Perhaps as a child he struggled to get the spotlight to shine on an artist in Siberia; by now his artistry has achieved a level of international respect and he is warmly welcomed on stages the world over.
Photo by Anastasia Chernyavsky
Born in what was the Soviet Union in 1971, Vadim Repin brushed elbows with many of that country's finest artists: cellist Msislav Rostropovich and pianist Sviatoslav Richter among them, not to mention the many artists he collaborated with all over Europe. His relationship with Yehudi Menuhin, at the end of Menuhin's life the beginning of Repin's career, is woven into his work with the Brahms Concerto.
Last week, Repin released his new recording of Brahms, both the Violin Concerto and the Double Concerto, with Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhaus Orchestra, with cellist Truls Mørk.
Repin spoke to me several weeks ago, over the phone from Amsterdam – early afternoon for me in California, and nearly midnight for him in Europe. He's been on the road: in Netherlands, Denmark, and this week the United States, playing the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Seattle Symphony and also giving a master class on Saturday.
Laurie: Tell me about your earliest teacher, Zakhar Bron.
Vadim: He was a young man when I first met him; he also was a brilliant violin player. His passion for teaching was extremely strong. His violinistic skills and pure level of violin playing was probably one of his strongholds, to be able to show just about anything in the whole repertoire to make a point.
I think I've learned probably everything about the teaching of violin playing (from Bron): the way you work on any kind of difficulties, the way to learn new pieces, and the way to get rid of handicaps.
Bron doesn't say too many words, but if you are attentive enough and can analyze what he's saying, it's always direct and to-the-point.
Laurie: You were only seven years old when you went to him, he must have been pretty good with children.
Vadim: I think I was his first experiment with that age! Most of his students by then were already 17, 20 years old, because he was teaching in the conservatory, not at the school.
Laurie: Do you enjoy teaching?
Vadim: I think what I do in the master class, when I'm visiting, for example, is more like encouragement. I meet young people, and I give them the advise and support that I can. True teaching requires you to be with them, to lead them for years, like raising children. That's why I don't really call it teaching, but for me it's just a chance to encourage some of them, probably to practice more seriously, or give their ideas direction and be helpful, that's all.
Laurie: What are your thoughts about competitions? I know you were the youngest-ever winner the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels...
Vadim: Well, I did the Queen Elizabeth, and the Wieniawski when I was 11. Being in Siberia, it's kind of tough to get a spotlight on yourself...the only way we could see us getting the spotlight was trying our luck in something major, the most difficult competition.
In general, competition is something really weird, because how can one judge the artist? It's quite difficult. It's not running, and it's not football. Probably the general level of playing is important, and then a little bit of luck as well.
Laurie: What was it like to grow up in the Soviet Union?
Vadim: Novosibirsk (in Siberia) is a great city. We had, and still have, a great symphony orchestra, opera, theatre, poetry, and one of the three major music schools (the Novosibirsk Conservatory) that was done on the model of the Moscow school for young, talented, musical students. So we had good fortune. From a very early age I was traveling and playing concerts in different places in Russia, also outside, went to Germany, Japan, America.
Laurie: So you were not limited in your ability to travel, as a Soviet citizen.
Vadim: It was not the '30s or '40s. We never had troubles, in fact I never emigrated. I still have a Russian passport as well. I lived in Europe for many years now as my base, but I'm constantly in Russia, every year.
Laurie: The notes for your new recording of the Brahms mention that your played this concerto for Yehudi Menuhin back when you were first learning the piece. What kinds of things did he talk about?
Vadim: The Brahms concerto was the first thing I learned myself, when I finished studies with Bron – I never learned this concerto with him. By then, I had a very important relationship in my life, that I consider like a godsend, with Menuhin, so I asked him to be the first listener, to give me advise. He was kind enough to give me time. It was interesting. He would not change dramatically, or turn anything upside-down, because he was a very sensitive personality. We had very long talks about the concerto, about some of the fingerings, about some of the ideas. He would share with me, but it was always in a proposition state. So for me it was very interesting but at the same time, there was never pressure.
Laurie: So the Brahms Concerto was the first one you learned on your own?
Vadim: Not exactly...Part of Bron's education was that he would ask me to learn many of the pieces by myself. Then I would play the piece in a concert, and he would appear at the concert. I learned some of the concerti, some of the sonatas, the Bach...many things this way. And then after the concert, we would go in the classroom and start that part of (the process).
Laurie: What was Menuhin like?
Vadim: He was a humanitarian, in the first place. He was extremely educated, with a great knowledge of life in general, of art. So it was an enormous pleasure to travel together, going places as we did, and playing concerts together, when he was conducting, for example. To see a grand maestro that has been one of your heroes through your whole childhood and youth, to have a chance to spend time together – it's invaluable, priceless.
Laurie: Do you feel you changed from the experience?
Vadim: I did not change, but of course things like that shape your personality, shape your taste in a way, and add different things that you may not even notice it the first time, but in general it is something you have in the back of your mind, that you don't necessarily control that much.
Laurie: What cadenzas did you use for this version of the Brahms?
Vadim: Those are the Heifetz cadenzas. That goes back to my very early years, when I was nine years old, Bron gave me the CD of Heifetz and Reiner, to listen to Brahms concerto, which I had not heard before. I had such an explosion in my mind after listening to that, I was so amazed. I think that's partly why this cadenza became probably my favorite, through the years. I just can't stop loving it. And finally I made the decision to make it part of the recording.
