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June 2009

Violinist.com interview with Philippe Quint

June 30, 2009 21:18

Apparently it is not possible for Philippe Quint to play the Violin Concerto by Erich Wolfgang Korngold enough.

"If I could play it three times during the concert – I would!" Philippe said, laughing. "It's one of those works that gives you an incredible amount of positive energy." He spoke to me on the phone from New York in early June, about his new recording of the Korngold, about Dorothy DeLay's uncanny ways, and about the day the Strad he plays went flying away in a taxi – without him.

Philippe Quint

"I instantly had something that's called 'love at first sight' with the Korngold concerto," Philippe said. "I heard Jascha Heifetz's recordings, and I think I heard Perlman's performance and I instantly knew, I literally ran right into the library and got the score and started learning it, right away."

"I started the piece with Dorothy DeLay," Philippe said. "Right after the first lesson, Miss DeLay said, 'Philippe, this is your piece!' Strangely enough, the (Juilliard) concerto competition that year was the Korngold concerto, and the winner was to play with Kurt Masur at Avery Fisher Hall. I won, and I also got to play the piece for Isaac Stern beforehand.

That was back in 1997.

This week Philippe releases his recording of the Korngold, on Naxos with conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto and the Orquesta Sinfonica de Mineria, and also including orchestra works by Korngold (Overture to a Drama, Op. 4 and Much Ado About Nothing Concert Suite, Op. 11). This is not his first recording; Philippe also was nominated for two Grammys for his 2001 recording of the William Schuman Violin Concerto and has recorded works by Rorem, Bernstein and Rozsa.

Korngold was a prolific composer of film scores, and he never lived that down.

"It's strange, the Korngold is still underestimated repertoire," Philippe said. "It's being performed more frequently these days, but it still has the whole Hollywood connotation, which is exactly what Korngold suffered from during his lifetime; he could never quite cross back from Hollywood to classical.

"What is interesting is that it's really not Hollywood that made Korngold, it's Korngold that made Hollywood," Philippe said of the film music that Korngold produced. "If you look at the harmonic structures and if you go into the analysis of his works, deep analysis, you will see that it's very Wagnerian."

"Of course, each movement (of the violin concerto) is derived from a film score," he said. "But if you take away the knowledge that Korngold was a film composer, then what you will see is that he followed the great tradition of Wagner, and Strauss, continuing with the idea of music drama, where the violin, or voice, plays the main part. In a way, it's like a mini-opera. Even in his own words, Korngold described his concerto as a cross between Enrico Caruso and Niccolo Paganini. In fact, he said it was very nice to have both Caruso and Paganini in one person, after Jascha Heifetz premiered it."

I wondered, not having ever played the piece, is it hard to play?

"It actually is quite difficult," Philippe said. "It's awkward; it's not violinistic at all. To be honest with you, this is the kind of challenge that I absolutely love. I love composers that did not write for violin particularly. Works by Paganini, Wieniawski and Sarasate seem to be very difficult technically, but at the same time, you know that those works were written by violinists. Essentially, once you figure out what is the little tricky technique behind it, then you can actually get it pretty well because it's still under your fingers. Like if you take the Wieniawski Concerto, it's all under your fingers, just a matter of practicing over and over."

"But if you take concertos like Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Beethoven," he said, "those were mostly pianist composers, and they didn't really have much concern about the violinist's difficulties, or making things comfortable for us. Naturally that presents a little bit of a challenge – you have to figure out the bowings and fingerings that make sense in terms of phrasing."

Philippe was born in the Soviet Union, and he came to New York in 1991 to study with Dorothy DeLay.

"It was, of course, a major change, not to mention that I did not actually speak English at the time," Philippe said. "What happened was that somebody brought my cassette to Miss DeLay, from some concert in Russia, and she listened to it and she said she would be happy to give me an audition. I came, and I played for her, and she invited me to the Aspen Music Festival right away."

"It had been my dream for many many years to come study at Juilliard, and with Dorothy DeLay," Philippe said. "It was like a myth. In Russia – at that time it was the Soviet Union – nobody really knew what was going on, but we were told that if you get into Juilliard, you're going to get a stipend, and they will pay for your apartment, you will study with Dorothy DeLay, you will have a recording contract the next day," (he laughs) "and you're the next Jascha Heifetz!" (He laughs again.)

"So sitting in my little apartment in Moscow, I had all those dreams; I was envisioning life in America," he said. "And of course, when Perlman came to Russia in 1991, I saw in his biography that he was also a student of Dorothy DeLay."

Philippe said that DeLay was a master of getting her point across without insulting students. Many of her former students mention the same story, when she would say to a student, "Sugar Plum, what is your concept of F#?"

"It's quite a brilliant way of saying, 'Your F# is out of tune,'" Philippe said. "In Russia, if you're not prepared, or if you're playing out of tune, the teacher would take your music, take you, and just throw you out of the class with a few unpleasant words. So suddenly, I come to Juilliard, and somebody's asking me, how do I feel about this work? Or what is my concept of this piece? Or what is your concept of F#?" (He laughs.)

"At the same time, she would always make sure that the point gets across," he said. "It was just as embarrassing if somebody is screaming at you that you are playing out of tune as somebody saying, 'What is your concept of F#?' I mean, you don't even know what an F# is supposed to sound like? It was a very interesting approach."

He described another incident in which DeLay gave him a strong message, but in her unique way of communicating.

"I was working on the Wieniawski second violin concerto -- I loved the work, and I particularly loved Perlman's recording of the piece," Philippe said. "I was playing for Miss DeLay for the lesson, and when I got to the last movement, in the cadenza, right before the fast part, I did this glissando somewhere there. Suddenly, I hear, from Miss DeLay's corner, 'Yuck!'"

"I stopped, and I looked at her, and I said, 'You didn't like it?' And she said, 'That was absolutely disgusting, where did you come up with this?' I said, 'Well, Miss DeLay, your student, Mr. Perlman, does exactly the same thing in the recording.'"

"And she said, 'Come here, Sugar Plum. I'm going to tell you a little story.'"

"So I came to her table. She looked down, and she was silent for a few moments. And then she said, 'Philippe, did you know that I had an older sister?' And I said, 'Ah, no, Miss DeLay, I didn't know.'

"'Well, in any case,' she said, 'I had an older sister, and I really loved the clothes that my sister used to wear.'"

"And I said, 'Ok....'"

"Then she said, 'But particularly, I loved her red shoes. She had this beautiful pair of red shoes. When my sister wasn't around, I would wear them, all the time. There was just one problem. They were a size larger than my foot. They didn't actually fit me.' And then she looked at me."

"Basically, the point was, when you become Perlman, you can do anything you want," Philippe said. "But the way she showed it to me was utterly brilliant. She could have said, 'Stop imitating or copying great artists.' Or she could have said, 'You're not Perlman, when you get to that level, that's when you can do it.' But she actually told me a story that was just incredible, to indicate her thinking."

