Earlier this month, I asked a few of Violinist.com's soloist friends if they would like to write about our topic for August, Celebrate Classical Music. Today I'm happy to present a blog from violinist Philippe Quint, whom I've interviewed a number of times, about the Korngold Concerto; about Paganini works and about performing in Mexico.
Thank you, Philippe!
* * *
Photo courtesy the artist
Quitting the violin and who cares about classical music…
by Philippe Quint
When Laurie asked me to contribute a blog to “Celebrate Classical Music,” I thought to myself: well…there is hardly anything to add to what’s been said. Then suddenly I had an enormous stream of thoughts and observations that started to accumulate, prompting me to run to the computer to write them down.
Classical music has been with us for hundreds of years, and we all know how great it can be. I am saying “can be” because, even some of the great composers have had their flops, and some of the greatest music has been interpreted so poorly (even by well-known performers) that it left either little or no impression at all.
Many years ago, I was in one of my music history classes at Juilliard, and the teacher offered us a so-called “free topic.” Basically, anyone could stand up and talk about anything, whether it was music- or non-music-related. During that class, we discussed everything from astronomy to math to human relationships to -- of course -- music.
My topic was relatively simple: “Why isn't classical music gaining the recognition that popular music is? And why do some other genres with much less substance have more followers?”
A colleague of mine, a student from Western Europe, quickly raised his hand and proclaimed: “There is no need for classical music to achieve the same success as the popular genres. Being classical musicians makes us a part of an elite group of true music appreciators."
So my friends, here is another "free topic": Are we the elite group that knows better then everyone else? Do we want to create an alienated society that is hardly open-minded?
I grew up in a conservative, oppressive Soviet society, where everyone was wearing the same uniform, went to the same stores, listened to the same music and obediently followed the rules. That being said, popular music was just starting to penetrate Soviet music markets in the late 70s, and Classical musicians were the “rock stars” of the time. (A side note: Ever hear anyone say about a rock musician, “He is the classical star of the rock music!”? Probably not!)
I attended multiple performances of classical concerts, ballets and operas. I obsessively read books and watched the three available Soviet channels that had a slew of Soviet Presidents, which changed once every six months.
After my arrival in the United States in 1991, and upon acceptance to Juilliard, I continued the path of strict Classical Music training, entering multiple competitions and sneaking into every possible concert at Avery Fisher and Carnegie halls. I also bought the unaffordable-to-me-at-the-time records of my favorite performers.
Classical Music was my life.
But the competitions did not support my hopes of sudden, overnight success, and the music business world was deaf to my attempts to become a concert violinist. That’s when frustration kicked in. What to do? Do I succumb to the more popular genres like “crossover,” or do I just simply quit the violin and find myself another profession? The recent movement at the time -- so-called “house music" and DJ’s that came with it -- had millions of fans worldwide. That kind of popularity is rarely seen with Classical Music and musicians. So who cared about Classical Music and Artists, if we couldn't reach the younger generations?
I contemplated quitting, and I even stopped playing for several months in the mid-90s. During that time, I arrived at some interesting conclusions. First: It is easy to get lost in this world, but what remains important is being true to yourself. Also: Classical music is not about popularity, and it does not need to be equated to any other music genre. It is simply in a class of its own and requires one important aspect – LISTENING. It’s a complex creature, with many layers of colors and structures.
Even so, I hardly think that we are an elite group of true music aficionados, with a closed, small, unwelcoming circle of like-minded individuals. Rather, we sometimes simply lack the ability to properly introduce classical music to the world. The good news is that now, more then ever, I feel that we have a number of wonderful ambassadors who have been actively changing the perception of classical music. These visionaries pop up once in a while, and they take the initiative to tastefully stretch the boundaries and move things forward.
Even when sometimes I am not touched by something innovative – I always appreciate the effort. I know how much work it requires, and in a long run, we really don’t know how a new idea may further develop and improve.
One life motto I have established is that I do not want to ever look back and regret that there was something I was curious about and did not try. While still at Juilliard, I suddenly wanted to try the “forbidden” world of “other” music.
And I did. I collaborated with interesting “outside of classical music” artists, composed some original music, and explored different styles. What I found was that all music worlds have their pros and cons.
Choose the art form that speaks to your heart. There is no reason to praise or dismiss any style or movement, simply because of your friends' opinions or because of the media's influence. It is important to do your own research, so that you can make your own judgments about art forms that are yet-unknown to you. Perhaps you'll make a fascinating discovery.
I find one of the most ridiculous discussions today is the frequently-mentioned idea that Classical Music is dying. Come on people – don’t be silly! It’s like saying that Louvre Museum in Paris will be closing because the paintings of Da Vinci, Rembrandt and Michelangelo are now out of fashion and too old to attract any more interest.
Great art will find ways to survive and prevail over time. I love Classical music and can’t imagine my life being without it.
This is my favorite kind of controversy: a completely harmless one.
I'm speaking of the kerfuffle over the flamboyant Korean-born violinist Hahn-Bin, 25, changing his name to Amadeus Leopold.
