If you've played an instrument yourself, your practicing method likely involves listening for what is wrong, then fixing it.
It makes sense that, when given the task of helping a child practice, a parent would do the same: Here's what you are doing wrong, here's how to fix it. Why, then, does this approach so often cause resistance, tension in the relationship, or even a complete rebellion against the violin? Even if it's done with the best of intentions?
Parenting expert Noël Janis-Norton shared insights about this and other related issues in a seminar called Calmer, Easier, Happier Music Practice that she gave a few weeks ago for parents of the Suzuki group where I teach, Suzuki Talent Education of Pasadena.
I've interviewed Noël before and attended several of her lectures on parenting and on practicing. She tends to get to the heart of problems and offer practical advice -- it's been useful and empowering to me as both a parent and a teacher.
Here's what's at the heart of the practicing-with-parents issue: People tend to respond badly to being criticized and bossed around. It might not seem like that's what you're doing. But if you're mostly pointing out your child's flaws and demanding they be fixed, you are.
The more effective route is to build the child's motivation, confidence and ability to recognize the correct way to do things, Noel said. For example, "You can always find something positive to say during music practice."
Of course, the positive approach and "self-esteem building" has been much maligned of late. For example, Prof. Stephen Shipps' article in The Strad, Demanding the best, bemoaned the lack of exacting teaching in students' musical upbringing and said that parents expect coddling. Doesn't "building self-esteem" just produce over-confident, over-entitled children? Isn't it just "coddling"?
"How many of you think that you really shouldn't have to praise your children during practicing, that this is just going to make them praise junkies?" Noel asked the audience of parents gathered for her talk.
A good many hands went up.
"I'd like to reassure you, that's not the kind of praise that I'm talking about," she said. "The kind of praise where you constantly tell them, 'Great job!' and 'Super!' and 'Awesome!' is completely useless and it *does* turn them into praise junkies."
I think even Stephen Shipps will agree with what she said next, but I invite him to comment, if he doesn't!
Noël advocates the use of "descriptive praise," which is much more exacting, and actually takes a great deal more thought, than those throwaway lines like, "Great job!" It also does not preclude the analysis of mistakes; for correcting mistakes she advocates using a combination of approaches, including "think-throughs" and "preparing for success." (More about that below.)
But as Mary Poppins says, "A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down." The recipe is: Sugar + medicine. Not, "just sugar" or "just medicine"!
So to describe "Descriptive Praise": Without using any exaggeration or useless praise words, describe to the child exactly what he or she did correctly. For example:
"You kept your bow thumb bent the entire time you played that piece," you can say, with a smile. The child will recognize this as an acknowledgment of something he or she did correctly, particularly if it's something you've emphasized before. Certainly don't append anything to the end of your description, i.e.: "You kept your bow thumb bent the entire time you played that piece. Good job!" Cut the "Good job!"
If you tell a child (or student) specifically what he or she is doing correctly, he or she begins to internalize a useful list that describes the correct way to do various things, Noël said.
And what if it's all wrong? Well, first of all, it's never all wrong. Something went right. However small it was, acknowledge and descriptively praise what went right. "You used all the correct bowings," or, "You stood with correct violin posture the entire time."
As for the part that went badly (very likely the part you are dying to just FIX already), whose job is it to fix it? You can just fix it, or you can see if your child can identify the problem. Chances are, they can.
"Is there anything you'd do differently? What happened there? How can you fix that? What if you put your second finger right next to the first? Let's try that, right there at that spot."
If you know that the same problem occurs every time your child plays a certain piece, you can have a "talk-through" before you even start.
Parent: "What do you need to watch for in this piece?"
Child: "The down-bow retakes."
Parent: "How many times do they happen?"
Parent: "If you accidentally forget, let's come up with a sign I can make, so you can fix it right away."
You get the picture. By doing a "talk-through," you help the child build a picture that anticipates a way to do things correctly. Chances are, you'll see improvement.
Of course, one has to consider the age and level of the student. A young beginner still needs to build a long list of what is correct, at very fundamental levels. A more experience student can receive more refined description and solve problems that are more complex.
As Noël pointed out, a parent will praise a potty-training toddler, "You used toilet paper!" But one does not need to acknowledge the same thing in a teenager!
