NEW YORK - "Violin is hard, isn't it? We could do other things, but we like doing this."
Ida Kavafian pointed out this simple truth in the middle of a wonderful master class she gave on Tuesday, the first day of the 2011 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School. I arrived in sunny New York on Tuesday morning, after a red-eye flight from Los Angeles. Other participants, student artists and faculty came from 32 states and 14 countries -- nearly 200 violinists in all.
We're in for a week of master classes with Kavafian, Itzhak Perlman, Glenn Dicterow, Joseph Lin and David Updegraff. We'll also go to specialized pedagogy classes on preparing students for concerti study, on music of Fritz Kreisler and Eugene Ysaye and on the physiology of playing, with pedagogy teachers Teri Einfeldt, Brian Lewis, Ray Iwazumi and Julie Lyonn Lieberman.
It's five days to celebrate the violin and get everyone psyched to keep learning, keep teaching, keep playing.
Today, after some mingling, we settled into Paul Hall for a master class with Ida Kavafian, violin faculty at the Curtis Institute and former violinist of the Beaux Arts Trio.
Kavafian's a sharp teacher and a quick wit, going straight to the point yet with an engaging sense of humor that puts everyone at ease.
Before describing what happened in the master class, I should mention that all the students mentioned played at an extremely high level for which they should be congratulated, and everyone here is grateful that they are putting themselves in front of this rather unusual audience of all violinists so that we can all learn more about teaching students at such high level!
Rachel Wong, 19, of the Butler School of Music at the University of Texas, played first, with a well-prepared third movement of the Sibelius Concerto. Though the audience of violin teachers was whooping at the end of the impressively fast-played performance, Kavafian said to pianist Pamela Viktoria Pyle, "Good job -- chasing her!"
"Right where it gets really difficult is where you take off like crazy," Ida said to Rachel. Though it's nice that Pamela can go for the ride, "110 people (in an orchestra) are not going to do the same thing." Kavafian pointed out that part of this movement's beauty is its stability, rhythmically. "If you check the metronome marking, it's not that fast," she pointed out, it's marked 88 to 92.
Kavafian asked someone in the audience to retrieve her cell phone so that she could call up the metronome application and check the tempo -- we are truly in the 21st century! Indeed it was much slower, and Kavafian helped by stamping her foot, clapping, and snapping, to keep Rachel steady.
"You probably have to hit even more notes than if you were rushing," Kavafian suggested. Taking Rachel's violin, Kavafian noticed the shoulder rest attached to the back of it, "I hate these things," she said. "A student came to Curtis without a shoulder rest once, and left with one. It was my greatest failure," she joked. "The problem with the shoulder rest is what it does to your bow," she said, pointing out that the violin is about an inch lower when there's no shoulder rest, and that changes bow mechanics.
She had Rachel tune her octaves by gliding between them over the fingerboard, with the idea of loosening the fingers and getting rid of tension. "When you're shifting, you should not use any finger pressure -- keep your hand shape, but don't press so hard when shifting."
Next, Ji-Eun Anna Lee, a sophomore at The Dalton School and a Juilliard Pre-College student, who plays an Amati on loan from the Stradivari Society, played the first movement of Schubert's Sonata in A Major, a very classical work requiring a good deal of interpretation. Before Anna played, Kavafian insisted that, even if she was playing from memory, she should have a stand with the music on it, unless she expected the pianist to play by memory. Sonatas are chamber works, collaborative works.
Anna played with contrast and care, but Kavafian wanted her to mind the piano even more. "Be more inclusive of how your part works with the piano," she said. "Just because your part ends, doesn't mean the music ends. I would encourage you to imitate more the sound of the piano." For example, when the pianist must play the same note twice in a row, it is necessary to press the key again -- to re-articulate the note. This can be done on the violin as well, but it requires some planning so the notes don't meld together.
Kavafian had Anna play without vibrato, to find expression in using just the bow. "Try to think about how to make music with your bow," Kavafian said. "Play it with your hand -- just not with vibrato."
Then when adding vibrato, she encouraged her to consider, "how the string feels on the tip of your finger, so you're not just squeezing down, but you can feel the vibration of the string in the tip of your finger."
In applying vibrato to the music, Kavafian requested more calm in the harmonically peaceful passages, with more vibrato when the music becomes harmonically agitated.
Alicia Choi, a graduate of Juillilard Pre-College who has a Bachelor of Arts degree from Williams College, played the first movement of the Brahms concerto, with the very virtuosic Kreisler cadenza.
Kavafian first drew attention to Alicia's bow thumb, which does not bend. "It's really hard to play with a straight thumb," Kavafian said. What happens is that you wind up producing the sound by pressing. "The thumb is important -- a straight thumb rarely gives you the pliability to play."
Coax the sound out of the violin, work with it and not against it, she said.
Kavafian also offered a lesser-known but effective bowing for the beginning of the Brahms Concerto, a trick her own teacher, Oscar Shumsky, taught her (go get your score, here it is): start down on the D, then up on the E, down on the F then sneak in another down G sharp, covering it with the string crossing, and proceed as it comes.
She joked that a violinist should take a nice deep breath before starting the Brahms concerto and not exhale until some 46 measures later, that it requires that much tension in the beginning.
