Rachel Barton Pine has a passion for unaccompanied violin works: not only has she commissioned such works from living composers, but she also has trekked across the globe to procure a collection of more than 1,000 works for unaccompanied violin.
On Thursday Rachel will play an entire concert of works for unaccompanied violin at Bargemusic in Brooklyn. (By the way, if you are in New York and want to go, Violinist.com readers will receive a $5 discount off the ticket price to Rachel’s Bargemusic concert by using the code "violinist.com" when they reserve tickets.)
The first half of the program will feature traditional fare, with Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor and Ysaye’s Sonata No. 4, and the second half will include all pieces written for Rachel.
"I had kind of a backlog of pieces written for me that I'd been wanting to share in concert, on the radio and on the Internet," Rachel said. "The fact that they are so stylistically different makes it all the more fun, there's a composer from Africa, a composer writing in klezmer style, two composers from Latin America, an avante-garde composer, all these different composers with their own voices, connected by the fact that somehow, in each of these works, there's something of my personality as well because they composed these pieces with me in mind."
If you can't make it to Bargemusic, you can hear those pieces as a podcast (Episode 54) on Rachel's website taken from a concert on Chicago WFMT radio in October.
"Unaccompanied repertoire has been a passion of mine, for most of my life," Rachel said. "It started when I was a kid, and my family's finances were so tight that our phone and electricity were always getting cut off . We sometimes didn't know how we were going to find gas money to get to our lessons. So occasionally when my teachers would want me to do a sonata, I would find an unaccompanied sonata, like the Bartok or the Prokofiev, and beg to do that instead, with the thought in the back of my mind that I would not have to pay a piano accompanist if I learned that piece."
"Luckily, by the time I was a teenager and earning money on my own, I was able to catch up and learn all the sonatas I should have learned," Rachel said. "But in those early years, I always tried to do unaccompanied repertoire. The same went for showpieces: doing Paganini's 'Nel Cor' and Ernst's 'Last Rose' instead of 'Il Palpiti,' because again, I wouldn't have to pay the accompanist."
Though it started as a money-saving measure, "in the course of doing this, I found a real love for music for violin alone."
"Of course there's nothing more satisfying than playing with other musicians," Rachel said, "but music for violin alone is fascinating, just see what a violin can do all by itself , to see different composers' approaches to this conundrum.
"Music for solo violin is so flexible, in terms of what you can do with it," Rachel said. For example, it can work well when playing in an alternative venue. "When a symphony sends me to a jazz club or a local cafe, and there's not even an old clunky upright piano there, no keyboard instrument whatsoever, I would rather just play unaccompanied music than lug in some icky electronic keyboard and try to find a pianist to play with me. I can play these great unaccompanied works that I don't have to rehearse with anybody; it's just good to go. Going into schools, going on radio stations, all those places.
"The unaccompanied violin repertoire extends so far beyond Bach and Paganini and Ysaye; it's absolutely vast – more than people realize," Rachel said. Her own library of solo violin music grew exponentially with the discovery of a book entitled Music for Solo Violin Unaccompanied, by a man in Sweden named Harry Edlund.
"It's one of those wonderful reference books whose title is exactly what it is," Rachel said. "I found this book in the library a number of years ago, and for me it was like the Rosetta Stone. I'd been trying to compile as much unaccompanied violin music as I could, but Harry Edlund got there ahead of me. His book was organized both alphabetically as well as by country and by time period. It was exactly what I had been dreaming of – a few thousand pieces!"
"I was so thrilled to find his book, and he was so thrilled somebody had read his book, we became friends," Rachel said. Unfortunately, Edlund died shortly thereafter. His widow allowed Rachel to come to Sweden and look at his collection. "His collection was extraordinary," Rachel said, more than 1,000 pieces for unaccompanied violin. "There's no library on the planet that has nearly that number of unaccompanied pieces in a single institution."
"This was his life's project," Rachel said, and his widow – who died shortly thereafter – turned the entire collection over to Rachel. "So I now own the world's largest collection of unaccompanied music for violin," Rachel said. "This is going to be my next big project." She plans to create an online, searchable database, with sound clips so artists can use it to decide what to perform, and so composers will have access to this music.
"Adding to this repertoire is very close to my heart," Rachel said, and to that end, she continues to commission works for solo violin.
"I tend to commission unaccompanied works because I know that I will get to perform them a lot more frequently" When she has to work with a pianist and quickly work up a recital, she can do the piano-violin works that are more familiar, then play a new unaccompanied work.
Rachel got to know American composer Augusta Read Thomas when learning her first unaccompanied piece for violin, Incantation. Thomas wrote Rush for Rachel to perform on the St. Paul Sunday radio show in April 2005. "The title refers to an adrenaline rush," Rachel said. People often have music on in their cars, on the radio, and "she wanted a piece that would jump out of the airwaves, grab your attention and not let go. The beginning just hits you in the face, it just makes you sit up and take notice. It's the perfect opener because it just grabs your attention."
Rachel also will play two Latin American pieces. Rachel commissioned Uruguayan composer José Serebrier to write "Aires de Tango," – a tango-flavored unaccompanied piece – for an album, Capricho Latino, to be released Cinco de Mayo 2011 of unaccompanied virtuoso pieces from Spain and Latin America. "It was actually Harry Edlund's collection that inspired that album," Rachel said. "I found so many cool Spanish-flavored works in his collection."
The other tango-flavored piece, "Epitalamio Tanguero," was written as a surprise wedding gift to Rachel and Greg Pine for their 2004 wedding by Argentinian composer Luis Jorge González of Boulder, Colorado. "He had written another unaccompanied piece with no particular violinist in mind that I ended up giving the world premiere, then I performed it a few times and loved it," Rachel said. "What's fascinating is that these two pieces that are both inspired by the tango, they're both totally different pieces."