Is it possible to learn in an exacting way, using these methods? I'd argue that not only is it possible, but that the learning is more permanent, and that these methods help cultivate a child's problem solving skills and eventual independence. As a teacher, do I still occasionally say, "What was THAT? Fix it!" Indeed I do, but it's after establishing a relationship that respects a student's ability to do things right and to solve problems.
Noël had many more things to say about practicing, so if it's something that is an issue for you, here again is a link to her CD (yours truly makes a short guest appearance on it to speak about using these methods for teaching): Calmer, Easier, Happier Music Practice.
Also, I'm happy to say that Noël has finally written her general book on parenting -- something she had not yet completed when I first met her! I bought a copy at the seminar; it's called (of course!) Calmer, Happier, Easier Parenting (Because, as Noël says, though parenting is never calm, happy and easy, it can be made calmer, happier and easier!)
It's about time that Robert Schumann's Violin Concerto had its day. Composed 150 years ago, just before Schumann's suicide attempt and descent into madness, its dedicatee, Joseph Joachim, apparently associated the piece with his friend's tragic unraveling. To that end, he hid it away in a Berlin library and pronounced it should not be published or played until 100 years after Schumann's death in 1856. It was resurrected briefly in the 1930s but still not fully embraced.
Violinist Rachel Barton Pine has just released a new recording of the work, paired with the Mendelssohn Concerto.
Intellectually, she argues that the Schumann concerto should be part of the canon, neither rejected as problematic nor worshipped as a lost masterpiece. Musically, the argument she makes with conductor Christoph-Mathias Mueller and the Germany-based Göttinger Symphonie Orchester takes the piece to a level of comfort and precision that brings out the music's drama, drive, originality and heart.
Rachel is not the only one to embrace the Schumann Violin Concerto in recent years; the piece is clearly growing in popularity, evidenced by recordings by Renaud Capucon in 2004; Joshua Bell in 1996; Christian Tetzlaff in 2011; Elmar Oliveira in April 2013 and Baiba Skride just last month.
For Rachel, the true moment was when she played the piece in live concert in 2010.
Laurie: Tell me about the concert in 2010, with Christoph-Mathias Mueller and his orchestra that inspired this recording. What made the experience such a revelation for you?
Rachel: With some composers' music, you can have an amateur orchestra play it through or professionals sight-read it, and it works. Then with other composers, you really need to mold and shape every phrase. There's nothing lesser about one or the other kinds of music, but some composers are one way and some are the other way.
As we all know from Schumann's symphonies, this is the kind of music that needs careful crafting. The same is also true of Schumann's violin concerto; if the accompaniment is played like it's just accompaniment, the piece falls a little flat. If you take a more symphonic approach, if you work to mold the orchestra part with all the phrases and with all the timing, then suddenly it comes to life. The solo part can just kind of sit on top of it. That's what Maestro Mueller did, and it was a revelation. It made me feel excited about the piece -- I was determined to record it, and to record it with him!
Laurie: Isn't he the one who suggested that you play the Schumann in the first place?
Rachel: Exactly, he had first gotten to know me as a violinist through my recording of the Brahms and Joachim concertos and subsequently invited me to perform the Joachim concerto with an orchestra. He eventually asked me to come back with the Schumann because he felt like, based on my playing of Brahms and Joachim, that I would bring something that he knew he would like to the Schumann.
I'd never really given that piece much thought; I think I was a little bit influenced by the melodrama of its unfortunate history. When it was written, Schumann was already beginning his decline into mental illness, and Joseph Joachim, the great violinist for whom it was written, was emotionally affected by that tragedy. He couldn't help but associate this piece with Schumann's struggles. So he said the piece was flawed, and he dismissed it. It was neglected for about 80 years, and in the late 1930s it was championed by Yehudi Menuhin and some other violinists. In fact, it was really hyped at that time as a newly discovered masterpiece. Then it didn't quite live up to the hype, and people concluded that it's actually not good.
So this pendulum has been swinging back and forth: is it an unworthy piece, or is it a great piece? I think the answer is that it is neither. The best analogy is the Dvorak Violin Concerto. No one says it's as good as the Dvorak Cello Concerto, and no one says it's as good as the Brahms Violin Concerto. But everybody agrees that it's a perfectly wonderful piece that we all love to play and hear. Interestingly, Joachim also rejected the Dvorak Violin Concerto. It was written for him and he was supposed to premiere it, but he thought that it was a problematic piece.
