February 2011

Violinist Eugene Fodor dies at age 60

February 28, 2011 16:15

Violinist Eugene Fodor died Saturday in Fairfax, Va., at the age of 60, after an illness (liver disease) that had started in June, said his sister, Deborah Fodor-Bode.

It is impossible for me to write about the death of Eugene Fodor without personal attachment.

In my very early violin days, a family friend gave me a gift: a cassette recording of Eugene Fodor playing the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. I was nine, and it was the first recording I owned. It was the only classical music recording in the house, and I loved it with abandon.

Fodor grew up in Colorado, as did I. He won the 1972 Paganini Competition and received the top prize in the the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1974, just a few years before that recording was made. It was a source of national and local pride that an American – a Coloradan – had won a major Soviet honor, in Moscow, at the height of the Cold War. In fact it was a source of controversy that he was given only the “top prize” and not declared the “winner,” sharing the honor with a Russian. A chorus of those present testified that he had indisputably played the best.


Eugene Fodor
Fodor, in San Diego in 2008

Though Fodor was universally admired for his awe-inspiring violin technique, even his closest friends described him as difficult and irascible, his problems with substance abuse never completely at bay. In 1989 the New York Times wrote a scathing headline that read like a career epitaph, just a week after an arrest for drug possession, From Tchaikovsky to Heroin, a Brilliant Violinist's Decline.

But Fodor also went through periods of time in which he took up yoga, meditated, trained horses. His discography grew in recent years, with recordings made within the last decade of Nielsen, Lalo and Sibelius concertos.

Denver violin maker Rick Molzer was a teen-age apprentice at his grandfather August Molzer's basement violin shop when he first met Fodor, who was then 15.

“My grandfather said, 'Ricky, you might want to be upstairs, so you can hear him play,'” Molzer recalled. “I still remember the first note I heard Eugene play.” It was a low A, the beginning of the Glazunov Violin Concerto. “Of course, we were all blown away by his playing.” Years later, Molzer became caretaker for Fodor's instruments, which over the years have included Stradivaris, Guarneris and many fine bows.

“His playing had a brilliance to it,” Molzer said. “It was more than great facility, he had an electrifying stage presence.”

Fodor's teachers included Harold Wippler, Jascha Heifetz and Josef Gingold. Fodor had few students, but one of them was violinist William Wolcott of Omaha, Neb., who studied with Fodor in the mid-90s.

“I learned to surround myself with things that are uplifting, inspiring and beautiful,” Wolcott said of his studies with Fodor. “He taught me to raise my standard, not so much by his words, but by his playing. To be around that playing, so close and so often, gave me the mindset that the impossible is possible.”

Paganini – who wrote music that many violinists would classify as 'near-impossible' – was always one of Fodor's specialties, and he vigorously challenged those who would dismiss the music of Paganini as lacking substance. His reverence for this composer and violinist was evident both in his approach to the works and in an excellent essay he wrote for the 1999 occasion on which he actually played Paganini's own 1742 Guarneri del Gesu (il Cannone), a rare concert of this nature that took place in San Francisco. In a nutshell: Paganini is so hard to play, that many performers bend the music in order to meet its technical demands. That distortion is what keeps listeners from getting to the core of Paganini's music and appreciating its depth.

Fodor didn't distort rhythm to accommodate technique; he didn't have to.

He was still in full possession of his musical powers as recently as 2008, when I saw what must have been one of Fodor's final recitals, a benefit for the San Diego Youth Symphony at Westgate Hotel in downtown San Diego. He performed Paganini's “La Campanella” with a buoyancy both in his being and in his playing. Fodor grinned mischievously as he easily tossed off the lefthand pizzicato, fingered harmonics, perfectly in-tune octaves, ricochet and then a descending trill at the end, which left his audience gasping.

His natural ease and technique seemed to defy physics. His technique did not appear to be honed from the brow-beating of any teacher; it was self-possessed, pure joy.

That same kind of joy was evident when we spoke, the day after the performance. Among other things, we talked about one of the most revered works in the violin repertoire, the Chaconne from Bach's D minor partita, which he had played the night before.

“After living with this piece for nearly a lifetime, I'm still amazed at the hidden gems in every phrase,” Fodor said. “The end of the Chaconne is so powerful. It’s not flashy, yet it’s got energy and muscle to it. It’s the end of the 15-minute piece, and it’s not all over the fingerboard, it’s just arpeggios. How does it get so powerful? It’s the genius behind it. And did you know, they discovered the title page to the Bach Sonatas and Partitas, and it said, 'Volume I.' Doesn’t that drive you mad, to know that there’s at least one more volume of Sonatas and Partitas that are lost?”

“There’s nothing I do not love about the art of violin playing and music,” Fodor told me. “I think it’s humanity’s greatest gift. I think music is the greatest means of expression we have in life. There’s something utterly transportive, spiritually, about music. If you want to take it a step further, even the ancient scriptures of the Far East talk about how song and music is a way to discover the Divine within us.”

Besides his sister, Deborah, Fodor is survived by his brother, John Fodor; children, Dylan, Daniella and Lindsay Davis; and grandchildren, Dylan and Christopher.

Eugene Fodor plays Capriccio-Valse, Op. 7, by Henri Wieniawski on a Perry Como "Early American Christmas" special back in the 1970s:

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Violinist.com interview with Janine Jansen: Back on stage in New York

February 24, 2011 20:45

Violinist Janine Jansen is back, and if you are lucky enough to be in New York this week, you'll have plenty of opportunity to see her perform: tonight she starts a series of four concerts at Avery Fisher Hall, featuring the Britten concerto with the New York Philharmonic and Paavo Järvi. (Other performances are Friday, Saturday and Tuesday) On Monday she will play selections from her new album of French works at Le Poisson Rouge with pianist Inon Barnatan.

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Violinist.com Interview with Alexandra Switala, 2011 Sphinx Competition Junior Division Winner

February 21, 2011 17:11

Violinist Alexandra Switala, 17, was no stranger to the Sphinx Competition when she won the Junior Division earlier this month. Her brother, Robert Switala, won the Junior Division in 2007, and this was the fourth time Alexandra herself had competed in the competition.

She credits her previous experience with the Sphinx for helping her cultivate the right mind-set and seek out the right kind of help to put her in a position to win this year.


Alexandra Switala
Alexandra Switala, photo by Glenn Triest

The Sphinx Competition is held every year in the Detroit area to encourage minority participation in classical music. Alexandra, who is originally from Grapevine, Texas, near Dallas, spoke to me from Chicago, where she has been living in order to study with Almita and Roland Vamos.

Laurie: When did you start playing violin, and what made you decide to do so?

Alexandra: I started playing violin when I was four years old. My mom had always taken my brother and me to concerts, and she took us to a children's concert, where there were kids, a little older than us, playing the violin. I told my mom that I wanted to play the violin – actually I didn't say "violin," I just pointed and said, 'I want to play that!' So she started us with the Suzuki method. You don't start reading right away with the Suzuki method, you just learn by ear, and I really liked that because I've always been naturally musical.

Laurie: What is your history with the Sphinx?

Alexandra: I wasn't in it last year, but I was in it the three years previous to that. My brother, Robert Switala, competed in 2006. I didn't compete that year, but I saw him do it, and I saw the good friends he made and the opportunities he had. Then I went back with him the next year, 2007, and he won. I went back for the next two years after that, and I won second both years. Last year, I decided to take a break, and then I came back this year.

Laurie: You've really seen the Sphinx from every angle. Tell me, has it changed you? How has it influenced your path?

Alexandra: It has influenced me tremendously. When I was younger, my very first year, it was just really fun. It got me excited about the mission of Sphinx. Later on, the more I competed, I really got to be friends with some amazing musicians like Pamela Frank – she's been a judge for the three out of four years that I've competed. I've gotten to know her, and she's seen my progress and my development. Little things like that have helped me grow as a musician, and so has the feedback and other training that you get at the competition.