The Klezmer composer Yale Strom "is one of the world's greatest Klezmer violinists and ethnomusicological researchers into the music of Jewish people from Europe and the Middle East, an amazing scholar and performer," Rachel said. "He's been on the faculty of Mark O'Connor's fiddle camps for years and years," as has Rachel, who has enjoyed sitting in on his classes when she could. "I was about to make my third tour of Israel, and I said to him, 'I'd love to do one of the kinds of pieces you play, for an encore when I do my concertos and recitals in Israel, but I'm never going to be able to attend enough of your classes to get good at it. Could you possibly write something down for me?' He wrote her a piece called Vaynshl No. 1. "What he ended up doing was not a written-down version of a traditional Klezmer piece, but he created a piece for me that is sort of a classical version of a Klezmer piece," Rachel said. "It's not the kind of dance, party music that we normally think of with Klezmer music; it's actually based on the kind of unaccompanied cadenza that a Klezmer violinist would play for the guests of honor on a special occasion. It's much more of a virtuoso cadenza, a serious piece, that has a lot of ebb and flow with the rubato."
"Fred Onovwerosuoke is a wonderful composer from Nigeria by way of St. Louis, whom I got to know during my first trip to Africa a few years ago," Rachel said. "I went to Ghana for a couple of weeks and played a terrific piano trio he had written. He subsequently wrote a piece for violin and piano for me, but there were enough bits of it where the violin played alone, or the piano played alone, or they played in unison, where it seemed to lend itself to a version for violin alone. So what I'm playing, 'Six and a Half Variations,' is my transcription of his violin and piano piece, which I put together with his blessing. It's a set of variations on a traditional-sounding tune. "
"African music, in my opinion, is really the next frontier for classical music," Rachel said. "It's cliché to say that African music is about rhythm, because that's not the whole story. But definitely rhythm is a very interesting component. If you play enough art music by African composers, playing in seven becomes completely natural. In this piece, there are bits and movements in seven, and it's just normal! An especially fun variation, which imitates a spoken word style, is based on an elder telling a child to be careful going in the river, to watch out for the hippos."
Then there are the pieces that stem from Rachel's longtime interest in heavy metal music. She plays in a metal band called Earthen Grave.
Both pieces are written by violinists: Philip Pan, concertmaster of the Jacksonville Symphony in Florida, wrote "Thrash," and violinist Edgar Gabriel, a free-lance violinist in Chicago, wrote "Theme and Variations."
"Both of them play electric rock violin as well. I asked each of them to write something for me for acoustic violin, with a rock flavor," Rachel said. "I don't consider either of these pieces to be crossover or to be acoustic versions of rock songs, I consider them to be pure classical music that happens to use heavy metal as an influence. Bartok used rhythms, harmonies and melodies of Hungarian folk music; 20th-century American and French composers used jazz as a building block in creating their art music; so why not metal? It's actually a very sophisticated style, and of course there are certain approaches to tone color that come from metal. When it's plugged in, we have distortion, whammy bars, feedback...those are all effects that can be created on acoustic violin. In fact, in contemporary music we would call them 'extended technique.' But when it happens to be coupled with something of a rock flavor, then we call them things like 'distortion' and 'feedback'!"
Rachel will be giving a session at the next 2011 American String Teachers' Association Conference this spring on how to make all the electric violin effects on your unplugged, acoustic violin. "This is something I developed back in the mid-90s," Rachel said. "I was one of the first violinists to do this, to try to capture things like thrash metal on acoustic violin. It's weird to think that enough time has passed that my colleagues and I who were on the cutting edge, first doing rock violin, are now looked at as the mentors or pioneers!"
Rachel is finishing the program with her own version of Asturias by Albéniz. "It's one of the most iconic Spanish guitar pieces that exists – even if you don't know much about classical music you will have heard this tune," Rachel said. "What most people don't realize is that Albéniz originally wrote it for piano. It's much, much more frequently heard on guitar. But I thought: if it wasn't a guitar piece in the first place, then I can probably justify making it into a violin piece! And in creating my violin arrangement, I drew upon ideas from both the piano and the guitar versions, as well as inspiration from a piece in Harry Edlund's collection: a piece by Rodrigo."
Joaquín Rodrigo is most famous as the composer of Concierto de Aranjuez for classical guitar and orchestra. "Rodrigo also wrote an unaccompanied piece for violin, to the memory of Sarasate," Rachel said. "Any composer who was not a guitar-composer, would not have thought to do some of the things he does. It all works perfectly well on the violin, but it's figurations that I'd never seen before, that really evoke the feeling of a guitar. Something totally new and different! Obviously the violin can very effectively imitate some of these guitar figurations, and so that is what I tried to capture with my version of 'Asturias.'" (Which is published in her Rachel Barton Pine Collection.
Can other violinists play these works?
"Anybody who hears one of these pieces and wants to play them, or hears about them and wants to see the music, just e-mail me," Rachel said. "I'll either tell you where you can find it or how you can get in touch with the composer."
When I caught up with Anne-Sophie Mutter earlier this month in Orange County, California, she was in the midst of so many projects that I had to write them on a piece of paper to keep track: a series of Beethoven trio concerts with Lynn Harrell and Yuri Bashmet; the release of the complete Brahms Sonatas on CD and on DVD with Lambert Orkis; and a New York Philharmonic residency in which she is playing premieres of works by contemporary composers this fall and next spring.
We spoke about her more-than-20-year collaboration with pianist Lambert Orkis, the new pieces she will play in New York, and the Anne-Sophie Mutter Circle of Friends Foundation for young soloists.
