariachi, set it against a contrast. As the composer Carlos Chavez was quoted in the evening's program notes, speaking of the music of Mexico: "There is never, in this music, a morbid of degenerate feeling, never a negative attitude toward other men or nature as a whole." It's happy stuff, and a whole symphony of happy might make a few people homicidal.
The last movement was a fun, loud ride with enough sharp turns to keep us all on our toes. The audience leapt to its feet when we finished. Certainly it worked, and all the better to take a risk and do something new.
Here is the LA Times review of this concert. Also, attention teachers! I'm pleased to report that composer Jeff Nevin ("born-again Mariachi" as the LA Times called him!) told me that he has written a Mariachi Method for teaching children this style of music. That link is for the violin method, but it also is available for viola, trumpet, guitar, guitarron, cello and bass and harp. Also here is a documentary about Jeff Nevin, in Spanish.
Let me say that concerts like these are what the symphony is all about: casting music in a new light, making it come alive. We create this occasion, the symphony orchestra concert, and it is a celebration. We aspire to the highest level, and we ALL respect our humanity in doing so: the listener who dresses up, eats well and arrives ready to listen in the beautiful hall where we gather, the musicians who prepare for four rehearsals just to make these magic moments that have never come before and will never come again.
Symphonies exist to give such concerts. It is wonderful that symphonies can also educate, but we must never forget the aim of that education: the excellence and potential for the sublime that inspires us all to keep striving for something better. Let us once again structure and fund our orchestras around their primary reason for existence: the inherent beauty and nobility of symphonic music.
I wanted to share this short documentary with my friends here at V.com. It was made by the wonderful documentarian, Mary Trunk, whose daughter was in my class at McKinley School, a public school in Pasadena, California. This is my children's school as well, and for two years I taught violin to lots of first graders (about 50 each year), using a modified Suzuki approach. They were complete beginners and learned everything from our twice-a-week classes. (I'm not teaching the class this year; I need a clone to get everything done!) Anyway, I'm just amazed at how Mary took all this video, sound, music, me talking...and made this lovely mini-documentary with it. She has my deepest gratitude. I hope it gives people ideas, mainly, I hope it gives people the idea that KIDS NEED MUSIC in their schools!
Well, a bit more news from the Pasadena Symphony, and it's not good.
As of now, the musicians have been informed by our personnel director that half of the 2008-2009 season's concerts have been canceled, that's four out of eight. The remaining concerts are in October (this Saturday: Come see us if you are in the area, show your support and see a great concert!), and in January, March and April. This drastic change to the season hinges on the approval of the board at a Thursday meeting, as I understand it.
Last night, board president Diane Rankin explained the situation to the musicians. In a nutshell, she said that $6 million of our endowment is untouchable. A year ago the endowment was around $8 million, but because of declines in financial markets, it is now actually below $6 million. What is left over is not enough to cover the expenses of all our concerts as well as our staff, she said. The organization was going to try tapping a line of credit to pay these expenses, but it is now unable to do so. This explanation roughly meshes with what was explained in the LA Times, though the LAT said yesterday the endowment was $ 6.3 million. The budget shortfall is apparently $400,000.
I raised my hand and asked if any of the 27 staff positions (including two executive directors) had been cut. The answer was that they were considering it, but no. (A clarification: I was told since I first wrote this that not all of the 27 people listed in the September program under "Orchestras of Pasadena staff" are paid. Here are the staff listed on the orchestra website; I count 20.)
She told us to continue to speak highly of the organization and to have a beautiful happy concert together.
But I care too much about these organization NOT to be extremely concerned, extremely let down, and extremely hoppin' mad. I think we're in a lot more trouble when we cut half the season and no one asks questions, no one cares, no one tries to rally to keep this institution alive. And yes, it's that serious. I've seen too many orchestras die, orchestras that seemed like institutions that would be there forever.
I understand that times are tough. In fact, here's another item about that. I don't feel that professional musicians should be asked to play for free: that's the road to a community orchestra, and that's not what this institution is about. It's about excellence, pride in the community, about striving for something better than us and inspiring our children to do so as well.
But we need to keep playing concerts. This is a disastrous decision, not just for the musicians, but for our audience and community that we've built over years. Those audience members we send away will be difficult to get back. The season subscribers at the heart of our support will be left holding the bag. The musicians who have faithfully scheduled their entire lives around the symphony season for years will feel compelled to find other work that is more reliable.
There will simply be more silence. Less music.
How can we keep our cultural institutions alive during hard times? At least will someone agree that we SHOULD?
It was like a punch in the stomach.
"Due to the recent extraordinary conditions in the financial markets, the Pasadena Symphony has been forced to cancel the November rehearsals and concert," read the letter I got from the orchestra's personnel manager on Friday.
What? A couple weeks of plummeting stocks and...kablouey? What about the sponsor that the Symphony already had lined up for the concert? Or the tickets that have been sold?
It's not the first time this year that I've received a letter from an orchestra asking me to help cover their economic hardship. In August, the New West Symphony sent me notice that, although they've weathered great losses (their major donors have been Countrywide Financial and Amgen), they needed me to "donate" $100 that they owed me from radio broadcast pay over several years so that they can cook their books properly. Or whatever. If ALL of us musicians who haven't been paid agree to do this, we'd be listed in the program at the "Platinum Circle" level of donors. This is incredibly exciting for musicians going paycheck to paycheck.