When Alicia's violin began to get far sideways, Kavafian said, "Keep your work space in front of you!" bringing the violin back around.
In talking about on place in the Brahms (m. 138) Kavafian said she didn't like going over to the A string for just one note, and having that inevitable change of color that comes with the change of string. "I think about things like that, my life is miserable," she joked. "So instead of going over to the A, I play out of tune!"
Francisco Garcia-Fullana, who just earned his Bachelor's Degree from Juilliard, played the third movement of Brahms' Sonata in A. What a beautiful piece. Sigh.
Kavafian talked again about imitating the piano in chamber music. "Imitating the piano, and playing very much with the piano, will solve many things," she said. For example, a common mistake is for the beginning of this movement to get too thick and heavy. It needs to be lighter, to show the slurs as the piano would. "It's most difficult to be simple at the beginning," said Kavafian.
Another very effective thing that Kavafian did throughout the master classes was to direct students through gestures, like a conductor would -- a good conductor, that is! Her gestures were simple and effective, they gave direction.
She said it was important to think about how to execute specific technical parts of the performance. For example, "there's nothing more important than the lead finger in a shift," she said, "don't go halfway there and stretch."
It's important to make a plan. "Don't leave anything to chance," she said. Though some people might think that a focus on technical details might make a performance less musical, that is completely untrue. The focus on techniques is what frees the performer -- it even can make a performer less nervous.
Doori Na, currently an undergraduate at Juilliard, played the first movement of the Sibelius Concerto. He tended to play with a lot of gesture, and Kavafian wanted him to tone it down. "I'm not saying you shouldn't play like that, just that you shouldn't play like that all the time," she said. "You can't have chocolate mousse for dinner. And for lunch and breakfast. With chocolate milk."
In other words, if everything is played at a high level of intensity, then the really important moments don't seem as important -- everything just seems the same.
"By the way, who is your teacher?" Kavafian asked.
"Itzhak Perlman," Doori answered.
"Oh crap," Kavafian said, turning to the audience. "He's good."
Kavafian wanted Doori to make the beginning of the Sibelius sound less scary, with less vibrato and more calm. He played it again, and when the intensity crept back in she stopped him on the stop, "The terror came! The Twilight Zone!"
She pointed out that the Sibelius concerto is quite unique, "there's not another concerto that starts like this, it's just amazing."
Later in the evening, violinist Ryu Goto, 22, gave a recital. Goto, who has played all around the world, a graduate of Juilliard Pre-College who graduated this year from Harvard with a degree in Physics. (You may have heard of his sister, Midori.) He played on the 1722 "Jupiter" Strad, on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation.
He began the program with Prokofiev's Violin Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 80, played with pianist Jiayi Shi. It was hard not to notice his unusual habit of looking directly at the audience, very frequently. What to make of it?
It worked well when he was playing the wickedly difficult Introduction and Variations on "Nel core piu non mi sento," Op. 38 by Paganini. This piece for solo violin is full of humor contains more violin tricks than most of us fiddle players accomplish in a lifetime: crazy fast left-hand pizzicato; a bowed melody accompanied by left-hand pizzicato; flying down-bow staccato; flying up-bow staccato; right- and left-hand pizzicato both at the same time at breakneck speed; artificial harmonics in fast progression -- the list goes on. Ryu Goto had it all in hand, and his confidence, control and showmanship made it fun to be in the audience.
His Brahms Sonata, played by memory, was gorgeous, but perhaps just a little too much "his." I longed for him to cultivate the same visual contact and connection with pianist Jiayi Shi that he was cultivating with the audience during this piece, for it is truly a collaborative work. The genius and complexity of the piano part puts it on equal footing with the violin part, and Shi's playing was both sensitive and complete. When he forgot to bring Shi out for an ovation after the Brahms, the omission was painful.
He and Shi connected better in Ravel's Tzigane. During the solo beginning of the piece, Ryu milked the G-string for all it was worth. (Can I say that in polite company?) But truly, I've never heard those notes speak so well, so very high on our lowest violin string. He had so much control and such a high level of technique, it was fun to watch. He made moments of wonderful Gypsy frenzy, and when he took liberties, it really seemed improvised. The end was simply so fast -- what a thrill!
I have to confess that I don't normally go out of my way to attend new music concerts, having listened to enough ear-bending endurance-test experiments in music school to make me wary. I tend to think it's more fun to play new music than to listen to it.
Likewise, it was a tough sell to get my husband Robert to go to Disney Hall with me on Tuesday, despite the fine reputation of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Green Umbrella Concerts, established in 1982 to perform and promote new works by contemporary composers.
I sought out tickets because I was interested in hearing violinist Jennifer Koh play live, seeing composer John Adams conduct and generally enjoying the fine musicianship of the LA Philharmonic's musicians, whatever they happened to be playing. The evening featured three world premieres, by composers Missy Mazzoli, Gabriel Kahane and Andrew Norman, and also a work by Steven Mackey. We'd see what happened.