Anne-Sophie and Orkis started their collaboration in Carnegie Hall in December of 1988. "We've covered an enormous amount of repertoire together – not all of it is recorded," she said.
"We have totally different backgrounds," Anne-Sophie said. "Lambert Orkis comes very much from the background of contemporary music and of historic practice of performing, which is not at all my upbringing – though it has rubbed off quite a bit on my understanding of Beethoven and Mozart, for example, and Bach, of course. So we are not naturally one mind! But we have great respect for each other, obviously."
"We are both passionate rehearsers, and on the other hand, passionately un-doing things during the concert. We try to push each other to the edge. Not every evening, but there are moments when we drive it to the wall, just because the music is intensely speaking at that particular moment and the dialogue is always fresh," Anne-Sophie said. "It's like if you talk to your husband: you pretty much know where his thinking is going. But still, you would hope that a dialogue is always something which also is surprising and enriching. That's what we have achieved over the years."
"We have a musical life apart from each other, which is very helpful," Anne-Sophie said. "We bring our experiences with contemporary music, with world premieres, with his trio, and with his recording of Beethoven Sonatas, for example, on historic instruments. We bring that together, and shake and bake, and let it fly."
The moment felt right to re-record the Brahms. "I have played the Brahms Sonatas a lot over the years, sometimes as a cycle, sometimes as single pieces in a mixed recital, and we felt that we had reached a new understanding, a very personal viewpoint, different from my very first recording with (pianist) Alexis Weissenberg from the early '80s. It was ready, it was ripe to be harvested."
Though they are being released at the same time, the CD and DVD were recorded separately.
"The DVD is pretty different from the CD," Anne-Sophie said. "They were all produced in the same time frame. The CD is not a studio performance, but a performance without audience. On a rainy morning, we ran through the G major and nailed it. There was a wonderful atmosphere that morning for that particularly dark and very private piece. I think that the G major sonata that is captured on the CD could never have been that private, that personal, that whispering – with an audience present. I particularly like the recording of the G major – and I don't easily say that.
"The performance with audience (for the DVD) is simply different," she said. "We all like to play for an audience more than playing for the microphone. Standing in front of the microphone, you just have to forget the purpose of you being there, because it's going to hinder you very much."
Communication works differently in the presence of an audience, she said.
"Psychologically, there is a huge difference between an empty, silent room, and a room silent, with attentive, listening people," Anne-Sophie said. "It's a totally different atmosphere, and in that atmosphere wonderful things can happen.
Does she have a favorite of the three sonatas?
"The G major," she said. "There's such a wonderful history between Clara and Johannes, and the piece itself is really a jewel. It's wonderfully constructed, and so thoughtful, and personal."
The G major sonata, though it does not officially bear a dedication to Clara Schumann, was written following the death of one of Clara's children. Brahms uses one of her favorite tunes, from "Regenlied," (rain song) which serves as a theme through three movements.
"There are letters going back and forth, where Clara is very much moved by the thought that Brahms would even pick one of her favorite songs as a theme," Anne-Sophie said.
While in New York earlier this month, Anne-Sophie began a residence with the New York Philharmonic, with a world premiere performance of Wolfgang Rihm's "Lichtes Spiel", for solo violin with Mozart-sized orchestra. It is the second piece Rihm has written for Anne-Sophie; "twenty years ago he wrote me a piece called Time Chant. He's very unique, I wouldn't know who to compare him with, you have to listen to his very unique style of writing."
Speaking about it before the performance," Anne-Sophie said that "so far, (Lichtes Spiel) seems to be what he says it is, a walk on a sunny day, something very not a heart-wrenchingly dark-mooded piece. It's like along aria with a very delicately orchestrated, small group of players around – two horns in F, two oboes and two flutes. "
Anne-Sophie will return in the spring to the New York Philharmonic for the New York premiere of Sofia Gubaidulina's In Tempus Praesens, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, which was written several years ago for Anne-Sophie.
"That piece is still under exclusivity, although it's soon over and Gidon Kremer is going to play In Tempus Praesens next February in my hometown, Munich," Anne-Sophie said. "I'm very glad that I had a relatively long period with it, and I was able to travel the world with it and introduce it to places like Japan, where it was received very enthusiastically."
"This piece has been on my desk for quite a while and just never quite found the right moment to appear, but it will in the spring of next year," Anne-Sophie said. "There are seven movements: there is compressed time, large time, hurried time...It's a very interesting concept, how he tries to put that into a rhythmical concept, and that is really fiendishly difficult. I'm still working on it, in my spare hours."
A piece that remains in the works for a world premiere in the spring in New York is Wolfgang Rihm's "Elf and the Bear," a piece commissioned by Anne-Sophie's foundation, for her and for bassist Roman Patkoló. Who is the elf and who is the bear? "That's the question!" Anne-Sophie said. Patkoló is a current recipient of one of the Mutter foundation scholarships, and "I'm in total awe of his talent," Anne-Sophie said. "He's not just a great technician but also a thorough, grounded, very knowledgeable musician."
And speaking of her foundation, "I'm always looking for greatly talented students for my foundation," Anne-Sophie said. Young artists between the ages of 16 and 22 are eligible to apply to be "scholars" by sending a DVD, CV, letters of recommendation...here is all the information about it.
Anne-Sophie began the foundation in Munich, Germany, in 1997, to help young soloists find the proper instruction, instruments, performance opportunities and more.
"I wanted to have the perfect foundation, the perfect tool for young string players," Anne-Sophie said. Because the foundation is run by a musician, "the understanding of what a young string player needs is very high, out of my own experience. We also give commissions, not only for double bass but also for chamber ensemble, and we buy instruments, pay for tutoring. (Some of the scholars) are traveling with me. They are auditioning for conductors, playing for producers of CDs...there's basically nothing the foundation isn't providing. Depending on what every single person needs, from a driver's license to lectures in German or English, literature, scores, you name it. Rowing, mountain climbing, getting to know painters, I mean it's very varied, and most of the time it's really great fun."
