Ponder this for a moment: playing more than an hour and a half of music brimming with harmonics, octave runs, left-hand pizzicato, high-speed arpeggios, up-bow staccato – all the fanciest licks and tricks you can imagine on the violin – with a Spanish flair.
It could give even a very accomplished violinist nightmares. Like for example, being chased through the streets of Pamplona - or maybe New York - by a big scary bull:
The married violinists Gil Shaham and Adele Anthony seem to take things in stride. Not that they didn't have to practice like crazy to prepare for the creation of the recording they released today on their own record label, Canary Classics.
"I don't remember ever preparing this hard, working this hard," said Gil a few weeks ago, when I spoke with both him and Adele over the phone. "There were times when we were playing late at night, here, squeaking up in the high register...We're lucky to have tolerant neighbors."
The recording, Sarasate Virtuoso Violin Works, was made in Valladolid, Spain in 2008 at ¡Sarasateada!, a festival celebrating the centenary of the great violinist Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908).
"It was just several months of one or the other of us playing really high, fast music. It really took a lot of practice to get it all ready," Adele said. "The more you listened to it, the more exciting it became. It was nice to hear Gil practicing his pieces that I wasn't playing, to get to know them vicariously."
When they performed at ¡Sarasateada!, "it was really kind of fun to play in front of a Spanish audience, with a Spanish orchestra," Adele said. "The audience was so familiar with Sarasate. They enjoyed the pieces they knew well, and they knew a lot of background for the dances. They had posters up everywhere, with big pictures of Sarasate on them...It was a lot of fun. It's always nice to record things, but there's nothing like performing them in front of people, getting some reception. Some of it we recorded live, and some we just recorded, but it was all done in Valladolid."
Gil and Adele not only recorded the pieces we violinists know, love and often struggle with, like Zigeunerweisen, Introduction and Tarantella, Zapateado, Habanera and Carmen Fantasy, but they also unearthed a few lesser-known works.
"Discovering more about Sarasate was amazing. We are really lucky to have this legacy," Gil said. "Maybe my favorite track on the disc, and definitely one of my favorite pieces, is the 'Song of the Nightingale' that Adele recorded, which is so beautiful. It's true, Sarasate likes all these difficult techniques, but it really is always in service of a musical message, which kind of magically appears. A lot of his other published works are arrangements of operas and works that are 'in the style of' Scottish airs, or Gypsy airs, or Spanish airs, or Spanish dances. This one is really a Sarasate-original composition. I think the same is true of Romanza Andaluza. He very humbly calls it an Andaluzian romance, but it really is a very beautiful original composition. I find that the writing has incredible perfection to it. It's very concise, it's meticulously clean, full of melodies and full of imagination."
"It was kind of an eye-opener," Adele said. "I've grown up with Sarasate, my whole violinistic life, but to discover all the repertoire he wrote – the rest of his compositions are really quite amazing. When you're younger you just learn the famous pieces that everybody plays. When we were choosing repertoire, looking at all the things he wrote, it was hard to choose! They were all interesting in their own way. I lucked out with the 'Song of the Nightingale' – that's a very interesting piece, and it's unlike any of his other compositions. It really describes the nightingale, perfectly, with a Spanish flair, and with all the violinistic fluency that comes with Sarasate. He always manages to get some left-hand pizzicato in there! It's a very beautiful piece and I really enjoyed playing it."
That's not to say they didn't enjoy doing the old favorites.
"I also love 'Introduction and Tarantella' – I've been playing that piece since I was young, so it's something that feels very at home to me," Adele said. "And we also always enjoy playing 'Navarra for Two Violins' because it's just kind of a crazy, fun piece. It's hard to take it really seriously! When we play it it's always so much fun."
I wondered what the biggest challenge was, playing so much Sarasate.
"(The Nightingale) has a lot of harmonics, and the challenge is to make it sound fluid, singing and melodic," Adele said. "In Sarasate, (the challenge is) always trying to make things sound effortless, so it doesn't impede the musical flow. But he was also a violinist, so he wrote very well for the violin – everything is possible, if you work at it hard enough."
Both Gil and Adele found inspiration from the rare recordings that Sarasate himself made in 1904.
"The legacy of his recording is so staggering," Gil said. "He's in his 60s, it's 1904, and since it's 1904, you know (the recording is) all done in one take. He's playing his own compositions. I think there are only eight works that he recorded. These are works that were recorded by all the greatest violinists of the 20th century. Sarasate's technique is so clean, and his sound is so beautiful, and his style is so perfect."
"A lot of people say that those older violinists weren't clean – but he was just amazing," Adele said. "He was just a great, great violinist."
I wondered what life is like for this married couple, both touring violinists, who have two children, Elijah, 6, and Ella Mei, 3.
First of all, not every married couple can also work together. How are they able to do this kind of intense project together, without wringing one another's necks?
"We don't play together very often, but when we do, we really have similar musical tastes, luckily," Adele said. "The nature of our relationship is not competitive, so we really enjoy playing together, we have a lot of fun. It's nice to play with someone you know so well, and you don't have to work on the more fundamentals. We always enjoy it."
As for the kids, "we try to make it work as best as we can," Gil said. "We were very lucky, I started working very young, and so when our son was born, I was very lucky to be able to cut back. So both of us play a lot less. We try to play as much as we can around New York, keep it close to home. Nowadays I try to play about 50 dates a year, and Adele does about 30. It's so complicated! Now we have four schedules around the house. We try to work it so that when Adele is working, I'm free, and when I'm working, Adele is free."
And if they are playing together? Sometimes they just take the kids on the road, Adele said.
"Your priorities completely change, the kids are the number one priority," Adele said. "We both really enjoy playing. We have limited time to practice and prepare things, and sometimes it's a real escape, to get away with your violin for a little while...maybe I enjoy it more now! We juggle our schedules, we've cut back on a lot of things so we can be home more with the kids. You don't want to miss out on the important things. I feel like we're very lucky, because we have flexible schedules to some degree, that we can spend a lot of time with our family and still have our careers at the same time. "
As for projects this fall, Gil will be touring, playing many works from the 1930s.
