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Violinist.com Interviews: Vol. 1

Our exclusive, one-on-one interviews with 27 of today's best-known violinists, including Hilary Hahn, Joshua Bell, Sarah Chang, David Garrett, Anne Akiko Meyers, Maxim Vengerov, and others.


November 2011

Thanks to YOU!

November 24, 2011 00:31

Over the years, many people have written to thank Robert and me for bringing Violinist.com into the world and keeping it running. But today, on the Thanksgiving holiday in my country, I would like to extend my gratitude to you.

I like to think that the ".com" in "Violinist.com" stands for "community" and it is YOU -- the readers, contributors and supporters of this website who have made this website into a worldwide community. Without you, it would just be "Violinist"!

With 31,417 registered members and counting, I can't thank everyone by name. But I'd like to just list a few of the people and stories that make me thankful that somehow I have the privilege of running Violinist.com.

So thank you many times over, for….

  • The many artists I've had the privilege of interviewing.
  • The sponsors of Violinist.com.
  • Robert Niles, my husband, who bought this domain name for me, his violinist wife, in 1997. Then he made my ideas come true with his brilliant ability to program, and he contributed plenty of his own ideas. (For example, "You should write a blog, Laurie.") Thank you Robert!
  • Dozens of impassioned discussions on whether or not to use a shoulder rest. :)
  • The times when this community has come together and offered its kindness and generosity to a stranger.
  • Our Alaskan bureau, headed by Emily Grossman, whose shares not only her violin insights but also her many talents: drawing, photography, writing
  • Buri's (Stephen Brivati) dispatches from Japan, not just about the violin, but about the tsunami recovery.
  • Emily (Liz) Hogstad's devotion to the history of women violinists and to the Minnesota Orchestra.
  • Rachel Barton Pine. You awesome woman.
  • The wonderful writing of Terez Mertes.
  • Hilary Hahn's quirky videos.
  • All the artists who have provided us with CDs and DVDs to give away to you!
  • Violin limericks :)
  • Young people, and Rock 'n' Roll.
  • Mark O'Connor and his quest to make American Music a major part of the conversation.
  • Mendy Smith going through the alphabet and playing something by composers with names starting with every letter!
  • Everyone who writes a blog, shares an insight, describes an experience.
  • Everyone who asks a question, everyone who seeks to better themselves; everyone who answers in good faith, everyone who tries to help.
  • I have not even begun to list everyone and everything -- this list goes on and on! It all adds up to the rich experience of many talented people, with all the inventive ways we practice our art. It doesn't matter where you are on the the spectrum, whether you are just beginning your journey, at the peak of it, or beyond. Having all of you in my life is something for which I am deeply grateful. I thank everyone for your humor, for your passion, for your devotion to the art of the violin. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving day.

    13 replies


    Violinist.com interview with Mikhail Simonyan: Khachaturian and Barber concertos

    November 22, 2011 12:45

    For violinist Mikhail Simonyan, it's all about the music now.

    After spending time in Afghanistan last January with children who had, up until that point, been prohibited from learning music, Simonyan said he is much changed. "The people of Afghanistan have taught me what is essential in life.”

    We spoke with him last year, before he went, about his project called "Beethoven, Not Bullets," a fundraising effort to subsidize about 50 young music students in Afghanistan, through the Afghanistan National Institute of Music.

    So it's not surprising that Simonyan's new recording of the Khachaturian and Barber Violin Concertos, called Two Souls, is more a vehicle for exploring sides of his own musical soul than it is a means of displaying violinistic feats.

    Mikhail Simonyan

    "I was born to an Armenian father and my mother is Russian; however I’ve lived in New York since 1999," Simonyan said. "My soul is 100% Armenian, while my life is based in the US. The concertos by Khachaturian and Barber represent the two cultures that have influenced me most.”

    Born in Novosibirsk, Russia, Simonyan started violin at the age of five. After coming to the United States in his teens, he studied with Victor Danchenko at Curtis Institute of Music, and he's made one other recording, of the Prokofiev Violin Sonatas , with pianist Alexei Podkorytov, released in January 2009.

    I spoke to Simonyan early this month, three hours before he was to perform the Khachaturian Violin Concerto with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

    Laurie: Who is conducting, then, tonight?

    Mikhail: My closest friend, Kristjan Järvi.

    Laurie: He is the conductor on your new CD -- and also the brother of Paavo Järvi, the former music director of the Cincinnati Symphony. How did you meet?

    Mikhail: I met Kristjan when I was 13 years old. He was at my first New York concert, at Lincoln Center. We started working when I was about 16; he had a youth orchestra in Sweden. Ever since then, we've been close friends. What's great is that we share the same musical ideas and we have a complete understanding of one another. I think it's very rare, in the classical music industry, that you come up with a duo between a conductor and a soloist. If you think about it, the reason why the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are good is because they always play together, over years!

    Laurie: In this recording, you took the last movement of the Barber a little slower, and I thought, wow, you can actually hear all the notes.

