I'll be at the 2013 Starling-DeLay Violin Symposium (May 28-June 1) at The Juilliard School, will you?
Itzhak Perlman, with students Michelle Ross, IhnSeon Park, Ania Filochowska, Seung Jung Oh, Aretta Zhulla, Nicole Leon
©Photo: Nan Melville / The Juilliard School
I've been going to this event, which is aimed at professional violinists, teachers, post-graduate and college students, since 2007. If you're curious about what it's like, check out our page called Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at Juilliard, which has links to the many articles I've written from this event.
The 2013 Faculty has been announced, and it looks like a lot of fun:
Master Class Teachers:
Jorja Fleezanis, Indiana University Jacobs School of Music
Ani Kavafian Yale School of Music
William Preucil Cleveland Institute of Music
Sylvia Rosenberg The Juilliard School
Pedagogy Class Teachers and Classes:
The Musical Gems of Josef Suk
Katie Lansdale, The Hartt School:
Invitation to the Dance: Exploring the Solo Bach Partitas; and Resonance/Concomitance: Considering Timbre and Polyphony in Bach’s Solo Violin Works
Michael McLean, The Colburn School:
Bach to the Basics: An In-Depth Look at the Compositional Genius of Bach’s Solo Works for Violin
Odin Rathnam, concert violinist:
Lost in Translation: Demystifying the Principals of Ivan Galamian in Practical Application
Guest Recitalists: William Preucil and Giora Schmidt
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Here's the Facebook Page for the Symposium: https://www.facebook.com/groups/SD.Symposium/?fref=ts (If you want to join this FB page and need to be 'invited' let me know)
Here is the website for information for this year's symposium: http://www.juilliard.edu/youth-adult/summer/starling.php
Is classical music a living, changing art, or is it frozen in time?
On Monday, Anastasia and pianist Elena Baksht will perform a concert entitled Chaconnes Through Time, at Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall. In addition to Bach's famous and beloved "Chaconne" from the D minor Partita for solo violin (which she will play in full), she will also perform the Vitali Chaconne, the little-known Partita for Solo Violin by Ernst Lothar von Knorr (Anastasia is known for uncovering such things). She will also perform world premiere of Colina’s "Chaconne for Violin and Piano," a piece in nine movements.
Michael and Anastasia met around eight years ago, when a mutual friend connected Anastasia's interest in contemporary music with Michael's style of writing music.
"At that point, Michael had a violin piece, called Notturno, which he needed played," Anastasia said. "I looked at it, and it was spectacularly lovely."
Both agree: Each piece they create together seems to bring up new ideas.
"One of the both blessings and curses of a performer is we are not creators. We need something to recreate," Anastasia said. A recording of "Baba Yaga" was released last fall, and the story behind it is a rather dark Russian fairy tale, which is not well-known in the West. Baba Yaga is a deformed old lady with supernatural powers, who eats children and lives in a hut that stands on chicken legs.
"We are also talking about the Baba Yaga being an older woman," Michael said. "Age itself is so often reviled -- beauty lost and loneliness found. This mythic character hits a spot for lots of people. She's not unlike the witch in Hansel and Gretel, but she has this side that can be redemptive, on rare occasions. She spares the life of this little girl, Vasilisa, who comes to visit her, and helps her, for lack of a better word, take revenge. But all of this is just the emotional life that goes on in creating the music. It's the story around which the music evolves."
Michael is a composer who returned to classical music after 20 years of producing jazz.
"I had stopped composing at 28 years of age and began producing jazz for artists and writing for them," Michael said. "I learned a huge amount from their spontaneity, their willingness to take risks, and their collaborative spirit. I worked with really great people. And at the point where the phone didn't ring any more, I decided that this was the opportune moment to re-find my voice that I'd left off discovering when I was 28. I came to this moment with all of this experience, working with these wonderful, malleable, creative risk-takers. I'd like to think that I brought that to the music I'm writing now -- certainly the collaborative spirit. Anastasia and I really hammer out certain passages, note-per-note."
"He's helped me discover the communicative aspect of the violin," Anastasia said of her collaboration with Michael. "It's one thing to play something that is 100 years old, which is intimately familiar. But a lot of contemporary music has lost sort of a human quality, so I would say he's reaffirmed my faith in the violin's ability to communicate just very bare, emotive, pre-human feelings."
It's also given her hope that there is a future for violin music. "It's very important to me to decide, even for interpretive issues, whether this is a tradition which is now held in amber, forever unchanging. Are we there just to serve history, as an occasional living reminder of what we once were? Or is this still a viable, living, thriving tradition?" Anastasia said. "Obviously, I have a vested interest in it being the latter. But as long as it is, it changes the way I interpret everything else."
"If your approach to Mozart, let's say, is: this is historical, this happened, this is no longer true, your interpretation will be one way," Anastasia said. "If you approach Mozart as: This could be written today, it just didn't happen to be, and I will play it as if I've never heard it before, that's a completely different set of interpretations -- and laws and regulations and issues of taste are often changed by it."
Anastasia's interpretation of the Bach Chaconne has evolved along with her thoughts about the role of music, past and present.