"When I was thinking back to violin concertos, I noticed that many of my personal favorites were all written in a very short period of time, between 1931 and 1939," Gil said. "The list is staggering, and it kind of reads like a music 101 course: Stravinsky, Berg, Bartok, Schoenberg, Prokofiev, Samuel Barber, William Walton, Benjamin Britten, Hindemith and Milhaud – they all wrote violin concertos at the same time! I love all those pieces. They're so different, too. Roger Sessions wrote a beautiful concerto, and Szymanowski, and Ernst Bloch. What an amazing time. It was kind of a coincidental confluence of violin concertos by great composers."
Gil said he is not the only person to have noticed this.
"When I played Stravinsky Concerto, earlier this season in Cleveland, I was speaking to a gentleman on the radio broadcast, and he said to me, 'What is it about 1930s, everybody was writing violin concertos, was it something in the air?' " Gil said. "And when we played it in Washington, one of the patrons came after the concert and spoke very eloquently. He said that the 1930s were a time of great turbulence and trepidation, and the feeling among the population was as if they were standing on top of a volcano, ready to erupt. Then he asked, 'How is this reflected in the music of the time, and how does that relate to our times, and to the music of our time?' Great question - and one that I'm not equipped to answer. It's very interesting to think about, it's very thought-provoking."
He'll be playing the Alban Berg Violin Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel in November, a concert I hope to report on!
Gil Shaham plays Sarasate's "Carmen Fantasy" in 2006 with Berlin Philharmonic, Claudio Abbado conducting.
It looks like Chris Thile's Mandolin Concerto "Ad astra per alas porci" is getting a positive reception, and since we featured the interview with him several days ago, I thought you might be interested in the reviews coming out of his first performance of the piece Thursday in Denver with the Colorado Symphony (and there are two more performance of it in Denver on Saturday and Sunday) :
Kyle MacMillan of the Denver Post writes in his review: "...in assessing this work, it is better to set aside the mandolinist's star status in the bluegrass world and think of him as an up-and-coming classical composer with almost unlimited potential. The 25-minute piece would have been an admirable accomplishment for anyone. But considering that the mandolinist is just 28, is not classically trained and has never written an orchestral work before, it is nothing short of astounding."
I also received a link from Denver composer Chip Michael wrote a review in his blog: "While you might have expected something bluegrass given Thile’s background in the bands Nickel Creek and The Punch Brothers, his music was completely immersed in classical style. The opening of the piece quickly had his fingers flying across the fret board of the mandolin, while the orchestra created a series of rich colors and washes behind him."
Chip called this the "world's first mandolin concerto," I'm not sure about that, could it be?
Was anyone else there at the premiere? You comments are welcome, or links to other reviews.
I plan to attend the performance in LA, after which you will all hear from me as well!
Added Sept: 23:
A mandolin is a lot like a violin, except...
"There's twice as many strings as a violin -- and half as much sonic capability," said mandolinist Chris Thile, laughing. "But it is a fun little instrument."
Thile, whose fingers seem as much at home with Bach as they are with Bluegrass, has explored the fun little instrument anew, with the creation of his concerto for mandolin and orchestra, which he premieres this Thursday with the Colorado Symphony. (He will also play the concerto in Oregon, Alabama, Los Angeles, Winston-Salem, Delaware and Portland later this season, see this page for dates.)
"The piece is really all about me stretching myself, and thus the name, Ad astra per alas porci, which is Latin for 'To the stars on the wings of a pig,'" Thile said. "It was Steinbeck's personal motto, and he would always accompany it by saying, 'I am earthbound, but aspiring.' I love that. If that doesn't describe the human condition, I don't know what does. That's what being a musician is all about to me, continually reaching out and trying to grasp things that are really sort of beyond me. Every now and then you get a little piece of it, and it just feels so good, it propels you forward, and you can grasp a little bit more the next time."
Thile, 28, has astonishing facility on his instrument. He is probably best known as the mandolinist in the band Nickel Creek, a trio which was formed in 1989, when its members were still in grade school. Over the next 18 years, the band produced three popular albums (which are permanent fixtures in my iPod, a rarity) and went on hiatus 2007.
Since that hiatus, Thile has been exploring new territory and new tonality, experimenting with his new band, Punch Brothers, playing with artists such as bassist Edgar Meyer and composing the mandolin concerto. I spoke to him on the phone on Labor Day, just before one of his Punch Brothers rehearsals.
"I feel like it was a fairly natural extension of my existing activities," Thile said of the mandolin concerto. "I had written a string quintet for what is commonly thought of as blue grass instrumentation, about two and a half years ago. It was written for Punch Brothers, and it's on our record, Punch, which is our only record. The piece is called The Blind Leaving the Blind. It is sort of weirdly the halfway point, between Nickel Creek and this mandolin concerto."
Thile began working on the concerto in December and finished it in June, and "I can't even tell you how much fun I had working on it," he said. "It was also very very stressful for me, it exists right at the ends of my musical abilities, both as a performer and as a composer and as a lover and appreciator of music."
"I feel like I've done a lot of examining of the mandolin's possibilities, but this is the culmination of my efforts in that direction thus far," Thile said. "And I like the instrument more now, having really tried to write things that maybe could only be done on the mandolin."
As far as the orchestra is concerned, "it's for mandolin and fairly-full orchestra," Thile said. "We're avoiding the trumpets and trombones, just because that's a pretty loud element to introduce to the mandolin world. Even so, I'll have to be amplified, which I hate, but we will do as tastefully as possible."
Thile said he strove for "a legitimately collaborative relationship with the orchestra, so that the relationship is not purely that of soloist and orchestra. Not that I'm in any way belittling that sort of relationship, but for me, what's more exciting is to make it as if there was a mandolin section, which I am. That isn't to say that the piece isn't still essentially driven by the mandolin part; I'm not trying to re-invent the wheel before I know how it actually works. I wanted to essentially play by the rules: the piece is in three movements, it's fairly standard instrumentation."
Will this concerto be published so others can play it?
"I have every intention of publishing it, at some point," Thile said. "It would be the most flattering thing in the world if anyone else decided they wanted to take a whack at it. It's certainly not a piece that's written as a personal manifesto about mandolin playing; it's not something I intend only to be possible from my hands. It's a very difficult piece and does have some improvisatory elements, but they're directed properly; theoretically. Someone would know what to do. It's not like all of a sudden the mandolin writing is blank, it has little directions."
