Live from China: Coverage of the Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition

June 2010

Violin Community News 2010, Op. 24

June 30, 2010 13:17

Violinist Nick Eanet announced Tuesday that he will leave the Juilliard String Quartet, due to a chronic acute digestive ailment that makes touring very difficult.

The Juilliard Quartet; Nick Eanet is second from right.

"It is with a heavy heart that I must give up my position with the Juilliard String Quartet," he said in a press release from The Juilliard School. "It has been a privilege to make music and work with such wonderful people and musicians. Unfortunately, my health will not allow me to continue but I will remember my time with the quartet as a high point in my musical career." He had been playing first violin with the quartet since September.

* * *

Violinist and conductor Jaime Laredo bought a Domenico Montagnana violin for £630,000 last week from Brompton's – a record price for that maker, according to this article in Gramophone UK. The fiddle was well-preserved and retaining its original label, according to the article. The violin was being sold by Dr. Bertrand Jacobs. Before that, it was owned until 1962 by violinist Joseph Roisman, first violinist of the Budapest String Quartet, and also a friend of Laredo's, according to the article. Laredo also plays on a Strad.

* * * member Adam DeGraff is up to his ears in videos from violinists around the globe who have taken his Rocking Fiddlers Challenge and are trying to learn his arrangement of 'Sweet Child O' Mine', which most people know as a Guns N' Roses tune. Honestly, it looks like a lot of fun, and he's giving prizes to students and amateurs who learn the tune over the next few months, including a $17,500 violin by Jan Van Rooyen worth $17,500, two carbon fiber bows, plus some $20,000 in gift certificates from Shar. The sign-up page is right here, and he'll send you the music. So are you up to learning this?:

* * *

Now that the fiddle is in the news, here's a nice review from April, when violinist Elena Urioste, 20, had the lucky task of taking the “Vieuxtemps” Guarneri – the fiddle that's got a price tag of $18 million – for a ride, playing Ralph Vaughan Williams' “The Lark Ascending” in her debut with the Chicago Symphony. She had it on loan from the Stradivari Society. It looks like a fun fiddle to play, here is a line from the review: “Urioste’s barely audible fade into the distance could not have been more sensitively rendered, the young soloist winnowing her tone to a barely audible filagree.”

5 replies Interview with Regina Carter

June 23, 2010 13:57

Regina Carter has so much to say on the violin, sometimes she's had to reinvent the language of the instrument.

Like when she played her violin in the saxophone section of the Big Band in college.

Or when she introduced Paganini's "Cannone" violin to jazz.

Or take her recently released album, Reverse Thread, in which she has turned her attentions to the music of Africa.

Picture this rather unusual setup; Regina's on the violin. To her right is Yacouba Sissoko, playing the African harp (Kora) he made himself, a bedazzled gourd with 21 strings made of fishing line, tuned by pushing cowskin plugs up and down the long neck. On her left are virtuoso accordion player Will Holshouser, bassist Chris Lightcap and drummer Alvester Garnett. My daughter and I saw them live at the Grammy Theatre in Los Angeles, and the effect was stunning. 

My favorite was a tune they borrowed from Ugandan Jewish culture, called "Mwana Talitambula," which means "the child will not walk." That sounds tragic, but the meaning is really that if your child won't walk, strap him to your back and keep on. She played an original field recording of the song, then their version, which started as a whisper: bass and violin sharing quiet pizzicato. Then the accordion enters, very, very high. The music widens, the volume rises, the melody soars. Then it contracts again, slowly, ending in a whisper as it began.

Mesmerizing in live performance, and brilliant still on the recording. Such a new mix of instruments – yet they seemed old, inevitable friends.

This is the kind of thing Regina Carter, 43, makes possible. We spoke a few weeks, ago, just before her LA performance.

Laurie: I've been enjoying your album, for me it's fun to listen to something that's not classical! What made you decide to play the violin in the first place?

Regina: Actually I started when I was four. When I was two, my older brothers were taking piano lessons. My mother said that one day when they were having their lesson, I walked up and started playing one of their pieces on the piano. So their teacher tested me and said, 'She's got an ear!' So she tried teaching me piano, but I was too young. When I was four, Suzuki was being offered for the first time in Detroit, so I started. I really loved playing, and I loved the instrument. Maybe a year into playing, our teacher gave us an opportunity to check out the other stringed instruments, to see if we wanted to switch. I went back to the violin; I said, 'No, I'm sticking with this.' I just really fell in love with the instrument. And with performing!

Laurie: Were you one of those people who loved to be on stage?

Regina: Yes! (she laughs) My mother said I was a little ham!

Laurie: Who was your teacher? 

Regina: Her name was Jean Rupert, in the Detroit area. There was a whole group of us; we would do our private lessons once a week and then group lessons. A great many of us from the Suzuki class still play. A couple are in the San Francisco Symphony, one is in the Chicago Symphony, and two are with quartets. It's pretty amazing that so many of us stuck with it. 

Laurie: It's a testament to what they were doing in that program.

Regina: Yes. I really believe in the Suzuki method. I think it makes it so much fun to learn music. If you start out with a love for the music, you generally don't lose that. 

Laurie: Do you teach?

Regina: I don't teach on a regular basis, but I do some workshops and masterclasses. 

Laurie: I often think about the Suzuki method, and where it's going. I wondered what your perspective might be on the Suzuki method, especially for those musicians who don't necessarily want to go into classical music.

