October 2010

Violinist.com Interview with Anne Akiko Meyers: about the 'ex-Molitor' Strad

October 28, 2010 21:07

I watched last week as Anne Akiko Meyers emerged from the van, at the back of the Ambassador Auditorium, where she was about to rehearse the Barber Concerto with the Pasadena Symphony.

There she was with the car seat containing her four-month-old, Natalie, and her newly-purchased $3.6 million "ex-Molitor" Stradivarius.

I couldn't resist. "You've got both of your babies!" I said.

A lot has changed for Anne Akiko Meyers since the last time we spoke with her. She moved to Austin to teach at the University of Texas, had a baby girl, put out a new album called Seasons...Dreams and then just last week bought the 1697 "ex-Molitor" Strad for a record-breaking price. She played the instrument on Saturday with the Pasadena Symphony – just days after getting it into her own hands – then on Tuesday on the MSNBC show Countdown with Keith Olbermann.

We spoke last week in Pasadena, and she even gave me peek at the "ex-Molitor," an instrument of pristine beauty.

Anne Akiko Meyers
Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Laurie: I think I first have to ask you about this new Strad, because it's all over the news.

Anne: I wasn't even looking for a new violin! One month ago I was in New York playing concerts, and I went to get my violin adjusted by René Morel. When I saw him, he said, "Babeeee, the Strad here, you should take a look!" The second I tried it, I fell in love with the sound. And then, the games began! (laughs) I've had the violin for just two days; I got the violin on Wednesday afternoon. Picked it up at the airport in Austin, then flew to Pasadena yesterday, rehearsed for the first time with the violin last night.

Laurie: That's a whirlwind! What is it like to buy a Strad – you said the games began, what games?

Anne: As an artist you are forever looking, locating your sound. Each violin has its own unique personality, its identity, just like you and me. When you actually come across the sound that you love, you fall in love with everything up until that point that you've known. It's very much a projection of who you are at that moment. It's just like music – it's so incredibly multi-layered, so spiritual and part of your being. I had been playing on the 1730 "Royal Spanish" Strad for five years now; I've made three recordings on it, and I just made a new recording. That sound is still very much inside me. So this is incredibly exciting. Also, I think it takes a great amount of courage to switch your sound so close to a concert. It's kind of nutty, but I have to admit, I am nutty! (she laughs)

Laurie: What is different about it?

Anne: It's a little smaller than the "Royal Spanish." Physically, I feel like it's a little easier to maneuver. It has incredible power; it has a sound that sails across the orchestra. Even through really thick orchestration, you can still hear this very pure line. It's an incredibly clean voice. The "Royal" is darker and has so much color, you're just soaked in color. This is much more of a straight laser: clean.

I played one concert on (the "ex-Molitor") in Chicago, the Clair de Lune. I had the violin for about an hour before that performance, and the second that I stepped out on stage and played it, I felt very comfortable with it. Most violins take a lot of adjusting, but this one was just instantaneous, like putting on an old glove.

Laurie: When you were there in René Morel's shop...

Anne: My reaction was, "Oh great. Now what I'm going to do?"

Laurie: Did you know, within seconds of playing it?

Anne: Yes. This is why I try to stay away from trying violins – I don't want to get tempted, with such a big price tag!

Laurie: So how are you swingin' this? How does one buy that expensive of a violin?

Anne: When you're just so obsessed with finding the right sound, you kind of make it work. I feel like I've saved up for this my whole life. I've been playing my whole life, since I was four years old.

I think it's absolutely, positively insane that the violins are this much. When you look back historically at the days of Paganini and other performers, they had a caravan of Strads and Guarneri del Gesus, up until, really the middle of the 1950s. Then it became unbelievably unattainable, a luxury item, from 1960s and 70s. That's when foundations and sponsors and private collectors could afford them. Before that, they were known as unbelievable instruments, but you could still manage to pay for one with an artist's salary.

Laurie: You're a rare case, at this point.

Anne: I think, when you look at a lot of my colleagues, a lot of them own their instrument. It is your equipment.

Laurie: What do you feel the advantage is in owning it, versus not owning it? Have you been in both situations?

Anne: Yes. I've had a diet of unbelievable violins, from all foundations: the Nippon Music Foundation, private sponsors – up until I purchased the "Royal." The opportunity was unbelievable. One of the sponsors had about 10 violins: five Guarneri del Gesus, five Strads, and said, 'Just pick whatever you like, Anne.' Pick whatever you like! I was like a kid in a candy store. I wondered, is this for real? I had to pinch myself. Is this dream going to end? And it does. It ends after two years, after you've thrown yourself into this violin – this person, this entity – it is a human being, it has its soul. You've inserted your soul into its soul, and it gives you as much as you give it. So when the time would come up, I felt like I was going to die. You feel like you're getting your left arm amputated. Then with the next one, it's your right arm. You make so much emotional investment with a violin – to do that constantly, every two years. By the end you feel like, wow, I'm damaged goods! You get tired of it.

Laurie: I've had friends who've had their violins taken back by sponsors. And then what's interesting is people don't sympathize. The violinist will say, 'This is the worst thing that happened to me in my life,' and people just kind of act like 'What's wrong with you?'

Anne: It's your voice, and no one has the right to take that away from you. It's your right to own it. When you think about singers, dancers, any other kinds of musicians, they have their oboe reeds, they have their ..everything they need. It's the instrumentalists who suffer a great deal.

Laurie: There are some instruments where this is just not the case; to get a good flute or trombone. My violin was not $3.6 million by a long stretch but it still was an extreme strain on my family to buy a violin.

Anne: It's a major commitment on everyone's part. When I purchased the "Royal," my entire family helped me purchase the "Royal Spanish." We're all in it together.

Laurie: Speaking of family, tell me what its like...

Anne: being on the road with a four-month old? It's been incredible. I can't even imagine what life was like without Natalie. And John Corigliano was to write her a lullaby, so there's a "Lullaby for Natalie" I'm trying to record. That was a really super-special gift.

It's just been amazing. Before she was born, she sat through lessons at UT – so many endless scales. And she was with there, on the

Laurie: So is she pretty good about it, pretty tolerant?

Anne: Yes she is.

Laurie: What are some of the logistical issues that have now popped up for you, it's got to be really different!

Anne: It is. Forget taking a nap before working, and things like that. It's all about keeping her happy. If I can find 10 minutes, then I can warm up and practice. The priority is different – it's definitely shifted.

Laurie: It occurred to me, when you mentioned lessons at UT, that's another thing you've done since I've last seen you, becoming a faculty member at the University of Texas.

Anne: That's correct. I moved to Austin about a year ago, from New York. I'd been living in New York for close to 25 years. Sold the condo and moved to Austin – got a house with a full-size washer and dryer! (She laughs) It's been really wonderful living there, and so now I'm pretty much based out of Austin.