Oh, and by the way, the radio station for which we (I guess) donated our services, Los Angeles' K-Mozart, also went under.
Now this from the Pasadena Symphony, which just a month ago threw a lavish fundraiser with John Williams conducting. Though Pops conductor Rachel Worby told audiences all summer long that this concert would raise $1 million for an educational endowment, many musicians have suggested privately that the money instead would help pay down a sizable debt that they said the Pasadena Pops brought to the table when the Pops merged with the Symphony last spring.
And, let's just add, contract negotiations are currently underway with the Musicians' Union, as our old contract expired last season. We are to play our October concert under the conditions of the old contract. The November concert was one of just five planned for this season, so losing it means a significant pay cut for the musicians.
Does anyone smell something funny? Or does this just stink?
It's easy to get a little intimidated by violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, just looking at the record.
At age 45, she has a stunning discography: with 53 composers represented in more than 60 recordings over the last 30 years. When she was new on the scene, she was famously associated with the conductor Herbert von Karajan; she has gone on to work with many, if not most, of the most important conductors and musicians of the late 20th and early 21st century.
She has championed new music, to say the least. Looking at her biographical timeline, one sees the breadth of her contributions: her world premieres include Witold Lutoslawski's "Chain 2" in 1986; Norbert Moret's "En reve" in 1988; Wolfgang Rihm's "Gesungene Zeit" in 1992; Sebastian Currier's "Aftersong" in 1994; Krzysztof Penderecki's "Metamorphosen" in 1995; Penderecki's "Second Violin Concerto" (dedicated to her) in 1998; Penderecki's "Violin Sonata" (commissioned by her) in 2000; Andre Previn's "Tango Song and Dance" and "Violin Concerto" (both written for her) and Henri Dutilleux's "Sur le meme accord" (dedicated to her) in 2002; Previn's "Concerto for Violin and Double Bass" with bassist Roman Patkolo; and of course, the recording Mutter has released this week: Sofia Gubaidulina's "Violin Concerto In tempus praesens" (written for her).
This is not to mention Mutter's recordings of the more "standard" modern repertoire, for example Alban Berg's Violin Concerto and Bela Bartok's Violin Concerto No. 2, Igor Stravinsky's Violin Concerto...
Talking with Mutter this week about her new recording of Bach and Gubaidulina, I found her to be personally warm, and passionate about the new works she is bringing to the world. Like the rest of us, she is evolving: she spoke of her recent embrace of the Baroque bow for performances of Bach, and how this has opened her to a new kind of intimacy with these works. We spoke about her litany of shoulder rest experiments during her early development as a violinist (wasn't easy for her, either!), of new music and old, of motherhood, and even a little bit about beautiful, sleeveless designer gowns.
Laurie Niles: Very few of us get to play a brand-new piece, a world premiere. I wondered how you approach a totally new piece of music -- is it different from your approach to a piece of music that is standard repertoire?
Anne-Sophie Mutter: There is common ground, of course, like thoroughly studying all the details. But I feel that with a contemporary piece which has never been played before, you can be more innovative. You are less burdened by certain expectations. With pieces that have been studied and played for the last 250 years, much of what we inherit, in terms of cultural taste, has to do with our subconscious. It's something we just grow up with; it's almost the air we are breathing. Looking at a piece by Bach, for example, it is much more difficult to get away from habits, good and bad. If it's a violin concerto by Gubaidulana, your approach is fresher; it's probably also more objective. Although being subjective is ultimately what music needs in order to really bond with an audience. You don't just want to objectificate the notes. But you don't have the burden of history. It's a wonderful luxury, if that's the word, to set the path for future generations and their understanding of that contemporary piece you are bringing to the world.
Laurie: Sometimes, particularly as a violinist -- I don't think guitarists have the same thing quite -- there is such history. It can almost be a trap. I remember hearing a performance of yours, of the Beethoven Concerto, and you did something very different with the cadenza. I really enjoyed it, but then I wondered how many people would be...
Anne-Sophie: Appalled? (laughing)
Laurie: Appalled! Exactly, how do you deal with that?
Anne-Sophie: I mean, the only one who will hold you up for that is the composer. The composer is the only person you really have to serve, and whose intentions you always have to keep in mind. But as we know through history, composers have allowed themselves different viewpoints on different evenings and performances -- especially the ones who were the conductors of their own pieces, or performers of their own concerti. There is not one formula.
I don't think history is a burden, but it makes us aware of the fact that we should not take interpretations for granted. Interpretations of great masters of the past - they are extremely valuable reference points. Yesterday when I was playing here, a young colleague came and we were discussing Bach solo sonatas. He was working on it and he wanted to know if I could think of a reference recording, and I mentioned the name of Nathan Milstein. He was probably 15 years old, and he had never heard of of him. I'm rather saddened and shocked to see that this goes across the border, it's no matter which country you are, there's a generation after me which is not aware of the grand masters of the last century; that's extremely disturbing. It's kind of a common disease of the young generation, who seems to think that whatever is out there as a new recording is the ultimate truth.