Philippe plays on the 1723 "ex-Kiesewetter" Stradivari violin, an instrument that took a little solo adventure in a Newark taxicab during the wee hours of the morning one day in April 2008, leaving Philippe to a frantic search. The incident generated much press but did end in a happy reunion – as well as a gratitude concert for the cab drivers.

Philippe can talk about it now with a sense of humor, but it was an ordeal, he said.

"First of all, I would like to thank Violinist.com for a wonderful poll that took place when it was happening," he said. "I was giving an interview to the New York Times about the whole incident, and that was probably about an hour after I got the poll from Violinist.com! So I told the guy that, by the way, there's this site, you should check it out, it's called Violinist.com..." The poll showed that 37 percent of respondents had left their violin somewhere, and people also shared their harrowing stories about forgetting their fiddles in various places.

"Honestly, I thought this would never ever happen to me," Philippe said. "When I read about Yo-Yo Ma, or Lynn Harrell, Kramer or recently, Glenn Dicterow – I thought, that is impossible. It must be a publicity stunt. But now I realize how quickly this can happen, how your mind, for one second is not there. Like when Kramer left his violin on the train, he was studying scores, and that was what was in his head. I think Yo-Yo Ma was coming from some performance, as well. We do get tired, we get fatigued, we think of many things."

"This incident certainly was not an accomplishment of any sort. It was a great misfortune that was slightly turned around when I gave a concert for the drivers," he said. "The whole story was largely twisted by the media, because when it happened, I actually refused any interviews. I was completely scared. I was getting calls from NBC, ABC, and everyone was calling my cell phone! How do they have access to my cell phone? It was actually quite nerve-wracking and scary experience, and the twist of the story was I did not actually forget the instrument. It was two o'clock in the morning and I was a little bit not-alert-as-I-usually-am, and I was putting the bags off the road and closed the trunk. The violin was still in the backseat, I was perfectly aware of that, and the guy took off. Everything happened in a split second; the guy just rushed off and I saw the cab in the distance."

"A lot of papers and channels said the violin was in the trunk, and I kept saying no, it's not in the trunk! Did you forget it? No I did not forget it! Did the driver return it to you? No he did not return it to me, I found him! Some article said the driver was looking for Quint, no, nobody was looking for me. I was looking for him, he was sleeping! He was actually happy because I was his last customer. He was rushing home because he was done with his job, forever. He was perfectly fine, sleeping at home. I think people were trying to reach him, but he had his phone off. And then he must have turned it on, around noon. By that time, I was in Newark, on my feet, from 7 a.m., running around, talking to people. I was barely walking. The problem was that the more people I was talking to, the less it seemed possible to retrieve the instrument. Nobody could help me at the time, they didn't know where the violin was, they couldn't figure out who the driver was. I didn't have a receipt, and I tried to recognize the driver from the pictures at the taxi authority there and I pointed out the completely wrong guy!"

He said there were probably hundreds of pictures, and "believe me, and it wasn't the greatest book that I've ever read," he said.

When the violin was finally found, Philippe actually missed the call. Then he listened to it: "Mr. Quint, we have located your item."

Mr. Quint's "item" – the 1723 "Ex Kiesewetter" Stradivari is an instrument he has been playing, on loan through the Stradivari Society, for about three years.

"It's a great, great instrument," Philippe said. "It's been a wonderful get-to-know process between me and the instrument. I always feel that the relationship between an instrument and a player is a very particular one, in a way, like marriage. Having played on in for a few years, to my ears it sounds like a completely different instrument. I know it so much better; it's extremely responsive. I feel that it mainly adds to my personality. There's a lot of talk, are you a del Gesu player? Or are you a Strad player? For me, there is no question: I love the Strad. I'm a little bit on the hyper side of a person, very passionate...the Strad, in way, is the opposite of me because it's warm and soft and serene and calming, so I feel that we have this beautiful rapport."

Philippe has been a U.S. citizen for 12 years. I asked him, what made him decide to stay in the U.S.?

"The biggest reason was to study at Juilliard," he said. "In the late 80s, early 90s, it was very difficult to live in the Soviet Union any more, particularly for musicians, there were just no opportunities, so everyone was leaving. Also, personally, it had to do with the death of my teacher, whom I absolutely adored, Andrei Korsakov, who was a well-known concert violinist in Europe and Russia – and some sort of a distant relative of Rimsky-Korsakov. He died at a very young age, and that was just another push to start thinking about a different direction in my life. My family left, though my mother stayed because she's actually a well-known pop composer. She's still there, and she's working for film and musicals, she has many projects. We meet about once a year, which is not enough, but now with Skype and all the technology, it's a little bit easier to communicate on a regular basis."

Philippe also has explored an interest in acting.

"There were some possible projects; they never took off," he said. "But I got to meet very interesting people like Robert DeNiro and Matt Damon and a few others. But then I didn't have the time to pursue this any further because I was concertizing so much in the last few years, that whole acting thing died out."

"But it was a fantastic learning experience," he said. He took acting lessons on and off for three years from Sondra Lee, whose credits include Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" and a supporting role in the original movie, "Peter Pan."

While studying acting, "I discovered a lot of things that benefited my playing" Philippe said. "Any acting coach will tell you the most important thing about acting is listening, and I think that for a great musician, the most important part is also listening. The second thing is being in the moment. As an actor, you have to be in the moment, you have to understand the character. And as musicians, we also really need to be in the moment, and understand the character of the work that we're doing. If you study a work, you have to subdivide it, you have to dig into the history; if you study a play, you also have to subdivide it and understand the history, and the style. It's so similar; it's not even funny."

"You can't fool an audience," Philippe said. "You don't have to have this profound knowledge of what you're watching, but one thing you do know, does a performance touch you, or not? Are you involved by the performer? Do you come out with something after this performance? People know that, they feel that, they talk about it. Would they come back to see this performer again, yes or no? Without the actual knowledge, people will tell you, yes, this was exciting. Something magnetic was going on, and it's irrelevant whether you have the knowledge or not."

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2009 Starling-Delay, day five: Chee-Yun Kim on devotion to learning

June 24, 2009 18:53

Things were falling apart, and we all knew it.

It was that wicked Fuga from Bach's Sonata No. 2 in A minor. "Wicked" is my adjective, but I feel it's justified. I've studied it; tried to play it. This fugue begins innocently enough, with a spritely, dance-like little theme, but it goes on for five convoluted pages – convoluted for both fingers and brain. It's a labor; a labor meant to sound like a lark.

The audience of violin teachers and performers at the 2009 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School were undoubtedly aware of these considerable challenges as they listened to student Meredith play this piece. When she faltered toward the final pages, hands working through memory slips, willing her way to the end, I think most of us understood acutely what this was like for her.

As did violinist Chee-Yun Kim, who was teaching the masterclass on this last day of the symposium. Chee-Yun acknowledged the obvious after she had finished playing: that it's extremely difficult to memorize this piece. For that matter, Bach in general can be extremely hard to memorize.