Laurie: Did you play the other one as well?
Vadim: Yes, I know the other one, of course. But I feel that the exercise of the material in the Heifetz is somehow appeals to me very well, the shape of the cadenza, the breadth of it and the combination of underwater movement, let's say. I really appreciate it.
(The Joachim cadenza) is almost considered part of the concerto, but well, there's always room for something new. I hope it's enjoyable.
Laurie: I noticed that a while back you had performed the Brahms Double Concerto with Rostropovich conducting. Did playing the Brahms Double concerto under Rostropovich give you any insights on that work?
Vadim: Oh absolutely, we spent so much time working on it, many rehearsals, without orchestra as well. He wanted to listen to everything and to know what's happening, and he also gave a great deal of advise. He even played cello a little bit, making points. Absolutely priceless, too.
Such a few memories of the greatest musicians...Once I went to Sviatoslav Richter's house, with my pianist, Sasha Melnikov at the time, we went to play sonatas for him. At some point (Richter) said, "Let me play something," and so we played the movements of the sonata, straight.
These things were most amazing, spectacular experiences. They will never go away from my memories.
Laurie: Tell me about the cellist you are playing with on the recording, Truls Mørk.
Vadim: I've been his fan for many years, and love his taste. I like the way his technical abilities are endless, and I feel a personality that's like a soulmate. I really enjoyed playing it with him. He was my first choice to record it in the first place, and I'm really happy he found time and was interested in doing so.
Laurie: What is the greatest challenge in performing the Brahms Double Concerto? It's very orchestral...
Vadim: Yes, it's very symphonic. Violin and cello, most of the time, are like two halves that are trying to become one whole, something complete. You're not fighting the cello, in fact, but rather you dialogue with each other, and you are trying to fulfill each other.
Laurie: I'm always amazed, at the beginning, there's a spot where the entire orchestra drops out and it's only a cello and a violin, and yet it still sounds like a whole orchestra. It's so full.
Vadim: It's another perfect creation of Brahms.
Laurie: Is Brahms one of your favorites?
Vadim: Most definitely. It's a treat to perform his music. Each time it's very special.
Laurie: On another matter, what is the most important thing when you are working on technique?
Vadim: You hide it. So that technique is something of your language. The more work, the less you notice it. To make a point, to express what you have in your thoughts, in your dreams. If someone says, 'Oh, that's great technique,' – unless you're playing something really virtuoso and hitting all the notes -- it's something that should not be noticed, in a way. Music is in front of everything.
Very often, it's like conducting. Conductors hear music with their ears, and instrumentalists, unfortunately, are tied up to muscles, to difficulties, to the challenges of the instruments. So the farther you can get away from those, the better for the music. You can say that is a "technique."
Laurie: You almost get to a point where you just let go of technique, where it's just there.
Vadim: Where you don't notice it, that it's just serving you and not become the main aspect of your playing.
Laurie: Otherwise it comes off as a struggle.
Vadim: There are things that should sound as a struggle, that is also a very special technique. But at some points, when there is no struggle but something pure and simple, that's what requires a great amount of technique, to make it sound this way.
Laurie: What is your aim to sound like in Brahms?
Vadim: This concerto is probably the most varied, in expression, thoughts, colors and emotions. There is plenty of everything: the places you really have to make it flashy, the places that you really do it so tender and loving and unbelievably intimate. So it requires a great amount of technical ability, just about the whole range of it.
Laurie: I noticed you changed to a del Gesù violin in 2005. What was the reason for the change?
Vadim: I was always a fan of the del Gesù violins. I was blessed playing fine violins, but they all were Strads. So finally, I have a very good personal friend who happened to own one (the 1736 ‘Von Szerdahely’ by Guarneri del Gesù) and, knowing that I adore playing Guarneri violins, he let me play it. So I feel extremely grateful and happy.
Laurie: What kinds of things are possible with a del Gesù?
Vadim: It requires a very good professionalism and a very high standard of technical abilities, because they're not easy to play. Strads are much easier, they begin to sound by themselves. But Guarneri requires a little bit more knowledge, a little more effort. But once you create a friendship with the violin, I think the results can be even more varied and great .
Laurie: When you say they are harder to play, what do you mean?
Vadim: Just knowing the secrets of making it sound. Usually they are much more down-to-earth instruments, a little more human rather than heavenly beautiful. So to make the full range of it, one should know how to get along with those.
Laurie: I noticed you were on a Strad for some 10 years – you had Sarasate's Strad.
Vadim: It was a wonderful instrument and I loved it. I played it during very important years of my musical life. But when you have something in the back of your mind, it stays forever, no matter what.
Laurie: When was the first time you played a del Gesù? There must have been something that made you fall in love with that.
Vadim: Well yes, a long time ago I played the violin of Isaac Stern's, the "Panette," for some months. I made even one recording with it, the Ravel Sonata.
But then there are my sympathies, my adoration for Jascha, and Isaac Stern, Menuhin and Kreisler – they all have Guarneris as their main and favorite instruments.
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I spent just one whirlwind day at the American String Teachers Association (ASTA) convention in Atlanta, but I managed to attend a couple of violin teaching sessions and to check out the showroom full of stuff for strings -- so here's the run-down.