Laurie: Not by a long shot.
Laurie: There's been whole entire movement, a lot of change in how we approach Bach. If you were to listen to an early 20th century interpretation of Bach, it would be very different than a recent recording.
Anne-Sophie: Interesting to see how different eras have brought a different focus on pieces which we've known for such a long time. The so-called original instrument movement has certainly brought enlightenment in some parts of the research, if it's only the fact that today we have scores which refer in every little detail of articulation and dynamics to what the composer wanted in the 18th and 19th century.
I remember when I started the Mozart concerti, when I was 10, 11, 12. There was no Barenreiter (urtext). You actually had to go to Salzburg, to the archive, in order to find the various different versions of the concerti. Sometimes notes even differ. It's not only a question of the trills, decorations and dynamics, but also articulation. So we really have all the tools at hand, but we shouldn't take that as an easy way out. With tools at hand, I also mean all these CDs out, to hear musicians make a conglomerate of what has worked. It's just exciting to find your own way of looking at a piece, still keeping in mind the stylistic period you have to serve.
In fact, one of the exciting things about playing a contemporary piece, to come back to that, is the fact that finally you have somebody to talk to, and ask questions and get feedback. It's probably the greatest moment, as a musician, is when the composer approves of your understanding of his work. It's such a relief.
Laurie: Now this is not the first time you have worked with a live composer...
Anne-Sophie: No, I've been giving world performances for 22 years, if I'm not mistaken. So half my life.
Laurie: What's sort of the common thread when you're working with a modern composer? I'm sure they're all different.
Anne-Sophie: I think that's the common thread! (laughing) I never disturb their work, I never ask for anything in particular. I'm just the receiver. And so far I've been extremely lucky, and I'm endlessly grateful for every single piece I was invited to premiere, because all of them have been extremely special, and there is not one weak composition. That's very rare.
Laurie: That's very true, because you never know what you're going to get when you commission something.
Many people really don't understand 20th and 21st century music; they would just as soon listen to the Bach part of your CD and throw the rest away. So I would love to talk about what they are missing if they don't give it a chance.
Anne-Sophie: Of course, we cannot generalize, but you are not trying to do that. I just want to point out that I'm not a total and 100 percent fan of everything which has ever been written in modern times, and I don't like everything from the 18th and 19th century either. There are times in the life of a musician, and also of a listener and music lover, where certain periods or certain composers appeal to you more than others.
I needed long years to understand (Alban) Berg, for example. That always was a difficult composer for me. Eventually the moment was right (to record the Berg concerto), but it just didn't drop into the chair. I had to work for it. I was studying it thoroughly, but I just didn't fall in love with it. And I'm a musician who needs to have the emotional bond with music. Otherwise, if it only stays a cerebral exercise, I don't feel the need to bring it on stage -- because I might not be able to play it in a way which would be good enough, convincing enough, exciting enough, for an audience to really grab it, enjoy it and be inspired by it.
So Gubaidulina is obviously a composer who has mastered the form. She has so much emotional depth and incredible, unbelievable intensity in her writing and in the way she orchestrates. The wonderful story she tells about conceiving the In Tempus Praesens concerto is that she hears this gigantic sound construction, which she tries to bring to paper, making it transparent, and kind of threading it out... As she's in the process of writing it down, it's fading. She is not able to act fast enough. And what is even more touching is the fact that she says often she hears sounds which there is no orchestra she could give it to. So what she brings to paper probably is only a fraction of what it could be. I tell you, the fraction she brings to paper is hair-raising. It's a life-changing experience, because she doesn't shy away from enormous intensity. Some contemporary composers do, because they feel the need for more of a total objectivity. That's not my cup of tea.
I'm a great admirer of Gubaidulina because, very much like Bach, she is able to be a masterful, skillful and extremely sophisticated writer. She has proportion in her mind: relation between the five sections of the violin concerto, for example. This is not a composition which is based on writing things down because they sound lush and gorgeous, no. This is a process of at least three different levels of work. First she paints the low and high registers in light and dark colors. This violin concerto is the story of Sophia, the goddess of who in a way is the lonely soul against, if you may, society. Sophia of course is represented by the high registers of the violin, which is the only violin in the orchestral score. Then you have the dark and kind of haunting strings, which are the dark part of the score. After she lines out the balance between the light and the dark -- the kind of philosophical approach -- then she goes through the pain of putting everything in a formula, which has to do with tempo relations between the five segments. It is actually mathematical, so the relationship to Bach is very apparent.
But the genius of this piece is that you would never be disturbed by the architecture of the piece, but rather just be totally fascinated by the music. It's still expressivity, but it's music which is written in her language. It is nothing like anything else ever written. Although, of course, she comes from a tradition where she is obviously very much influenced by the music of the 18th and 19th century. But she makes it her own.
Laurie: It's not easy, is it?