"I've been on a journey with the Bach Chaconne since I was 15 years old, and it's been a very important part of my life," she said. "Through it, I can trace my development as a human being. I've finally gotten an interpretation which I can say is completely mine. It's not unchanging, but the approach to the Chaconne, which I got about two years ago, is one I'm finally happy with. It is neither Romantic nor Classical, it's certainly not historically correct."
That approach has made it possible for her to see the Bach Chaconne as something new, every day.
"For instance, one of the things I like to do is that I look at all the variations -- there are 64 -- as separate entities," she said. "I've found that changing the tempos of the various variations, serves the piece very well, although again, it's not correct, it's not enshrined in the canon. But giving that piece its freedom to expand, to change from Monday to Friday, really brought it out. I just saw the way that audiences responded, and in the past year or two I've made it a personal challenge: that every note that I play should be, in my heart, like something I've never heard before."
Michael's new Chaconne evolved from their conversations about the meaning of the "chaconne," as a personal journey, as a musical framework, and as a dance form which originally came from Latin America.
"A Chaconne is one of the most perfect forms. It's sort of fractal," Anastasia said. "You have a very bare skeleton, which gives you some structure, but great freedom. As I started researching it more, I realized that the Chaconne actually came from Latin America -- Cuba -- and traveled to Spain. For Michael, his Cuban background is something that informs him both spiritually and creatively. So I found this coincidence to be striking."
The difference between the original dance and its evolution in Europe is also striking, especially as it took the form of Bach's great piece for solo violin.
"The Bach Chaconne is a tragic monument to great lost love," Anastasia said. "The chaconne started out being quite joyful -- and somewhat indecent, like many great things. It's very sensual."
"It started off as a dance, a bawdy dance done in bars, in 3/4 with the emphasis on beat 2, and usually with lyrics that were quite risque," Michael said. "Of course it comes back to Europe in the 1600's, and Bach makes this monumental work out of this and -- you can't touch that!"
Michael used the idea of the Chaconne as a launching point, including some of Bach's musical gestures, of ascending notes and descending notes meaning certain things spiritually. He also spells his name out, B-A-C-H, throughout the work, as well as adhering to the chord progression.
"Throughout this whole piece is woven all of these technical tools that I used to create it with," Michael said. "But at the same time, I wanted it to have a very appealing musical face that would still connect."
It's also a challenge for the violinist.
Michael writes at the piano and at the computer. Working on these projects, the two occasionally meet at his home in Florida.
"She would play this and then play that say, 'Why don't we do this?' and I would be recording it on the iPhone, on the video, so that I could take some of her suggestions back up to the studio and work on it more," Michael said. "So that's intensely collaborative."
When they can't meet in person, "he sends me the updated score by e-mail, I send the corrections right away," Anastasia said. "In Tchaikovsky's time this would take a boat and a few weeks, so the process is sped up."
Sometimes it helps not to be working face to face. It allows Anastasia to consider ideas, and whether they are playable, before responding.
"Sometimes he'll send me something and I'll start playing it, and at first I think, 'This is not playable,' but then I'll find sort of a cunning fingering for it," she said. "Whereas, if he were right there, I would say, 'No no, just change it.' So you actually wind up doing more of what the composer wants because you have some time to consider it."
Michael, though he has held a violin and knows how to play one, is primarily a pianist.
"You'll see this in Bartok, Prokofiev -- pianists think in fifths," Anastasia said. "We get four fingers, so a violinist will write things naturally in fourths. One of the central problems in adjusting to anything a pianist writes for you is that there's always an extra note, one second from where your fingers would naturally be. That does affect a lot of my editing."
Both composer and violinist welcome other musicians to have a hand at Michael's compositions, which are published by Bill Holab Music, on his website. (The Chaconne, with its premiere being tomorrow, will be published later.)
"That's actually the point! The point is to bring the music into standard repertoire," said Anastasia, who questions the adherence to the current canon of pieces featured in competitions and in auditions. Something like the Tchaikovsky Concerto is so overplayed, we can hardly appreciate it, she said. "The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto is a fantastic work. I'm not sure we are even in a place to understand how fantastic it is because it's so constant in our lives. If there was more variety of repertoire, there would be more variety of interpretation and these works could then continue growing and being changes and reinterpreted. With the constant noise of the Oistrakh and the Heifetz and the Perlman and all the interpretations which hue to that tradition, the Tchaikovsky is frozen in time. It cannot grow, because it's ever-present."
"For me, it is essential that beautiful music continues to evolve and exist," Anastasia said. "If we close the door on beauty in music, (if we close the door on) virtuosity, which is part of that beauty, I think our existence will be immeasurably less rich. So we keep trying to keep defining what music is today. Not what it will be in 200 years, we have no control over that. But in the case of Chaconne, this is an attempt not to mimic Bach or even to play tribute to Bach, just to continue Bach."
* * *
Here is Anastasia Khitruk, playing Michael Colina's "Baba Yaga Fantasia for Violin and Orchestra," Movement 1:
When violinist Anne Akiko Meyers announced this week that she had been granted lifetime use of the Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesu, a number of people asked why someone who already owned two Stradivari violins would also accept this valuable violin, which apparently was sold for a record-breaking price to an anonymous patron.
After the announcement, I e-mailed Anne, and here is our conversation:
Laurie: When did you first learn about the Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesu?