Regina: I think it's great. I think it's what helped me to be able to ease into the world of jazz and other genres of music, because it really stresses ear training, early on. When you're playing or learning any style of music, you have to listen. It's like any language, you have to listen to how the words are pronounced in order to speak that language. You learn to hear things that cannot be put on the written page, like how to grasp the sound and the phrasing of a certain style of music. You learn other nuances that can't be written down. 

Laurie: Did your classical training help you grow into a jazz musician, or "crossover" musician, for lack of a better word?

Regina: Classical music was just my starting point; I thought that I would be in an orchestra when I first started, so that's the music that I learned the instrument with. But I think that whatever the music is -- whether your first music is Irish fiddle music, or American fiddle, or Indian classical music -- as long as you learn the basic technique for your instrument, then learning another language or another genre is easier. All music can help you add more depth to your playing.

Laurie: Tell me about the moment when you realized there was something more out there, besides the classical music you were learning. 

Regina: When I was growing up, playing European classical music, I was listening to Motown -- I lived in Detroit. Back then, all the groups had live strings, so I'd play along, learn those string parts. But it never even dawned on me that, okay, those are strings, this is something else you can do. I didn't make a connection. 

It wasn't until my dear friend, Carla Cook, who's a great jazz vocalist, started talking about people like Eddie Jefferson and Ella (Fitzgerald). She brought in records of Noel Pointer, Jean-Luc Ponty and Stephane Grappelli. That was my first introduction to jazz -- or something different on the instrument – and I was totally blown away. I thought, 'Man, you can do this?' (she laughs) This is a whole new world! I was so incredibly excited about it – so much so that I said, 'I think this is what I want to do.' I felt like there was a freedom in that music that I didn't have with European classical music. 

That was what I thought then. Now, when I look back, it was just the way that classical music was being taught to me. There were all these restraints on the music, rules that accompanied it. I think that with younger classical players that are coming out now, they're breaking those rules. They have to; otherwise, the music was going to die along with those stodgy rules.

Music is alive, it's not meant to be placed on a shelf in a museum. If you have people playing the same concertos and pieces 50, 60, 80 years later, you've got to breathe some new life into them. 

Laurie: It's true, and it can be very paralyzing to feel like there's this whole group of people who are going to jump down my throat if I play this Bach Sonata wrong....

Regina: Exactly. What they forget is that Bach was an improviser. Come on! 

Laurie: Absolutely. All those – well, guys – were improvisers, weren't they? 

Regina: They were. Those pieces weren't written out for them, they were improvising. Someone finished them for us, but we've lost that art, even in that music, of improvising it.

Laurie: When you decided you wanted to explore this world of jazz and other kinds of music, were you able to find a mentor who was a violinist. What did you do exactly, to explore it? 

Regina: In the beginning, I just bought every record – which was a half a handful! (she laughs) – of jazz violinists. I would just study those, learn their songs and solos. And then my third year of college, I transferred to Oakland University in Michigan, and I joined the Big Band there. The Big Band teacher, who was a saxophonist, said, "Stop listening to violin players; there are too few of them in this genre. Listen to horn players and singers.' He put me in the saxophone section in the Big Band. So I just started buying records of saxophonists and singers. 

Being that close to Detroit, I started heading down to the city. I studied with trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and worked with an organist Lyman Woodard. There was a jazz orchestra led by a saxophonist Donald Walden, and I'd sit in, in the different clubs. So I was being mentored, and I didn't need to be mentored by another violinist; I'm actually glad I wasn't. It's too easy to pick up their things that are violinistic, and I didn't want to do that. It's more about learning the language, and I can learn that from any instrumentalist. 

After college, though, I did track down jazz violinist John Blake, who was recording and touring with McCoy Tyner and Grover Washington and had several of his own CDs out. I got a grant from the NEA and studied with him for a year.

Laurie: So what is some of your favorite sax music?

Regina: I love Ben Webster, because I just love his sound -- he's got that big sound with that vibrato that I love. I cut my teeth learning a lot of Charlie Parker, I just tried to learn as many tunes and solos as I could from him. And Paul Gonzales as well.

And I love Ella, Ella Fitzgerald is one of my favorite vocalists – she's basically an instrumentalist! (she laughs)

Laurie: That's so interesting, it's such a different path – to be in the saxophone section!

Regina: You know, I'm really thankful for that. (The director) would say, 'Whenever they breathe, you breathe,' because of course, we play stringed instruments, we don't have to breathe! (laughs) We should, but a lot of the time we don't. So literally, I learned physically to breathe out, and when I'd run out of air, stop playing. Then there was the way they would phrase the melodies or the lines. I got so much from sitting there and having them on either side of me, hearing that sound. 

Laurie: Just thinking about the whole breathing idea, it makes so much sense. So many violinists hold their breath while they're playing.

Regina: I'm guilty of it, when I'm nervous. I hold my breath, and then I play all these run-on sentences! I remember playing once with Ray Brown, and he said, 'Quit playing all those notes, and swing!' I had to breathe. Sometimes when people hear me they say, 'I can hear you take these deep breaths...' 

So? I need to do that, and it's okay.

Laurie: What was the name of your Big Band teacher?

Regina: Marvin 'Doc' Holladay. He played in Dizzy's Big Band, and just a bunch of bands.