Laurie: How many students do you have?

Anne: Right now I'm on maternity leave, but I was teaching about 10 students in the first year.

Laurie: And you'll go back to that at some point....

Anne: Probably at the beginning of next year, the spring semester.

Laurie: It's a lot to juggle.

Anne: With concerts and her needing to be fed (Natalie starts wailing in the background). The feedings are at 12:30 a.m., 3:30 a.m., 6:30 a.m., and then you've got a concert, it's like okay, sure! But it's good, it keeps you on your toes.

Laurie: Tell me about your new CD, Seasons...Dreams It's a real mix.

Anne: I planned it along the same lines as Smile, where the Schubert Fantasy was very much the anchor of that album, I wanted the Beethoven Spring Sonata to be the anchor of this album. I kept thinking of nature, of seasons, and how music is affected by the seasons. Then I started thinking, what music parallels nature? I ended up with "Sakura, Sakura," and I had Gene Pritsker write this new piece, which is one of my favorite pieces on the album. 'Tenderly/Autumn Leaves' – these are standards that I always loved listening to; then there's 'Autumn in New York,' and Gershwin's 'Summertime' which is just such a classic, it's absolutely sublime. It became such a fun study, to see all the different composers I could come up with, from Wagner to Vernon Duke – all under the same umbrella. That's very much the idea of the album.

Laurie: What's up with that Stille Nacht – Silent Night – by Schnittke? I hadn't heard that before, it has a few atonal surprises.

Anne: I have to warn audiences before I play it because sometimes people get a little upset with that piece. Other people think that it's the best piece in the recital program. I love it, personally. I think that Schnittke was unbelievable, kind of a daredevil, but in an authentic way. "Stille Nacht" kind of like a lullaby on steroids (she laughs) with a creepy, erie ending. Some people have said, 'That piece is just so bad-ass, on such a pretty album, what happened there?' You gotta have some darkness!

Laurie: I found it interesting, just trying to figure out, what was he thinking here? Does he hate Christmas?

Anne: He's so sick of hearing that 'Silent Night' - it's his spin on it. He was a film composer, writing so many different scores, and he suffered a great deal in his own life. He had many strokes, he was declared dead several times. He lived a very difficult life, like many Russian composers.

Laurie: Did you record this album before, or after Natalie was born?

Anne: Before. The 'Seasons' part of the album I recorded with Reiko Uchida on piano, and the 'Dreams' part of the album is all with harp, with Emmanuel Ceysson, and that was all recorded in June, before I even knew I was going to be pregnant.

Laurie: I know people are mostly curious about that violin. Can I have a look at it?

(Anne gets out the violin, and it is beautiful to behold. Light brown, and light to the touch, it seems to be completely without cracks or flaws. It is varnished but not shiny.)

Anne Akiko Meyers and the ex-Molitor Strad

Laurie: Wow, that's in good shape!

Anne: Yes, it's like mint.

Laurie: Is that original varnish?!

Anne: Yes. It's like it was made yesterday.

Laurie: Okay, I get it.

Anne: (she laughs) You want to play a couple notes on it?

Laurie: Hmmmmmm...yeah!

(The violin is easy to play, and the tone is amazing, especially on the Eing. But I don't want to out-stay my welcome! I give it back after just a very short walk around the neighborhood.)

Laurie: I see what you mean, it fits in the hand. I'm a small person. You don't feel like you have a tabletop on your shoulder.

Anne: It has such an amazing history to it. Not only did it pass through Napoleon's hands, but it also was owned by one of the most famed beauties, named Récamier. She was patroness who also owned another Strad that eventually was sold to Mischa Elman. There was even a sofa named after her. Napoleon's brother was completely in love with her, and I think something happened with Napoleon and that's why she had to sell the violins to his general, Count Molitor.

Laurie: So Napoleon owned it?

Anne: It passed through his hands, definitely.

Laurie: Did he play the violin?

Anne: I couldn't find anything about him being able to play the violin. There's another Strad called the "ex-Napoleon."

And then it belonged to Count Molitor and his family for more than 100 years until that had to sell it because of World War I, I think. And then it went to Curtis. Then Elmar Oliveira owned it, and he played it for five years, then he found himself a Guarneri and then it's been with private individual for the last 16-17 years, so it hasn't been played in public at all.

Laurie: Sometimes it's amazing just to find something like that. The fact of purchasing it aside, it's amazing that it actually came to you...

Anne: ...that it exists.

Laurie: ...that it wound up in your hands

Anne: ...you wonder, is this destiny? Something made in 1697, that looks like that, that ends up in a New York auction house – under my chin, after all these people have played it. It's passed through so many people's hands, and there's a reason why everybody had to sell it, either death or a war ... If you could go back and figure it out...!

4 replies

Violin Community News 2010, Op. 25

October 22, 2010 11:12

Violinist Anne Akiko Meyers has purchased the "ex-Molitor" Stradivarius violin for $3.6 million. The fiddle once belonged to Napoleon, according to a number of sources, and to a general in Napoleon's amry, Count Gabriel-Jean-Joseph Molitor, thus the name. The violin more recently was on long-term loan to Jascha Brodsky, through the Curtis Institute. Meyers will play it for the first time in public this weekend, when she performs the Barber Concerto with the Pasadena Symphony. The purchase price apparently broke a record, the previous record being set by the "Hammer" Stradivarius, which sold for $3.54 million at Christie's, New York, in 2006. Tarisio clearly is pleased!


Anne Akiko Meyers
Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco.

* * *

I received several e-mails from Violinist.com members in Europe who are very concerned about the state of affairs in Netherlands, where the new Dutch government has announced plans to eliminate the Netherlands Broadcasting Music Center (MCO), closing three radio orchestras, the Netherlands Radio Choir, a music library and an education department.

A statement on the MCO website says: "Without any further explanation the future of four highly renowned broadcasting ensembles has become uncertain. The rug is being pulled out from under a distinctively Dutch music culture that can be heard in abundance via radio, television, online, and live in well-filled concert halls such as the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Vredenburg Leidsche Rijn in Utrecht, at the Holland Festival, Pinkpop and the North Sea Jazz Festival."

If you would like to sign a petition in support of the MCO, please do so on this page: http://www.mco.nl/mco_page/actie/eng/

"They desperately need 100.000 votes till next Tuesday," wrote V.com member Maria Held to me today. "The whole world envies Europe for its orchestral culture, and short-sighted politicians destroy the work of generations..."

Yes, much of this page is in Dutch. Here is a translation of what you'd be signing: "Yes, I support the MCO. The MCO is an indispensable pillar of the Dutch music scene and must stay." If you want to translate more of the page, here is the link for Google Translate, just cut and paste anything into there.

* * *

This weekend Russian violinist Mikhail Simonyan, 25, will fill in for Midori, who suffered a back strain and canceled her performance of the Shostakovich Violin Concerto with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Simonyan will play the Shostakovich in her place, with guest conductor Gilbert Varga.