Anne: I read about it when it was being called the priciest violin in the world. I thought it was a little bit of a gimmick but when I got the opportunity to play on the violin for the first time late in the summer I was immediately struck by the sound which had a richness I'd never before heard from a violin. I have played many Strads and del Gesu's throughout my lifetime, but nothing compared to this sound.
Laurie: Were you interested in the instrument, then found a sponsor, or did the sponsor kind of find you?
Anne: I have been fortunate to have violins from foundations and private donors most of my life. When I was about 10 years old, Dick Colburn loaned me many violins (Grancino, Guadagnini) until I made my debut recording at age 18. In my 20's, I played on the 'Rose' Strad, thanks to a private donor, and then performed on several Guarneri del Gesu violins subsequently. It was quite a relief to purchase the 'Royal Spanish' Strad of 1730 in 2005, because instruments that are given on loan are often taken back at any time. The lifetime loan of the 'Vieuxtemps' del Gesu is truly extraordinary because I have an arrangement where I do not have to worry about being asked to return it. I was crying tears of happiness, joy and disbelief when this extraordinary event happened.
Laurie: What are you going to do with your Strads, now that you have use of the del Gesu?
Anne: I believe that instruments should be played -- this is the purpose and end goal of all the makers. Last year I gave away an Arcus bow because I thought it would be better used by an aspiring artist. I also donated a modern violin to a music conservatory in Cartegena, Colombia a few years ago.
The 'Royal Spanish' is on the market now, and I am thinking of Molly's future as well. Since life is full of surprises, it may make sense to always have my own violin. Plus I have restrictions on the use of the Vieuxtemps.
Laurie: Are you permitted to loan out the del Gesu?
Anne: No. I have restrictions on its use to help protect the instrument.
Laurie: How does one go about getting sponsorship for an instrument? How does a sponsor decide whom they'd like to loan a valuable instrument?
Anne: Classical musicians have been helped by great arts patrons for centuries, and for string players, there are a large number of foundations and generous collectors who have made great instruments available. Often, the value of the instrument can be enhanced by the exposure it gets when an important artist plays the violin, so it can be a win-win for both the donor and performer.
Laurie: Do you have anything to add?
Anne: I feel like Cinderella playing this violin. That fate and destiny have brought this unique piece of history into my hands is really humbling and a major responsibility to preserve it for future generations.
Anne Akiko Meyers has some nice fiddles -- now add the "Vieuxtemps” Guarneri del Gesu to the list, which include her two Strads!
Last time I checked, the asking price for the 1741 "Vieuxtemps” Guarneri del Gesu was $18 million, but no one is saying how much the instrument actually fetched. Anne did not buy the fiddle herself, but it was bought for her lifetime use by an anonymous sponsor. The violin was purchased from Ian Stoutzker, a London banker, through the dealer J & A Beare, Ltd. for an undisclosed amount. The one hint about the selling price, though, is that it exceeded the previous world-record sale price of the "Lady Blunt" Strad, which was sold in 2011 by Tarisio Auctions for $15.9 million.
In the fall of 2010, Anne bought the 1697 "ex-Molitor/Napolean" Strad for a then-record-breaking price of $3.6 million . She already owned and had been playing the 1730 "Royal Spanish" Strad since 2005. In 2012 she released a recording called Air: the Bach Album in which she played the Bach Double with herself, using the "Molitor" Strad (which she calls "Molly") for the first violin part and the "Royal Spanish" Strad for the second.
“I have never heard another violin with such a beautiful spectrum of color,” Anne said of the "Vieuxtemps” Guarneri del Gesu in a press release today. “I am honored and humbled to receive lifetime use of the instrument, and I look forward to taking the violin to audiences all over the world.”
The violin is also an exquisite work of art, light in weight and color, pristine in condition, without a crack in the wood.
The violin is named for its original owner, Henri Vieuxtemps, but it was also played by Eugène Ysaÿe and Yehudi Menuhin. The fiddle recently spent time at Bein and Fushi of Chicago, where a number of artists tried it out, including Joshua Bell, Vadim Gluzman and Philippe Quint.
Below is a video of Anne talking about the "Vieuxtemps” Guarneri del Gesu, with excerpts from December 2012 of her performing on the instrument, playing the Barber Violin Concerto with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in Carnegie Hall; and playing Mason Bates' new violin concerto with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, led by Leonard Slatkin.
"Always grow, as a musician and as a teacher."
That's a philosophy that the teachers in my Suzuki group (Suzuki Talent Education of Pasadena) share for our students and ourselves. Over the weekend we expressed that belief, and expanded our horizons, with a celebration of Mexican mariachi music for about 70 kids, representing 17 studios in the Los Angeles area.
For about two years we'd been planning Fiesta Mariachi: a day with classes in Suzuki repertoire, Mariachi repertoire taught by Mariachi musicians, a Mexican-themed lunch, a concert by a professional Mariachi group, Mariachi dance lessons, and then a big concert with kids and teachers playing with the Mariachi band.
This follows several other events we have presented as a Suzuki group: a Fiddle Fest in 2011 that featured the music of Mark O'Connor's emerging method as well as fiddler Pattie Hopkins; a Tango workshop with music composed by Michael McLean; an Irish music workshop and a Klezmer workshop. They all followed a similar format: playing new repertoire of a particular style, hearing professional musicians play in that style, working with those musicians, learning how to dance to that music, and playing a big, combined concert at the end.