You can hear him tell why, in this WQXR Blog article, but to sum it up: after waiting five years for his American citizenship, he chose this name in July, when he finally was granted citizenship.
The question is, is it a stunt? And if it is, is that bad?
I view a stunt as something cooked up, very often by someone's publicist or manager, to get attention. To me a "stunt" implies something phony. But I don't think anything about Hahn-Bin/Amadeus Leopold is a stunt -- I think it's completely and authentically him.
Certainly, the man wants attention. But when we bother to bring something to the stage, shouldn't we all?
In the interview below, he talks about his dismay over finding half the audiences sleeping through classical concerts at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. "That's a very expensive nap," he notes. A graduate of Juilliard and former longtime student of Itzhak Perlman, he definitely seems to think this music deserves more attention than that.
He also says, "My exterior is only a reflection of my interior, everything on the outside stems from somewhere deep." And with a nod to Lady Gaga, "I was born this way."
"This way" is really, really out there. But if you can stand back and take it for what it is -- one person's way of taking all the chaos of the world and molding it into his own mode of expression -- it's quite unique and potent.
Not everyone will agree with or enjoy The-Artist-Formerly-Known-as-Hahn-Bin's way of expressing things, but I, for one, applaud his courage and would be open to seeing one of his unique performances.
As for taking the name Amadeus Leopold, why not?
I think I've found a version of heaven: Me, in a room with six massage therapists.
Even better, this group of therapists was assembled for a class especially designed to address the needs of musicians, taught by Royal Academy-trained violinist Jenn Thompson, who also is a certified massage therapist. She founded Musician Bodywork of London, which specializes in massage therapy and osteopathy for musicians. She was offering this class in Pasadena, California, her hometown, where I also live. (Next week she goes back to London.)
Jenn sent out the call for subjects, so these therapists could study our playing techniques and test their new massage techniques on our fiddle-twisted bods. I willingly volunteered. Despite a reasonably consistent yoga practice and a decent playing position, my upper back, shoulders and neck seem to always carry considerable tension. My husband has waved the white flag, when it comes to working on the solid-rock knot that persists in my right upper back!
I would argue that, even if you've perfected the ergonomics of your playing, the fiddle presents an awkward proposition: Violin resting on left shoulder, left arm suspended, left fingers flying, right shoulder with no balancing weight, right arm in motion -- this simply does not create balance in the body.
I've had a number of massages, but few therapists seem to understand the particular problems of a violinist. But look at how closely these guys were studying my every muscle, as I played for them!
Frankly, it was a little disconcerting, but I'll go to great lengths for science. And a massage! I believe they were observing which muscles I tended to use, whether I was standing with my hips straight (as opposed to one more raised than another), any arching or torquing of my back and shoulders, etc.
The therapist who picked me was Susan Platz, also a violinist and a massage therapist working in the Los Angeles area. I felt pretty good when she said that, for the most part, I wasn't exerting a lot of unnecessary muscles and playing with undue tension.
But that does leave the considerable "necessary" exertion (and contortion!) needed just to play. Something I'd never noticed --which Susan did -- was the fact that I tense some muscles in the front of my neck when playing. She worked on those muscles, as well as my infamous upper back. We were in a room full of musicians on massage tables -- others included a trombone player, flutist, cellist and a few other violinists. I heard a lot of talk about the benefits of yoga, (in between exclamations like, "Yes, there, oh sweet mama!") And here's a tip: get a tennis ball, place it on one of those nasty tension spots on your back, lie on the floor and roll around.
All in all, I think it would be great to have a monthly appointments with a massage therapist who had this kind of willingness to analyze the physical motions that cause tensions in a violinist or other instrumentalist. With some back-and-forth, one could probably come up together with a good plan for relief through massage, and also through changing this and that, while playing. It could be a real lifesaver for someone with serious chronic pain from playing, to work with someone who had a knowledge of kinesiology.
Meanwhile, that sure felt good - thanks Susan and Jennifer!
Here's a performer who brings a sense of assurance and enjoyment to his audience, not to mention masterful playing -- that was what I thought when I first heard Benjamin Beilman perform live during the 2010 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.
Just three months before that performance, Benjamin Beilman had won first prize at the Montreal International Music Competition, and he won the Bronze Medal at Indianapolis. Two years later, Beilman, 22, has graduated from Curtis Institute and also received a 2012 Avery Fisher Career Grant and a 2012 London Music Masters Award.
This fall, Benjamin has a busy season with performance engagements all over the world: a recital September 7 in Cold Spring Harbor, NY; a performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto Sept. 14 in Switzerland with conductor Sir Neville Marriner and the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra; a performance at New York's Alice Tully Hall on Sept. 24, playing Kodály's Serenade for 2 Violins and Viola, Op. 12, with violinist Ani Kavafian and violist Paul Neubauer; and on Oct. 20, his Wigmore Hall debut, a recital with pianist Yekwon Sunwoo, as part of his London Music Masters Award.
Benjamin spoke to me over the phone from Philadelphia last month about how he juggled long-distance violin studies with the Vamoses at the Music Institute of Chicago during high school, about his time at Curtis Institute, about coping with the rigors of the competition circuit, and about being one of the first violinists after Hilary Hahn to play the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2008 Violin Concerto by composer Jennifer Higdon.