Anne-Sophie: Whenever I talk to composers, I see how much -- almost pain is behind the piece. And specifically in this concerto there is a lot of pain. Go to the 40 bars before the cadenza. She almost refers to that scene as a crucifixion of Sophia. It's a really intense moment, where the orchestra has this percussive motive, which is standing there like a stone: unmovable destiny -- and the violin is trying to escape. After that there's an incredibly long pause, then the beginning of the cadenza. It's an incredible piece, and I was very moved to see that the audience in Switzerland, at the world premiere, really got it. I guess that there is a message in great art which we can relate to, even if it sounds alien to us,
Laurie: Since you've also paired this piece with Bach Concertos, and also you are playing a lot of Bach this month, I'd like to ask you a question from several Violinist.com members: will you ever record all the Bach Sonatas and Partitas?
Anne-Sophie: I don't have, and I never had, long-term recording projects. I just hate the feeling of having to do something for a recording in a three-year time frame. So I really don't have any answer to that, other than I don't think it's going to come soon. It is not something one can pull out of the hat. There are many other things one could pull out of the hat because they are in your daily repertoire, on stage. I really don't know. It's a little bit like the Berg Concerto: the moment has to be right. Of course, the longer that you wait, it's not going to get any easier.
Laurie: Tell me a little bit about your evolution with Baroque music. I'm about the same age as you, and this whole Baroque movement has taken place during our lifetime, and the early mentors I had, at least, had a completely different approach to Bach than many people now would. I noticed you're using a Baroque bow for this recording, how long have you been using a Baroque bow?
Anne-Sophie: About two years. The Baroque bow works wonderfully for a recording. I just love the airiness, the transparency and the purity of the sound. But to play that subtle, doesn't really work well in a large hall. The articulation works in a large hall. It was very important for me to bring that quality of articulation and inner voicing to the recording. You can achieve those qualities more easily (with a Baroque bow) because you don't have this pasty sound clone in your way. But on stage, it's a little lost. So there are some performance techniques which work in some environments, and some don't. You do have to adjust. Of course on tour we also play with Baroque bows. But I think on the recording, you hear even more subtle things than you will hear in a large hall.
Laurie: So you use a different technique in the concert hall than you do in the recording studio.
Anne-Sophie: Yes. But (using Baroque bows) has helped us for the articulation of the third movement of the Bach. The whole dance-like feeling, the whole spin -- the joie de vivre which is totally gone if you use too moderate a tempo, if you are not really taking seriously the articulation. The articulation -- especially in the a minor concerto -- is really difficult to do, if at all possible to do in an elegant way, with a modern bow.
I'm not a great believer in so-called authentic playing; we are all born in the 20th or 21st century, and we cannot shrug off what we expect of diversity of colors we are able to achieve with a contemporary bow. But what you lose with a contemporary bow is transparency of sound and the ability to use Bach's phrasing, which is very important.
Laurie: What kind of bows do you have? Who made them?
Anne-Sophie: I have American bows, I'm only using contemporary bows. One bowmaker is from Washington, D.C., (Donald) Cohen, and the other one is (Benoit) Rolland, who lives in Boston, and I'm always switching between these makers. I don't know how many contemporary bows I have -- a lot. These are the makers of my concert bows. My Baroque bow is done by a man in Munich, who specializes in 16th and 17th century, (Peter) Benedek.
Laurie: How else has your Baroque approach changed over the years?
Anne-Sophie: Tempis have changed, because of the Baroque bow, which of course gives it a totally different outlook. I would say, I'm totally crazy about inner voices. I'm not at all interested in the soloist's voice, in terms of musical structure. Every day, on this tour, there are little subtle things I'm telling the orchestra, and I'm so excited about it because it's such complex music. It's like the veins in a body. We shouldn't only look at the body, but be aware of the many arteries we have, and these arteries in Bach's music are so vital, because they give the pulse of the music. That's where the blood is running, and that is what I am mostly concerned about.
So it's transparency, it's speed, it's inner voices, and it's a different sound aesthetic, a more leaner sound aesthetic.
Laurie: I have a different question, one about being a woman with a successful career, and also being a mother. How have you handled motherhood, along with being a concert violinist and soloist? What kinds of adjustments did you have to make over the years, to make it work?
Anne-Sophie: For many years, when my daughter was born, (she's now 17), I of course cut down the amount of concerts, and I also started to shorten my trips abroad and for seven years, between being a widow, which is now 13 years, and now, I stopped going to the Far East altogether, in order not to add that to my schedule.
Of course, children come first, and being a single mom makes things a little more difficult in terms of organizing. But I guess everything in life is about passion. If you are passionate about your children and passionate about your profession, you'll find a way to make it work. Of course I'm very unhappy every time I have to leave my children. But I probably am a more rounded person. I am a better person because I have had children; it drastically changed my personality. I suddenly started to see the world as a whole. And that also was when I started to do more extensive benefit projects. On the other hand, I know that without music, without the arts, without this connection to the audience and to great masterpieces, I wouldn't really be a fulfilled mom. I can't really think of being 365 days at home; that wouldn't have been it for me, either. So I guess it's just trying to meet with everybody's needs and not forget my own.
It's just wonderful, and I feel very privileged that somehow it seems to work for my children and it seems to work for me, too.
Laurie: Do they play instruments as well?
Anne-Sophie: Yes, my son plays the piano. Music is, of course, a natural part of our daily life. My son is very much into sports. And my daughter loves ballet, for over 11 years, and she also does modern (dance), so she is the artsy part. She also plays the flute and is in choir. So yes, they do play instruments, but it's not really their great life dream, which is okay.