* * *

If you are in Boston Nov. 4, you just might want to check out Berklee College of Music's first-ever String Showcase. First, you might be the audience member who wins the Yamaha electric violin that they will give away that night. Second, you might just want to see the alternate routes that many string players are choosing these days. Violin performance student Jakub Trasak came up with the idea for an allings event at Berklee, where the string department is growing as more string players are drawn to bluegrass and American music traditions. Trasak himself grew up in Prague, where classical music tends to be the focus for a violinist. Instead, he had a passion for bluegrass and country music. The String Showcase will feature a range of styles, from bluegrass, Americana, chambergrass and Irish to jazz, r&b, Latin, and swing. About 50 students will play violins, violas, cellos, mandolins, banjos, and harps.

Here's more information on the event: http://www.berklee.edu/news/...


6 replies

Violinist.com Interview with Lara St. John: On Mozart

October 21, 2010 12:55

Lara St. John doesn't really go for the idea that Mozart is "really hard to play" and that a great deal of worry, fret and fear should go into it.

After all, she's been playing Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante with her brother, Scott, ever since they were little kids.

Lara St. John is well-known for her solo and recital appearances around the globe, and for her recordings of Bach Sonatas and Partitas and Gypsy music, not to mention her Polkastra. Scott St. John won the Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2003, is one of the violinists in the St. Lawrence String Quartet, ensemble-in-residence at Stanford University, and teaches in the Bay Area.

After some 20 years of playing Mozart together, the sibling pair decided to make a recording of Mozart works, which includes the Sinfonia Concertante – for which Scott plays scordatura viola – as well as Mozart Violin Concerto No. 1 in Bb Major, K. 207, played by Scott, and Mozart Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major, K. 216, played by Lara. They are joined by The Knights orchestra of New York City.

Lara spoke with me over the phone last week about what it's like to work with your brother, about why Mozart would ask to tune the viola a half-step higher for the Sinfonia Concertante, and about why she loves Mozart Concerto No. 3 so much.

Laurie: I've been listening to some Mozart, thanks to you, and your brother. When did you start playing together?

Lara: We did our first concerto when I was four and he was six – we did the Bach Double. So it's been a long time! We've been playing together all our lives.

He's not a violinist who plays viola, he's a violist. He started playing the viola at eight years old, very early. At first, he was pretty little, so he played a reung violin. As he got big enough, it was a real viola. Even as a kid, he was so into chamber music. And of course, when you're kids, the one thing that's always lacking in the string quartet is the viola. Everyone plays violin or cello! He's so quick; he taught himself the clef and everything. Then he was in incredible demand, chamber-musically, and that has continued to this day.

Laurie: When you say he was so into chamber music, how did that manifest when he was eight?

Lara: He wanted to play more chamber music, and I think that's a good part of why he took up the viola. Also, our first chamber music coach, Ralph Aldrich, was a violist.

I thought of learning to play the viola as well, and he was like, no way, man! (she laughs)

I can't sight-read to save my life. You do sort of need to be able to read at least one clef before you start another; it's probably a good thing I never took it up! Once, when I was teaching I had to play viola because they didn't have enough violas. I had to finger every note, do it by ear. Then I sounded like a trumpet!

You really have to do it from a young age. I can tell when it's a violinist, playing viola. The vibrato's a bit chainsaw, and it's just not the same thing.

Laurie: How long have you been playing the Sinfonia Concertante together?

Lara: We toured Europe with the Sinfonia when I was 11 and he was 13. I remember going to Portugal, Spain, Hungary, France... We've done it with a lot of orchestras since, I'd say an average of once a year. That actually means in a specific year we'll do it four times, and then not for four years.

I've got my own label, Ancalagon, and I've been thinking for a while that this is definitely something we needed to record. So for the last few years I've been casting about for the right orchestra, and when The Knights came around, I knew, that's it!

Laurie: Did you ever have any sibling rivalry?

Lara: Funny enough, not really.

For example, all over Canada, they have these little Kiwanis competitions, so even at the age of six, it was a way to perform the pieces that you learned. We were always doing these, and other competitions. Sometimes we'd end up in the same class, because we're pretty close in age, and if he would win, I would think that was about the same as me winning, because it was my family. If I would win, then he would think that way as well. We've been really supportive of each other – never against each other.

I also have the distinct advantage that my brother is one of those people who just has no enemies. He's one of the nicest, most genuine guys in the world. I'd really have to be a nasty piece of work to pick a fight with him.

We're really different players and individuals. Obviously when you're doing a little contest when you're a teenager, then I guess the objective is to win first prize. But later on in life, we didn't really have the same objectives all the time, or the same interests. We didn't even play the same repertoire quite a lot of the time. That's one reason why, for example, I learned the Mendelssohn Concerto in my mid-20s. Growing up, that was his. It made sense that I didn't learn it; I never needed it for one reason or another. So little funny things like that come from the sibling-ness, but there's not anything wrong with that.

Laurie: Do you find it different to work with him than to work with other collaborators?

Lara: Of course, because I know exactly what he's going to do, and vice-versa. We don't really rehearse, exactly. We just play through things. If he does something that I think is stupid, I'll stop and say, 'I think that's stupid.' And there will be this little fight and then of course he'll say, 'Well all right, I won't do that,' and vice-versa. But in general, on stage, even if somebody does something completely different than has been rehearsed, somehow we know. It's a connection.

People always ask, are you guys close? I guess we're close, but... I know some siblings who talk every day. We talk every couple weeks, maybe. And he calls me up when he needs a place in New York. (she laughs)

Laurie: I didn't really know there was a scordatura in the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante, that Mozart asks that the viola be tuned in a different way than usual. What's up with that?

Lara: We knew about it, but since nobody really does it except for maybe a few period recordings, we always had that impression that it's just for period instruments, just if you're going to do some historically correct performance. Then we started thinking about it, and... I think Mozart did (the scordatura) in order to make (the instruments) more equal. Mozart's not an idiot; he knows what he's doing.

Scott had always done it in E flat, on a normal viola. About a month before the recording, I said to him, "Why don't you just try it?" To me it's just unfathomable, but he said he thought he'd probably be able to do it. He said that, actually, even though he had played it for decades in E flat, the scordatura makes it so much easier, clearer, brighter – even though he had to re-learn every note. It makes perfect sense to play it in D major.

Laurie: How is the viola tuned?

Lara: The viola is tuned exactly a half-step higher. Instead of C-G-D-A, it's D-flat-A-flat-E-flat-B-flat. Here you are playing in E-flat major, and all of a sudden you have two open strings that you didn't have before. Not only that, but the whole thing is just a little bit brighter. It makes it just about equal, if not completely equal, to the brightness of the violin.

Laurie: And he could do that.