As we sat down, Robert started to read the program notes. "The d-minor chord spins into an off-kilter series of chords that doubles back on itself, collapses, and ultimately dissolves in a torrent of fast passages," he quoted, raising an eyebrow. He turned the page. "It's messy, and fragmented, and it certainly doesn't get things right on the first go-around," he read. His eyes jumped around, his expression growing more and more skeptical, "slightly manic...it crashes...arrhythmic...satanic harmonies...Laurie!"
"Stop reading, just sit back and take it in," I said, talking as much to myself as to him. Looking around, I noticed that this concert had attracted a very respectable crowd – with more than 1,400 people in attendance, as I later learned from publicist Lisa White at the LA Phil. That's an impressive gathering to support new music.
The lights dimmed (to green – "Green Umbrella," remember) and out walked the legendary composer John Adams – white-haired yet youthful, dressed casually and completely at ease. He noted that three of the evening's pieces were world premieres, which "are fraught with anxiety...and ecstasy...and anxiety...."
Typically, when a composer hears his or her work played for the first time, at the first rehearsal, "nothing sounds the way you want, and you blame yourself," Adams said. "You really think you've written junk, and you have to surrender all sharp objects until the next rehearsal." But then things start coming together, particularly in the hands of musicians with fast learning curves, like those in the LA Phil.
Adams noted that Disney Hall, with its modern Frank Gehry design, inspires a sense of the new and makes a composer want to reach into the future – there's no larger-than-life portrait of Beethoven glaring over your shoulder.
He introduced the first piece, "Dissolve O my Heart" by Missy Mazzoli, as being a piece for solo violin, based on Bach's Partita in D minor, "A pretty awesome undertaking," Adams said, "I would never try to write that kind of piece!"
Many violinists understand this sentiment – the Chaconne from the D minor Partita is one of the most revered works in the violin repertoire; it has an almost sacred status. Jennifer Koh took the stage to play this work, poised and elegant in a red evening gown. The first chord of the piece matched the first chord of the Chaconne – note-wise. But that's about all the pieces have in common: the first chord was only a point of departure. Instead of the grand entrance that it makes in the Chaconne, in this piece the chord was quiet and arresting, smooth as can be. Then the pitch bent like a rubber band, with glissandi taking it up and down the fingerboard. The piece didn't seem to stray very far from that first chord, harmonically, it was chordal and punctuated with open-E notes. Jennifer put a lot of energy and muscle into the performance, yet with extreme control and steadiness.
Next came "Orinoco Sketches," for which the curly-haired composer, Gabriel Kahane, emerged wearing red skinny jeans and a black blazer to play piano, guitar and sing along with a 15-instrument ensemble comprised of strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion. The piece is named for the boat that carried Gabriel's grandmother, Hannelore Kahane, from Hitler's Germany to Havana, then to Los Angeles. I enjoyed the piece, which seemed to come from a true place of inspiration and incorporated both a popular and classical sense of new music, which put it on accessible ground. He adapted entries from his grandmother's diary to create the text for a song cycle. The beginning truly sounded like troubled waters with some echoes that reminded me of Kurt Weill – quirky but tonal. Earlier, Adams had aptly described Gabriel's voice as that of an "urban balladeer." The music went continuously from one song to the next; when he wailed ,"Havana!" I knew we were there – and sure enough a swirl of Cuban-flavored sound and gesture emerged around his song. There was plenty of meter change to keep Adams on his feet. Gabriel took up his guitar for the final part of the cycle – he played a tonal ballad as an increasingly chaotic orchestra overwhelmed his song, which at last ended with poignancy and his grandmother's words, "How do you calculate a California sun against a war that's only in the papers...Do you feel it at all?"
The composition "Try," by Andrew Norman, was most like the kind of traffic noise I expect of new music, only what made it fun was that it had a sense of humor. I'll also say here that every piece of the evening benefitted from the fact that John Adams fully embraced it and made a genuine effort to bring it to the audience in an understandable way.
The star of "Try," (named for the composer's trials with music) had to be the percussion instrument that made a sound, almost like running a stick over a washboard, and I believe it was a guiro. Now and then, all noise would abate to reveal this funny little wooden taunt, like blowing a raspberry, and the audience literally laughed each time. A few other effects included a rather gastric background noise, made by scraping the bow sideways. Near the end, amid much chaos, Adams gestured to the piano, as if to present a few quiet notes. Slowly everything died down, leaving just the piano, to play a few notes, which evolved into a small cascade, then chords – becoming so quiet that no one could swallow, then ending.
At last came Steven Mackey's "Four Iconoclastic Episodes," for electric guitar, violin and small orchestra, which Adams described as "a kind of Concerto Grosso for Hell's Angels." Mackey played the electric guitar, and Jennifer came back out and played violin. My favorite episode was called "Salad Days," which actually began in an unexpected way, with Mackey's guitar crashing to the floor! But no matter, I unthinkingly noted that this movement had "pizzazz" and then I wondered at the choice of words, as this movement incorporated every kind of pizzicato possible: quiet rumbly four-finger strumming, guitar-style strumming on fiddles, traditional pizzicato with the violin up, Bartok pizz, you name it. It was clock-like, with lot of little mechanisms all working in precise time; and all the while, the solo violin was a smooth counterbalance. During the climax of a movement called "Lost in Splendor," Jennifer's violin (the highly awesome-sounding 1727 ex-Grumiaux ex-General DuPoint Strad) went down for the count – with either a broken string or collapsed bridge, I'm not sure which, and this led to a great exchange of fiddles, Jennifer traded with the concertmaster, who traded with third chair, who traded with fourth chair, who carefully babysat the valuable fiddle for the rest of the piece. The volume dropped a bit, but Jennifer's octaves were no less in-tune, no less smooth than they were before the handoff.
