March 2011

Happy Birthday Dorothy DeLay!

March 31, 2011 10:00

People are celebrating the great violin teacher Dorothy DeLay, who taught so many violinists at Juilliard, and who would have been 94 today. Most particularly, maestro, Kurt Sassmannshaus, is making his Twitter debut by tweeting about her all this week.

He also made a video tribute to her:


As did Philippe Quint: 


Happy Birthday Dorothy DeLay!

4 replies | Archive link

Rebecca Black vs. the Internet: Another Lesson for Young Musicians

March 29, 2011 11:35

There's been a lot of noise lately on the Internet -- it's the sound of 13-year-olds making music videos.

You might think that I'm about to slam the heavy hand of musical judgment on them, but I'm not.

In the violin world we have some experience with prodigies -- those amazing individuals who seem to have been practicing for some time in another realm before they landed on earth, enabling them to play with all the technique, style and emotional maturity of a seasoned musician. Some examples include Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Yehudi Menuhin, Ruggiero Ricci, Midori. On the pop-culture side are people like Shirley Temple and Michael Jackson.

Before this strange season of universally available video dawned on humanity, it was only these top-notch youngsters that ever reached the attention of the masses. Even when their genius merited all this attention, even when they were met with critical acclaim, it was often difficult for those people to cope with their fame and the consequences of popularity. Many recognized years later that they had been exploited by parents and handlers.

The kids making music videos on the Internet today are -- for the most part -- not child prodigies. They are young people experimenting with their culture, and their output reflects their age and its inherent immaturity. Or, they are pushed by parents seeking fame through their children. In either case, their output can "go viral" and reach millions of people, and not always for the reasons they would like it to do so, as we can see from the Rebecca Black flap over the past few weeks.

While youngsters of a different generation might have put on a play for their parents or made a movie that was viewed by just a few friends and family, kids now put their experiments on the Internet, where it can collect the derision of literally the entire world and stay there to haunt them into adulthood, by which time they DO have the clarity, the judgment, the better-seasoned sense of what they are doing.

I'm a mother, educator and rather creative person. I encourage experimentation and I also know that performing on stage is one very strong way to learn what works and what does not. When you perform for a crowd, every mistake is magnified. You know exactly what you need to work on. Video is the language of a young generation, and I understand the need to share their experiments. Also, I understand the urge to share performances with friends and family, and the Internet provides a convenient way to do that.

But let's get back to Youtube. Youtube is not a supportive community of creative-types who are going to give you helpful and fair feedback. If you are going to use it as a tool to share a video with family and friends, you have to know that millions of people who are NOT your family or friends can potentially view your video. Youtube is completely unregulated and open to anonymous commenting, unless you aggressively control your settings to limit commenting and viewing. People -- especially young people and people new to the Internet -- are tempted to leave things open, either because they don't know better or because they actually like the idea of getting the most possible views and comments. It's a form of attention or popularity.

But as someone who has run a website for 15 years I can tell you that when people are given anonymity, they can and will say thoughtless and cruel things that they would never say to any human's face. Do you think you are up for that? I'll tell you something: you are not. When you allow anonymous commenting on Youtube, you are setting yourself up for some unexpected comment that strikes you to the core, something that defiles you, something that rips at your integrity, whether you are 13 or 30, whether you are an innocent amateur or a seasoned pro. Expect it.

I have said it before, and I will say it again: Control your Youtube. Disallow comments, disable ratings, consider limiting viewers. Use Youtube to disseminate your work to colleagues, employers, to communicate with students, to share your child's performances with grandparents, etc. But exert every control available to you.

If your only goal is publicity at any expense, you can do what the adults around Rebecca Black did: put it out there, leave it open for comments, and keep the derision going. If you are using Youtube because you want the popularity and affirmation of countless anonymous strangers, you might examine your motives. With a therapist.

If you have some perspective, such as, "I'm 13 and probably I'll at some point do something better than this, but I'd like to put this up there to show people," then perhaps go the route of Zachary Freiman, whose video I'm Zack, is another teen experiment, or as his mother called it, a "fun family project." His mother, Allison Fine, spoke on an NPR radio show about what happened when his video was posted and went viral. When the abuse (which I would say was predictable, this is Youtube) started rolling in, they shut down the comments. It was a little late, but ultimately, they protected him.

No, he didn't get the 63 million views that his counterpart did, but he did get protect his integrity. He's wise to defer his 15 minutes -- I have a feeling he'll get them in due time, and for better reasons.

18 replies | Archive link interview with Nicola Benedetti: Bruch and Tchaikovsky Concertos

March 25, 2011 10:16

I was driving at night when I heard the familiar introduction and the long and low "G" that begins the Violin Concerto by Max Bruch. The public radio host happened to be featuring Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti's new recording of the Bruch and Tchaikovsky Violin Concertos, recorded with the Czech Philharmonic under conductor Jakub Hruša; I happened to be preparing to speak to her the next day.

Oh the Bruch, why the Bruch? Like many young violinists, I studied it to death back in college – then left it for dead.