Laurie: My children didn't want to play the violin...
Anne-Sophie: I just remember my son, when he took up the violin. At first, when he was five or six he wanted to study violin. After a few minutes -- I mean they gave up so fast, it was incredible -- he said, "But mama why does it sound so much better when you play?" I tried to explain, listen, I've been playing for 40 years! But the prospect of having to play 40 years... (she laughs)
Laurie: Several of my readers wanted to know about your beautiful dresses...
Anne-Sophie: Oh holy cow!
Laurie: They love your elegant look on stage, and they wondered, where does she get those beautiful dresses, how does she pick them out?
Anne-Sophie: Actually that's no big deal, I've gone the the same designer since I was 17 years old, and basically my dresses are all the same, just different colors, it's all the same style. It's comfortable, and it works, I don't have to think about it, I almost don't have to try them on. It's like a uniform. Sometimes I think it's like a plumber's uniform. (laughing) I mean, it looks probably a little nicer. Once I get into them, I'm kind of in the mood, I know it really does help me, to look good.
Laurie: Who is your designer?
Laurie: One more question...the violinists on Violinist.com are very concerned about shoulder rests....
Anne-Sophie: This is a very interesting, and almost crucial moment in life, when you decide with what shoulder rest, or if at all. I remember I went through a phase of almost seven or eight years. First of all, when I started at five and a half, I was still growing, and therefore I frequently changed shoulder rests. I started with the Menuhin thing, and somehow it wasn't comfortable. A few years later I started to use a little pillow, which felt way more comfortable -- I didn't like the metal thing on the violin. But then when I was 11 or 12 and had nearly reached my final height, (the pillow) felt uncomfortable. So I changed from a relatively high pillow to a low rubber thing, which was extremely uncomfortable but the height was good. From that very uncomfortable but otherwise comfortable set-up, I went to a piece of deer leather, deerskin, because I needed something in between the clothing and the violin because the violin didn't feel secure. So the deerskin was kind of giving traction to the shoulder and violin. And then, when I started to play with Karajan, around that time, I discovered that playing without anything was actually the ideal solution. Then the next step was playing with sleeveless dresses -- that gave the ideal traction. So it took me about seven or eight years to finally settle down and find the solution. But there is no real rule one can apply, because it all depends on the neck length and the position of your shoulder.
Most important is that you don't squeeze your shoulder up, that you don't pressure your chin down, because you'll get terrible muscle pains in your neck area. Basically the instrument has to just lie there and you put your head on the chinrest and that's it. There's no force involved. According to the particular needs of the body, everyone has to play as relaxed as you can.
Laurie: When you're talking about all this you sound like a teacher. Do you teach?
Anne-Sophie: I used to teach at the Royal Academy of Music for a while when I was very young, and I'm teaching the scholars of my foundation, the Anne-Sophie Mutter Circle of Friends Foundation, now. I'm always grateful for intelligent, interesting string players applying for scholarship or just sending their tape. We have a number of artists we are working with. We have a double bass player, Roman Patkoló, I tell you, he's the Paganini, it's breathtaking. He has all these great composers writing for him. Andre Previn wrote him a double concerto which will be released on CD next year, and Penderecki's writing for him -- this is exciting stuff. My foundation is giving commissions for this repertoire.
I think that's rather exciting, to do something for music history.
I think all conservatories and music programs ought to do what Midori Goto did week before last at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music.
She invited young students -- not just high school seniors -- to come observe the string teaching at the University, to get a taste of a day in the life of a USC student and even to take 20-minute mini-lessons with faculty members. The two-day event, called Sempre Strings, began with a Sunday evening concert with faculty and students, followed by a reception and then by a jam session, in which students could read through pieces like the Mendelssohn Octet with faculty like Midori. At one point, the jam session was spread out over six rooms, and according to USC student Daphne Wang, the playing would have gone all night long if they hadn't had to break it up!
The next day, students could observe various faculty members and take mini-lessons. About 40 students attended, and the youngest was 12 years old. Midori employed a handful of USC strings students to run the event, giving these students some experience in an area Midori holds dear: community engagement and outreach. Those students did publicity for the event, made schedules for people, handed out maps, greeted students, answered questions and generally made people feel at home.
Also invited were local teachers, and so as a teacher, I had the chance to watch a few faculty members at USC -- namely, Midori and Alice Schoenfeld.
First, I slipped into Midori's studio, where USC student Korbi Altenberger, originally of Germany, started by playing the entire first movement of the Brahms Violin Concerto, without interruption, as Midori sat in her well-worn and flowery desk chair, writing in the music. Ten other people -- students, parents, teachers and supporters -- also observed.
He played very well -- the kind of performance I might have trouble finding much fault with. What would she say? sensitive playing, lots of energy, well-calibrated trills. When he finished, Midori offered, "It's better. What do you think?"
She turned his attention to the score, and talked about what the violas were doing in an espressivo passage, talked about where phrases peak and ebb. She allowed for his decisions on certain bowings and fingerings, though occasionally tested them, "Are you sure you want to do that in one bow?"