At the conclusion of the concert, Robert said it best, in the honest way of a non-musician: "I liked that a lot better than I thought I would!"
Update: Mystery solved! Jennifer Koh emailed me this morning:
"Just in case you were wondering, I attached a picture of the reason I had to switch fiddles! I took it backstage after the fiddle players in the Phil gathered up the pieces for me. It's on my facebook page too.... I've never had this happen! I've never seen this happen before! CRAZY!"
Violinist Philippe Quint remains modest about his starring role in the new movie "Downtown Express," which premieres June 7 at Symphony Space in New York. (UPDATE: the movie will be showing at the Quad Theater in New York, starting April 20, 2012).
"I'm not an actor!" Philippe laughed, when we spoke over the phone earlier this spring. "Definitely not. I think the correct term would be to say that I did some acting. I play a Russian violinist – it doesn't get any closer to what my life is really right now!"
Downtown Express is about a young Russian violinist, Sasha (played by Philippe), who comes to the United States and struggles to assimilate, both culturally and musically. He has a scholarship to study at Juilliard, but tension grows between him and his classical cellist father Vadim (played by Michael Cumpsty) when Sasha falls for a singer-songwriter named Ramona (played by Nellie McKay) and decides to join her band.
We know Philippe Quint as a violinist who has performed the Korngold Concerto all over the globe and who recently recorded works by Paganini. Quint was born in the Soviet Union and emigrated to the United States as a teenager, to study at Juilliard. He has been nominated for two Grammys and plays the 1708 "Ruby" Stradivarius, on loan from the Stradivari Society.
But this latest acting gig is not something that just happened overnight, despite his modesty. Philippe has been working for some time on the art of acting, having taken acting lessons on and off for three years from Sondra Lee, whose credits include Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" and a supporting role in the original movie, "Peter Pan."
He also has great respect for acting. "I did not want to be one of those people fooled by the myth that you can just do it," Philippe said. "It brings up the question, what is art? If you have drawn a little line on a piece of paper, does it make you a painter? If you can play 'Twinkle, Twinkle' on the violin, does this make you a violinist? If you throw something together out of sand, does this make you a sculptor? My answer is: Usually, not. What are the merits of such art? I think that, for anything to be done well, it needs to be studied in depth."
"I think there's a myth when it comes to acting and theatre: that anyone can come out on the stage, say a few words -- or show up in front of the camera, and gain overnight fame and become the next Tom Cruise," Philippe said. "And in Hollywood there have been quite a few cases of such celebrities. But if we're talking about substance, and the true art of theatre, we would have to look at actors such as Laurence Olivier, Anthony Hopkins, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro…all people with a lot of training -- and not for nothing."
"Certainly, if you compare the world of theatre and the world of music, I think music is probably slightly more challenging because it requires an actual skill to produce any sound on any instrument; you actually need the technique to do it," Philippe said. "When it comes to theatre, or saying a couple of lines, certainly you can say whatever you want, and even sound convincing. But if you want to really do it on a truly high level and be able to do Shakespeare, or great plays by Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard or Eugene O'Neill, that requires a tremendous amount of training. Because just like musical phrases, plays -- and lines, and monologues -- are open to interpretation. When it comes to questions of interpretation, it is important to note that there are many ways; yet, there are only three or four that will be convincing. For example: The opening line of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto -- we've heard it interpreted a million different times by great, great violinists. Yet for me, it comes down to maybe three interpretations where I think, this is the way it should be done."
Though Philippe has been interested in acting for some time, this part came to him in a roundabout way, not as a result of any kind of direct search to get into Hollywood or film industry, he said. Instead, he was helping in the development of a script for director David Grubin.
"I was simply recommended to the director and producer as a Russian kid who is a violinist who would be sharing his true life's story with a director, so they can develop the script," Philippe said. "It had nothing to do with them looking to cast somebody at that time. They were interviewing a bunch of people, just to develop a proper script about the Russian community, and Russian musicians in particular."
"When I met with the director, David Grubin -- after they told me there was a part for a young Russian violinist -- I said, 'What do you think of an absolutely brilliant idea of casting a Russian violinist to play a Russian violinist?'" Philippe laughs. "David said, well, let us first develop this script, and then we will call you."
"It kind of sounded like, 'Don't call us, we'll call you.' So naturally I didn't think twice about this, I figured, of course, they're going to go with an actor who is going to be faking playing the violin, or they're going to get a hand-double, or something they have done previously for the actors," Philippe said. They actually did call, six months later, and after two casting calls Philippe was offered the part.
"I realized then that it is quite rare, in the film industry, to have a musician act, but it's very common for actors to play musicians," Philippe said. "The question is, what is the better solution, for a musician to say a couple of lines, or for an actor to totally fake the instrument? So I think it's kind of an interesting way that David Grubin decided to approach it."