This year, I loved all the panel discussions and the lectures that they had. I really loved listening to Pamela Frank, first of all, because I had had a masterclass with her before, and hearing her speak at this session made me connect with her teaching even more.

(The panel discussion) made me realize a lot of things about myself, as a musician, what my values are as a musician. Sphinx just always brings it home for me. I love going back, and hopefully I'll be able to go back again to keep learning.

Laurie: What are your values as a musician, what do you mean by that?

Alexandra: Since I'm young, I guess I'm still trying to find what I want in my music, and why I'm playing music. I used to think, I want to be really good on the violin because I know I can play really well, but now I'm starting to realize, I'm so lucky to be able to play this music, it's so amazing. And that's really what I've been bringing to the stage more and what I've been trying to make an important aspect about my playing, to bring the music to the audience and show them this amazing thing that we can do. I don't really have defined "values" as a musician, but as I grow, maybe I will.

Laurie: Or maybe it's just important to have them, I don't know how many other competitions make you ask those kinds of questions!

Alexandra: Exactly! And that's what I love about Sphinx, first of all, they're about promoting diversity and excellence in music. Sphinx has made that important to me - I'm so proud to be a minority musician. And Sphinx does make you look at what your values are as a musician and helps you define who you are.

Laurie: Tell me about other competitions you've participated in.

Alexandra: I haven't done a lot of international competitions. This past two weeks have been my competition weeks, I had three competitions, including Sphinx. I had one right before the Sphinx, the Blount-Slawson Competition in Alabama. That's actually a great competition in Alabama, they have great prizes for the winners and the level gets higher and higher every year. This year it was amazing, to see the level. I actually won third, so I'm really happy. I was playing Prokofiev. That was right before Sphinx. Then I had a local competition in Chicago, and I won that, so I'll be playing the whole Prokofiev Concerto No. 2 with the Ars Viva Symphony Orchestra here in Chicago. It's actually comprised of a lot of Chicago Symphony members, so that will be really exciting.

Laurie: How does a young person find all these competitions, how does one get on that circuit?

Alexandra: It definitely requires a...Mom! to do all the research and spend hours on the Internet. It also helps to know the orchestras in the area, because they usually always have a concerto competition. Those are usually the best competitions to do since you usually have an opportunity to play with the orchestra. I also ask my teacher, because she gets e-mails from competitions, asking for participants.

Laurie: It almost sounds like you like competitions! Do you like competitions?

Alexandra: I used to be nervous, doing competitions. I always told my mom, performances are so much easier for me than competitions, where you can feel the direct competition with other violinists. But now I'm looking at competitions more as performance opportunities. Your aren't just playing for the prize, but you get to play for renowned musicians....So I'm more relaxed about competitions now.

Laurie: I wondered about your mindset, I noticed that you really took control of the situation. What that intentional, is that something you've learned?

Alexandra: It's definitely something I have learned. I guess that's what I'm talking about, when I say that I'm trying to look at it more as a performance opportunity. Instead of going into a competition being humble and trying to be nice to the judges, I look at it as more the opportunity to present myself. When I was preparing for the semi-finals at Sphinx, first of all, I made sure I was very prepared. I felt I was super-prepared in my Mozart, but my Bach, I was a little nervous about because I wasn't expecting them to hear the whole second movement. I was shocked when they did not stop me! But... anything can happen. They could ask for any part of the piece. So this is literally a performance. That's what I was thinking about during the whole semi-final round: Anything could happen. There was seven of us, and they can only choose three. Who knows how they could judge. All I could do was give my best and give a good presentation as well. For me, stage presence is really important because it gets people in the mood; it gets them in the mindset of listening to you and listening to your music. It's almost like reading the program notes before a piece you don't know – you have to prepare people.

Laurie: And how do you do that? How do things shift for you to be able to get into that stage-presence state of mind?

Alexandra: I think about the piece, definitely. For the (William Grant) Still piece ("Here's One,") which was so soulful. I was thinking of the lyrics. That piece is actually a transcription from a song that Still wrote. So I was thinking of the lyrics -- he was talking about finding God and being closer to God. Then having to switch to Bach – Bach can be similar – just from an earlier period. It's kind of easy to do that transition from Still to Bach. But going to Mozart, which is so much brighter, I didn't want to appear coming out sleepy from Bach. I was trying to get myself excited without getting too nervous. So it's imagery, and feeling the emotion before you play..

Laurie: It seems like you were really intentional with the order you played them in.

Alexandra: Yes, definitely. At first I was going to play my Mozart concerto first, but I consulted with my teacher, and she said she thought it would be best to end on a high note, ending on the cadenza and the flashy concerto...And I always like doing Bach in the middle. I don't like to start with anything unaccompanied and I don't like to end with anything unaccompanied.

Laurie: What violin you were playing?

Alexandra: I was actually playing my teacher's violin, Almita Vamos' violin, and she plays on a Guadagnini. I was so lucky to be able to have the opportunity to do that. I don't know how to describe it, but it taught me a lot I'm back with my old violin and my old bow, and I'm playing it differently. I'm playing it like it's an amazing Guadagnini!

Laurie: How much time did you get together with that Guad?

Alexandra: I got to play on it from about November until the competition. I live right across the street from (Almita). I go over every day and practice there, because she's usually gone, teaching at Northwestern. So I had a lot of time on it, it was really nice.

Laurie: How long have you been taking from Almita Vamos?

Alexandra: ...and Roland, I study with both of them.

Laurie: The Vami.

Alexandra: (She laughs) I actually moved (to Chicago) this fall, I started this semester. I studied with her over the summer at Chautauqua, and then I became a student of the Music Institute of Chicago and I moved in in September.

Laurie: How has that changed things for you? What are the Vamoses like?

Alexandra: They're so amazing. Mrs. Vamos works on mainly your pieces with you, and Mr. Vamos takes care of the Paganini Caprices, scales and the exercises. At first, that seemed a little separated to me, separating the nitty-gritty and the pieces. But actually I am glad that I have somebody to listen to my scales and to keep me accountable every single week....I used to do scales, but since I didn't have to play them for anybody, I didn't really do them. With my previous teacher I would do Caprices, and pieces, and Bach, and all of this...sometimes we wouldn't even get to the Caprices. And now I'm literally covering a Caprice every week. It's so great for the technique, and it's so necessary.

Laurie: Do you have two lessons a week, then?

Alexandra: Yes, one with Mr. and one with Mrs. It's truly amazing.

Laurie: How did you decide to play Rachel Barton Pine's Mozart cadenza at the competition? It was a very cool cadenza. (Rachel has talked with Violinist.com in the past about writing those cadenzas.)

Alexandra: I didn't even know about it! Rachel was coming over for dinner one night (at the Vamoses).... so Mrs. Vamos said, 'Oh, you can play your Sphinx repertoire, your Bach, your Mozart'... then two nights before Rachel came over, Mrs. Vamos called me over and she said, 'Rachel wrote a cadenza, you need to play it!'

Laurie: No pressure there....

Alexandra: No pressure at all! (She laughs) So she made me learn the cadenza and play it for her, and then she realized, it's a great cadenza! It's cute, it's original, it's flashy. So I got coaching with Rachel on it, and I decided to use it for the competition, because I thought it would be a cool twist.

Laurie: It really was. It was a showstopper.

Alexandra: It helped make the Mozart my own. Even though I didn't compose the cadenza – it made it feel unique, original. It was really fun. She had composed it in 2006, and Rachel said she had never heard anyone else play it. So this was a premiere, of sorts!

Laurie: It's neat for her, too, because a lot of people got to hear it. I hope people pick it up. She wrote a lot of other cadenzas, too, there's a whole treasure trove to open, there. I think she needs to keep writing, too. Clearly!

Do you have any new perspectives after winning the Sphinx?