Chee-Yun Kim and symposium young artists
Chee-Yun Kim and three symposium young artists

"I struggle to memorize Bach," Chee-Yun said. "Until this year, I haven't played Bach for an audience. Some people have amazing visual memory – I don't. I used to memorize Bach just walking down the street," but with something as complex as this Fuga, or the Chaconne for that matter, it takes considerable effort to memorize. After all, it's a confusing piece. "It's a conversation," Chee-Yun said. "Couldn't we just have two violins playing one fugue? That would be so much easier!"

But it's possible to do it, and Chee-Yun offered a concrete suggestion: "Sit down with staff paper and re-write it," she said. Write in fingerings, articulations, dynamics, everything. You can have the violin with you, but you will be writing it from memory. "It's a commitment," she acknowledged. "As you do it, think, 'I'm going to own this piece.' Once you write it down, you will feel like, 'I know this piece, I WROTE it!"

Chee-Yun's ability to turn a potentially devastating moment for a student into a hopeful and inspiring learning experience speaks to her devotion to teaching – and her devotion to continued learning.

In fact, the night before her master class, we got to hear Chee-Yun play both the Kreutzer Sonata and that Bach Chaconne – the one she said she had only recently started playing in public. It was beautiful – I put down my pen and just listened.

Chee-Yun is a native of Korea, having moved to the States at age 13. She studied with Nam Yun Kim in Korea and with Dorothy DeLay (among others) at The Juilliard School. Today, Chee-Yun teaches at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

More than a year ago, I spoke with Chee-Yun, and it was clear to me then that she was driven both by a deep love for teaching, and for continued learning. Something we had agreed on was the fact that musical learning does not stop, once one graduates with a music degree. "I’ll be learning things about the violin until I drop dead," I had said.

"That’s the kind of attitude that one should have," Chee-Yun had said. "The ones who think that they know it all – that’s the start of their downfall, the beginning of their end. You have to look at things from almost a child’s point of view. You have to be fascinated with every note that you play; fascinated with every piece you come across. That’s what I always tell my students, that’s the way I feel."

Those words did indeed match her way of teaching; I could see during the master class how she works with a student to bring him or her back to that place of wonder and discovery.

For example, another student, Angela, played the last movement of the Mendelssohn, and Chee-Yun brought her back to the bridge between the second and third movement of the Mendelssohn, the "Allegretto non troppo." It's the transition that gently wakes the listener from the slow and contemplative second movement, before advancing on to the springy third movement.

Chee-Yun asked Angela what she thought about during that transition.

"Party time!" Angela said.

Chee-Yun agreed, and spun a little story: a shy, Cinderella-type girl is just walking in to the ball, when the prince catches her and asks, "Why don't you dance with me?" But she demurs, "No, I don't really know you." He asks again, and she still says no, but she's beginning to be charmed by his attentions. When he asks a third time, she says, "Well, maybe..." and he gets very excited about it and eventually leads her to center stage. Then, the trumpets announce the dance: the third movement.

"I love the idea of creating a story," Chee-Yun said. It's one way of keeping the music alive and having something to communicate with the audience.

"Most of the time, 80 percent of the people in your audience don't know the piece; they are just there to enjoy themselves," Chee-Yun said.

She pointed out that the last movement begins "scherzando" – a joke. She wanted a lighter spiccato ("It was a little too heavy – maybe the prince was overweight?")

She also suggested bringing the audience along rather than grabbing them with an aggressive sound.

"I'd rather they come to me," Chee-Yun said, "instead of just shouting out immediately." In other words, tone it down, but keep the energy.

She described the third movement as being little silver drops on a black canvas, which actually also happened to describe the dress Angela was wearing. "You are a really pretty girl, pretty dress – speak to the audience," Chee-Yun said.

She pointed out a commonly overlooked detail: That in m. 9 (and in every subsequent instance of this repeating figure), there's no dot on the first slurred-in eighth notes; the dots only begin afterwards. So those are smooth, even deserving of vibrato.

As Angela played, Chee-Yun stood off the stage, gesturing gracefully, almost like a conductor, in a charming, "I'm-rooting-for-you" kind of way: expectant, attentive, as though she were serving it up to her.

Chee-Yun also offered a series of images for Stefani, who played the Chausson "Poeme" beautifully and fluidly.

"This music tears my heart out," Chee-Yun said. "When I'm sad, the world around me slows down – the air seem so thick. You just want to stop everything and be sad. Can you slow your vibrato way down?"

From letter B, there is a solo part, "You're all by yourself – you have no idea what note is next. Be hesitant, sad, not so sure, not moving so fast," she said. "I felt like you knew where you were going."

Chee-Yun sang quietly, the first notes, "ah..oh..eeee..ah...Time stops – thick air, darkness – I will tell you how I feel..." she narrated. Chee-Yun continued as Stefanie played this quiet passage, "take your time," Chee-Yun said in a tiny voice, "take your time, beautiful..."

Chee-Yun talked to another student, Stephen, about the third movement of the Tchaikovsky concerto, which comes in like lightning, with the orchestra generating all kinds of energy until "the orchestra throws the ball to you," she said. "You have to keep that energy going." Tchaikovsky took care to write a lot of instructions in the music, so "actually do the things he wrote!" she said. That means paying attention to when it's slurred, not slurred, dots, no dots, sp – surprise!

Another student, Aysen, played the Bach Chaconne – the piece Chee-Yun had played the night before – and Chee-Yun liked it. She said she didn't have much to say.

It made me think, what a funny continuum we're on, teacher and student. Who knows more? Who is the performer and who the teacher? Who taught Heifetz? And yet what came of his students? What if everyone at this symposium at Juilliard, all these students and teachers and players, met each other at the same age, say, eight? Or how about 38? Or 23? Or 53?

What will it be, that we do today, that shapes how one student will play later? How that student will one day teach? It's heartening to see a much less abusive way of teaching emerging. Really, we all need to work together to keep this music continuing, and to keep our spirits up for that battle.

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Temporary Art

June 22, 2009 15:57

There's something life-affirming -- or maybe art-affirming --  about an event in which 600 artists conspire to create two city blocks full of chalk murals that are destined to be washed away in a matter of days.

I was actually picking up Chinese take-out for the family Sunday when I stumbled upon the 17th Annual Pasadena (Calif.) Chalk Festival at a nearby outdoor mall called Paseo Colorado. How impressive, I thought. And how crazy, to create all these beautiful images, which will be rained away, washed away, walked upon, leaving barely a trace after a matter of days. Then again, how like life. We may as well make the most colorful, beautiful mark we can, and enjoy it while it lasts.

(BTW these all will be washed away sometime tomorrow morning).

This one, "Let It Be," apparently won two awards: People's Choice and Best Technique:



I loved this peacock, and the way the light dappled over it late in the day:



I liked the sky here, and the hat:




A perfect image for Father's Day:




My son's favorite, the colorful tree frogs:



If you look closely, this little girl, around age two, has chalk in her hand (and all over her face!). She was helping color this in!



Here's a work in progress:



This was called "Fallen Angels," and after seeing these two little cherubs WAY too many times in WAY too many places, I just thought it was funny:


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2009 Starling-Delay, day five: Brian Lewis on the Barber Violin concerto

June 16, 2009 22:21

I don't know about you, but the Barber Violin concerto had me at the opening note.