Anne-Sophie came up with the idea for a foundation when she was a young artist, finding her way; specifically, when she faced the monumental task of procuring a fine instrument at the age of 16.
"It was Karajan who suggested that I should change my Nicola Gagliano to a Strad," Anne-Sophie said. "Back then I was kind of offended, my Gagliano's so beautiful! I never want to change it! But then, what do you know at that age? I got to know some of the great fiddles, and the next problem was, how on Earth was I going to finance that?"
Luckily, the politicians in her hometown in Germany had a commitment to culture, and they helped her to pre-finance the violin.
"That was an enormous help, but I still felt that one day I would build a foundation which would be absolutely perfect, where a musician would be the head of it, knowing what details around the life of a string player that one has to look into," Anne-Sophie said. "It was very clear to me that one day when I would eventually have more time, I would like to try something which would not be out of a specific region but really would embrace the world. So whoever needs help can knock on our door.
" She said she has enjoyed helping pair musicians with the proper instrument, though the final decision must be theirs. They have to match – like a marriage.
"Marriage with an instrument sometimes lasts longer!" she laughed. "But the good thing is you can put it back in the case and close the case, it's never talking back to you!"
She also helps scholars find the proper mentor. "Most of them are on a level where they don't need a day-to-day teacher but there they just need brainstorming, brain-picking..sometimes just sending them off to masterclasses and having a close look on their outcome after the masterclasses is enough. Sometimes very close relationships come about between these teachers and students, that's one of the main focuses, hooking them up with the right mentors. And then the next thing is to find a conductor who will take them under his wing. Not only necessarily to give a lot of concerts, but to grow musically. Christoph Eschenbach, for example, who is wonderful collaborator for my foundation because he is so open-minded towards the young generation and does chamber music with them and really serves as a mentor. That is something that is an important part of that equation."
And then, some scholars need non-musical things. "Just to get them out of their nutshell," she said. For example, one student was obsessed with playing and wanted to play from dawn to dusk. "I told him listen, playing an instrument is not about repeating. On your technical level, it's about understanding where a musical thought comes from and what it is part of, where it grows out, how it evolved. So you have to get away from the instrument! So what did I do? I took him mountain climbing in Austria and rowing on a lake. I just wanted to show him the beauty of Bruckner's landscape."
She also introduced him to a quote in German literature: "Before you go to bed in the evening, you have to ask yourself the question, do you live in order to write, or do you write in order to live?"
"For a musician it's very much that question: is it a calling or is it fortune and fame?" Anne-Sophie said.
Hint: if the answer is that you are doing it for the "fortune and fame," that's the wrong answer!
Have you ever seen identical twin violins? Well, here is a pair, only they were born 267 years apart:
© Endre Balogh, published with permission from the photographer
At right is the 1728 ex-Artot, ex-Alard Stradivari, and on the left is a replica, made in 1995 by luthier Gregg Alf, whose studio is in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The photographer who took the stunning picture above is Endre Balogh, who also happens to be the violinist who owns both instruments. I wound up in his living room Los Angeles on Tuesday, at the invitation of Gregg Alf, who was visiting Southern California for a few days.
Endre held one fiddle in each hand, "Can you tell?" He showed me the fronts, the backs, rolled each around to the corresponding ribs….identical color, shape, even little scratches. What detail!
"Not by sight, not at all," I said. I wasn't willing to let it go at that, though; I crouched very close to each one and how can I describe? Tried to feel the force field around them? "This one gives me the old-violin feeling." I guessed right. I could tell them apart when I played a few notes on each, but you will laugh at me, when Endre mixed them up and played them for me from across the room, I thought he was playing the Strad when he was playing Alf's instrument. Got me! It sounded really nice. The fiddles have provided Balogh much inspiration, not just musically, but visually; here is a whole gallery of his violin photos. Enjoy!
Listening to the ease and fluidity with which Russian-born violinist Philippe Quint plays Paganini, it's hard to imagine that these pieces ever caused him any pain or difficulty.
If you associate Quint more with the Korngold concerto, this is understandable: he's giving 32 performances of the Korngold this year, a piece he also recorded in 2009. In addition to his nominations for Grammys for the Korngold recording and for his William Schuman Violin Concerto, he also has emerged as a teacher. His student Randall Goosby, who flies from Tennessee to New York monthly for lessons with Quint, won the Sphinx Competition's junior division earlier this year.
But back to Paganini, Quint just released a Naxos recording of works by Nicolò Paganini that were arranged by Fritz Kreisler, including Moto Perpetuo, Op. 11; Le Streghe, Op. 8; Caprices 13, 20 and 24; "La Campanella" from the Violin Concerto No. 2; and sets of variations from two Rossini Operas: "Non più mesta" from La Cenerentola and "Di tanti palpiti" from Tancredi. He is accompanied by pianist Dmitriy Cogan.
These pieces require a high order of technique, with double harmonics, spiccato, ricochet, lefthand pizzicato, double stops, wicked-fast playing and overall fireworks. So how were these arrangements by Kreisler? Were they kinder and gentler, as one might expect? Was it fun to record Paganini?
Philippe Quint: I don't know what to tell you about Paganini, except for the fact that it was a torture! (He laughs) It was a major, major torture. I used to really enjoy Paganini in my teens – every teenager enjoys Paganini because it's pyrotechnics, fun stuff, challenging. It's good for you, your fingers feel much better after you play it...
Also, however, you may just destroy your hand if you don't approach it properly, and this was certainly the case with me the first time I tried to prepare the 24 Caprices. Eventually I got tendonitis and I had to put Paganini away for a few years.