Bright and early (6:15 a.m. California time) on Saturday, I attended Patrick Rafferty's sesson on playing unnaccompanied Bach. At first, I wasn't sure about my decision to attend a class on the minutiae of playing Bach before being able to down the full contents of my Starbucks short vanilla latte (for those of you following my attempt to give up coffee, ah, well, um... it was six in the morning), but Rafferty imparted some solid wisdom, like don't hurry chords -- roll 'em slow, baby (he didn't use that exact wording); connect the top note of one chord to the bottom note of the next (as in the G minor Fugue, mm 61-63).
Here is my favorite, on how to cope with the physically impossible Bach chord, which usually involves some excruciating contortion of the left fingers over three or more strings. Rafferty's advice: hold the violin like a guitar, and loosen the thumb, letting it fall where it may. Find the chord in this relaxed position, then, keeping fingers in place, raise the fiddle to the chin. "Whatever I have to do with my elbow and wrist, I do that," Rafferty said, demonstrating a somewhat unconventional, but effective, left hand position. When you get to the chord, that's the position you take. It's a little like doing 10ths, when you move your thumb back and let the first finger lie down, changing the hand position just for those notes.
He also suggested, for fugues, placing a small silence, but no added time, between fugue subjects, an example being the beginning of the A minor Fugue. "This creates a terraced effect, with each voice sounding more emphatic than the last," he said. He also warned against barreling through the running notes in movements like the B minor Courante double and the E major Preludio. "Bach sometimes writes phrases that aren't easy to see or hear, if you play right through," Rafferty said. "In these cases, it's important to take some time" and to shape the phrases.
After Rafferty's lecture, I headed downstairs to the exhibition hall, where more than 100 exhibitors were lined up in booths to show show off the latest and greatest in music, instruments, publications, teaching tools and gear for teachers of stringed instruments. Where to start?
Barenreiter had its gorgeous Urtext scores on display and had sold out of one of its newest offerings: Kurt Sassmannshaus's new method book for children, The Sassmannshaus Tradition, a revised and Americanized version of his father's method, printed in large type and full of colorful illustrations. (You may recognize Dr. S.'s name from Violinistmasterclass.com). Dr. S. gave a lecture about his method on Friday -- unfortunately I missed it! I hope to catch him doing a similar lecture in Pasadena this June; if so, I'll tell you all about it.
I also found Viper king Mark Wood, surrounded by colorful electric violins in many shapes. I'd heard of the Viper -- Mark's baby -- from Rachel Barton Pine, when I asked her what kinds of electrics were best. Wood has an obvious commitment to music education, with a music education program called Electrify Your Strings and also a seat on ASTA's board of directors. At first he mistook me for a snooty classical violinist (classical violinist, yes, snooty, no, I pointed out). In the end, he agreed to a picture:
A participant, Bill Somach, showed me his new scale book, Accidentals Happen, with 26 kinds of scales (major, minor, modal, augmented, the list goes on) with easy-to-understand explanations of each kind, sort of a "Scalebook for Dummies." A lot of us could use a simple, well-spun explanation of these concepts -- so could our students.
I dropped by Happynex, where Louis Marino showed me the simple sling they've devised to take some of the weight off the violin. Seemed like this could be used for people who have been injured, people who practice long hours and want to prevent back problems, older beginners, etc. Obviously one wants to build up one's musculature for holding the violin, but not to the point of injury. An interesting concept!
I was quite happy to see Ariane Todes, editor of the Strad, and even happier when she pointed out to me that I can get 30 percent off a subscription to the Strad (that comes to $75 for a year), and so can all of you, V.commies. Either call 1-866-922-8534 (toll free, so, no, you won't be charged a call to London) or go to this website and, in either case, give them the secret code: STUS09. I tried the website and it didn't work, so you might be better off calling. They're trying to fix the website.
I also got to play with Jerry Agin's intonation software, which can be set either to just, Pythagorean, or equal temperament and records your success on each note, creating a readout and also generating a recording of your effort for you to review. Here's my quick effort with an A major scale:
In my continual effort to find music my students can play together, I sorted through some string arrangements by Latham Music and got an easy book for two violins called "Anthems of America," arranged by Catherine McMichael, to fan the interests of two of my beginners. They have no group to play with, so why not play with each other? And I just noticed, the arrangement has versions of the second fiddle part in viola and cello, too. Nice!
Over at the StringWorks booth, they had their signature King Charles IX Amati Cello reproduction, commissioned by StringWorks President Todd French, on display and available for people to play...I have no idea how it sounds but it's looks amazing!
I also sampled the very simple BowStopper, a set of colorful clips that one can attach anywhere on the bow so that students must play in a particular part of the bow. As I was trying this out, a teacher standing next to me told a horror story about someone using clothes pins to accomplish the same end -- yikes! I imagined one scraped-up fiddle. The BowStoppers are of a forgiving plastic nature; if the student goes too far, no harm done.
Also, bought a Perfect Shoulder Rest to try out on kids. It's a sponge, but it seemed a bit more promising than the purple ones and other makeshift furniture spongewear I've tried over the years. It's impossible to put on wrong (it's rounded at the top, like the fiddle), and this could save quite a lot of time. It also has a non-slip surface that goes against the fiddle. Something for the little ones, I'm thinking.