To be honest, much of what they were doing remained in their own circle of communication, the kind of high pickiness that comes from a teacher not just holding up a mirror, but holding up one of those magnified mirrors that blows everything up 40 percent and takes account of every pore. When one knows a piece well, this kind of detail work with a mentor sometimes changes the mental picture for the musician more than it changes the physical manifestation for the listener. It is very nuanced work, but the music communicates something subtly different in the end.
Still, Midori had a few lines that we can pin to our practice studio walls:
"Can you focus more on what you want to do? You are so focused on what you are doing,"
"Focus on the melody, not your fingers."
"Don't make a big deal when it's not a big deal,'
"You are singing it a lot, which is good, but it doesn't have the words."
Some teaching is the same with every age and level: when she needed to help him stay on the beat, out came a plastic koala bear castanet: click, click, click...:)
Better than banging the stand with a pencil!
In the afternoon I was delighted to peek in on a few lessons taught by Alice Schoenfeld, who has taught so many of my Southern California colleagues, not to mention a number of soloists such as Anne Akiko Meyers. She wore a red polka-dotted dress, a white flowered scarf, pearl earrings, and she greeted students and observers alike in the most welcoming way, in her German-accented English. Her sister, the late cellist and USC cello professor Eleanore Schoenfeld, was definitely a presence in the studio, with pictures and tour posters on the wall. I don't know who put up this sign, but I grinned when I saw it: "Practice makes perfect, so be careful what you practice."
What a nice mix of technique, musical advice and metaphor she gave her students.
The first student played the Brahms Sonata in d minor, an intense piece from which Schoenfeld wanted her to attend to the color, "A sonata can be very dull if you don't give it colors," she said.
In talking about a barriolage passage (4-0-4-0- all E), she told her that for the string changes, "have the bow very firm in your hand, but very fliexible in your wrist." In one first-movement passage the piano keeps moving while the violin must come in; Schoenfeld said, "Keep the 80 miles-per-hour in your bones!" while the piano played.
For the singing second movement, she recommended the student listen to Brahms lieder, and she also talked about continuous vibrato: "Don't play notes," she said, "my hand stays in the vibrato motion, just exchange fingers."
Getting into some double-stops, she compared the student's hesitancy to two people who meet, "and one person wants to embrace you, and you lean back. Come to the string!"
On the last, wild page of the sonata she said that the violinist must send a message to the piano: "What you can hammer, I can hammer, too!"
Schoenfeld also made some time to give a mini-lesson to one of the younger students who was watching for the day. He decided to play Paganini's 13th Caprice for her, though he didn't make it past the first out-of-tune double stop before she kindly stopped him.
"The first two must be in tune," she said. "With double stops we try to trust one finger," and build on that foundation. "You have to put it in the computer," she said, tapping her head, "where it stays."
"Most people don't realize that violin playing is actually quite easy," she explained. "We only have four fingers -- good thing we don't have thousands. You have to learn hand position. Everything is within this frame.
"So many people shift, and they don't know where it is, but it's very easy when you know the frame," Schoenfeld said. For example, in the octaves at the beginning of the Mendelssohn Concerto, if you know your hand frame and the way it fits in the various positions, you can trust your first finger to shift properly, and then you can trust the fourth finger to be right there for the octave. "Trust your fingers. Go to that with feeling, with courage!"
This week, in celebrating the centennial of violinist David Oistrakh's birth, I wanted to bring to the Violinist.com community a taste of what Oistrakh was like, as well as the environment where he cultivated his art.
Who could better speak to this than one of his students from the Moscow Conservatory? With this in mind, I called one of our oldest V.com friends, Emil Chudnovsky, whose mother, violinist Nina Beilina, was both a devoted student and longtime friend of Oistrakh's.
Not surprisingly, I found Emil preparing to play a concert in honor of David Oistrakh with Beilina, to take place 8 p.m. Saturday at the Kaufman Center's Merkin Concert Hall in New York City.
He liked the idea of interviewing his mom about Oistrakh, and he agreed to take my questions to her. Not only that, but he wrote up this entire interview, so many thanks to you, Emil! (He knows he's welcome back any time ;)
Nina Beilina started her career in Soviet Russia, where she studied with Abraham Yampolsky, Julius Eidlin and David Oistrakh. She later emigrated to the United States, where she currently directs Bachanalia and is Professor of Music at the Mannes College of Music in New York.
Violinist Emil Chudnovsky is a soloist who has toured worldwide, won nine international competitions, and most recently made his first recording with the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra, scheduled for a September release with works by Wieniawski and Ysaÿe. Born in Moscow, he is based in Washington, D.C. His late father was the opera conductor Israel Chudnovsky.
Emil Chudnovsky for Violinist.com: What was your relationship to David Oistrakh?
Nina Beilina: I was his post-graduate student, but had an unusual relationship with him. To understand why it was unusual, I have to take you behind the scenes to the personal politics of the Moscow Conservatory. In the Conservatory, there were two factions among the violin faculty, roughly speaking: there was the clique to which my first teacher, Abraham Yampolsky, belonged and then there was the Oistrakh faction. As a Yampolsky student, I was a Montague to the Oistrakh Capulets.