Lara: It took him a week or so, to really get it down. He sight-reads so well; the guy never misses a note. He's Mr. Perfect. But every once in a while, when we were recording, he came in like a ton of bricks, a semi-tone off. I think it happened twice. Somehow I was so happy! (She laughs) Made a mistake, ha-ha! It was funny.

In the last movement, that's got to be one of the most awkward A-flat major solos in the world. It's very difficult to do on both the violin and the viola. But if you have a violist play scordatura, you've never seen a happier guy! It just comes in open A-flat, open E-flat. Just watching him play it, the string crossings are in different places.

Even playing the octave passages that are together with him were slightly different because I had a different open string. We did have to go through it, so I could get used to this new timbre. It feels a little different, even for the violinist.

Laurie: The violin is not scordatura.

Lara: Exactly, so we no longer have any open strings that correspond. There's quite a lot of octave work here and there, in the cadenzas, and it does change things a little bit. But once again, Mozart knew what he was doing, and I think it works absolutely fabulously; it's great.

Laurie: I didn't even know about this.

Lara: For years and years, people used another edition. But now there is a Barenreiter, and that has two parts, one in D and one in E-flat. I think for a while, the tradition was to not think about how he wrote it. The original manuscript is written in D. It's probably no problem to do the scordatura, if you don't have perfect pitch. But if do you have perfect pitch, like my brother, I think it would be quite difficult.

The Barenreiter is one of those great editions that are really expensive. They have the normal, viola scordatura arranged for normal tuning. And then, they have the original notation. I guess the editors transposed the manuscript, so that you could play it in E-flat, so you could play it not in D-major. Mozart apparently only wrote the one, he wrote it in D major.

The whole thing is really fascinating.

It's hilarious whenever we play it the oboe has to give him a B-flat. At first we wondered, how do we tune to each other? We had to figure out these weird major sixths, okay I think we're kind of about right...

Laurie: Have you done it live like this?

Lara: We will – I think there are a couple next year.

Laurie: But it was the recording that made you try the scordatura.

Lara: Yeah, it's always possible to experiment.

Laurie: It's kind of cool to be able to do something new with Mozart.

Lara: Well, actually, old!

Laurie: Exactly! You have also recorded the first and third Mozart violin concerti – with Scott doing the first. The first concerto is not one I'm terribly familiar with; like a lot of people, I know the third, fourth and fifth.

Lara: I don't know it that well, either, I've never performed it. For some reason, my brother's done it quite a bit.

The point of this recording was the Sinfonia. Then I thought, I'll make an album of it. I told him, I'll take number Three, and you can have your choice of the other four.

To me, One is this little genius going "Hey look, I can write a violin concerto!" There all these flashy runs. To me it sounds almost on that cusp between the Baroque and the classical. The Third - not at all any more, but the First and the Second, you can hear the Vivaldi and the Bach. You can't really hear that in the last three Mozart concerti and in the Sinfonia. I think it's a lovely piece.

Laurie: What made you pick Three, since you got first choice?

Lara: I love Three. The first time I ever read number Three was with harpist Marie-Pierre Langlamet, in a practice room in Curtis. We were sight-reading the last movement, and she was playing the piano part on the harp. She's now principal harp in Berlin, and before that was principal harp at the Met. But this was back when we were kids and students. Even though I was a pretty bad sight-reader, I could usually pull off Mozart, which was usually familiar.

We got to the little Andante (m. 252) – this beautiful moment, just so gorgeous and so heartbreaking, in the midst of all this laughter. The first time I ever played it was with harp. Of course the orchestra has pizzicato strings there, I found out much later. I thought maybe it was the most beautiful moment I'd ever experienced, up until that point. My most beautiful Mozart moment! It was just one of those moments that you always remember. So because of that, the Third has always kind of held a soft spot for me. Like most people, I've only done the last three, really: Three, Four and Five.

The second movement of the Third is so gorgeous, just one of those perfect arias he wrote for violin. And it's so joyful!

Laurie: At least for me, in the early days that I studied Mozart, people had a very Romantic take on it, the bowings were even kind of Romantic, and then lately people seem to be going back to the urtext, streamlining a little more. I wondered what your approach was. Did you change things? Have you changed things over the years? Or maybe playing it exactly the same for 20 years?

Lara: I got pretty tired, early on, of people saying, 'Mozart is so difficult.' I don't agree with it. Yes, there is a certain delicacy, and it's usually very exposed. Maybe if you miss one note in Mozart, it means a lot more than if you miss one note in the Shostakovich Concerto. But if you think that way, it makes people play Mozart butt-clenchingly. The whole genius of Mozart is how, with such simplicity, he was able to get so much emotion and so many ideas across. It's not good to over-think or over-analyze. Of any composer, this is the one where it's all laid out, right there! You just have to enjoy yourself and love it. If you're having a lot of fun, that comes across to an audience. And if you're super, super worried, that come across, too.


3 replies

Violinist.com Interview with Adam DeGraff of The Dueling Fiddlers

October 12, 2010 21:12

I was in the Apple store, unsuccessfully trying to tear my son away from the latest Apple crack video software, when one of the Apple guys, those young computer geniuses, came and asked if he could help me. We got to talking, and it turns out he played the violin when he was younger. I showed him Violinist.com, and I happened to turn up a page on my blog in which I'd embedded Adam DeGraff's Sweet Child of Mine YouTube video. It's the tune that inspired the Rockin' Fiddle Challenge, in which more than a thousand violinists took the challenge to learn Adam's version of this Guns 'n' Roses song.

"Whoa, what's that?" said the Apple guy. I told him, and he listened to the whole thing, start to finish, right there, in the middle of the Apple Store, saying, "Oh my God! Wow! Oh my God!" the whole time. Bedlam in the Apple Store! I said to him, "You're going to take up the violin again, aren't you?"

"I may just have to!" he said. "Has he done other covers?"

Adam has done other covers, along with violinist Russell Fallstad, who together make The Dueling Fiddlers.


The Dueling Fiddlers

Russell Fallstad and Adam DeGraff

But their tunes are more than covers, more like explorations of popular music – explorations that can lead the listener from Bach into unchartered territory, can wander from Green Day into the Pachelbel Canon, or simply shine a little fiddle light on the different facets of a popular song.

Just this month they released their new album, Rock Violin, with an eclectic mix of music that inspires them: Green Day, Coldplay, Lady Gaga, Ke$ha, Joan Jett, Queen, Bach, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Radiohead, "Love Story," and Dave Matthews.

Both Adam and Russell are classically-trained violinists with music degrees from Northwestern University. Adam was concertmaster of the Richmond Symphony. Russell was the violist in the Fry Street Quartet and was a faculty member at Utah State University.