Alexandra: The night of the finals competition, my family stopped at a Starbucks, and the lady who worked at the cash register saw my violin and said, 'Oh! Is that a violin?' It was a funny violin case, so I didn't expect people to recognize it, and so I said, 'Oh yes, it is.' She said, 'My daughter is 10 years old, and she just started. She really likes it!' So I started talking with her. I felt so inspired by Sphinx, and hearing all those lectures on how we really need to educate in the school. I told her, 'Tell her to just keep it up, even if she's getting bored with it...tell her to learn as much as she can. Because she'll always love music, for the rest of her life.' I guess that's what I'm really hoping to do, what I'm hoping to inspire in kids. Because of Sphinx, I'm pumped to go out and help educate and help inspire. I hope to do that more, through Sphinx and all of these opportunities.


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Violinist.com Interview with Violist Paul Laraia, 2011 Sphinx Competition Senior Division Winner

February 16, 2011 13:17

Violist Paul Laraia, 21, has come a long way, from the sink-or-swim public school program where he first picked up the violin to winning the 2011 Sphinx Competition's Senior Division earlier this month in Detroit.

Paul is originally from South Jersey and is now in his fourth year at the New England Conservatory. He was one of the few kids in his elementary school with the kind of persistence and natural ability to find a path for himself in music and follow it.


Paul Laraia
Paul Laraia, photo by Glenn Triest

Laurie: What made you start playing the viola?

Paul: I started on violin, in an elementary school program where everybody gets their own violin and plays along with a CD. As long as you have a good ear, you can just fake whether or not you're reading the music, so I didn't learn how to read music until sixth grade.

It was one of those programs that starts with about 300 kids, then by fifth grade, there were three of us left. I was the only one that made it on to our middle school program. Our middle school system has a lot of elementary schools that pour into it, so there were enough violinists for a sixth-grade orchestra. But there were no violists. So my school director, who was a violist herself, convinced me that viola would be the way to get ahead.

My little brother, Steve, who is two years younger than me, started played viola. And it's really funny, now we both play viola, and he's a sophomore at NEC, too. I'm a senior. He's kind of been following in my shadows, usually doing a little bit better than how I was doing at his age! And we have a younger sister who is 16, she plays the viola, too.

Laurie: A whole family of violists! This lady must have said something really convincing, to make you convert. What was it? It had to be a little bit more than that you would get ahead.

Paul: You're right.

I was really interested in getting into this all-South Jersey program in sixth grade, and I'd never had a single private lesson in my life. My mom, being a musical muggle, and I – neither of us knew exactly what it took to get into that orchestra. We just thought, I sound good, so I should be able to get into this. I started taking lessons with high school students – $8 lessons – and started to figure out what it takes in order to get into a program like that. Basically, my teacher convinced me that I would have a much better shot, getting in on viola.

Laurie: Did you get in?

Paul: The very first year that I wanted to do it, the audition was only a couple of weeks away. I crunched really hard with my first few lessons. My teacher said, 'So you know third position, right?' And I asked, 'What's that?' And then my teacher said, 'Maybe we'll start on vibrato,' and – you can't start vibrato in a week. So I gracefully gave up on that year, with the idea that I would work really hard and try again next year.

Then my high school student-teacher recommended me to his teacher, she was Byrnina Socolofsky. She's in her 90s and she's still going strong with a studio of 30 or 40 students, all extremely successful. She was one of the first women conductors of the local university; she's very well-respected in our area. So I studied with her. She was kind of reluctant, though. She knew that I had a good ear, but I didn't play in tune, I never used my fourth finger.

Laurie: And how long had you been playing at this point?

Paul: I'd been playing for three years, on my own, through the school, and I'd just switched to viola. My school teacher had given me a piece of paper and said, 'Learn alto clef.'

Laurie: What did you learn from Byrnina?

Paul: I learned how to play. I just didn't know how to play before. Through my school program, I'd been left on my own to learn how to hold the bow. They told you to hold the bow like a fox (he holds his right-hand fingers straight, pinching the thumb against the middle fingers) This is how I was holding the bow, and holding the violin like this (slumped) . I was bowing so crooked, and my staccato sounded like 'ck ck' but I thought I was so cool because I could do staccato. (He laughs.) I never liked using fourth finger. It was so awkward and there's an open string for that, why would I ever use fourth finger? So she just taught me everything. She taught me all my fundamentals on shifting and the positions – I went through each position. She taught me the importance of studies and scales – I learned all my scales with her.

She taught me my basic love of music, also. She wasn't very opinionated when it came to the way that you would take liberties in a piece, but she definitely knew when you weren't doing enough. She would say, 'Well, don't you want to do more?' She was extremely inspiring, and I'm sure there are hundreds of people you could find around South Jersey who would say the same.

Laurie: Did she teach you how to read music, too?

Paul: Yes. Obviously I knew, theoretically, how to read music in my first three years. But she had me make these flash cards, and she really forced me to read it like a language. That's priceless. That really influenced my sight-reading skills, and that influences the way you practice and learn music. To this day, I pride myself on being a good sight-reader. A lot of people are afraid to go there, but give me something hard, and I'll try it.

Laurie: So you got into that district orchestra the next year?

Paul: I got first chair!

Laurie: You worked hard!

Paul: When I took the audition, honestly, I didn't even know I was going to get in, I was so nervous. Then the next morning, they put the results up online. I woke up at the crack of dawn. My parents had seen the results first. They came into the room, and they were faking me out. They made this serious face...then they said, 'First chair, maybe!' It really blew me away.

Laurie: So did you do a lot of orchestra playing after that?

Paul: Yes, I got second chair in All-State that same year, and then the next year I got first chair in All-State. I guess that's how I kept feeding myself, by taking regional orchestra auditions and doing better and better. Then I started branching out and doing chamber music... I started moving into (the) Philadelphia (scene), which opened up a whole new level to me.

I was kind of following in the footsteps of my first teacher, the one who was a high school student. His name was Will Fenton. He's a Juilliard grad student now; I think he's graduating this year. But he also studied with Kim (Kashkashian) for his undergrad. He's three years older than me, but I've kind of been following in his footsteps. I would hear about a program that he had done before in Philadelphia, and I would check it out. We didn't necessarily maintain very close contact with each other, but ...

Laurie: It sounds like he was sort of a role model.

Paul: Yes, he was a role model, for a long time. To tell you the truth, that's what turned me on to New England Conservatory (NEC), finding out that he chose to go to NEC and hearing other good things about it. Before that, I lived in this narrow little scope, with the idea that Curtis (Institute) was the only possible way to become a top-level musician. I finally learned that there's more than the reputation of a school. NEC is a true testament to the fact that an inspirational work environment can be just as beneficial for musical training as just being surrounded by other amazing people.

Laurie: What do you mean by an inspirational environment, what makes it inspirational?

Paul: The faculty, at least all that I've been exposed to, shares a common passion for music. The reason they play at a high level is for the music's sake, not just for the sake of getting a job – or for even for becoming a better instrumentalist. NEC has a huge chamber music focus, and most of the faculty are famous chamber players, with a couple soloists and a couple orchestra players. Paul Katz, Donald Weilerstein and Roger Tapping have all been huge influences on me through my quartet, and I was able to coach with all of them. Also, being able to do Yellow Barn Festival: Being able to work with them more in-depth and play chamber music with them.

Of course, I love Curtis, I love Philadelphia and all my teachers after Byrnina were Curtis alumni and members of the Philadelphia Orchestra. I still believe in Rachmaninov's quote, which was something like, "The Philadelphia Orchestra is the sound that I hear, the perfect sound of music." But I'm not stuck on the viewpoint that Curtis was the only way to the top. Music is a lot more than mastering your instrument; it's about the kind of person you are. NEC has been a really great place to absorb that, without even being told. At least for me.

Laurie: How did doing the Sphinx last year influence your direction, or did it? This was your second time around, what was that like, the first time around?

Paul: The Sphinx is unlike any other competition. I've done a couple of chamber music competitions like Fischoff and TROMP with my string quartets, and obviously this competition has a whole other mission. Even if I hadn't made finals last year or won this year, this would have been an awesome experience.

Laurie: In what way?