Laurie Niles: How old were you?
Philippe: I was around 21.
Laurie: What did you do wrong?
Philippe: I practiced it too much. I killed my hands, particularly the left hand, because of the stretches. I was doing it too much. Maybe it was due to my Soviet training – that obsessive feeling that you have to get it, no matter what, and no matter how many hours it takes. A huge mistake. With Paganini, you must systematize your work and divide it into very small sections. You must really understand the center of the problem. Usually, you will find that in each passage, there are one or two shifts that are difficult, but everything else is fine. I like to compare my approach to the jigsaw puzzle: you have little small parts you put together, then eventually you have the big picture. But this is something that I learned many years later, which was too late.
So when Naxos approached me with this Paganini project, I was literally terrified. Usually I know about a forthcoming recording project about a year in advance. So I learned of this project in July of 2007, that I would record it in 2008. So there was a giant sign in my head, 'Paganini coming up.' Then of course you think about it, but there's no time to start it. This time, I cleared my schedule entirely – everything -- in June 2008. I called my friends in California and asked if I could practice in their house. They said, absolutely, we have a wonderful room in our basement – I said, perfect.
Laurie: Why did you have to go to California to practice?
Philippe: Because there's no chance that I can do anything in New York. When I travel, then I come back to New York for four or five days, I'm so occupied with the the bills, the letters, the e-mails -- life. My practice time always happens on tour. Therefore, I knew that in order for me to really do a good job with this project, I needed to be in complete isolation: where I don't know anybody, where the phone doesn't ring. I knew that they also have an area where there's no reception!
Knowing I already had issues with my hands, I knew I needed to be extremely careful preparing it. So I looked at the different techniques in each piece: You have octave fast scales, double harmonics, lefthand pizzicato, triple harmonics – quadruple harmonics! There are several quadruple harmonics – the only way to play them is to break them one-by-one. You have to find all kinds of creative ways to get around certain things.
Paganini had Marfan's Syndrome, a disease which enabled him to stretch this hands to these unbelievable distances. I don't have that! Knock on wood. So I need to figure out how not to hurt myself.
Moto Perpetuo, at first, was killing my right arm. I listened to a recording of Ruggiero Ricci, who plays it – probably faster than lightning. Amazing. And you think to yourself, okay, so that's just not going to happen! (he laughs) How well can you do it? So you slowly build it up to speed with your left hand, with your right hand, then gradually increase the speed. Most importantly, get yourself to a comfort zone. This was something Miss DeLay told me a long time ago: the greatest violinists never played at their top speed, they always played much below that. It makes sense. This is something I was able to use in Paganini: I only played it at a speed that was very comfortable for me.
Laurie: Beyond all the technique, what was your musical approach to these works by Paganini?
Philippe: Paganini's music was always neglected, or disrespected, because people always comment that Paganini's music is not profound music, there's not depth, it's just virtuoso athletics. True! But Paganini himself never claimed that he was writing anything profound. In fact there's a quote from Paganini, he said, "Well, you know, I'm not Beethoven." Beethoven was a composer he greatly admired. At some point he was going to meet with him but they missed each other in Vienna.
One can disregard Paganini only if you really know how to play it well. There are two challenges in Paganini: Number one is that you must disregard the fact that it's technical and make it music. You must take the musical part and make it extremely simple, flowing.
Paganini lived during the time of great opera, and he was inspired by opera, there's no question. A lot of his compositions are based on operas, and in fact three of the works in this recording are based on operas. So this was my challenge: I was trying to make it as operatic as possible. I kept thinking of belcanto, and also I just listened to the operas that he based it on, which gave me a phenomenal insight on these works. ('Non più mesta' from Rossini's La Cenerentola; 'Di tanti palpiti' from Rossini's Tancredi; and 'Le streghe' )
The second challenge is playing the technical part so that it's not a bunch of passages and arpeggios and scales, because that was not interesting. So once I was more-or-less comfortable – I don't know if you can ever be completely comfortable – that's when I tried to make it musical.
Laurie: I hadn't realized that Kreisler had made these arrangements of Paganini. What did Kreisler do that was different?
Philippe: When I heard that these were Kreisler arrangements, do you know what I thought? I thought – Kreisler...Viennese...Leibesleid...beautiful charming ways – he must have simplified Paganini. I'm not going to have any problems! When I finally looked at the music, I realized, it's the opposite. He added a torturous cadenza for the Witches' Dance (Le Streghe). There's a whole new part in 'I palpiti.' 'I palpiti' is arguably one of the most difficult pieces written for violin, next to Ernst's "Last Rose of Summer" and one of those crazy finger-twisting works. Kreisler added these impossibly unplayable things.
In the three Caprices: you have Paganini's 24th Caprice ending in harmonics, slow, the last variation is Lento. Then you have Caprice 13, which is twice as slow, which in a way is more challenging: somehow now you can hear absolutely every note – something maybe we don't want to have every time! He left Caprice 20 almost as is, just with accompaniment. A lot of composers tried to arrange Paganini's caprices; we have Schumann arrangements, Brahms used a theme, Liszt used a theme, Rachmaninov used the themes – Auer had famous transcriptions. Some of them are better than others.
I think, though, that this is what Naxos is all about: bringing new repertoire for people's exposure so they can decide for themselves. If some people prefer these arrangements, great, if some not, you can't win. Ours is a subjective art form. I see people commenting, 'I like Hilary Hahn, I like Janine Jansen, I like Julia Fischer, I like Joshua Bell,' and then 'I hate this this this or that.' It's conceptual, some players touch you more than others. You find what you love, and all we can do is work really hard and just keep trying.
Laurie: And be true to the vision that you have, and see who comes along for the ride.