Laurie: It's great that he was so open-minded, too. You were probably the only violinist in the Big Band, I'm guessing. 

Regina: I was, and you know, I had gone to New England Conservatory for two years before that, and when I told them I wanted to play jazz, they kind of looked at me like I had two heads! In the classical world, at least they did. Jimmy Giuffre was one of the Big Band teachers there, and he didn't care. He said,  'Come on in.' It was like a band of misfits because there were some flute players in there -- that's another instrument that people forget is a huge part of the jazz idiom. But yes, I was really thankful, he didn't bat one lash, he said, 'Here, sit down here.'

Laurie: Tell me about Reverse Thread. First, I was curious about the name.

Regina: It's a name that can mean a lot of different things to different people, but for me...Let's say you have a loose thread on your garment, and you pull it. You think it's going to end at some point, but you realize it doesn't. It's kind of me following a thread; looking at where I am now, but tracing it back and saying, okay, where did some of this music come from? What was it influenced by? Where did the sounds and the rhythms and melodies come from?' 

It's a project I've wanted to do since I lived in Detroit, and it's taken many different turns. At first it was going to be a world music record. I was so influenced by all the different cultures that were right there, in Detroit: by hearing music that had a scale system that wasn't Western, by hearing all these stringed instruments in this music and realizing that the violin could possibly be related to some of these instruments. 

But it took me this long, because there were no radio stations to support this kind of music. Record companies would always say no. Having the MacArthur money,, I decided to just do it myself. 

So I started with the continent of Africa. There are so many cultures of music that come that one continent, I only scratched the surface. It was interesting for me to sometimes hear the music and think, that sounds like Irish music, or that sounds like it could have come from Puerto Rico. We all, on this planet, are connected. All the different cultures have mixed, and sometimes you hear something you think was influenced from one place, and it really came from someplace else. That's what was so intriguing: realizing we're all connected. That thread, when you pull on it, it's all of us. We're all connected by that one thread. 

Laurie: Did you actually go to Africa?

Regina: I did not, specifically for this project; I had gone a couple years ago, to play, and then I hung out for a while. Of course when I was there I bought a bunch of CDs. But when I decided to do this record, I didn't go back. I had friends there who sent music, and some of the musicians in the band, Mamadou Ba, who's from Senegal, and Yacouba Sissoko from Mali, gave me music to listen to. Then I went to the World Music Institute and purchased a lot of music. So I had a lot of different resources. 

Laurie: It sounds like a really massive, but really fun, project. 

Regina: At first it was daunting, where am I going to start? And then I decided to just start listening to music and see where I landed. It's something I want to continue; I think maybe for the next record it will be a little more focused, because I'm now trying to focus on the different string music that comes from the continent. I know that's even still a huge project! So maybe I'll narrow it down as I develop it. 

Laurie: You said you'd had this idea for a long time, where did it come from?

Regina: Like I said, at lot of it come from listening in Detroit, hearing all this Middle Eastern music, and Greek music. That music was always very attractive and beautiful for me -- the other scales and notes that were used, that weren't a part of the Western scale system. And hearing the way these strings, these whole string orchestras, and the way they phrased together. I'd just sometimes go in the record store and I would have no idea who I was listening to; I'd say, 'What is this I'm hearing?' Back then, that's what was so beautiful, you could go in a record store and hear something and be turned on to something you may not have ever heard unless you just walked in. 

There's so much music on this planet that we're not going to hear on the radio. One record I really love is from Youssou N'Dour. He made a movie, I Bring What I Love about this music, it's religious music, basically. A lot of people will be angry with him for doing this music, because it's music of the religion, and they felt like you're not supposed to play that, perform that and record it, but it won several Grammys. And it's just amazing when you hear the orchestra play with him. 

Laurie: How did you decide what made the cut, with so much material?

Regina: (she laughs) That's the hard part! We started playing this music live maybe two years ago. Some things we planned, and then after performing we might decide this isn't working, why isn't it working? So it would go through many changes and cuts. From its inception, even some of the instruments in the band changed. You just kind of start to see: this works, this doesn't work. Playing it live, this seems to really work with this group of musical instruments, and people seem to really respond to this – and so this is what's going to go on. 

Laurie: Was it the kind of thing where you would use a full melody, or would you just get inspiration from a fragment? How did that work?

Regina: We took the full melodies on a lot of these. With some of this music, people say it's so simple-sounding. And it is. They're beautiful, folk-like melodies that are very simple. And sometimes those are the hardest pieces to play, because as a jazz musician, you're used to improvising and using all this technique. But with this, you don't want to mess it up. It's already beautiful as it is. It's a matter of trying to keep its beauty while giving it a contemporary arrangement. So in some of them, we left parts of the melody off. And then some of it we re-harmonized; for example, we reharmonized the changes, slightly, that would go under the solo section and then come back to what was originally there. But it went through so many changes, because sometimes the changes were just too much – we're trying way too hard, here, and it's detracting from the beauty of it. 

Laurie: Did you write out charts for it, or did you guys mostly do it by ear?

Regina: A lot of the arrangements I had friends do; some of them, we all would listen to the tune, or I would write out a skeleton of what the chart was, and we'd just play it. We'd just keep playing it and say, 'What do you think here? What do you think there?' We'd keep trying stuff at rehearsal until it just finally came together. For some of these tunes, it took a year for them to finally take on a life – or for us to decide, when you have to try this hard, leave it alone. 