Paul: It's an amazing, friendly, family environment, that's number one. It really took me my time at the competition and my time with the Sphinx chamber orchestra in October to get comfortable and understand that it is like a family here. It feels like all of us friends are getting back together and celebrating. I don't imagine a lot of other competitions are like that.

Then on top of it, you have the competition. But once the Thursday competition is over, it becomes really friendly. Actually it starts out friendly, but everybody has to keep their game faces on because you really want to make it. Then once the results are out, there's really no hard feelings. You get immediate feedback from the judges, and you also have masterclasses. It becomes a fully engaging experience, not just a competition. From my understanding, the way most competitions work is that if you lose in the first round, you buy your plane ticket so you can go back home and practice for your recital or whatever that's coming up. Here, you're in for a lot more than just the competition.

Laurie: At this competition, when you go back and listen to everybody else, what does that do for you?

Paul: There's an element of pride. When I was listening to (other Senior Division competitors performa at) the honors concert today, I was really genuinely happy for all three, because I thought they did a lot of great things.

Laurie: What do you feel you learned about your own playing and your own wishes for your own career from the experience?

Paul: Last year, I learned a lot from the comment sheets that I received at the end, after the final competition. Even though the judges were different this year, I used those comments and applied them this year, and I think it made a difference. It's nice to have the really broad perspective you get from the judges. You have a 6- to 8-member jury covering every facet that a string player would want: a conductor, a composer, a cello perspective, sometimes bass, violin...And a lot of these people are world-class, super-famous. You know they're coming to something like this for all the right reasons. They're not coming because of the big paycheck. They're coming because they believe in the mission. They're really there to help you. Having a really broad perspective like that is invaluable. Even if you have the best teacher in the world, one teacher can't give you a broad perspective that eight people who are really engaged in the musical world can give you.

You never know where you're going to end up in music, especially in this day, so it's really nice to have every angle covered. And when every angle starts zeroing in on a few common themes, you know you've got to work on those! (He laughs.) That's what I worked on, and I think that's what really helped in my first round of this performance.

Laurie: Did you learn anything more about what you want to do with music?

Paul: I'm just really grateful for the opportunities that I'm going to have. Even if I don't end up being a soloists – how many viola soloists are there? I don't really care where I end up, I'm just going to try to take full advantage of these opportunities. There are going to be some incredible memories, as long as I work hard and prepare my materials, and if more good things come, then I'll be grateful.

Laurie: How much did you have to practice for this competition?

Paul: This year I wasn't only practicing for the competition, but I also had my grad school auditions, and I just had my senior recital a week or two ago. I just made sure all my repertoire overlapped.

In my ideal world, I like to practice six or seven hours a day, and sometimes I accomplish that. Sometimes I accomplish that for many weeks at a time, if I'm devoted to that mindset. My teacher feels that it's pointless to practice more than five hours. Physically, it's just going to hurt you if you practice more than five hours. So five hours is the limit, even though my teacher says, if you take it slow and if you think your body can handle it, you can try to aim for six.

You have to spend a large portion of your practice not just sustaining the technical things you know and your security with the instrument, but you are constantly trying to enhance it. That's in addition to trying to learn repertoire. That's why so much time is necessary. When you're preparing for something like this, where preparation is really key, you need a lot of time. But at the same time, when you're on stage and when the nerves kick in and when your world starts crashing on you, the foundation that you laid for yourself in those other hours of practice is what saves you.


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Sphinx Competition 2011: Masterclass with Pamela Frank

February 10, 2011 14:04

"Not every 'f' means loud, couldn't this 'f' stand for 'fun'?"

This was one question posed to a Sphinx Competition participant Saturday in a masterclass by Pamela Frank, concert violinist and violin professor at both Curtis Institute and the Peabody Conservatory. The masterclass was held in downtown Detroit's Courtyard Hotel.


Brendon and Pam

I strongly suspect that the "f" in "Pamela Frank" also stands for "fun" -- not that Pamela was all fun and games. But she certainly brought enthusiasm to harmonic analysis, as well as a wonderful ability to help students bridge the gap between technique and expression. It's gap that can grow wide in the development of upper-level technique, when so many hours get devoted to acquiring technique itself.

For example, a lot of us only dream of being able to get our fingers around the wickedly technical Violin Concerto No. 1 by Paganini, the piece that Brendon, 16, of Newport News, Va., played for Pamela. But since he had the piece in his fingers, Pamela wanted a lot more.

"If I played that well, I would have a lot more fun then you are having," Pamela said.

She started by asking Brendon to characterize the piece, how does it begin? "If you can't describe it, you can't play it."

They agreed on "happy crazy" for the opening. How does this translate to violin-playing? Crazy can be free, released.

"Free in every way: the sound and the rhythm," she said. Anything but strict, metered time. When the orchestra part is free underneath you, that is carte blanche to play around with the rhythm.

"All that technique, could you use it for good and not evil?" she joked. "Play that arpeggio totally free, that's what you practiced so much for. That said, freedom has to be practiced, too. Play it 10 times differently, every day."

And happy? She asked for a smile, "How about some teeth?" She kept saying silly things until he laughed, then had him play while he was laughing. She also kept poking him with her bow when he got too serious.

"Did anyone hear the sound, was it different?" she asked the audience. It was: freer.

They decided that another section sounded "frustrated." And how does that translate into violin-playing? Tight, fast, dense; or, slow bow, fast vibrato, more pressure.

Another part of it sounded like "love."

"Could you not stare at your left hand and stare it into submission?" Pamela requested. "When you practice, please practice communicating, instead of just playing." Communication has to happen between people. Play for someone.

Then came the passage that I would characterize as "really fast impossible double-stop thirds." Brendon and Pamela agreed that this should sound "playful."

"When you have a difficult technical passage, eliminate when is technical and just play it," she advised. In other words, to get a feel for the flow of the whole thing and to start getting the character, try it without the thirds, or without whatever causes the barrier. "You have to de-etude passagework -- every passage is a melody."

She had him try it without the double-stops, aiming for a feeling of playfulness. Then, she had him try the same passage with the double stops restored, trying to keep the overall musical idea the same.

"You don't save the musicality for the concert," she said, "you have to practice it."

Similarly, you don't save the harmonic analysis for the concert. The two other participants played unaccompanied Bach.

"Bach is not instrument-specific," Pamela told Scott, 24, of Cincinnati, Ohio, who played the Largo from Bach's Sonata No. 3 in C major. (Suzuki students, the third piece in Book 8 is a simplified version of this piece). Bach Sonatas and Partitas, though they were written for solo violin, sound good on marimba, guitar -- just about anything. "It's not about what the one instrument can do, it's about harmony and counterpoint."

She asked what he felt that Bach wanted to communicate. When he started to answer, "Not…" She corrected him.

"I can't work in 'not this' and 'not that,'" she said. "You can't go on stage and 'not play' this or that."

First you need a mood, an atmosphere. Then you find a way to make it physically happen. They agreed that the prevailing feeling of this movement was reflective, calm.

Is a super-fast, continuous vibrato calm? No. "Indiscriminate vibrato makes you sound nervous, agitated. Vibrato cannot be a good or bad habit. Vibrato is phrasing."

"I'm not a vegetarian, I'm not recommending not vibrating," but as an exercise, she had him try the movement with no vibrato. It sounded very good.

In Bach, harmony and dissonance dictates the phrase, with emphasis on dissonance.

"If you can't find the end of your phrase, find a cadence and work backwards," Pamela said. "You have to make a sentence. A phrase is a sentence."

And if you are going to a note, do a little rushing and crescendo, but don't just sit on the note to which you are going. "Sitting on the note you are going to isn't going to it," Pamela said. You have to earn sitting on it.

She also got on his case for emphasizing a harmonically unimportant "F." (last beat of m. 3 I believe).

"I just really like that F," he explained.

"Well, just prioritize your liking!" Pamela said. "Don't give me a false arrival -- pass through anything that's on the way. Harmony is the only guide in this music." Any other effects -- sliding, the use of vibrato, amount of bow, dynamics -- should serve the harmony, in Bach.