But there it was, pouring out of my car speakers – and gorgeously, I must admit. I'd forgotten; this is a beautiful piece. I was picking up my son from his choir practice, so I decided to wait for him in the car and keep listening. I hadn't remembered the peace and stillness of the second movement – it's so soothing, and Nicola inhabits it with ease. My son, age 10, hopped into the car just in time for rollicking chords of the last movement. "Oh I love this music!" he said with the innocent enthusiasm of someone who has never wrestled with the pesky thirds peppered throughout the Finale.

It's not unusual for violinists to come to think of pieces such as the Bruch as a stepping stone, associated with a good deal of drudgery.

"I think that's such a danger with works that are not only popular in the concert platform but are also used as teaching pieces and practicing pieces," said Nicola the next day, speaking to me over the phone from New York. "I don't think (the Bruch) really deserves that sort of position. But on the other hand, it's great that most violin students are exposed to the music at quite a young age."


Nicola Benedetti
Photo: Kevin Westenberg

Nicola, 23, appears rather young herself, but she has already lived a very full experience as a touring and recording soloist. Since winning BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2004, she has performed with orchestras across the globe and made numerous recordings with Deutsche Grammophon, including a 2009 album of showpieces and encores called Fantasie, a 2008 recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams' 'Lark Ascending' and works by John Tavener; a 2006 recording of the Mendelssohn Violin concerto and new piece written for Nicola by James MacMillan, and a 2006 recording of the Szymanowski Violin Concerto, Chausson 'Poeme' and more.

Recording the Tchaikovsky and the Bruch Concertos – two of the most popular in the literature, was a bit of a heavy decision, she said.

"The recordings are inevitably always measured against all the other recordings of these concertos," Nicola said. "I have a very personal and very specific viewpoint of the two concertos and how they link together and how they differ, but yes, it was something I really had to feel ready to do, and I definitely took my time arriving at that decision."

The Bruch Concerto was written in 1866 when the composer was 28, for the violinist Joseph Joachim. Violinists and audiences immediately embraced the piece – even to the point of frustration for Bruch, who lived in the shadow of his immensely popular work (for which he was paid only a small sum and never any royalties) until he was 82. Tchaikovsky's violin concerto, written some 12 years later when the composer was in middle age, was rejected by critics and even by its dedicatee, Leopold Auer, who pronounced it "unplayable." Auer later came around -- so did the critics.

"They are much more contrasting than linking," she said of the Tchaikovsky and Bruch violin concertos. "They're both usually thought of as Romantic concertos, but they are structured very differently. Bruch was quite innovative and fresh, his opening movement being a prelude and the second movement being the longest of the three and definitely the sort of meatiest movement. The last movement is quite heavy and rustic and quite bold.

"Tchaikovsky, structurally, is totally different," Nicola said. "The first movement is really the meat of the concerto, it's very typical format of sonata form, with the recapitulation which literally repeats every single note of the exposition and puts you through your paces, basically, with a coda that's probably more tricky than most codas of most violin concertos. The second movement is so fleeting and light, and just almost a short song. And the last movement is a chase. It's so wild and it's so driven and on the crazy side. So structurally, they are two very, very different concertos."

"But also, characteristically I claim them to be quite opposite, though both represent what it is about Romantic violin music that people love so much and why the Romantic era of violin-playing is so hugely popular," Nicola said. The Bruch Violin Concerto has an "openness and sort of optimism; there's so much peace and harmony within the concerto." The second movement, for example, is "emotive but still so optimistic. It's quite rare for a composer to manage that."

"Tchaikovsky is quite the opposite; there's not a moment of rest in the whole piece, as far as I can see," Nicola said. "Even the second subject of the first movement, which is a melody and which is meant to be a real contrast to everything that's come before: within ten bars it is already searching for something that's never quite reached; it's really unsettled. It couldn't be more contrasting in its character to what the Bruch represents. I think they both show really important values of what the compositional style was of the Romantic era."

Nicola plays the 1723 "Earl Spencer" Strad, on loan from Jonathan Moulds, president of Bank of America for Europe and Asia.

"It think it's been about four and a half years that I've been playing it, the first year of which was a battle of trying to get to know and get to control the instrument," Nicola said. "That's the key of a great violin – it doesn't simply just do exactly what you mean, it adds something and it sort of speaks back to you. It almost becomes a dialogue between you and the instrument. I think that amount of character coming from the violin was something I struggled with a little bit in the beginning, but I really developed the strength to control it."

Nicola was born in Ayrshire, Scotland of Italian heritage and began playing the violin because her older sister, Stephanie, had fallen in love with the fiddle and spent four years begging their non-musical parents for lessons.

"So when I was four and she was eight, we began playing together," Nicola said. "But my parents aren't musicians at all, there was no classical music in our family, so it was really due to my sister's perseverance on that front."

She spent five years studying with Suzuki method before she tried out for the Yehudi Menuhin School, where she began studying with Natasha Boyarskaya shortly after her 10th birthday.

