May 2009

2009 Starling-Delay, day four: More pictures from New York

May 29, 2009 22:30

What a wonderful day at the Juilliard Symposium!

We heard University of Texas professor Robert Duke lecture on the nature of the brain and the messiness of learning. We played the first movement of the Barber Concerto, with the charismatic and music-loving violinist and pedagogue Brian Lewis narrating. And we saw an entire masterclass devoted to orchestral excerpts, given by David Kim, with the young artists at the symposium.

And you will hear all about it in the coming week, as I post the articles. Meanwhile, I give you a few more pictures of the symposium, and of New York.

What's more fun than talking shop with other violin teachers, students and performers from around the country? Here are a few of us at the cafeteria at Juilliard:

V.commie Ian Salmon of Ithaca, New York, Laurie and Atticus Mulkey of Rogers, Ark.

I'm attending the symposium with a fellow teacher from Suzuki Talent Education of Pasadena, Lauren Deutsch. We had a few dance students take an artsy picture of us, outside Alice Tully Hall:

I discovered that one of my suite-mates, Stephanie Sims Flack, of Alexandria, Virginia, took violin lessons from Henryk Kowalski at Indiana University at the same time as I did, but we also sat in the same arts journalism class there. Small world! Here we are, also by Alice Tully Hall.

This young artist, MariƩ Rossano of Bellevue, Washington, has been wowing us all week, with Shostakovich, Korngold, Waxman Carmen Fantasie, wow!

This evening violinist Chee-Yun Kim gave a recital with the Kreutzer Sonata, the Bach Chaconne, Messiaen, and Saint-Saens. What a pleasure to hear her play, and tomorrow we will see her teach a masterclass!

When the day was over, I needed New York cheesecake. And, pickles! And don't shoot me for being a tourist, I went to the Carnegie Deli.

And while we were so close, we had to walk over to Times Square and at least snap a picture, so here I am, with Keenan Fletcher of Marble Falls, Texas, Lucas Carter of Lubbock, Texas and Lauren Deutsch of Pasadena, Calif.

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2009 Starling-Delay, day three: Pictures from New York

May 28, 2009 22:41

NEW YORK - In between classes at the Juilliard Symposium, I am having quite a lot of fun while I'm here in New York, so I thought I'd share a few pictures:

I did take some suggestions from the wonderful list you guys made me, specifically, I went with my friend Lauren Deutsch to the Applewood Grille (thanks, Eric John-Félix Livingston!)

I needed some scores, specifically the Barber Concerto and another Bach Sonatas and Partitas (why not get the Szeryng edition while it's right in front of me?) so I went to Frank Music, where I met proprieter Heidi Rogers, who wrapped up my music in a beautiful blue envelope with a little tie on it.

(Here she is helping violinist Hermes Alvarenga, a symposium participant from Brazil)

And, at Frank Music they have fresh eggs!

It's been a little rainy, but here is how The Juilliard School is looking this week in May:

And here is the view from the new Kaufman Dance Studio, where our classes about Bach and Biber were held with Monica Huggett (and you will read more about that soon!)

Tonight was a special treat, I had dinner with Caeli Smith and Karen Rile, finally meeting them in person after our longtime friendship! And for dessert we were joined by another V.commie, Colleen Russo. What a great evening!

Good night from New York!

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2009 Starling-Delay, day three: Don Greene on practicing for performance stress

May 28, 2009 22:05

NEW YORK - Yesterday, violinists learned techniques for dealing with performance anxiety from psychologist Don Greene, and today, we learned how to practice stressing out (not too much of a stretch for me) and then how to deal with it.

"You and your students know how to practice practice," said Greene, but "to play your best when it really counts, you have to practice performing."

That means simulating how you'll feel before performing, and then "centering" and playing.

"Centering is not meant to be done under relaxed circumstances, it's meant to be done under extreme stress," Greene said. To create that feeling, he had a volunteer go out of the room, run up two flights of stairs and back, come in the room, and immediately start playing a high-energy piece. While the volunteer was out of the room, Greene said that no one plays well the first time they try this; it's extremely hard to play with your heart pumping, lungs panting, sweat glands going, etc. Indeed, the volunteer was able to play, but he said that it was very difficult.

In this condition, one needs to know how to "center."

"You have to earn this word, and it takes 50 times "centering" before you can use it effectively," Green said. "After you learn to do it, you can do it in less than five seconds." That means that when you have to act under pressure, and you have only five seconds to formulate your action, you can slip in the word "center," and it will call up an entire coping mechanism for you.

Greene he had the audience try it: he told everyone to get their heart rate up by either standing against the wall, running steps or doing something physical. Then participants were to "center" themselves using the seven steps he described yesterday: pick a focal point, form a clear intention, breathe mindfully, scan and release tension, find your center, repeat a process cue and direct your energy.

What an experiment! Here's how to do it, with symposium participant and violinist Keenan Fletcher of Marble Falls, Texas, kindly demonstrating:

Greene said that it takes at least seven times doing this kind of practice before a student begins to improve.

The other factor that performers have to plan for is adversity. "Things happen in auditions – cell phones go off, all kinds of distractions can occur," Greene said. In his classes at Juilliard and with the New World Symphony, Greene devised a final exam meant to train for adversity: an audition, filled with surprise distractions. Here's how he described it:

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2009 Starling-Delay, day three: Masterclass with Itzhak Perlman

May 28, 2009 21:52

NEW YORK - Superstar violinist Itzhak Perlman had some fun with six of his violin students and answered questions Thursday at the 2009 Starling DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School.

Perlman, with characteristic humor, admitted he was slightly resistant of the masterclass format. "I find that I'd rather listen to someone privately, then we can really work," Perlman said. "Only a small part of it is actually beneficial to the victim – I mean the student."

So instead, Perlman promised a "Musical Buffet Picnic."

Itzhak Perlman
Itzhak Perlman, with students Michelle Ross, IhnSeon Park, Ania Filochowska, Seung Jung Oh, Aretta Zhulla, Nicole Leon
©Photo: Nan Melville / The Juilliard School

"Not every person likes the same thing on their hamburger – or on their Tchaikovsky Concerto," he said. "This is not about what is right, or 'fixing it,' this is about having choices."

"We have so much control of what we do when we play, sometimes I think we don't exercise enough of it," Perlman said. "You have a palette of colors and there's 12 of them, you only use two."

Perlman's students sat in chairs on the stage, and he engaged them, as well as the current "victim" and the audience, in coming up with different ways to spice up the various pieces they played.

First on the menu was Kreisler's Leibesleid, played by Ania Filochowska. After she played, Perlman asked for suggestions about other ways she could try playing it. Audience members shouted out suggestions: Elegant. Intense. Extremely romantic. They decided on "intense," speeding up the vibrato and bow.

"If you are lucky enough to play a piece more than one time, try something to make it more spontaneous," Perlman said. Next, she tried playing it "very romantic."

"I want cheesecake. With whipped cream!" Perlman said. She added slides and much vibrato. "That's what I want," he nodded his head affirmatively, pretending to eat cheesecake.

IhnSeon Park played part of the first movement of the C minor Beethoven Sonata with nice precision and intensity, good articulation and contrast. Afterwards he gave her a choice of trying it elegant, non-chalant or organic. They went for "elegant," with narrowing the vibrato and going for clean strokes at the tip.

Nicole Leon was given the challenge of making the first movement of the Beethoven Violin Concerto sound "old and tired."

"Well, I guess I should play it!" joked Perlman. "I'm not sure I like that flavor, but let's try it."