Next was Mariana, 18, of Norristown, Pa., who played the Chaconne from the Bach D minor Partita. Pamela wanted Mariana to prioritize beats in this dance movement, which has its emphasis on the second beat of every measure.

"You often play three equal beats," she said. She then had Mariana do some dancing, the dip-step-step of a waltz -- another dance that is in three. Are the beats equal? No, all three have their own length. The dip of the first beat, then beat two is up on the toes, and beat three leads into back into beat one. Similarly, the beats in a Chaconne will not be equal, and dynamics and distortion of time help the performer illustrate the nature of this dance music.

"Could you go to the longer note, where the Chaconne lives, on the second beat?" she said.

Pamela suggested using the back of the Galamian edition of the Sonatas and Partitas, which contains Bach's handwritten manuscript.

"Play the back of the book," Pamela said. "Please do not break up the slurs if the Man put them in."

She advised emphasizing slurs and also playing away from Ds. "I personally play away from the Ds -- you often sit, vibrate and go to coffee on the Ds…" Try a Baroque bow, see what that does.

And a last piece of advice…

"You need to go dancing!"


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Sphinx Competition 2011: Masterclass with Violist Michael Tree

February 10, 2011 13:00

As part of the Sphinx Competition last week in Detroit, participants had the opportunity to take masterclasses with members of the jury. On Saturday, two violists and a violinists played for violist Michael Tree, who is a professor at The Juilliard School and Curtis Institute and founding member of the Guarneri Quartet.

Pamela Frank and Robert Tree

Sphinx jury members Pamela Frank and Michael Tree

He spoke of the importance of being able to control one's vibrato.

"The test of a successful vibrato is that there are not gaps in the middle of notes," Tree said. "It should be even, from note to note, unless we decide otherwise." Discomfort, inconvenience or the presence of shift are not excuses to stop vibrating. "Senza," or no vibrato, can be a nice effect for a moody, distant quality, but it should be intentional. "If one fourth finger has no vibrato, suddenly, for no reason, that's hard to rationalize."

While vibrato should not be overdone in something like Bach, "I'd ask for a single drop of oil on each note."

Also, some words of wisdom on glissandi:

"Nothing is more beautiful than a glissando in the right place, at the right time, but if we surround that glissando with a lot of shifts -- which we will call transportation -- it gets predictable, and even boring," Tree said. In other words, if every shift has a slide, then none of the slides will be effective or special as used for musical expression.

He also advocated fingerings that use extensions, contractions and crawling up and down the fingerboard, to avoid overly-frequent and disruptive shifting. He demonstrated a four-octave arpeggio, on the viola, with not one shift.

"When you multiply a situation like this 100 or more times, it's a cleaner way of playing," he said. "These fingerings almost never appear in print -- they look odd on paper."

But he said "be very skeptical of what you see printed." Many times, printed fingerings are a reflection of 19th-century ways of playing -- they are old-fashioned.

In working on the Walton viola concerto with Michael, 19, of Philadelphia, he emphasized that "our responsibility as players is to present our listeners with a clear idea of the music -- where the bar line is," Tree said. Our own familiarity with the music can get in the way. "The poor listener is often left with no particular grasp of the structure or the bar lines. The listener deserves to know where the strong beats are. You can't be too cavalier about rhythm."

He showed Michael a substitution fingering for an octave passage, crawling down the fingerboard and using substitutions and extensions.

"Wow," said Michael.

"I'm getting away with murder, getting from here to her without a shift," Tree said. "I think there's something almost immoral about what I'm doing! But there is no point in working harder than we have to. I listen to maybe 50 Walton concertos a year -- I can say I seldom find fingerings I would consider modern." 

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Augustin Hadelich talks about 'Echoes of Paris'

February 8, 2011 13:25

Today is the official CD release of Augustin Hadelich's new recording, Echoes of Paris, which was released digitally about a month ago.

This was a good excuse to chat with Augustin once again and see how he's doing, now that he has a new recording and a new fiddle. (This fall he returned the Gingold Strad to the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. He now is using the "Kiesewetter" Stradivari of 1723, through The Stradivari Society.)

Augustin Hadelich

For the new recording, in collaboration with pianist Robert Kulek, Hadelich performed with the Gingold Strad. The CD contains Francis Poulenc's Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 119;  Igor Stravinsky's lesser-played "Pulcinella" suite called "Suite After Themes, Fragments And Pieces By Giambattista Pergolesi"; Claude Debussy's Sonata for Violin and Piano in G minor and Sergei Prokofiev's Sonata No. 2 For Violin And Piano In D Major, Op. 94b (originally for flute). 

"I really enjoy these pieces and thought that they fit really well together," said Hadelich, speaking over the phone from his home in New York last month. "That is what I started out with. And then it occurred to me later that all these composers have strong relationships with the city of Paris." "I thought a little bit more and realized that you can hear how they influence each other. You can hear a little bit of Debussy in Stravinsky and Poulenc… They were all in Paris at some point, going to each other's concerts. They would all show up to premieres of other composers' newest works… They didn't necessarily they all like each other; they were very critical of each other sometimes. Nevertheless, you can hear a general influence."

"In Poulenc's case, he was very influenced by Stravinsky, the percussiveness in the writing," Hadelich said. "That comes out in the percussive opening of the violin sonata."

Poulenc was very critical of his second violin sonata, which was written as a tribute to the Spanish poet, Federico García Lorca, who was executed in 1936 by the fascist government in Spain.

"He was a very self-deprecating person, really self-critical," Augustin said. "I think he was torturing himself about the form of it, which is unusual and a little bit strange. Sometimes his music can be a little fragmented. But actually I like it, it makes the sonata very unique. I like the sudden changes, the sudden back and forth between these incredibly contrasting elements, this really aggressive, percussive writing and that sort of cheesy salon music – there's a lot of contrast in this piece, it's extremely exciting."

When it comes to the Stravinsky piece that is based on his ballet, Pulcinella, violinists tend to know the Suite Italienne, which was transcribed in 1932 by the violinist Samuel Dushkin. For this recording, Hadelich and Kulek perform a 1925 version, made by Stravinsky in collaboration with the violinist Paul Kochanski.

"I played 'Suite Italienne' a lot, but then I suddenly stumbled upon this earlier version," Augustin said. "I decided that it's more authentic, it's more Stravinsky. In the other version, sometimes it doesn't really sound as though you're playing Stravinsky because they took so many of the dissonances out. It's no longer really neoclassical; it just becomes sort of classical. The later one is also very beautiful, but this one is a little quirkier and much more similar to the orchestral version. I also think that the two instruments are a lot more equal than in the earlier one. The violin doesn't have the theme all the time, there's a little more switching back and forth. It's also much more difficult."

"There are some movements in particular that are much more interesting," Hadelich said. "The second movement, the Serenata, has a lot more interesting colors and effects, and then the second variation of the Gavotte, the fourth movement, is longer and the writing is a little bit more imaginative. It sounds a little like a music box -- the piano is playing very high and the violin has harmonics. It's a really magical passage, and it goes on longer than in the later version...it became one of my favorite parts. "

The Prokofiev flute-gone-violin sonata is actually one of my personal favorites, and after seeing Augustin perform it live in LA a few years ago, I was inspired to dust it off and play it again myself!

So how are things going, with that new Strad?

"I'm really enjoying it," Hadelich said. "The old one was always really wonderful for recordings because it has such a beautiful sound, but I think the new one has that sound, too, and in the concert setting it's quite a bit more powerful. It's been easier with certain pieces, such as large dramatic concerti like the Brahms concerto. Also, it just has a really gorgeous sound. It's little bit brighter than the other one, but I think actually it fits my playing a little better. It's less temperamental with the travel, which makes everything easier. The other one would sort of sound bad for two days until it recovered, whenever I would travel. It really was temperamental. With this one, I can hear the slight difference when I've traveled, but it's basically immediately playable; it will sound quite good right away."

The "Keisewetter" is a little younger than the "Gingold" Strad, though Augustin doesn't believe that is the key factor.