"I was very lucky that I had a teacher who taught me so much and inspired me from the word go," Nicola said. "She was a Russian violin teacher who was very strict,; she definitely demanded a lot of high-standard practice and work. But I was just so happy in that environment because it was what I'd always wanted." She studied there for about five years.

After leaving the Menuhin school, she started studying with a Polish teacher, Maciej Rakowsky, and things started happening very fast. This was when she entered the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition.

"The competition spans for around a year's time, so you're auditioning for the first round in May and the final of the competition isn't until May the following year," Nicola said. "A lot can happen in a year, and a lot did happen that year. IMG Artists had come to various performances in the UK, and following that, I began working with them."

She began to perform many, many concerts and put out recordings – she had a six-recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon and by the time she was 21 her concerts numbered more than 100 a year. At that point, she decided to step back.

"It was just a re-focus on how I was going to plan my schedule in the future, and it came after a period of time of extreme, intense performances, one after another, when I was tired and felt sort of catching up with myself rather than really on top of everything," Nicola said. "I wasn't entirely happy with how everything was going and how I felt in general. So it was a decision that came from that experience -- and one that I'm very grateful I took. It's something I'm trying to continue all the time: a re-focus on how much I should be performing, what sort of repertoire, and at what time -- to make sure that I'm really in control. It's a huge thing, to learn to do, especially for me. I have no close family in the industry who knew about this sort of thing."

There's no handbook on how to be a touring soloist, "but I think a lot of solo violinists do have a sort of network from a very young age, of persons that really understand the industry how it should work," Nicola said. "It's something I really had to learn for myself – which has been great, in some ways. I think it pushed me to learn more, even quicker.

If she had to give advise to a young, aspiring soloist? "Never listen to people giving you examples of other violinists or of other soloists, examples that put you under pressure to feel that you should be capable of a certain amount," Nicola said. "We all have different capacities for how much we can top-perform and how much we can cope with, and I think the key is just to try to learn as quickly as possible about yourself and about what your limits are, and never feel under pressure to live up to other people's expectations."

That said, "for me to give the advice to 'go slowly' would be slightly hypocritical because that's not really what I did the first two years of my performing career. I don't regret taking the options that I did; it gave me so much experience, and I managed to pull through," Nicola said. "But I would say to balance that with a real assessment of how much you feel you can cope with and be slightly more on the cautious side."

* * * Here is a 2009 video clip of Nicola Benedetti playing Vaughan Williams' 'The Lark Ascending.'

3 replies | Archive link

Happy 326th birthday, Johann Sebastian Bach

March 21, 2011 10:05

Where would we be without the music of this great German composer, born in 1685. He was prolific in every way: in his 65 years he composed more than 1,000 works -- and he had 20 children (10 who survived to adulthood).

We violinists are grateful for the many wonderful works he gave us to play, particularly his concerti for violin(s) and the solo Sonatas and Partitas that lie at the heart of our repertoire.

I was looking for a video and was stopped in my tracks by this recording of Bach's Chaconne from the violin solo Partita in D minor, played by one of our great living violinists, Itzhak Perlman. Listen, enjoy:

6 replies | Archive link interview with Lisa Batiashvili: Shostakovich Violin Concerto

March 18, 2011 09:48

The first movement of the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1 pours forth like water, smooth and unhesitating around every corner, pooling here and there along the way. In the stillness of those pools are reflections; stirred up they become distortions.

So begins the epic journey that is Dmitri Shostakovich's first violin concerto, written in 1948 under the extreme oppression and persecution by the Soviet government, which in the same year denounced the composer and banned most of his works. The concerto, dedicated to Soviet violinist David Oistrakh, was not performed publicly until 1955.

Violinist Lisa Batiashvili, who was born in Soviet Georgia in the 1970s, brings a native intuition and violinistic mastery to this work in her recently-released Deutsche Grammophon recording with conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen leading the Bavarian Radio Symphony.

Lisa Batiashvili
Lisa Batiashvili © Anja Frers

It's a recording that grabbed hold of me and did not let go. I'd just settled with the uneasy tranquility of the first movement when the second movement hit me with a jolt, suddenly sending me for an exhausting ride on a fast-moving vehicle with three different-sized wheels, and I suspect a drunk driver. The orchestra is a wild circus, veering and careening. It spins and spins out of control, like one of those Russian dancers, just barely keeping its balance. By contrast, the Passacaglia trudges soberly on two feet. It is sad, deeply homesick – the violin weeps over the plodding drumbeat of the orchestra. It's home without solace, emptied of its comforts, its religion, its culture. It dies, dies, comes to a stop. Then the violin enters alone, for the cadenza, beginning with a quiet persistence that grows to loud insistence. It is powerful and intense – protracted anxiety, panting behind the door as the police knock, building to sheer panic, running headlong into the maniacal last movement.

Clearly, this is a recording that works. Lisa lived Soviet Georgia until she was 11, moving to Munich, where she studied and lived for 15 years. More recently, she moved to France with her husband and two children, ages two and six.