    Mikhail: Exactly! It only makes sense. Sometimes I feel that violinists are trying to stick to the marked tempo in that movement, but it never works because then it just becomes a complete mess when the orchestra comes in.

    Laurie: I've played that orchestra part, and putting it together can be a nightmare.

    Mikhail: The CD is designed to show the personalities and folklore of the music of both nations, Armenian and American. It has nothing to do with me showing how fast my fingers can move.

    Laurie: Though your fingers move pretty fast!

    Mikhail: (laughing) I don't need to emphasize on that subject!

    Laurie: Anyway it's sort of nice for somebody just to be making a musical argument for that last movement of the Barber. There's more rhythmic interplay, it seems like, at the slower tempo.

    Mikhail: Listen, I'm really happy that you are noticing this.

    Laurie: We spoke about a year ago, when you were about to do your New York Phil debut. You were playing your Christophe Landon violin. Is that what you used for this recording as well?

    Mikhail: That's exactly what I used.

    Laurie: It's a modern instrument, and it sounds really nice. What year was it made?

    Mikhail: This violin was made less than two years ago.

    Laurie: So 2010?

    Mikhail: Yes.

    Laurie: How did it wind up in your hands?

    Mikhail: The way that it happened…We were sitting with Christophe, having dinner at a Korean restaurant, and at around 1 o'clock in the morning he said, 'Listen, I'm finishing up this pretty cool violin; you should check it out at some point.'

    I said, 'Well, why not just go there, now?' (he laughs) I was leaving to go Armenia in two days -- we were organizing a little exhibition of violins in Armenia because the country is very small, and they don't get too many chances to look at rare instruments. So I said, 'I'm playing Khachaturian, why don't we take some of your instruments, just so people can see the difference?'

    So we went back into the shop, and he was working on this violin. At around 3 o'clock in the morning he put the strings on, and when I heard it I said, 'Holy moly, it's actually an amazing fiddle!'

    So in my dressing room, before I was about to play the Khachaturian, I had a del del Gesù, Gagliano, Stradivarius, all these kinds of violins, and I said, 'I want to play on this violin.' After three days of existence as a fiddle, I played a concert on (the Christophe Landon violin). And I've stuck with it ever since. I'm also using the bow that Christophe made.

    Laurie: That is amazing. What does he sell his violins for, what is the range? Because certainly it's not $5 million.

    Mikhail: For sure. That's the beauty of it. He makes a violin that works, and it doesn't cost five million dollars. Sometimes people will say, 'Oh, $60,000 or $70,000, that's so expensive for a modern instrument,' and I say, but if you're spending $1 million, or $2 million, or $5 million for a Stradivarius that you actually spend half of your life fighting with, that needs a sound post adjustment every second day and you need to move the bridge constantly to figure out what's the right sound…

    This violin adjusted itself, I didn't touch the sound post adjustment. It just works.

    Laurie: Back to your recording, I noticed that in the first movement of the Khachaturian, you are playing a new cadenza by Artur Avanesov, a Russian-born, Armenian composer who is about 30 years old. How did that come to be?

    Mikhail: Khachaturian was kind of in a hurry to finish this concerto, and the original cadenza he wrote is very showy and technical. It has nothing to do with the pure Armenian music that he's using in this concerto. David Oistrakh actually did the same thing as I did: he looked at that cadenza and said, 'I don't like it.' So he decided to write his own cadenza, which also has absolutely nothing to do with Armenian music.

    Of course with cadenzas, we're not really obligated to the composer -- if you go back to the time of Mozart and Haydn, cadenzas used to be something that people would just improvise on stage. So I decided to commission a new cadenza, and I asked this composer (Avanesov) to come up with sort of an authentic Armenian music. Armenian culture is super spiritual -- because Armenia is the first country that adopted Christianity. I think he did a beautiful job.

    Laurie: How did you know this composer? Did you already know him personally?

    Mikhail: I started asking for recommendations in Armenia for a young composer. I'm always trying to work with younger people … for a young composer to get a project like this, to release it in such a way, with such a great orchestra, it's a good opportunity.

    Laurie: If people really like this cadenza and want to play it themselves, will they be able to get the music for it?

    Mikhail: Absolutely. It's going to be published.

    Laurie: I have to say, watching you play the last movement of the Khachaturian, it looks so fun.

    Mikhail: It is fun!

    Laurie: It's so quirky, rhythmically, it just is all over the place, and it looks fun for the orchestra, too.

    In the CD notes, there is a picture of the whole Järvi family, with Kristjan Järvi practically sitting on Khachaturian's lap, as a child. Did he have a lot to say about this concerto when you were putting it together?

    Mikhail: Absolutely. His father, Maestro (Neeme) Järvi, was very close with the composer. But what Kristjan said, most importantly, was that every composer just wants his music to be very successful. Sometimes I think that nowadays people are way too worried about what's written in the score. I don't want you to think that I'm not serious about what's written in the score, but sometimes I have a feeling that the composer wrote a piano at that particular moment, then maybe 10 years later he didn't want to have a piano there. You listen to your recordings that you made 12 or 13 years ago, and you maybe do it completely differently now.