"The 'Keisewetter' Strad was made 1723, as opposed to 1683, when the 'Gingold' Strad was made. It's still very old. I don't think it's the age, it's more the pattern," Hadelich said. "Strad changed the pattern. This one is may be just a little more resilient and stable. I think his earlier instruments are a little bit more temperamental… When they have a good day, they sound amazing. But very often they will have a bad day, and then you really have to work twice as hard."

* * *

This is not a piece on the new album, but it seemed nice for mid-winter, Ysaÿe's Sonata No. 5 in G Major, "L'Aurore.":

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Sphinx Competition 2011: Violinist Alexandra Switala wins first place Junior Division

February 7, 2011 19:15

The Sphinx Competition came to a close on Sunday night with a Finals Concert and announcement of its Junior Division winner, violinist Alexandra Switala, 16, of Grapevine, TX.

Alexandra, leaving the stage

Alexandra Switala, after performing at the Finals Concert

The second-place laureate was bassist Xavier Foley, 16, of Marietta, GA and the third-place laureate was Annelle Gregory, 15, of San Diego, CA.

The Senior Division first-place laureate, violist Paul Laraia of Boston, had already been named on Thursday, when he was named the only finalist. Sunday's concert was to have featured three Senior Division finalists who would have been competing for first place.

Instead, Laraia performed as the already-named Senior Division winner, and the three younger Junior Division finalists vied for first place in front of an audience of about 1,200 at Detroit's Orchestra Hall.

The concert began with Annelle Gregory playing the first movement of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major. I appreciated the good clean introduction played by the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra -- Mozart is no throw-together affair. The highlight was Annelle's elegantly-played Joachim cadenza. It's hard to make this oft-played cadenza sound spontaneous and original, but she pulled it off, with good pacing that made room for both high-speed runs and moments of time and space.

Next up was Xavier Foley, performing the third movement of Dittersdorf's Concerto for Double Bass in E Major, which he did with great energy and a well-paced accelerando at the end that had the audience cheering and bringing him out for more applause.

Alexandra Switala was truly in character for her Mozart Concerto No. 5. On Saturday, jury member Pam Frank had suggested in a master class that the character of the music should show in a performer's face, and Switala seemed to take this to heart. It was fun to see her out-of-the-ordinary bowings (for example, starting the Allegro aperto up-bow!) and her connection with the orchestra. As she had done on Thursday, she played Rachel Barton Pine's cadenza, and it was a big hit.

Next came a performance of the intense and aggressive first movement of Ginastera's String Quartet No. 2, Op. 26 by the Catalyst Quartet, comprised of Sphinx Competition laureates and alumnni Bryan Hernandez-Luch, violin; Karla Donehew Perez, violin; Chris Jenkins, viola; and Karlos Rodriguez, cello.

Senior Division first-place laureate Paul Laraia played the second-movement "Vivo" from the Walton viola concerto. He had mentioned to me that without the pressure of having to compete, he would simply go out and have fun, which looked like exactly what he was doing. And it's fun to watch someone having fun! He seemed to ride the wave of asymmetrical rhythms, with a clear projecting sound, and he had good support from the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra's brass section.

Then came the presentation of awards. 


L to R: Paul Laraia, Annelle Gregory, Alexandra Switala, Xavier Foley, and Sphinx founder Aaron Dworkin 

As the Senior Division first-prize winner, Laraia will receive a $10,000 cash prize, solo appearances with major orchestras, and a professional recording through the Naxos label. This year there were no second and third place, but Senior Achievement awards of $2,500 went to two participants, Maia Cabeza and Josue Gonzalez; and a Gold Achievement award of $4,000 went to Michael Casimir. Junior first-prize winner Alexandra Switala will receive a $5,000 cash prize, solo appearances with major orchestras, and a national radio debut on From the Top. All 18 semi-finalists will receive a scholarship to a summer program this year, and other awards and prizes are listed here.

To conclude, the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra performed the larger-than-life Finale from a work commissioned by the Sphinx Organization, Sinfonia No. 4 by Roberto Sierra. It's a big, noisy piece of music, in the way that a happy family is big and noisy. No instrument is left out, everyone has a busy part, including a lot of brass. Earlier in the week the Puerto Rican composer said that when he writes a piece "it's infused with my nature. When I talk, I have an accent, and in my music, I have an accent. It's always there." And indeed, right away that accent came through, in the punctuation by the marimba, the very active harp, and in the way that something was always poking through the texture. My only regret was not being able to hear this movement in the context of the entire symphony. The performance received a long standing ovation.

* * *

Throughout the week, Sphinx administrators talked a lot about the "importance of partnerships" and they walked the walk, as well. The final concert program contains a chart of the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra, listing a sponsor for nearly every single chair. Take a look:

Sphinx program

The part in black names the sponsor, and if you'll notice, nearly every chair is sponsored. In addition to these "Musical Chair" sponsors, the program listed more than 300 more sponsors for Sphinx -- much of them coming from the Detroit area, one of the most economically hard-hit areas in this Great Recession.

Throughout the week, members of the Sphinx Symphony as well as Sphinx competitors were asked to hand-write thank-you notes to sponsors, a task they took quite seriously. I can't help but think that drawing attention to the sponsors will help cultivate an awareness that not only do musicians need to take opportunities seriously, but they also need to create opportunities and nurture relationships that support classical music. That's a good lesson for all of us.

* * * 

Later in the week we'll bring you interviews with the first-place laureates, and a write-up of masterclasses with violinist Pamela Frank and violist Michael Tree.

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Sphinx Competition: Building a Life and Career in Music

February 5, 2011 14:00

What is the single most important factor in your success?

This was the kind of question posed on Friday to successful music professionals representing many facets of the industry at a panel discussion called "Musical Toolbox," meant to show Sphinx Competition participants what tools they need to be cultivating for a life and career in music.

And it went way beyond "Practice six hours a day."


Belen and Dworkin

2008 Sphinx Laureate Danielle Belen and Sphinx Founder and President Aaron Dworkin


The panelists certainly were the right people to ask: 2008 Sphinx Laureate Danielle Belen; EPCOR Centre for the Performing Arts CEO Johann Zietsman; conductor Kazem Abdullah; composer Roberto Sierra; violinist Sanford Allen, the first Black member of the New York Philharmonic; and violinist Pam Frank, Avery Fischer prize winner, performer and professor of violin at Curtis Institute and Peabody Conservatory.

How does a person achieve success as a musician? When a performing arts directory such as Musical America contains 50 performing artists' series on a single page, how does one stand out? How does one find a niche in this field?

"I think it's important to evaluate your relationship to music," said Pam Frank. "Find your individual voice and be true to it. Do not be influenced by what others tell you to do; do not be entranced by fame."

"I think success is also in the eye of the beholder," added Karem Abdullah. "The motivation can't be just financial, it has to be that you love music and you want to share your enthusiasm for it." You also can't take any opportunities for granted, he said. "You have to make the most of every opportunity."

"I love doing what I do; if I don't write for several days, I get nervous," said Roberto Sierra. His motivation to write doesn't disappear just because there is no project on the table, no commission to fill right now. It is a constant urge to compose.

Johann Zietsman, who grew up in South Africa, said his sense of how to make a career was deeply influenced by "being in the wrong place at the wrong time," a white person in apartheid, wanting to present black artists and serve black audience, despite the fact that it was actually illegal. "That still drives who I am, that sense of wanting to make the world a better place," he said. "It's that simple, and it's that difficult."

As musicians, trying to sell out a hall or sell a certain number of recordings, we become programmed to the idea that success is equal to more people liking you. But true success has to be on a deeper level; it comes of cultivating an inner artistic compass and sense of integrity that guides your decisions.

"The moment you respond to a creative impulse, what you create internally is of greater importance than what you create externally," Zietsman said.

Conductor Karem Abdullah said that learning to say "no" to certain projects was also part of cultivating artistic integrity. "I need to feel a connection to a composer's music to do it," he said. Sometimes he is asked to do projects that are ethnically based, and if they don't truly speak to him, he says no.