When I graduated, as a straight-A student, from the Conservatory with the equivalent of a B.A. in hand, I applied to the Conservatory's post-graduate department. I can only speculate as to why I was not even allowed to audition; that is to say, my application documents were summarily rejected. Was it the line identifying my nationality in my internal passport? The line which read "Nationality: Jewish"? Or was it the "membership" in the wrong clique? Either way, what it certainly wasn't, was my grades (all A's, remember) or my playing – since I wasn't even allowed to audition.
So, understandably angry, I left Moscow to go to Leningrad to study with Julius Eidlin. He was a disciple of Leopold Auer, and I am immensely grateful for the time I had to work with him. As a parenthetical aside, I can say that he re-did my Bach completely from the over-Romantic approach then popular in the Soviet Union to something approaching a Szeryng mentality. But I digress.
What is relevant is that Eidlin became very, very ill. He was unable to continue teaching and yet I had no "home" to which to return in Moscow since Yampolsky had passed away. So Eidlin made the olive branch move: he called David Oistrakh, asking him to accept me. Thus – a phone call as a flag of truce. And so Oistrakh took me on as his student back in Moscow, at the Conservatory, towards the end of my Masters equivalent.
Emil Chudnovsky: How long did you study with him?
Nina Beilina: I worked with him for two years at the Conservatory, but then continued playing for him as I prepared for the Enescu, Long-Thibaud and Tchaikovsky competitions. [Emil's note: Gold medal, Grand Prix and Bronze Medal, respectively. These were the only competitions in which she took part, and she won prizes in all three. No small feat when people do dozens of competitions, nowadays, and consider it a victory to win prizes in some, or even just one.] We became good friends, and when my husband, Israel Chudnovsky, died, it was Oistrakh who wrote the obituary for the newspapers.
Emil Chudnovsky: What was David Oistrakh like as a teacher? What are the most valuable ideas and skills you took from your lessons with him?
Nina Beilina: He was, as you might imagine, the Voice of God when it came to a student looking for performing experience, for what advice a veteran and a titan performer could offer a neophyte. If you wanted to know what to do in performance, what worked, what didn't…well, you could hardly ask for anyone more knowledgeable or better able to answer.
[Emil's note: I frequently remember my mother telling me what Oistrakh told her when it came to playing with not top-tier orchestras. "Ninochka," she told me he said, "if I find that I'm not together with the orchestra because they don't follow me, or the conductor doesn't follow me, I follow them." In other words, don't insist on hard-wired tempi or rubati and be aware of your collaborators. Sounds simple and self-evident, but it's amazing how often I have personally witnessed train-wrecks when the soloist is either in a world of his/her own, or is too proud? stubborn? to follow the conductor.]
Nina Beilina: As a teacher, Oistrakh was as demanding of his students as he was of himself. He was incredibly picky regarding any and all conceivable errors. As a violinist, he was what I call a "jeweler". This meant that he put every piece under a virtual microscope regarding every shift, every bowing. Everything had to be completely secure, consistent and unshakable. I remember one lesson which he tape-recorded, then played the tape back to me at a slower speed. Obviously, everything was at a much lower pitch, but one could hear all the micro-events – a shaky shift here, a clumsy bowing there, an unfocused attack elsewhere – and it was incredibly instructive.
Unsettling, but instructive. He also didn't exempt himself from this sort of magnifying-glass examination. His own sound engineer once gave him a copy of his own playback wherein he noticed how his own vibrato was inconstant. Guess what the first item on his practice agenda was for a while thereafter!
One other unusual element to our teacher-student relationship was that I wanted at all costs to avoid becoming an Oistrakh clone. So, to this end, I would come to lessons with pieces which I had already bowed, fingered and learned. I'd be looking for him to "put on the final polish", as it were, but I'd have very definite, established ideas about what I wanted to do with any given work. He certainly noticed this; in an article he wrote for Sovetskaya Muzika, Oistrakh referred to me as his "rebellious student". But it meant also that instead of our lessons becoming training sessions in how to play like Oistrakh, they became training session for how to play the violin. As well as possible. They were far more technical, far more specific, than one might think considering that this was post-graduate work I was doing.
And, to be fair, sometimes my set musical ideas misfired. Once, I recall, I brought in the Ravel Tzigane for a lesson. I played the opening very rubato, to the extent that I was probably altering the relative lengths of notes. Oistrakh insisted that I bring the Tzigane back the following lesson, but completely metronomic. Only after I could play the text precisely as written, he explained, would my rubato choices be faithful to the text and, most importantly, not just a representation of how I had gotten used to hearing the piece.
[Emil's note: One other, very specific, lesson-by-example that Oistrakh imparted to my mother and which she then imparted to me was that he'd start each practice day with a Mozart concerto (presumably one movement only) played at ¾ speed and COMPLETELY non-vibrato. Such a warm-up has actually helped me to develop a vibrato which is automatic, relaxed and variable. Moreover, it helps intonation like you wouldn't believe!]
Emil Chudnovsky: What is your most interesting memory of David Oistrakh?