We definitely revere Joachim for his musical taste: Joachim championed the Beethoven concerto when it was lying neglected; he insisted that music should be played without superficial flash. Joachim was the very first violinist to insist that the Bach Sonatas and Partitas were not compositional exercises or study pieces, but that they could be enjoyed in performance as great and moving concert works. Joachim was the first artist who insisted that the late Beethoven quartets were things that audiences could understand and grow to appreciate and love. So Joachim's musical taste was almost impeccable, but nobody is infallible. He made a mistake in the case of the Dvorak, and he made another mistake in the case of the Schumann.
The Dvorak, of course, had other people championing it early on, and it's gained its rightful place in the repertoire. But the Schumann has had so much baggage, being neglected for all those years and then being overhyped. Sure, it's important to know about the history of the music that we play, about the culture and the performance traditions of the time and place in which it was written, about the composer's own history, life and personality. On the other hand, music also can stand on its own two feet. In the case of the Schumann Violin Concerto, it's time to take a step back and say, 'Let's look at this piece in its own right and not worry about whether somebody said it was bad or somebody said it was great. Let's just say this is a nice piece and let's play it!'
There's one other thing, though, that the Schumann Violin Concerto needed. One reason why some people would say it's flawed is that the solo violin part is, in essence, not finished. It's really Schumann's first draft. Why? Because most composers who are not violinists themselves, after they write a violin concerto, they then begin a collaborative process together with their violinist dedicatee. That's where revisions are made, where idiomatic revisions are suggested by the violinist, and so on.
For example, Mendelssohn, with his 'perfect' violin concerto, underwent years of revisions together with violinist Ferdinand David; With the Brahms concerto, we have this wonderful manuscript with all the different-colored pencils going back and forth between Brahms and Joachim as the arguments were unfolding. It's no knock on Schumann that he wrote passages that are not very playable or rather awkward -- that's what most non-violinist composers tend to accidentally do. I've experienced this in my own life, working with living composers; I'll try to ascertain their intentions and then say, 'Okay, maybe here's a better solution for achieving your intentions in a way that fits my instrument better.'
So Joachim never got to do this with Schumann because of Schumann's health, and he didn't want to do this in the absence of Schumann's approval. So it never got done. In the time since then, everybody has been so respectful of Schumann that they try to play the bowings and the notes as Schumann wrote them. After all, that is what you're supposed to do with works of great composers. Yet, because this was the draft, not the final version, in a way, I think that's almost less respectful because you're not honoring the music. Take, for example, the last movement. If you play what's on the page, it can't be played, except at a slightly slower tempo, which then makes the music feel stodgy. But by reworking some of the double stops, by cutting a few notes of certain runs here and there, the essence is still retained and yet the music can suddenly flow along, dance, come to life, and have that Polonaise feel that it really needs. So I was guided by the principle of "WWJD" -- "What would Joachim do?" -- and was quite liberal in terms of my modifications. Each modification itself was as conservative as possible, but I was quite liberal in how many I made. I felt like that was the right thing to do; it just made the music feel like it fit now.
Laurie: Was there any movement that needed more modification than others? You spoke of the last movement.
Rachel: Yes, the last movement was the most highly problematic; once these modifications had been made, the entire tempo was able to be changed. In the first movement, it was more about just being able to have the musical line and the character. The effect of certain passages worked better with some changed bowings and voicings. The slow (second) movement needed very little modification at all. It's such a beautiful melody, so relaxed and soothing.
Laurie: Yes, but I took a close listen to that second movement, and it seems very rhythmically complex.
Rachel: It is! The opening melody is a solo played by the principal cellist, and it's entirely on the offbeat, which is very unusual. Very creative idea. There are so many interesting things about these concerto, it really bears further study by anybody who hasn't given it more than a passing glance, as I once hadn't.
Laurie: Are you planning to make your revisions available to people?
Rachel: I've been pondering what do to about not only the Schumann, but about my editing of a number of violin concertos. For example, the five Mozart Concertos, which I just recorded with my own cadenzas with Sir Neville Marriner and The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, an album that will be out in the spring. But also, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Sibelius…These days, a lot of people go online to free download sites and get any old edition. Or, if we're more studious, we want to get an urtext edition that's a completely clean edition. But what does one do, now, about the value of having an edited edition available for students or young professionals who might want to see exactly what bowing and fingerings I'm using? Of course, you ought to make your own decisions in the end, but if people want to study the ideas I've come up with, as part of their interpretational process, I would like to make these available to people. Perhaps I'll publish just the solo violin part, maybe as a collection. We shall see!