For this particular workshop, I was a member of the planning committee, and for the event, one of three "point persons" for the day. Or as I preferred to be called for the day, "Laurita Rosita Fiesta Mariachi Chiquita"!
The pink dress, borrowed from a student, worked its Mexican magic on me, and I was speaking Spanglish all day.
We began by having our students play their familiar and shared repertoire from Suzuki books, with classes at various levels. Even those adorable beginners had a "Pre-Twinkle" and "Music and Movement" class. Here they are, practicing how to shake maracas so that they can participate in the final concert. They are gathered around teacher Nonie Reesor, who also thought to incorporate a little Spanish counting in there:
More advanced students had learned excerpts three Mariachi tunes: Cielito Lindo (muy popular), El Jarabe Tapatio (which you might recognize as the "Mexican hat dance") and La Culebra ("The Snake"). They worked with a Carlos Samaniego, a violinist from the group, Mariachi Bohemio.
Carlos' story is especially interesting for late starters: Carlos began studying music formally in middle school, with the guitarrón as his first instrument. He switched to violin when he was 14, began taking classical violin lessons and attended LACHSA (Los Angeles County High School for the Arts). After high school, he attended Cal State LA, studying both violin and voice. His Mariachi music has brought him to international folk festivals in both France and Italy, and to various music festivals in the United States, including at the Hollywood Bowl, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Madison Square Garden in New York City, and Radio City Music Hall.
When Mariachi Bohemio played for us, I noticed that every single one of the band members -- which includes three violinists, a trumpeter, guitarrón player and vihuela player -- all SANG. In fact, Carlos was teaching the students to sing as well:
Ay, ay, ay, ay
Canta y no llores
Por que cantando se alegran
Cielito lindo los corazones
Ay, ay, ay, ay
Sing, don't cry
Because singing makes us happy
My love, my dear friends
The singing style goes between extremes of tender expression and near-bellowing. Sometimes they showcase the ability to sing a note for an extremely long time. (I wonder, was fútbol announcer Andrés Cantor inspired by Mariachi?) But back to Mariachi singing, it's quite powerful and beautiful, when it's loud and long, or when it is soft and heartfelt. Why are we fiddle players so reticent to sing?
For me, one of the funnest parts of this day that I obsessively helped to plan was the part that did not go as planned! Our dance teacher, Marta Navarro, and her husband, were teaching our advanced violin students a dance to El Jarabe Tapatio, when they discovered that they actually did not have the recording they needed! I went running to see if someone else had it -- he didn't. When you are the Pink Muchacha in charge, you'd better come up with something, so I said, "We have no recording, but we have some musicians, willing to play for free."
So my colleague Liz Arbus and I played, while the students danced. It was so fun! At first we just played by ear, then a student found a copy of the extended music for this tune (which has many different musical iterations). My daughter shot just a few seconds of us playing with the dance class:
The dance teachers kept showing step after step, verse after verse. Not everyone could copy this final flourish:
It didn't really matter you couldn't exactly do the dance or play the tune perfectly today -- this day was about stirring the desire to do more later -- to learn more, to try new things. I hope everyone came away a few ideas, musical and cultural, and a little more curiosity and courage about exploring the world around them!
"Always grow," after all.
The beginning of Brahms First Symphony is so big, so resonant -- I could feel it in my elbows touching the armrests of the seats of the Ambassador auditorium, in the paper of my Pasadena Symphony program as I held it in my hands, in my feet that touched the floor.
On Saturday night I had come to hear violinist Caroline Goulding play the Sibelius Concerto, which she did with great skill, playing the c. 1720 General Kyd Stradivarius she has on loan from Jonathan Moulds. Also on the program was Peter Boyer's likable and rhythmically clever piece for strings, "'Apollo' from Three Olympians."
The Pasadena Symphony Orchestra could have used twice the string section for both the Brahms and Sibelius. As it was, the orchestra performed with 10 first violins, seven seconds (seven!), eight violas, eight cellos and six basses. Ah, "budget cutbacks." Would Monet have decided not to buy the color green, to paint his water lilies? Would have made no difference, right?
But the musicians who were there -- call them my colleagues, as I have played in this orchestra many times -- moved me greatly when they played Brahms. What musician gripes about Brahms, what musician does not love this work? My guess: the ones on stage Saturday love Brahms. Sure, there were problems: the small string section, some wobbly sound in the horns. Yet the sum of their efforts equaled more than those parts.
My heart felt better, listening to them play. What a beautiful thing they were bringing the audience; what a beautiful thing they were bringing me. And how special the occasion, when I can sit in a hall and listen to symphonic music, unfettered by the obligation to "multi-task" as it unfolds in the background, over speakers or headphones, as I drive or do dishes or work.
Maxim Vengerov said last week that every time we play a symphony or great symphonic work, we paint it anew, like a great masterpiece in a museum. He meant this in a good way, but people call a symphony a "museum piece" in a derisive way as well. I say such people do not understand museums. To stand within touching distance of a beautiful work, to see the brush strokes of the master, to understand the history that brought you and this painting into the same spot in the world at this moment in time -- this can be a profound and moving experience.