Throughout the convention, young students participated in orchestral and solo competitions, thus many students and their teachers were part of the atmosphere, with performances popping up all over. As I was walking from one side of the convention floor to the next, I noticed this ensemble, the Etowah Youth Symphony Honor Strings of Gadsden, Alabama, with their director, Mike Gagliardo, playing a version of "1234" by Feist (which you may also know as the iPod commercial song). (I didn't catch the beginning, so you may have to listen about 20 second before you'll recognize the tune).
In the afternoon, I caught a lecture by Charles Avsharian, founder and CEO of Shar Music, about using Galamian principles in teaching. Once a student of Galamian's at Curtis Institute, Avsharian also produced Master Teacher Series of videos, which show the teaching of Ivan Galamian, Josef Gingold, Donald McInnes and Ruggiero Ricci.
It was said that Galamian could make a violinist out of a chair leg, but how can you make a teacher who teaches as well as Galamian?
"You teach by analysis, and you coach the creative side," Avsharian said. "I can't teach passion."
The trick is to connect the ears to the mind, the eyes to the mind -- and the mind to the hands.
Avsharian also talked about the importance of teaching the martelé bow stroke. (BTW, here's a nice martelé explanation and tutorial.)
"If you don't teach martelé, you don't know how to teach the violin," Avsharian said. "Martelé is absolutely essential to good teaching." It involves four steps: set, finger motion, forearm motion, and the halt. I raised my hand and asked him about students who come to a screeching halt at the end of the martelé stroke, producing an actual sound at the end of the not. He recommended rolling the bow up and off, gently, at the end of the note, to get the mind thinking about completely releasing the pressure.
Avsharian also recommended practicing with one's eyes glued to the left hand -- he encouraged people to try practicing this way for a full month.
"You are going to see things you never saw before," he said. How fast are your shifts? Which fingers go down, and when? At what point to other fingers pop up? How smooth are bow crossings, how do you achieve the techniques that you achieve?
"The only way you're going to improve is if you practice yourself,' Avsharian said. For example, the beginning of the Bach Chaccone: "You all know how to do it, but did you analyze how to do it? Can you teach how to do it?"
And that is the question of the day, the reason for the entire occasion. How wonderful to see so many people asking it, and seeking the answer!
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That's how I felt after watching a live recording of Janine Jansen playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto – a fiery and physical ride that held me spellbound, in which she completely gives herself over to this concerto. Even the hair on her head comes unbound by the last movement, flying into her face, which also registers most every musical gesture and nuance.
Jansen said that she doesn't really notice how much she exerts in a performance, that she doesn't feel physically drained afterwards.
"I don't notice that because it is the most natural thing for me to play like this," Jansen said, though she admitted she sometimes feels emotionally worn after a performance. "For example with the Britten concerto, that takes so much emotionally out of you," she said. "For me, music is the strongest language, and it just goes through me."
Jansen's recording of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and Souvenir D'un Lieu Cher is released in the United States today. Predictably, it is being released for digital download, as Jansen was long ago crowned "Queen of the Download" by the The Independent of London, for the successful Internet marketing of her Vivaldi Four Seasons recording.
"When that was said, it was when my Vivaldi came out," said Janine, laughing. "It was one of the first classical recordings to be on iTunes, which has become a big part of today's world. I'm sure by now I'm no longer the queen! "
It wasn't her idea to go the digital download route. "Back then I hadn't even visited iTunes and didn't really know how to download music," she said. "I wasn't so much aware of it."
That success wasn't without its downside; the alluring cover art that appealed so widely may also have let to some of the condescending adjectives ascribed in the early days to her playing by people who had never heard her perform live. "Kittenish charm"? "Beguiling small tone"?
In what universe?
At 31, Jansen takes this in stride. "I really do enjoy the day with the photographer," Janine said. "It's also art in some way." For her more recent albums, "the last few photos are more grown up, I think."
"The most important thing, with album covers, or with anything else in life, is you just have to do what's right, and stand behind what you want, what you think is right, and not let yourself be pushed in another direction."
Janine learned the Tchaikovsky concerto – from scratch – in a matter of several months, a feat that I find astonishing due to a) my own 10-year battle with the piece and b) the fact that from the point of its very conception the concerto was labeled "unplayable" by its dedicatee. It's a hard piece to play.
Jansen was first asked to play the Tchaikovsky by conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra.
"It was so intimidating to play it with these great conductors so early on," she said. But since then she has played it frequently, even as a debut piece with important orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. At this point, she has been playing it for nine years.
"You are never through learning it. But after all these years, I felt ready to share my view of it as it is now," said Jansen. For the recording, she said she loved working with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. "Each and every player is so flexible," she said, "and Daniel Harding is an emotional musician."
Jansen recorded the album with her 1727 "Barrere" Stradivarius, which she has been playing since 2002, on extended loan from the Elise Mathilde Fund through intermediation of The Stradivari Society of Chicago.
She said that getting the Strad "was kind of like a fairy tale story." She had been playing on an Italian instrument, a Tomaso Balestrieri that had belonged to her former teacher, Philipp Hirshhorn. "His widow was loaning it to me," Janine said. "I tried to find a sponsor to buy it and loan it to me, but I was not able to do so, and so I was left with nothing." During the midst of this time of searching, a man approached her after one of her concerts and gave her a card, and that is what led her to The Stradivari Society of Chicago. Bein and Fushi brought her eight instruments to try.