Laurie: I understand that you played – and recorded – on the 'Cannone' a few years back. What kind of violin do you play?

Regina: It says it's a copy of a Storioni from the late 1700's, but of course all the parts on the violin have been replaced, so who knows what it really is! It sounded good when I was looking for a violin and it fit my pocketbook!

Laurie: It's not easy to find on that fits the pocketbook! So  you don't use an electric violin or anything like that?

Regina: No. I used to, I started off with one, when I first started playing, and then I just wanted to concentrate on playing the music and trying to get as many sounds out of the instrument, without having that. Which has been a lot of fun because I had to really explore the instrument itself. Plus I just didn't want to carry all that stuff around! You can really get into it!

Regina and Laurie

When my daughter, Natalie, gets inspired, she draws. Here's the drawing she made of Regina's band, as they played at the Grammy Theatre May 29.

1 reply weekend vote: Who is your favorite composer of symphonies?

June 19, 2010 09:11

 I was listening to the radio today when Robert Schumann's third symphony came on.

"Ahhh," I thought. "The Rhenish Symphony. Schumann is my favorite composer of symphonies…" I thought about how Schumann related to Brahms, personally and musically. You really do hear it in the music. Yes, sometimes it sounds like Brahms.

Brahms, who is my favorite composer of symphonies. Who can resist the fourth symphony? And the first symphony of Brahms, written when he was 42! Nice that life begins at 42, since I'm 42. He only wrote four, not nine, like Beethoven.

Beethoven, who has to be my favorite symphony composer. That slow movement of the seventh symphony gets me every time, the way it starts, like a heartbeat. And the ninth symphony -- that he composed his Ode To Joy as a deaf man! Nine symphonies, who wrote more? Oh yes, Mahler. Talk about symphonies.

Mahler is the man, what more can we do with a symphony? From the frolicking first symphony, and that awesome scordatura stuff in the fourth, to the slow-drip death, is that at the end of the ninth or the tenth?

That ending makes me things of colder things, like Sibelius, who wrote my favorite symphony, his first Symphony. I love it. He wrote Finlandia, too, what a picture he paints of a country.

But then there is the symphony about my country, Dvorak's New World Symphony? It speaks to me, as an American. I truly think he captured it well. In fact, it's my favorite symphony.

Besides Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5, which is astounding and which I would drop anything and everything to play again. If you liked that check out the hugeness of this movement) And speaking of Symphony No. 5's, how about Shostakovich's?

This list is not exactly complete, as quite a lot of composers have written symphonies!





23 replies

Violin Community News 2010, Op. 23

June 16, 2010 12:58

 Montreal violinist Alexandre Da Costa, 31, won the $25,000 Virginia Parker Prize for young Canadian classical music performers. Da Costa studied at Conservatoire de Musique du Québec, then studied in Madrid with Zakhar Bron. Between 2003 and 2006, he played the 1689 “Baumgartner” Stradivarius from 2003 to 2006, after winning the Canadian musical instrument bank competition. He currently plays the 1727 Di Barbaro Stradivarius with a Sartory bow, on lona from Canimex, where he is musical development director. He made world premiere recordins of violin concertos by Portuguese composers Luis de Freitas Branco and Armando José Fernandes and will record next with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra under Pedro Halffter. Da Costa performs and teaches.

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Violinists helping violinists: How to get on stage, when you've broken your foot? Violinist Chee-Yun broke her foot the day before her season-opener performance last Friday at the Innsbrook Institute Music Festival and Academy, near St. Louis. But this stopped nothing, St. Louis Symphony concertmaster and Innsbrook music director David Halen carried Chee-Yun and her 1708 “Exauss” Strad on stage, where she performed with the help of a stool, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

* * *

Violinist Regina Carter was named Violinist of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association in its 14th annual JJA Jazz Awards. This year the group gave awards in 41 categories. Other violinists nominated included Mark Feldman, Jenny Scheinman, Billy Bang and Mark O’Connor.

* * *

Conductor Marin Alsop is moving her family from Denver to Baltimore, where she has served as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for three seasons, according to this article in the Baltimore Sun. Alsop and her partner of two decades, Kristin Jurkscheit, will move to Baltimore with their son, Auden, 6. Jurkscheit will take a leave of absence from the Colorado Symphony, where she has been associate principal horn. Locals are looking at the move as a sign of deepening commitment to the orchestra, where Alsop has found innovative ways to reach out to the community, such as her BSO Academy for amateur musicians. "We're already way down the path toward redefining what a 21st-century orchestra is," Alsop told the Baltimore Sun. "Orchestras will have to be multidimensional, with more ancillary projects, getting engaged with people on different levels. It feels great to work with musicians who are willing to look at the landscape in fresh ways. Some orchestras only use a 19th-century lens."

* * *

The Philadelphia Orchestra has signed Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, 35, to a seven-year contract as Music Director. He will begin immediately as Music Director Designate, officially taking the title Music Director in the 2012-13 season. Charles Dutoit will remain Chief Conductor through the 2011-12 season. Nézet-Séguin has been Music Director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra since 2008, Principal Guest Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra since 2008, and Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Orchestre Métropolitain (Montreal) since 2000. Nézet-Séguin studied piano, conducting, composition, and chamber music at the Conservatoire de Musique du Québec in Montreal, then continued studying with Italian conductor Carlo Maria Giulini. Here is more about the appointment from the Philadelphia Star.