Brahms wrote his first symphony at 42; he would have been old enough to see the shifting seasons, both of the earth and of a human life. The changing colors of the first movement bring this feeling to mind: a slow-moving harmonic kaleidoscope.
As the second movement began, I thought about some of the beautiful stringed instruments that the musicians in the Pasadena Symphony play -- old Italians, relatively new moderns. No doubt all of those instruments have sung this symphony before; in many cases, before its current owner was born. My colleagues came here from all over the world. They studied with various masters at fine musical institutions -- I could think offhand of a few of their teachers: Ruggiero Ricci, Robert Lipsett, Josef Gingold, Ivan Galamian, Dorothy DeLay. Here they sat, together. Each of them brings that world of music into our community, with the students they teach, the performances they give, the projects they undertake, the conversations they have with friends as well as strangers. They've had their ups and downs, this human group: triumphant performances, failed auditions, celebrity and travel, partners and children, heartbreak, injury, ambition and disappointment. Here they were.
During the fourth movement's horn calls, which herald the theme that have led some people to call this symphony "Beethoven's 10th," the lights flickered. Would the electricity go off, on this windy and cold evening? It didn't, but if it had, I'm certain that most of these musicians could have finished the symphony in the dark.
A symphony orchestra is a live treasure in a community. Unlike a museum piece, it can't endure in a back room, to be brought out later. It has to beat like a heart and live through its musicians, its directors, its composers, its teachers, its supporters, its students, its administrators, its community. It must embrace its oldest and most knowledgeable patrons, educate its young, and provide artistic inspiration and growth for all.
Maxim Vengerov couldn't be happier to be playing the violin again, after his four-year hiatus from performing, and after the painstaking reinvention of his playing technique following shoulder surgery.
Now 38, Vengerov returns to the concert stage with his world enlarged: more conducting engagements, continuing teaching posts with the Royal Academy of Music in London and International Menuhin Academy of Music in Switzerland, and increased involvement with international violin competitions. During his years away from the violin, he studied conducting, and he also married Olga Gringolts, sister of Ilya Gringolts. (They just celebrated the first birthday of their daughter, Elizabeth.) Vengerov will be in North America this May for the Montreal International Music Competition, which features the violin in 2013. (By the way, applications are due on January 18 -- download an application here if you wish to participate.) Vengerov will conduct the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, accompanying the finalists and then the winners of the competition.
Vengerov was a superstar from the start, beginning his lessons at age five in Novosibirsk, Russia (still the Soviet Union at the time of his birth) with Galina Tourchaninova, then with the great Zakhar Bron. Soon he was winning major international competitions and awards. At age 10 he made his first recording, then proceeded to record just about everything in the violin repertoire. As a teenager, he got to know both Mstislav Rostropovich and Daniel Barenboim, who became friends and mentors to him. He owns and plays the 1727 "Ex-Kreutzer" Stradivarius violin, and he was the subject of the documentary, Living the Dream, which received the Gramophone Award for Best Documentary in 2008.
Vengerov stopped playing in 2007, citing both professional malaise and a weightlifting injury to his right shoulder that had plagued him since 2005. This month he releases his first recording in five years: the recording of his comeback recital on April 5, 2012, at Wigmore Hall in London (available on Jan. 14 in the U.K. and Jan. 29 in the U.S.).
During the holidays, I spoke with Vengerov over phone from Lugano, Switzerland, where he was visiting family. We talked about his mentors in music and conducting, Rostropovich and Barenboim; about his return to violin playing, with physical pain as his guide; and about competitions and his new role with Montreal International Music Competition and the Wieniawski competition.
Laurie: I enjoy your playing so much, and your Shostakovich recording, with Rostropovich conducting, is one of my favorites. How different is it to conduct a concerto, than to play one?
Maxim: I can tell you one thing about Maestro Rostropovich: he may not have been regarded as one of the greatest conductors from the technical point of view; but I made seven CDs with him, and I must say, those recordings are my best ones. And I recorded with many other wonderful maestros who were not instrumentalists. I think it was his great musicianship and also understanding of the violin repertoire, of the stringed instruments, that helped us to build an incredible chemistry that I had with no one else. That's why I think I've inherited this love for accompaniment, to accompany young people, my colleagues. I love to not only accompany violin but also piano soloists. For me, it is a great challenge and a great privilege to be on stage with them.
Laurie: I know that two of your mentors were the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and also the pianist Daniel Barenboim, and both of them are conductors. Did you speak about conducting with them, or mostly about music, or both?
Maxim: Both! Music, conducting, playing with the orchestra…They were my mentors, and sometimes our meetings went far beyond technical issues. Of course, the principal source of our meetings was the music, and what was required to perform Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, or Brahms, Sibelius, Nielsen….I've recorded most of my violin repertoire with these two conductors, who were also instrumentalists.
Laurie: What kinds of things did you learn from each of them?