She tried a wide vibrato, slower tempo and heavy bow. Then, Perlman asked her to try it "angry," and pianist Evan Solomon, who accompanied for the masterclass, gave her a slightly stompy introduction to set the mood. She tried shorter strokes, rougher bow, fast attacks. Was it angry? In a way, it doesn't matter, the point is that "every time Nicole does something different with the bow, the character changes." Developing that diversity of options is what is important.

Perlman decided that student Seung Jung Oh should try playing the Brahms D minor Sonata, first movement, "expansive – like Brahms," he said, holding his hands out, as though encircling a large belly. "You know, they say that he wrote everything in the soprano and the bass," he said, pretending to play the extreme ends of an imaginary keyboard, "because his stomach was in the way!"

For expansive, don't rush, enjoy it. "Think of Misha Elman, his vibrato was 10 miles an hour," Perlman said.

When Aretta Zhulla was aiming for an "intense" Brahms Violin Concerto, Perlman said, "Forget it's Brahms, just think it's one of those storms. Vibrato every note, until everyone in here gets kind of uncomfortable. Just as an experiment. The deal is not to become a prisoner of a certain interpretation, that's what we try to avoid."

When Perlman had worked with each student, he opened the floor for questions from the symposium participants.

One person asked him to recount his favorite story about Josef Gingold, who had been his first chamber music teacher. He described how Gingold said he learned up-bow staccato from Ysaye; imitating in Gingold's accent, "Ysaye told me to put the bow on the string, then he said 'GO!' and I was so frightened I never lost it."

He also described the different between studying with Ivan Galamian and Dorothy DeLay.

With Galamian, "he told you what to do, and if you did it, you were fine," Perlman said. With Dorothy DeLay, "she wanted to involve me in the process – and I really hated it! Just tell me what to do, and I'll do it!" But in the end, DeLay's way worked well for him. "That's how I teach."

But there are limits. Even with intonation, DeLay wouldn't commit to a viewpoint, "she'd say, 'Sugar Plum, what is your concept of G sharp?" Perlman said. "With intonation, I'm still in the Galamian camp, it's either in tune or out of tune."

Another person asked about warming up before playing, and though he didn't have a specific warm-up regimen to recommend, "the important thing to me is, don't play with pain," he said. "If you have pain, something is too intense. Watch the shoulders, they have a weird way of rising. Some people say, no pain, no gain. With us, it's no pain, gain."

And what is his favorite piece of violin music? "The one I'm playing at the moment – I don't play anything I don't like."

When it comes to students, he said that it's more important to choose repertoire that fits their level of playing than to have them playing something showy. "The ability of the student to play it really well is more important than saying, 'I played the Brahms or Sibelius concerto,'" he said.

On performance nerves: "You will get nervous," Perlman said. "Nerves come on sometimes without any notice. The important thing is to know your enemy, know what happens to you. The more you play under tension, the better."

He also said that a serious violinist should have most of the major violin concertos in hand by the age of 19; for example, the Mozart, Mendelssohn, Wieniawski, Lalo, Bruch, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and Brahms. "If someone asks you to do something, it should not take a year of study to do it." It's important, in studying these works, to "decide on bowings and fingerings, and not change them."

"When a student starts a piece, please make sure they do all the movements," he said. "Don't let it go."

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2009 Starling-Delay, day two: Masterclass by Joel Smirnoff

May 27, 2009 22:00

NEW YORK - Today we bring you, from the 2009 Starling-Delay Symposium on Violin Studies at Juilliard, a masterclass by Joel Smirnoff, President of the Cleveland Institute of Music and longtime first violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet.

Smirnoff watched each student from the audience, then sat onstage to work with them, offering performance advice as well as his thoughts and experiences about the pieces at hand.

First on the program was 16-year-old Marie-Christine Klettner, who wowed us yesterday with the first movement of the Paganini concerto. Today she played the first movement of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 4. And, she wowed us again: her Mozart was clean, clear, stylistic, and on top of that, interesting.

"You have a wonderful voice on the violin," Smirnoff told her. Mozart was a true child of the enlightenment, he said, and Mozart's music came at a time of great change and new thought.

Smirnoff worked with her on the beginning of the piece, with its little descending pattern, which is simple the first time and then in 16th notes the second time, a little variation.

"You have to approach it like you came up with that (variation), and you are excited about it," he said. Sometimes it's best simply to surprise the audience. "You don't want to constantly prepare the listener for what's happening next."

Smirnoff also discussed trills, which are "the equivalent of a pirouette in dance," he said, like a spin. "Trills are energizers."

When Su Hyan Park, 17, of the Juilliard Pre-College Division played several movements from Bach's D minor Partita, Smirnoff recalled an instance when he'd been nervous about playing Bach, and a colleague assured him, "You have no reason to be nervous; no one will like it anyway!" Sad but true: for violinists, the Bach Sonatas and Partitas are some of our most beloved works, close to our hearts. Some would say straight from God. Yet we never trust each other – or ourselves – to do them justice!

Still, we love to play them and hear them. In working with Su Hyan on the Sarabanda, Smirnoff pointed out that this movement has the germ of the great Chaconne in it – the Chaconne being the last movement in the D minor Partita and perhaps the most sacred of all Bach for us fiddlers.

He suggested that she watch out for the unconscious use of portamento in the Sarabanda. "Portamento should be a clear decision, but it should not be a habit," he said. Learning to play a pure legato allows for a slightly more passive stroke, so that the music appears to be happening to the performer. This is appropriate for this particular piece.

"These pieces are spiritual pieces," Smirnoff said. "The Chaconne should sound as though the Chaconne is happening to the player, not as though the player is giving you the Chaconne." When the music is happening to the performer, it's more moving for the audience.

He also talked about playing the Sarabanda a little less smooth and connected. "It's important, even in Bach, that there are breaths," Smirnoff said. "Try this: look at a piece of music, and find out: how long can you sing it without a breath?" At that point, put in a breath, just like a singer would.

Singing also informs us how to play the Giga, with its running notes. When they go high, we get louder, when they go low, we get softer. Why? Because in singing, one must push harder to sing high.

Marie Rossano, 15, played a most amazing cadenza and last movement from the Shostakovich Violin Concerto. She had poise, pacing, gnarly chords, speed, accuracy. I really enjoyed it. Smirnoff advised her to refer to David Oistrakh's recording of the piece as a guide, since the music was written by the great Soviet composer for the great Soviet violinist.

Stephen Kim, 13, of San Francisco played most of the first movement of the Tchaikovsky concerto in a lovely lyrical way, and Smirnoff gave him advise for his fast passages: "You want it to sound fast to the audience, but not feel fast to you," he said. "The notes were so fast, I couldn't here them. We want to hear it all. Make sure you are thinking about what the audience can actually hear."

Though Kim's intonation was quite good, Smirnoff also said that in an audition or competition, when it's down to the final few contestants, intonation is the deciding factor. "At the world-class level, the person who plays the most in tune will win," he said. "At the very end of a competition, it's back to basics."

I think my favorite point that Smirnoff made came with the next performance, after a thoughtful and well-executed performance of Bach's Allemanda, Double and Corrente, Double, by Stefani Collins of Greensboro, North Carolina.

How exactly should one play those "doubles"?

"It's as though Bach is reflecting on what he just wrote," Smirnoff said of the Double for the Allemanda. The Double can be more contemplative – so less is more. "Make the mountains a little lower." In the Double, it's no longer a dance, no longer an Allemande, but now a reflection of what was just played. As such, "you can play freer, but with this quality: sometimes you dwell on it, and sometimes you throw it away." Collins took this idea and transformed the Double.