    Laurie: What is your history with the Khachaturian, when did you first play it?

    Mikhail: I played it when I was about 16.

    Laurie: What do you think is different about what you are doing now with it than what you were doing then?

    Mikhail: I'm playing it in a much more folkloric way. I used to play this concerto very violinistically. I was very worried about all these passages, and about showing, look how big my sound is on my G string -- but now I'm going completely into the folklore of this country.

    Laurie: I did get the sense of your being beyond the notes. Certainly there's a lot, technically, to be worried about, but…

    Mikhail: Look, once you learn it, you learn it. You don't have to worry about it, you don't need to concentrate on how you're going to play this passage or not. Look at all these folkloric musicians, all these folkloric bands -- they don't spend their time practicing the passages. When they improvise, they just do it naturally.

    Laurie: Last year, we talked about how you were about to go to Afghanistan to help with some new music education efforts. How did that go?

    Mikhail: It was great, I loved it. I loved the students, and I loved the fact that people in those countries haven't lost the purity and sincerity of expressing emotions. They say thank you, and they mean it from the bottom of their hearts.

    Laurie: What was the moment when you realized you were making a difference?

    Mikhail: It was not really me who was making a difference. It's the whole thing together that's making the difference. There's still a long way to go until that country is going to (have music) like the west. The kids, they haven't seen anything except war and tragedy, but when they're making music, they love it so much. When I got back, I was a completely different person. We hear our colleagues complaining about the fact that they don't get paid more than $175,000 a year by playing the instrument. These guys, they love the music, and for them, music is such a pure thing and it changes their lives.

    Laurie: How is the Afghanistan National Institute of Music doing at this point?

    Mikhail: It's doing well. We're getting a lot of donations and new teachers, and hopefully I'll get a chance to go there again at the end of the year.

    * * *

    Mikhail Simonyan plays the last movement of Khachaturian's Violin Concerto with Kristjan Järvi andthe London Symphony Orchestra, recorded for the albm Two souls.

    1 reply


    Hilary Hahn interviews Ivry Gitlis

    November 22, 2011 11:05

    Or maybe it's a little bit the other way around, Ivry asks a lot of questions, too!

    What a fun conversation, and they let us in on it:

    1 reply


    Luthier René A. Morel, 1932-2011

    November 17, 2011 14:33

    You really have to trust a guy to let him pry open your multi-million dollar, centuries-old Stradivarius and put it back together again.

    For so many string players over the last half-century, that guy was luthier René A. Morel, 1932-2011, who died Wednesday morning at the age of 79, after a long battle with cancer. His career as a luthier lasted more than 60 years, during which he worked on some of the planet's finest and most valued stringed instruments.

    René Morel
    René Morel, in 2007. Photo by Jonathan Solars

    The late violinist Isaac Stern referred to Morel as a kind of "doctor" for violins, and he wasn't the only one who felt that way.

    "If you have to have an operation, if you believe in your doctor, well, René is your guy," said Yo-Yo Ma in a 1995 "Live From Lincoln Center" documentary (video excerpt below).

    As his longtime assistant Stefan Valcuha said Wednesday, "Almost anybody you can think of came to his shop." Ivan Galamian did, as did Galamian's students -- Pinchas Zukerman, Itzhak Perlman….

    "One day I was (at Morel's shop) this year, Elmar Oliviera was waiting to see him, Itzhak Perlman was also getting an adjustment, and he had finished adjusting Yo-Yo Ma's cello and Kurt Nikkanen's violin," said violinist Anne Akiko Meyers Wednesday. "That was one hour of his day."

    Born in France, René A. Morel came from a family of violinmakers on both sides, and he began making violins at the age of 12 in his cousin's shop, Valcuha said. He worked for Amédée Dieudonne in Mirecourt, as well as Marius Didier, and Bossard Bonnel in Rennes. By the time he was in his late teens, he was making two instruments a week, a pace most luthiers would find extremely impressive, Valcuha said.

    Morel moved to America after serving in the French Air Force, working briefly in Chicago for Kagan and Gaines. In 1955 he moved to New York, where he worked with Simone F. Sacconi at Rembert Wurlitzer's shop. He opened his own shop at Jacques Français, Rare Violins, Inc. in 1964, and in 1994 opened René A. Morel Rare Violins in the same location. In 2008, he began a collaboration with Tarisio that lasted until his death.

    Violinists speak fondly of their trips to see Morel, who could adjust a fiddle like no other.

    "I first met René while I was still a student at Peabody," said violinist Igor Yuzefovich. "I was playing on a Tononi violin loaned to me by the school, and it needed a few minor adjustments. My teacher, Victor Danchenko, suggested that I go and see Mr. Morel for any work on an instrument of that caliber. I couldn't think of a better reason to take a day trip to New York."

    "I took the elevator up to the 11th floor and was buzzed in through the glass doors by an always friendly Puerto Rican lady behind the counter," Yuzefovich said. "Over the years, I had gotten to know her a bit as well, and was always greeted with a big smile and an occasional hug."