"The movie's about music – music, I think, is the main character of this film," Philippe said. "I think it will be interesting to watch, in terms of having the real thing, when it comes to the music."
The music ranges from Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky to a sort of fusion, when Philippe's character joins a band. "There are some original compositions that I did, and my co-star, Nellie McKay, also composed, and then there's also original music by Michael Bacon, who did most of the songs."
That's Bacon, as in brother of Kevin Bacon. That is to say, you play six degrees of Kevin Bacon, this movie puts you one degree away. But we digress...
"My character, Sasha, is a little bit naïve but extremely excited to be in New York," Philippe said. "He's still struggling with English," just as Philippe did when he first came to the United States. "That was one of the big challenges for me – I sort of consider myself Americanized, I've been in the States for 20 years. I consider myself an American, a Russian-born American. So it was challenging for me to strip down all the American-isms that I have gained over the years and become that person that I was 15, 16 years ago, when I first came to this country."
When his character falls in love with Ramona and joins a band, "I bring all of my classical music training into this band. So it becomes a hybrid sound, very strange, very odd, at least at first," Philippe said. "We are trying to match our differences, but at the same time, it gives the band new life, because Nellie's character has been quite depressed over the years. Meanwhile I'm sort of coming to lead a double life, between my Juilliard training and my newly-found attractions. Basically that's how the story develops, so there is a little bit of drama, a little bit of conflict."
"I had to push myself to some extremes that were a bit unexpected, for example my first on-screen kiss," Philippe said. "I had to do a shower scene -- that was also quite challenging! The whole process was unbelievably challenging, just being on the set for hours and hours. A lot of people, I think, are familiar with the fact that on the set of a film it takes forever and ever before you're actually doing the scene, and the scene takes 20 to 30 seconds."
"In that sense, it sort of reminded me of recording any violin music," Philipp said. "You take breaks, you do different takes, but you constantly have to be in the moment. You always have to come back in exactly the same mood where you left it off. So as you can see, I constantly use my music training, bringing pretty much the entire package of my music training in to the film. That, I found unbelievably beneficial."
At one point, Philippe even had to become a hip-hop artist.
"There was one part where the director was looking for some obnoxious Russian underground music, and the director asked me if I knew any Russian bands," Philippe said. Though he had heard of some, he did not know them well enough to contact them and ask to use their songs. So Philippe decided to take a stab at composing the music himself.
"I went home and I researched the most obnoxious Russian bands you can imagine: this disgusting, underground, loud, Russian hip-hop music, which is actually quite popular," Philippe said. "I listened to all of that -- fortunately for a very short period of time (he laughs) -- and then I wrote some lyrics. I only needed to come up with 30 seconds for the song. Then I went to the studio, and I actually did two different voices, and I played most of the instruments for the song: a little bit of piano, a little bit of drums, a little bit of guitar, and we also used a synthesized beat."
When he had recorded the tune, he presented the finished product to his mother, Lora Kvint, who is a popular music composer in Russia.
"She actually sits sometimes in competitions, sort of the equivalent of American Idol. So she hears these bands all the time," Philippe said. "I sent to her the mp3, without telling her what is was, and then I called her up afterwards and said, 'What do you think?' She said. 'I know that you spent many years in America, and you find our Russian bands amusing, but I hear this awful music all the time, so for me, this is not fun." Then she asked, 'Which band is this?' And I said, "Actually, this is me." She said, 'What are you talking about?' I said, 'Well, everything you heard is me.' She said, 'Who are the voices? They're two really disgusting-sounding Russian guys there, they couldn't be you.' I said, 'No, it is me.'
"I had changed my voice quite a bit -- to the point that my own mother didn't recognize me!" Philippe said. "At that point I knew: Mission accomplished. I sent the mp3 to the director and he said, 'Philippe, it's absolutely awful, we're going to use it.'"
"It was fun, it was such an out-of-the-box experience for me," Philippe said. "I loved it."
The 2011 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition announced the winners among 48 ensembles who came from around the world to South Bend, Indiana, for the largest chamber music competition in the world last weekend. Here is a list of the laureates:
The Calidore String Quartet
Senior String Division:
Grand Prize ($7,500.00) and Gold Medal ($3,000.00) : Calidore String Quartet, Colburn School Conservatory of Music, Los Angeles:
Jeffrey Myers and Pasha Tseitlin, violins
Jeremy Berry, viola
Estelle Choi, cello
Silver Medal ($2,000): Aeolus Quartet, Butler School of Music, University of Texas, Austin; and Cleveland Institute of Music:
Nicholas Tavani, violin
Rachel Shapiro, violin
Gregory Luce, viola
Alan Richardson, cello
Bronze Medal ($1,000): Persinger Quartet, Colburn School Conservatory of Music:
Stephen Tavani, violin
Ryan Meehan, violin
Arianna Smith, viola
Allan Steele, cello
Junior String Division (ages 18 and under):
First Place Medal ($2,000 scholarship): Polaris Quartet, Starling Program at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music
Jenny Lee, violin
Billy Fang, violin
Demi Fang, viola
Josh Halpern, cello
Second Place Medal ($1,500 scholarship): Milo Quartet, Community Music School of Webster University, Saint Louis, Missouri
Jecoliah Wang, violin
Emily DeBold, violin
Charles Longtime, viola
Richard Mazuski, cello
Third Place Medal ($1,000 scholarship): Tropical Trio, New England Conservatory, Boston, Massachusetts
Ingrid Yen, violin
Madeleine Tucker, cello
Jinsoo David Lim, piano
Congratulations to the winners, and to all participants!