Byol Kang of Germany played a beautiful, expressive last movement of the Brahms A major Sonata, and my favorite comment from Smirnoff about Brahms was that "I really kind of disapprove of Brahms and his philosophical pessimism – he poses problems and never solves them," Smirnoff said. For example, in the middle of the second page, the music builds in tension and turbulence, then Brahms just shakes it off with a cute little triplet figure toward the bottom of the page, no further explanation or exploration. He does similarly frustrating things at the end of the D minor Violin Sonata, the Clarinet quintet and the Fourth Symphony. "He asks these very portentous questions then just says, ehh," he said, flipping his hand.

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2009 Starling-Delay, day two: Don't lose your adrenaline, use it! Don Greene on performance psychology

May 27, 2009 19:56

NEW YORK - Performance psychologist Don Greene never tells a musician to calm down or relax before a performance.

"You aren't supposed to be relaxed or calm," said Greene, who wrote Performance Success and also taught performance psychology at The Juilliard School. "You should be feeling energy. Adrenaline is very powerful. You can deal with it two ways: you can hope it goes away and deny it, or you can use it to do even better than you did in the practice room."

Greene started as a sports psychologist. "This is my instrument," he said, holding up a golf club. "Just like with musicians, you have to move at the right tempo."

Greene is a former champion diver, West Point graduate, Army Ranger and Green Beret, and yet for him, public speaking "terrified me. It was the biggest fear of my life."

He conquered that fear, and he also developed a method to help people who perform under extreme stress – from police SWAT officers to musicians – to conquer their own. He calls his method "Centering," and on Wednesday at the 2009 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies, he began to teach us how it works. Greene shared the lecture podium with Noa Kageyama, a violinist who become interested in performance psychology when he took Greene's class at Juilliard.

First one must understand the origins of stress, and kinds of stress: extreme stress comes from extreme situations, like having a loaded gun pointed at you or facing town a mountain lion. Physical stress gives us our fight or flight response, "Run like hell, or stay and fight," Greene said. But that can be and should be channeled for good.

"I would no more have a musician use beta blockers than I would have one of my athletes take three shots of vodka before a race," Greene said.

Violinists very often face performance stress, when "all the pressure is on that first note, everything is leading up to that moment," Greene said. Physicals signs of that stress can manifest as a shaky bow, forgetfulness, tension, wild vibrato, erratic shifting, inability to focus and cold hands.

That stress can creep into the mind. "People get very self-critical and start screaming at themselves," Greene said. While at Juilliard, Greene had students write down their thoughts before a performance - how they talked to themselves in their minds. He found the lists that students came up with to be rather alarming. "They would never say to a friend what they say to themselves, or they'd never have friends. I called it the 'Juilliard Syndrome.'"

Basically, the left brain – which is responsible for words, numbers, analysis and criticism – goes haywire under performance stress. "Instead of just one voice, there's a whole committee meeting going on." And the committee is not being kind.

One's limbic system, or the reptilian brain – which processes emotion at a caveman-type level - kicks in with a fearful response as well.

"No matter how intelligent we may be, if we respond to the emotional brain, we do irrational things," Greene said. Though it may have helped the caveman fight a bear or flee from danger, it can be a problem when applied to modern situations. "It saved our ancestors' lives, but it can destroy ours."

The key is to override the lymbic system and get to the rational brain; and to get from the analytical left brain and into the more touchy-feely right brain.

"There's a time to be analytical and in the left brain, but when you perform, you definitely want to start in the right brain," Greene said. "Under stress, people get slammed into their left brain."

Here are Greene's steps for "Centering":

1. Identify a focal point, a fixed point in the distance that is below eye level. Why below eye level? Try doing the problem 23x16 in your head. What do your eyes do? They go up, and that's because you just jumped into your left brain. Don't tempt the left brain!

2. Form a clear intention. What are you going to do in your performance? Think of this in a pro-active, positive way.

3. Breathe mindfully. My yoga instructor would call this "belly breathing," but it's the kind of breathing you do when you are sleeping or very calm. "That will help jump start the calming effect," said Kageyama. "Focus on getting the belly button to move as far away from your spine as possible."

4. Release tension. Are your muscles tense? You may not even be aware that they are. Here is one exercise Kageyama showed us for relaxing muscles and becoming aware of them:

5. Find your center. This one isn't very easy, but try circling your hips, as if you were spinning a hoola hoop, and make the circle smaller and smaller, until it feels like it's inside you. Then drop that point a little lower, and that is your center, or our "chi." "It's almost like you have a little center of gravity, core of the earth, inside of you, grounding you," Kageyama said. This can also mean finding a stable playing position:

6. Think of a process cue -- an image, sound or sensation that will activate the right brain and help you imagine your performance.

7. Direct your energy. "Feel it being sucked into your center, into your chi, and blasting it out through your focus point," Kageyama said. "You don't aim at the last row, you aim past it. Pull it up into you and use it!"

More on this tomorrow!

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2009 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at Juilliard: Paul Kantor Masterclass

May 26, 2009 23:12

NEW YORK - The 2009 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies began Tuesday in New York at the Juilliard School, with Paul Kantor teaching a three-hour masterclass, Joan Kwuon and Joel Smirnoff in recital, and a fun surprise at the end of the day!

Appropriately, Juilliard President Joseph Polisi's opening words to the 200 participants at symposium were about Dorothy DeLay, one of Juilliard's greatest violin teachers and the inspiration for the five-day event.

"Dorothy was an exceedingly complex individual," Polisi said. "In some ways, she was maternal and benign, and in other ways, she was a crouching tiger, ready to pounce. To say teaching was her life is an understatement. She was passionate about preparing a next generation of teachers."

Cleveland Institute of Music Violin Professor Paul Kantor also spoke to Dorothy DeLay's passion for teaching, which is inextricably tied to learning:

Over the next five days, participants in the symposium will listen to lectures, masterclasses and recitals.

Kantor set the tone by giving each student in his masterclass his full focus, engaging each student in a discussion about ideas, then exploring ways to try them.

His first student, Marie Rossano, 15, originally from Osaka, Japan played the first movement of the Concerto in D Major by Korngold.

"From Vienna to Hollywood, that tells you a good amount about Korngold," Kantor said. "He was an enormous success in Hollywood."

The piece begins with a rather gentle entrance, and Kantor encouraged her to have a greater presence, not to just slip in.

"It's the sort of thing that is so different in the concert hall than it is in the practice room," he said. He also said to give the pianist (in this case, and through much of the masterclass, Pamela Viktoria Pyle) a breath, and not to think of it as a "cue."

"You will be astonished at how much the people you play with are in tune with your breath," Kantor said.

The Korngold includes all kinds of instructions in the music: squiggles, straight lines..."the number of instructions is prodigious," Kantor said. Nonetheless, it's important to think about when to slide between notes – and when not to do so.

"You could almost slide between every note in this piece," Kantor said. "When you slide, you are telling the audience that this is a note of emotional or musical importance." He suggested having a hierarchy of slides, with the more important places getting more slide, and super-important places getting an A+ slide. "A slide is great fun, but if you use it all the time, the audience will become immune to it."