    "René met me in his usual blue apron, and ushered me into the back corner room. I remember that he listened to me play for about 20 seconds, then took the violin and fiddled with it for a few seconds and handed it back to me," Yuzefovich said. "My face changed when I played a few notes - it sounded like a completely different instrument."

    "René's incredible talent laid not only in his ability to adjust and repair an instrument, but also in his innate ability to know exactly what a performer is looking for just by watching and listening to how the player plays," Yuzefovich said. "It seemed as if he knew exactly what I was trying to get out of the instrument before I even said anything. "

    "At the end of our short session, he mentioned to me that in case I find myself in need of an instrument for a big solo performance, I should not hesitate to call him," Yuzefovich said. "After many trips back to Mr. Morel's shop, that opportunity did come for me. I had a performance of the Shostakovich Violin concerto coming up, and was wishing I had something a bit more powerful in my hands for that concert. Over the phone, René sinmply said - come up to New York, I am sure we will find something. Once there and back in the familiar room, the walls of which were covered with signed pictures from seemingly every famous violinist from the 20th Century, René brought out two violins and laid them in front of me. He said "Try these" - and left the room. In front of me lay two gorgeous instruments: a Strad and a del Gesù.

    "I spent about 4 hours in that room, probably driving everyone else in the shop insane, just playing these two gorgeous instruments over and over, thinking to myself: 'How could anyone pick just one?!' As the shop was getting ready to close, I had to make a decision - the del Gesù won over the Strad, but only because of its raw power.

    "There were many more occasions on which René kindly loaned an instrument to me for various concerts, and I must say - each one of those experiences were just as unique," Yuzefovich said. "To be a student or even a recent graduate and have such a rare chance to perform on an instrument of that caliber is something I will definitely cherish for the rest of my life.

    Anne Akiko Meyers said she first met Morel when when he was working for Jacques Francais in New York and she was a 15-year-old student at The Juilliard School.

    "When you saw René, he always had his bright blue uniform/jacket on with his tools in his front pocket," Meyers said. "He would hit a tuner on the wall (A-440) to get you started. I always was a little nervous when I would start playing for him, knowing he had seen and heard EVERYBODY. He once told me to just relax and not think of it as an audition, which I found funny. After three or four seconds of playing, he would take the instrument and adjust it without tuning the violin down, and the violin would have a sound that would just explode with color. My eyes would always pop out in amazement at his efficiency and sensitivity. He loved that I 'sculpted' the sound. He was like a doctor, knowing exactly what was wrong with the fiddle with no explanation. It was uncanny. We asked him how he did it and he answered, 'It's the player that makes the sound.'"

    When it comes to lutherie, he was especially good at "color, sound, knowledge, expertise, adjusting the instrument to each player's taste and style," Meyers said. "He also had an ear like no other. He knew musicianship, character, and style of each player with one good ear! Plus, he had a great sense of humor and would tell stories about this violinist and that violinist. He cracked me up."

    Morel also left his mark on several generations of luthiers.

    "René Morel was already a legendary figure when I first began as a violin making apprentice in 1972," said Christopher Reuning, Luthier and Owner of Reuning and Son Violins. "Although I never had the privilege to learn directly from René, the legions of his students and employees spread the advanced restoration and set up techniques that he had perfected so well that they became the industry standard for all of us. Through his association with Jacques Francais, René was the trusted luthier to several generations of the leading artists and cared for many of the world's most magnificent instruments. Despite his stature in the field, René remained a humble Mirecourt craftsman whose self-effacing charm was infectious. There were never more loyal clients than those who trusted René. In 2008, my association with René became more personal through his association with my auction company. It was then that I discovered more directly the depth of his humanity and enjoyed his humor and exceptional storytelling. He will be missed by us all."

    Violinmaker Guy Rabut said that "as a teacher, René was always willing to take the time to advise and guide all who stopped by the shop for advice. For those of us who worked in his shop, we received a rich resource of knowledge to draw upon for many years after. The high standards never wavered as he challenged us to do our very best work, without compromise. I have so many wonderful memories of the time I spent working in his shop. In addition to learning about violin restoration we also learned about wine, food and any other subject where René thought that we could benefit from his advice. Ultimately, he was generous and patient and allowed us to grow, knowing that some day we would be in a position to pass along our knowledge to the next generation."

    "He meant to world to so many who knew him," said Jonathan Solars, representative for Florian Leonhard Fine Violins in New York. "I take some comfort knowing that he is probably catching up with many of his old clients and teaching Vuillaume a thing or two about repair."

    * * *

    "If the violin responds to the feeling, to the heart of the human being who plays on it, this, to him, it's his love, it's his life. If it is an instrument which has only the power but he cannot sculpt, he cannot mold, cannot phrase, then he says, 'Oh, it's a strong violin,' but he won't fall in love with that." -- René A. Morel

    Here is an excerpt from a documentary, originally from "Live From Lincoln Center" in 1995:

    4 replies


    Review: Lara St. John plays Violin Concerto No. 1 by Matthew Hindson

    November 14, 2011 15:08

    After hearing Lara St. John's West Coast premiere of the Violin Concerto No. 1 "Australian Postcards" by Matthew Hindson, I did something I rarely do upon hearing something for the very first time: I ran out at intermission and bought the recording.