You have a new violin now, on loan from the Stradivari Society...tell me about it!
Philippe: Yes! The 'Ruby' Stradivari.
Philippe: Yes. Actually, the great comment that Joshua Bell made when he played the Vieuxtemps, when he said that a new violin is kind of like a new person walking into the room, a new face. This was Ruby! I love this violin, it's gorgeous, and the reason it's called the 'Ruby' is the varnish, it's very red-violinish-like. And of course I'm still discovering all the secrets, very much in the beginning, but it's great to have this new journey. I had a great time with the 1723 'Ex-Kiesewetter' for five years, and now Augustin Hadelich has it.
The ruby is a stone of mystery and a stone of love. I think the Latin translation is "supreme love," in fact. It's rumored to have been played by Sarasate.
Laurie: What does it like?
Philippe: What music does it like? I don't know yet because everything sounds so different, and the truth is, every time I have a new instrument, I have to change, first of all, the entire physical approach, hands...Suddenly my bow wasn't working any more. So I'm looking for a bow that would suit this particular violin, that's number one. Then, now I go back to the pieces I've played, and I have to change a ton of bowings and fingering because certain places are now much more audible and more exposed. This violin is so clear, so crisp.
Laurie: What's the year?
Philippe: 1708. It's a beautiful new challenge. I've been running towards the case to practice. I want to experience all the pieces that I've played on the other Strads – on this particular one.
So how did you like playing the Vieuxtemps del Gesù?
Laurie: You know what was really strange, it was a really beautiful instrument. I only had a minute with it, and then with the ex-Nachèz Strad, this summer in Chicago at Bein and Fushi.
Philippe: The greater the instrument is, the more time you need to get to know it. It just means that the instrument has so much personality. It's like getting to know a new person.
Laurie: I think both of those instruments were complicated personalities, and it helps if you happen to know the repertoire they like, if that makes any sense.
Philippe: It does. I call instruments time machines. Ever since I was a kid, I've always wanted to travel through time. I've had the pleasure to play with the Vieuxtemps three or four times in concerts, and I realized, my whole life, I've been with a time machine: a violin. This is exactly what we have, imagine! This violin has seen the world, more than we ever will.
Laurie: And you think of the people who played them...
Philippe: Ysäye and Vieuxtemps...We always think of composers like Vieuxtemps and Paganini as books, names, we think of them as music scores. We don't actually imagine that there was once an actual person, playing this violin and composing this piece of music with this violin! And once you have that image – I think that really helps the music.
They're listening to a symphony on pop radio stations in Europe? I was incredulous when I learned of this improbable turn of events, in the early 1990s. But it was true. A recording of Polish composer Henryk Górecki's "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" had made its way to No. 6 on popular music charts -- not classical -- in the United Kingdom. Yes, pop radio stations in Europe were playing this symphony, and Americans also were snapping up CDs of a symphony of songs sung in a language many had never heard. Of course I had to investigate; I also bought the recording, which was made in 1992 and featured the London Sinfonietta, conducted by David Zinman, with soprano Dawn Upshaw. The composition had actually been written more than 15 years before, in 1976. Though Górecki said the symphony was about the ties between a mother and child, people have interpreted it in many ways, as a tribute to Holocaust victims, as a religious statement, as a political one.
I played this symphony a few later, in a beautiful and memorable concert dedicated to the victims of AIDS, a disease which had taken many lives and, at the time, seemed to carry with it a certain death sentence. The cure, or the medicine to cope, was not yet in sight then, in the mid-1990s. The concert took place at church in Omaha, Neb., with the beautiful soprano dressed in white -- and pregnant, somehow this seemed significant. Grieving friends and relatives of people who had died from AIDS lit candles, and the music was so appropriate, so moving. It's a concert I won't forget.
When I found this movement from the "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs," I had to listen to the end, and remember.
Here also is an excellent tribute to Górecki, put together by NPR.
Take three superstars, German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, American cellist Lynn Harrell and Russian violist Yuri Bashmet, and place them in a hall in California that seats more than 1,700 – that's with 30 chairs added to accommodate the over-capacity crowd at Orange County's Segerstrom Concert Hall.
Can a classical event get any bigger?
Yet this performance was a study in intimacy, the repertoire being Ludwig van Beethoven's early trios, music which leans more toward Beethoven's elegant classical side than his Romantic. The three artists played these trios in Vancouver Tuesday, and tonight they will play in Morelia, Mexico, before playing the program at Avery Fisher Hall in New York on Nov. 14.
On one hand, I longed to hear this music performed in small venue, like a tiny church chapel. Such a small ensemble needs a quiet backdrop– here in towering hall with its curvaceous balconies, with so many people, it's a tall requirement. But on the other hand, what a crowd, what energy! Young people sat everywhere, and judging from the applause between nearly every movement, a good many newcomers attended.
As this three embarked on their journey, starting with the String Trio in C minor, Op. 9, No. 3, I couldn't help wondering how this was going to come off, an entire concert of these rather exposed, all-strings works. To my initial thinking, a string trio is a quartet minus one -- a string quartet at 75 percent!
And of course, they won me over. I'd never seen Mutter live in concert, and she certainly brings the entire package, from her polished appearance to her fearless and arrow-direct playing. Known for her sleeveless Dior concert gowns, Mutter showed her impeccable fashion taste as always, with a bright orange, sparkling, spaghetti-strap blouse, black pants and high heals. (Logistics point toward wearing pants for seated chamber music playing.) Her partners wore all-black.
I enjoyed studying the musical personalities of each these three players, but to me, it also put on display the dynamic of these three instruments working together.
It took them some time to warm up in this literally very-cold hall, but by the third-movement Scherzo of the first piece, the energy was flowing, and the fourth-movement Presto showed off their precision and ability to execute very fast runs in sync.