"I tried all of them," Janine said. "All of the instruments were of the highest quality. But with this instrument, I felt immediately that it was right. You have an ideal kind of sound in your body – in your heart. For me, an instrument should have a richness and also be flexible. What I particularly like about his instrument is it has the ability to be soft and still really carry."
"I say that I knew it was the right instrument from the start, but that was only a start," she said. It takes years to get to know a instrument, she said, to unlock its strengths and to compensate for any of its weaknesses. "You learn so much from this kind of an instrument."
I was thrilled to see Tchaikovsky's Souvenir D'un Lieu Cher ("Souvenir of a Beloved Place") – on Jansen's new recording as well as the concerto. This is a group of three pieces that includes the moody and emotional, "Meditation," which begins like the richest dark chocolate – scarcely leaving the G string; then it winds up and calms down, loses its composure and gains it back, gets dizzy and finds equilibrium. In the end it expires at the other end of the spectrum, on a towering D that's too high for the ledger lines required to write it (would someone like to count?).
The "Meditation" also was written as the middle movement of the violin concerto – until Tchaikovsky thought better of the idea.
"The 'Meditation' itself is a gorgeous piece. It's just very interesting to see the two of them together," said Jansen, comparing the "Meditation" with the "Canzonetta," the more emotionally restrained movement that Tchaikovsky ultimately placed at the center of his violin concerto.
"The second movement (of the violin concerto) is the greatest, most beautiful piece of music, and it is exactly the right intimacy, the right character, everything is there," she said. "It's quite short in the concerto, but it is exactly right, and if this Meditation had been in the concerto, it would have been too much. Too much emotion, just too much."
Having played the Meditation with piano myself, and having listened to many versions of it with orchestra, I did a double-take upon hearing a solo cello making its elegant descent in the introduction – solo cello? And wait, what happened to the woodwinds, too?
Apparently Jansen wanted all strings, and she chose a version of the Souvenir D'un Lieu Cher that was arranged by Alexandru Lascae. Tchaikovsky originally wrote the piece for violin and piano, and the most commonly used arrangement is a full orchestration by Alexander Glazunov.
"I especially love the strings – the sound blends so well," Jansen said of the Lascae arrangement. "It's more of a chamber music way of playing it."
And it shouldn't be surprising that Jansen would love something that felt like chamber music – her affinity for this kind of music goes back to her very first teacher, Coosje Wijzenbeek, who is well-known in Holland for teaching young children.
"Every week there were lessons in chamber music," Jansen said of her lessons with Wijzenbeek. "For me, the essence of making music is this way of communicating with each other, this whole flexibility. Without each and every part, the music is not the same. You must be alert to each person."
"Most of the time I'm traveling alone, to new cities, and it's wonderful to meet new people," Janine said, "but it's also wonderful to come back, and to play chamber music."
Janine's festival culminates in a jam session of sorts, and "this year it lasted three days!" she laughed.
"It's a relaxed ending of the concert," she said. Everyone just kind of gets up, announces their piece, sometimes even talks about the piece a little bit. And the pieces come from a range of genres: This year, clarinetist Martin Fröst played klezmer music. Also, the Dutch jazz pianist, Michiel Borstlap brought music to play with Janine. "I never improvise, but he brought something for me, so that we could play together," she said. Even an audience member who worked as a TV presenter rose up to play. "The whole atmosphere is so relaxed."
I wondered if this was a bit like being in an orchestra, where all the familiar faces, togetherness and music-making makes people start feeling like family members.
"Sometimes people think, when we say that it's like a family, that it's just corny. But it's so true," Jansen said. "Those are the people I love playing with. It's so nice socially to be together, too. This whole communication, it's so wonderful to have."
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You have to admit, this guy keeps good company: Stradivari, del Gesu, Guarneri, Bertolotti and Guadagnini...
I'm talking about Canadian violinist James Ehnes, whose latest project, a CD/DVD called Homage, involved performing on nine violins and three violas by the above makers, all from the collection of Dave Fulton. In fact, the project is more of an exploration, with Ehnes speaking about each individual instrument, then showcasing it with music he chose specifically to feature that instrument's special qualities.
Photo by Benjamin Ealovega
"Homage" was just nominated for a JUNO award, of which Ehnes has already collected five. He won a 2008 Grammy for his recording of the Barber, Korngold, Walton: Violin Concertos with Bramwell Tovey and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, and among his numerous recording projects are the Niccolo Paganini: 24 Caprices For Solo Violin, an a CD of all Mozart's works for solo violin and orchestra..
But somehow Ehnes has a special knack for finding what is special in a violin, for illustrating in both his words and his playing. This is no accident; Ehnes may have been destined to be a connoisseur of fine fiddles. He certainly started thinking about the instrument he played – and making important choices – at a young age.
Laurie: What was your very first violin like?
James Ehnes: I received a violin for Christmas a month before my fifth birthday, and I think it was a half-size. It was too big, so I got a quarter-size a few weeks later. I had been wanting a violin for some time; there was always a lot of music in my house. My dad is a trumpet teacher, and my mom has a ballet school. To keep me out of trouble, they would prop me up on the radiator next to the stereo speaker, and I would listen to music.
So I wanted a violin, and I was so excited when I got it. I remember taking it out and having a momentary flush of insecurity because I didn't know which hand did which thing! I guessed right the first time, the violin goes in the left hand, the bow goes in the right hand. Still, I was so concerned that I would forget this, that for the first several weeks I always practiced in exactly the same spot in the house, where I knew I had my orientation correct.