Maxim: Slava (Rostropovich) was like a musical father, he was so close to my heart. Again, it was much more that I learned from him than just music, and musical expression. The thing that struck me was his humanity, and he transformed me into sort of a man of the world. Before meeting him, I was just a talented player that loved playing for audiences. We worked principally on pieces by composers that he had met and that he had friendships with. Those were Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Britten, Walton, Stravinsky. Beyond that, we also recorded Beethoven. One of the interesting things, when I came to play Beethoven for him, he said, "You know what, Maxim, I can just feel that Beethoven is trying to say something to me, because I think if you play it like this, he would love it." I asked him, "How do you absolutely know this, that Beethoven would love it?" and he said, "Because I think even the composer was convinced, even it wasn't his way. Even if the tempo is slower or faster than he would imagine, he would enjoy it!" For (Slava), it was a matter of being convinced what Shostakovich and Beethoven and Tchaikovsky was, even if he had not met those composers.
For Barenboim, it was a different approach. He would view a piece of music as an instrumentalist, as a pianist, from the harmonic point of view, from the orchestration, coloring. (Barenboim's was) also an amazing view, completely different from Slava. With Slava, it was this instant connection with the composer, with the soul of the composer. He would tell me, you have to imagine you were Shostakovich, or you were Prokofiev, performing the music. One of the most striking and touching things Slava told me was right at the end of his life, when I met him for the last time in the hospital. He told me that when he met me, I played beautiful Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and he told me a lot of things about those composers. But Shostakovich, he didn't have to tell me; it was as if I knew this composer when he was alive. And that was the biggest compliment, coming from him.
For Barenboim, the work was written, and that's in the past. He would approach it as if he were re-working and re-writing the whole work from scratch. But I think those were also Slava's qualities, he would take the work and say, "We have to try to reinvent this and make it as if we are doing a world premiere of the Beethoven Violin Concerto," which is actually hard to imagine! How many times has the Beethoven Violin Concerto been performed, since the concerto was written? But he would still find something very personal, something that is personal to him. I learned a lot from this approach.
Laurie: So what do you feel for you, as a conductor, is the most important thing, when working with a soloist?
Maxim: First of all, one has to reach a harmony with your colleague, the soloist.
Laurie: If you can!
Maxim: If you find no harmony whatsoever with the soloist (he laughs) -- that happens sometimes -- because sometimes the soloist doesn't want to or cannot, due to the lack of experience or an unwillingness to connect with you.
There are some players that think: here I am, a violinist or pianist, and you're an orchestra conductor, to serve me. It's a normal approach -- I don't say this as something negative. It's obvious that if we listen to the recordings of Jascha Heifetz of the most beautiful works by Sibelius, Beethoven -- with great conductors, you hear a loud, very present violin sound, and somewhere in the back is an orchestra! (He laughs) That's why I don't say this is bad! It's a matter of upbringing, a matter of habit, how the performer views the music. And some people view it in a sort of horizontal way: a line of the violin, or piano, with accompaniment of orchestra.
Laurie: And so what do you do if the soloist views it that way?
Maxim: Then you just serve your best, to be together and to support the instrumentalist, soloist, and try not to be annoying. For me, to be frank, it's less interesting because it becomes a matter of sport: Can I be together, or can I not be together? You use your professionalism to bring the orchestra at the right (dynamic) level, at the right speed, at the right form of articulation -- and this is what I call a good service to the soloist.
Now, when the soloist meets you and says, "This is how I feel," and "Let's make music together," you discuss a little bit, he or she plays for you, something in the dressing room, and then once you start making music on stage, a harmony has to be reached. You can absolutely disagree with the soloist, but again I should serve the best I can at the moment -- and not be passive, but be active in the accompaniment, to bring out the harmonies to stimulate the soloist to play his or her best. The conductor and orchestra, depending on the piece, provide the rhythm, character, harmony, and the spirit of the work.
Laurie Do you like conducting and playing equally well, or is there one you prefer over the other?
Maxim: It's like saying, I was born in Russia and my mother tongue is Russian. Do I love German, or English, more? I can't say I love Russian less, it's just so different! (He laughs) and I enjoy speaking different languages.
Laurie: How many do you speak, by the way?
Maxim: Well I speak English, fairly good German, not reasonable French. (He laughs) In time, I hope to speak French well! And a bit of others…
For me, violin is my first source of communication with the audience -- no doubt, my first love. But before coming to the violin, I wanted to become a conductor, because my mother was a choir conductor, and I saw her conducting. I sat in on all the rehearsals -- I was singing in the choir. She wanted to become a symphonic conductor, but because I started playing, and I needed her to be with me, she quit her job. She didn't develop the symphonic conducting career that she wanted. My father worked in the orchestra as an oboist, so I visited his rehearsals and watched the conductor who was the principal conductor of the Novosibirsk Philharmonic, Arnold Katz. I really loved his example. He was my idol at the time, when I was three and four. He just passed away a few years ago.
Laurie: So you had this in mind, for a long, long time.
Maxim: Yes, I had this in mind, but then I started with the violin and I was sort of stuck with that! (He laughs)
Laurie: You were so good at it, still are!
Maxim: Quite successfully stuck, let's say. And I rather enjoyed that, throughout my years. And then there came a time when I needed to conduct the English Chamber Orchestra, and so I needed to take some lessons. I didn't, and I still don't, believe that somebody with absolutely no knowledge of conducting technique can go in front of orchestra and say, okay, I can play the violin great, now I can conduct! It also requires some time, to learn the language of the musicians. You have to speak their language.
Laurie: Whom did you study with?