Laurie: How did you get your start, playing the violin?
Ben: I first started playing violin in Houston, with a Suzuki teacher. My sister, who is two years older than me, had started violin when she was five, so by the time I was five I wanted to play as well.
Shortly after I started taking lessons, we moved to Atlanta, and I studied with a former Atlanta Symphony player. We lived there for five years, then when I was ten, we moved to Chicago. A lot of moves! Three years later we moved up to Ann Arbor (Michigan), where I went to high school.
While living in Ann Arbor, I was actually studying with Almita and Roland Vamos in Chicago. My dad and I would leave after school on Friday -- it takes about four and a half hours to get from Ann Arbor to Chicago. We'd get there in time for the performance class Friday evening. The performances classes are kind of legendary for running until two or three in the morning. Then I'd have lessons all day on Saturday; I'd play in the little string orchestra that the Vamoses had assembled, and then Saturday night my dad and I would drive back to Ann Arbor and spend the rest of the weekend there.
Laurie: That's dedication! So, you studied with the "Vami" -- I understand that they often work together with a student.
Ben: Usually, yes. They like teaching in tandem, especially in their pre-college unofficial program. Typically, Mr. Vamos really focuses on technical aspects: etudes, Sevcik, Paganini Caprices, Locatelli, Dont -- all those kind of things. Mrs. Vamos usually hears the standard repertoire pieces.
Laurie: What a nice combination.
Ben: It's amazing. The foundation that Mr. Vamos gave us is pretty incredible; I still rely on that so much. He would supplement a lot of those etude books with his own practices, and he'd take it to the next level. Both of them had such an appreciation that was infectious, for playing from the heart. Mrs. Vamos could always talk about scores and what's going on in the orchestra, but a lot of times it was: 'It just doesn't sound genuine, I need you to play more honestly, without trying to do something, just make it happen.'
I graduated high school a year early because I was so eager to start at Curtis. I had originally wanted to audition at Curtis a year earlier, after my sophomore year of high school. But my mom wisely, wisely put her foot down and said, 'No. You should have as much time being a normal kid as possible, and then when you go to Curtis you can use all that time to focus on music.' You don't want to have a couple years of high school (requirements) lingering, because then it's just going to complicate things. So I went to Curtis when I was 17, and I studied primarily with Ida Kavafian for the first four years.
Curtis allows, and almost encourages, students to stay a fifth year during the Bachelor's program. There are so many opportunities at Curtis to take advantage of that it's hard to do that in four years. So in my fifth year at Curtis, I added Pam Frank as a teacher. Curtis also encourages that kind of sharing of students. Even before I officially started studying privately with Pam, I worked a lot with her in chamber music, on sonatas -- So I had worked with both of them for a long time.
Laurie: You have done a lot of competitions, and I was curious about what you've learned from that process -- about preparation, about performance, about yourself. They seem very grueling!
Ben: They can be -- especially the bigger ones that I most recently have competed in, the Montreal and Indianapolis Competitions. Those are the only ones of that magnitude that I've done, on the international circuit.
Before that, I was doing a lot of national competitions. Those are still very high pressure, but not as grueling as a two-week-long competition. In general, you learn to accept that it may not be your day, at all times. You have to focus on what you're getting out of the competition, regardless of the winners. My teachers really emphasized the idea that a competition is for you to get a lot out of just practicing for it. You have that deadline, you have that big date marked off on your calendar. You know that by that date, you need to have a huge list of repertoire -- the Brahms Concerto, Bach's B minor Partita, Ravel Sonata, whatever it is -- ready to go.
In my early years, the main thing I got out of competitions was just having to balance a lot of pieces at once like that. But in the bigger competitions, Indianapolis in particular, I remember thinking, even before the final round came: How am I going to do this? I am just so tired, I feel like I've given it my all. Even though you only play three or four rounds, it feels like every day you are competing. You are always in the competition mindset. You have very limited time with the pianist so you always have to be on for that, you have to be ready for the meetings with the conductors or with the orchestra -- you're constantly going at 120 percent. And that's going for 17 days, in some cases.
Laurie: That's a long time to sustain that.
Laurie: You must feel like a completely wrung-out towel by then. But I suppose it prepares you for the life of a soloist.
Ben: Absolutely. Looking back, everything else after that will seem that much easier. When you have to go play Bruch Concerto and then play Sibelius and Brahms in a two weeks' span of time, you think, okay, I've done this before, this isn't my first time.
Laurie: I think it's really neat you have this musical relationship with your Curtis colleague Chris Rogerson, and I wondered if you could tell me how that started and how you've worked together with this composer.
Ben: We first met at a workshop sponsored by the National Foundation for Advancement of the Arts, called Young Arts. They hold this weeklong seminar for artists of all disciplines who are seniors in high school. They have writers, they have dancers, they have singers both classical and popular, instrumentalists, jazz….they have all arts included. It's sort of a competition, but more than anything, it's supposed to introduce you to all these different disciplines. Chris and I met there, obviously he was a composer and I was a violinist there. Then when I came to Curtis, he had been a student there for two years before me. So we started hanging out a lot and became friends.