It's not a piece I studied in school; in fact I'd never even played it as an orchestra member when a friend gave me Gil Shaham's recording of the Barber. I fell in love with that first "D" – and every note thereafter.

When I did play it in orchestra, I had to giggle a little when the a soloist told us that the beginning needed to sound like "a pillow – of love." Of course!

So it was a treat to discover the topic of University of Texas Violin Professor and Symposium Artistic Director Brian Lewis's lecture at the 2009 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School: the Barber Violin Concerto.

"It's one of the greatest American concertos ever written," Brian said.

Brian Lewis

Of course, not everyone has found the piece so lovable; many have faulted it for its very accessibility and its seeming lack of complexity.

As Brian explained, the Barber has one of those interesting stories, kind of like the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, in which the original dedicatee took issue with the work and refused to play it. Barber's violin concerto was commissioned by the stepfather (Samuel Fels) of one of Barber's classmates, Iso Briselli , a fellow violinist in Curtis Institute's class of 1934. Barber took half the commission money, went to Switzerland, and composed the first two movements. When he returned and presented Briselli with lyrical and lush opening movements, Briselli apparently complained that they weren't flashy enough. In response, Barber made the third movement all spark – something that also failed to please his patron. According to most sources, Briselli dismissed the third movement as unplayable -- and unworthy. Briselli's family wanted the commission money back.

Ultimately, a Curtis student named Herbert Baumel was asked to read the third movement – to study it for several hours and then play it for Barber and a number of other Curtis faculty. Baumel apparently found it playable, and Barber was able to strike a deal with Briselli and his stepfather, foregoing the second half of the commission money in exchange for all performance rights. The student, Baumel, later performed the work with Fritz Reiner and the Curtis Institute symphony, in the 1939–1940 season. The violin concerto received its first official premiere in February 1941, with violinist Albert Spalding playing with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Of course, you can read this all on Wikipedia, as well as other program notes, including these by Rachel Barton Pine and these – and so can your students. (There's even an account of Briselli's version of the story.) And for more in-depth Samuel Barber scholarship, Brian recommended a book called Samuel Barber: The Composer and His Music by Barbara B. Heyman.

Brian recommended having students write histories or program notes for the pieces they play. "It's a way we can help our students connect with history," said Brian, who will be recording the Barber violin concerto in the near future, along with a new work by composer Michael McLean. Brian said he hopes to record again on the Artot Stradivarius violin from 1728, the same instrument he used for his most recent recording with the London Symphony Orchestra and the instrument most likely played by Albert Spalding for the professional debut of the Barber Violin Concerto.

The Barber Concerto has three movements, the first one, with its beautiful opening, is written in sonata form. The second movement has an extended oboe solo, which is repeated by the violin, and as mentioned above, the third movement is virtuosic.

It's important to get the opening of the piece just right; "that opening should be warm," Brian said, "it's like taking a nice warm bath with lots of bubbles in it."

Barber, who definitely lived in the time of metronomes, marked the first movement quarter note=100. What did he mean by that? Here's what it sounds like, in strict tempo:

A little too fast, perhaps? The metronome marking indicates that "he wanted motion somewhere – not on the long, singing notes, but the 16th notes should compel us on," Brian said.

The solo part eventually arrives (on the fifth line of the first page, three before [2]) on a held "E," during which the orchestra is static. "That's where we get to find the greatest bit of individual expression," Brian said: when the orchestra is static or not doing anything, and the soloist can do what the soloist wants. "We could sit on this note for a day," he said. That is, as long as you cue the orchestra before actually arriving on the B at [2].

Some of the techniques a student might need in this piece include: excellent tone, scales, up-bow staccato, the ability to play in sevenths (which can be practiced in broken or double-stop scales, major or minor, all the way up). There's a little run of sevenths just before rehearsal number [13].

"I just love sevenths, because they're not resolved," Lewis said. "You can feel the beating going on, because it want to be an octave."

Brian, a student of and later assistant to the famous violin teacher Dorothy DeLay, said that he has six copies of the Barber, with six different fingerings from Ms. DeLay. Ultimately, it is important to decide which fingerings to use, and then stick to them, as every practice leads to getting those finger patterns ingrained.

Brian talked about getting a luscious, juicy vibrato on the last note of the first page. How? Flatten your finger tip, and put as much flesh into it as you can:

At the top of the second page, something that can help clear up the string crossings is to practice the passage (at [4]) on all open strings, to clarify the bow hand's duties here:

Brian described the rather amorphous solo violin entrance of the second movement (which follows the oboe solo) as "a color, but it's transparent, like stained glass."

Of course, not every student will relate to that image, Brian said. "Engaging the imagination of our students is the most important thing we do – we are training them to make their own decisions," Brian said. That doesn't mean to let them flail, though; it means helping them find a way that has meaning for them. "The Socratic method – asking questions of our students – is very good, but we also have to give them very good guidance about possibilities," Brian said. "Very rarely do I say, 'You have to do it this way.'"

The last movement – mostly triplets in perpetual motion – presents a number of problems, perhaps the biggest one being collaborating with orchestra or piano.

In this movement, if the orchestra loses its place, "all is lost," Brian said. Brian talked about playing the concerto as a soloist, early in his career, with an orchestra that was having difficulty. What did Dorothy DeLay recommend?

"She said, 'Honey, you're just going to have to play the tutti with them,'" Brian said, and so he did. If that's what it takes, then be prepared to play the orchestra's part when needed. "Our goal, when we go out in front of the orchestra, is to make the orchestra play better."

Counting is key in this tricky movement, and Brian had some great ideas for this. (Warning, I'm going to get very specific here, now, run and get your score if you haven't already...) For example, for the long descending run before [5], it's okay to count in pairs. At [6], a pattern begins. Establish it, but start counting in the 3/2 measure after [6]: count on the triplet C's , 1-2-3-4-5-6; then up an octave, count these C triplets 1-2-3; then when the pattern changes, count the upper C's, 1-2-3.

You mean you didn't follow that? Some of you did ;-)

Basically, find the patterns, and help your students find the patterns. When your students find the patterns, let your students write them in their own parts.

"We want to be careful not to write everything in the part for our students," Brian said, because many of us (tactile learners) learn by doing the writing ourselves. Lessons also can be reinforced by having the student speak and explain what they have just learned (auditory learners).

Some third-movement previews that can be worked on before a student starts the piece include two measures of noodly nastiness before [8], as well as the final run of the piece.

Brian said that the bariolage triplets at [9] "remind me of being in Kansas; I think of this as a hoedown," he said. (I must add: a hoedown that gets the hiccups!)

The last page of the concerto begins with a potential pitfall: the entrance of trumpets triplets, which build up to the entrance of the solo violin.

"If the trumpets don't come in, you can look at your conductor in a calm, panicked way – for a cue," Brian advised. And be prepared – it happens.

By this point, the train has run away; the elephant is at full stampede. "There is absolutely no way to slow an orchestra down here," Brian said. "He or she who hesitates, is lost!"