Angela Wee, 12, of New York, played the E major Preludio from Bach's Partita No. 3, after which Kantor said, "when the playing is so good, the teaching is difficult!" He asked her about her experience with Bach, and after she explained that this was her first time studying solo Bach, he explained the solo Sonatas and Partitas in the following way, which I enjoyed quite a lot:

The Sonatas are fairly predictable; they all have four movements, all with a lengthy and difficult fugue. The Partitas, however, are longer. "The 'Partita' is a collection of dance music," Kantor said. "These partitas by Bach all have a particular weirdness about them."

For example, the movements of the B minor Partita all have "Doubles," imitation movements for each dance. The D minor Partita has a big, long Chaconne at the end. And the E major Partita is almost normal, except for the fact that the "Preludio," the piece Angela had just played, is actually not a dance. It's just an introduction; and that being the case, it shouldn't really be the longest piece in the collection.

"So which notes should you cut out?" he asked with a smile. The obvious answer was "none," so the only way to shorten it is to play it faster.

Angela tried it, but in reality she didn't play altogether very much faster.

"A good idea will survive exaggeration," Kantor explained. "A bad idea will not; it will seem ridiculous." Would this survive, perhaps, going really really super fast?

Angela tried it much faster.

"You didn't even break a sweat!" Kantor said when she finished. "And all the things you were trying for – dynamics, shape, line – all that seemed clearer to me, at the faster tempo."

Next, Meredith Riley, a student at the University of Texas in Austin, played the "Allegro non troppo" from Viextemps Concerto No. 5. Afterwards Kantor asked her what she wished had gone different, and she said that she wished that the things that went well in the practice room would go as consistently well in performance.

"Once someone asked me what I wanted for Christmas," Kantor said, "and I told them: frets! It's the bane of our existence that we have this black expanse of fingerboard," with no guidance. But our good days and bad days do not just happen by random chance. The good things in our playing happen for a reason, and the bad things happen for a reason.

"There are things we can do – simple, easy, tangible things – to increase the chance we are in control," Kantor said. Here are some of the things he suggested: Keeping the four fingers in a rational tetrachord. That means having a hand position to work from. Another: ask yourself, if you play out of tune: why? Possible reasons include: a fingering that doesn't work for your hand, thinking about too many notes when playing a chord ("For me two is too many, have one base note," he said.), and not giving yourself enough time to complete a shift.

"The practice room should not be the torture chamber of repetition, it should be the laboratory of discovery," he said.

And another thing you can do to increase your control is to analyze, when something works, why did it work?

Turkish violinist Aysen Ulucan played Brahms Sonata in A major with pianist Evan Solomon, and Kantor immediately took note that she played it without the music, a no-no. Why is it important that such sonatas be played with the music there on the stand?

"Every time your pianist plays from memory, then you can play from memory," he said, pointing out that the sonata is written for piano and violin equally. "At least put a menu from a Chinese restaurant on the stand – it's a symbolic thing. It says you respect the piano part and your respect its role."

He also made a good point about playing marcato: bow hair can physically be made to be flat, even when the bow is tipped, but it is stronger when the stick is straight over the hair. He describes that here:

Byol Kang of Germany played Wieniawski's "Polonaise," and Kantor said of her playing, "It's not only excellent playing, but I love the relationship you have with the audience." Throughout the masterclass Kantor generously praised things that went well.

From Byol, he wanted more intention in her articulations.

"When we talk about someone having 'personality' in their playing, a lot of that has to do with articulation, and the judicious use of noise," he said. He wanted to know which notes she intended to bring out and what her musical intentions were.

"If I'm guessing, you're not doing your job," he said. "You have to convince me."

The last student of the day was Marie-Christine Klettner, 16, who wowed everyone with an extremely fluid, easy, can I say it? flawless! performance of the first movement of the Paganini Concerto No. 1.

"Once you're playing 100 percent of the right notes and 100 percent of the right rhythms, that's finite, you can't improve on that," Kantor said." "For the remaining 98 years of your life, there has to be something else to work toward.

Kantor pointed out that Paganini wrote this concerto for himself, as a vehicle to show the world his technical wizardry and his artistry. He encouraged Marie-Christine to use Paganini's concerto in the same way for herself.

"It's not the sort of thing I would ask you to do if you were playing a Beethoven string quartet," Kantor said. "You need to use this to show off your technique, your artistry. You could go wild, you could add things that aren't even in the score. I have a feeling that Paganini would approve. I think you could get very improvisatory with this, and every time you played it, you could have a party with this."

She tried it, with great results. He just gave her permission, and it was all she needed.

Kantor with the students
Left to right: Marie-Christine Klettner, Meredith Riley, Brian Lewis, Paul Kantor and Marie Rossano

Later in the evening was a recital featuring violinists Joan Kwuon and Joel Smirnoff, who played works by Telemann, Mozart, Enesco, Prokofiev and Moszkowski.

After the recital, I was rather astonished to discover that the great Tony Bennett had been sitting behind me the entire time. And I was even more surprised when he walked up on stage with pianist Lee Musiker and sang for us, performing "Sophisticated Lady," with Kwuon and Smirnoff accompanying on violin.

Good night from New York!

11 replies | Archive link interview with Emerson String Quartet violinist Philip Setzer

May 22, 2009 12:42

The Emerson String Quartet has played together for 30 years, as of this month. How do four people function together so well, for so long?

Philip SetzerAbout a week before I spoke with Emerson String Quartet violinist Philip Setzer, I heard the quartet give a recital, at the ACE Gallery in Beverly Hills. They couldn't have given me a better overview of their range, with a program that included Mozart's String Quartet No. 22 in Bb major (K. 589); Beethoven Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, Op. 95; Webern's "Bagatelles," Op. 9; and Ravel's String Quartet in F.

Violinists Setzer and Eugene Drucker and violist Lawrence Dutton stood to play, while cellist David Finckel sat on a pedestal, as has been their standard practice since 2002. Somehow it seems right that time would raise these guys to their feet rather than making them sit back.

I enjoyed the well-oiled machine that is the Emerson. They made it look easy: all you need is perfectly well-calibrated pitch, time and volume control, and you'll have a fantastic quartet. As they played the buoyant third movement of the Mozart, I noticed what nice timing they had, "like a clock with a million motors, all going exactly right," I wrote. During the Beethoven I found myself wishing to have two such friendly-looking, attentive and competent partners in the lower strings, "The violist looks like he's having so much fun...I may kidnap him," I observed.

I turned my attention to Setzer and Drucker, who trade off playing first and second violin. Aw, come on, one of them has to be the hot dog here! I looked for signs of jealousy, dominance, dissatisfaction...I gave up. Each seemed perfectly happy sitting first or second. I let my eyes relax. Maybe they both secretly covet the second violin part. Hah! And maybe I'm having a second violinist's fantasy.

Back to the concert, the Webern was a modern collage of effects, a pizzicato here, glissando there, a tremolo sul ponticello; to me it sounded like mice scrambling around, knocking things off tables, disappearing into holes. Not completely my cup of tea, but Ravel, I love, as do many. As they played the Ravel I sensed a collective Beverly Hills kind of vibe: "Wow, this music would be awesome in my new documentary." As a musician, I was impressed with the way they could drive in five during the last movement – what a ride!

Setzer spoke to me in April, from his cell phone, as he drove to SUNY Stony Brook, where he teaches violin. We talked about the Emerson's new CD of works by Czech composers, and about what kinds of things help foster a long and fruitful professional relationship between four people.

Laurie: Tell me a little be about the Emerson's new CD, Intimate Letters. I understand the quartet has been championing these works by Janácek and Martinu for some time; how long have you been playing them?