Why do a couple of classically-trained violinists turn to rock 'n' roll? Adam spoke to me about it over the summer:

Adam: I think that it all started because that's the kind of music that I've always liked. Even though I love classical music, I've always loved rock. When I was a kid, I kind of felt sad. I thought, this is a shame: I love rock music, but I play the violin. I'll never be a rock star. But what I came to realize is that rock 'n' roll is more of a state of mind than what instrument you play.

I hadn't really ever met anybody who was doing (rock violin) really well until I met Alex DePue. He got me thinking. He did a cover of Smooth Criminal, and it's awesome. As amazing as Alex is, when I heard him play, I thought, you know, I think I can do that. I think I can do it in a way like me, like who I am.

I didn't want to rely on mikes, amps, pickups or anything like that. So I started experimenting with the violin as an acoustic box that I could make sounds that I wanted to make: everything from wah-wah to distortion, to echo and reverb. Maybe I could make the sounds that I wanted to with my hands, with my bow, with my sounding point, with my pressure and with my speed. I even started getting into cross-tuning – taking my violin and tuning the strings to pitches that they are not normally tuned to. By doing that, I actually created a highung kind of sound. We do that in our Back In Black, and I do that in a couple of the other tunes.

Laurie: Like scordatura rock 'n' roll.

Adam: There you go! And if you're a classical violinist, it will mess with your head. You put your fingers down, and you expect a certain sound to come out. When you don't get that sound – that's when life gets strange.

Laurie: How long ago did you start looking into this kind of thing?

Adam: My favorite Rock 'n' Roll tune ever is 'Sweet Child O' Mine' by Guns and Roses. I got off of a nine-month, 200-concert tour with my other group, and I was sitting at home, basically doing nothing for the first time in a year. My wife said, 'What do you want to do?' and I said, 'I think I'm going to write a solo version of 'Sweet Child O' Mine.' She just gave me this look that burned right through me and said, 'Well, why don't you just go do that, that sounds really fun.' She was totally mocking me! (laughs) I said, 'I think it will sound good!' She said, 'Well good, go have fun, don't try to make it sound good, just have a good time.'

So I started listening to the piece. Instead of writing things down, I just jammed with the recording. Then I realized, I wasn't trying to get every note right, like a true cover. It was almost comical, that a violin, one solo, classical, un-miked, un-amped violin was going to take over all five parts. In a sense, it's a parody. That's what makes it interesting, I think.

I wouldn't really want to hear a rock band play 'Sweet Child O' Mine' like it was Guns 'n' Roses. What makes this interesting to me, and perhaps to other people, is that all five parts are distilled into one violin part. I'm totally into it, I'm really rockin' the fiddle, instead of just very accurately reproducing all of the different parts. There are groups out there doing that, and they do it very well, and it sounds like a string quartet playing Guns 'n' Roses. I don't want to sound like a violin, I want to sound like Slash and Axl.

Laurie: Or just sound like the song, basically.

Adam: Exactly. It's been exciting to see people respond to that. I've had YouTube videos up forever, and this was the first one that ever got hit really hard. So I started writing other covers, arrangements. My next one was 'Stairway to Heaven.' I played it at live shows and people really liked it. I started doing some original tunes that were kind of Rock and Bluesy, and I put a solo show together. I had a lot of fun with the solo show.

Then I said to myself, you know, I think it would be really cool to duel with somebody on this, and actually try to one-up one another, because this music is so intense. On a whim, I called my friend Russell Fallstad from school. I knew he had that rock 'n' roll heart. Russell was in London doing some kind of crossover experimentation when I called him, and I said, 'You know, I think I want to do rock 'n' roll on the violin, and I want to duel. I want to do a dueling violinists, or dueling fiddlers.' He said, 'Let's try it.'

So he came out, and he had never improvised before. About 90 percent of what we do is improvising. We have a basic rock tune and then we just kind of go crazy with it. So he said, 'Okay, let's rehearse,' and I said, 'Okay let's go to the coffee shop,' and he said, 'What do you mean, let's go to the coffee shop?' and I said, 'Well, if we're going to improvise, we've got to do it in front of people, we can't improvise in a vacuum, you need to see how it feels...' His classical uptightness kind of came through, I could tell how nervous he was! But he totally just whaled on it and was amazing, and from that point on, we've just been taking these rock tunes that we love. The fun thing about them is that they mash up: we do Dave Matthews into Guns 'n' Roses, or Green Day into Coldplay, into Pachelbel Canon. There are no rules, whatsoever; it's whatever pops out right then, right there. It's so fun.

It's been interesting, too, because when you have two violinists, you have two lead voices. One of us is playing rhythm guitar, one of us is playing lead vocals, one of us is playing bass, one of us is playing drums – all on the violin, or viola. Russell plays viola, also, he was actually a violist in the Fry Street Quartet.

Laurie: Did it help to have a classical background?

Adam: Oh, absolutely. If you're a good classical player, you can do anything you want on the violin, or you can figure out anything you want on the violin. You're already completely set up for it. There are some alternative techniques that you can learn; you can really augment your playing. For example: chops. For my money, Tracy Silverman is the number one master of the chop. Totally amazing. Darol Anger and Alex DePue also have a great chop. But what's so cool, when you're classically trained, you can look at other people's chops and say, 'I like that, but I want mine to sound like this.' You have the ability and the canvas to do whatever you want.

I've been experimenting a lot with other effects. For example: a slightly different vibrato that is not anchored to the violin, it moves a little more, a little like a whammy bar. And then mixing that with a slightly ponticello sound with the bow – this creates almost a distortion. I remember the first time I played it at a concert, I did a show at 'Carnegie Hall' in West Virginia -- there's a non-New York Carnegie Hall. I had a really uptight audience there, and I laid into 'Sweet Child O' Mine.' When I got to the big guitar solo I laid in this thick, heavy distortion, and they just started laughing – audible, open-mouthed, jaw-on-the-floor laughter. They said, 'Oh my God, that sounds like an electric guitar!' (laughs) It was so fun!

Laurie: Did you do any composing before this?

Adam: I hadn't done a lot of composing, and I think the reason was that I hadn't found my medium. My voice was still very conservative and classical. But now I'm writing constantly.

Laurie: You've opened up the box.

Adam: I have. My wife is frequently asking me, 'What are you doing right now, what are you thinking?' And the music is always on. I can't seem to turn it off. I don't want to, but sometimes when I'm trying to sleep, it would be nice! It's a constant sound in my head.


Adam DeGraff

Laurie: What was your background, how old were you when you started playing the violin?

