It feels like a new movement is afoot in music education, inspired by Venezuela's successful system of youth orchestras, El Sistema.
"I was here when Suzuki came, and now... Dudamel, and El Sistema," mused my colleague, violist Jane Levy.
We were gathered in downtown LA at classical music station KUSC to take in the impressions of Samvel Chilingarian and Louise Ghandhi, who had traveled to Venezuela in January to learn about El Sistema, the remarkable system of music education that produced Gustavo Dudamel, who at age 28, will take the baton next season as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Samvel, a violinist, is the director and conductor of a youth orchestra I work with called the Verdugo Young Musicians Association in Glendale, California, and Louise is its board vice president.
Samvel and Louise went with a friend, cellist Circe Diaz-Gamero, a graduate of El Sistema who now lives in Los Angeles, and they stayed with her parents in Maracay for 15 days. Their goal was to learn first-hand about "El Sistema," and if possible, to meet its founder Jose Antonio Abreu.
What first struck them, they said, was the poverty in Venezuela – around 50 to 60 percent, compared to, say, 10 to 20 percent in Los Angeles. In Caracas, the slums known as "barrios" are very densely populated, and most have no water or electricity. Along the steps leading to the various homes, criminals lurk in corners, waiting. "You have to pay them off," said Louise, "People will assault you with a knife for shoes, or for your necklace."
In the few homes with power, "sometimes people will steal the power line to redirect it to their home," added Samvel.
The best homes are made from bricks, the worst of sheet metal boxes, or egg cartons put together, or simply dried mud.
"In the countryside, I thought I was seeing a bombed-out town, with holes in houses – but it was just a rural barrio," Louise said.
In this environment, Maestro Abreu, an economist and musician, started El Sistema 32 years ago. The program officially serves 300,000 children, providing free instruments and instruction, as well as a system of children and youth orchestras for them to play in.
Here's how Circe described Abreu's effectiveness: "When Maestro Abreu says something, it's done."
The music education system has about 20 centers throughout the country, called "nucleos."
The nucleo in Maracay was the first in the country, and in the early days, classes were held wherever they could find space, even outside.
"I had to teach in a park," said Circe, who like many El Sistema graduates, also taught in the system. "There were flying birds as we played!"
In the entryway of "Nucleo Maracay," a poster shows pictures of the many facets of El Sistema: very young children just learning their instruments; deaf children wearing white gloves to perform to music; huge youth orchestras wearing patriotic jackets in Venezuela's colors; and some of El Sistema's brightest stars, including Gustavo Dudamel and Maestro Abreu.
Maestro Abreu meets monthly with directors from the nucleos.
"It's very centralized conceptually, in terms of Abreu's vision and philosophy," Louise said. "It's de-centralized in terms of funding and some organizational aspects."
Each nucleo has up to six categories of programs for children ages two through 18:, including three children's categories (Kinder, Pre-Infantil and Infantil), Youth Orchestra, Advanced Youth Orchestra and then the top level orchestra, which is the Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra.
"In all these levels, they take other classes as well," Samvel said. Those classes include theory, choir, history, other instruments (like piano) and sight reading.
The children learn to read music in the "kinder" classes, and "when they are five, they already know how to read anything in the musical language," Circe said. Though they play arrangements at the kinder and children's levels, the youth orchestra plays all original works, with no arrangements.
Classes tend to have about 35 children, and by now, "all of the teachers are graduates of El Sistema," Circe said.
Any child in Venezuela can register for El Sistema.
"There is no waiting list, because they accept everybody," Circe said, "just waiting lists for instruments.
"Because of the demand," Circe said, "they can't get all the instruments they need from outside the country." China is sending teachers to Venezuela to teach children to make instruments.
Korea and Japan have made a deal to provide interactive technology, so that students in distant nucleos can watch important events like masterclasses in Caracas, Louise said.
Sometimes the youth orchestras from various parts of the country join together for enormous concerts. Circe described the experience of playing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with 1,000 kids:
"We'd have four conductors in different places, and a guy with a microphone to amplify his voice to say, 'Hey, let's tune!'" she said.
Music is truly a career path in Venezuela, and musicians begin working young.
"All the students who have some proficiency are encouraged to perform. They provide entertainment all over the country," Samvel said, and that means being paid to perform and teach. "They want you to start working."
"The kids are very happy," Samvel said. "They've worked very hard, put in hours and hours of practicing." And despite the long work, "there is nothing you see in them that indicates that are repressed in any way."
"Over there, being part of El Sistema is a privilege," Samvel said. Not everyone who goes through it ends up being a stellar musician like Dudamel, but "if you go through it, you have set yourself up with a successful career. They know that if they stick with it, they will get the benefit."
"You become sort of the hero or the start in your community if you carry an instrument," Circe said.