Next was the Serenade in D, Op. 8, with a nice pizzicato ending in the Menuetto. Harrell's little smile at his closing strum causing the audience to giggle in sympathy with this cute ending. Harrell, in fact, seemed to be the glue, sitting in the middle of this small ensemble and keeping it together. It was in the highly changeable "Adagio-Scherzo-Allegro molto" movement that I could see almost a casting call for these three instruments: the aggressive violin at the fore, the cello as the go-between and diplomat, and the viola in a supporting role – even more the supporting role for the lack of a second violin. Of course this order is not always the case; there were solos all around throughout the night, but this movement threw into relief those instrumental stereotypes.
By now, our trio seemed to be having fun. Mutter is always doing something with the moment, one never gets the sense she is on auto-pilot because she seems to invent each moment as it comes along. Whether you agree with what she may make of it or not, it is compelling and generous. Harrell had a wonderful "way up there" on the fingerboard solo in the "Allegretto alla polacca," so perfect and elegant that I wanted to break out with hoots and applause, as in a jazz jam session. As the atmosphere relaxed, it was fun just reading the music on Harrell's face.
In the last movement of the Serenade there was much elegance all around. Mutter has many tools in her arsenal – she has the ability to turn on a dime and make virtually any sound she wants on the fiddle, flattening the tone with no vibrato, or making a ghosty whisper. Appropriate for early Beethoven? I'll leave that to the violin police. Bashmet plays so nimbly on the viola – an instrument not known as a nimble and easy partner. He makes it look easy.
After intermission came the String Trio in E-flat major, Op. 3. Here I noticed Mutter's muscle, speed, accuracy and elastic fingers. She does pounce, she falls forward, and she makes her collaborators catch up, but frankly it's rather exciting. No stagnation here. Each one of these musicians is a well-oiled machine, and part of the fun is that they can keep up, or they can slow it all to flat stillness, or they can slam on the breaks and dive back in.
I enjoyed the Andante movement of this Trio – how fun this sounded to play, like the innerworkings of a complex clock mechanism. The Menuetto-Trio also required some mean counting, fast pizzicato in the cello, constant slurred noodling in the viola, an overriding melody in the violin. So much packed into this music with just three instruments – it's a miracle it all fits. What music.
And at the end, a fiendishly fast finale: maniacal string crossings and double stops, a frenzy! And after the end, a standing ovation -- as much for what each of these artists are as for what they just did.
I usually encourage my students to practice in the morning, before school. That way, they hit the violin when they are fresh, and practice is already finished just as the day begins.
Of course, this is not possible for some people. When kids get older, school starts earlier. If school starts at 7:15, it may be very difficult to get up early enough to practice, especially for a teenager.
Adults -- whether they are students, amateurs or professionals -- also have to fit practicing into their life's schedule. If you work a 9 to 5 job, that doesn't leave a lot of time for practicing. One can practice at the lunch hour, but then what about lunch?
To be effective, practice should take place every day. People who practice every day get the best advantage and enjoyment from playing. So where do you fit it in? Please share any tips or experience you have on scheduling your practice.
If you are new to the violin, you might be tempted to buy one of the low-priced violins advertised all over the Internet – by low-priced I mean anything under about $300.
Don't do it.
Having a cheap violin will make an already-difficult skill even more difficult to learn and will cause persistent frustration in your practice. Your violin will refuse to be in tune, the angle and placement of the strings will be off, the tone of the instrument will be squeaky and unappealing, and the tuners will likely bend and break.
This year has seen a flood of cheap, factory-made violins from China, priced impossibly low. This low price point makes a $400 violin seem like a bad deal, but this is actually a reasonable price for a student violin made from good-quality wood with a fitted bridge, fitted pegs, etc.
How can you tell the difference between a quality fractional-sized or full-sized violin and a substandard "violin-shaped object," or "VSO"?
One fairly reliable indicator is the fingerboard. Is it made from ebony? Ebony is the best wood for violin fingerboards, and it is naturally black. A VSO typically has a fingerboard made from a light wood that has been painted black, said Tom Metzler of Metzler Violin Shop in Glendale, Calif. If you turn the instrument at an angle, you can check for brown patches on the underside of the fingerboard, close to where it has been attached to the fiddle. If you find brown patches, that is one indication that the fingerboard has been painted, and that it is not ebony.
If you look underneath this violin fingerboard, you will see the "unpainted" patch. That fingerboard is definitely not made of ebony!
When the fingerboard has been made from cheaper wood that isn't ebony, it is more susceptible to warping, which causes the fingerboard either to be curved upward, or to have a counter-curve, making it more difficult to play. It can also cause rattling and squeaking, if the string vibrates against the fingerboard.
The cheap VSOs generally come with one-size-fits-all bridges that are rather thick and squarish. A quality violin has a bridge with feet that are individually fitted to stand properly on that specific violin. If you look at the feet of the bridge and there are gaps underneath, the bridge probably was not fitted to the fiddle. This can cause instability, making the bridge fall down more easily and also making it lean instead of stand upright.
The top of the bridge should be arched and sloped down to the E-string, to create the proper angle for the bow to touch each string. In a VSO, this often is not the case, the strings may be on a simple, non-sloping arch or possibly almost like a row. If all the strings site straight in a row, it's very difficult to play on one string without hitting another. This business with the angle of the bridge is more important than you might think; you feel it constantly when you play. If the angles are well-calibrated you will feel an ease in crossing strings; if not, there will be persistent frustration.