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Rachel Barton Pine, who leads a double life as a classical musician with a bent for history and writing her own cadenzas -- and metalhead rocker with her band Earthen Grave -- will be teaching at Mark Wood's Rock Orchestra Camp this July. On the syllabus: Thrash 101 – learning some of the most challenging and fun riffs to your favorite metal tunes; Rocking Out Unplugged; Monster Shredding – to keep your chops in shape; and World’s Greatest Cover Band – how to arrange your favorite tunes for a chamber ensemble.
Here are Mark and Rachel, riffin' at a rock concert to "Night on Bald Mountain."
* * *
The Juilliard School's 106th commencement takes place this Friday in Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, and composer/conductor John Adams will deliver the commencement address. Adams will also receive an honorary doctoral degree; and honorary degrees will also be awarded to actor Sir Derek Jacobi, jazz pianist Herbie Hancock and choreographer Twyla Tharp.
One day in 2010, Curtis-trained classical violinist Judy Kang set aside the Strad she was playing and hit the road with a brand-new hot pink electric fiddle.
You could say she went Gaga. More accurately, you could say she joined Lady Gaga's enormously popular Monster Ball tour, playing hundreds of shows for more than a million people in all corners of the globe.
And she didn't exactly leave the classical world behind -- even while on tour she occasionally sneaked away to play a classical gig, for example, the Brahms Concerto at Carnegie Hall.
But before roaming the world with a rock band, Kang had already covered the map as a classical musician. Born in Edmonton, Canada, Kang has played in orchestras across the United States, Europe and Asia. In addition to her Bachelor's degree from Curtis, she also has a masters degree from Juilliard, as well as Artist Diploma from the Manhattan School of Music. When playing classical music, she performs on the 1689 "Baumgartner" Stradivarius, on loan from the Canada Council for the Arts.
What's it like to live in both the classical and pop music worlds? Well, let's start at the beginning:
Laurie: What made you decide to start playing the violin in the first place? How old were you, and did you start with the Suzuki method?
Judy: My grandmother had a dream the night before I was born -- she saw a baby girl holding a violin. So she told my mom, who never played an instrument but had always wanted to. My mother then naturally had the desire to start me on the violin -- but only if I was a girl, according to her. As an infant, I was inclined to stop and listen or dance to classical music, as well as other kinds of music, but in particular classical. I had my first lesson when I was four years old and took private lessons on the Suzuki method.
Laurie: I know that you had been playing as a classical soloist, can you give us some idea how many concerts you had been playing a year, with whom, and what kind of music?
Judy: I performed an average of 50-70 classical concerts a year, with orchestras, in recital, and chamber music. I performed standard repertoire as well as explored music of today. I also performed in music rock venues, and clubs collaborating with bands of all types including indie, rock, hip hop and jazz. I also performed with my own band, which is a mix of electronic, dub, ambiant, and trip hop. We are called The Simple Machines.
Laurie: How did you learn about this gig with Lady Gaga? Had you ever played popular music before, and in what context?
Judy: It was brought to my attention that she was looking to have a violinist through a bandmate. I have performed pop music before with 'NSYNC (at the MTV Video Music Awards) and with Lenny Kravitz (music video) to name a couple.
Laurie: Was there an actual audition process? I'm guessing you didn't have to play "Don Juan," so what was it like?
Judy: I did go through an audition process. It was first through her musical director, and I was called back immediately. There were several violinists that auditioned, first in Los Angeles, then they held auditions in New York City. I came to the audition in New York. It was a very last-minute thing -- I was told about it two nights before the first audition. I got my outfit together the day before and played the next day.
All the contenders were brought into the room at the same time, and we essentially played in front of each other. I had Bad Romance and Speechless prepared. I had a game plan, but of course, as I had expected, I ended up playing in the moment: An improvised solo with the two songs as the themes. It was about three or four minutes, and then my callback was a freestyle. I played some of the "Bad Romance" and went into whatever I felt in the moment -- just some virtuosic lines, and some of her song, Paparazzi.
The final audition was the next day at an undisclosed location. Gaga was there along with the Haus of Gaga -- her creative team and musical director as well. She hand-picked me out of four finalists. It was an amazing feeling, feeding off of her and her team's energy! I love the freedom I had when I performed for her! In some ways, being able to go in without a set list was amazing. But, the possibilities in that case are so endless that I had to think through what I could give to express a lot of different emotions, moods, and technical virtuosity in less than five minutes. I loved the challenge of it!
Laurie: Tell me a little bit about the commitment you have to make, when you sign up for a show like this: how much of your time is it? Does your whole life revolve around the show for a while? Were you worried about leaving behind your classical-music life? Did you kind of have to even leave behind your WHOLE life? What made you say "yes"?