* * *

Violinist Joshua Bell was in Taipei to perform with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields chamber orchestra Tuesday at the National Concert Hall. On the program was the Mendelssohn Concerto (with his own cadenza) and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, which Bell was to conduct from the concertmaster's chair.

* * *

Ernest Fleischmann, 85, who ran the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1969 to 1998, died Sunday in Los Angeles. Fleischmann, trained as a conductor, was known for his prickly persohality as well as his ability to identify talent. He was key in bringing conductors Esa-Pekka Salonen and Carlo Maria Giulini to the LA Phil. Even after his retirement, he traveled to Venezuela as an octogenarian to help in the selection of Gustavo Dudamel, the LA Phil's current conductor. Before coming to Los Angeles, Fleischmann managed the London Symphony Orchestra from 1959 to 1967. A native of Frankfurt, Germany, he emigrated to South Africa in 1936 and then to England in 1959. Here are links some of the obituaries written for Fleischmann:

An appreciation: Ernest Fleischmann by Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times

E. Fleischmann, Impresario of Los Angeles, Dies at 85 by Bruce Weber of the New York Times

Ernest Fleischmann by the UK Telegraph  


Archive link

How to Turn the Page -- Literally!

June 14, 2010 09:02

If you need amusement, just watch a violinist turn a page during orchestra. What to do? We have a bow in one hand, a fiddle in the other, and sometimes those page turns need to happen fast.

Recently, member Smiley Hsu asked how to turn pages faster, and that is my inspiration for this blog, along with my own struggles.

I'm left-handed, and for many years, the thought never even occurred to me that I could simply turn the page with my right hand. I kept putting my fiddle down, stretching my left hand way across to the right…until one day I was sitting with my good friend Margaret Carpenter, and excellent violinist and teacher. She saw my struggles and put a stop to the madness, "Look, just do THIS…"

And "this" is what I've recorded below, for your viewing pleasure. I wanted a nice-looking video this time around, so I turned to a pro: my nearly 10-year-old son, Brian. He set me up with his home-made green screen, so we could have the nifty colorful background. He also helped with the dramatic "bad page turn," which he had the idea to put into slow motion. Plus, he added the credits, did the filming and editing, etc. Thanks Brian!

27 replies interview with Mikhail Simonyan: Bringing Music to Afghanistan

June 11, 2010 23:47

Violinist Mikhail Simonyan will give his New York Philharmonic debut – a rather big deal for anyone – in just a few weeks. But weighing equally on his mind is a project close to his heart, an initiative he started called "Beethoven, Not Bullets," to support efforts to bring music education – and for that matter, music itself –  to the children of Afghanistan.

Simonyan will play the Tchaikovsky Concerto with the New York Philharmonic in a series of concerts called From Russia With Love, June 29 and 30 at Avery Fisher Hall.

On Monday, though, he will share the stage with New York Phil musicians in a concert at City Winery sponsored by Music Unites, with the aim of raising money to support 50 students in their first year of study at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM), at a cost of $360 per student.

"It's not like we're trying to persuade them to be more involved in music, we're really starting the musical education from scratch," Simonyan said of the effort to bring music education to Afghanistan. "People there don't know anything about it. It's not like they don't want to know – music was prohibited. You could have been killed if they found you with a recording of a Mozart violin concerto."

Afghanistan National Institute of Music is Afghanistan's only music school, run since 2007 by Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, a native Afghan who studied music at Monash University, Australia, and Moscow State Conservatory. The money raised by Simonyan's initiative will cover tuition for general and music education at the school and also provide a stipend for families, who in many cases were dependent on their children working in the streets to support them.

Simonyan, 24, started out with the intention of giving concerts for the U.S. Armed Forces in Afghanistan.

"My initial idea was to go to Afghanistan and give a concert for the troops. And you might ask, 'Why would you want to go to a war zone?'" Simonyan said. "My brother was a lieutenant in the Russian Army, and he fought in Chechnya, when there was a war between Russian and Chechnya. I also have a lot of friends who played concerts for the Soviet troops who came to Afghanistan when there was a war between the Soviets and the Afghans. From the stories they were telling me, I could see how much it really helped the soldiers. I really wanted to do the same thing."

Unfortunately, after exploring the idea with U.S. government officials, they concluded that it would be too risky at this time.

"Then a very good friend of mine sent me an article about this Afghanistan National Institute of Music and everything that Dr. Ahmad Sarmast was doing over there," Simonyan said. "I read about it, and I really identified with it."

Simonyan was born in 1985 in Novosibirsk, Russia, the same city where violinists Maxim Vengerov and Vadim Repin grew up. The city was then part of the Soviet Union, which collapsed just six years later.

"In the Soviet Union, if you think about it, everybody was just fine," Simonyan said. "Everybody had the same salary, the same clothes, the same shoes, same furniture, and so they had some kind of stability. When the Soviet Union collapsed, nobody had jobs, nobody had money; it was just a disaster."

"I was growing up in a country that was pretty much rebuilding itself," Simonyan said. "There was a regime there for 70 years which collapsed overnight," and the country lost much of its cultural support as a result. By the time Simonyan was ready to study violin, "all the greatest teachers had left, the orchestras were without any funding, conservatories were without funding. I know what is it to be a beginner musician in a country which is rebuilding itself."