Being true to one's artistic impulse certainly is not always the easy path, even if it is the right one.

"I needed to play the fiddle, it was really that simple," said Sanford Allen, of his drive to play the violin despite the difficulty of being the first black musician in the New York Philharmonic. "I was tempted not to do it at times. I wanted to cut my head off sometimes! But that seemed a trifle drastic."

Danielle Belen said that while other violinists in music school might have been looking over each other's shoulders, seeing who was winning this competition and that, "I was looking at Mr. Lipsett," her teacher. His ability to transform students and complete involvement in their development inspired her to want to do the same. So, despite the fact that she actually won the Sphinx Competition in 2008 and loves performing, she still considers her calling to be teaching. Even if she were to win $1 million in a lottery, "I honestly could say, I would still want to teach, I enjoy it so much."

Certainly, there will be difficulties, even if one is sure about one's career decisions. Pamela Frank spoke of an accident that wiped away her ability to play, in one moment. "In that moment, you realize, you aren't what you do, you are what you are," she said. The accident forced her to transform herself, though not without a period of depression and difficulty. "I threw myself into music in a different way," becoming a teacher and channelling that desire to play through her students. "I think 'soloist' is not a career. You are either a musician, or you are not. What is success? It's gratitude, to be so grateful you have anything to do with music."

This is all wonderful philosophy, but let's get real. You have to practice! How much does a successful artist practice his or her craft?

"I'm a big believer in quality of work," Abdullah said. "There has to be a real purpose in what you are doing. If you are practicing a few minutes at a time, then texting.."

"You guys shouldn't even have your phone near you when you practice!" interjected Sphinx founder and president Aaron Dworkin.

"Don't spend one extra minute practicing something you already do well," Frank said. "It's important to practice honestly. If you feel yourself starting to fade, stop."

That said, a lot of practice is needed, especially in the beginning. Malcolm Gladwell's prescription of 10,000 hours' practice to reach a level of expertise does have merit.

As a student, "I really did need to practice about four hours a day to do all the exercises and learn new pieces," Belen said. Since then, she has become more efficient Still, "you need to be constantly teaching yourself," she said.

Dworkin took an informal poll of Sphinx participants and asked what careers interest them. Hands were raised for many different things: being a soloist, a teacher, chamber music performer, composer, conductor and arts administrator. Almost all of them said they don't want to do just one thing.

Sanford Allen advised getting "a really solid education; not just in your discipline, but in everything around it." That includes reading, writing, history.. (I'll personally throw in math.) Allen talked about teaching a music history class, which turned into a remedial writing class because the students had such poor written communication skills.

It's also important to meet people, build connections, and use them in a positive way, said Zietsman.

One Sphinx participant asked how we can build diverse audiences for classical music.

"I've realized that if you are a bunch of green people and you want to do something for red people, you'd better have some red people in the room when you are making plans," said Zietsman. It's surprising, he said, how many presenters will make such decisions without seeking out the help and advice of the audience they are trying to attract.

In building a career, it's also important to remember the Nike slogan, "Just do it." Belen spoke of building a studio, simply because she wanted to start teaching. Eventually, her experience and enthusiasm eventually helped lead to a teaching position at the Colburn School in Los Angeles.

"You just do it, whether someone has made the opportunity for you or not," Dworkin said, summing it up. "If not, you make the opportunity yourself."

* * *

A crescent moon hung over the Detroit River Friday at sunset, with Windsor, Ontario on one side of the river and Detroit on the other. Sphinx contestants, Sphinx Symphony Orchestra members and donors rode the glass elevators to the top of Detroit's Renaissance Center for a special dinner at the restaurant, Coach Insignia. The elevator climbed past every skyscraper in the city, allowing us the fullest scope of this beautiful scene. As we continued upward, I felt the sense that our little glass vessel would burst through the ceiling at any time and launch into the sky, as in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I hope those participating in the Sphinx get the same feeling -- about pursuing a career in classical music.


Sunset in Detroit

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Sphinx Competition Day 2: Violist Paul Laraia wins Senior Division, schedule changed

February 4, 2011 22:25

The Sphinx Competition jury announced today that violist Paul Laraia, 21, of Boston, is the winner in the Senior Division, for contestants ages 18 through 26.

Paul Laraia The jury was to have picked three finalists from among the nine semi-finalists who played on Thursday, but after long deliberations Thursday night they concluded that Paul was the only candidate that reached threshold of musical excellence required for the field, said Sphinx representative Alison Piech. The 2011 Sphinx Competition Jury includes Richard Aaron, Kazem Abdullah, Sanford Allen, Danielle Belen, Pamela Frank, Michael Tree and Astrid Schween.

"(The jurors) just thought (the other candidates) needed more work, and that is where we come in," Piech said. Part of the Sphinx mission is to provide the tools that young minority musicians need to succeed: access to instruments, summer programs, master classes, scholarships. "Because of our connections in the field, we are able to put them in touch with those who can help them."

As a result of this decision, the schedule for the competition was turned upside-down, a development which the young musicians handled with grace. Friday was to have seen the conclusion of the Junior Division of the competition (for contestants under age 18), with finalists giving an Honors Recital and a winner named at the end. 

Instead, the Junior Division finalists (Violinists Annelle Gregory and Alexandra Switala and bassist Xavier Foley) will have to wait until Sunday to perform and be placed.

On Friday, three contestants from the Senior Division, violinist Maia Cabeza, 18, of Philadelphia; violist Michael Casimir, 19, of Philadelphia, and cellist Josue Gonzalez, 23, of Cleveland were named recipients of "Senior Achievement Awards" (a $2,500 cash prize each) and competed for one "Gold Achievement Award" ($1,500 cash prize). Maia played the last movement of the Wieniawski Concerto, Michael played the second movement of the Walton Concerto and Josue played the third movement of the Lalo Concerto for Cello in D minor. The Gold Achievement Award went to violist Michael Casimir.

Senior Division winner Paul Laraia will received a $10,000 cash prize, solo appearances with major orchestras, and professional CD through Naxos label. He also will perform with the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra at the Finals Concert 2 p.m. Sunday at Orchestra Hall in Detroit. The junior division finalists will also perform and be ranked, and the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Michael Morgan, will play a new piece by composer Roberto Sierra.

We will feature a Violinist.com interview with Paul Laraia this weekend.

If there was some disappointment hanging in the air, there was also a great deal of energy for Friday's concert, as hundreds of schoolchildren filled the plush orange seats in the University of Michigan's Rackham Auditorium and the 40-some members of the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra gathered on stage. The orchestra includes Black and Latino musicians from all over the United States (including Violinist.com member Samuel Thompson, Internet friend for six years whom I finally met for the first time in person!)




Sphinx Orchestra

There were rough moments in this concert, but there were other moments worth remembering. The kids were noisy and raucous until the concert began, and yet they fell into a hush, listening to Josue Gonzalez's cello. What did they think, hearing the quirky rhythms of the Walton Concerto for the first time, played by Michael Casimir? And they bubbled over at Maia Cabeza's bouncy ending for the Wieniawski.

At least one message of the Sphinx Competition seems to be to keep moving forward and striving, whatever the barriers, whatever the setbacks. Keep performing, keep learning what an audience sees and hears. Learn to make it happen, learn to fool-proof your technique against nerves and mistakes. As composer Roberto Sierra told the contestants later in the day at a panel discussion, "The only people who get nowhere are the people who get off the road." Find your road, stay on it.



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Sphinx Competition 2011 Day 1: Junior Division Finalists, and a tour of SHAR

February 4, 2011 08:05

When I decided to attend the Sphinx Competition – in February, in Michigan – I knew I'd be in for some potentially nasty weather. But I didn't expect to be flying in the day after the snow event of the year. Even the Cleveland orchestra was stranded – they canceled their Chicago performance and crashed a chamber music party at a pizza joint in Ann Arbor.