"Really, in my mind, that's going back to the way concertos used to be written: the performer always had to improvise during the course of the performance – at least the cadenza," Thile said. "None of that is left to chance at the moment any more, and to me that betrays music's inherent spontaneity and urgency, when every last thing is scored out. I even toyed with the idea of trying to get some improvisatory element into the orchestra writing and then ultimately decided not to. For my first orchestral adventure, I wanted to keep it between the lines."
I wondered if the concerto would sound like Bluegrass.
"No, I wouldn't think," Thile said. "Then again, it could strike someone who doesn't have much in the way of Bluegrass background as having some of that flavor to it."
"I'm just a bad judge of that kind of thing, because it all sounds the same to me, really, as far as the way I'm evaluating music at this point," Thile said. "An A chord is an A chord, whether it's Bluegrass or whether through some crazy pattern, Berg hits an A chord, it's still an A chord. It's the same thing, there's no difference. The differences are all purely aesthetic, not structural. So I'm kind of a bad person to ask about that."
"The piece is sort of only precariously tonal, and it exists out on the fringes of tonality," Thile said. "It's still tonal, but maybe people not super-familiar with atonal music would find it to be fairly jarring at times."
"I would feel like a failure if it was a stylistic mash-up. Like, ooo, here we go, combining Bluegrass and Classical music, yay! To me, that's gimmicky, a very superficial synthesis," Thile said. "I'm looking for soup, not stew. I don't want to see the carrots, and the potatoes, and there's the beef...I want it to just be a color, and you can guess what's in it. That's always more interesting to me."
"I would love to be part of that ever-growing mass of composers and performers who are striving to re-integrate all these things. When this sort of thing works, it works because one is blind to the differences and is really only noticing the striking similarities between good music and good music," Thile said, "as opposed to saying: in Bluegrass music there's sort of this happy, kind of a hop-swingy thing, and there are banjoes! And in classical music, things are really complicated all the time! And here we go! Count it off!"
"To me, there's a lot of that kind of thing, superficial collaboration," Thile said. "But I would like to couch all of this by saying, I am in no way saying that I have succeeded in properly creating a real, thorough synthesis!" (He laughs) "But that is the goal, that is what I'm trying to do, and it's not even a synthesis; in my mind it would be absurd to ever separate the thing. To exclude certain elements of well-made music from your palette, as a composer, as a person who thinks seriously about music, just doesn't make sense, it doesn't compute."
Thile did an album in 2004 called Deceiver, in which he played every instrument on the album: not only mandolin, but also guitars, bass, drums, fiddles, percussion, piano, keyboards, and vocals.
I asked him about playing all these different kinds of instruments.
"I can. I shouldn't, though," Thile said. "Really, the mandolin is the only thing I play with any kind of proficiency, and increasingly, it's really all I play. In my non-existent spare time I try to teach myself how to play the piano, which I'm really sort of at 'I'm a Little Teapot,' kind of a level right now. Multi-instrumentalism is really something that lost its luster to me once I started hearing people like Glenn Gould, just going, Oh my God, if I'm ever to play anything with as much substance, I'm really going to have to focus. So I kind of ditched the idea of playing all those various instruments."
I told him that when I was dabbling with the mandolin over the summer, I found Thile's mandolin tutorial, which he made some 10 years ago for Homespun Recordings. He laughed and said he couldn't vouch for anything he'd made so long ago. Nonetheless, it helped me quite a lot and changed the way I held a pick. I wondered if there was any controversy in the mandolin world about how to hold a pick – like our shoulder rest wars.
"There is, and I take a very hard line about it. I really do feel like there's a right way," Thile said. "Hold your hand out, relaxed, insert the pick, and move your hand as little as you can to support the pick, and that should be your hold. Basically, contorting your hand the least amount possible. I think that's always the best pick hold. Of course, that means that it's going to be a little bit different for everybody, but so is holding a bow."
He had mentioned, in the tutorial, to think of holding the pick almost to the point where it is falling out of the hand. It's not bad advice for a bow hold, as well.
"It's always the illusion of control," Thile said to me. "When you're grasping something hard, you're actually losing control. Your muscles certainly move less precisely when they are clenched."
The tutorial actually has instructions and sheet music for Thile's Ode To a Butterfly, which he wrote for Nickel Creek's first album – in this 10-year-old DVD, he'd just written it. I realized, he's been contributing to the mandolin oeuvre since he was a teenager. Is he a really composer at heart, or a performer?
"I think I'm right in the middle," Thile said. "I get so much out of composing music, but I get a whole lot out of performing it as well. I'm not happy when I'm doing too much of either. I need a little of the other, or I don't feel like I've struck balance. I feel like my life as an instrumentalist impacts my life as a composer, and vice-versa."
Thile acknowledged that this song, written about a James Joyce story, "points more toward the kind of harmony that I started getting more and more interested in." The song was written by by Thile and Nickel Creek violinist Sara Watkins, for Nickel Creek's album, "Why Should the Fire Die?" It's my favorite, enjoy.
I enjoyed reading V.com member Brian Hong's piece earlier this week about people playing pieces before they are ready. Brian is 15, and his thoughts provoked a veritable flame war. I know, from being on the Internet nearly as long as Brian has been alive, that it's a little weird to be the author when something like that happens, but Brian, it's all goodness. You made people argue, talk...even think.
As usual, Chicago-based violinist Rachel Barton Pine is very, very busy these days. Next Tuesday is her New York recital debut, and on the same day she releases a compilation of her own compositions, called The Rachel Barton Pine Collection. This is in addition to the release of a new album by her Baroque group, Trio Settecento, later this month, called A German Bouquet.
We have chatted before, and as always, Rachel is profoundly engaged with all of her projects, eager to explore and share her insights on deep mysteries of violindom, such as, who inspired Bach to write the Sonatas and Partitas we violinists hold so dear? And, could a mere mortal like me write a cadenza, when greats like Joachim wrote such definitive ones? And, what do you mean, playing in a Baroque trio is really like jammin' in a band?
But first, I had a rather more obvious question for this veteran of the concert stage:
Laurie: Have you really never played a solo recital in New York?