"Afghanistan is a bit of a different situation than other third-world countries, like Iraq or Iran," Simonyan said. "Iraq, for example, has a youth orchestra; Iran has a bona-fide philharmonic. In Afghanistan, Western music was prohibited by the Taliban regime for over two decades, so we're really rebuilding the history."

Simonyan will go to Afghanistan for the first time in July, when he will visit the institute in person and get a feel for what the students do on a day-to-day basis.

"The key to success for every country which is rebuilding itself, is the education of the next generation," Simonyan said. "The idea of 'Beethoven, Not Bullets,' is to try to raise as much funding as possible to support more students. We're giving them the tools; we're giving them the opportunity; we're giving them the inspiration, and hopefully we're giving them something to do in life. Because what have these children been seeing all their lives? Shooting, dead bodies, screaming, tragedies, you name it. They've never seen music. And so we're giving them an idea that a completely different world exists."

He also hopes that music will bring some healing. "The children in the school not only are learning the Western music but also they're learning their own Afghan music," Simonyan said. "Their music actually goes much further than Beethoven and Mozart, they have one of the richest and oldest cultures. Countries just cannot exist without any culture."

Mikhail comes from a family of non-musicians, and he started the violin at age four, after seeing someone playing the violin on T.V.

"I was fascinated by that, and I told my mother that that's what I wanted," Simonyan said. "So she took me to the music school."

"Believe it or not, I was not accepted in the beginning!" he said, laughing. As the very young Simonyan walked down the long hall at the music school where he was about to take his entrance exam, he heard trumpets, piano, violin and flute. "I was so fascinated by all the sound that I became completely disorganized. When they asked me to clap four times I clapped  three times. They said that my future was not in music."

So much for that! One of the teachers took him as a private student, and before long, he was working with conductors such as Arnold Katz, touring and winning competitions. When he was 13, he toured as a soloist with the American Russian Young Artists Orchestra, playing the Szymanowski Concerto in places like New York's Lincoln Center.

"And after a very successful tour, the idea came to study here in the U.S. For my family it was sort of a shocking decision," Simonyan said. "Usually, the way it worked was that if you were talented enough, you would probably move to Moscow or St. Petersburg, or at maximum, Germany. The trip to America was a big deal for my family, but we did it, me and my mother, when I was 14.

Simonyan came to study at Curtis Institute with Victor Danchenko, with whom he continues to study. Danchenko was a student of the great Russian violinist, David Oistrakh, and in a way, Simonyan had landed halfway across the globe just to find that connection with his own culture.

"I definitely chose Curtis because of (Danchenko)," Simonyan said. "He is probably one of the few teachers here in American who really knows the Soviet and the Russian culture very well. And of course, David Oistrakh was an incredible man, an incredible artist and an incredible musician. I really wanted to know him better through Danchenko. Learning two Prokofiev Sonatas, which were written for Oistrakh –  has made all the difference in the world. Or practicing the Shostakovich Violin Concerto or the Prokofiev Violin Concerto. Danchenko was the perfect candidate for what I needed."

Simonyan recently released a recording of Sergei Prokofiev's Sonata No. 1 in F major and Sonata No. 2 in D major. When it came to working on pieces like these, Danchenko passed along "the mood of that time, what it was like to be living in the Soviet Union at that time, what it was like when Prokofiev wrote his first violin sonata. All of that was a big help to me. It's not like I concentrate only on Russian music, but Danchenko was really the perfect man to learn the Russian music with."

Simonyan has a 1769 Giuseppe Gagliano violin, but it's not what he'll be playing for his New York Philharmonic debut.

"I'll be playing a violin which was made especially for me by one of my greatest friends, Christophe Landon," Simonyan said. "The violin that he made works much better for me than a Gagliano violin. It has more resistance, it's much faster, and it has much more projection to it. It has a bigger tone to it. It's a copy of 1730 Stradivarius "Wilmount." And I even played the original at Windsor Castle, and the violin that (Landon) made worked better for me than the original Strad! Very fascinating.

"By the way, 85 percent of Strads do not sound good. They're so over-worked," Simonyan said. "It's a very rare thing that you find an amazing Strad. But then if you do, you put a price tag of $11 million on  it. So what's the point?"

"I've tried a lot of great Strads and del Gesus and everything, but there are only a few violins that I would really play on. Right now the violin that I use from Christophe, it works for me," Simonyan said. "If anybody thinks I'm joking, come to my New York Philharmonic concert!" he said, laughing.

5 replies

Violin Community New 2010, Op. 22

June 9, 2010 12:46

Benjamin BeilmanBenjamin Beilman, 20, a student of Ida Kavafian at Curtis, won the first prize (Can$30,000) last week in the 2010 Montréal International Music Competition, held this year for violinists. On this page is is a video of an excellent performance he gave of the Sibelius Concerto at the Gala Concert following the competition (I particularly enjoyed the second movement). The second place winner was Korbinian Altenberger of Germany and the third place winner was Nikita Borisoglebsky of Russia. Here is more information about winners of special awards at the competition.

* * *

It's 2010, and that means it's once again time for the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, which will take place September 10 through 26. If you are wondering who will be participating this year, the list of participants will be posted Friday on the IVCI Facebook page as well as the IVCI website.