Maxim: I studied at that time with Vag Papian, who was my pianist. Vag was a student of a very important teacher in Russia, Ilya Musin, who was a teacher of Valery Gergiev, Semyon Bychkov, Yakov Kreizberg, and many others.
Laurie: What kinds of things did you learn from him?
Maxim: He comes from the Leningrad school of conducting, which provides great technical basic skills for the conductor. For me, that was wonderful to go through, the studies with Vag. I progressed quite quickly, and I was able to conduct chamber orchestras. Then in 2009, I decided to study conducting on a different level, a more serious level, so I would be able to conduct symphony orchestras. At this time I became a student of Maestro Juri Simonov. He comes from another school of conducting, also from Leningrad, from St. Petersburg. His teacher was (Nikolai) Rabinovich. So Rabinovich was a student of Aleksandr Gauk, Gauk was a student of Nikolai Malko. Malko was a student of Felix Mottl (and Mottl was a was a contemporary of Mahler.) So that is the Russian-Germanic school of conducting.
Laurie: A good pedigree!
Maxim: I'm very lucky, because Juri Simonov provided a phenomenal manual technique of conducting that allows me to show quite a lot of things with my hands, without using a lot of verbal expressions.
Laurie: I'm sure you wind up in front of orchestras with musicians who speak many different languages, but we all speak music, right?
Maxim: Yes. What's important is to be able to express yourself and the way you feel about this music, your interpretation, with your gestures. That's why you need to learn the source of communication: conducting technique.
Laurie: There are too many people who get up there and do some kind of ballet that doesn't really convey a lot.
Maxim: It may work in the short-term, because the orchestra is inspired. Also nowadays, orchestras (are so good), they can play even without a conductor. But if one becomes music director, you need a different knowledge.
Laurie: Do you want to become a music director, one day?
Maxim: I'm not sure I would like to become a chief director of an orchestra, I will tell you why: simply for one fact, because I may have to abandon my violin. (A music directorship) is a big job: to spend at least 15 weeks with the orchestra, to learn all this repertoire each year, to do the administration, to discuss the agenda with the orchestra, to advocate for the right soloist…there's a lot of work, being a music director. And it's not only the conducting -- conducting takes maybe the least time! That's why, I may look for a guest conducting position, which would require maybe three to five times a year somewhere.
Laurie: A regular guest conductor.
Maxim: Yes, to establish a very good relationship with an orchestra. That is what I think, in time, I will be looking for.
Laurie: Now speaking of abandoning your violin, did you ever really do that during your break from performing, or were you pretty much playing the whole time? Are you happy to be back to performing?
Maxim: First of all, I'm incredibly happy to be back on the violin.
When I couldn't play for four years -- it was a very good time for me, actually, because I could study conducting. Otherwise, I never would have been able to devote myself to this learning process. So from this point of view, it was great that I didn't play the violin. Also, it's increased my deeper knowledge in music, not only conducting, but I think I have more colors to my violin playing than before, for the fact that I hear it somehow differently.
Anything we learn and anything we go through in life gives sort of an imprint on your main profession. I can feel now, as a violinist, I'm a different person, and I'm thankful for these four years of time.
But I missed my violin for at least two of the years that I didn't play: the third and fourth years. The first two years were just great -- because I had a good rest! But then I said to myself, "Ooh, I really miss it," and I was looking for a way to come back. It wasn't easy, I must say, it wasn't.
Laurie: How did you do it, how did you come back?
Maxim: I came back because I was lucky to find a good surgeon who performed wonderful surgery on me, on my shoulder. And then I had one year of rehabilitation.
Laurie: I wondered if you had to change your violin technique.
Maxim: Not only did I have to change technique, but I wanted to. It was very natural for me to change technique. I feel much more free with the instrument. Because simply, I was putting too much effort into the violin-playing, it was sort of too physical. Now, I use only what's necessary to produce the sound and articulation -- whatever I need. Now I don't move too much, whereas before, my movements were sort of like a palm tree!
Laurie: When you rehabilitated, did you work with a doctor, or a violin teacher, or both?
Maxim: Totally alone. I had two criteria: First, music. The final result in music, what I wanted to hear, because I have very strong expectations, always, as to how it has to sound. And the second criteria: it had to be as less-physical as possible. So I wanted to achieve the (musical) results I wanted, with as less effort as possible.
Laurie: Did you play repertoire, did you play scales, how did you do it? I can think of a lot of violinists who would love to improve their physical playing to improve their health, but it's hard to know how.
Maxim: I must say that in this way, I was really lucky, because I had had an operation, and I was still in pain when I got out of the operation. Four months after the operation, I had done a lot of rehab, physical exercises, but I still couldn't play. So I had to work with pain, with quite a lot pain, actually. I had to (address the) matter of relaxation in my playing, otherwise I couldn't sustain playing more than 10 minutes.
Laurie: So the pain kept you from overdoing it.
Maxim: Exactly. So pain was sort of my red light. (He laughs)
Laurie: Pain was your teacher.
Maxim: Yes. If I had pain, that meant I was doing something wrong. It's amazing, actually. I realized that if I am in pain when I'm playing, I had to balance it. (I had to use) force, but just enough to get through. And I had to always increase the amount of playing. I started with 10 minutes, then 15 minutes, then 20, I got to an hour. It was quite a long process. Then very naturally, I could see that my movements were more refined than before. I had reconstructed everything, including my left hand, and my position of the neck.... Violin-playing, as anything else in life, is not only about being relaxed, but you have to contract your muscles and de-contract. The relaxation after the contraction is very important, you have to be 50-50. So I was working with this balance for a very, very long time, until I felt absolutely at ease, which is now. Now I feel that.