Laurie: Tell me a little bit about your journey to procure a fine instrument.
James Ehnes: When I was about 12, I was lucky to get a beautiful violin, a three-quarter-size. It wasn't terribly expensive, an old German violin. I've got such sentimental feelings toward it, I still have it. It was a really beautiful-sounding instrument, a beautiful antique. It was probably that violin that got me excited about violins. I became aware of how different they can be, and how special the right violin can feel.
Then I got very lucky: When I was ready to start playing a full-size violin, the Manitoba Arts Council, (I grew up in Brandon, Manitoba), was starting up an instrument bank. They had some money, and they organized a competition for young Manitobans to get grants to purchase the first instruments for the instrument bank. I played this competition, and I won. So they said, we've got $25,000, go find a violin. It was a pretty extraordinary thing. With my teacher's help, we looked at a lot of different instruments and settled on a Riccardo Antoniazzi. It's amazing that a Riccardo Antoniazzi was worth only $25,000, not that long ago. To this day, that's actually my violin. Later on the arts council unfortunately had to shut down this instrument program. They donated the instruments to various universities throughout the province, and we arranged it in such a way that they donated the Antoniazzi to Brandon University in my hometown, where my dad works. I was able to purchase the instrument from the university, and then the university took that money to buy some other instruments. So I have that violin to this very day.
Laurie: That sounds to me like unique opportunity, at a young age.
James Ehnes: It really was. It was shortly after getting that violin that I went to Meadowmount for the first time. Of course, at Meadowmount there were 13-year-old kids playing on Gaglianos and Amatis – there was some serious money. But there were also some kids who were really struggling on not-so-great instruments, people from normal families like my own. I knew how lucky I was to have a nice violin. Then as I went through my teens, I would occasionally borrow different instruments, sometimes some really nice ones. I borrowed a Strad from a guy in Minneapolis a few times, and when I went to Juilliard, I borrowed a violin from them briefly.
My next major long-term instrument was a 1717 Strad (the Windsor-Weinstein) that belongs to the Canadian government. It was donated by an amateur from Toronto. I had to play a competition (to procure that instrument) and I received the loan (of the instrument) for three years. After that, I could do the competition again for another three-year loan, but that's the end of it. You can only apply twice. So I knew it was always going to be a temporary thing. It's a beautiful violin, but it's not really so much of a solo instrument. It doesn't have a particularly big sound; it was always a little bit of a struggle to project with that instrument.
I played on it for about five years, and it was during the period of playing on this violin when my career really started developing. Dave Fulton, whom I'd gotten to know during that period of time, was not particularly fond of that instrument. He thought that I needed something better, and it was during that period of time that I first saw the Marsick Strad, which I play on now. It was being sold in London.
When I would go to Seattle and see Dave, I would tell him about the instruments, but honestly, it never crossed my mind, that in a serious fashion, he would have an interest in buying the instrument. That wasn't the sort of thing he did, or the kind of relationship we had at that point. But he was becoming a friend, and so I would tell him about the violin. Basically I wanted his advice on how to deal with people who might be interested in buying it, how to deal with the sellers.
My heart was really fixed on this one particular instrument.
Laurie: How did that come to be? Why this instrument?
James Ehnes: It's actually kind of a random thing. It was being sold by Peter Biddulph, out of London, and there's a dealer in New York who works with Peter, and sometimes he brings violins back and forth, overseas. He's an old friend, I've known for years, I'd actually bought a bow from him, and he knew my playing really well. It was a very curious thing, he called me up one day and said, "You have to see this violin. This is the violin for you, you're going to love it." And of course, there are dealers who say that sort of thing every time you visit! But he knew for one thing, that there was no possible way that I could have afforded it, and I didn't know anyone who could have afforded it either, so it was not as if he was trying to make a sale, he just thought that this was something that I really needed to see. I've always really appreciated that, because I was basically the first person in America to see this instrument after it had been brought out of Russia and then gone through restoration. A 1715 Strad doesn't hit the market too often; I was just really fortunate to just know this guy and to have a chance to see it.
Then of course, having seen it, it was a several-year process to actually figure out a way to get my hands on it. There was a consortium of Canadians that was interested in buying it. That looked very promising for a while, then that unfortunately fell apart. There was a Canadian auto parts company, of all things, that was thinking of buying it, and they'd gone as far as putting down a deposit, but then they pulled out of the deal.
Unfortunately, the bigger the stakes in the violin business, the more complicated and not-always-pleasant it can get. There were some pretty ugly sides of the business that I was exposed to in this period of time, and it took a pretty big emotional toll on me; I kept thinking I was going to get it, then I wasn't going to get it, and I had the violin in my possession and I had to give it back, and then it was sold to somebody else briefly, then their sale fell through...
Eventually, I think that Dave just got sick and tired of hearing me whine about it. The price was very fair for what the instrument was. He was of the opinion that someone should just step up to the plate and do this, and make it happen, because it's a good violin – it's a great violin, it was a fair price, and he felt that I should be able to use it. So he bought it. And that was that!
Laurie: And it's on permanent loan to you?
James Ehnes: Well, he has no plans to take it back, I guess I'll say that. At some point, what Dave would really like is for me to buy it from him, so that I could really have it forever, which would be amazing. So we'll see.
Laurie: That must have been awful when it was sold to someone else, like the person you were planning to marry had married someone else!