Judy: Initially, it was a year-long commitment, which then extended into a year and a half-long tour. It is a full-time commitment for the most part, with a few breaks in between, at which time, I had complete freedom to do my own projects. I definitely felt excited because I had always wanted to broaden my horizons through experiencing different types of music in different contexts. I wasn't really worried about leaving the classical music life, because I don't ever feel like I left it behind. I believe there is a purpose in every opportunity given in your life, and it is obviously your choice whether to go through that door, or to pass it up. I felt, at this point in my life, I would have regretted passing it up. I am not necessarily a believer that everything happens for a reason, but I know there is always something to be learned when something new comes along in life.
In a sense, I did leave my whole life behind. I was in New York, and I had concerts scheduled. There were a few factors that made me hesitate to say yes initially, and that was one of them. This was the first time (and last) that I had to back out of the concerts I was scheduled to perform. Fortunately, everyone was SO supportive, and in many ways, even more excited for me to have this opportunity. That made me feel more at ease and encouraged. I got a lot of advice from family, friends, mentors, everyone! I prayed a lot, and I didn't commit until a few weeks in. My decision to fully commit was determined by getting to know my band members, how we worked together, how our personalities meshed, and all in all, what my heart was telling me. I felt comfortable right off the bat with them, and I just got more and more excited about working with them and with Lady Gaga.
Laurie: Tell me about your set-up. What kind of electric fiddle do you have? What made you choose the instrument that you have, what were the considerations? Was some of it about the "look"?
Judy: I perform solely on an electric violin by Mark Wood. I have sound effect pedals, as well. I wasn't too knowledgable about electrics, to be honest. I was so fortunate to have had a couple of weeks of rehearsals before going on the road, to research instruments. I made a cold call to Mark Wood after suggestions from colleagues, and he was amazing enough to hand-deliver an instrument to me a couple of days later at the rehearsal studio! I had a five-stringed instrument brought to me. Of course, this was the first time I had ever played a five-string, let alone an electric. It was a blast! I had SO much fun discovering new feels, new techniques and new sounds... I even shredded on it to the point where my band guitarists and I were having solo contests for fun because of the similarity of sounds! I decided this was the right violin for the show because of the flexibility of movement I have while performing on it. It looked perfect, and it blended well with the other instruments in the band.
I also enjoyed envisioning of how it would work in the show, collaborating and lending my visual opinions to Mark's designer in order to come up with something very personal and creative. I visualized a shiny hot pink violin, and it came to life through the awesomeness of Mark Wood and company!
Laurie: What were some of the adjustments you had to make, going from playing as a concert soloist to playing in this wildly popular show? Do you have to do much dancing or acting in the show? How is the music different?
Judy: I had about two weeks before our first show to get used to playing on the instrument, moving around, walking, dancing and adjusting sounds. The measurements are also a bit different, as well as the touch. I didn't find it too difficult. A lot of the process was very organic and I learned as I went along. I still feel like I am able to discover new sounds and techniques. I think that is a lifelong process. I definitely am a character in the show, as it tells a story. I think one of my favorite aspects is the ability to dance. I've always loved it, and in a sense, this gave me the opportunity to do two things that I love simultaneously. Stylistically, I didn't feel like it was totally venturing out into new territory, as I had always loved pop music and other styles of music. As long as I can remember, I listened to it, and I think that exposure became engrained in me with regard to the articulations, sounds and rhythms. I essentially am bringing what I do and always have done in the past into the show and of course, am influenced by the music but in very organic ways. It feels very natural to me.
Laurie: One of my students arrived at his lesson, very excited to tell me that he recognized a familiar violin song in a Lady Gaga tune.... so is that you, playing "Czardas" at the beginning of Alejandro?
Judy: Well, I would have to answer this question by saying yes and no. No, it's not me on the recording, but yes, they took out the recording of the violin for the show, and I play it live.
Laurie: What is your favorite Lady Gaga tune at this point, and for what reason? Do you have a different perspective on pop music after doing this tour?
Judy: It changes, but I think overall, Bad Romance, because it is amazing lyrically, instrumentally and stylistically. She sounds amazing, and it's just such a big pop tune. Yet having said that, all of her songs are pretty epic, for the most part. This is a tough one to answer, for sure!
My eyes have definitely opened wider, as to how I perceive pop music. Being around pop artists, writers and producers in the last year and a half has definitely shown me how intricate the process is. Working in a band capacity has also helped me see how similar the process of practicing is to chamber music. I see how much the lyrics mean to the artists, and that they come from a very personal and deep place.
Laurie: Are the fiddle parts fun for this music? Are any of them difficult? In what way?
Judy: They are definitely fun! I think the best part is that there wasn't any sheet music. I pretty much was able to create parts and also borrow from different sounds within the songs. I added some lines to certain songs to enhance the performance in the large venues that we perform in. The challenge I might find is not necessarily in the notes, but in staying consistent rhythmically. It is, in a sense, chamber music. You always have to be listening to each other in the band and staying tight.
Laurie: My 13-year-old daughter suggested I ask you: Did you get to wear any really weird costumes for the show? Is it just one costume for the show, or do you have to change throughout? Are the costumes different on different nights? Do the costumes pose any logistical issues?