She asked me if I'd like to bring in my chamber group, and I couldn't do that because Trio Settecento is already booked to play at the Miller Theatre in December, so I said, "As it turns out, somehow I've never done my New York recital debut. Why don't we just do that?" So that's how it happened.
Laurie: Tell me about what you are playing.
Rachel: I'll start with the second piece on the program, Mendelssohn's F major sonata, which is one of my all-time favorite sonatas. Of course, it's Mendelssohn's big anniversary year, and Elmira specifically requested that sonata. I said I was going to play it anyway!
I actually got to know the piece back in 1992, when I was 17 and participating in the Bach International Competition in Leipzig. It was a required piece for all of the contestants. Besides winning the gold medal, I also won the special prize for the best performance of that sonata, which could have gone to any of the contestants, regardless of whether they were a laureate. I really just fell in love with the piece then, and I've performed it very often since then. So regardless of the fact that it's Mendelssohn's anniversary year, I'd always considered that one to be among my top finalists for potential inclusion in my eventual New York debut!
The 1838 sonata is one of Mendelssohn's latest works. It was not published during his lifetime or even shortly after, despite being a fully mature work, absolutely the pinnacle of his art, fully completed – there was no reason not to publish it, but somehow it just wasn't. I guess the manuscript languished, until 1953, when Menuhin found it in a library. So it's quite an amazing story, the fact that it was sort of lost for a century. He'd written an earlier sonata in F minor, in 1823, and that one was published, but this 1838 is really the superior work, and it's one of his best compositions. It has the typical Mendelssohnian lightness to it, but it also has great, great depth.
So then, I thought, when you think of Mendelssohn, you always think of Bach, and Bach is the obvious thing to do. But then I thought, what about the guy who inspired Bach's unaccompanied sonatas? Why don't I do (Johann Georg) Pisendel? The interesting thing about the Pisendel unaccompanied sonata is that it's actually considered to be very likely – it can't be 100 percent proven – but there is very compelling circumstantial evidence that this was a piece that inspired the creation of Bach's Six Unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas.
Laurie: That sort of gives me chills to think about!
Rachel: Pisendel was the greatest violinist in Germany during his lifetime: he was concertmaster at Dresden and just a great virtuoso. We do know that Bach was familiar with him and his playing, and it's very intriguing, the idea that right after Pisendel writes this sonata, in its unusual format for unaccompanied violin, Bach picks up his pen and writes his. What's especially interesting is that the last movement of Pisendel's sonata is a gigue with a variation, and Bach's first dance suite, his Partita No. 1, was a set of dance movements with variations (doubles). The standard Baroque dance suite for a performed sonata was allemande-courante-sarabande-gigue, and yet in his Partita No. 1, Bach does allemande-courante-sarabande-bourree. So maybe he didn't want to step on Pisendel's toes (by doing a gigue).
There are also accounts of Pisendel performing unaccompanied three-voice fugues. We know that he didn't write any of his own. Of course, in those days, he could have perhaps been improvising them, but more likely, he probably was playing Bach's. He probably was the only violinist during Bach's lifetime, besides Bach himself, to play Bach's unaccompanied violin works. So the connections are pretty incredible, and with everything we know about Mendelssohn revering Bach and resurrecting Bach, I thought that it would fun to go one step further, with Pisendel, and lead into Mendelssohn that way.
Laurie: I think of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas barely escaping being used for butter wrappings...
Rachel: That's actually a bit of an urban legend. It was only a copy, not the one-and-only manuscript, in that story. But still, it's a pretty good tale!
Laurie: Since you've researched this very thoroughly, what about Part II, of the solo Sonatas and Partitas for violin? The ones we play are labeled "Part I."
Rachel: Actually, because we do not have Bach's original manuscript of the six Cello Suites, I agree with the theory that the six Cellos Suites are the "Part II." Think about the context: with the violin works, Bach is trying to see how much density he can create in a not-naturally-polyphonic instrument. In the cello works , Bach is actually going in the total opposite direction in terms of almost seeing how few notes he can use to still imply polyphony, really going as spare with his textures as he can, to really let the ear fill in the gaps. It's also suspected that he may have originally composed on a viola de spalla. Bach played the violin and also the viola; there are some intervals in the cello suites that really are not-quite-reachable by a cellist's hand. It would make sense that if Bach was writing, he would have had the viola in his hands, and possibly even this instrument called a viola de spalla, which was not exactly a viola, but kind of a bigger, bass-ier instrument, still held on the shoulder, that used to sometimes take the place of the cello in ensembles. That's a little more controversial part of the theory.
I don't think that the 19th century people's idea that these were "theoretical pieces only" is at all reasonable. I think he meant for them to be played. There are accounts of Bach playing violin fugues in church. But I also think that they were, like many of his pieces, also exercises in experimentation, and it really does make two sides of the same coin: to see how many notes, or how few notes, you could use to explore this world of polyphony on the four-stringed instrument.
Laurie: Tell me more about the Pisendel Sonata.
Rachel: The Pisendel Sonata is a very strange creature. It's neither a sonata de camera – a chamber sonata, which is a dance suite, that Bach called his "Partitas," – nor is it a sonata de chiesa – a church sonata, which is typically slow movement, fugue, slow movement, fast movement. The first two movements look like they are the first two movements of a sonata de chiesa: a slow opening movement, just like the openings of Bach's G minor and A minor sonata, a lot of written-out, improvised ornamentation. Very imaginative, very spontaneous, and slow. And the second movement, while it's not fugal, it's definitely polyphonic and definitely a serious movement, not at all a dance movement. And then suddenly you have this Gigue and Variation. The sonata feels balanced, but it's a very unusual grouping.
Laurie: Like you go to church and then dance a gigue...
Rachel: Yes, or like those children's flip books, where you have the head of an ostrich and the tail of an alligator! Who knows why he did it; he was pretty orthodox in a lot of his other compositions. All I can think is, the fact that an unaccompanied sonata was such an unusual thing, I guess he felt that he didn't have to abide by any restrictions, because that genre didn't have as hard-and-fast conventions as did sonatas with continuo.