Coming from sunny California, I somehow rode the back of the storm Wednesday, with my Southwest flight arriving at the Detroit airport not just on time, but a good 10 minutes before its scheduled time.

Thursday, watching the junior division contestants at the Sphinx Competition on a sunny day at the University of Michigan's beautiful Rackham Auditorium, I was glad I made the trip. If this competition is meant to draw a new group of young people and repertoire into the classical music fold, let me be the first to say, “Welcome!”

The morning contestants included Caitlin Adamson, 15, of Evanston, IL; Juan-Salvador Carrasco, 16, of Santa Monica, CA; Brendon Elliott, 16, of Newport News, VA; Xavier Foley, 16, of Marietta, GA; Annelle Gregory, 15, of San Diego, CA; Alexandra Switala, 16, of Grapevine, TX; Ray Trujillo, 15, of Elk Grove, CA; and Ade Williams, 13, of Chicago, IL. All contestants are of Black or Latino heritage.

Violinists each were required to play the first movement of Mozart Concerto No. 5, two contrasting movements from Bach Sonatas and Partitas, and “Here's One,” a piece by the African American composer William Grant Still.

Here are some of the highlights of the morning for me…

I greatly enjoyed violinist Annelle Gregory's “Here's One,” which started breathy, with subtle slides and gorgeous double stops. It had its decisive moments, good contrast, and it ended with grace.

Violinist Brandon Elliott played a stand-out Fuga from the Bach G minor Sonata; the piece played to his strengths; his ease with the chords and sense of contrast.

Bassist Xavier Foley, 16, played with complete immersion in each piece and an energy that outsized even his double bass.

Alexandra Switala took charge of her performance, starting with the Still piece. As she played the last movement of the Bach Sonata No. 2, I marveled at how a visually dull a page of straight 16th notes springs to life, and with so much character. She also played the Mozart 5 cadenza by Rachel Barton Pine, which makes delightful use of the first-movement material and was wonderful to hear for the first time.

I also noticed that both Ade Williams (who played the first and second movement of Bach's D minor Partita) and Alexandra used a lot of first-position and open strings in their Bach, and in both cases I liked it. The open strings give it more ring, and somehow this brings out the polyphony and weaves a stronger tonal thread through the piece.

At the end of the morning, the three finalists were Annelle Gregory, Xavier Foley and Alexandra Switala, with the achievement award going to Ray Trujillo. Congratulations to all the participants!

2011 Sphinx Competition Junior Finalists

The results of the senior division were a little more unusual; I was not there in the afternoon. More on that later today!

In the afternoon I stopped in at a place I've always wanted to see: Shar! Ever since I was a teenager, pouring over the Shar mail-order catalogue, gazing for months at the new “American” case that I eventually bought for my fiddle, I wondered about this magical place of string-supply treasure. It was even bigger and more amazing than I thought.

I came in through the showroom, where many people come to look at instruments, buy strings, and get repairs. I then met Hans Anderson, manager of the Shar Violin Shop; Val Jaskiewicz, Vice President of Merchandising; and Eric Hook, Vice President of Marketing, who gave me the back-room tour.

Laurie and the folks at Shar

About 115 employees work at Shar, which was founded in 1962 by Michael Avsharian. The company also has an "Apprentice Program" for recent college graduates, a year-long program in which they work on phones and in the showroom, go to trade shows, do a project of their own design and even get paid for a half-hour of their daily time on their instrument!

"These are players, we don't want them getting rusty!" said Val, a violinist himself.

Downstairs were more fiddles than I can possibly describe or number for you, and of varying quality, from inexpensive student sets to high-end fiddles. Shar gets a good number of its student violins from China, and much work goes into each one before they are ready to be sold. "Every instrument we get requires attention," Val said. For quality control, Shar set up a shop in Beijing about two years ago with about 20 people so that instruments can be made to Shar's specifications for set-up, varnish, final carving, etc.

When the instruments arrive, they must sit for a month just to acclimate to the difference between China's more humid environment and Michigan's. "If you do the set up on something that hasn't stopped moving, it lasts for only a few days," Jaskiewicz said. Cellos are set on racks and dated, to keep track of this time.

Huiming Amo

Luthiers such as Huimang Amo set up bridges make repairs. If an instrument is cracked or damaged in a way that a repair won't bring it to high enough standards, the instrument is rejected. Val and Eric showed me an entire wall of such instruments, and another wall of rejected bows!

Here is a bass stand they created for making repairs to basses. It swings up so that various angles can be reached, and when the bass is finished and they want to test the sound, they simply keep it on the contraption while drawing the bow across string.

Bass lift

In the climate-controlled room, these large ventilation tubes carry wood dust up and across the ceiling, outside.

Ventilation system

As Val and Eric took me through countless huge warehouses, they explained that before becoming home to thousands of stringed instruments and supplies, Shar's building actually housed a laser research lab that was attempting to create nuclear fusion. The most valuable instruments are kept in a room with walls of reinforced concrete, where they tested a laser (casting its beam all the way across the huge building, through a hole in the wall) to see if it could contain plasma suspended in that room! But now it houses fiddles from many different countries, waiting for restoration.

Shar carries more than 8,000 titles of sheet music, which go for rows and rows in one of the warehouses. There are stacks of boxes which contain 99 sets of Dominant strings. I felt like I was at Costco for Violin Goodies!

Last but not least, here is where everything at Shar gets shipped to the rest of the world:

Shar's shipping department

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Bringing you the Sphinx Competition this week on Violinist.com

February 1, 2011 16:16

Tomorrow I leave for the snow-swept American Midwest -- I will board a plane for Michigan, where I plan to bring you live coverage of the Sphinx Competition in Ann Arbor and Detroit.

What is the Sphinx? The Sphinx Organization was founded in 1996 to encourage Black and Latino participation in classical music. Its founder is Aaron P. Dworkin, a violinist and a graduate of Interlochen Arts Academy and the University of Michigan who more recently was nominated by President Obama to serve on the the National Council on the Arts.

The competition is held annually, with a junior division (under 18 years old) and senior division (ages 18-26). (Here's the application information, if you are curious) The competition will also include masterclasses and a panel discussion on preparing for a career in classical music, as well as the gathering of the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra, an orchestra of Black and Hispanic professional musicians from all over the United States (including Violinist.com member Samuel Thompson, at last we will meet in person!)

The Sphinx Symphony will play with the Junior Division finalists on Friday at noon EST in Ann Arbor (to be broadcast live on the Sphinx website) and with the Senior Division finalists on Sunday in Detroit. The Finals Concert will feature a performance of Roberto Sierra’s Sinfonia No. 4, a piece commissioned by the Sphinx Commissioning Consortium.

This year, the Sphinx semi-finalists range in age from 13 to 24, from nine states. Nine are violinists, four are violists, four are cellists, and one is a double bassist. The junior division semi-finalists are: Caitlin Adamson of Evanston, IL; Juan-Salvador Carrasco of Santa Monica, CA; Brendon Elliott of Newport News, VA; Xavier Foley of Marietta, GA; Annelle Gregory of San Diego, CA; Alexandra Switala of Grapevine, TX; Ray Trujillo of Elk Grove, CA; and Ade Williams of Chicago, IL. The senior division semi-finalists are: Maia Cabeza of Philadelphia, PA; Michael Casimir of Philadelphia, PA; Mariana Cottier-Bucco of Norristown, PA; Alexander Cox of Cleveland, OH; Josue Gonzalez of Cleveland, OH; Andrew Griffin of Houston, TX; Sheena Gutierrez of Miami, FL; Scott Jackson of Cincinnati, OH; Paul Laraia of Boston, MA; and Erica Snowden- Rodriguez of Cleveland, OH

The semi-finalists were drawn from application CDs and tapes submitted in the fall, with participation limited to current U.S. residents who are Black or Latino.

I'm looking forward to hearing these young artists, visiting with musicians in the Sphinx Symphony and watching this organization, which has become increasingly important the development of minority artists. I suspect the Sphinx has much to show us about artist development and outreach for everyone as well!


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More entries: January 2011

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