Philip: We actually played the second (Janácek) quartet first, quite early in our career, so we've been playing that piece for at least 25 years. The first quartet, we learned a few years after that, so that's a newer piece for us – we've been playing it for 20 years! We don't play them every season, but I would say every other season we would probably program one of them.

Laurie: If you played these pieces so early on, you must have been drawn to them early on. What makes these quartets such interesting pieces?

Philip: His language is so unique; I don't know any other composer that you could really compare Janácek to. There are elements of Czech folk music, tunes that sound like something Dvorák or Smetana might have written. But his sense of color and sound, and the way that he uses music to express his passion...It's not that other composers don't do that, but they don't do it in the way that Janácek does. The other thing that's interesting about Janácek is that he was fascinated with speech, the spoken word – the rhythms of it, the pitch of it. I think he was especially curious about the way that the rhythm and pitch of speech changes when you add emotion: when you're speaking softly, or endearingly, or angrily, or passionately. He studied these things throughout his life and imitated that with his music.

When you turn the radio on, when you hear a few seconds, you can tell that it's Janácek; it's very distinctive.

Laurie: I read the liner notes, about "The Kreutzer Sonata," but when I was actually listening to the second quartet, my daughter, who is 11, was listening to it with me. She was making up a narrative to it that obviously had nothing to do with "The Kreutzer Sonata." She was imagining a clown, who was dancing, but someone stepped on his toes, then he couldn't dance any more, then he was was funny to me.

Philip: It's so full of color, it does tease the imagination, for sure. I grew up in Cleveland, my parents played in the Cleveland Orchestra. (Conductor George) Szell didn't do a lot of 20th century music, but one of the pieces he really loved was the Sinfonietta of Janácek. I don't know if you've ever heard it live, but whatever recordings you've heard of it will never do it justice. It has something like nine trumpets in it, and a huge brass section. The prelude music and the way that it ends, sonically, is just overwhelming. It's very primitive, when you're thinking about the melody lines, they're very simple, but then he adds a lot of this color to it, and the way that it's orchestrated, it's extremely moving. It's very emotional music.

Laurie: I was thinking about the concert the Emerson gave in Los Angeles at the ACE Gallery – the Mozart was just so elegant, and then the Beethoven was stormy – it was almost as if you could characterize each composer in one word. I thought, what would be the one word for Janácek, if all of a sudden you switched gears and started playing Janácek? Maybe the word is something like "all over the place;" his music is very mercurial.

Philip: There's something kind of raw about it. You feel like the nerve endings are all exposed. That's what makes it so powerful, even if you don't know exactly what each line means. "The Kreutzer Sonata," the first quartet, does follow the story of The Kreutzer Sonata pretty accurately. The music toward the end, where it just gets faster and faster and wilder and wilder, is related: he's chasing her, and then he kills her. It's a murder scene. You have songs without words, but these are operas without words.

Laurie: To be honest, I liked the Martinu "Three Madrigals" for violin and viola, the other piece on the new CD, an awful lot. I hadn't heard those before.

Philip: It's fun, isn't it? My wife, who is a big music fan, is not a huge fan of Janácek, but she really likes the Martinu pieces. They're beautiful, too, the slow movements are beautiful. You don't hear violin-viola duos all that often, but I think the "Madrigals" are some of Martinu's strongest, his most consistently excellent pieces, from beginning to end.

Laurie: I especially liked the middle movement, where the violin and viola just circle around each other. This piece was written for Lillian and Joseph Fuchs, wasn't it?

Philip: Yes, (ESQ violist Lawrence Dutton) studied with Lillian Fuchs at one point, and (siblings Joseph and Lillian Fuchs) premiered the piece... A little side story: I remember when I was at Aspen, as a student when I was young, I was supposed to meet someone at the music tent, I think we were going to have a rehearsal. I didn't see them, and I sort of walked around. As I was walking past one of the openings in the tent on the side, I heard this yelling going on inside. I thought, what's going on? So I peeked in, and on the stage there were Joe and Lillian Fuchs – I think they were actually performing the "Madrigals" that night on a concert, and they were rehearsing. They were standing, facing each other, nose to nose, and both of them were screaming! (He laughs). They were both about five feet tall, they were like these two little snarly dogs, yelling at each other, it was very funny. I'd be willing to bet you that she ended up winning the argument, too! She was a tough lady.

I can tell you that the Madrigals are very difficult, but Larry and I actually never yelled at each other while we rehearsed.

Laurie: You two play very much in sync in the Martinu piece; do you actually trill exactly together? Is that something you practice?

Philip: For the most part, yes. You're really playing the same rhythms together a lot of the time; you have to follow the same direction or the same way, or it just doesn't match.

Laurie: I get the feeling you've been together so long, you can match the oscillation of your vibratos, the speed of your trills.

Philip: Some of that does happen naturally after enough years. You don't sit there and say, 'Okay now we're going to vibrate together, ready, set, go...' I think it's something you just hear, and you're used to adjusting. It's tricky sometimes. If you are playing down in the lower range of the viola, you would tend to make the vibrato a little bit wider, and a little slower. Many times in Martinu, and more modern kinds of music, where you will play together, the violin will be way up high and the viola, or cello, will be low. You can have a very wide range between the instruments. If you want to be matching vibrato, you have to be careful, as the violinist, that you're not vibrating too fast, and the cello or viola is not vibrating too slow or too wide. There is adjustment that has to be made.

Then there are other places where it sounds fine not to match; in fact, it sounds more interesting sometimes if the person not playing the tune is more relaxed with the vibrato, and then you add the color with the other instruments. Sometimes we do different takes different ways, and then we decide later which sounds better.

Laurie: Aren't there a number of places in the Ravel (String Quartet in F) where the voices were two octaves away, in unison.

Philip: That's a good example. The second theme in the first movement of the Ravel is between viola and violin, and they have to be able to shimmer together so you have to want to match vibrato there.

Laurie: Something I didn't realize until I went to your concert in April, was that you all stand to play, and that (cellist David Finckel) sits on a pedestal. What brought you to the decision to perform this way?

Philip: We've been doing it for seven years now, so it feels quite natural for us. What I wonder now is why we didn't do it before! All those years of battling uncomfortable chairs...We're all pretty tall, and there were never enough piano benches to go around. I used to carry a heavy pillow, a thick, dense pillow that I would put on chairs because I was always uncomfortable unless I was at the back of the chair, which you can't do, it's not good to play sitting back like that. Then if the chair was too low, the bow would hit my knee, so I'd put my leg back and under the chair – there were a lot of reasons why it wasn't good to do that.

So for our 25th anniversary we were playing six Haydn quartets and we decided to try standing up for that. It's so much easier for the first violin part.

The other thing that happened around that time, around 2000, was that we collaborated on a theatre piece called The Noise of Time, about Shostakovich. In that, we moved around. We played standing up and we played by memory the 15th Shostakovich quartet. Our movements were kind of choreographed. That was so liberating – very challenging, but very liberating.

When we got back together after that, we played in Wigmore Hall in London. After we had done this theatre piece in New York, it felt so strange to be sitting there, in this clump in the middle of the stage. It felt very unnatural.

So we tried this Haydn program, and not only was it more natural and more comfortable, but we found that it really sounded better! When you're standing, you're not getting so much of the early deflection of the sound off the floor. It was much clearer; you could really hear everybody's sound. There was more color in the sound, and there were more overtones. It was less confusing, and the basic sound of the group was just more vibrant.

It's just natural for us to do it that way, and so after a few minutes it becomes natural for the observer as well.