And besides all these historically interesting things that I've been talking about, it's an absolutely beautiful piece. Ultimately, that's the arbiter of whether to perform something or not!
The John Corigliano Sonata is the other big sonata that I'm playing.
Laurie: Is this the "Red Violin" piece?
Rachel: No, this is actually the sonata that he wrote in the 1960s for his father, John Corigliano Sr., the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic. It was one of his first major works that hit the mainstream, and interestingly, it's one of the only second-half-of-the-20th-century violin sonatas that's made it into the violin repertory. It really does deserve that place in the repertoire, because it's a masterpiece. It's everything that we think of as Corigliano: well-crafted, imaginative, modern and contemporary, but without being unappealing in any way. It's very accessible, but without being pandering.
What I've always enjoyed about John Corigliano is that he seems to be very true to his own voice, but at the same time, he does do what composers of previous centuries all did, which is, write for his audience, write a piece that is meant to be embraced by an audience.
The Corigliano Sonata is in four movements, and it's a very melodic as well as virtuosic piece, with wonderful interplay between the violin and the piano. He describes the character of the sonata overall as "optimistic." I can't recall ever hearing a composer describe their own sonata with that word. With everything going on in people's lives today, and in our country, an optimistic sonata is definitely a good one to take out there. It's not a piece that is unrelentingly cheerful to the point of getting annoying. The third movement, which is the slowest movement, is very dark and brooding. But overall, the feeling the sonata leaves you with, is an uplifting one.
Laurie: I suppose that optimism isn't unrelentingly cheerful, not really.
Rachel: There would be no reason to define yourself as optimistic if you weren't faced with the decision: is the glass half full or half empty?
For the last piece...normally I'd play a big violin showpiece. That being said, this is the New York Chamber Music Festival, and the organizer specifically asked me not to do something where the piano would have a merely accompanying role.. So, how could I achieve my goals while still adhering to her vision? I thought of the perfect piece: the Franz Lizst Hungarian Rhapsody, for violin and piano. It's actually his Rhapsody No. 12 in C sharp minor, originally written for piano during his early virtuosic period, and about 40 years later, during his impressionistic chamber music period, the period from which we much less frequently hear the works of Lizst, even though they're phenomenal, he actually went back to this piece and transcribed it, with some input from Josef Joachim, for violin and piano.
It's a fascinating piece. It's a true work of chamber music, the violin and piano parts not only are equally important and equally virtuosic, but there's also a lot of interplay between them. I would describe the piece as Lizst's further thoughts upon the subject, not just a transcription. He eliminates sections, he adds entirely new sections, he changes the figuration, he changes the order of some of the bits of music, and he really rearranges it, besides changing the instrumentation. It really is transformed into an entirely new work. It's this incredible duet, where the pianist has Liszt-ian stuff all over the keyboard, and the violinist has everything from runs to fingered octaves to all kinds of crazy stuff. Yet it's still, at its heart, clearly a work of chamber music. So it's an amazing and unique piece.
Laurie: I don't think I've ever heard it!
Rachel: It's almost never played. The music is out of print. I was able to acquire it through the kindness of the Liszt Society in London. I'd made an album in 1997 of original violin works of Franz Liszt, it was half of a planned two-disc survey, and of course Dorian Recordings, which I made my Sarasate and Liszt recordings with early on in my recording career, was out of business for a long time – disc two was never made, and the Hungarian Rhapsody was planned for disc two. So I was planning to record it, but hadn't yet. I do still plan to record it, maybe for Liszt's anniversary...
Laurie: It doesn't sound like the kind of piece where you call the pianist in at the last minute and say, "Okay, play this!"
Rachel: Exactly. And it's not something that even a lot of very fine collaborative pianists might be up to. But Matt Hagle, my regular collaborator, is an absolute virtuoso in his own right. So it's great to have somebody that is a wonderful artist for sonatas, and a sensitive accompanist for the type of character pieces and recitativo things that I would ever want to do, like some of the Maud Powell albumleaf pieces or a Sarasate Carmen Fantasy, and he also has all the chops and the fiery virtuosity to join me on this Liszt thing.
Laurie: Tell me about your book, what's in it, and what let to that project?
Rachel: It's really a dream come true, the fact that it will be sold everywhere one can buy Carl Fischer books. And best of all, all the people who have been asking me, all through the years, I want to play this piece, and that piece that I heard you perform or that I heard on your CD and where can I find the sheet music, all these years I've been saying "I'm so sorry, I wish I could give you this but I don't have it available..." Now I can finally say, "Yes! It is available, you can buy it!"
There are some of my own original compositions, like my "Introduction, Theme and Variations on God Defend New Zealand," my "Introduction, Theme and Variations on 'The Birthday Song,'" and then another category is transcriptions, things like my "Star Spangled Banner," my arrangement of Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique which appeared on my Instrument of the Devil album; my arrangement of Caprice on Dixie which appeared on my Maud Powell album: all the different pieces that have appeared on all of my recordings, and my own various cadenzas, like Brahms, Beethoven, all the Mozarts, Paganini; and my editions with cadenzas of the Meude-Monpas Concerto and the J.C. Bach "Sinfonia Concertante" for violin and cello, which will actually be the first edition of that work with a piano reduction. It also has my edition of Albéniz: Asturias, which will be on my upcoming album, Capricho Latino, which will be released in May 2010.
The one exception is my rock arrangements from my Storming the Citadel CD. I'm still working on getting the sheet music for that stuff into the computer, and I'll be sure to let you know when it's ready.
Laurie: You must have had a pile a mile high, of all these pieces you'd composed and arranged.
Rachel: Yes. For a long time, a lot of them existed only in my brain, and of course, on recordings. They were on live concert recordings, but they'd never been written down anywhere. So to sit down and type them into Finale in the first place, was quite the undertaking.
What you have to always decide is, should I keep these pieces to myself, should I be the only one to perform my own pieces and arrangements? I thought about that for a while, and I ultimately decided that I don't see any point in hoarding my music like that. I would rather that more violinists get to enjoy it, and more audiences get to enjoy it. My friend Mark O'Connor always talks about what an overwhelming experience it is when he hears somebody else playing one of his compositions. I just can't wait for the first time when I get an e-mail from somebody saying, "Hey, I just performed your whatever-it-is."