The first time I played his music was about three years ago. Curtis has this program called Curtis on Tour. They send students alongside faculty members around the United States or sometimes around Europe, just to get that valuable experience of doing the whole touring process. For that tour, they commissioned two student composers, and I was selected to play Chris's piece, a violin and piano piece called 'Lullaby, No Bad Dreams.'
I very quickly took to his musical language and general approach, and it was something I really enjoyed working on and playing for eight or nine performances. Then, serendipitously, both of us joined the Young Concert Artists roster -- he joined about a year before me. I talked with my managers there and asked if they'd be willing to help me commission Chris for a violin sonata to play for all of these very important debuts that I had coming up last year, at the Kennedy Center, in New York and just around the country. They went for it, and so he and I got to work together again. He's a close friend. He's a Michigan football fan, so we'd watch football games together outside of music, we'd hang out, we'd go to parties together. So it was kind of the best of all worlds.
One of the best things for me about commissioning a piece is how much influence you can have on it. Obviously, you're not dictating everything, but you can give the composer ideas. For example, let's say you have a Schumann sonata or something on the program that's very dark: you can suggest writing a piece that would contrast that, or maybe a series of little vignette pieces that are lighter in character. Or, you can say, 'I want you to listen to the way Debussy treats violin and piano in the Debussy Sonata, because I like that idea.' It's cool, helping to frame these new pieces.
Laurie: I understand that you recently performed the violin concerto by Jennifer Higdon with the South Dakota and Glens Falls symphonies. That concerto is a pretty new baby isn't it? Isn't that the concerto that Hilary Hahn commissioned?
Ben: Exactly. That was a really cool process. Hilary commissioned Jennifer, with the help of the Baltimore, Indianapolis and Toronto symphony orchestras. The piece was written for Hilary, and Jennifer had Hilary' playing style and technique in mind. The piece was originally workshopped with the Curtis Orchestra, so that both Hilary and Jennifer could hear what it sounded like, how things fit, how things were balanced. At the time, I was sitting in the first violin section of the Curtis Orchestra, experiencing all this. I had no idea that I would eventually be playing the piece as well! It was fascinating to see the logic and the whole process of a soloist going about the question of: How do I make a piece perfect, for myself? For example, I got to see, in the second movement, how Hilary didn't like how some of the trombones were balanced, and so some of those things were edited out. Some things were added in, as well. I also was in the orchestra when Hilary performed it with the Curtis Orchestra at Carnegie.
After that, I started working on it with Jennifer, so I got to see up close, how Hilary maneuvered around these things. Just as a little side note: Jennifer would send Hilary drafts of the movements and I guess it was three or four times, Hilary sent it back saying, 'No, this needs to be harder. Make it harder, make it harder.' So you could imagine, if someone like Hilary is asking for something to be more technically challenging, it's going to be impossible to play!
Laurie: And so was it?
Ben: Sometimes, yes! Again, Hilary was so nice. She gave me her personal fingerings and recordings, so I had kind of a leg up on tackling the piece.
Laurie: Did you meet with her in person or anything?
Ben: I did, I asked her about a couple of fingerings and sections, and she also gave me really great advice about how to prepare it with the orchestra: certain things to focus on at each rehearsal. You have three full rehearsals with the orchestra, and the first time you meet with them, you don't do any rubato obviously, you just get it so they can feel the rhythms out, feel the pacing, and just kind of how to work with the orchestra, which obviously she is so skilled at. So it was great. I couldn't have gotten it from any better source. I had private sessions with Jennifer as well, so I had all I could possibly get.
* * *
Benjamin Beilman's winning performance of the Sibelius Concerto during the final round of the 2010 Montreal International Musical Competition. Here is the third movement:
With fall right around the corner, many parents considering violin lessons will ask the question, "What is the Suzuki method?"
Fortunately, it's a question I love to answer, having studied Suzuki pedagogy extensively and having taught violin for more than two decades. I've compiled a good deal of information, as well as relevant Violinist.com interviews and discussions from the last 15 years on this page: What is the Suzuki Method?.
More recently, I jumped at the chance to do a little more investigation, when The Strad editor Ariane Todes asked me to write an article for September's magazine about the worldwide growth and impact of Suzuki, 15 years after founder Shinichi Suzuki's death. The magazine with my article just hit the shelves.
For the article, I spoke to Suzuki teachers from all over the world, including Gilda Barston of Chicago, Brian Lewis of Texas; Nicolette Solomon of Texas (who founded Suzuki in South Africa), Helen Brunner of London; Martin Rüttimann of Switzerland; Therese Wirakesuma of Indonesia; Julia Breen of Australia; Fumiyo Kuramochi of Japan; Haukur Hannesson of Sweden; Jesus Florido of Los Angeles (who was among El Sistema of Venezuela's first students and teachers); and Julie Bamberger of Milwaukee (a regular visitor to programs in Japan).