The recording also includes other works by Soviet emigres: "V & V" by Georgian composer Giya Kancheli, "Spiegel im Spiegel" by Arvo Pärt and "Vocalise" by Sergei Rachmaninov. On the lighter side is an arrangement of Shostakovich's "Lyrical Waltz" by Lisa's father, Tamas Batiashvili. She collaborates with pianist Hélène Grimaud for the Pärt and Rachmaninov.

Lisa, who plays the 1709 "Engleman" Stradivari on loan from the Nippon Foundation, will play the Bartok Violin Concerto No. 1 with the New York Philharmonic in early May and will also be featured performing with the New York Philharmonic during their European tour, with performances in Munich, Vienna, Budapest, Dresden and Prague during the latter half of May.

Lisa spoke to me over the phone several weeks ago, from Minneapolis, where she was playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. We talked about Shostakovich, life in the Soviet Union and more.

Laurie: What made you start playing the violin?

Lisa: The fact that both of my parents were musicians. My father played in a string quartet (the Georgian State Quartet), but at the same time he was teaching young people. I was inspired by the small kids coming to get lessons with my dad, and also my mom was teaching piano. It was something quite evident and natural.

Laurie: How old were you when you started?

Lisa: When I was two, I had a small violin that I kind of played with myself, without getting any lessons, until I was four. Then when I had my fourth birthday, I asked my dad to really start teaching me. He started giving me violin lessons after my fourth birthday.

Laurie: How long did you take from your father?

Lisa: He was my main teacher until we moved to Germany in 1991. In 1990, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the political situation became unstable, he decided that I should get an education in Europe. We had some friends in Germany who helped us, then I entered the Hamburg Musikhochschule at the age of 11, where I studied for 2-3 years with Mark Lubotsky, who was a pupil of David Oistrakh. I went to Munich when I was 14 and studied with Ana Chumachenko for the the next seven years.

Laurie: You must have had a very special relationship with your father if it worked for that long – not everybody can teach their own child.

Lisa: Well it's (more commonplace) in ex-Soviet life. I know many, many violinists from Russia, or Armenia, or Georgia, who actually were taught by their parents. I think that it has an advantage in the beginning because the attention you get from your parent is very special – if it works. Some parents can be so excessive and exaggerating – I think if my dad had been like that I would have probably given up playing. But he's one of the sweetest people. He was really not a typical violin teacher from the Soviet Union! He is very tender and loving, and he was doing his best to give me a basic knowledge about violin playing. He also realized very quickly that I needed also some other opinions and I needed to expand my knowledge and my education. He could have said, 'No, actually I'm going to be the best teacher for her,' and we could have gone on until I was 16 or 17. The time between 10 and 16 is so important for every musician. He sensed that moment, and that's why we went to Germany when we did.

Laurie: I was reading the notes for your CD, and I understand your father had a big picture of Dmitri Shostakovich on the wall of his studio. What did Shostakovich mean to your family?

Lisa: It's difficult to explain, but he was the composer that really reflected that time in the Soviet Union, more than anybody else. For my father, the music of Shostakovich related most closely to his own life. Shostakovich wanted to express, simply, the limitations that he had a composer and as a person – especially as a person. He was told how life should be by the government at that time. And I think for Shostakovich, as for many other artists, writers and musicians, it was a very difficult thing to accept. In a way, he searched for freedom through his music. His music was very symbolic – most of his music has a story behind it. That's why, for my father's quartet, his music was something that felt very close.

Georgia was pretty far away from Moscow, and the mentality in Georgia was also very different. Georgia is the first country next to the Baltic countries, where they really wanted to escape this communist time and communist regime. My father was already very much aware of western life: his string quartet was traveling and playing concerts everywhere. For him, western Europe was kind of a dream place to go. He used to come back whenever he had these concerts and tell us how wonderful it was.

Laurie: Did your father also grow up in Georgia?

Lisa: Yes, he did.

Laurie: So when you left, this was a big deal.

Lisa: It was a very big deal, especially for my parents. My dad was close to 50 already, and leaving behind everything was very difficult for him. That's one of the reasons why, at age 65, he went back to Georgia. He travels between Germany and Georgia, but his devotion and his love for his country has never stopped. He wants everything possible for his country, which I think is a great quality.

Laurie: When you left, it was primarily so you could go study in Germany -- but the timing was amazing. You left right when things were getting very difficult in Georgia, after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Lisa: We kind of sensed that the political situation was very, very messy in Georgia. After all the time under Soviet rule, suddenly Georgia was left by itself and had to fight against corruption and ex-Communists who were trying to keep their power, and the independent parties...It was getting very chaotic. The day after we left Georgia, there was a civil war that started in our capital city, Tbilisi. So we escaped the war, just by one day.

Laurie: You were telling me that your teacher, Mark Lubotsky, had been a student of David Oistrakh, and of course the Shostakovich was written for Oistrakh. How did this shape the way you look at the Shostakovich concerto?