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Rites of passage

June 9, 2009 18:56

It's the end of the school year, time for appreciating the good things.

Today my husband and I took some time from our morning to watch one of the annual awards ceremonies at our children's school, this one for the second and third graders.

I've come to realize that these little rites of passage are a huge deal to small people. We sat in the front with all the parents, and when I looked back to where my son's class was sitting, I saw him craning his neck. When he saw us he smiled -- with something that looked like relief -- and waved.

My kids go to a large K-8 public school in Pasadena, McKinley School, and I would not dispute it if someone were to tell me that no two people in the entire school are of same race, except perhaps for siblings. And not even always those! Yes, that's a white person, a white person from New Zealand. Yes, she's an African-American, but the girl next to her is actually straight from Kenya. Kids are from India, Malaysia, of Japanese descent, Chinese, mixed. Hispanic, from all over the American continents. European.

Basically, these kids are extremely supportive of one another, a messy and close-knit bunch. They are huge flock in which no birds are alike. One of our parent friends likes to tell a McKinley story, about a class party at the ice rink. The tallest, biggest boy couldn't skate, but the others wouldn't let him just keep clinging to the sides. All the kids gathered around him, put his arms around their shoulders, and the entire group supported him as they all skated around the rink, slipping and sliding and laughing.

Today the teachers gave many awards: for improvement, achievement, a sense of humor, a good attitude, citizenship, even one for peacemaking. Our little guy got a reading achievement award, well done!

But my favorite, besides the one that went to my own, was for a boy who wasn't there. His teacher was giving him an award for his hard work in learning English, a language he did not speak at the beginning of the year. This was one of several awards given today for that particular achievement. Learning language always makes me think of learning music, and of Suzuki's beautiful idea that everyone has talent, if it can only be cultivated in the right environment.

The boy couldn't accept the award because he'd already returned to Korea.

"Since he's not here, I'm going to accept this on behalf of all the children in my class," she said, "because they worked so hard to teach him English!"

Humble teacher -- beautiful children. I clapped 'til my hands hurt!
 

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2009 Starling-Delay, day four: Robert Duke on music education

June 9, 2009 14:39

What is the point of learning to play the violin – are we clear on that as teachers? Do our students know? And how do we teach musical decision-making? Or perhaps the question is: Do we teach it at all?

"Very seldom are music students invited into that process," said Robert Duke, Professor and Director of the Center for Learning at The University of Texas in Austin. He gave a series of lectures called "My Brain's Busy Even Though I'm Not: the cognitive neuroscience of skill learning," at the 2009 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School.

Robert Duke

More often, a student – of any discipline – receives information from a teacher, writes it down and spits it back.

"That's not learning," Duke said. "Learning is deeper than that, and it involves more from the learner than that."

The key to true learning is to know what is at the heart of any subject – what is the point? Why would I want to learn this? Why is it interesting? And then everything flows from that central point.

"But somebody's decided that before you get to the interesting stuff, you have to get through all this uninteresting stuff. That's school – that's music school," Duke said.

In music, and specifically in violin playing, the point can get very muddled, for all the set-up, the fingerings, the bowing techniques, the shifting, the scales, the historical heaviness of the music...

What exactly is the point?

It has to do with every human being's deep need to express himself or herself. People are innately motivated to express their thoughts and feelings, and their ability to do so reaches a high level, well before they start playing an instrument.

For example, Duke described his young granddaughter, who had gone on a field trip to a farm. When she returned, she bubbled with excitement as she described the animals to him: the chickens, the sheep, but most of all, a huge Clydesdale horse that she'd seen tethered by the barn, on her way out.

"It was E-NORMOUS!" she told her grandfather, sweeping her hand over her head to show how big that horse really was.

Her language and gestures came directly from a need to express herself, and from all her young years of experimentation with language. Similarly, when we teach music, we are teaching a means of expression. When we neglect to connect the means with the expression for our students, we lose their attention. And we lose the chance for real learning to occur.

"The 'using it' part needs to be woven seamlessly into the 'learning it' part," Duke said. "Real learning is a mess; it's not orderly, it's not linear." If your goal is to make sure your students always know where they're going, you may not be giving them the chance to learn how to get there on their own. "All the things we are setting up, with the best intentions, actually obviate the very experiences people need to learn – the messy muddling."

Duke showed a video of an 11-year-old boy playing Saint-Saens' "The Swan," from the HBO series, The Music in Me. The video overdubbed the boy's playing with his eloquent description of the piece: the feelings, the pictures and the soul in this music. Undoubtedly, his strong connection with the "story" he was expressing allowed him to enjoy and focus on the real point, expressing something that anyone would understand and appreciate.

"That only happens if that's the focus throughout their study," Duke said. In this case, the boy was thinking about his audience, and how to convey the feelings of the swan: the smooth gliding, turbulent emotions, the swan's last song. "What's most advantageous is thinking about how what you're doing is affecting other people." Though it might sounds like Ivory Tower hair-splitting, "it makes a tremendous difference."

Unfortunately, the educational process often beats this out of people.

If you walk into a room full of kindergarteners, you'll find children brimming over with enthusiasm, Duke said. Ask them a question, and whether they know the answer or not, their hands shoot into the air, "Call on me, call on me!" Take those same students, years later, in college. They sit, huddled and hunched, taking notes, heads down. Ask a question, and they'll practically duck under the table to avoid being called upon.

"The only common variable is: they all went to school!" Duke said.

The whole point of a musical education is to learn to express something to other human beings, Duke said, "and even when you have very little skill, you are perfectly capable of formulating musical ideas and trying them on your instrument."

Language is highly goal-directed, and that's one of the reasons we learn it so early, and so well. But even when learning a foreign language, it helps to have a goal. There's a difference between taking a Berlitz class and being plopped into a foreign country, and, say, needing to know where the bathroom is.

"¿Dondé está el baño?" Duke said. "I have goals!"

And why does context matter so much, when we are learning?

"The extent to which we can retrieve memories is affected by the context in which we learn them and encode them," Duke said. For educators, it's important to realize that that "every moment in a learning experience has to have a vivid representation of what the point of that learning experience is."

The brain is a pattern-seeking, associating machine. Saying that a brain is like a computer hard drive "is a terrible metaphor for human memory," Duke said. That's because there is no empty memory in the brain. "Memory is extremely dynamic. Whatever was in (the brain) already will color this experience, and future experiences will color that," Duke said. "Learning is change; it changes the way people think."

Duke talked about an idea from an essay by the mathematician A. N. Whitehead: that any subject matter can be taught in an intellectually honest way to any child, of any age.

"From the very beginning, every child can be taught expression," Duke said. Even if the child can only play two notes: choose the two notes best suited for the instrument, and an expressive goal that is achievable.

"If you can't make a kid sound beautiful in your presence, they're not going to go home and sound beautiful," Duke said. Students go through three stages of learning, the "romance," when they are unrealistically positive about a new endeavor; the struggle to achieve precise goals, and then "generalization," when they can do it and they've achieved beauty in their playing.