    I liked it, and I wanted to hear it again.

    Lara St. John
    Photo by Twain Newhart

    Lara was performing with the New West Symphony in Thousand Oaks, Cal. (near Los Angeles), with conductor Sarah Ioannides, who also leads the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Lara's 2007 world premiere recording of the same work.

    I found Hindson's concerto both familiar and challenging; in a musical language that I understand, yet full of new thoughts and ideas. Certainly it sounds modern, but sometimes it's modern like a movie score, and other times it's modern like an edgy new symphony.

    As the title suggests, the violin concerto paints three different pictures from Australia, beginning at Kooragang Island with an enormous wind turbine. The program describes "three huge blades on this turbine that move at tremendous speed. Standing nearby, it seems hard to believe that the whole structure won't disintegrate and decapitate everyone, such is its power and speed."

    The piece begins with a loud and dissonant rumble, which had me a little worried. I confess, I'm not up to 45 minutes of ear-bending noise. But not to fear, it was just those turbines revving up.

    I'd never seen Lara St. John play live, and I was immediately taken with her ability to convey movement in the music, with no feeling of fuss over individual notes. To be honest, I was skeptical that a wind turbine could be depicted in music, but as I let it wash over me, I did get a sense of riding the wind, of an enormous gear winding and grinding into motion, of whirling around in three. The violin is rhythmic and slidey, and the orchestra contributes train whistles, wah-wah noises, even a sort of quack-quack (geese flying by?) At one point the orchestra plays a whole chorus of whining "wah-wahs," kind of like a swarm of flatulent bumblebees, which did indeed conjure for me the image of something enormous winding into gear. This all ends in a big Bartok pizzicato (very loud -- hope this is not the decapitation!) then a spinning bariolage, with the solo violin rolling across all strings against a windy-sounding background. By the end Lara was completely out of breath -- panting! She really gave it all.

    Then came the second movement, meant to paint a picture of both the idyllic setting and depressing reality (boredom, isolation, lack of opportunity) of a small down in Tasmania called Westaway. Here the orchestra became more pastoral, the violin more melodic, Lara playing with graceful agility. This movement made use of 29 percussion instruments, and occasionally they got loud. Lara seemed more than a soloist, she also seemed an advocate for this work, the way she knew it so well and channeled its energy. I enjoyed the way this movement was crafted; the violin seemed to speak and create melodies and gestures that were then echoed, amplified or carried over by the rest of the orchestra. The ending faded to niente -- a well-executed quiet moment.

    Third movement began with a blast from the orchestra, followed by a tentative pizzicato from the solo violin, who plucked out the melody that would be carried throughout the movement. Then it was off to the races on a jazzy and energetic ride. This movement was meant to showcase Grand Final Day, a celebration of sport, probably Australian football and/or rugby, but I'd swear I heard a "Toreador" quotation in there! This movement was a mad dash, very physical and exciting, teetering between the roaring crowd and the individual display by the violin, which, when the orchestra hushed, would jazz out and show off. In the end came a standing ovation, and audience members walking away, whistling that jazzy tune from the last movement.

    3 replies


    V.com weekend vote: How is your local symphony doing, financially?

    November 11, 2011 15:09

    I could get very depressed about the recent travails of American symphony orchestras -- and symphonies all over the globe. For example, here is a short list of symphonies who have recently faced, or are currently facing, serious financial difficulties. It is by no means complete:

    Brooklyn Philharmonic
    Colorado Symphony
    Dallas Symphony
    Detroit Symphony
    Honolulu Symphony
    Louisville Symphony
    Philadelphia Orchestra

    A longtime Violinist.com member, frustrated with the ongoing financial difficulties of her local orchestra, put it very starkly: "There should be no surprise at all. Combine the recession, the lack of interest in the music, and boards/CEOs that don't have the musicians' careers at heart, and presto! A whole art form can be wiped away in less than 10 years. Maybe seven."

    Is that an extreme statement, or not? Certainly, the world has changed since I first started playing in orchestras in the early 90s. There are fewer opportunities for musicians to play, or to make a career of music. And frankly, to have fine music, you need to have musicians who can work as musicians. Symphonies have always struggled financially, but today's struggles seem more extreme.

    Is there anything we can do to support our local symphonies? Any kind of education campaign that we can support as Violinist.com, to encourage support for symphonies? I certainly would take your suggestions.

    In the mean time, how is your local symphony doing, wherever in the world you are? Do you have a local symphony? Please share your stories.

    10 replies


    Master Class with Lara St. John

    November 10, 2011 16:12

    What could be better on a cool fall day in Los Angeles, than to sit by the fireplace in the Heifetz studio at the Colburn School and watch a masterclass with violinist Lara St. John?

    This weekend Lara will perform as the soloist in three concerts with the New West Symphony, giving the West-coast premiere of the first violin concerto by Australian composer Matthew Hindson.