Laurie: I enjoyed the way everybody interacted – there is more range of motion when you're standing, at least there can be.

Philip: I think the audience can see better, and they can see your body language better. If you watched a play for two hours, and the actors all just sat there in the same spot, it would be a little boring after a while. Even if what they were doing with their voice was wonderful, you'd want them to get up and move around a little bit!

Laurie: You and Eugene Drucker, the violinists in the Emerson, switch between playing the first and second violin parts. I think every quartet debates what to do about that – or they don't, and then there are lingering feelings about it. Was this the way you structured it from the beginning? And what is your perspective on it now, after doing it for years this way?

Philip: For us, it was a very natural thing to do, even though it had never been done before and a lot of eyebrows were raised. Gene and I started out playing in quartet in 1970, when we were students in our second year at Juilliard. We've been playing together almost 40 years, if you go back to our student days. A lot of student groups switch. It's not even a question of who is better on first; you want to learn to do both. It's part of learning to play in a string quartet.

That's the way we were all the way through Juilliard, and we decided to go with it professionally Basically, he and I just couldn't make a decision. We both wanted to play first, but also we both liked playing second. Both of our fathers had played second violin in string quartets. Gene's dad was in the Busch Quartet for a while, right after the war, and then he went to the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra where he worked for many years; and both my parents were in the Cleveland Orchestra and my dad also played in a string quartet called the Sinfonia Quartet, which was made up of members of the Cleveland Orchestra; he was the second violinist in that quartet. So we had grown up with an appreciation – a genetic appreciation – of the second violin's part. If we had made the decision one way or the other, I think it might not have worked.

I think for some groups, it's natural to switch, and for some groups it's not. It's like with actors, some actors are just better at doing the supporting roles and some are better at doing the lead. Playing second violin, you have to be really smart, you have to be able to change gears and go from being an inner-voice accompaniment to suddenly having a solo, usually not in a very good range, usually in the lower range of the violin, often on the D string. You have to figure out a way to project through the texture a little bit.

Viola has its own sound, cello has its own sound, but the "other violin" has to find a way to make its personality known, so it's a very challenging role, and often underrated. Yet the old saying goes, 'A string quartet is only as good as its second violinist.' I think it's very true. Sometimes you don't get noticed as much there, but for some people, that's fine. If I had to pick, if somebody said to me, 'Unfortunately, there's a new law that's just been passed, and you're not allowed to switch in string quartets, you have to choose now, which part would you like to play?' there's no question that I would pick the second part. I enjoy playing first violin, but if I had to give up one, I'd give that up and just really enjoy playing the second part.

Laurie: Well, this is very heartening to hear. I've certainly played a lot of second violin in my life.

Philip: I mean it, too. I'm not being falsely modest about it. There are so many great second violinists in quartets, who've made it an art unto itself.

Laurie: Every part is important.

Philip: Especially when there's only four!

Laurie: What is your schedule like, as a member of a quartet?

Philip: I'm a full professor at Stony Brook. Everybody has other things that they do. David and his wife are the music directors of the Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center, and they have their summer festival out in California, Music@Menlo, they play a lot of duo concerts together. I'm joining them, playing Schubert trios over the next couple of years, we recorded that, so there are extra performances of that. The quartet plays about 90 concerts a year, plus recordings, plus's not an easy life, to do all these things. Gene Drucker wrote a novel, which has been published by Simon and Shuster; Larry plays in a string trio and also has three kids, and he teaches at Manhattan and Stony Brook. The quartet is in residence at Stony Brook, so we do chamber coachings.

You have to be organized about your time; if you're successful, you're busy. I feel very fortunate to be working, and these days, I have friends who are out of work. I'm lucky to be busy. Sometimes, it's difficult to juggle with your personal life. My wife would, I'm sure like me to be not as busy as I am, but that's sort of the way it is.

Laurie: For those just starting on this path of playing chamber music, what are some of the important habits to form, things to develop, as you are gelling as a quartet?

Philip: Every group is different, every person is different; I can tell you what I did, what we did.

In the beginning, we listened to a lot of recordings, went to a lot of performances, copied a lot of things we liked and avoided a lot of things that we thought were not-so-good. Eventually you stop looking at other people and you start listening to yourself. We had the good fortune of being able to listen to ourselves a lot.

In the beginning of our career we did not have a recording contract for a long time, but we did a lot of performances on the radio. It was when public radio first started and was broadcasting a lot of concerts from around the world. Usually we didn't get paid anything extra to have a concert broadcast, it was extra pressure and all that. But it was our way of getting our name out there without having recordings, and we thought that that was important. We would have to listen to these concerts and approve them. So we ended up listening to a lot of performances of ourselves, and I think that's something that groups don't do enough of. It's tough, it's very tough. It's like looking at yourself in the mirror and – augh! You look at yourself play, and you really listen carefully. It's painful; you hear a lot of stuff you don't like. But you also learn very quickly what sounds good and what doesn't. As a group, it's helpful. It takes the subjective out of it a little bit, if you are able to step back and listen to a performance.

Laurie: Did you listen to yourselves together?

Philip: Sometimes, but usually not. Usually we just passed things around, but sometimes we listened together, especially when we were preparing for a recording later. In fact, we're going to do that tomorrow; we just did a performance of Dvorák Op. 106, the G Major quartet in Houston last night, and it was taped and we were handed a CD of it after the concert for approval. We're going to be recording that Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. We have a rehearsal tomorrow, and I'm sure that we will sit down and listen to it together, with our scores. It will save time, having done that, rather than coming in there and hearing it for the first time. That way, the process will have started already.

The other thing that has helped us a lot has been using machines: each of us individually practicing with tuning machines, agreeing that we're going to tune to A=441, or whatever you agree to. I practice a lot with a drone, so that I'm used to adjusting to another sound. I'll change the tone, depending on the passage or the key of the piece. I practice scales that way, I practice arpeggios that way, I practice double stops, always with a drone on. It drives people crazy, but for me, I'm used to it. And the other guys do that, maybe not as much as I do, but they do it to some extent.

Also, using metronomes helps: agreeing on basic metronome markings for a particular movement. If everybody practices at that tempo, with a metronome, it's not that you're going to play metronomically, but it at least you're starting off somewhere in the same ball park. It helps you avoid situations where you play something, and somebody says, "It was too slow," and "Really? I thought it was too fast," or "It's out of tune, you're sharp," and "No, you're flat..." That kind of thing happens, but the more work you can do individually, the less it happens.

Sometimes we actually rehearse certain passages together with the metronome, and even with the drone. It takes away that subjective, "I know what's wrong with this, and you don't." Which most quartets go through.

Laurie: It makes sense to take that away, because that can cause a lot of contention.

Philip: The less self-righteousness that occurs in a string quartet, the better.

Laurie: Even just the way you say, "That sounds a little bit sharp," can be a deal-breaker.

Philip: I've seen it in my own group. A lot of groups fall apart. A lot of people come and talk to me, and they say, 'We just can't seem to work together.' A lot of it is that it becomes too personal, and not about the music.

Here's another very good piece of advice: in the amount of time that you argue over how you want to do a particular phrase, or even the end of a particular phrase, in say, five minutes of arguing about that, you could have tried it 10 different ways. You could have done each way, talked about it a little bit and tried it several times. Maybe you would have come up with a different solution, or maybe no solution at all. But the process of working that way -- playing different ways, trying it different ways – encourages a certain flexibility. The inability to be flexible can be a problem with groups.