Adam: Straight classical. I started at four, with Suzuki, in Chicago, North side. I'm glad that I did because the ear training has come in so handy. Very soon I started doing extra stuff: little improv things. I remember telling my teacher, Milton Goldberg, that I wanted to do rock, and he laughed. But he set me up with Joe Golan who was the principal second violinist of the Chicago Symphony. I give a ton of credit to my teacher, who was not at all insecure. He said, 'Go for it.' Joe started teaching me to improv. The first song we did was 'Summertime' by Gershwin, and it opened up a can of worms, I couldn't stop improv-ing! He set me up with a bunch of gig guys in downtown Chicago, the guys who booked for the Four Seasons and the Drake Hotel. They started calling me at age 14 to come and do strolling violin gigs. I was playing all these pieces that I'd never heard before, all these Gershwin and Porter tunes that I truly didn't know. It was perfect because since I didn't know them, I had to improvise. While all my friends were bagging groceries for $3.25 an hour, I was making $75-$100 a night.

Laurie: You were strolling at the age of 14?

Adam: It was hilarious. My mom bought a tuxedo, and she would drive me 25 minutes downtown, drop me off at these hotels, and there'd be a bunch of old, smoking violinists, standing outside, and I was the squeaky-clean little conservative kid. I learned on the job, and I had so much fun doing it. It largely paid my way through college; I was a first-call for a lot of these bands. I learned to improvise, and I was kind of fearless.

Laurie: You did this all through Northwestern?

Adam: I did. And I played in Civic Orchestra, I was co-concertmaster my last year there. That's when I decided that I wanted to become a concertmaster. So after Northwestern I went to Rice University and studied with probably the finest concertmaster, J. Richard Hackman did. He studied the orchestra as a part of a Mellon grant, and he interviewed me extensively. He was very clear with me that he didn't think that I had the personality type to play in an orchestra, that I was more entrepreneurial and creative. Not to say that creative people couldn't be in an orchestra, but he really saw that the combination of my entrepreneurial spirit and my creativity as a calling card for something else. He said, 'Go be a soloist, or a chamber musician, get some control over your life.' So I did. I just kind of jumped ship, and everyone was shocked that I left.

I loved the mountains, so I bought a farm in West Virginia with my wife. We moved to West Virginia and I started fiddling a little more. I bumped into a retired pianist from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, who had moved here, same time same place. We ended up hitting it off and improvising together. We created a group called Pianafiddle, which started slowly and then caught the attention of some big touring agencies in Nashville. Overnight it went from being a 20, 30-concert show a year to a 200-concert. We had to buy a tour bus – it was the weirdest thing in the world for this former classical violinist, to own the tour bus. And I drove it!

Laurie: What an adventure! And now it's evolved into The Dueling Fiddlers. Are you guys going to be touring in the near future?

Adam: This particular group is a little more project-based. I heard a quote, somebody said if you do the same thing and expect a different result, then what is that? Crazy!

Laurie: That's Einstein.

Adam: That quote really got me thinking, about what I wanted. I wanted to take a different approach with this project and meld the performing arts center–type gigs with a little bit of the rock 'n' roll approach, which is clubs; and YouTube, and CDs and videos.

Laurie: Why did you want to let people play your 'Sweet Child 'O' Mine'?

Adam: I didn't. They did! I thought, at the beginning, that I would just play it myself. When it hit about 1,000 e-mails – I'm not exaggerating, I mean literally 1,000 e-mails – saying, 'Will you send me the sheet music?' I said, 'You know what? Sharing is a good thing. I don't need to keep this to myself, I want to share.' Then it took me a very, very long time to figure out how I was going to actually share it in a way that felt good to me. I realized that a lot of the people who were interested in doing this might not have the technical ability to pick up the music and start playing. The piece itself is harder than any Paganini Caprice I've ever played; it's very challenging.

At the same time, I have a lot of experience teaching. I thought, maybe I can combine the two. Instead of just passing out the music and letting them fail, I could pass the music out in a controlled way, with my fingerings, my bowings and my kind of tutoring along the way. I could show them how I think it can be done and should be done. So I created the Rockin' Fiddle Challenge. I wanted to inspire them, so I talked to Shar, and said, 'Do you want to donate $20,000 worth of gift certificates?' And they said, 'Absolutely!' Then I talked to one of my favorite modern violin makers, Jan Van Rooyen, and asked, 'Do you want to donate a violin?' And he said, 'Absolutely!' Everyone was just so excited to be a part of it.

This challenge has been up and running since June, and we have 1,400 people entered from all over the world. So that feels great. I love the fact that people are so excited about this.

Earlier in the summer, I posted a new video, and one kid stayed up all night learning it so he could be the first one to upload a video this morning. I'm just so honored that people are so excited. A couple people have said, do you have any other pieces? Do I have other pieces! So I went ahead and copyrighted the term 'Rockin' Fiddle Challenge' and I plan to make it a permanent part of The Dueling Fiddlers' show.

Laurie: How are you going to pick the winner? Is it going to be the "best" one?

Adam: I'm devising a point system. They'll get points for their hits on YouTube, they'll get points for helping other people along the way, because I want to create not just a selfish competition, I want it to be a challenge, where they're challenging themselves and then helping other people. I'm doing it all on Facebook, which makes is so easy to comment and and repost and kind of cheer each other on. I want to foster this community of people. Ultimately I'm going to make the points a bonus at the end, but I'm going to pick the 10 finest examples –maybe it will be 20 – then I'm going to deliver those links to a panel of judges and let them watch and vote and score their videos and then let them choose the final video. So I've got some really great players who have been volunteering.

I'm thinking I'm going to run the educational part through the fall, and then have the final upload be in January.

Laurie: It's funny, you're saying you want to create this supportive environment, and I'm thinking, wow, that's the opposite of music school. Why is that so?! (laughing)

Adam: I think that there's a lack of jobs and there's kind of a poverty mentality among musicians sometimes. What we don't realize is how rich we are, just having this in our lives. That wealth goes way beyond what we're able to do – you're changing people's lives by playing music. The more musicians, the better, if you ask me. The more excitement, the better. The more you help people, the better you get, and that's just something I've learned over the years. My friends inspire me, and I hope to inspire my friends. It's a great community to be a part of.


3 replies

Sarah Chang's Facebook Fail

October 12, 2010 11:12

After all of the hullabaloo over Sarah Chang and Detroit, many people were intrigued when Sarah Chang posted on her Twitter feed the following two things late Sunday:

"I am not on Facebook.I don't have an account,I am not a member,I dont maintain a Facebook page."


"I have heard many of u have written2 me via Facebook.thank u for that,but pls know I have not received any of ur messages since I don't FB."

Indeed, more than 200 posts were made on the Sarah Chang Facebook fan page regarding the Detroit situation before it was taken down late Monday. The fan page, under her name, with her picture, was her biggest presence on FB. It had more than 6,000 fans.

If you have a fan page with more than 6,000 members on the largest social media network on the Internet, you need to be aware of it and take steps to take ownership of it. We can all see the perils of failing to do so.

What can we learn from all this?

A lot of people say that they want to stay away from the Internet, stay away from Facebook. But know this: if you don't take possession of your own identity on the Internet, something or someone else will. Your name will end up on the Internet in some way, whether you like it or not, whether you put it there or not. And if you don't respond to people, that doesn't mean the controversy won't exist.