    We know Lara from her funnest polka album ever and her Mozart collaboration with her brother, Scott, as well as the fact that she travels a lot with her fiddle when she plays all over the globe.

    With characteristic down-to-earth humor and modesty, she gave some great advice on Wednesday to three students, two who played the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto (first movement, last movement) and one who played the first movement of the Brahms Violin Concerto. So get out your scores, we are going to get specific here!

    This was really the first time I'd sat in the Heifetz studio, now used by Robert Lipsett, who holds the Jascha Heifetz Distinguished Violin Chair at the Colburn School. Designed by Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright, the hexagon-shaped room once sat in Heifetz's Beverly Hills back yard. After his death, it was dismantled piece-by-piece, held in a warehouse for many years, then re-assembled at Colburn.

    Kelsey played the first movement of the Tchaikovsky, with all those wicked passages and "unplayable" notes well in place.

    "Intonation is great, sound is great -- maybe have a bit more fun, now that everything is there," Lara said. The Tchaikovsky has so many notes, so much to focus on, but with the most difficult technical hurdles already jumped, one can try letting go and thinking only musically.

    Lara wanted the cadenza to keep its momentum, "You lost me there; it's too slow, too sweet and too beautiful for too long," she said. "It's kind of lovely, and I don't think it's supposed to be."

    There are also many chords, particularly in the cadenza, that can be played together instead of rolled. For example, the chords at the beginning of the cadenza: even the four-note chords can be played in unison, "think of only the middle strings."

    Another part of the cadenza has a double-stop descending chromatic run -- call it a "shake down," because it's like a backwards glissando (slide) with vibrato. The vibrato shakes the hand down the scale. I personally find it rather hard to do well.

    So here was Lara's idea for Kelsey, which I think would work for anyone here, maybe even me: "When you're pulling down," she said, "don't vibrate quite so fast. It's nice to hear all the half-steps going down." Her advice reminds me of advice about trills, that a slightly slower but audible trill sounds faster and better to the ear than a very fast but fuzzy one.

    She also suggested a neat trick she likes to do for the end of the cadenza, leading back into the orchestra part: trill to a B flat, then change to the B natural trill without changing bow. Change bow, instead, when the flute enters. I'd like to see that live!

    Photo
    Lara works with Kelsey, while Heifetz seems to watch from his desk, left.

    Now, some advice about the beautiful theme in the first movement of the Tchaik, which we can find around m. 70, if you have your score. Lara wanted Kelsey to try bowing the theme on the open G string, while doing the normal fingering on the D string. Watch out, Kelsey, it's a portato trap! It's very common for violinists to accidentally do a little "wah wah" with the bow here, sort of enunciating each note with the bow (portato). If you play on the open "G" while fingering it, you can see if you are doing an accidental portato with the bow (BTW, my spell check keeps changing "portato" to "potato." You say "potato," I say "portato"…)

    "I have a personal vendetta against portato," Lara said. It does tend to be over-used, and the theme is a little more smooth and musical without it.

    More suggestions: make sure the middle of runs are audible, and that very high notes are high enough. For the double-stop triplets around m. 106, Lara suggested that the rests shouldn't be held very long, and in fact, one can even shorten the rests and make the orchestra chase you a little there because it's an exciting place where the music is building. I loved the way Lara demonstrated it, too -- with less resting and very fast triplets, it sounds a lot like the orchestra part. The first triplets can fast so that there is a contrast at m. 114, when one is asked to reign in the triplets and go "poco più lento."

    As the next student, Elicia, got ready to play the first movement of the Brahms Concerto, I glanced around again at the Heifetz Studio. There are no right angles in the room, which makes everything easy to hear. A violin is made from wood and so is much of this room -- 2,000-year-old Redwood, in fact, according to Lipsett. Heifetz memorabilia is everywhere: A proclamation for "Jascha Heifetz Day" from the City of LA hangs on the wall; an old-fashioned metronome sits on a shelf; a 1940s television hides in a cabinet and an old-school electric fan sits on the floor. A picture of Heifetz on the desk gives the impression that he is watching over all proceedings in the room. He sits with his hands folded, with one eyebrow raised. Okay. Play.

    The Brahms Concerto opens like a roller-coaster: a lot of stressful anticipation, then a big intense climb, and then -- coast.

    "This opening is so amazing -- when it really comes off, it's such a rush, " Lara said.

    Photo
    Lara and Alicia

    One is required to coast in fives -- shall we call them quintuplet 16th notes? A little unusual. Lara wanted these notes to sound less measured, to be pulled more over the time. "It's rushing, but it's not a tempo thing, it's a feeling thing." She wanted her to ignore the piano and let the diminuendo happen on its own.

    The third and final student of the day was Yoonbe, a Colburn Academy student who played the last movement of the Tchaikovsky concerto with energy and nice contrasts. I was not able to stay for all of Lara's comments (I had to catch the train for my weekly date with my 7-year-old student) but she had one that anyone playing this movement should think about: don't come in too soon, right at the beginning of the piece. The orchestra (or piano) provides a lively lead-in, and one might want to jump right on the moving train. But…

    "Don't you want a little more drama here?" Lara asked. Most halls will have a sound delay, so wait until the sound stops, so that the violin's solo entrance can be heard. "Just stand there a while. Wait until that 10-second delay happens."