Lisa: The years I spent with Mark Lubotsky were very interesting – I studied with him between the age of 12 and 14. Maybe I was slightly too young at that time to take a real profit from his incredible knowledge about music, and his intelligence. But years after that, when I was 20, I went back to him with this piece to talk about it. I really enjoyed just listening to him. Of course, it didn't feel very foreign to me, whatever he had to say was just interesting to hear. Imagine, for all those musicians who were allowed to go to the West to play concerts – they were a very big exception. But they were never allowed to come back and say that they had a good time! (She laughs) So they had to live in this ridiculously fake world, but pretend that they were serving their own country with the music. How do you do that, combine the arts and your talents to a certain government ideology? It was simply very interesting to speak about that, when I played Shostakovich for my teacher.

Laurie: When you play that concerto, are there any specific things that come to mind, within the music?

Lisa: Certainly, yes. Every movement has a completely different character and its own reason for being there. For example in the first movement, we have an atmosphere that is a little bit difficult to understand, when you listen to it for the first time. But when you then think of the landscape in Russia at that time: it was kind of a hopeless time, in the cold, let's say winter morning – very early morning or a late night. Maybe somebody is sitting, thinking about the pessimism of that time in the Soviet Union. If you can imagine this, you can start feeling what is going on in the first movement...We also have certain aggressions in that piece, and fear, and very strong influence from outside. The cadenza is probably one of the most powerful moments in the whole piece. It starts very slowly, softly, then the fear enters into the cadenza, which brings the player – let's say the man behind the whole concerto -- to a hysterical condition toward the end of the cadenza.

The last movement is interpreted in very different ways: some people say it's a dance in Hell. Other people say it's delirium, it's somebody who is actually gone over his normal state of mind. Or, it could Shostakovich's explanation: his acceptance of this difficult time, and his effort to cheer himself up. So everybody can have his own imagination. Shostakovich did not necessarily explain every single phrase that he wrote, but I think it's very important to just capture the exact character and the mood of the piece.

Laurie: It's such a dark piece. Is it difficult mentally, or emotionally, when you are living with this piece, recording it, performing it?

Lisa: It doesn't leave me cold, that's for sure. After every performance I do feel that I've gone through something. But it's a pleasure, when you can put your whole emotion into the work and it doesn't stay as something distant. Shostakovich is one of those works where you can really go into the heart of the piece while playing, and you really can explore that. For me, it's actually something that gives me more power. It doesn't only take, but it gives back to me.

Laurie: I had not heard any music of Giya Kancheli – he is a Georgian composer, then?

Lisa: He's Georgian, yes. I would say probably the most popular Georgian composer. He also has worked a lot in Europe, with great artists like Gidon Kremer and (violist) Yuri Bashmet – he has written a lot of music for them. He wrote film music, as well, though I don't know if he's done it lately. When I was small, watching movies, the most beautiful music you could imagine for children's movies – or just any movies – was his music. That was most obvious reason for wanting to play his music. And then also, his music has such a melancholic atmosphere, it reminds me of my background and of my country. When I play this music, it really takes me back to Georgia.

Laurie: I wondered what quality in Kancheli's music was Georgian. To me, the piece on your CD, "V & V," sounds very ghostly.

Lisa: This is not really typical Georgian music. For the CD just before this one, I recorded the Beethoven Violin Concerto together with Georgian miniatures (by Sulkhan Tsintsadze). Those are very typical Georgian pieces, based on folk music and national music. Giya Kancheli's music is based on atmosphere, but still there are moments in his music where you actually realize there is something Georgian in it.

Laurie: I hadn't heard that Lyrical Waltz by Shostakovich, I don't know why...

Lisa: It doesn't exist really, that's why – this is a waltz for piano. My dad did the arrangement. It's kind of the small positive shine on the whole disk! (She laughs)

Laurie: I was also interested in your relationship with the Bavarian Radio Symphony. It sounds like your husband played there for a while.

Lisa: He played there for a while, and of course I lived in Munich and I met the people from the orchestra many times. It was a very special project because of this friendship with the orchestra. The concertmaster who was appointed last year, he and I have known each other for at least 25 years! It was an amazing experience, to record with friends – friends, being with one of the best orchestras in the world!

And it was a unique experience, recording with Esa-Pekka Salonen because he and I hadn't worked together. But the music felt so natural, and I was so amazed by his genius mind. He also had a very good relationship with the orchestra.

We all have so much pressure, especially while doing the recordings. You really want to do your best, you almost can't take the pressure. But then when you have people like this working with you, that makes the whole thing so much easier and so much nicer for all of us.

Laurie: To have an orchestra of friends, led by a brilliant conductor, that sounds good!

3 replies | Archive link interview with Misha Keylin: Vieuxtemps Violin Works

March 9, 2011 15:47

I have to confess: when I had the rare chance to play on the 'Vieuxtemps' Guarneri del Gesu – the one with a price tag of $18 million at Bein and Fushi – I wished very much that I had a piece by Henry Vieuxtemps in my fingers to play on that fiddle.