James Ehnes: It was kind of depressing. It was particularly depressing because some of my friends in the business, including this guy who had shown it to me in the first place, my friend Alex, he would try to get my mind off of it. He would say, 'Come over to the house, I've got this other great Strad passing through for a couple of days...' And I'd say, 'No, it's not the same,' and I'd mope about it.
Actually when I started searching on behalf of the Canadian auto parts company I'd mentioned before, the (Marsick) Strad, as far as I'd known, had sold, it was gone. So I was looking at different instruments, and I'd actually picked out a 1740 del Gesu. At that point, after I'd picked out that violin and I was pretty happy with it, I heard that this Marsick Strad was coming back on the market, and so I was really excited to get the two in the same room. That was an extremely hard decision, deciding between those two instruments. I played for a lot of people, obviously, to get as many opinions as possible, and 50 percent of the people said one, and 50 percent said the other. In the end, it was just sort of a gut thing.
My roommate at the time, a cellist, had gone through all this with me. I'd bring back (instruments) to the apartment. He thought that I'd managed to pick out the most Strad-like Guarneri that I could find, and the most Guarneri-like Strad. So I was not dealing with extremes. I knew what I wanted, and it was sort of right down the center.
Laurie: You put yourself through a lot to get this instrument. Is there a way of describing what it is so compelling about a fine instrument, that would make you go through all this?
James Ehnes: In terms of playing the violin and having a career on the violin, one is always dealing with ...how much sacrifice are you willing to make? How hard are you really going to practice? How many weekends out with your friends are you really going to pass up, what is it worth to you? At the point when I was looking for a great violin, the concept of being the absolute best that I can be was paramount. That was the most important thing: reaching whatever full potential I had, because I was at that point where my career goals and dreams were either going to happen or not happen. There I am, getting into my early, mid-20s, and things had been going well for me, but I was by no means established. I could have disappeared pretty easily. I thought, anything I can do to get my playing better, anything I can do to improve myself as a player, as a musician...I have to do it, and I have to do it now. So trying to get a great violin was just a part of that. Looking back, there was a lot of time and effort and struggle that went into the process of getting an instrument, but in a way that was the easy part. I mean, the practicing was much harder!
Laurie: Does an instrument teach you something?
James Ehnes: Absolutely. Different instruments can teach you different things, depending on what you want to learn.
For me, I think that the great Strads and del Gesus have a level of refinement in the sound that pushes the player constantly to be improving themselves. Sometimes it really kind of gets annoying, on a Strad, where in order for it to really ring correctly it has to be played with such precision that is just sometimes gets frustrating! (laughing) You think, is this really worth it? There are certain great del Gesus – you can afford to be a little sloppy with them, and they'll still sound great. But you start sounding bad on a Strad really quickly. That can get irritating, but I'm always so into the idea of self-improvement. I appreciate having a violin that is constantly pushing me to try to achieve greater and greater levels of tonal purity, accuracy and intonation. I always try to take the attitude that if I'm playing on a great violin that's worth millions of dollars, it's probably better than I am. I want to do my best to try to keep up with the greatness of the instrument itself.
Laurie: Did you happen to read The Violin Maker? One of the conclusions I got from that book was this idea that Strads and modern instruments sound essentially the same to an audience, if fiddle players could only get over some kind of obsession or mental hang-up with Strads. But it really isn't the same experience for the player, at least it seems to me. Maybe the end product seems to sound the same to an audience, but there's some kind of give-and-take going on, there's something the Strad is giving the player that is different than another instrument.
James Ehnes: If an instrument can inspire you to be better, then that will make an enormous difference in terms of the actual experience.
I think that any sort of shoot-out – they're always interesting. But they're kind of foolish in a way.
Laurie: Comparing this and that, you mean?
James Ehnes: In theory, it's a great idea. But if you've got two different instruments, first of all, different players are going to sound different ways on different violins.
For myself, I try out a lot of violins. I love it. I love trying out old instruments, new instruments, ones that are fresh out of a workshop...I've played on really, really nice violins. Do I think that I've found a modern instrument that is as great as my Strad? No. Absolutely not. And that's not a knock on some of these great violins, and it's not a knock on players who feel differently or who have chosen to play their modern copy over their old Italian. Everyone is looking for different things.
If someone can show me the violin that is as good as my Strad, sign me up, I'll write the check, I'll be done with all this headache. I'll buy two!
Laurie: I wanted to ask you about developing your technique. You have a technique that is superior to most, and yet, I can see you hold the violin differently than some of the conventional ways that teachers might ask for. At what point do you ignore what teachers are asking for, and just do your own thing that's working?
James Ehnes: I was really lucky to have fantastic teachers who gave me a lot of freedom. I basically had two violin teachers, and they in fact were students together under (Ivan) Galamian. My teacher in Canada was a man named Francis Chaplin, at Brandon University. He died about 15 years ago. He was an amazing man, he's kind of legendary up in Canada. It's basically impossible to go to any major Canadian orchestra and not find lots of people who studied with him over the years. He was of the 'if it's not broken, don't fix it' kind of school. He could see what worked for me, and what didn't work for me. It wasn't like he just let me do my own thing and I was out on my own. I learned all my standard stuff from him. But I think that maybe some teachers get caught up in how it should be done, not taking into consideration that everybody's body is a little different.