    Then, all eyes and ears will be with you when you take it away.

    I'll be at Lara's concert with the New West Symphony on Saturday, maybe I'll see a few of you there. You'll hear from me afterward!

    2 replies


    Jascha Heifetz DVD giveaway this week on V.com

    November 9, 2011 23:08

    The 20th century violinist Jascha Heifetz remains an ideal for violinists, who revere his playing in an almost religious way. But what was he like as a man?

    Heifetz

    This is what Peter Rosen aimed to explore with his 87-minute documentary, Jascha Heifetz: God's Fiddler, which draws on 300 hours of film and 2,000 photos. You may recall that I wrote about its premiere last spring. This week we are giving away three copies of the documentary, which was recently premiered in New York and is now available in DVD form.

    Congratulations to Roland Garrison of Tigard, Oregon, who won the first DVD!

    There are still two more to win, and we've just put up the next question. To enter for a chance to win, please go to our contest page.

    2 replies


    Hope

    November 8, 2011 19:16

    It had been raining for most of our trip Friday from Los Angeles to the Mexican border, but as we drew nearer, a ray of sunshine shot through the clouds and produced a glorious, full rainbow. A double rainbow, in fact.

    Double rainbow over Mexico

    "A double rainbow!" said my 14-year-old daughter, Natalie, with drama.

    "So intense!" laughed her school friend, Caroline.

    "It's right over Tijuana," I said, "do you suppose the pot of gold is there?"

    Later someone was to remark, "Maybe just the pot?"

    Funny -- but not funny. When I told people I was going to Tijuana for the weekend to help build houses, they were afraid for me. Mexico, and the border town of Tijuana, has a problem with drug trafficking. The joke is in thinking the problem is theirs and not ours. (I speak as a U.S. citizen.) Certainly it is the people of Mexico who suffer most from the violence, economic disfunction and isolation of their country.

    What if we could be friends? Neighbors? Help each other?

    Such were my thoughts after spending a weekend with my daughter, her friend, and some 30 new friends associated with my Unitarian Universalist church, helping families build houses in Tijuana with a group called Esperanza International. Many of these friends have been coming down to Tijuana twice a year to do this, for more than a decade. We were newbies.

    On Saturday morning we all met with Eduardo, a Mexican citizen and the powerhouse behind Esperanza in Tijuana. The word "esperanza" means "hope," and as much as we were literally laying concrete for people's homes, we were also there to build connections and hope for better relations.

    "Please don't believe everything you hear in the news about my country," Eduardo said, as we sat in a circle and introduced ourselves. "Please tell your friends back home that you were safe here, that it is okay to come here."

    A bus took us across precariously high paved roads and over dirt roads made muddy by the rain, to the work site. The residential roads tended not to be graded, so the bus maneuvered in ways I might have thought impossible, at crazy-steep angles, around hairpin turns and over bumps the size of trash cans.

    Street

    Any driver has to watch for dogs loping along the road, some walking together like old friends. I spotted a good number of dogs standing on roofs -- they just kind of do their own thing. Homes are extremely small, most about the size of a one-car garage. Many are made from a hodgepodge of salvaged materials: pieces of plywood, corrugated metal, a few mismatched grates, rebar sticking out of the roof at odd angles, a random board here, a block of cement there, and a lot of graffiti everywhere.

    Graffiti
    See the little doggie on the roof?

    When families in Tijuana sign up for Esperanza, they join a kind of co-op. They have to put money into a community fund, which goes towards building homes. After a year or more, they may have enough invested that they can start building their own home, a process which happens piece by piece, with help from both foreigners and from those in the co-op. Esperanza's aim is not to provide charity, but to provide a way for families to first build goals and them accomplish them through their own means. The families work side-by-side with the volunteers.

    On Saturday, we poured a concrete roof for a house that already had a foundation and four walls. When we arrived, Natalie and Caroline went exploring to kill time as we awaited our orders. Before I could say, "It's a construction site, don't go inside!" they had carefully stepped into the half-built structure. Soon I heard exclamations, "Oh look! Oooohhhh! So cute! Awwwww?" They had discovered, inside the unfinished house, a small dog house. Inside that, a dog was nursing eight newborn puppies.

    The doggy family continued their little nativity scene, unperturbed, while we fired up a small cement mixer, much in the same way as an old-fashioned lawnmower. Volunteers shoveled gravel and dirt into buckets which we fed into the mixer along with water and cement. A line of people snaked around the outside of the house, through a little porchway, up a ladder and onto the roof. Through this line of people, we passed many, many, many, many five-gallon buckets of wet concrete, each bucket weighing between five and 10 pounds, depending on who was scooping the concrete. People on the roof emptied the concrete into a prepared space, slowly filling in the roof. Another person would toss each emptied bucket down from the roof, where it went flying from person to person back to the cement mixer to be filled again.