I hope you will read the piece, if you are interested in perspectives on both how Suzuki teaching and pedagogy have evolved, how the method has spread throughout the world, and the different ways it operates from place to another.
Whether you are interested in my article or not, I feel that The Strad magazine is a publication that deserves our support, so here are two ways to get it. First you can get the app for your iPhone, iPad or Android device; or you can simply subscribe to the physical magazine. (I personally open the magazine each month and take a big whiff of that scrumptious ink. I was once a newspaper journalist, after all!). Both are available from this page: http://www.thestrad.com/subscriptions.asp.
This week I took a road trip to Colorado with my family, and I cleverly took my spare violin, so not to expose my primary one to the varying temperatures of the car or to the radical change in altitude and humidity.
I could enjoy my hikes, and I could practice!
But I forgot one thing: my shoulder rest! It's sitting happily at home, with my other fiddle.
I know that a lot of my dear V.commies expound on the amazing freedom you find without a shoulder rest, the incredible feeling of the wood vibrating against your collarbone, the ability to move the violin around on your shoulder and not have it clamped under your jaw (which, I will note, you shouldn't do, whether you use a shoulder rest or not). At any rate, I had no choice but to give it a try, so I thought I'd try to channel some of those positive ideals the anti-shoulder rest aficionados embrace.
It didn't go well. I found that I needed to bring my left thumb up and actually hold the violin at times, instead of cradling it between the thumb and index finger base joint. Vibrato required a slightly different position, in which the thumb moves bit more underneath the neck, so there was this new requirement to change thumb positions more often than is normal for me. Shifting while playing fast notes was definitely more stressful. My thumb felt more tension from all of this, which gave more tension to my hand in general.
As for my neck, spine and head: Ouch. In order to even touch my chin to the chin rest, I had to shrink the distance between my jaw and collarbone. I have a high enough neck that this necessarily means scrunching my spine, just to make contact.
To be very frank: I hated it. Completely!
The truth of the matter is that after 30 years of playing the fiddle, I've found a balanced position, with a shoulder rest, that serves me well. As the saying goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. I feel more freedom WITH my shoulder rest: Freedom to cradle instead of hold the violin with my left hand. Freedom to switch between cradling the violin with my hand and taking some weight with my head when shifting or doing vibrato. Freedom to keep my spine straight, and freedom from pain in my neck. Freedom from pain in my left thumb. I can play faster, shift better, vibrate more continuously and with more variety.
As for those vibrations in the wood of the fiddle, they are a bit stronger without the rest, but I do feel them with the rest as well as without.
I have no doubt that some people find a better balance for themselves without a shoulder rest. Do what serves you best! I always welcome the debate and the sharing of information about this on V.com.
But I'm afraid you don't have a new convert to restless playing!
Here is one entry from me, to join the others for Celebrate Classical Music. I'll probably write several!
* * *
For a time in high school, I was madly in love with a trumpet player in my youth orchestra.
Certainly, the young man was good-looking. But more than that, he loved classical music. He didn't just tolerate it, he didn't just like it -- he loved it.
Another person, my age, attractive and talented, loved classical music? What a wonderful place is the world! If he loved classical music, I loved him!
To be honest, he probably knew a lot more about it than I did, as his parents were both musicians -- a violinist and a cellist. While this was a whole new wonderful world for me, he seemed already to be a connoisseur, at age 15. We'd get into conversations about favorite pieces and such, which for me were limited to things we'd played in youth orchestra.
"I think my favorite piece is 'Petrouchka,'" he said knowledgeably.
Oh yes, it's my favorite piece too. Smile, nod. Pe-whatschka?
As soon as possible, I visited the record store, where I purchased (please don't laugh, young friends) something called a "cassette tape." It was a recording of "Petrouchka," the ballet composed by Igor Stravinsky in 1911. (I describe the piece in great detail in this 2008 blog about an LA Phil performance). I probably need not say that the Internet was not invented at this time, and so there was no iTunes, and no possibility of buying only the track that I wished to hear. So my recording of "Petrouchka" also included Stravinsky's "Firebird."
I loaded it into my Sony Walkman and sat on the couch to listen. I enthusiastically accepted the jaunty, flute-filled beginning -- but very soon thereafter, things got weird. The meter started doing strange things, and I was hearing odd bits of this and that. I seriously wondered if I could ever understand this music, much less count it among my favorites. It was not exactly as straightforward, as, say, Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, which we'd played in youth orchestra. It seemed start and stop; pause and then burst forth. The tonal language was on the modern side. The story behind the ballet was completely unknown to me, and the insert in my little cassette did not illuminate me. As I mentioned: no Internet to help me on this front.
My trumpet player (and perhaps every classical trumpet player?) had a beloved excerpt from this piece, which he played as a warm-up during orchestra rehearsal. (You can't really miss the trumpet player warming up.) His little piece of "Petrouchka" sounded straightforward enough when he played it every week, but in the context of Stravinsky's meandering ballet, it might as well have dropped in from Mars. (If you want to see what I mean, try going from about 16:30 to 19:00 in the Youtube example I've posted below.) It didn't make the least bit of sense to me.