Come to think of it, beyond his name, how much did I know about nineteenth-century Belgian violinist Henry Vieuxtemps, beyond the fact that he wrote that cute showpiece, "Souvenir d'Amerique"? Not much!

So I was happy to be able to talk with violinist Misha Keylin, who has spent half his life researching and recording the works of Vieuxtemps. Many of us have heard of Vieuxtemps' Violin Concertos No. 4 and 5, but did you know that Vieuxtemps wrote seven violin concertos? Misha Keylin has recorded all of them, and last fall he released a recording of showpieces, including Op. 56; Fantasia appassionata, Op. 35, Ballade et Polonaise, Op. 38 and Fantaisie Caprice, Op. 11. The "Greeting to America" (a different piece from "Souvenir d'Amerique") is probably the most humorous piece, a fantasy based on the U.S. national anthem, Yankee Doodle and other national tunes, written by the composer to wow Americans on his tour of the United States in 1857.

Misha Keylin

Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Keylin was born in the Soviet Union and started playing the violin at the age of 6 in what was then Leningrad – now St. Petersburg. He was following in the steps of his brother, Leonid, who is 12 years his senior and was studying violin at the Leningrad Conservatory. (Leonid is currently a first violinist in the Seattle Symphony. )

Misha actually tried starting the violin at age four, but having witnessed his brother's playing for so long, he didn't see the point of beginning-violin-type activities. "You first start with plucking the strings, well I wouldn't have any of that," he said. "I just wanted to grab that bow and get violent with the violin! (He laughs) So basically they had to take me off of this drug we now call the violin until I was a little bit more mature."

He began his studies with his mother, also a violinist, and she remained his primary teacher until the family immigrated to the United States in 1979, when Misha was nine.

"She was incredibly wonderful," Misha said. "The older I get, the more I appreciate how she worked with me. She was never one of those parents to say, 'Go back to the room and don't come out until you practice six hours.' I was allowed to choose if I wanted to pursue this – I didn't have to. I think in some ways, that saved my longevity on the violin. Of course, I was kind of forced into trying it! But I really, really liked it, and now I love it."

When they reached New York, both Misha and Leonid became students of Dorothy DeLay at The Juilliard School, Leonid as a college student and Misha in the pre-college. He was just 10 at the time.

"Even at that age, Miss DeLay saw me at least once a month. She highly respected my mother as a teacher and always would say 'Listen to your mother!'" Misha said. "Then the older I got -- around age 14 or 15 -- she started to limit the amount of times my mom would go to the lesson. She understood that it's very important to develop your own mind. So I was able to to brainstorm a bit myself. I appreciate that; it's a great way of stepping out on your own. There are many people who have a great teacher and then one day, God forbid, the teacher passes away, or the teacher moves away, as it happened after the Soviet Union fell apart...suddenly you're left without a teacher. Unless you had good guidance before and you used some of your own mind, you may not really continue to develop."

That said, DeLay proved to be a long-term mentor for Misha.

"Basically I was with her all the way through pre-college and then the first four years of college, which would put us until 1992, believe it or not, I continued to go play for her at least once a month until the last year before she passed away (in 2002)," he said. "She was extremely instrumental about this whole Vieuxtemps project."

"I had this idea of recording the first three violin concertos of Vieuxtemps because I really felt that nobody was performing them or recording them, and Miss DeLay said to me, 'That's interesting, because one of my other students tried to do this, about 10 years before, but he couldn't find the scores for them.'" Misha said. "I believe she was talking about Joseph Swenson, if I'm not mistaken. So I did a little bit of digging."

Of course, Misha was digging during the pre-Internet era. "You couldn't just start going to websites," he said. "I made a lot of phone calls, and I found out that the Free Library of Philadelphia actually had all of the orchestral parts.

"I was very curious, what do Concertos 1-2-3 sound like?" Misha said. "For example, everyone plays Saint-Saens Concerto No. 3, and you wonder, what about Saint-Saens No. 1 and 2? Then you find out that No. 1 is a 10-minute concerto, and sort of there's an excuse (for people not playing it). But No. 1 of Vieuxtemps? It's a 45-minute piece!"

That wasn't the only surprise. "I also found out that there's a sixth and seventh violin concerto!" Misha said. "I had thought the fifth was the last one; I was amazed."

Misha's first Vieuxtemps recording with Naxos in 1997 featured the Violin Concertos No. 2 and 3.

The recording "became very much noticed both in the press and by my colleagues -- it was the first recording that featured the second and third violin concertos," Misha said. "When they saw the response, Naxos said, 'Let's just do all seven concertos.'"

That first recording was followed with a recording in 2000 of Vieuxtemps Violin Concertos 1 and 4, and then Violin Concertos 5, 6 and 7 in 2003.