The best cure is to take responsibility. You won't have complete control, but there is much you can do so that your online personality reflects the public person you want to be.

How do you take possession of your own identity?

I will say this first, for violinists. If you are a violinist we've made it very possible for you to have a page right here on Violinist.com, and here's an entire page about promoting yourself in a positive and community-building way on this website.

The more places where you have your identity under your own control on the Internet, the better. Facebook scares a lot of people, but frankly, you can control quite a lot there. You can have a personal profile page, and if you are an artist or a member of a performing arts group, you can have a fan page. If you are the administrator of your own fan page, you can keep it clean of spam and abusive comments. And you can monitor the comments and see when situations come up that require your response.

Yes, be careful. Don't say anything on Facebook – or on the Internet – that you would not say to the entire world. It's not just your "friends" watching. But Facebook gives you options to post, or not post, information about yourself or your group, and to change it when you would like. You can also carve out an identity on Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace (for musicians), YouTube. You can have own personal webpage as well, but in order to drive traffic to that site, you will likely need to link to it from social media sites.

If you only post a couple of things on the Internet, you may find those things to be what comes up when people search for you. So make sure you post in enough places where you have provided the general information about yourself that you would want people to see. And do remember that social media is a two-way street. It's not just a vehicle for getting the word out to your fans. It's interactive, and it requires some engagement. If you can't monitor it, at least your management should, and you should never be in the dark when a huge group of people is trying to send you a message. There's really no excuse.

36 replies

Sarah Chang's Detroit Dilemma

October 9, 2010 23:53

UPDATE (6:25 PDT Sunday): It appears a that Sarah Chang has canceled her recital on Monday. At this point her Facebook page is being flooded with thank-yous from musicians. I'll join them: thank you for standing in solidarity with the musicians, Sarah.


As of 10:15 p.m. Saturday, some 103 people from all around the world, mostly musicians, had posted on violinist Sarah Chang's Facebook page, begging her not to cross picket lines in Detroit to play a recital on Monday.

Chang had been scheduled to perform for the Detroit Symphony's opening concerts this weekend, but when the orchestra went on strike, DSO management re-booked her to play a recital with pianist Robert Koening on Monday instead, according to the Detroit Free Press.

After the ensuing publicity, Chang decided that proceeds from the ticket sales for the Monday recital be donated to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Musician Pension Fund (Chang would still receive her fee). Unfortunately, there's a freeze on that pension, and furthermore, many people are simply trading in their symphony ticket for the recital ticket. 

At this point, she's still scheduled to play that recital Monday.

Does this matter? Does it matter if Sarah Chang plays a recital, while Detroit Symphony musicians are out on strike?

Yes, it matters. A lot. If she plays the recital, she will be crossing the Detroit Symphony musicians' picket lines. This is a major action with lasting symbolism. Instead of standing in solidarity with her fellow musicians, she would be standing against them, working in place of striking workers. Instead of taking the opportunity to defend the actions of these musicians, she would be subverting those actions and sending the message to the audience: it doesn't matter, I'll play for you anyway.

People don't enter into strikes lightly. They put their livelihoods on the line when they agree to a strike; and they do it in the spirit that a united effort will help all.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of musicians are asking Sarah Chang not to do this recital. The musicians of the Detroit Symphony sent her a letter, asking her not to play and instead inviting her to join them outside the hall.

Ray Hair, International President of the American Federation of Musicians of the US and Canada, spoke on behalf of an even larger contingent, posting on Chang's Facebook page:  "On behalf of nearly 90,000 members of the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada and on behalf of musicians throughout the world all who are watching your actions with profound interest, we hope you will make an honorable and just decision and refrain from performing in Detroit until the current labor dispute between our organization and the orchestra’s management is resolved."

More than 100 musicians wrote personal notes to Chang on her Facebook page, including DSO Concertmaster Emmanuelle Boisvert, who said, "Sarah, we would have loved nothing more than to have had the privilege to perform all together again on the glorious stage of Orchestra Hall, finally open our season, honor our commitment, and dedicate our life's work to our faithful, wonderful and knowledgeable subscribers. Decision to strike is not made lightheartedly, rather a painful, calculated process to address an otherwise dire situation...I implore you to have a look at our web site to comprehend the philosophical divides between the parties before you make your decision."

Whatever Sarah Chang decides to do on Monday – and whether she likes it or not – her actions will make a profound statement about where she stands in terms of the community of musicians. 



48 replies

Violinist.com Interview with Julia Fischer: Paganini 24 Caprices

October 5, 2010 16:09

Picture an eight-year-old Julia Fischer, sitting in a church pew with the music in her lap, listening to the 24 Caprices by Niccolò Paganini for the first time, played by Austrian violinist Thomas Zehetmair.

This scene is described in the liner notes for Julia's recently-released recording of the Paganini 24 Caprices. After seeing that performance, she resolved to learn them all, a task which she completed by the age of 14. As most of us fiddle players know, this takes considerable work and will – these pieces are arguably the most fiendishly difficult in all the violin literature. Now at age 27, she has re-thought the Caprices for their musical value; in her words, "I approached them as I would a Mozart concerto."

Julia Fischer
© Uwe Arens

I was curious about her approach to these pieces, and about how her feelings about them had changed over the years. Julia took some time to answer my questions about the Caprices for V.com readers, to talk about their challenges, and to share her journey with this music that is so important to the violin repertoire.

Laurie: How did you initially approach practicing the Caprices and solving the technical challenges, when you first started them?

Julia: I started with Caprice No 17, when I was 10. The octaves are certainly the challenge of this caprice - and my hand was still quite small, although I was playing a 4/4 violin already. I remember that I practiced the part several times a day, not much at once, maybe always for 10 minutes in order to go easy on my left hand. After 2 months or so, I played it for the first time in concert. After that, I played Caprice 13 and 14. Those are of course much easier and I learned them quite quickly, although my teacher was very unhappy with the hard sounds of my chords in 14. She made me practice it, holding my right hand as a fist. Sounds funny, but it's true. I am trying to remember the order I learned them; it was approximately: 17, 13, 14, 6 (I had a very bad trills as a kid and wanted to play Devil's Trill when I was 12. So I had to learn 6 beforehand) 1, 24, 2, 5 (original bowing, if there is the question...), 11, 20, 7, 4, 10, 12, 16, 3, 8, 15 and then the rest.

Laurie: Many feel that the Caprices are just virtuoso showpieces, but you clearly approach them in a musical way. How do you keep perspective on the musical nature of these pieces while also overcoming their considerable technical challenges?