    Once this system started running, we fell into a rhythm that went for hours -- sort of mesmerizing, if one can be mesmerized while exerting that much physical energy. I was part of the bucket brigade, passing bucket after bucket. I focused on my technique: gripping the top of the bucket with one hand and holding the bottom with the other; making sure that the next person in line had both hands on before letting go and turning to grab the next bucket, which came quickly. If every person grabs a little early and holds a little late, keeping the bucket moving at a constant speed, the weight feels halved.

    Yet it still got heavy, and we didn't always keep the groove. Sometimes a person would drop the bucket, or fail to get a good grip. Sometimes it would dip as our arms tired. A few people tried to measure the weight of each bucket, "Eight pounds. Seven. Five. Nine." Or "Pesado. MUY pesado!"

    Still, three dozen people, working in concert, is a beautiful piece of machinery to behold.

    We certainly attracted the attention of the neighbors, all living in very close quarters. Children peeked through the windows; people came out on their roofs.

    Concrete splattered everywhere, and despite wearing thick work gloves, my hands were wet. The cement has some toxic elements, and I came away from the day with a few smarting sores, simply from my skin making contact with the cement.

    When we finally finished the roof, we enjoyed a meal cooked by the family, who had been strictly instructed by Eduardo to use only purified water so as not to make us sick. We sat on the dirt road, eating beans, rice, meat and tortillas, then we gathered in a circle to say goodbye to Claudia, a member of the family.

    In front of the house
    Caroline and Natalie stand next to Claudia, center. Her family's new house is in the background, to the left.

    We wished her all the best, and she said, "Thank you so much, and I hope you don't get sick from our food!" The food was the only way they could thank us, and they had to worry so much that it would make us sick. This struck me as off-balance.

    Eduardo directed the buses to a house that had been completed through efforts by Esperanza. It was about 300 square feet, with a very small bedroom, living area and -- what must be a real luxury, a closet-sized bathroom. None of the houses has heat or air conditioning, or fireplaces or any kind of built-in cooking space. "You get cold? Find some wood and burn it," explained Eduardo. "You get hot? Open a window." It gave me a new take on the Spanish word for window, "ventana" -- the only means of ventilation.

    I asked, how many people would live in this home? A single mother, her daughter, the mother's sister, her two daughters, and a grandmother. Seven people.

    The next day, we drove to another site, this one high on a hill. The road to this neighborhood was lined with garbage -- we even saw a stray horse scavenging in it. For this house, we were building a foundation. Next door to their house was a church -- a slightly larger concrete structure, with no decoration to make it look like a church. We could hear them playing music and singing inside, but we didn't realize until the end of the day that it was a church.

    As we worked, the sky clouded over and the air grew cold. We made our lines, and first we passed buckets of dirt for the foundation, followed by concrete. People sang a little, told jokes, played word games. We finished the foundation just minutes before the first raindrops fell, and a steady rain accompanied our dinner.

    In the rain
    Volunteers eating dinner, hiding from the rain.

    Again, we formed a circle to say goodbye to the family and wish them well. This time, we had all come in individual cars, so that we could go straight back to the border and home when our work was complete. Unfortunately, the steady rain had turned the dirt roads into the most slippery mud I've ever seen. While going up a steep hill, seven cars got stuck, sliding in the mud. It was like being in a blizzard, with a foot of snow on the ground. Tires spun, people got out and fell in the mud, cars went sideways, and dogs looked at us curiously as they walked past.

    At last, Esperanza leader, Eduardo of Tijuana, walked from his car to the back of the line, where a car had made several failed attempts to get up the hill. We watched as he took the keys and got into the car. He stepped on the gas and swerved wildly all over the road -- but he made it all the way up.

    And that's how you drive in Tijuana -- you don't leave anything on the table. You use all the power you have, and you get yourself up the hill and out of the mud.

    I'll be back.

    4 replies


    Rachel Barton Pine/Wohlfahrt Etudes giveaway this week on Violinist.com

    November 2, 2011 13:12

    It's out! Violinist Rachel Barton Pine's Foundation Studies for the Violin, Volume 1 - 60 First Position Studies (from Opp. 45, 54, 74) by Franz Wohlfahrt -- which comes with a DVD of her playing -- is officially now available.

    She has been kind enough to give Violinist.com three copies to give to you, thus this week's giveaway contest. The first book went to Ashley Smith of Garrett, Indiana, (congratulations!) but you still have two more chances to win. The new question has been posted on the contest page, so go enter! The final question will go up on Friday.

    The Wohlfahrt etudes were last edited about a century ago, and Rachel has brought them into the 21st century with new fingerings and bowings, and for the first time, some suggested dynamics so that students can do musical justice to these clever little studies. The book comes with a DVD of her playing the etudes.

    2 replies


    More entries: December 2011October 2011

    Ilya Gringolts

    Contest: Paganini Caprices

    Enter to win Ilya Gringolts' recording of the 24 Caprices by Paganini.