As exciting as it would be for me to know that somebody else performed one of my things, it would be even more exciting for someone to say, 'I just performed my own Mozart cadenza, knowing that you had taken that step, that inspired me to do that.' I hope my book can show that a young, living person today can still do what the old dead guys did. I don't think I'm the only person capable of doing that, at all. Anybody can do it, if they just give it a try.
When I was a student, I used to think, I could never write a cadenza as good as Joachim. Then after I started writing cadenzas, in my teens, I realized, that's not even a legitimate way to look at things. It's not about whether yours is as good as somebody else's – yours is the only one that can be authentically you. If you perform your own pieces, that's how you'll be most authentic.
Laurie: When you wrote your own cadenzas, did you just sort of noodle around until you came upon what you liked, or were you doing it in your head, or a combination?
Rachel: Mostly with the violin in hand. Actually, I have a whole podcast episode about how to write your own cadenza. I went about it a bit methodically. Not really methodical from a theoretical standpoint, but say, for a Mozart cadenza: I would take a bunch of different existing ones that you can buy in the store -- various printed versions – and I gathered some data from them: I counted up how many measures each of them was – to get a sense of how short the shortest one was or how long the longest one was, just to know how long mine probably should be, to fit within the norm. Then I would look at how many different themes, or bits of musical material, each one used. It's interesting, some cadenzas will be built on only five bits of material, some cadenzas will reference as many as 12. Then I wanted to see which ones people were using, and also go to the orchestral score, not just the solo violin part. I would take a piece of music manuscript paper and make a list of all the bits of material I had to work with, that I could draw upon.
Then I would just start improvising. Now, you don't have to be an improviser to improvise – you don't have to be a person who can get up with a group of improvising musicians and play along. You can take a theme, and you can fool around with it. What would this major-key theme be like if I played it in a minor key? What would it be like if I added a trill? What if I added a descant variation? What would it be like if I made it into triplets? You can look at other people's cadenzas and start to see the types of things they did with a theme. Do they play it four times, going around the circle of fifths? Do they play it twice as fast to make it into a little virtuosic lick? Do they play it in octaves? You don't want to copy anybody's idea, but let's say, they played the second theme in octaves, you could say, what happens if I play the third theme in octaves? Does that one work in octaves? There are only so many things you can do on the violin, like having the melody in one voice, with accompanimental voice trilling, Kreisler did that in part of his Brahms cadenza, that's a standard trick. So you can try that trick with other themes and see if it works for one of them.
The other thing is key changes. I would take other people's cadenzas and find where they were transitioning, where they landed in a new key, and see how many different tonics, major and minor, did they pass through, before they came to the end of the cadenza? Sometimes they would go through three keys, sometimes six keys. How many keys should I pass through to make this cadenza interesting? That is the number one mistake that somebody can make:. They can do all kinds of interesting things rhythmically, with variations, using different bits of the material, all this creative stuff, and then when you look at their final product, you realize that the entire cadenza is in only one key.
Laurie: Then it's boring.
Rachel: No matter what they do, it doesn't work. You have to change keys. You don't have to do it obsessively, like every two bars, but just make sure you do it enough that it has some development.
Studying existing cadenzas for a work that has had cadenzas written for it is a great jumping-off point because you can analyze all these things. From that, you can start to figure out the parameters you need to use when building your own cadenza.
Laurie: It sounds like a really fun project.
Rachel: It is! And even if you go through all of that, and you write a cadenza, and you're too chicken to play it in public – you shouldn't be, but let's just say you really are – it wasn't wasted time. The thing that most surprised me when I started composing was that I realized I was having a whole new set of insights, as an interpreter, that I never would have had, had I not been a creator. After crafting your own cadenza, when you go back to Joachim's cadenza to the Mozart concerto, you realize, wait, over here he's having this little spontaneous connector bit before he arrives at his next idea, and now you know it's not just these notes and these notes, but this one is the connector bit and this one is the main idea. You may have never noticed that if you hadn't been crafting your own.
Laurie: Tell me about your new CD, A German Bouquet.
Rachel: It's actually the second in a planned multi-CD series with my chamber group, Trio Settecento. A lot of period instrument albums of the Baroque period focus on a very narrow swath of the repertoire, a particular composer or set of works. We've taken the opposite approach, representing broad regions, kind of like we would do in a concert. What's interesting about our period instrument ensemble is I really have a foot in both worlds, I've been involved in historically-informed performance since age 14, I'm not a concert artist who just recently discovered this world. I've been steeped in it since I was a student. I also spent more of my time in the traditional concert world. So I'm in the position of being a fully legitimate period instrument performer, but not a specialist, kind of a switch-hitter. In a way, this means we get to introduce this historically-informed stuff to regular violin fans.
Both John Mark Rozendaal, the bowed-bass player, and David Schrader, who plays the various keyboard instruments, were some of my original period instrument coaches when I was a student. Then in 1996, Cedille Records invited me to record an album of the complete Handel Sonatas, and they said I could do it with any accompaniment I wanted, and so I said I wanted to do it with legitimate basso continuo -- with Baroque cello and harpsichord – and I know just the two guys I want!
The Handel Sonatas was a kind of half-way in the middle approach, I used A=440, I used a modernized 1617 Amati, but with a Baroque bow, with a modern use of vibrato but historically informed phrasing and my own original ornamentation. It was sort of contemporary and period instrument performance blended together. The album got so much attention, people started asking, when is your trio performing again? And we really had only been together to do the album, but we had so much fun playing together. So we formed Trio Settecento in 1997.
It's been really fun to evolve with these artists, it's one of those amazing experiences that you can only have with a permanently-formed, long-time chamber ensemble, where you really can sense each other's ideas and really breathe as one. What's fun about the fact that we play Baroque period music is that not only do you have all those pleasures you have with a string quartet, but you have the added pleasure of improvisation. We do get to make up a lot of our own notes. David will be doing some realization in his right hand, because most of the keyboard parts are bassline with chord numbers. He plays the bassline with his left hand and improvises his right hand. He'll play some kind of clever thing, and then John Mark might play a little response to that on the cello, and I'll add a little something in the violin part to blend with that – and we're really getting to jam in concert. That kind of spontaneity is so fun, it's like a jazz ensemble or something.