And yet, this wonderful person who loved classical music considered this his "favorite piece," what gives? I was determined to figure out why, and so I listened to that cassette relentlessly -- in the car, in the dark before I went to sleep, every chance I could find. I grew to know every single note of both "Petrouchka" and "Firebird," start to finish. I began to see that there were so many characters in the piece, so many personalities. Some were serious, some funny -- all sketched in great detail. It was as fascinating to listen to the tiny touches as it was to listen to the sweep of it.
Have you ever bought a piece of cheap, trendy clothing? The first time you wear it, it looks like the snappy thing you bought at the store. Then you wash it, and the color immediately fades. You discover it wasn't sewn together so well. A button falls off, a seam gives. The garment has shrunk a full size and is in tatters after only three washings. To add insult to injury, it's out of style in less than six months.
But seek out something of high quality -- made of good cloth, designed with intelligence and care to fit the body and wear well, sewn with good craftsmanship -- and it will last and last.
I could listen to those pieces by Stravinsky a million more times, and I'm convinced they will never wear out. They are so well-crafted, so intricate, so full of meaning, they will not fall apart at the seams and grow tiresome.
Life moved on and I grew out of my silly high school crush. But I've never grown out of Stravinsky; that will last a lifetime. This is why I love classical music, why it is so fulfilling for me to play, and why my love for it has endured throughout my life.
"Petrouchka," by Igor Stravinsky. Mariss Jansons conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra:
An excerpt from the end of "Firebird" by Igor Stravinsky. Pierre Boulez conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Legendary violinist Ruggiero Ricci had died at the age 94, according to The Strad magazine. Ricci began playing the violin at age six, with Louis Persinger. Later teachers included Michel Piastro, Paul Stassevitch and Georg Kulenkampf.
A prodigy --whose parents lied about his age -- he performed to great acclaim all over the world. He then had to re-invent himself as he continued to perform as an adult artist. He taught extensively, with posts at Indiana University, Juilliard and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He continued to teach into his 90s, giving master classes and teaching from his home in Palm Springs, California. He also wrote the book Ricci on Glissando, describing techniques that helped him to successfully play all the Paganini Caprices, for which he was famous for recording in 1947 on Paganini's own Guarneri, the Cannone.
Here is the interview that I did with Ruggiero Ricci in 2007, with a few videos: http://www.violinist.com/blog/laurie/200712/7851/
We welcome your comments and remembrances.
Below, what a beautiful take he had on the Bach Preludio, and at 5:00, Paganini Caprice #17. This performance is an encore from a March 1985 performance in Florence, Italy:
Dear V.com Friends,
We're going hold little blog contest on Violinist.com for the month of August, and the topic is:
"Celebrate Classical Music: Why classical music is so fulfilling for me."
Though I love many forms of music -- and most of us do -- classical music tends to have a special place in the heart of a violinist, violist or cellist. Classical challenges us, technically, emotionally and musically. It is the kind of music that grows with us, addresses so many emotions and experiences, and even changes meaning for us as we live our lives. And by classical, I simply mean in that tradition, which also includes Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern, etc. I'd like this to be a celebration of classical music, broadly defined.
You can write about why it is fulfilling to study this music, to perform it, or to play in an orchestra that performs classical music. You can write about your journey with one particular piece, or your feelings about one particular composer. You can write about how classical music has inspired you in playing music of another genre, or how it has inspired you to write new music. You could write about an experience where classical music brought people together for something bigger. You can write about any other angle that says why you find it fulfilling!
I will choose a winner from every blog entered, and that winner will be awarded a brand-new Violinist.com tote bag in early September, just in time for fall! Meanwhile, we can all enjoy each other's thoughts and insights on this subject.
To enter: Simply post a blog on Violinist.com, under the title, "Celebrate Classical Music." I will keep track of these and make them easy to find for all of us. (If you have never posted a blog on Violinist.com, this page should get you started. If you need further help, please e-mail me.) You can post the essay/blog at any time during the month of August: an hour from now, or at 11 p.m. on August 31. There is no minimum or maximum length for your blog, just do your best to share your most genuine feelings about the matter. I will announce the winner on September 4, with an essay of my own.
The violin concerto by Danish composer Carl Nielsen might not be the most commonly recorded or performed, but it has a passionate and highly competent champion in the 26-year-old Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang.
Her new recording of the Tchaikovsky and Carl Nielsen Violin Concertos, with the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra, is one of three she's released in rapid succession: in 2010 she recorded the Sibelius Violin Concerto and Humoresques and Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1; and in 2011 she recorded the Grieg Violin Sonata No. 1; Bartok Sonata for Solo Violin; and Strauss Violin Sonata, Op. 18.
At the start of the year, Vilde was awarded the 2012 Credit Suisse Young Artist Award. As a part of that, she will make her debut in September with the Vienna Philharmonic under Bernard Haitink at the 2012 Lucerne Summer Music Festival.
Her teachers have included Kolja Blacher at Musikhochschule Hamburg; and Ana Chumachenco at the Kronberg Academy. She also studied at the The Barratt Due Institute of Music in Oslo. She plays a Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume violin lent by the Anne-Sophie Mutter Freundeskreis Stiftung.