For the most part, students see only the "struggle," and sometimes as teachers, we inadvertently magnify that sense of insurmountable difficulty, setting up a mountain of prerequisites our students will have to fulfill before they can starting playing the "good stuff."

But what if we made it all "good stuff"?

Duke talked about an experience he had as a public school band director, trying to push kids through a method book that had everything to do with basics, but not much with making music. The book was full of exercises, whole notes, dull stuff. And the kids were not responding.

"Most kids are kind of 'Allegro,' they aren't 'Largo,'" Duke said. Whole notes did not excite their imaginations. No one was having a good time, including him, and everyone was avoiding playing. He was even giving them longer and longer to pack up at the end of the day.

That is, until one day, when a sax player went in a back room and started picking out the bass line to Louie Louie. Pretty soon another kid came back, and when the bell rang, both were so engrossed in their music-making, they had to be chased off to class.

It gave Duke an idea, and the next day he came to class with an arrangement he made of the bass line for Louie Louie. Suddenly, everyone was interested in doing it, and doing it right. It was "real music," at least in their view. "I taught more in that day than I'd taught in all the weeks previous," Duke said. Suddenly the trumpet player was interested in embouchure, the trombone player was interested in articulation – students were even interested in what Duke himself could play.

"Now this isn't about popular music versus serious music, because at the time, 'Louie Louie' wasn't that popular, and 'Master Methods for Band' wasn't that serious," Duke said. "My point is that all those students signed up for band class with the bizarre expectation that they were going to make music every day, and I was busy teaching them 'how to play their instruments.'" At the time, he thought the students weren't ready to make music, that they needed to get skills down first.

From that point on, he started approaching things from the musical end, and arranging pieces that would fit their skills and build on them.

That way, "they're thinking about what the audience will think, right from the beginning," Duke said.

That's where the motivation comes from, for building skill: from expressing something to an audience. A student may not be motivated to practice shifts when a teacher say, "Shifts are important, so practice them." But what if the shift is what is needed, to create a musical picture? "You know, your swan doesn't sound like it's gliding gracefully over the water when you miss that shift; it sounds more like it bumped into a rock."

And as a student's musical motivation and skill increases, so the teacher helps that student build a foundation in beautiful, expressive playing.

"Until they can play a lot of pieces at the same level, beautifully, they aren't ready for a piece at a higher level," Duke said. "We are not trying to make this more difficult than it is, that's not our goal. But most students, most of the time, are playing repertoire that is too hard. The reasons have more to do with human ego than with sound pedagogy."

Learning is a process of error correction. Errors can be obvious, as with a beginner, or they may be very detailed, so that only an expert ear would hear them. But at any level, learning takes place through error correction. What does that mean? That to a certain extent, there must be some messy muddling, some confusion, some discrepancy.

"There has to be error for there to be learning," Duke said.

Everyone has a range in their playing: one's performance on a good day vs. one's performance on a bad day, and everything in between. Advancement does not involve stretching to reach a new high as much as it involves doing away with the weakest performances; striving to make more performances match one's best days. For a teacher, "you have to become intolerant of doing less than they're capable of."

Duke gave the example of a fictional student, Clive.

"It would be cruel to take Clive at his best moment and say, 'You know, that's out of tune,'" Duke said. But if you know that Clive is doing less than he can, it's all right to demand more. In that case, it's all right to make those fixable flaws vividly apparent. Don't exaggerate, just create a clear picture. "It's only appropriate if the student can do something about it, in the present moment," Duke said. "It's just mean, if they aren't capable yet."

***

Okay, because of popular demand, here is Robert Duke's telling of the above story about his experience teaching band. He is such an engaging speaker! Enjoy!

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2009 Starling-Delay, day four: David Kim on orchestra auditions

June 5, 2009 12:35

I still remember the first time I sat next to a fantastic orchestra player, when I was just out of college and playing in the Omaha Symphony. He was assistant principal second violin in the orchestra where I sat in the section, and during one concert the space next to him needed filling, so I came up.

What a player, and what fun to sit with him. He played every articulation in the music, every bowing, every dynamic; he responded to every breath and gesture from the conductor. This guy – who seemed like a rather quiet and unassuming person – was an orchestra music-making machine, and sitting next to him made me raise my game. I wanted to be just like him.

"How long did it take you to get this gig?" I asked. "I mean, did you have to do a few auditions?"

He half-smiled. "It took me 12 years, and I don't know how many auditions," he said soberly.

12 years! Are you kidding me?

It's not unusual, I came to discover over the years. Though I know a number of people who won a great orchestra job straight out of college, more often it takes a lot of time, dedication and the ability to withstand rejection. It isn't simply a matter of training to be a soloist, then deciding, oh what the heck, I'll just win an orchestra audition, that's easy.

It ain't.

One has to learn to play in an orchestra, learn to perform orchestral excerpts and learn to get through an audition day with confidence intact.

And that was the subject of our master class with David Kim, Concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, on the fourth day of the 2009 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at Juilliard. Kim worked with nine students on excerpts ranging from Mozart to Richard Strauss. (Yeah, you know the one!)

Laurie Niles and David Kim

"A lot of people are great players, and many people are thinking 'I'm going to be a soloist,'" Kim said. "Unfortunately, not all of us can be a soloist."

For those who want to try the symphony, it means getting past the audition process.

For the Philadelphia Orchestra, typically there are four rounds in an audition, the first three with a screen, so that neither candidate nor committee can see one another. For the final round, the screen comes down so that everyone can actually meet.

When you are auditioning in the first rounds, "you have no idea if there's one person or 15 behind that screen," Kim said. Typically, there are representatives from the entire orchestra, including people from each section. For a violin audition, there are good number of string players, including the concertmaster and principals from the second violin, viola and cello sections.

For the committee, "psychologically, the screen creates such a barrier," Kim said. "Our imaginations run wild. Is that my cousin? Is it that guy from the San Francisco ballet that was supposed to be coming? Is it one of our own?"

The committee votes after hearing about five people, and "any ties or better, you'll move on," Kim said. It's a long day for committee members, and you have to distinguish yourself from the many candidates they will hear all day. When someone plays a fantastic audition, Kim said, the committee members perk up. The Blackberry goes down, the New York Times goes down, the bagel goes down, and they pay attention.

When you walk out on stage for an audition, Kim said to "keep tuning to a minimum. It's important you get a good audition rhythm going, so try not to tune on stage," he said. A good rhythm might go something like: Next excerpt, boom. Next excerpt, boom. Uncomplicated musician.

The first excerpt during the master class was Mozart's Haffner Symphony (No. 35, K. 385), the first movement, played by Stefani. In Mozart, the key is cleanliness and a ringing sound, Kim said.

"Many halls accentuate when we get scrappy," Kim said. Mozart needs musicality, quality in all ranges and an excellent off-the-string technique. "I want to see all across the board, if you can do this stuff."

Mozart "is not the place to belt it out," Kim said. "Pretend you are auditioning for the Emerson String Quartet, not the Philadelphia Orchestra. Don't press the bow, let the fiddle do its work. It needs to sparkle."