El Sistema costs about US$80 to 90 million a year; with 60 percent of the budget coming from the government and 40 percent from international banks and donations. It not only provides children with education, but it provides a safe place for children in an often dangerous environment.
"Abreu is a musician, but he also is an economist," Louise said. "It is a social intervention program: to pull children out of poverty, and save them from poverty."
There are lawyers who help troubled children who are in the orchestra, and Abreu has even been known on occasion to personally retrieve a youth from jail.
"You know you're going to be in a supportive place," Circe said, "that no matter what, you'll be supported."
"You also get to travel for free," said, Circe, who started in El Sistema at age 4 and remained in it until she was 21. "You get paid for tours, it's awesome!" As a child, Circe said she traveled all over Venezuela, to other Latin American countries, and also to Spain, Germany, Italy and other countries.
"This is heaven for a child who is imprisoned by poverty," Louise said.
Not only that, but "El Sistema" has produced musicians of the highest caliber, the most well-known being conductor Gustavo Dudamel, and another being double bassist Edicson Ruiz, who at age 17 became the youngest member of the Berlin Philharmonic. The Simon Bolivar Orchestra itself is achieving acclaim the world over, from London to Los Angeles.
El Sistema also is growing an audience that so many organizations have written off: "In Venezuela, 90 percent of concert goers are younger than 25," Louise said, quoting Dudamel.
Samvel and Louise did get their wish, to meet founder Maestro Abreu. They happened to be visiting a new building called "Centro de Accion Social Para la Musica," where much of "The Promise of Music" was filmed and where The Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra rehearses. When they visited, a 15-year-old boy was leading two combined youth orchestras through a smokin' fast version of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony for an audience that included the newly elected governor of the state of Carabobo. (They videotaped part of this performance, incredible!)
They saw that Abreu was sitting in this audience, so after the performance they introduced themselves, and snapped a picture with him.
Several days later they visited Abreu at El Sistema Headquarters, where he sat down with them.
Samvel and Louise presented him with a yearbook of our group, the Verdugo Young Musicians Association from California, which he flipped through with interest, "marvelous...," he said, "marvelous!" They told him about VYMA's plans to begin an after-school program inspired by El Sistema, and Abreu responded to their enthusiasm and energy with warmth, Louise said.
Louise described something else she had said to Abreu, right after hearing the youth orchestra perform.
"Thank you," she had told him, "for the present you have given all humanity."
Abreu turned to her and smiled, "It is only a beginning."
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She'd just finished playing the slow movement of her Vivaldi concerto, and it was very good, especially considering this was her first week. A 9-year-old doesn't always have the patience for slow movements.
"Wow! You really did great work on this!" I told her. "The rhythms are right, notes are in tune, you did all the shifts, even all the right bowings. Very well done!"
"Basically it's only missing one thing," I said. "Any idea what that is?"
She looked at me guiltily. "Vibrato?" she said.
"It needs....about five tablespoons," I said.
"Do you know how big a tablespoon is?" I asked.
"Pretty big," she ventured.
I disappeared into the kitchen for a moment, then emerged with a large, silver measuring spoon.
"This is a tablespoon," I said. "Okay, from the beginning." I stood, poised with the tablespoon over her left hand. She started with good vibrato, then after about a line, oops! A dead half note. I tipped the spoon over her fingerboard -- ah, instant vibrato! We continued this way for about half the movement before quitting. She had the idea.
"All right," I said. "Take the spoon with you this week and put it on your stand. Show your mom how to work it, too, okay?"
I wrote in her notebook: "Vivaldi: 5 tablespoons vibrato, per measure." No more explanation needed!
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Anne Akiko Meyers is on an independent streak – and an independent record label.
It's been about a year since we last spoke with Anne, a veteran violinist of the concert stage who was awarded an Avery Fisher Career Grant at age 23. These days, she's taking the bull by the horns.
© Anthony Parmelee
"When you take control of projects – whether it's commissioning and working with composers, or coming up with a CD project -- it's very challenging, yet it's so incredibly rewarding," Meyer said. "In the end, it's like you are creating your own child."
Meyer's new "baby" is called "Smile," released earlier this month on Koch International Classics. The album is named after the Charlie Chaplin song from his 1936 movie, "Modern Times." Anne has made it her own with a version that's slow and sultry, with the violin floating its melody over the piano, resisting yet following its changes.
"Fantasy and folklore is the theme of the album, tied up by the greatest songwriters of all time," Anne said.
"I love fantasies, and there are three fantasies in the recording," Anne said. Many will recognize Schubert "Fantasy in C Major," a recital favorite that Anne plays with a flair that wouldn't be possible without the complete rhythmic certitude between Anne and pianist Akira Eguchi, particularly in the busy and intricate "Allegretto" section.