Our first album under our own name came out a few years ago, and it was called An Italian Sojourn, and it was 17th- and 18th-century Italian music, and this album focuses on 17th- and 18th-century German music. Our next one is going to be French, and then after that British.
With Germany, Bach looms so large, that everything comes back to him. There's nobody like Bach, nobody can touch him. But Erlebach, the beauties of his harmonies are just so exquisite. And Muffat, with all of his stream-of-consciousness type architecture; and the cheerfulness, the exuberance, of Buxtehude. Each of these guys had a particular personality, and while Bach is the best, the world would be so much less rich without all these other wonderful voices. I think people are going to have a lot of fun discovering Krieger, and Schop, and Schmelzer. People who are Baroque fanatics might have already heard of them, but people who just love the violin may not have discovered them yet.
If you've tuned in to National Public Radio at the right time, you may have heard From the Top, the weekly show hosted by pianist Christopher O'Riley, featuring the talents of young musicians from across America. O'Riley not only interviews the musicians, but he also accompanies them. The show is in its 10th season and last week it released a CD called From the Top at the Pops, showcasting the talents of young violinists we know such as Chad Hoopes and Caroline Goulding, as well as young pianists Ji-Yong Kim and Hilda Huang; cellist Matthew Allen; composer Stephen Feigenbaum and tenor saxophonist Corey Dundee. These young musicians had the chance to perform and record with the Cincinnati Pops, and to work with conductor Erich Kunzel, who died earlier this week.
Earlier this summer, I talked to Christopher about "From the Top," about collaborative playing, and about his life as a performing artist.
Laurie: How did you get started with "From the Top"?
Christopher: The founders and the executive producers of the program were associated with New England Conservatory of Music, which was where I went to school, and they knew of me there as an alum. The Conservatory's performing arts hall, Jordan Hall, had just been given landmark status, and it had been given a facelift. So Gerald Slavet and and Jennifer Hurley-Wales, who now are co-founders and executive producers of the show, thought it would be nice to have some kind of radio show housed there, with Jordan Hall as the broadcast home.
A Prairie Home Companion was a major model for the program, but it also, Gerry had helped to tour the preparatory division orchestra at the conservatory. He had seen these kids on the road, and he saw how hard they worked. He thought it would be a great thing to have the kind of outlet for high school musicians that high school athletes often have on local T.V., and do this on a nationwide basis. When he approached me about it, I thought it was a great idea, too. I really felt as if the audience for classical music was dying, and I didn't feel that any of the efforts to revitalize it were anything more than, say, turning the brochure into a Harlequin Romance.
There are great musicians that have made the connection with the audience to a wonderful degree, especially in the cause of new music, like Leonard Slatkin, who has been speaking to audiences from the stage for decades. That kind of speech is great, but it's really the cognizanti of the music world, speaking to an audience who may or may not be familiar with the lexicon or the context. Whereas, if you have a pre-college kid playing for five minutes and talking about what else they do in their life, that kid is making a connection – a true connection – with the audience. The audience gives the music a chance because they like this kid, because feel a commonality with him or her. It's similar to the way that the Tonight Show has always had all kinds of publicity for movie launches. We're fascinated by people who are performers, actors and musicians, because we want to feel that commonality, that empathy with the performer. That's not really something that's been available to classical music, and I'm glad that we are at the forefront of providing exactly that kind of arena for these kids.
Laurie: Not only are you bringing in an audience members who can identify with the kids, but you're bringing in the kids themselves.
Christopher: Sure. We are a well-known entity now. These kids who are working their butts off now in an orchestra or on their own, or doing competitions, are not feeling like the odd kid on the block, who's working away on the Wieniawski. These are kids who get the same respect as the football player, or quarterback, or the tennis star.
Laurie: Did you feel like the odd kid on the block when you were growing up?
Christopher: Of course! I grew up in Evanston, Illinois... I was pretty conscious of what the music scene was. But I was one of maybe two or three kids in an affluent suburb, who played the piano at a level of proficiency. Virtually nobody aside from those people would know the first thing about it. That's how I got into popular music; I thought, well I love music, but I don't love having no friends. So why don't I try this?
Laurie: So are these kids "normal kids"?
Christopher: It's interesting, because a lot of people get the impression that we're going after only the kids who can really play well, and their second career is as a stand-up comedian. The idea is just to be true to their personality. For instance, if somebody doesn't have anything to talk about, aside from the music, then, well, let's talk shop! We talk about what they want to talk about, we don't try to fit them into a mold. Of course, the laughlines are what a lot of people look for in the live show. But the audience is really taken away by the communication skills of these kids, not only musically, but personally, as they should be.
Laurie: It sounds like this was a really good fit for you. You've been doing this for 10 years, you must enjoy it.
Christopher: I do enjoy it, and I get less uncomfortable in situations where the kids have one-word answers The key there is not to fill the space and wise-crack, but to let them have their space. It's not an alienating space of dead air, it's a space of dead air that tells the audience, this kid is completely concentrated. You're going to hear the important stuff from this kid when he or she plays. That comes across, and I'm happier with it now. Again, we're not trying to fit kids into our sort-of ideal, all-pleasing cubbyholes.
Laurie: You're getting to know these kids, and you're seeing them so often...We talk about the kids being the future, it seems to me you probably get to look into a kind of a crystal ball. How do you think the kids are going to change the future of classical music? What kinds of patterns are you seeing?
Christopher: First of all, they have a much wider range of available material. When I was coming up, unless you were a complete geek, haunting the historical recordings counter at Tower Records, you would never know anything, particularly in the violinist community. The Sony flavor-of-the-month violinists were literally the only violinists that the kids of my generation knew about. They hadn't heard Mischa Elman. Now, if a kid is working on the Bartok Rhapsody, they can go to YouTube and find a clip of Szigeti playing. Often times, when I talk to them, they have voracious appetites, they're wanting to soak up the styles, soak up the different ways of doing things. They also have great teachers. They get to a certain point because the training is quite good, and more often than not, I find that teachers are instilling or nurturing this feeling of researching, of searching through the available material.