"It was something that I'm very proud of being able to do," Misha said. "I'm very happy to be able to put this wonderful composer -- and a most important historical figure for the violin -- back in people's living rooms. As much as we all love Paganini, as much as we all love Wieniawski and composers from that time, I feel that Vieuxtemps has been overlooked too much. He's a very beautiful composer. "

"I always felt that his music has a little bit more substance," Misha said. "In Paganini's music, Paganini's approach was: I'm the soloist, and then there's background accompaniment, behind me. I think Vieuxtemps started to do much more orchestral writing. Ysaye said that Vieuxtemps' Concerto No. 4 is not a concerto for violin, it's a symphonic poem. Vieuxtemps started to use the orchestral tuttis not just as introductions for the soloist."

In the music of Vieuxtemps, "there's more challenge, there's more musical writing," Misha said. "I feel that Vieuxtemps' music has that special bel canto quality, but yet it also has dramatic intensity." In addition to that, Vieuxtemps also uses many of the same virtuosic tricks as Paganini did. In fact, Vieuxtemps admired Paganini intensely.

"Of course Paganini is the father of all the virtuosic tricks and showing off ," Misha said.

Vieuxtemp's first violin concerto was patterned after the first violin concerto of Paganini. "Concerto No. 1 is sort of a homage to Paganini. It's similar in terms length and the way it's formulated: the big cadenza, the flashy third movement," Misha said. "He was influenced by Paganini, no question, at first. But then he started to study music. He basically took it to another level, in my opinion.

"In Vieuxtemps' Concerto No. 3, you have some influences of Beethoven or maybe early Mendelssohn," Misha said. "No. 4 really becomes symphonic, and there is a big progression into Four and Five. To me, Concertos No. 4 and 5 are still his greatest works; these should be a staple for every performing violinist."

"After those, he didn't really write anything until two years before he passed away. By that time, he had had a stroke, and he could not really play," Misha said. "The 6th Concerto is melodic, and the 7th concerto is dedicated to (Jeno) Hubay. I could see him playing the other concertos, but (the last concertos were) kind of written for others to play. For the seventh, he had Hubay come up to Algiers and play for him, just so he could hear how it sounded.

"It's interesting that he wrote the two main concertos when he was in Russia, in St. Petersburg – No. 4 and 5. That's the other side of Vieuxtemps that a lot of people are not familiar with," Misha said. "Vieuxtemps was the first court violinist in the Imperial Theatre. He came live in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1846 until 1852, and he was there, under the Tsar. After he left his position, who took over? It was (Henryk) Wieniawski! And after Wieniawski, it was Leopold Auer. So in some way, you can also credit Vieuxtemps to starting the St. Petersburg violin school: Auer, Heifetz , etc. And there's another interesting little fork in the road: He also started (Eugène) Ysaÿe, who continued the Franco-Belgian school of playing. So here's Vieuxtemps – Belgian violinist who came to old Russia, was the violinist of the Tsar, and somehow planted the seed that grew to the great turn-of-the-century school, with Heifetz and everybody down the line.

"That's why I feel that historically, he's been overlooked. He should be given credit for the paths he opened up," Misha said.

Besides the concertos by Vieuxtemps, many violin pieces remain.

"I've now recorded pretty much everything that goes with orchestra," Misha said. His CD that came out last fall includes four showpieces. But of course there is more, such as opera transcriptions. "There are probably six or seven more CDs worth of material!"

The "Greeting to America" from the latest recording is a favorite, though.

"Vieuxtemps knew that he was coming for a big tour of the United States, and look what he did!" Misha said. "He decided to take a local tune which was familiar to people here, and he incorporated it in his own composition."

"Everybody knows the Yankee Doodle transcription for violin and piano, but when I started to look at the original version, which is about 14 minutes long, there is theme and variations on the national anthem of the United States, the Star-Spangled Banner," Misha said. "It's really nicely written – literally fun! I love the fact that right when the theme of the National Anthem first comes up, I'm the accompaniment. The theme happens in the first violin section. Then I take it over and it's ripped out of my hands by trombones! You can sort of see the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey – you can sort of see that kind of circus feeling in it."

"Vieuxtemps toured extensively in the United States, and I think he was savvy businessman," Misha said. "He understood that shouldn't go to the United States and play local Belgian songs. He got it."

Has Misha ever played that famous Guarneri del Gesù, the one once owned by Vieuxtemps?

"I've actually had the pleasure of playing on it for a couple of hours -- I had a chance to play on it way before it was for sale," Misha said. In fact, many years ago he and the current owner had talked about him recording with it, but there were security concerns about transporting it to Eastern Europe for the recording session.

"Let me tell you, it's an amazing instrument," he said. "I've been privileged to have access to the David Fulton Collection and on some of the recordings I used his Baron Knoop Stradivarius from 1715. But this definitely is right up on the level of any great violin I've ever touched. Besides its being Vieuxtemps' violin, it's like an organ. I always said to some people, if Paganini's violin is known as the "Cannon," this should be the "Organ" because when you play on it, the whole building shakes! Whoever ends up buying it is going to be a lucky person, and I hope it will be lent out to good musicians to play. It's a great instrument."