The second fantasy is a premiere recording of Olivier Messiaen's "Fantaisie," which "he wrote for his first wife and was only just discovered or published two years ago." Then there's the Arvo Pärt fantasy, Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in Mirror), which is "almost like the ringing of bells; you reach 'A' 17 times. It feels like you are coming home to 'A,' or yourself everytime."
Toward the end of the album are two Japanese pieces, which "are songs that almost every Japanese person hums or sings and knows since they were a child," Anne said. "'Moonlight Over the Ruined Castle' was written by a composer who died tragically, when he was only 23 years old, and this is one of the most popular songs in Japan," Anne said. "I arranged it from a previous recording that I did of it for Salut d'amour, in collaboration with another composer who is living in Japan now. I just found that it was so much more effective to play it as a solo violin piece."
The song tells the story of a castle, once glorious, that now stands in decay; yet the moonlight still shines over it, as ever. "You feel this nostalgic sentimentality to the music that's very haunting," Anne said.
"He originally wrote the song for the shakuhachi," Anne said. For the recording, a sound engineer taped down the piano strings so that it would sound like a koto.
"It was a tricky thing to handle, especially on a gorgeous Steinway," Anne said. But it had the desired effect. "It gave the piano a very plucky tone quality. The strings don't vibrate, or resonate, (the sound) just ends, it just goes 'puh, puh, puh.' It's almost like a harp, but with your hand stuck on the harp."
"The piano sounds eerily like a koto, and I really tried to make my violin sound like a shakuhachi," Anne said.
A recording that the composer made of the piece in the 1930s was extremely popular, "actually I'm dying to get my hands on this recording," Anne said. "He was touring with a French female violinist -- who played it with him, and it sold millions of copies in the '30s."
Anne ends the CD on a familiar note, with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," written by Harold Arlen. "It's from an era of hope and tenderness – and simple beauty," Anne said. "I had a Japanese jazz pianist, Makoto Ozone, arrange it so the chords are jazzy for the piano. It's music that affects me so deeply. It's like being a singer; you can directly affect people with emotion because it comes from such a deep place."
The music was just one part of making this CD for Meyers. "A friend of mine photographed me for the cover, and I was involved with every aspect of the making of the album," Meyers said. "It's different than working with a large company. The large company always has major backing behind it, but you're more of a puppet than a spirit to be reckoned with."
If you look on the CD cover, Meyers is posing with her violin, the 1730 "Royal Spanish" Stradivarius, once owned by the king of Spain, which she has owned for several years.
Anne also chose an unusual venue to launch her new recording earlier this month, Le Poisson Rouge, a club in New York. On the day of the launch party "there was snow and sleet – it was nasty! And yet it was really well-attended. This club downtown is a very cool, multi-media venue, and I think it's the way that a lot of classical music will be listened to in the future," Ann said. "You can discuss things, talk to the audience. It has a much more intimate feel. When I was on stage I was thinking, 'Forget Carnegie Hall, this is the place to be.' I prefer to go to a recital in a smaller venue, rather than a 2,000-seat or 3,000-seat center. It's ironic, because the violin was built for smaller rooms, for salons. For me, I felt like I was going back in time, and yet, everyone thought I was being so radical by playing at a club." In fact New York Times critic Steve Smith said in a review of the small recital that "the club itself cooperated, proving surprisingly well suited to unamplified playing."
"Actually, this is how violin music and intimate chamber recitals should be listened to," Anne said. "It's almost like the audience is on stage with you, and so it's a much more interactive feeling, plus the 2 drink minimum. That can’t be beat!"
Anne is not finished blazing new trails, in the near future she'll be collaborating with Wynton Marsalis, who has promised to rewrite the cadenzas for Mozart's G-major Concerto for Anne.
"He's recorded a lot of classical music – that was the start of his incredible career," Anne said. "I've been friendly with him for a long time, and I just thought, I need something snazzy, with soul. I love jazz, and I love all kinds of music, and if there's a way of being interactive with different mediums, I'm all for it. Who better than Wynton Marsalis? So it was just a matter of asking; he loved the idea. I'll be playing that with the Utah Symphony this summer, and we're working on some other places where I'll be playing it."
She'll also continue with a busy touring schedule, including playing the Bernstein Serenade next month and master classes at the University of Texas in Austin, with a recital there, and also a recital in New York.
"The Internet has changed everyone's lives – the over-bombardment of stimulus," Anne said, "so when you come to a place where it's still, it speaks to you clearly."
If you take control of your career, "there's always going to be somebody who believes in your spirit," Anne said. "I feel like I've reached a really good place now, where it is really about the music. To be in charge of your own destiny is really motivational. It's a growing process, and it helps you to realize that it's all a journey."
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Cremona, Italy – it's the city where the great Antonio Stradivari made his famous violins, and it remains a world center for violin-making.