Speaking with me over the phone last month from Frankfurt, we talked about the Nielsen, about her relationship with Anne-Sophie Mutter, about her family of bassists and her Suzuki start, and more:
* * *
Laurie: I'm so excited that you've recorded the Nielsen. Having perhaps never heard this piece, I was struck with how worthy and likable it is. It has moments of great beauty as well as a kaleidoscope of emotions. While the harmonies are modern, it certainly sticks to a tonal language. How did you personally discover this piece?
Vilde: Nielsen was actually a very late discovery for me -- he is still quite an undiscovered composer. It's very hard to get Nielsen right; I think it's because his music isn't very obvious. Structurally, it's so free -- it swims, in a way. There is a structure, but it's a very exotic, very special, very personal kind of structure. Some people might struggle with Mahler -- Mahler has the same kind of exotic way of structuring music.
Also, technically, the Nielsen is incredibly awkward.
Laurie: I wondered about that.
Vilde: It is, actually. When the Tchaikovsky concerto was premiered, it was considered unplayable because of its technical difficulties, and really, Nielsen is no less difficult to play than the Tchaikovsky concerto! Also, it's a lot of notes!
Laurie: It's a long work, isn't it?
Vilde: It's a very long work, and it's kind of inaccessible, in a way. It's not an easy listen. I enjoy much more playing this concerto than actually listening to it. When I first heard this concerto, I found it very difficult to understand. Then I had to learn this concerto. I had an orchestra engagement with the Danish Orchestra and Nielsen is sort of the great son of Denmark -- they wanted me to come and play Nielsen because part of this concerto was written in Norway. It was actually partly composed in Grieg's home. Nielsen went to visit Grieg's widow in their house, and then when he was staying there he was working in Grieg's working cottage, which is there he composed the first part of this concerto. Since I am a Norwegian, they thought they might make a point out of that.
Then I discovered this piece has a lot of possibilities. It's a wonderful piece for the violin. I think every violinist should play this concerto, because you get challenged not only technically, but also structure-wise. You have to take a bird's eye view of this concerto, you need this kind of perspective.
Laurie: It seems like it changes moods very quickly.
Vilde: That's right, and it can be a little confusing. The challenge is to tie everything together. In that way, it's a little bit like a Danish version of the Elgar concerto actually. The end of the Elgar concerto is very long, and it's kind of the same challenge, with Nielsen.
Laurie: There aren't too many recordings of it, that I found. How did you go about studying it? Honestly I don't know if I've ever heard it, ever, before now. Which is crazy!
Vilde: There is a recording of Nikolaj Znaider, who made it when he was a bit younger. In a way, it's nice that there aren't any prejudices about this violin concerto. It's pretty untouched, and there is no one way to play this concerto, no general opinion. It's still pretty undiscovered.
The thing about this concerto is that you can't just play this concerto 100 percent, you need to be in 140-percent shape. You need to play this music with a lot of purpose, otherwise it won't work out. If you play the Nielsen at 80 percent effort, or 80 percent technically, that sounds horrible, miserable! You need to play with a lot of energy. It might be a daunting task for most people just to approach this concerto.
Also, it's very important not to forget that this is a tonal language. The notes are never just virtuoso effects; they always have a musical purpose. In some ways, this is like the Tchaikovsky Concerto. Tchaikovsky, in the first movement, has all these technical passages, but there are melodies in those passages, even though they are very high and very tricky. It's the same thing with Nielsen. It sounds weird, but it makes Nielsen-sense.
Laurie: What brought you to the violin? Did you start out with the Suzuki method?
Vilde: I did, yes.
My father is a double bass player, and my sister is also a double bass player -- my mother isn't a musician, actually. But I watched my sister play in youth orchestra, when I was small, and obviously I thought I was the next one in line, in the double basses family! To me it was a natural thing, but then my father made this argument: our family had a Volkswagon, which was a very tiny car. He said, 'Can you imagine, when we go on holiday, with three double basses? There is no chance the whole family will get space in the car!"
So he made me a smaller instrument. It was made of cardboard -- there were no strings on it. So I could put my Little Twin Star stickers on it, and Hello Kitty stickers -- but the fact that it didn't make any sound -- I found this to be very frustrating! I had to 'play' on it for almost a year until I finally got a violin which was alive, which made sound.
I remember the moment I got the violin that was real, that was really living and alive -- I've never practiced so inspired in all my life, as I did the first couple of days with that violin! I was in seventh heaven, I was so happy.
Laurie: And now you have much better than a cardboard violin, you have a Vuillaume that you play, is that right?
Vilde: That's correct.
Laurie: How did that all come about, with Anne-Sophie Mutter and her foundation?
Vilde: I first played for Anne-Sophie Mutter when I was 11 years old. After that, she asked me to keep her updated, and she followed my development. I kept sending her recordings and tapes of my playing, and letters about how I was doing. It was obviously a very inspirational thing for me, because I knew that she was always there watching, somewhere. When I was 15, she invited me to Munich to audition for her again, and then I was taken into her foundation, her Freundeskreis Stiftung, or Circle of Friends Foundation, and I was also given this Vuillaume instrument.