 You can follow Misha on Twitter at:!/mishakeylin

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Music education is no 'frill'

March 8, 2011 16:57

How did you learn your alphabet? Was there a song involved? Have you ever taught the alphabet to a three-year-old? Did you do so without a song? Think about what it would be like to teach it without the song. Would the child learn it rapidly? Would the child even be interested in learning it?

But somehow some in our society would like to force music out of education because adults who don't understand education feel that music is an overly expensive and unnecessary "hobby."

It looks as though San Diego is the latest to propose cutting virtually all music education in its schools to balance its budget.

Here is an article about the cuts. The comments below the article are as interesting as the article itself: the childless "taxpayer" who feels that schools should teach math and English and forget the "nice-to-haves"; the person who says, "Good. It is about time. Music programs are one of the easiest programs to duplicate by the few parents who have a minority of the students in the school. Get a hall, Hire an ex teacher... done." And there are the ever-present comments about the "bad teachers."

The truth of the matter is that educating a child is complicated business, involving time, motivation and a variety of approaches.

Music is both a physical discipline and a rigorous course of academic study, a unique field that simultaneously trains a child in math, language arts, coordination and cooperation. Only a musical illiterate would think music could be taught as a series of ad-hoc after-school programs and that a teacher with musical expertise and pedagogy is so easy to find that you just stick a random "ex-teacher" in there.

Music is a language, both written and aural. The benefits of a music education come from delving deeper into it than simply singing or scratching the surface experimentally with an instrument. Something like the A-B-C song is only the beginning.

Here are a few of the elements involved in a thorough musical education:

The beginner in music certainly learns to sing, but in the process they also learn to identify scale elements with solfege. Solfege is that series of syllables made famous by the Do-Re-Mi song in the Sound of Music. The syllables can be applied to any music, and someone with good music education is able to do so. For example, this simple song should be easily identifiable by anyone with a musical education:

Do Do Sol Sol La La Sol

Fa Fa Mi Mi Re Re Do....

The brain process here is rather complex and involves much problem-solving, especially in the beginning.

One also learns rhythms: not only how to physically execute them but also rhythmic notation: how those rhythms are translated into written language.

One learns about the key signatures that create the various scale patterns, the concept of major and minor scales and also of modes, pentatonic scales, whole-step scales and chromatic scales. For this you need to know the order of the sharps and the order of the flats, for example, the sharps go F, C, G, D, A, E, B. And of course if you have a musical education you see the obvious: That's a circle of fifths.

Which brings me to intervals: learning to identify how far various notes are from one another - a half-step, whole-step, second, third, etc. It's good to be able to identify these both when the notes are played one right after another ("That's a fifth!") and also when they are played simultaneously.

Then one learns the chords that music are based upon and their functions. Any pop musician who creates a song knows music usually begins in the tonic key, perhaps moves to the dominant and subdominant, then it might modulate, and then we are talking about the tonic key of the modulation, etc. (Sometimes they don't realize they've written an entire song on the tonic without even a change of chord - it's a boring song, but they don't know that's why, because they don't really have a musical education.)

Beyond this is the physical discipline of learning how to play an instrument. This is different for every instrument, but let's use the violin as an example. A student must be able to identify the parts of the violin, the names of the strings, and how to create notes on the instrument. Also, he or she must know the correct way to hold the violin and the correct way to hold the bow, how to place the left-hand fingers and with much practice and repetition, come to a point where holding the violin and playing it come as easily as walking.

Next, we have to take those notes on the page and play them on the violin, learning a great many symbols on the page as well as things like bow articulations (staccato, legato, etc.), when fingers are placed where, how to shift up the fingerboard.

We learn to play in tune and learn how to play in harmony with others. We learn that music can only happen against a backdrop of everyone's silence and stillness. We start together, move together in finely detailed ways, end together. When it goes well, it's one powerful, shared sensation.

The deeper you go into music education, the more opportunities open for complex thinking, problem-solving, individual and community expression, and cultural understanding.

Children who learn music do better in math and language arts. They score higher on their tests. They learn skills about cooperation and discipline that are not teachable through any other means. Their motivation increases.

What can we "afford"? In the United States, we can afford anything we want. So far we are affording tax breaks for millionaires, who have convinced an apparently large-enough portion of the electorate that government should do nothing for us, that anything funded collectively is something to which none of us is entitled.

In the United States the government, quite simply, IS us: by the people, for the people. It is a means for us to function as a society, serving ourselves with roads, sewers, police, safety, defense and schools. It is a means to create the community we want.

What do we want for our children, for our future? Some people seem to want to exploit and punish today's children, to hold back their education and let unregulated corporations feed them high fructose corn syrup, Ritalin, diabetes, obesity, video games and solitude.

I'd rather protect and edify them, to show them a means to productive community. Here's what I want for our children: health; families with enough means to provide them food, clothing, shelter and love; a broad education; useful activities, and yes,an appreciation for beauty. I'd like to build the future, not strip it bare.

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