* * *

Shar Music just put up a series of videos from their masterclasses with Mark O'Connor in May. Yes, he talks about his new method books, but I mostly found it fun to watch him jammin' with the kids!

* * *

Who's playing where:

Members of the Tampa Bay Symphony, including violinist Bill Hayden, will hold a Haiti Relief Concert 4 p.m. Sunday at Temple Terrace Presbyterian Church in Tampa.
For more information click here.

Violinist Kyoko Takezawa performed a recital in Indianapolis Tuesday with pianist Akira Eguchi, for the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis' Laureate Series (She was the 1986 winner.) The pair performed works by Mendelssohn, Brahms, Poulenc, Wieniawski and Piazzolla. Here is the review

Violinist Leila Josefowicz performed the John Adams Violin Concerto with conductor Carl St.Clair and the Pacific Symphony Friday in Orange County, Calif. Here is the review.

This sounds like an interesting show, with Chicago-based violinist/guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird: watching last night in Los Angeles at Largo at the Coronet, LA Weekly critic Molly Bergen wrote, “For those of you who have not witnessed Andrew Bird in concert, it is like watching a man construct the most intricate sand castle imaginable. First he will lay down the foundations by plucking his violin and whistling and then when he's got a solid groove going he will break your heart with a violin solo before putting it back again with whimsy lyrics about neurons or palindromes or measuring cups...” Here is the review.

1 reply

Violin Community News 2010, Op. 21

June 3, 2010 11:53

World Busk for Haiti will take place from June 7 through June 13, with the aim of raising $50,000 to help rebuild music schools in earthquake-damaged regions of Haiti. The event was organized by Musequality, a United Kingdom-based charity that aims to bring music education to poor and developing countries. Musicians are asked to sign up and then go busking! The first Musequality World Busk involved 811 buskers in 75 locations in 17 countries on 7 continents, raising £14,719, according to Musequality, which supports projects in Uganda, South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, India and Thailand.

* * *

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has added violinist Wallace Hartley, who  famously played as Titanic sank, to its listings of 57,348 lives, according to BBC News. About 300 people are added every year – none of them living. Hartley's seven-man band played "Nearer, My God, to Thee," last before the ship sank on April 15, 1912, and he was found with his violin strapped to his body.

* * *

University of Denver freshman Royce Lassley couldn't afford a high-quality fiddle, so he wrote to makers around the country, inquiring about instrument loans. His request caught the attention of luthier Charles Rufino of The Long Island Violin Shop, who then spoke to Lassley's teacher at the Lamont School of Music, Yumi Hwang-Williams. The result? Lassley, who had been playing on an instrument given to him by a previous teacher, is now playing one of Rufino's handmade instruments on indefinite loan. Here's the story.

* * *

Upcoming performances:

Antonio Pontarelli

Rock violinist Antonio Pontarelli will perform with World Civic Orchestra on June 20th at Carnegie Hall. A senior at the University of Southern California, Pontarelli has already played a number of cool gigs, including appearances with with Jethro Tull, the San Diego Symphony and David Benoit, and opening for Earth, Wind & Fire, Seal, Jason Mraz, and Brian McKnight. He also played on the red carpet at the 48th, 49th and 50th Annual Grammy Awards.  For this event he'll play his own version of Gershwin's Summertime.

Violinist Vadim Gluzman will play Dmitri Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra on Saturday and Monday. Gluzman plays the 1690 ex–Leopold Auer Stradivarius – wish I could be at this performance!

Archive link interview with Gil Shaham: the Mendelssohn Octet

June 2, 2010 11:46

The last time I spoke with Gil Shaham, he was playing Sarasate and running from bulls. It sounds like the Sejong Soloists kept Gil on his toes as well.

Shaham recently released Haydn Violin Concertos and the Mendelssohn Octet, a recording that stems from a series of concerts that Shaham and the Sejong Soloists gave in 2009, to mark the bicentennial of Felix Mendelssohn's birth -- and Franz Joseph Haydn's death -- in the year 1809.

Gil Shaham
Image © Christian Steiner

"Playing the Mendelssohn Octet with Sejong is a little bit like going into a room and playing basketball with seven Michael Jordans – they're all considerably younger than I am," Shaham said of touring and recording with the group. "Here I am, with my graying hair, and I'm struggling to keep up!"

This is highly doubtful, from Gil Shaham, 39, who recently recorded an entire album of violin works by the virtuoso composer Pablo de Sarasate, who has won multiple Grammys, won an Avery Fisher Grant and Avery Fisher Award, and plays the 1699 "Countess Polignac" Stradivarius. The man has serious chops.

"I thought I was in shape, but they were really amazing," insisted the humble Shaham. "I found the level of music-making to be inspiring, it was just staggering."

"The story of  Sejong really starts with Mr. (Hyo) Kang," Shaham said. "He was my teacher, and he was also Adele's teacher. (Violinist Adele Anthony is Shaham's wife). About 15 years ago, he founded this group. I think it speaks to the relationship Mr. Kang had with his students, that so many of us came back after school to continue working with him. I think all the violinists in the group are Mr. Kang' students. And he still teaches; he's at Yale and at Juilliard."

"He was a great teacher, and we all loved him and we all still love him," Shaham said. "Mr. Kang has encyclopedic experience with violin and with students, and he's always very thoughtful and very gentle. Sometimes we'd have a whole 60-minute lesson, and he might say two or three sentences."