"You have to be thinking, 'I have to convince the section leaders I want to be one of those people everyone wants to sit with – for the next 35 years!'" Kim said.

Some of the deadly audition sins include: playing out of tune, rushing, having an ugly sound and an overactive vibrato.

"We're looking for great violinists, but we're also looking for great musicians, because those are the ones that make the orchestra level go up and up," Kim said.

Next was Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3, and student Aysen had prepared the part that is most typically asked. (I'm guessing the part with the black-ink traffic jam.) But he asked her to play a different part – the slow beginning.

"That's the way it is in orchestra auditions, they ask for the thing you didn't prepare," Kim said.

"There are some pieces that are so awkward to do in auditions," Kim said. "If you can somehow spark something in our mind that sounds symphonic, like you understand that symphonic sound. When we're listening to these auditions, we can tell people playing one little thin line and people feeling the symphonic line."

How does one play excerpts that ask for quiet section playing, in an audition?

"People see 'piano' and they feel like they should run and turn down the volume," Kim said. "I don't think so, I think it should be character piano, it still feels like quality sound."

"It's a very dangerous game," he said. "If it's piano, do we play niente, or piano with a grain of salt? I would err on the side of playing with a good sound, in piano character." If you play a bit too loud, chances are that the concertmaster's voice will sound through the screen, asking you to try again, a little softer. This is good, it means they are interested in your playing. "If they want you to play quieter, they'll give you a chance to try it."

When the screen goes up in the final round, "I want to see how you operate the instrument," Kim said. Too much movement can be a turn-off, he said.

"You can be a little more grounded, connected to the ground for orchestra auditions," Kim said.

Also, if you can make Kim pick up his pen and write "bulletproof," then you are doing well. That means that in your off-the-string passages, "there's never any one note in the middle that doesn't sound," Kim said. It also means that after a long day, you're still in the game. Maybe you had to warm up in a cold room, maybe you forgot your sweater, maybe you ran out of food, you're tired...but you're spiccato is still spotless.

"It's got to ring," he said of the spiccato. "You can give it pianissimo character, but it has to ring."

Another deadly sin: "Another no-no is to add accents where they're not written," Kim said. "There's always going to be some technician on the committee who says, 'they added an accent in bar 443...' And that person will have followers. Audition committees are all about pack mentality."

Meredith played the first movement of Brahms Symphony No. 2. She waited a few moments to start, getting centered, but Kim nixed this idea.

"There's a certain waiting-too-long quality that doesn't get the committee on your side," Kim said. "Fearlessness is a good thing to show."

He raised another deadly no-no for Brahms: the "banana bow," which has "a little bit of a swell in the middle of the note – that hurts people," he said. Vibrato starting in the middle of the note and stopping at either end can also contribute to the banana effect. A continuous sound and continuous vibrato is what a conductor likes to hear in Brahms, like one long bow.

The Brahms excerpt "has to be so smooth and beautiful, and yet you have all these string crossings," he said.

Marie-Christine played a Haydn excerpt, from the fourth movement of Symphony 88.

Kim stressed the importance of finding the proper tempos for such pieces. He said that once, 14 years ago, he played in the finals for a concertmaster position but did not get it. "The reason I didn't get it was some of my tempos were so not-standard tempos."

In playing Haydn, you don't want a committee member to write down "no spark."

"It's got to have spark," Kim said. "Many times people are just trying to get by, just trying top play the whole thing. People can win a job on the strength of one excerpt. You need to treat each excerpt like this is the one."

What is a committee looking for, when they ask for a Haydn excerpt? "For somebody who can bounce the bow!" Kim said.

So you need to develop a spiccato you can use and trust in the most difficult situations – when you are nervous. This may mean using larger muscles, and it also may mean coming up with some quirky crutches to get you in your groove.

"Maybe I have to keep my third finger off the bow," said Kim, raising his finger off the bow dramatically, "and....I have to keep my right toes clenched," he said, looking down at his right toes, causing everyone to laugh. But if the ritual works for you, it works. "So you just do it: finger off, toes clenched, and then you can just count on it."

And the spiccato needs to be very, very even.

Undoubtedly, there will be a percussionist on the committee, Kim said, "and he'll say, 'Well, I don't know anything about the violin, so I have to look for rhythm and dynamics." You must play for that person.

"Have the same starting method every time," Kim said. "Do it 1,000 times at home the same way."

Is it okay to change the bowings, when playing an audition?

"Absolutely," Kim said. "When the screen is up, we can't tell what the bowings are. Even when it's taken down, it can be hard to tell. Don't worry about the bowings so much." In other words, choose the bowings that work best.

Another student, Stephen, played an excerpt from Barber's Symphony No. 1, and Kim warned about going sharp when the playing gets intense.

"Most violinists play sharp; it's so easy to inch up. It's so hard when someone tells you you are playing sharp -- it's like you forgot to wear your pants that day!," Kim said. "But in an orchestra audition, it can kill you. Your vibrato is going to drive it up, also. I can assure you, there is an oboist on the committee. So many times I've seen an oboist ruin someone's candidacy because they say, 'That person is playing sharp, and I don't want them in the orchestra.'"

An intense, attention-grabbing vibrato can not only throw off the pitch, but it can also turn off the committee.

"Do I want that vibrato sitting behind me for the next 30 years?" Kim said. "You want violinists who can turn off the vibrato."

During the final rounds of an audition, "sometimes the conductor will come up on stage and conduct you," Kim said. "Know the music well, so that you don't have to keep your eyes glued to the music."

Also, sometimes you'll be asked to play with other orchestra members, such as the concertmaster. Kim demonstrated this by playing a duet from Dvorak's New World Symphony "Largo" with another student, Angela.

"It's very important to give the impression that you're listening, that you're flexible," Kim said. "I would have you turn toward me, and make eye contact," Kim said. Even if you are a little shy, you need to show a willingness to work together, and eye contact is part of that. Then, try to match everything with the concertmaster: contact point, bow speed, timing, vibrato, intonation...everything.

Then there's the classic audition excerpt: the first page of Richard Strauss' "Don Juan." First of all, be sure not to rush mm 20-22 (just before A). "We get on our horses, and we're gone," he said. Don't do that.

Also, make sure to "tip your hat to tradition" and do those little things that orchestras always do in this piece, like the short little change of character before C. If you are really in doubt, you can "get in touch with a player from that orchestra" and see how they normally do those passages. Kim said he sees nothing ethically wrong with working with someone from the orchestra before an audition. "To play for somebody is a great thing."

But chances are, if you play well and the committee is interested in you, they'll give you the chance to adjust to little details they might want different. A voice will come from behind the screen, perhaps to ask you to play it at a different tempo, or to try playing it a little "warmer." The question is, can you adjust?

And what about the opening of Don Juan? Is it even possible to do it?

And what about those passages that contain double stops; do you play the double stops, or do you play divisi, as you would in orchestra?

"Try to do as many of the double stops as you can," Kim said, "but with the ones that are awkward, shamelessly do the divisi. Make your decisions and stick with them."