Nina Beilina: It was probably the evenings we spent in Piarno, with Oistrakh and his wife, Israel and myself, often many other musicians as well. Piarno was a favorite vacation spot and many musicians would descend on the town for the swimming in the warmer waters, and the quiet practice time it offered. In the evenings, we'd go for walks along the boardwalk, and tell endless jokes and anecdotes. I should point out that in Soviet times, the ability to tell jokes well was a weighty social accomplishment. Seriously. And David Oistrakh and Israel Chudnovsky were generally acknowledged as championship-level anecdotists.
A much less happy, but infinitely deeper-etched memory was when I snuck in to visit him in the Kremlin hospital, after his first heart attack. That had to be around 1970. The Kremlin's hospital was for high-ranking Party members only, so it was a mark of the status he had that he was taken there. He was lying there, pale-faced, with deathly pale hands utterly still, on the bedcovers. I still remember that because I was so unused to seeing them unmoving. But I also remember how alive, how intense his eyes were. And I remember him saying to me "Ninochka, I am never complaining about my health, ever again. I don't want to be in this place ever again." After his fatal heart attack in 1974, the autopsy revealed that he had, in fact, had another heart attack between the two – the 1970 and the 1974 – but had never told anyone. He wanted to live, not just be kept alive, just existing.
[Emil's note: I don't remember the meeting itself, but was told how my mother brought me to meet Oistrakh in 1973. I was three, presumably barely verbal. He supposedly asked me to sing him something and I obliged with the third movement of the Beethoven Sonata No. 3 for violin and piano. He sighed, looked at my mom, and said "I am so very sorry for you. But I'm afraid he's going to be a violinist."
He then gave me a small toy Model T Ford with functioning wheels and steering. Which I have to this day.]
Emil Chudnovsky: Many people have watched David Oistrakh perform, heard him play, even taken lessons from him, but you knew him personally as well. What was he like as a person?
Nina Beilina: Complicated. As with every person, he wasn't any one thing – good or evil – but a set of moral stripes. Some might have encountered only one side of him, but it's important to remember that both were present. We used to refer to him as "The Parliament", since Jascha Heifetz was "The Emperor", since Oistrakh was so extraordinarily intelligent and diplomatically savvy. His sentimental side was always present but it was always, always subservient to his intellect and to diplomatic necessity. Basically, he played his cards close to his chest, but I was lucky to see the secret human being behind those cards. On occasion.
Emil Chudnovsky: What do you think Oistrakh meant to the Soviet people? What did he mean to the Soviet state?
Nina Beilina: He was the government's poster boy – or one of them, at any rate. He was a true star. And a propaganda machine, without question. A chance for the State to say to the world "look at what our system can produce!"
For the people he was a hero. Famed, respected and loved. By the way, note the contrast to American heroes, who tend to be actors or athletes, in this country where films and sporting events are precious distractions, shelters from the storm, as it were. In the Soviet Union, notwithstanding all the inarguable horrors of the system – or perhaps because of those horrors – it was concerts that were shelters from the storm of life. And those who played concerts were therefore heroes, not just to the small segment of the population that was in the musical world, but to the population at large.
Emil Chudnovsky: What was it like to be a violinist in the Soviet Union, in Oistrakh's day?
Nina Beilina: Politics ruled everything. I don't just mean musical politics. Foreign politics, domestic politics. Everything was in some way connected to the sense that First Prize is Everything. Being in the finals is not enough. This was the calling card of the Soviet structure, that the Russians must be first in everything. First to invent the lightbulb. First to invent the steam engine. First to invent the wheel!
Even as an artist – no, especially as an artist – you weren't an individual. You were a representative. You represented the Party and the country and, as a violinist, you were doing so not in some obscure way in the back forests, but in the eyes of the whole world. It was all done for export, for international credibility.
And, not unimportantly, Party membership was therefore a vital asset in terms of one's career. After all, what good does it do the State if you go and score international triumphs but your lack of Party affiliation gives the lie to the claim that you are somehow a product of Soviet superiority? It wasn't just citizens the State needed to show off. It was loyal citizens. Party members, in other words. Those who, like my husband, refused to join the Party out of conscience found their career emphatically limited. For a conductor like him, that meant no prime opera posts, no permission to perform abroad. Not even permission to object to or complain should there be an incompetent musician in some orchestra he conducted, if the incompetent was also a Party member.
It isn't that Party membership should be seen as either weakness or agreement with Soviet policies. It was a pre-requisite in the U.S.S.R., that's all.
Emil Chudnovsky: How did Oistrakh help shape the musical scene for Soviet musicians?
Nina Beilina: Oh, he had a huge influence on the overall level of artistry, in the days before Kogan, and on playing and on politics. He was the head of the Soviet musical "school" of violin playing, as Gilels was for the piano, or Rostropovich for the cello. His friendship with Prokofiev (with whom he had frequent grandmaster-level chess matches) and with Shostakovich was the catalyst behind the composition of countless masterpieces which have become staples of the repertoire. A good analogy might summarize it best: what Joachim was to Brahms, Oistrakh was to Shostakovich and Prokofiev. And probably many other, lesser-known composers as well. He was a Fountainhead.
This is is absolutely everything you would expect it to be: David Oistrakh and Mstislav Rostropovich play Brahms' Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, Op. 102 with the Moscow Philharmonic led by Kirill Kondrashin. Enjoy!
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