It's not always a question of people not wanting to be flexible, it's that they don't know how to. It almost becomes a kind of technical thing, even though what you're talking about has to do with emotion. If you don't have the technique to be flexible, how do you expect to be flexible? It has to be developed, and you have to experience it, to feel what that's like to bend a phrase in a way that you don't feel. You still have to do it – and make it convincing. That's technique, to some extent.

Laurie: I think you're speaking to what I was going to ask next, which is, how on Earth has the Emerson String Quartet stayed together 30 years?

Philip: It's sort of a standard response, but it's very true: you have to keep a sense of humor. If you lose that, if you get too serious for too long, forget it. I don't care how good you are; if you don't have a sense of humor, and you can't tease each other and take some ribbing from the other people, you're just not going to make it.

Laurie: Just watching the quartet perform, everybody seemed happy.

Philip: This year, this month, it's 30 years since David joined. That's 30 years with the same people. We have our tensions, but on the whole, we get along very well. We have a good time, we laugh a lot. We take ourselves seriously, but not past a certain point. We don't allow each other to take ourselves too seriously. Whereas, the music is always taken seriously. The greater the music, the more serious we take it. That's the key: where your priorities are, and how you spend your energy, both negative and positive, how you channel that.

UPDATE: If you would like to connect with Philip Setzer and the Emerson String Quartet, you can find them on Twitter @EmersonQuartet and on Facebook,

5 replies | Archive link interview with Anastasia Khitruk

May 11, 2009 21:31

After talking with violinist Anastasia Khitruk, I feel inspired to write a series of mystery novels based on her adventures. But what to call them? Here are a few ideas: The Secret of the Hidden Manuscript; Clue in the St. Petersburg Library; Ghost from the Forgotten Page; The Mystery of the Missing Groves Entry; Gem in the Stack of Paper....

Laurie and Anastasia

It would seem that Anastasia has always displayed some degree of resistance for the beaten path, for doing things the way everyone else does.

When she was a teenager in music school, "if everybody was playing the Sibelius I wanted to play Nielsen, and if everyone played Bruch No. 1, I played Bruch No. 3," she said.

So it might not be surprising that she has made it her mission, for her last three albums, to unearth hidden gems of the repertoire and explore uncharted territory – or at least territory for which the charts are mighty challenging to find. Her latest album, released last week, features works by the composer Léon de Saint-Lubin, ("San Lu-BAN" for French-challenged like me).

"This is my third album in a row, taking things which are unknown, and more specifically, are unknown to me," Anastasia said. The first two were a 2005 Naxos recording of works by Ivan Khandoshkin, and her 2007 Grammy-nominated recording of the Miklós Rózsa Violin Concerto and Sinfonia Concertante, also on Naxos. "There is something very satisfying – scary, but satisfying – about taking something which only exists on the page and actually creating your interpretation, where you have no guidelines."

"In these pieces, there are no tempo markings – there is really not much of anything. You're just kind of making it up," Anastasia said. "It's scary, because since you've never heard it, as you're learning it and you start playing it in concert, you're not certain it's actually good music! Once you record it, you get the edited version – pop it in with shaking hand..." She laughed. Thank goodness, she liked what she heard. "I thought, this really is not half bad!"

"St. Lubin was born in Italy, he studied in Paris and wound up in Berlin, where he had a very successful career," Anastasia said. "In fact at one point, Beethoven even wrote him a little cadenza, which is why a Beethoven expert like (Klaus Martin) Kopitz, who wrote the liner notes, would be so interested in him."

"He represented that very Paganini-esque tradition of violin playing, which is frankly pushing the limits; but at the same time he was making interesting Schubert-ian attempts at larger forms," Anastasia said. "The first four tracks are the Grand Duo Concertant, Op. 49, and it's interesting because there you really see where early Romantic music is turning into Romantic music. The end of the Grand Duo Concertant, the last movement, is funny because it's essentially four endings, and each of them is a Romantic conceit ending: one repeats the tonic, one is a fake fade-out – so he goes through all of them, one by one. It's like a compendium of possible endings you could put on there. He was obviously a fantastic pianist, because the piano part is very challenging."

"So St. Lubin became very successful, he became the director of the Konigstadt Theatre (the King of Prussia's theatre in Berlin)," Anastasia said. "Essentially it was the equivalent, I suppose, of being the concertmaster and musical director at once of the New York Philharmonic."

"From his correspondence and from the dedicatees of his pieces, you could tell that this was a very well-respected man, very in touch with the times," Anastasia said. "So you had a person who was clearly an amazing violinist, really a remarkable person, with many, many abilities, and he dies at the age of 44 and falls off the planet."

Enter, our own Jonathan Frohnen. (If you are interested in exploring Jonathan's huge collection of rare 19th century violin music, check out his website.)

"In the case of St. Lubin, it was actually not my idea to record it," Anastasia said. "Jon Frohnen, who does the series of 19th century virtuoso works, had heard my very first record, which had a Saint-Lubin piece on it. He had listened to it a long time ago, and so when he wanted someone to do a disc of Saint-Lubin, he contacted me. He said he'd send me the music, have me look over it."

"Originally he wanted me to do the caprices. But they did not interest me, they are a little uneven. Then he sent me a huge stack of music. There were quartets, and this and that," Anastasia said.

"In all those things there were a few real gems. In particular, the three short little pieces: the Adagio Religioso, Op. 44, which I think is just little beautiful, it has little shades of Schumann; and the two solo pieces (Fantaisie sur un theme de Lucia di Lammermoor, Op. 46 and Theme Original et Etude de S. Thalberg, Op. 45a) and are now things I have played for a year solidly, in recitals, and they've done very well. Not everything you still enjoy after you've performed it 30 times. This is really nice, it's difficult, but it's unique and it's got a lot of heart."

(BTW, if you'd like to download the sheet music for these pieces, check the links at the bottom of this article.)

One hundred years ago, the "Lucia de Lammermoor" was standard repertoire, she said.

"It's funny, we sort of lump into "Romantic music" two things that are completely different: the era of St. Lubin, of Mendelssohn, and the era of Brahms," Anastasia said. "Brahms was born in 1833, so let's say, between 1820 and 1850, something had happened. Something very interesting, but something extreme."

"St. Lubin was born in 1805 and he died in 1850; same place, same time as Mendelssohn," Anastasia said. "You can hear the first little shoots of actual Romanticism, sort of, sprinkled about, like little ghosts of Schumanns-to-be. But we are talking about a very, very different civilization. I love this idea, of salon concerts, salon music -- music played in order to amuse at a close range. Today you are trained for projection, big sound. There's a celebration of this constant big sound. Ironically, at a time when we have great amplification systems, this is when people want to crunch and press down. It makes no sense! I love this idea of little jewels, which are beautiful, not existing for some political reason. It's music with no political message whatsoever, it's just pretty."

I asked Anastasia about her violin and..."It's a mystery violin," she said, "it's Northern Italian."

I also mentioned, while we were being mysterious here, how I fancy my violin summons ghosts from the past. She didn't appear to think I was crazy.

"They are people, there are people in them," Anastasia agreed. "I've played on a lot of violins. Until I was 27 and I bought my violin, I played on borrowed fiddles – all sorts. I worked my way from Vuillaume to Gagliano, every maker in between. And you have real relationships. They have temperaments, they definitely have moods.

"But you can sense, especially if it's been recently played, I swear that the person is still there. And it can be uncanny," Anastasia said. "And then they have a spirit. This is a living being, it's not something that's manufactured, it's one-of-a-kind completely. This is wood, it vibrates, and I think that as you play it, you change it at a molecular level. Depending on who plays it, and with which sound, it changes in a different way, and it becomes a different being."