Having the feet of the bridge sit "just so" on top of the violin makes a significant difference in the sound of the violin, the way it transfers into the belly of the fiddle. Another sound issue can involve the sound post, which is rather hidden from view. The sound post sits underneath the right side of the bridge, inside the violin, and is critical in transferring the sound from the vibrating strings into the violin. It is important that it fits just right and that it stays standing. Unfortunately, in a VSO, "usually they are cut far from the mark, fall over easily and don't transfer the sound properly," Metzler said.
If the bridge is too high, it raises the strings too high. When you are pressing your fingers down on the strings, high strings can feel very uncomfortable and also hinder the speed of your fingers. If the strings are too low, they can vibrate against the fingerboard, causing undesirable squeaking and rattling.
Another question to ask: Is the purfling simply painted onto the violin? The "purfling" is that little double line that traces the shape of the violin. It's supposed to be a thin layer of inlaid wood, which protects the body of the violin. If a maker has "cut corners" here, it's likely that other details have been short-changed.
Also, the neck may not be carved – someone with more violin experience would be able to tell if a neck is not carved from simply feeling it. The un-carved neck on a cheap violin might work all right in the beginning, but as soon as the student starts using higher positions, it can cause awkwardness and hinder a student's ability to work well in higher positions.
You can also look at the label. Generally, a good-quality instrument has a label inside that says who made it, where it was made, and in what year it was made. You can find the label by peeking inside the left "f" hole. VSOs often have no label at all. To be fair, some finer violins also have no label, but it's another thing to check.
Let's talk about pegs, which hold the strings in place and are turned when tuning the violin. In a good violin, pegs are made from boxwood, but in a VSO, they are often made of soft brown wood and "often they will break off in your hands," Metzler said. I have personally had this experience, of tuning a student's instrument and having the peg simply snap off at the base. There's no cure, other than a new peg. The pegs also fit into holes in the peg box, and if the holes are not exactly the right size, the pegs will either slip, or they will stick.
The strings that come with a VSO tend to be the first thing people notice that is bothersome. They tend to be steel and tinny-sounding. Be prepared to spend between $25 and $50 to replace them, first thing.
Looks can be deceiving, when it comes to violins. A new, shiny violin may well be a VSO. I'd much rather have a somewhat beat-up old Suzuki Nagoya, with a good tone and good craftsmanship. That said, you can find good violins that are new, as well.
Though most VSOs are Chinese, not all Chinese-made instruments are bad. In fact, "there are lots of really good student instruments, and 95 percent of them are Chinese," Metzler said. Some of the better brands of student instruments include old Suzuki violins from Japan, new Suzuki violins from China, Scott Cao, Yamaha, Vivo, Angels, Eastman, Century Strings – there are plenty more.
But buying a violin online, without testing it, is a risky way to go. If you take a chance on a cheap violin, you may well spend an additional $200 upgrading the strings, getting a better bridge, getting an appropriate sound post – and then you still may not like the way it sounds or feels!
I've heard the argument that "I'm just experimenting" or "My child may not like it, so I don't want to make a big investment" to justify buying a VSO. This is a false economy, and I will tell you why: if you are stuck with one of these grossly substandard instruments, you (or your child) will not want to play it. You may not even be conscious of the reasons why you find yourself not liking the violin, but it will be a combination of being displeased with the tone, sometimes even finding the sound of the instrument painful, being unable to tune it, having parts break off, the feel of a cheap violin that doesn't really fit in the hand, the visual ugliness of something cheaply made, and the overall bad feeling of having an object that was not made with care.
Conversely, if you buy or rent a well-made violin, you will enjoy its pleasant tone, you will enjoy the way its mechanics support you, the way it fits in the hand and the craftsmanship behind it.
A violin shop will usually allow you to test a violin before buying or renting it; this is usually possible even when you are renting from an out-of-town shop. If you have a teacher, enlist your teacher's help in selecting a good instrument.
For all of these reasons, I would urge you to consider renting or buying a violin and not a Violin-Shaped-Object.
From the Top and Carnegie Hall are accepting applications for Big Break, an online talent contest. Young musicians who are U.S. Residents, ages eight to 18, can compete for the chance to appear on NPR's “From the Top" radio show, hosted by Christopher O'Riley, and to perform in Carnegie Hall Family Concert in Zankel Hall in spring 2011. Audition videos are due by November 18 and will then be reviewed by a panel of judges, who will select finalists. A winner will be selected from that group by public voting, which will be Nov. 29 through Dec. 14. Here is more information about it.
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Joseph Lin, 32, will become the first violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet in 2011. He will join violinist Ronald Copes, violist Samuel Rhodes and cellist Joel Krosnick, replacing violinist Nick Eanet, who resigned for health reasons. Lin studied with Shirley Givens at Juilliard School Pre-College and graduated from Harvard College, where he studied with Lynn Chang. He will complete the spring semester in his current position as professor at Cornell University before joining the violin faculty at Juilliard in fall 2011.
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Hungarian violinist Kristóf Baráti won first place at the Paganini Moscow International Violin Competition last month in Moscow. Russian violinist Andrey Baranov placed second, and Ukrainian violinist Aleksey Semenenko placed third.
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The YouTube Symphony is taking applications for its second manifestation, which will take place March 14 to 20, 2011, at the Sydney Opera House in Australia with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. Applications are due by November 28, 2010, and here is a page for more information. There are two ways you can audition: submit your video audition for the orchestra or submit a solo improvisation to a piece composed by American composer Mason Bates. Here is a FAQ page that will answer many questions about the YouTube Symphony, and in many languages.
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A flash-mob orchestra? Here is a small news item on an impromptu protest concert staged by symphony musicians in Netherlands, where government has announced possible cuts to funding for several orchestras. It was held at a train station (you'll have to endure a 16-second commercial to watch it): http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21134540/vp/39859755#39859755
Enter to win Ilya Gringolts' recording of the 24 Caprices by Paganini.
Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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