Julia: I think it helps a lot that I learned most of them as a child. When I practiced number 2 as a child, I certainly didn't look for a musical depth in it. But 10 years later, when I came back to it and when it actually felt relatively easy, then I had time to look at the musical side of it. There aren't that many Caprices which don't look musical immediately. Eight maybe, 12, and in the beginning 2. It's a challenge to play those musically, certainly. But there are also great musical pieces - 24, 17, 21, 4 (I think 4 is the hardest).

Laurie: Do you have a preferred edition of the Caprices? Which do you recommend using?

Julia: I used Galamian when I was a kid and changed to Henle later, since in general I am not a great fan of Galamian-fingerings (certainly because I was brought up in the American violin school, so it feels always a bit weird to my fingers), so I have to change so much. Henle has a Urtext version with absolutely no fingerings. I think that's very helpful, especially when you want to find musical ideas in the music. For example number 12, it's great fashion to play a lot of this caprice in very high positions - but that makes it just much more uncomfortable, and sounds worse. When you just take "logical" fingerings, it suddenly isn't that difficult any more.

Laurie: Which caprices do you feel have the most unusual kinds of techniques, and did you find any interesting ways for practicing and solving those techniques in the course of your work on these Caprices? 

Julia: Bowing number 5. Every violinist who is reading this will agree. Except for those who have a Philip Hirschhorn-gene. It helped me a lot to learn first the study Number 1 from Wieniawski's Ecole moderne - same bowing, just less difficult. But I must admit that I practiced it at least a year when I was about 14 or so.

Laurie: Which do you use most frequently as encores? Do you have a favorite?

Julia: Actually number 2 is most often my encore - I simply know it so well, and nobody else plays it as an encore. But I of course love 24, too!

Laurie: How is it different, playing all 24 Caprices as a cycle, as opposed to playing just one or two as an encore piece? How would you describe the musical journey, of playing all of them as a cycle?

Julia: When you play them in a cycle you have to pay much more attention to the musical differences of the caprices - the audience shouldn't be bored after a few caprices and think it's all the same. If you just play, for example, 13 today and, let's say, 19 next week, it doesn't matter if the atmosphere is very similar. In the cycle, you have to find the differences.

Laurie: Is there a logical ordering to the keys across the 24 caprices?

Julia: I was hoping to find it, but I didn't...

Laurie: What are your thoughts on Paganini the man, artist and composer? What can you tell about him from these Caprices?

Julia: I think he was a very optimistic man. And at least at certain times of his, life he must have been a happy man. Not deeply philosophical, but simply happy to play for other people.

Laurie: When was the first time that you performed all 24 Caprices together?

Julia: When I did the recording. Though at home (for my mom) when I was around 14 or 15.

Laurie: I understand that you learned Caprice 17 first; which are the best Caprices to start with, in your opinion?

Julia: Depends on the age of the player. 13, 14, 16 and 20 are probably most suitable.


5 replies

Competitions: The music critics' perspective

October 1, 2010 09:43

Nine jury members may have decided the outcome of last week's International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, but there were others forming their opinions in the audience - among them, critics.

What is the critic's perspective on a competitions such as this? Who really is the "winner"?

These were some of the questions discussed last week at a panel with Ariane Todes, editor of The Strad, Gil French, Concert Editor of American Record Guide and University of Michigan violin professor Stephen Shipps.


The Strad Editor Ariane Todes and American Record Guide Concert Editor Gil French

Certainly critics play a role in how we think about a performance, but ultimately, "we know, as audience members, who is great and who is not," Shipps said. That said, "we all listen differently."

Critics are helpers, with expertise and background, to explain why a performance worked or didn't work. Critics help people find the reasons for their reactions to certain performances.

"'Critic' is a horrible word,'" Todes said. All music writers have an agenda, and that usually involves communicating to a certain readership. The Strad is a magazine read by string players, thus "my agenda is to understand what makes these performances good, or not so good, and to preserve for posterity a description of how they played."

"It's a constant evolution of my knowledge, and the knowledge I'm trying to pass to the readers," Todes said.

French said that, when he was working as a classical radio announcer, an orchestra musician expressed envy at how much music he could listen to. A musician, the orchestra member said, is stuck listening to his or her own part.

But how does one measure a performance?

French quoted the famous 20-century composer and critic Virgil Thomson: "Music either touches you emotionally, or not at all."

Certainly technique counts high in a competition, but that undefined ability to capture an audience's attention and imagination comes into play as well.

"I want to be inspired, turned on, swept away," French said. "I presume everyone here on stage is beyond technique."

That said, people can disagree intensely on what was a "good performance."

French described a Music Critics Association event in which 10 critics were at a bar, five at one table and five at another. All of them had just heard a performance of a singer. One table came to the conclusion that the singer was dreadful, the other table agreed that it was some of the finest singing they'd ever heard.

"There we were, all at the same performance, hearing the same thing, 10 professional critics, and all of us had different opinions," French said. The important thing is "to be able to put into words, why I think what I do, why I like one better than the other."

Shipps suggested that one of the questions to ask is this: Will this performer still be on the concert stage in 25 years?

Todes said she has a constantly evolving checklist of what she wants to see in a performance, which includes things such as sound production, color, projection, intonation, phrasing, and also that "there's a bigger story-telling to the music – there's a journey in the music, and they've thought about it," Todes said. "You can tell when they're bringing that to the music." It's about preparation, but also it's about the thoughtfulness that went into that preparation.

French said he listens for a good instrument, varying tone color, polyphonic vs. homophonic texture, different styles, rhythms and inner rhythms, a sense of form, long lines, interpretive power and that the performer is beyond the technical challenges. Other factors, that he doesn't listen for but uses other senses to determine, include incisiveness, continuity, spontaneity, tapestry, setting a mood, leaning into the music, and having a sense of ensemble.

One person in the audience asked if there shouldn't be a more scientific way of determining who is the winner at a competition.

Actually, flawed though the current system may be, the cream tends to rise to the top, Todes said. And then again, winning a competition doesn't necessarily mean that you win a career. For example, Shipps said, Christian Tetzlaff did not make the finals in a certain competition he entered years ago, but he's certainly made a career. "Somebody should go tell him he's not good enough!" Shipps joked. "There are others who have made great wins (at competitions) and have not gone anywhere (in their career)."

Joseph Gingold, the wonderful violinist and pedagogue who started the Indianapolis competition, did not have a great solo career, and much of that had to do with timing: he was in his prime around the 1930s – the same time as was Jascha Heifetz, who eclipsed everyone; the same time as the Great Depression, and later, war. "There are a lot of non-scientific things that come into it," Shipps said.

One thing to remember is that a competition exists for all who enter it, not just those who receive top medals. French quoted an official at the Van Cliburn piano competition, who once said of the 30 entrants, "There's an opportunity for 30 people here to make a career, no matter who wins."

Shipps recalled a student at the Kreisler competition. She didn't win, but after one of the concerts a couple came up to her... and offered her the use of their Stradivari.

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More entries: November 2010September 2010

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