That's one thing, the other is that they're much more in touch with each other. They're much more in touch with making the best of the time that they have in school, in music camp, with their colleagues in the orchestra, with their colleagues in the string quartet. It's not time-serving, it's real passion behind what these kids are doing. That has improved, not just because the kids are great, but because the teaching and the sense of community and the sense of enthusiasm for all the various large-scale musical events that they take part in – the bar has been raised. It's really a good time.
Laurie: Sometimes parents really push their kids, and yet in other cases, the passion is coming straight from the young musician. Do you see any of this?
Christopher: I can say that we see a lot of stage moms and dads on the show. You can tell when the performance is a product of pressures and expectations, and when it's the result of joy and passion and mutual support. It's quite clear, what's going on, when the music starts.
Laurie: On this "From the Top at the Pops" CD, you play the Mendelssohn Concerto for Violin, Piano and Strings in D minor with Caroline Goulding, and you also collaborated with her on her debut CD. How did that come about?
Christopher: We've played together on the show a lot. She had this idea of our doing the Mendelssohn , so we did it a couple of times this past season, once down in Florida and once in Louisville, then of course with the Cincinnati Pops. It was fun, it was great working with her. A lot of the time we were working on that concerto in conjunction with the music for (her debut recording). That kind of high-level playing really tells, I think. It helps the recording process along quite nicely.
Laurie: Not everyone is always gracious when they collaborate with a pianist, especially us hot-shot violinists. Maybe you have some advise for us?
Christopher: I find that I'm happiest carrying the ball, carrying all the responsibility on my own shoulders. I studied chamber music with Benjamin Zander, who also had a studio of cellists at the music conservatory. He never pulled any punches in saying: Look, you're playing with a lyrical instrument, an instrument capable of sustenuto. The piano is a percussion instrument. You have it within your capability to either kill any chance of line, by giving in to the natural instincts of how the piano works as a machine, or to take the edges off and make more of a sustenuto instrument out of the piano. That makes it possible for the violinist or cellist to do their best. You can absolutely kill a performance by not paying attention to difference between the sustained instruments and the percussion.
So if they don't sound good, it's my fault. It's all about generosity. It's not about ceding center stage, it's about making sure that your partner is playing their best. It's a very subtle thing, but it also works as a continual source of amazement to me, as a pianist who works by myself constantly, to be exposed to these different senses of rubato and different phrasings that all of our guests have. Often they have a feeling like they should be a little bit clearer because some pianists hasn't been able to figure out where they were...If I'm not with you, it's my fault. I want you to play exactly the way you want to play.
Laurie: You've probably played many works with violinists; I wonder what your favorites are. What has the funnest piano part?
Christopher: Strauss Sonata is great, the Ravel Sonata has always been a big favorite of mine, the Enescu – Bobby McDuffie introduced me to the Enescu Sonata.
Laurie: I understand that you are an avid reader. What is your favorite book of late?
Christopher: Probably... it depends. I read a lot of noir, I read a lot of crime novels, so Megan Abbott is a favorite of late, she's somebody I've just recently discovered; Stephen Graham Jones just wrote an autobiographical novel, but that's not even published so you can't even say the title; and of course the late Roberto Bolaño has written some very important books; I think my favorite recently is The Savage Detectives.
I made a policy a while ago to read everything that I buy before I put it on the shelf. So that morphed from one pile of books on my piano to five huge stacks underneath my piano. But they've all been sort of arranged so that there's a crime novel between Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine...I've got a lot of books to read. A few of them don't take more than a day. I read on the stair machine, and I read on airplanes, so that's already a lot of reading time. And summertime is sort of lazy.
Laurie: Do you have anything else coming up that you would like to tell people about?
Christopher: Yes, I have a White Tie record (that was just released) August 8th, called Out of My Hands. It features my own arrangements of lots of different bands, not just one band: Pink Floyd, Nirvana, Tori Amos, REM and a few others.
Laurie: It's neat that you're crossing over like this.
Christopher: I just kind of play what I like, and luckily, I like Schumann, and I like Elliott Smith, I like Ravel, and I like Radiohead, so I'm having a good time.
Laurie: It seems like, more and more, that's better accepted.
Christopher: Oh absolutely. I think that I'm well-suited for "From the Top." If you're a 16-year-old soprano doing Handel on the show and then in a social moment you disclose that you're an avid fan of a Korean hip-hop band and you collect all their magazines and their videos, etc., I'm kind of living proof that that's all right. They couldn't tell their teacher that, probably, but it's okay to tell me that. And it's public radio, no one will know anyway, right?
Actually, Chris, a lot of us are listening, and liking what we hear:
Well everyone, I've been having a hard time blogging lately because I'm completely addled from smoke inhalation.
You may have heard of the tremendous wildfires in the Los Angeles area. In the case of the Station Fire, the "area" would be the one where I live, Pasadena and the nearby foothill communities. Thankfully, I don't live on the hillside, so my home isn't threated by fire, but the mountains I can see from my front steps have been belching smoke for nearly a week, many of my friends have been evacuated, and many more live in the area where the fire is doing its worst. Fortunately, many of those friends have returned home, and the big TV and radio towers I see from my home, as well as the historic Mount Wilson Observatory, all look like they might be spared.
But the smoke! Here's a sample of how this thing was churning a few days ago:
Much smoke seems to have settled over us at the moment, as well as a thin layer of ash over everything. Including, I think, our brains. I suspect the oxygen deprivation is making us all clumsy and stupid. For example, when I was getting a parking pass stamped yesterday at a coffee house, the barista stamped my card, then handed me the stamper and placed my card on her register. "Um..." I said. "Yes?" she said politely. "The pass?" She smiled politely. "You need this, right?" I said, holding up the stamper. She didn't get it until I physically switched the two. Everyone is driving erratically, it's just bad.
Today, on the way to my son's piano lesson, I saw this, ahem, very impressive plane circling right above us. In fact, we dragged my son's teacher, out into the street so she could see the action: the smoke billowing from the mountaintop, the giant super-scooper plane circling, a half-dozen other helicopters making passes at the mountain.
All day, the sun's light shone a weak yellow, filtered through a veil of acrid smoke. Tonight an orange moon hangs in the sky, and along the mountaintop -- are those lights, or fire? Hard to tell.
Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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