That's why I was rather intrigued when I was invited to attend a demonstration of instruments from Cremona, held last week much closer to where I live, at Metzler Violins in Glendale, California. Owners Tom Metzler and Barbara Don brought together more than 70 instruments made by nearly as many luthiers, mostly Cremonese. They have the instruments catalogued here, with links to bios about the luthiers. (They said about half of the instruments will be shipped back Feb. 14, and others will remain in the store for longer.) It's the 11th year in a row that Metzler Violins has held a "Cremona Exhibit."
"If you visit Cremona, you will never see so many instruments from Cremona all in one place," said Don, who played bits of Bach, Bruch and other sonorous violin melodies that cover four strings quickly, on 56 violins, all in a row. (There were also 11 violas and four cellos). Seated around her were about 30 people from the LA area, including teachers, professionals, students, and parents of violin, viola and cello students. I chatted with a professional violinist friend who simply liked to check in every on the value of her Cremonese fiddle. (How was it holding up? Better than most people's stock portfolios...) I also met teacher who was curious about the possibilities for her students. Some attendees where adult students themselves, who took the chance to try out the Cremonese fiddles in practice rooms at the back of the shop after the demonstrations.
The instruments ranged greatly in age, with the oldest made in 1743 and the newest in 2008. Most were modern fiddles. Listening to 56 violins in a row was – well I imagine it was like a wine-tasting event, where you're a bit on the tipsy side by the end. Also, it required some imagination when coming up with descriptive words, like "richer, more fluid voice; darker; sweet; buzzy; even sound; focused sound; thin but sweet; warm; milky and easy to play; contained; mature sound; too much in the basement; meh; sounds studenty; strong voice that projects; nice overtones; even in all ranges..."
Oh no, I'm not telling you which was which. I'll tell you the few instruments that were my favorites, though. The quotes are what I wrote upon hearing them, and a few of them I played also: a 1968 Mario Gadda (this man's father was Stefano Scarampella's only student); a 2006 Giorgio Grisales ("even in all ranges"); a 2007 Ada Quaranta ("milky, gentle tone"); a 2006 Edgar Russ (Guarnerius copy, master made, "very clear, projects"); a 2005 Maurizio Tadioli ("mature sound, and really pretty graded color;" I played it and found it responsive); a 2007 Francesco Toto ("smooth tone"); a 1976 Filippo Zanisi ("strong voice, responsive; beautiful varnish, like yellow and brown clouds that blend together").
For folks who don't have $10,000 to $75,000 to spend on a fiddle, Metzler Violin will present a different tasting menu on March 1. It's an event in a similar format only this time "it's instruments for people on a tight budget – which is everybody," Don said. "This year, the economy warranted this kind of event."
They'll show instruments in the $1,000 to $9,000 range. "We have a lot of instruments in stock that are one-of-a-kind, but we decided we also needed some brand names that people could recognize as well." Representatives from Eastman Strings, Heinrich Gill and Vivo USA will speak to potential buyers about how to pick out instruments and how to discern the varying levels of craftsmanship.
For example, "There are a lot of instruments that are hybrids," Don said. That is, the instrument is made in the white in, say, China, and finished in Belgium or Germany. "Historically, that happened a lot between Germany and Italy," Don said, with instruments made in the white in Germany and finished in Italy. Such instruments are of lower value than instruments made entirely by one luthier. "If these instruments are labeled honestly and correctly, they will say, 'from the workshop of....'" These instruments can sound good, while being more affordable, she said.
I appreciate the idea of this kind of event, and the Metzlers did a nice job of encouraging curiosity: presenting each instrument with a bit of history as well as the opportunity to hear and even play it, and all without the pressure of being there just to buy. I'd encourage violin shops to think about doing this kind of educational outreach, and for string players and teachers to take advantage of these opportunities to learn about our instrument, which is its own work of art. Unless you are a collector of fine instruments, you probably won't be buying a new one on any kind of regular basis. Having the opportunity to learn about the origins of various instruments, to hear many of them, to be able to test them, allows string players to eventually be educated buyers; both in their own tastes and in the history and craftsmanship of the instruments.
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The outside world may be in freefall, but inside Disney Hall, I feel no worries. Violinist Hilary Hahn just walked onstage, regal and steady, copper gown glittering in the stage light, still not a line in her young face. She's playing the Glazunov Violin Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and from note one, she plays with unfaltering tone, solid and controlled.
© Mathias Bothor / Deutsche Grammophon
Her effort is generous, without being labored. When the orchestra drops out for her cadenza, she holds her audience rapt, keeping the melody always at the forefront, embedded in perfectly in-tune double stops. During the last movement, the orchestra, with conductor Leonard Slatkin keeping the whole endeavor well in sync, is a wave, and she just rides her technique. It's a joy ride, too. For an encore she plays the Sarabanda from Bach's D minor Partita.
It's a busy week for Hilary Hahn; she is up for two Grammys this Sunday, for her recording of the Schoenberg and Sibelius Concertos that she did with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. It's a piece she discussed with us at V.com several years ago, right after she had recorded it.