Judy: Haha! Now that is a good question! I was waiting for this one...I was so excited about our costumes and what they would be like. I knew my character, but I had no idea how that would be manifested. I wear a black, lacy dress, form-fitted, with fishnet stockings, hot pink stiletto boots and lots of bedazzled jewelry! The attire is actually quite comfortable and it is the only dress I wear throughout the show.
Laurie: What is the craziest thing that has happened to you on this tour?
Judy: Too many to even remember!! We always say, if we had a reality show, we'd be getting the ratings!
There have been so many amazing, crazy situations, from backstage, to being in our tour bus, to some of the things the fans have done or given to me and my colleagues. I think the craziest moment I had on tour must have been when I was jamming with the Kidz (how Gaga refers to us) at our Christmas party, and I broke my bow. It just snapped. It took me a second to realize it. But, funny enough, I wasn't too upset. I guess it felt very Rock 'n' Roll. lol! I was able to get it repaired and it's almost as good as new!
Laurie: What has been the most memorable moment, performing?
Judy: Lollapalooza was insane! I think the outdoor shows are crazy because of the sense of connection with the audience. It's more raw, and you can see the people clearly. I think it has to do with the open air and not ever knowing what can happen with the weather. In that situation, there are so many more magical moments. You have to be prepared for anything that can happen, or for the unknown, and just let things be. You can't rehearse or duplicate those moments! I think in each show as well, we definitely have an amount of flexibility to be spontaneous. There have been several shows where I played a song without having heard or rehearsed it at all. I love that. It's definitely not the first time I've performed something spontaneously on stage.
Laurie: Do you have any fun stories to share?
Judy: Well, I did a concert on one of my breaks in Toronto. I played a concerto with Sinfonia Toronto. After the performance, I was talking to some people, and one of the audience members introduced herself and said that she had come to the Toronto MonsterBall show last summer. She was randomly listening to the classical radio station and heard them mention the concert and my name. So, she recognized me and came to the concert. She said it was the first classical concert she had ever been to and she loved it and enjoyed it.
Laurie: Do you feel you are reaching a different audience, has this work given you any sense of mission?
Judy: I am definitely reaching another audience, for the most part. I get approached, receive notes and emails from fans saying they are inspired to start playing the violin, or they want to listen to classical music. I also met people who are classical fans as well as fans of pop music and Lady Gaga. I am so excited to be an artist in this day and age, as I feel that artists are influenced by everything. It is hard to not be exposed to a lot these days. At least in the major countries in the world. I have always felt a mission to serve through music. To be an ambassador, an example, and to inspire and motivate others to bring positivity and respect to one another. I want to also open up people's minds and eyes to the endless possibilities of being an artist.
Laurie: Have you missed the classical repertoire?
Judy: I miss it. Especially when I listen to recordings. I practice the repertoire. I try to stick in as many concerts as I can in between tours. Last May, I was able to take a morning flight out of London to do a Carnegie Hall performance that night and fly back to Manchester for a show the night after. I was even more inspired and refreshed with the diversity of music that I had been performing.
Laurie: How has this experience changed you?
Judy: This is a vast question. I feel I could write a book about how this experience has, and continues, to shape me. For the most part, I believe that being around so many different personalities -- strong personalities, I might add -- has given me the chance to view things in various perspectives regarding so many things in life. I've learned about true compassion and understanding of how people can have different opinions and beliefs yet feel very connected and related. I also learned more about myself as an individual and an artist through all of the things I've experienced. I can't really say that my lifestyle is different, in the sense that my daily routine is pretty much the same. I went in with the desire to build strong relationships and to be a positive influence. I wanted to challenge myself and be challenged in all areas of my life in order to become a better person and creative artist. I feel that being in this environment has forced me to learn more about the biz, and in turn, I've become more keen and wise in that area. I realized that that is a necessary skill in this day and age to have a career as a performing artist. In so many ways, I've resisted the "showbiz" mentality and believed so strongly that it would just develop organically. And it did, to a certain extent. It's about finding the balance between the two. But in the end, I am a firm believer that everything serves a purpose in life and I know that this will only help me to further reach my dreams.
Laurie What's next for you?
Judy: I've reached the end of the Monster Ball tour after an intense and exciting year and a half of traveling around the world to amazing destinations and performing for over 20,000 fans every other night! I think a couple weeks of sleep is next on my agenda! Spending time with family and friends, eating home cooked meals, being in one place for longer than two days....I definitely want to get back to playing chamber music as soon as possible! Reading trios, duos, quartets with friends, getting back to doing some recitals…I am excited about what's to come, which is in some ways is a mystery, but I have some projects planned for the near future. I am excited about recording a new CD, collaborating with some amazing artists, as well as writing a lot of new pieces... I hope to continue working with various artists and conductors. I am always visualizing, always creating new ways for performance and art in my mind. I love teaming up and collaborating with artists who may share similar visions and ideas.
Our interview with Sarah Chang is one of more than two dozen in The Violinist.com Interviews: Volume 1, which also features talks with Joshua Bell, Maxim Vengerov, and David Garrett, as well as a foreword by Hilary Hahn.
Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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