Such as?

"I remember playing Mendelssohn Concerto for him – not the Octet, but the E minor Concerto, and getting off to kind of a bad start," Shaham said. "He took a few minutes to think about what he was going to say, then he said, 'Gil, you know, at the beginning, there are so many Bs. You really want to make sure that they all match.' (laughs) Intonation, you know. I was out of tune, but that was a very gentle, thoughtful way of saying it."

"He was so careful with what he said, and with the way he was with us," Shaham said, "when he did say something, we paid that much more attention to it."

The Sejong Soloists are a reflection of that thoughtful approach.

"They spend so much time rehearsing. We played this repertoire in the U.S. on tour, and we went to Asia," Shaham said. "Every concert we'd have a rehearsal and a sound check. Everybody was invested, and they spoke at rehearsals. They record rehearsals, and everybody listens to the recordings. It's really like no other experience I've had. We tried some new things in the Mendelssohn."

The Mendelssohn Octet is one of the composer's most popular works, and he wrote it when he was 16. Though the piece was extremely well-received, he revised it quite a lot over his short lifetime. Shaham and the Sejong decided to look at the composer's original manuscript, along with the much-revised score that is commonly used today.

"We're lucky, with the Octet, that there is this very early manuscript," Shaham said. "It's actually online, at the Library of Congress. We thought it was interesting to look at that, just to understand the inspiration behind the piece, the genesis of the work, and the spirit of where it came from. We wanted to get into the head of the 16-year-old who wrote the piece. "

When Mendelssohn wrote the Octet, he was "out to change the world, and he was also out to prove himself," Shaham said. "There had been octets before, but what a feat -- to write eight independent voices like that, and so clearly and so perfectly. Most music we hear -- even the big symphonies that we hear -- don't have eight independent lines going at the same time. Then finally, at the end of the last movement of the Octet, when he comes up with that big double fugue, it's almost like Mozart's Jupiter Symphony."

What is different about the version we use, as opposed to the young Mendelssohn's original version?

"The development is different, the phrases are re-done, some things are made shorter," Shaham said. "Some differences were very clear. The first movement is written in eighth notes (in the original) instead of 16th notes. It's written alla breve, in cut time. And actually the tempo markings are different (in the original), with the exception of the last movement, which is marked slower, all three first movements are marked faster. Instead of 'Allegro Moderato ma con fuoco,' the original first movement is written 'Allegro molto vivace.'"

"Also, he writes notes throughout the piece, 'must be played symphonically,' and 'you must exaggerate forte and piano,'" Shaham said. "It's just like in Mendelssohn's  paintings, where he was very meticulous about the tone of something contrasting with the tone of something else. He writes dotted passages against legato passages, so that eight voices would come out clearly. In some places we played more dotted than we were used to -- but if you look at the score, he puts a dot on every single note!

When it came to actual notes, "I think Beth, our first violist, ended up incorporating some of the changes," Shaham said. "Mostly we stuck with the final version."

Mendelssohn was inspired by passages from literature, including Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and also a particular passage from Goethe's Faust:

Wisps of cloud and mist
Are lit from above
Breeze in the foliage and wind in the reeds
And all is scattered.

In a letter written by his sister, Fanny, they talk about this piece being a brand-new type of music, music that was never written before, particularly the Scherzo. The letter says, "the whole piece is to be played staccato and pianissimo... the trills passing away with the quickness of lightning... one feels so near to the world of spirits, carried away in the air, half inclined to snatch up a broomstick and follow the aerial procession... and at the end, ...all has vanished."

Mendelssohn was a painter, a composer, a speaker of multiple languages, a reader of poetry....

"What an amazing mind," Shaham said, "and what an education."

The other works on the recording are two of Haydn's violin concertos, Concerto No. 1 in C major and Concerto No. 4 in G major. 

I tried to remember the last time I heard a Haydn violin concerto. There was the recording of them in 2008 by Augustin Hadelich. And I studied the G major as a kid...

"You hardly ever hear them, right?" Shaham said. "People play the cello concertos all the time. I must confess that I don't tend to play them that often. And I love them! I think they're amazing. I think they are every bit as wonderful and perfect as those cello concertos. I felt really lucky to be able to play them during that centenary year. I've been trying to program them for the next few seasons, too, with some success. They are so beautiful, such perfect music."

The Haydn concertos struck me as being more virtuosic than I expected.

"They were supposed to have been written for the violinist Tomasini," Shaham said. "They must have been very virtuosic players! Haydn's knowledge of the violin is such that he must have been very virtuosic, too. I find them as demanding as the Mozarts, if not more so. But they are so beautiful, and they're like the Mozart in that the violin just sings. The writing is like writing for voice."

What's coming up next for Gil Shaham?

In the fall he'll start performing the Concerto Funebre by Karl Amadeus Hartmann for the first time. In keeping with Shaham's pursuit of violin concertos from the 1930s, this piece was composed in 1939.

"I guess there's some question about this now, but people used to say that Hartmann was the only openly anti-Nazi composer in Germany," Shaham said. "This violin concerto is a very dark piece – obviously – and it's somehow a reaction to the invasion of Czechoslovakia. So it has some Czech themes in it, and some Russian themes as well. If you get a chance, you should listen to it, it's a very strong piece. Just violin and strings."

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