On Friday she will play the world premiere of Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto, a piece that was sitting on her music stand, backstage at Disney Hall, when I spoke with her after her performance of the Glazunov last Saturday. We talked about the Higdon premiere and new music, about violin cases and the economy.
Laurie: Tell me a little bit about this concerto that you'll be premiering; I understand that Jennifer Higdon wrote it for you. How did it come to be?
Hilary: I was (Jennifer Higdon's) student at Curtis in her 20th century music history class – it was still 1990-something at the time. So Jennifer Higdon basically introduced me to my attitude towards the whole body of work from the 20th century – she got me familiar with everything in that whole group of pieces.
Every week she would focus on one or two composers. We had two classes a week, and in each class she would play the music all class and write facts up on the board. We were never tested on the facts of the composers; we were tested more on how well we absorbed what we were listening to. The tests weren't nerve-wracking; she would ask us compose a theme in the style of one of the composers we'd been listening to, one that really resonated with us. Or, if we were studying percussion one month, she'd ask us to write a piece for percussion, no longer than three minutes, and perform it in class.
It was probably the lowest "fact" class that I've taken, and the highest "content," because when we were listening, we could form our own opinions. We also talked about what we were listening to, as we heard it. If anyone had any questions, we could raise our hands. If there was a particular element, compositional style, or a particular unique aspect of a certain piece, she would point it out as it appeared in the music, as we were listening. Being exposed to this music by a composer was liberating and eye-opening at the same time.
So I had that history with her: that was the first time I was in her musical world for an extended period of time.
Then I did a piece by (Higdon) with some friends of mine at Curtis, called Dark Wood. It was for bassoon and piano trio. That was probably the first piece of new chamber music I'd played in which I knew the person who had written it.
Laurie: Did that give you a taste for doing new music?
Hilary: Well, I'd already done new music, but I hadn't done pieces where the composer was right there. That actually wound up being the premiere of that piece, because there was a group that was supposed to premiere it a couple weeks before but they canceled. So we inadvertently played the premiere, it was really neat.
Laurie: What is Higdon's new violin concerto like?
Hilary: I would say that this violin concerto pushes the instrument a fair amount, and it slightly pushes the concept of line and melody. The way the melodies are broken up is a little bit similar to Schoenberg. People won't hear it at all as sounding like Schoenberg, but it's a little bit similar in the sense that a lot melodies that would normally be on one melodic line are staggered. So you have two, maybe three, going at once. And in Schoenberg they call them tone rows, but to me, when I hear Schoenberg, I hear multiple voices, alternating with each other. That's the effect that I hear in her music, although you wouldn't call it a tone row.
Laurie: Did she consult with you at all for this piece? Was she writing it for your style?
Hilary: Well, she was writing it for me, and she asked me a couple things. Early on, I noticed she was asking me about what was doable, whether this was possible or not, because she's not a violinist and she wanted something that really worked. Some people she'd worked with before had told her that things she was writing were not going to be so effective for that particular instrument. I think that's wrong, though, because all the things she was asking me to do, they were all very doable. So I told her: Don't ask me, just do it. Do anything you want to do, and we'll worry later about whether it's playable on the violin or not.
She wasn't being tentative, she was just being very conscientious about it. I like it when composers write whatever is in their head, without worrying about that particular instrument, or about that particular musician. The composer may have that musician's sound in mind; then they should write what they're inspired to write, just total liberation. I wanted her to do that.
That's why I say that she pushes the instrument a little, because she did do that. She wound up writing things that are different from what existed before, that have a unique kind of language. Of course, her signature gift of rhythm goes all the way through the piece. In some pieces there's a lot of rhythmic deviation, a lot of drive, and it's hard to put together. But this one, it falls right into place. The individual lines might seem like they wouldn't fit, but then you play it all together and it's really just lock-step, and not in a stiff way. It just all comes together really well. That bodes well for the future of the piece, for being able to get people to put it together effectively and quickly.
Laurie: Maybe that's the mark of a good composition, that it's crafted in a way that it just comes together.
Hilary: I think it should come together in the end interpretively, and that it should come together in the end ensemble-wise; but I think it's okay if the musicians have to work for that. I don't think a composer should write for ease of assembly, or ease of listening.
Laurie: That's something I wanted to ask you about. The Schoenberg concerto certainly isn't the easiest piece to listen to. Where do you see that line, between connecting with the listener, and doing something artistic?
Hilary: It's the performer's job to bring the music across. A lot of the pieces that we love, that are considered standard, that are considered absolutely gorgeous, were not heard openly in the beginning, because they were something new. I think when composers write for the purpose of being accessible, they lose a lot of their own purpose for existence in the whole line of musical development. If they write what's in their heads, and in their bodies, what's running through their blood, and it happens to be accessible, that's fine. But I don't think anyone should ever edit themselves as a composer or a creator of something – for an audience, or for a performer. I think that really minimizes their contribution. Often the things that are strangest to us are the things that are most defining in the history of music.