Yes it's true, I could write a book about this.
Laurie: It would be a very interesting book! Inspirational. It's hard to work back from something like that.
Maxim: Actually, I didn't do it totally alone. My father was my mirror all that time. He helped me -- he was more of a psychiatrist. (He laughs) But I think now my father can -- if you gave him the violin, I think he would start playing now! (He laughs) Although he never touched the violin in his life!
Also, I'm helping a few young people now, who came to me after the operation. I understand their difficulties. I'm actually the one who has gone through it, and I'm a good example for them. Not direct students, but they come to me and I see them regularly.
Laurie: You do teach though, at the Royal Academy in London, yes?
Maxim: Yes. At the Royal Academy, and at the International Menuhin Academy of Music in Gstaad, Switzerland.
Laurie: I've watched an old masterclass video of you teaching and you look like a fun teacher, do you enjoy teaching?
Maxim: Yes, although I must say that my style of teaching is different now, due to experiences I've had, and also my conducting experience, and experiences with viola and baroque violin -- all of these things add to the package.
Laurie You have also been more involved with competitions -- as chairman of the jury for the Wieniawski Competition, and this year you will be working with the Montreal International Music Competition. How did you get involved with the Montreal competition?
Maxim: I've known about the Montreal International Music Competition for quite a long time. It's a wonderful competition, and when the organization approached me, I thought it would be a great honor. Also, with my experience as chairman of the jury for the Wieniawski Competition, I felt this would be wonderful continuation, to be involved with another competition.
Laurie: So you will be both conducting and serving on the jury?
Maxim: We decided that I should not be on the jury after all, because I'm going to conduct in the final round. It's difficult to be on both sides of the fence! (He laughs) So this time I prefer to be with the colleagues, with the young competitors. I know how difficult and challenging it is to perform in front of the jury -- not only that, but to compete among other brilliant young musicians. We have a very good committee, so I'm sure the choice will be made wonderfully, and I trust the competition is going to be at the highest level possible.
I'm very excited about conducting all the finalists. Conducting the violin repertoire is one of my favorite things to do, because I do understand the challenges of the concerto, and I know the difficulties of playing with the orchestra. As conductor, I think I can be of some help to the young competitors.
Many people wonder, why do we need to do competitions? Many young people say, maybe if I can learn a couple of concertos, can get a good PR agent, it will just happen for me! Yes, it might, because with today's media possibilities -- the Internet, TV, all the promotional activities -- you can achieve phenomenal things to promote yourself. But there is something that we forget, by promoting yourself. We sometimes forget about the main reason why we are playing for people. We are playing the greatest compositions -- Beethoven, Brahms, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky -- they left for us this great heritage. It's as if people go to museums to see Leonardo da Vinci, the great paintings -- we have to deliver these great works, all the concertos, sonatas, chamber music, symphonies, in the best possible way that we can. We have to find very personal approach to them. Every soloist nowadays has to try to say something unique, something personal. Otherwise, if you're playing just another performance of Brahms concerto, why do we need to hear that?
That is the great lesson that Barenboim taught me. I played the Sibelius concerto for him, in a private room with the pianist, and I was very happy about my performance. I felt it was very emotional, good technically -- and he didn't say anything. I asked him, "Maestro, don't you like it?" He said, "Yes, I like it. It's great violin-playing. But I want to hear your Sibelius! I didn't hear your Sibelius." I asked him, "What do you mean, my Sibelius?" He said, "Well, take the score, don't play the violin any more. Just study the score. Tomorrow morning, we have the first rehearsal with the orchestra, and I want to really hear your Sibelius, your discovery, based on your new, detailed knowledge of the musical score."
I spent one whole night with the score of the Sibelius, and I totally re-discovered this work. Of course, the first rehearsal was far from perfect, and even my technique started to lose something because I was more busy with the music. So I went a step back, and after rehearsal I was very unhappy. But Barenboim came to me and said, "Well, I am happy that you have started now."
Why do we need competitions -- we want to hear every young competitor, to compare their interpretations, their souls, their personalities, how each of them views Beethoven, Mozart, even Paganini -- Paganini was a great composer, not only sportsman, as some people view him. And we want to go definitely beyond technique, because in today's society, with all our new technological possibilities, the level of technique has grown. That means the development of the human souls has to be even higher, has to match the technical possibilities.
Laurie: So when you are on a jury, it sounds like you are looking for the kind of thing that Daniel Barenboim was looking for in you.
Maxim: Absolutely. That's why we need competitions. Because we can recognize out of 40-50 players -- we want to find the most developed ones, the people who, in their future, will bring something to our audience, will bring something to the music, will add something to the musical world. And beyond that, even those people who do not pass through to the finals, they will have goals, they will have dreams fulfilled because they were at the competition where the atmosphere was incredible, where the level, not only technical but the performing art level, was fantastic. So they go away from the competition with the souvenirs and new challenges.
Maxim: Inspired. That's what, we need to inspire young people.
Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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