I've been playing the Vuillaume for eight years now. Over the years, it's opened a lot. It has the most beautiful voice! It's not perfect; I've had a lot of fights, a lot of quarrels, with this instrument over the years. I still do, because it's got a horrible wolf on every C and B natural, in every octave! But still, I love it so much. It's not perfect, but it's like me: I'm also not perfect. I think we've improved each other so much over the years.
Ms. Mutter has also been a great, great mentor to me over all these years. I did a tour with her in 2008, and we played in Carnegie Hall and Kennedy Center in Washington. I played the Bach Double with her. Of course, I learned a lot from this experience, not only playing for her, but playing with her.
Laurie: She's a really spontaneous player, it seems to me. What kinds of things did you learn from her?
Vilde: I think the most important was that she encouraged me to always trust my own instincts and follow my own voice. That is her top priority, and that's the message she wanted to give, which I think is a wonderful thing.
But more than any other musician I know, she is extremely focused on exploring the musical score, in order to get as close as possible to the composer. Many people might consider her to be very free, but actually she has the most authentic and strictest approach that I know of. I think that is why she allows herself to have that amount of freedom. The more you know the piece and the better you know the score, the more freedom you actually have yourself.
Laurie: When you won the Credit Suisse contest you were playing the wonderful Bartok Op. Posthumous, (she plays this piece in the background on this video, starting 1:40, then 3:00, etc.) I love that piece; I used to feel like I was the only one who knew about that piece, but obviously I'm not, you're playing it!
Vilde: Isn't it strange? Because so few people know about this concerto, it's too bad.
Laurie: I love that one movement is one thing, and the other is just complete insanity, completely unhinged.
Vilde: Bartok dedicated this concerto to the girl he was so much in love with, Stefi Geyer, and it really portrays "she and he," I think. The first movement is very dedicated to her; it opens with the "Stefi" theme, which you can also find throughout the concerto. In the second movement, it's very much the young boy who is proud and he wants to make an impression on her. It shows another side of Bartok. Most people imagine Bartok as very rough composer, and I think he's actually very lyrical, and extremely pure. For me he's the most pure composer of the 20th century, actually. He's so close to Bach: he doesn't need to add anything, because it's not necessary. Something about his musical expression is so honest.
Laurie: You've performed a lot of Bartok -- your second recording also has the Bartok solo Sonata.
Vilde: I did record the Bartok solo Sonata, which is my favorite piece.
(Below is an excerpt from the Bartok solo Sonata; if you want to hear her play it all, here is a link with no video.)
Laurie: What makes it your favorite?
Vilde: It is like a monologue, really. The structure is kind of a Baroque structure. It is like a journey, to play that piece. I've never been as focused as when playing this piece; it requires such an effort from the performer -- and also from the audience. Frankly, when I was learning this piece, I was a little bit anxious about how the audience would react to it, because it's not easy listening. I thought, 'Are they going to cough? Are they going to leave? How are they going to react?' In reality, when I'm playing the Bartok Sonata, it feels like the connection is stronger than ever. I think the audience is very hypnotized by this music. It's such a powerful piece.
Laurie: You grew up in Norway, where do you live now?
Vilde: I'm moving from Munich to Berlin. I've been living in Munich for five years, and I'm moving to Berlin.
Laurie: What's coming up for you?
Vilde: I'm looking forward to making my debut with the Vienna Philharmonic in September at the Lucerne Festival,as part of the Credit Suisse Young Artist Award, with Bernard Haitink conducting. Also, I will be making my Proms debut with the BBC Philharmonic, next summer. I'm taking part in quite a lot of festivals, and there quite a lot going on for the time being. This CD was just released in June.
Laurie: You'll be doing the Sibelius with the Vienna, and you've also recorded it. Tell me your thoughts on that concerto.
Vilde: The Sibelius Concerto is another close relation of mine! It's a piece I feel very attached to, and a piece I'm known for. It was such a milestone. When I was a kid, I remember listening to this piece and imagining that one day I would be able to play these notes myself. Now that I've sort of ascended that mountain, that only gave me a new perspective. Now it's a little bit like becoming this mountain, when I'm playing it. My approach to the piece is changing all the time -- I think I'm playing it very differently now from the recording I made just two years ago.
Laurie: That's allowed, isn't it? It's a good sign.
Vilde: I think so. It's like certain words, which change meaning over the years. When you're four years old, "love" might mean one thing, and then when you're 20 years old it might mean something else. The same thing with age 32, age 58, or 71 -- it's always changing. The power of this word is always getting different, and I think it's the same with music, no?
Laurie: It's the same with music, and the wonderful thing is that I think when you're 58 it still means what it meant to you when you were four and it still means what it meant to you when you were 20, it just means more.
Vilde: Yes exactly! But also you articulate it in a different way, I think, and you have a different approach to it.
(Vilde Frang, on the Bruch Violin Concerto, which she played with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Jakub Hrusa in April 2012.)
Violinist.com is made possible by...