It's also the same in pop and rock music; the people who do really far-out-there things wind up being incredibly influential later on. It's the performer's job to take those things and bring them across to the audience. Why are we here as performers? If interpretation weren't part of it, then we wouldn't be necessary.
Laurie: I wish I could hear that Schoenberg concerto live. Because I have a feeling that if I could hear it live...
Hilary: There's a whole sweep of it that happens, live, and people get caught up in it, in the audience. The musicians on stage are into it, too.
The recording is probably better than what you would hear in any live concert. Live, we put less time into it. We put a lot of time into the recording. Not just the sessions, but everyone in the orchestra was practicing backstage, and at every break that they had. We had a lot of dedication, and I think it turned out really well.
But to hear it live, to be with the other people in the hall, and to see people playing it, I think that could make a big difference for a listener.
Laurie: One of our V.com members wanted to know if you have any future plans to collaborate with Chris Thile.
Hilary: We played together three years ago, that's old news! But I would gladly work with Chris again. There's no planned collaboration there, we played together once, at my record release for Paganini/Spohr. People read about it online, they don't check the date, they start spreading rumors...(laughing) That said, wishful thinking can sometimes turn into a project, so you never know. If people really really want that project...
Laurie: They want you to do the Ehrkonig.
Hilary: That will probably happen at some point. If enough people are just clamoring for something to happen, people take note.
Probably more likely for collaborations on record would be Josh Ritter. But people have to realize, when you have a record company (agreement), you have restrictions on what you can release. So if it were up to me, I would do a lot of other stuff. But if it's up to my exclusivity agreement, then I am barred from doing these things. People are all excited about certain projects, and I am, too, but sometimes I just can't do them at a certain time. So if something doesn't happen, it doesn't mean I'm not interested. Sometimes it's just logistical, sometimes it's scheduling.
For example, for my next CD: Trying to schedule the Bach Aria album sessions, with Matthias Goerne and Christine Schäfer, and the orchestra, and all the continuo players – was so hard! We finally managed to make it happen. We have one more session, another couple things coming up in April, then it will be out sometime after that.
Laurie: On another important topic, are you aware that your violin case is Twittering on your behalf?
Hilary: I have heard rumors of this! I don't know what it's saying.
Laurie: Now, is this truly your violin case, or is it an imposter?
Hilary: You know, I gave it my Twitter password, and I think it went and set up an account. My violin case has insider info that no one else has.
Laurie: What kind of violin case do you have?
Hilary: The case is a Bobelock.
Laurie: It looks like it has sort of a wine-colored interior.
Laurie: And that's a beautiful silk bag...
Hilary: It's a Hermes scarf; I knew it would be high-quality silk. I had someone make it.
I got the new case because my other case was falling apart, I had it for 15 years. It's very difficult to find a case. People should be very careful when they buy cases to test every single aspect , especially if you're going to be taking it out of the house. When you're in the store, there are things you should check: You should put it down at waist level, put your hands on the top, and bounce with your body weight a little bit. That will tell you a lot. If it gives, no go. Then you take it and you open it, and you torque the two halves at a diagonal. If it bends too much, no go. When you close it, you push in on the sides, as hard as you can, and if they give, no go!
You want a material that's not going to melt, too. On my previous case, I have a little round dot of melted synthetic canvas, because in the overheard compartments on airplanes, sometimes the reading lights are right underneath the floor. So when you're putting your violin up top somewhere, feel the bottom of the compartment, where your violin is going to be resting, and make sure there aren't hot spots. Sometimes the heating units go through there, so make sure there aren't cold air conditioning fans blowing on it. This is true in a train as well. You can tell a lot just by patting where your violin is going to be. If there is a temperature deviation, put something down between, like a blanket or a coat, and put your violin on top of that.
Laurie: You wrote a blog about the state of the economy back in late November. What are your thoughts about the economy and the arts these days?
Hilary: I think everyone's facing the same thing. I have a friend who's a filmmaker who said a lot of his friends have no work at all.
There's always the debate with music organizations: Do you do fewer concerts? Do you do the same number of concerts for less? Do you ask the musicians to help out? If you ask musicians to do things for free, does it set up a precedent? Historically, with soloists, presenters will often negotiate a lower fee, and then say that will have no bearing on the next negotiation. But then when you come back, they quote the earlier fee and do a proportionate negotiation. So people want to help each other out, but they are wary of precedent. I think that goes with the orchestras as well. There's probably a lot of misunderstanding...Musicians want to blame the administration, they want to blame other people, but the administration keeps people going. They're trying to save the organization, and their jobs are on the line. They're taking pay cuts, too. So it's really hard for everyone. A lot of soloists are being asked to reduce fees, and a lot would gladly do it. I think some people may be canceling concerts.