I was with people who also made me aware of the importance of being aware of my body, and how things felt. If it hurt, then it was probably wrong. My dad was always a big believer in not wasting energy with needless tension. People sometimes say, 'You're so relaxed when you play..." I'm not exactly relaxed, I'm pretty focused, but there's not needless energy being used where it doesn't need to be used. I take pride in – hopefully – the economy of effort that I use when I play.
And then Sally Thomas – she was such an amazing teacher for me. Sometimes I look back on my years of studying with her, and it's almost like I was a wild horse or something...
Laurie: What do you mean?
James Ehnes: Sometimes you'll see these horse races on T.V., and they're all going as hard as they can, and there are fences on either side of them, but the fence is pretty wide. So I could get going off in some direction on something, and until I started getting really off track, Ms. Thomas generally would let me do my thing. She had a lot of confidence that I would figure certain things out on my own, and that the process of figuring them out was more important than her saying, "Now do it this way." Every student is different, but I did have this independent streak that both of them indulged, and both of them were careful not to mess with things that were working. There were a lot of people that I would play for and they'd say, "Oh, your thumb's all wrong, your bow grip's all wrong, this is all wrong, that's all wrong." It's funny, about 10 years ago, a violinist who had seen me play many years before told me, "Your bow grip, it's gotten so much better, who taught you? What happened?" I said, "Well, I got a better bow." The bow grip that works on a $150,000 Tourte isn't necessarily going to work on a $3,000 Nürnberger.
Laurie: It's an interesting line that a teacher has to walk, between allowing someone to experiment and develop their technique in accordance with their own body, and then also, reigning someone in. Do you teach?
James Ehnes: Not really private teaching, but I do a fair number of masterclasses. I find it interesting. I realize that a lot of things have come easier to me than they do to some people, but on the other hand, I think that I'm pretty analytical. Even if it's something that I can do, there's a part of me that always wants to know why, and how. It's just the way I am about things in general. I used to take my car apart. I'm really into seeing how stuff works.
Laurie: How do you stay focused in performance? Do you have advice for people who get jitters before performing?
James Ehnes: A major factor is just getting in the habit of doing it. People say to me, "You have such a weird life, you travel all over, and you play these concerts in front of all these people, it's so weird!" And I think, well, it's not weird to me, to me it's just totally normal. You have a weird life! You sit at a desk, and go to the same place every day...that so strange! The moral of the story: if it become normal to you, then it just feels more natural, for the mind and the body.
I think for some people, it's always more of a struggle than for others. It amazes me, certain great musicians out there, every concert is terrible for them. Obviously, these are bright people. If they had the answers they would fix it.
Giving oneself as much experience performing as possible is a good thing, and so is focused preparation.
Sometimes, when people learn a piece, they're very focused. They have to be, they're first getting it in the hands. Then when they are actually in the preparation-for-performance phase, they get into this sort of a trance-like run-through phase. They'll run it through, every day. I gotta run it through, gotta run it through...The mind starts to get a little bit on autopilot.
Then when you actually get to the performance, you think you're really prepared, but you're not prepared in that focused way. All of a sudden, you're at hypersensitivity in the mind at performance time. It's not that you start thinking too much, it's that you start thinking enough, but you haven't been doing enough thinking. And you start second-guessing yourself. I come across that a lot, people say, "I knew the piece so well, but when I got up on stage, I wasn't sure if it went here or if it went there, and I couldn't remember my fingerings or my bowings..." They're usually blaming it on their mind somehow blanking out, but I think that in a way they were blanking out on the preparation.
Laurie: It's the opposite from what everyone thinks.
James Ehnes: Exactly, when you actually had to think about what you were doing, you hadn't really thought about it in so long, that it seemed very far away.
Laurie: How do you do that in a practice room? How do you make the focus happen?
James Ehnes: I'm guessing we've all had this experience, where you're playing along, and you realize that you weren't really even listening.
James Ehnes: Just stop, start from where you last knew you had your focus, and really pay attention, really listen. People who practice well can get more done in an hour than people who practice poorly can get done in a lifetime. The focus during practice sessions is so important. Too many young people get caught up in "time," logging the hours.
If people can have a particular goal in mind, and if reaching that goal can take on more importance than just logging the hours, then I think real progress can start to happen. Of course, you want to make sure that the student is spending enough time to build up stamina, and build up that level of concentration. But when you are dealing with advanced students, if they're saying, "Now I'm 16, now I'm getting serious about getting into the conservatory so now I need to practice X number of hours a day..." Well, maybe you should think of it in terms of, "I want to learn this piece and the piece, by this time," that might be a more valuable way of looking at it.
Laurie: I did notice in all your bios that you are married, and I wanted to ask, how do you maintain a personal life, when being a soloist is so demanding?
James Ehnes: That almost gets into the question, can you divorce an artist from his art? Maybe with some people you can, but for a lot of people you can't. I know that my music-making is best when I'm happy. As much a music has always meant to me, I've refused to ever let it take away from other things that were really important to me. Which meant that from a young age I really had to prioritize. There are certain things that are worth it in your life, that you don't want to miss out on. And there are a lot of other things that are just not that worth it. It's sort of like people who watch T.V. There might be a couple of shows that you really like and you don't want to miss. But a lot of people will watch hours and hours of stuff that they're not even really paying attention to. I think that's the way, unfortunately, that a lot of people go about living their lives.
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