Kim also warned against foot stomping, for several reasons. Usually, there is a carpet runner to reduce sounds made by women's heels, but still, sometimes "it's so obvious who's a woman, and who's a man, even with the screen," Kim said. Also, "if there's a lot of walking around while you are playing, I feel a constantly unsettled feeling." Worse, if there is much audible tapping on the floor, he might make the note: "foot tapper."

"I don't want a foot tapper in my orchestra," he said. "In orchestra auditions, it's death. Don't tap your foot!"

Remember, the committee is not just deciding on a player for the orchestra, but also on a colleague that could be part of the orchestra for a very long time. This is especially important to keep in mind during the final round, when you see one another face-to-face.

"You want to be dressed a little better than everybody else," Kim said. Be gracious in speaking to the committee, if you are asked to do so, and make a good transition from silence to sound. "I want to see what kind of colleague this person is going to be," Kim said. " After all, I'm going to see this person more than I see my own children!"

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2009 Starling-Delay, day three: Monica Huggett on Baroque violin

June 2, 2009 22:39

Wouldn't you like to cast aside all the controversy on Baroque music and simply travel back in time to watch how they really played Bach? Or at least speak to someone who was there?

Last week at the 2009 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at Juilliard, Baroque violinist Monica Huggett brought that history to life, from Biber to Bach.

Laurie Niles and Monica Huggett

Huggett, who will lead Juilliard's new Historical Performance program starting this fall as Artistic Director, started with an interesting idea.

"I'm waiting for them to discover that the instrument is from the Middle East," Huggett said of the violin. Why? It has to do with King Henry VIII of England – the one who had six wives. Around 1538, Henry VIII wanted to import musicians to raise the quality of music in his court, she said. So he turned to Venice, where he found about a half-dozen skilled instrumentalists to import to his court. Except – these musicians were not actually from Venice themselves. In all likelihood, they were Jewish instrumentalists, from Spain...

Whatever the origin, "all the violins that are considered great violins were made in the Baroque era," Huggett said. During that time, the violin's shape also was perfected, though violinists did not use either chinrests or shoulder rests – those developments came later.

"One of the biggest parts of the equation of the sound of the Baroque violin is the strings," Huggett said. Until 1660, all strings were gut strings, and as rope-thick as they were, "they'd be just as well with tying up your boat." During this time, an "A" was tuned to 465 Hz (in contrast to today's standard range of A440-442). In 1660, they discovered that if you wound the bottom (G) string with silver, you could get the desired pitch with a less-thick string, and better response. But, "they actually preferred the sound of pure gut." Why?

Of course, gut strings are not as durable as our modern synthetic strings. At the beginning of the 20th century, Huggett said, if you were going to play an evening of string quartets, the first violinist would likely go through three gut E strings during that one evening alone!

The violin also did not used to be the hot-shot soloist instrument that it is considered to be today. In fact, in the early days, it scarcely had its own identity. More often, it was used for dance music, or to imitate other instruments and sounds.

"The violin was a tricky instrument, only played by professionals, and they had tricks up their sleeves," Huggett said.

For example, Baroque composer Biagio Marini wrote pieces in which the violinist has to do things like tune the upper string down a third (scordatura), or move a string over on the bridge, during the course of the piece. In other words, the basso continue plays a series of riffs, during which the violinist changes the tuning of the violin!

Huggett played us a recording of another composition that illustrated the second-class status of the violin: Carlo Farina's "Capriccio Stravagante" (1629). As we listened, Huggett narrated the rich (and hilarious) story that may well have flown straight over my head if this piece had been playing on my car radio: in this piece, the violin is made to imitate a hurdy-gurdy, a cat, dog, hen, lire, military drum, clarina, fife, cock crowing, consort of flutes...even "an inadequate organist who can't improvise polyphony," a Spanish guitar...all sounds that the audience would have recognized at the time.

The point is "what a jack-of-all-trades the violin was," she said. "We'll do whatever you want!"

By the 19th century, the violin had come a long way, "from being this instrument that no gentleman would be seen dead with, to the king of all instruments," Huggett said. It transitioned from a gritty, squeaky instrument to a bel canto instrument that was taken much more seriously.

At this point, Huggett started demonstrating, and I don't know if my little Flip video camera completely captures it, but her playing is so full of elegance, expression and a vital sense of history, it was a joy to watch everything she did, as it was to hear her explanations of why she played things in certain ways. Here is a taste for you.

First, Huggett played Heinrich Ignaz Biber's Sonata No. 3, which is one of the Mystery Sonatas (1676), music composed to help the faithful dwell on illustrations about the life of the Virgin Mary. As she played the first part of it, I felt like I was listening to a conversation with someone who had a special ability to travel in time, and who, just last week, had gone back to the 17th century to play a few concerts with Biber himself, including this piece. She was simply and unpretentiously telling us how we might like to approach the piece ourselves:

Then, as she started playing the Passacaglia from the same sonata, I started to notice the sheer beauty of Huggett's playing:

I started wanting more of her insider information, what are the secrets to Baroque playing, what is the real deal? How about this business of not vibrating in Baroque music, is that the way it's really supposed to be? And what do you do with chords, when the music would have you playing four notes at once on four strings? The first time you see such chords, you just think, what the....? And then you are told to follow the melodic line, just how do we pull this off?

A lot of it seems to be the same as today: people did not do everything the same way. And when it came to holding the violin, "there was as much chatter about how to hold the violin then as there is now." People held it at their waist, by their short rib, on their chest, sometimes on their collar bone. Huggett, from what I could see, uses a rolled-up black cloth that was attached to her shirt as a kind of shoulder rest.

Of course, the big question for everyone was, what did Monica Huggett have to say about the Bach Sonatas and Partitas (1720), the solo violin works at the heart of our repertoire? As Joel Smirnoff said the previous day, there's just no winning with these pieces. Do we play them as period pieces, or do we find a modern way? Will anyone ever accept anyone else's Bach? Probably not. And yet there's no losing with these pieces, either. We'll ever be interested in how to play these pieces, ever seeking wisdom and exploring alternatives.

"My parts are covered in white out, and little pieces of paper, and more white out, because I change my mind so much," Huggett said of her music for the Bach Sonatas and Partitas.

She had everyone play the Preludio from Bach's Partita III in E major together, and it kind of fell apart around the triple bariolage. Here's how she addressed that issue, as well as a few other aspects of this movement:

BTW, here's a link to that Sarasate recording of the Bach Preludio she spoke of at the end of the above video.

She moved on to the Bach Loure from Partita III in E major, and her story was familiar to me. When I first played this piece as a teenager, I had some romantic notions about how to play it (also about how to pronounce it, I liked pronouncing it "Laurie"!). She talked about the feel of the dance, and also about bringing out the bass in similar passages in the Sarabande from Partita I in B minor:

Huggett talked about the challenges of the B minor Partita, with its "Doubles," and how to choose the appropriate tempi. You will want watch until the end of this one, as an audience member asked her to play the Tempo di Borea Double for us, and much to everyone's delight, she did so!

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