But I haven't heard of a lot of people losing jobs; I think that's a good sign.
I think the arts have had to fight for survival so much that this is not coming out of the blue for us. We're used to seeing public funding in the States get cut. We've already developed ways we deal with that. In Europe, now, they're having problems because a lot of those organizations are still government-funded, and in some countries they don't have the experience of going to the private sector. They don't have a tradition of fund raising, and right now is a bad time to start!
So I think we all appreciate the people who have been involved and who continue to be involved. If people just continue to help out if they can, even if they have less, we'll be all right. They don't have to contribute the same amount, they can contribute less, but it's just nice to see people continue to support and continue to care. That's the most important thing, because that means that when things start to look up, everything will be okay again.
I'm not so worried. It's a little bit hard to panic, when you've been in panic mode, or around panic mode, for 20 years. I've been hearing how bad things are since I started playing the violin. People have talked about the death of classical music, that classical music is fading, that there are only white-haired people in the audience, that if we're not careful we won't ever have funding again, that orchestras are shutting down right and left. And that was 15-20 years ago. That's when I came into awareness of classical music as a career. So, maybe for people who began in the "heyday" it's different, but me, I've just been around this all the time.
It's shocking to see it elsewhere (in the economy), that's what surprises me. There are a lot of fields, a lot of professions, where there was no concern at all (for the sustainability of the profession). I think we're going to see a reflection of what's going on in the greater society, but I don't think it's going to be worse for us than it is for anyone else, and I don't think that we're unprepared. I think we're very well-prepared.
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When we last spoke with Anne-Sophie Mutter here at Violinist.com, she was championing her recording of a dark and contemporary work, but this month we find her surrounded by pink petals on the cover of a new Mendelssohn CD and ready for a birthday party.
© Anja Frers / Deutsche Grammophon
Felix Mendelssohn's birthday, that is: today marks the 200th anniversary of his birth.
What makes it a bit more interesting is the fact that the German violinist has had something of a journey with the Mendelssohn; it was one of the concerti that made her fall in love with the violin, listening to a recording of Yehudi Menuhin with Furtwangler as a child, she said. It also was the first major concerto Mutter played with orchestra at age 11, and she recorded it in 1980 with the Berliner Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan.
Somewhere along the way she dropped the piece; she didn't play it for more than 10 years.
On Monday, from her hotel room in New York, Mutter talked with me about what made her return to the Mendelssohn and how the concerto has changed for her. This week Anne-Sophie Mutter will be performing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the New York Philharmonic, with Kurt Masur conducting.
Laurie: Your performed this piece back when you were 11, made a recording of it, and then took a long hiatus from it, what was it that convinced you to go back to it?
Anne-Sophie: It started totally harmlessly, it was Kurt Masur's 80th birthday. We had been discussing Mendelssohn, the composer, for many years. It popped up in all of our conversations about music because he knew that I didn't play his concerto anymore. I did play some of the chamber music, but the Violin Concerto was kind of erased from my map. So (Masur) was talking about the great oratorios, the youth symphonies – totally passionate about it. He has been such an advocate of Mendelssohn's music all these years.
For his 80th birthday, he pretended that his only wish was that I play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with him. Of course, I would do anything for Kurt Masur, even re-study the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto! And what happened was just amazing: it was so fresh for me, so innocently beautiful and waiting to be re-lived. I was actually very taken by it; I just deeply love the piece. There's so much noble beauty and passion in it. Everything that Mendelssohn was as a man, as a human being, is right there.
Laurie: What are some of the things you discovered anew about it? Your perspective must have changed a great deal.
Anne-Sophie: I think that the tempo, the understanding for words like "appassionata." Also Mendelssohn's inner impatience, which he must have inherited from his father. His father was a most extraordinary person. He gave both of his children – also Felix's sister [Fanny] – such an incredibly broad and unique education. When he was 9, 10, 11 years old and composing, Felix had a [private] orchestra to attend every weekend, so every weekend he always had this try-out situation . Can you imagine what that means for a composer, what kind of development he's able to undergo?
So [the music has] this impatience, this kind of fluidity. In the second movement, it has much to do with the Gondolier songs, and [Mendelssohn's] songs altogether, the "Songs Without Words." It has to do with the whole understanding of phrasing and how to bind the musical ideas together, how to group music. This is very important for any composer. You don't play single notes, you have to group them. You have to make sense of the sentence: how you pause, and then where you put the highlights.