"The violin I played before this one, with which I had a very bad relationship, it was an early Strad, and it was Christie Brinkley, I swear," she said. "It was pretty, it was shrill, and I swear, it was blonde. It was a blonde violin. I couldn't stand it! I hated that thing, it would smile shallowly at me from my case. And then it had a set of wolfs – there was no getting near a C#. That was sort of a low point in my violin relationships."

"When I bought my violin, I must have looked at 150 violins. I looked at every violin on sale, on the planet, I think. And they had this set up for a Baroque player," Anastasia said. "So of course it didn't have any sound, except for one thing. As you played the C, on the G string in first position, it was like magic. It was the ultimate C of all Cs."

I wondered what Anastasia looks for, when she's playing through forgotten literature. Which is treasure? Which is trash? And why?

She mentioned her Khandoshkin recording.

"With Khandoshkin, it was just the shock of it," Anastasia said. First of all, she couldn't even find the composer in the Grove. She had found the music for a sonata by Khandoshkin at Frank Music, and couldn't find anyone who had heard of the composer. A few people in St. Petersburg said they liked Khandoshkin's opera – but actually he'd never written one.

"When I got the music, I looked at it, and it's quite difficult, especially the first sonata. And I assumed it was early 19th century, just from the violin technique, which is by the way, very unusual," Anastasia said. "So I put the music away, and then about a year later, I'd been hired to play a solo program, without the piano. As the day approached, I was short about 20 minutes. So I remembered, I had this other music, I'll dig it back out. I wanted a 19th century piece.

"Then, finally, I look at the frontispiece, and there's the date. And the date is like 1760! This is remarkable, this is an amazing achievement!" Anastasia said. "So I learned the first sonata, which was the only music I had, I played it at the concert and people liked it. Then I found more, through my friend Alexandre Brussilovsky – he had heard of Khandoshkin and recorded some duets, actually with himself. They are duets like the Wieniawski etudes – one person plays, one person takes a nap. So at one of his festivals, I did three and the other person took naps...They're wonderful duets. The duets unfortunately are not in print and are very difficult to find; I found all the duets in St. Petersburg, at the library. There is one lady, a musicologist named Anne Mischakoff Heiles, from the University of Illinois, who is the world expert on Khandoshkin, and she is, of course, American. She did the liner notes.

"Actually the best-known Khandoshkin piece, a concerto for viola, is an obvious and well-known fake," Anastasia added.

"The most amazing thing about playing music is – when you are playing somebody's music, you live in their head a little bit," she said. "When you play Mendelssohn, you live in his head a bit, then you come back with a thud. Then when you play music like Khandoshkin, which you have never heard, it's a whole new space to explore."

"I would never record the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto today, not for anything, because frankly David Fyodorovich, he owns it, he has it – in my case, I can hear Oistrakh in my head, and he would interfere," Anastasia said. "And I have no desire to interfere with that perfect performance, to me, the first record he made. That's the way I hear it in my head today; he's already done it. Maybe in 10 years, maybe in 20 years, something will strike me. I'm not closing the door. But until something does strike me, I will leave it alone.

"It's completely different to play it in concert, because a concert is a question of the moment," she said. "You capture that moment. And Tchaikovsky is a lot of fun to play. It goes like a steam engine. There are certain concertos which are wonderful to play – Shostakovich No. 1, Tchaikovsky. There is such a natural flow, emotionally, to the experience. I've always found, for instance, Beethoven very difficult, because as you play it you have to maintain this remove. You hover. It's very hard because you have have to make sure you are buttoned up, to a great extent, that you have that little distance."

"I really think music is a remarkable art. It has a capacity to create joy, and that is what it exists for," Anastasia said. "It doesn't have to be a happy joy, it can be a tragic joy or a sad joy, but it's that feeling of being taken out of yourself, it's the ultimate language. And it's meant to be shared."

"When you get the right piece and it's the right evening, you understand for a minute. For a moment, your little 'self' thing is just kind of gone, and then the universe is yours," Anastasia said. "It's all yours, and you feel like you're hovering. Time stops, your spine does some strange squiggly thing....I want everyone to have it. I don't see any reason why people should be denied it."

Anastasia Khitruk records Theme Original et Etude de S. Thalberg, Op. 45a , by Léon de Saint-Lubin.

The free downloads, courtesy member Jonathan Frohnen: (Both files are in PDF format)


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A Violin in a Soldier's Hands

May 8, 2009 13:40

I wanted to update everyone on the funds that were leftover from getting U.S. Army soldier Timothy Weston his violin in Iraq, and also let you know how he's doing.

Timothy Weston
Timothy Weston, at home, with his violin

First, a huge thank-you to David Burgess, whose organizational efforts brought all this good will together, and who also took responsibility for the donations. Last week he sent the funds that were left over, $223, to Operation Happy Note, an organization that sends instruments to soldiers in Iraq.

Recently I spoke to Barb Baker, who founded Operation Happy Note with her husband, Steve, after they sent a guitar to their son in Iraq, and then one to his friend, and they realized what a difference it made in the lives of soldiers.

Barb said that they don't just send guitars, but "we also send a lot of violins!"

Since starting the effort in 2005, Operation Happy Note has sent more than 2,700 musical instruments to soldiers, including everything from a set of bagpipes to cigar-box guitars, she said. In 2008, they sent more than 1,200 instruments, and postage alone was around $22,000, she said. Barb said that the funds donated by members will help mostly with shipping expenses. The instruments they send are often donated, or they buy surplus instruments at a discount from vendors. For example, once they caught a deal on violins that were colored.

"We had red, green and blue violins – even a purple violin!" Barb said. "I'd like to be a little mouse in the corner when they opened those up!"

Every month they receive 300-400 instrument requests through their website from soldiers overseas.

"There is no way we can fill all of them," she said. She personally answers every request, and "the hard part is, who do you pick and choose?" They try to choose those who are in the most need.

The instruments seem to help the soldiers because instead of being in the corner, watching T.V. or listening to CDs, they can explore the possibilities of an instrument.

"It's a hands-on thing. They tell us that when the guitar comes, they sit down and start playing. Pretty soon, other soldiers gather around, and maybe someone will come with another instrument and play along," Barb said. "It brings them together as a group."

Barb said that once she went to speak at a Rotary club in Minneapolis, and when she was showing pictures of Operation Happy Note recipients, she came to a picture of a soldier with a violin. "That's my son!" said a woman in the audience. The woman went on to explain that her son had surprised her by coming home on leave, simply showing up at her doorstep in uniform one day. She was delighted enough to see him home, but he had another surprise in store: he pulled out a violin and played her a song.

"She had no idea he had learned to play the violin," Barb said. Another soldier had given him lessons, which is often how deployed soldiers learn an instrument.

And it appears that Timothy, who received his violin in early March, is wasting no time learning to play. I recently received an e-mail from Timothy's wife, Carissa, who said that he had come home to Cincinnati for an R&R break April 18th to May 4th, and that they'd had a wonderful time.

"As soon as we got back to my parents house, even before he showered, Tim took out his violin and was showing it off to the family," Carissa wrote. "He played 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' and something else I don't remember, but I was so excited to have him home nothing else mattered. He was so proud of the little bit he can do and he told us all about it and the neat things in his case. He really liked the silk bag and note book that was made for him as well. I could totally see a joy in his eyes while he talked and played and tried to play."

Happy playing, Timothy!

5 replies | Archive link

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