I think my approach when I was very young was more super-serious and broad: going for the meaning of every single note, rather than the bigger landscape. And the bigger landscape is very becoming: the fluidity and the exuberance, and let's face it, the very playful virtuosity. Mendelssohn was influenced by great virtuoso violinists like [Eduard] Rietz, for whom he wrote this devilishly difficult octet. Rietz died very early, unfortunately, so one of the reasons why Mendelssohn wrote such great violin music literally died away. Then thank God there was Ferdinand David, for whom he wrote the Violin Concerto as we know. So these virtuosic, playful, spooky last movements are ideas which come back in most of his pieces. It's important to understand the lightness of it all, the elegance. It is a different elegance than Mozart, although I would rather lean backward in the direction of Mozart than in the direction of Brahms [when playing Mendelssohn].
The revelations about the man himself just stunned me. I read more about his life than ever before in my life, and realized what a good human being he was, what a special person he was, what an incredible sense of obligation to society he had, how much he was reaching out: by founding the Leipzig Conservatory. Imagine Schumann was giving piano lessons, and Joachim came from London in order to study at this school, and Mendelssohn was teaching. All the leading positions of the Gewandhaus (Orchestra) had their teaching positions at the Conservatory.
This was not only because Mendelssohn knew that the orchestra would probably not survive if he didn't initiate a next generation of Gewandhaus musicians, but also it was for music education for everybody, including people without great means, because he understood the necessity of music in everybody's life. The whole Bach story, that he was giving benefit concerts on the organ so that the Leipzig people could afford a Bach statue in front of the St. Thomas Church – that's very moving. He was a very unique person. I have always believed, that as a musician you have an obligation not only to change notes to be higher or lower or faster or slower, but you also have to make an impact on society.
It still is true in my opinion that Mendelssohn is underestimated as a composer. Not that there aren't other composers that have been underestimated as well, but now we talk about him. It might have to do with our concept of beauty in music, that very often we are led to believe that something uplifting and inspired – something just like a sun ray – is kind of hollow. It's like in Mozart's life, where a turn around a corner into a minor chord will just break your heart: Mendelssohn's music is very deeply felt, and I don't think that Mendelssohn's life has been easy. I'm very grateful for a composer who left such pure, and highly moving and elevating music behind.
Laurie: Had you played either of the chamber works on your new CD before, the Piano Trio No. 1 in d, Op. 49, or the Violin Sonata in F major?
Anne-Sophie: Yes, I've played many of Mendelssohn's chamber works, though I've never played the Octet, which I'm going to perform with my students shortly. Andre [Previn] and I have played the D minor Trio til we dropped from our chairs; we've just always enjoyed it. Doing the recording was a special treat, at least for me, because Lynn [Harrell] is my favorite cellist around, and Andre's Mendelssohn playing, like his Mozart playing, is just out of this world.
The sonata was another great surprise for me. For a while I felt a little shy recording it, because it wasn't one of the pieces that were printed during Mendelssohn's time; he was still revising it. So it's not really revised to the last note. But as we know, many of Mendelssohn's pieces were not released during his lifetime because he was revising them. But there's nothing you could possibly do better in the F major Sonata from 1838, it's such an incredible piece. The second movement is just killing me, I particularly love the slow movement of the F Major Sonata. Of course, don't make me choose! I hope it's interesting and fun for the listener to see the many faces of Mendelssohn. He was such a great chamber music player and such a passionate chamber music player. Most of the pieces, like the Trio, he had also premiered. I found it incredibly wonderful, as a soloist, to show different roles of the violin in Mendelssohn's work: as a duo part, as a trio, and then of course the big solo piece with all the hurdles.
Laurie: On another subject, I noticed that you'll be giving "In tempus praesens" by Gubaidulina its American debut later this month with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.
Anne-Sophie: It's such a moving experience. One week ago in Madrid I did the Spanish premiere, and two weeks ago the German premiere and now the American premiere is in just a few weeks. It's one of the great pieces in my life, that's for sure, and it's certainly the most important contemporary piece written in the last 18 years, it just is unexplicably powerful, heart-wrenching and the orchestration is all she does, so intense and unique, her sense for colors and for drama, how she paces drama, the timing of it. The balance between moments of deepest despair and beauty are just breathtaking. Every performance I'm schlepping myself up for these 40 minutes of playing up in the highest register and at the highest intensity – it's a battle, this role of Sofia against society, and especially the role of the violin against the orchestra. It's intense not only physically, but also psychologically; it's really hard to take. Very often I schlep myself off stage and I'm just – I'm done. I cannot speak.
I'm really lucky to have not only all these other tremendous contemporary pieces, but in particular "In tempus praesens." The recording, of course, can never replicate what reality does to you when you hear it in the process of really living through it, it's ..wow.
Laurie: I find it especially true with contemporary pieces, that seeing it live is a really different experience.
Anne-Sophie: Especially in this piece, because the struggle factor is such an important key to understanding what it's all about. To witness that happening live, it really adds a needed dimension. On the other hand, you hear things on the recording you will never hear live, because the orchestration is so huge. There's only so much the human ear can absorb. And so it's good to go home, and listen to "In tempus praesens," and get something else out of it that you won't get in the performance.
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