Laurie: Did Maestro Mueller have to make a lot of revisions to the orchestra part in order to make this concerto work?
Rachel: Some dynamic balances, some bowing, but mostly it was a question of timing and inflection. For example, the basic underlying rhythm of the accompaniment part of the Rondo section, the opening theme of the last movement can sound very square and sort of lead-footed. But if you sort of aim toward that middle beat with a little lift and almost delay the last beat with a little bit of lightness, suddenly it's dancing along. It's the exact same notes; you haven't changed the rhythm, you haven't changed anything except the feel. It's kind of like a Viennese waltz -- I'm not saying it's the same feel, but in the same way that you can play a waltz beat underneath a waltz melody and have it just be totally square and blah, or you can play it the right way.
Laurie: If it was Mueller who suggested the Schumann to you, where did he get the idea?
Rachel: One of the reasons I like hanging out with Christoph Mueller is he's just as much of a repertoire-collecting geek as I am; he's always looking for interesting and unusual things. I'll mention to him the Villa-Lobos Sonata No. 3 and he'll say, 'Oh, have you heard Villa-Lobos' never-played violin concerto? I've got an archival recording of someone's live performance of it over here,' and he'll dig out some recording -- it's great, we could just hang out for days, going back and forth like that!
Laurie: Let's turn a little bit to the Mendelssohn. I heard a few articulations in there that I don't always hear, and I wondered if you were going for a more classical approach.
Rachel: Actually about 10 years ago, I crystalized my approach as being early Romantic, which is kind of a fuzzy grey area. Because Mendelssohn should not be played like Mozart, but it also, to me, doesn't feel right to play it like the Bruch G minor Concerto. So often one hears it played more like it's a mid-Romantic concerto. I decided to use a tone color palette that was more pure. When you listen to my album, you can hear the contrast between the tone of the Mendelssohn and the robustness of my tone on the Schumann. So I'm still using plenty of rubato in a very Romantic way, but having a cleanliness of shifting, not a lot of expressive slides, not a lot of schmaltziness or gushiness. I also chose tempos that are a little more flowing; to me that really felt right.
Of course, it can be done in a bajillion different ways, and I love to listen to pieces played in ways that I would never play them. Take, for example, that wonderful DVD, The Art of the Violin, where they spliced between people's Mendelssohns -- they were all so different and yet equally as effective as one another.
But the way that feels right to me to play the Mendelssohn is definitely this early Romantic approach, finding that happy middle ground. Ever since I hit upon that about a decade ago, I've been working to hone and refine that approach. Of course one aspires to continue to improve one's understanding of these concertos for the rest of one's life, but I felt like I was satisfied and happy enough with how my Mendelssohn was sounding that it was time to share with the public on an album and preserve it for posterity. It's a real thrill to be able to do that.
Laurie: Did you have to work with the orchestra to make that approach the same as yours?
Rachel: Being in Europe, they are definitely used to playing in a variety of historically-informed styles, not to the degree of Baroque bows and gut strings, but when they play Haydn they play it like Haydn, they don't play it like it's Mahler. So once I told them what I wanted, they knew what I meant.
Laurie And what did you want?
Rachel For example, in the first tutti in the Mendelssohn, which is right after the conclusion of first solo section with those notorious octaves: violinists usually round out the slurs, probably because they are used to playing the solo part. They bow it with the same smooth slurs as in the first entrance of the solo violinist.
Rachel: But in fact, Mendelssohn has a completely different bowing, and I rarely hear orchestras do it; I always ask them to, but it's actually supposed to be down-bow for the first three beats and up-bow on every fourth beat.
Rachel: And even here, (m. 58-59 and like measures) you can't get the same effect with a slur or a hook. Even if you tried to articulate the hook, you wouldn't get that 'dom, de-domp domp dom,' which I think is genius. It's taking the exact same music and totally transforming it. So if you try to make it match, it's wrong!
It does sound more like one foot is still in classicism when you do that original bowing. That's the bowing that Mendelssohn wrote, so why in the heck wouldn't you do it? It was little things like that, and we were definitely on the same page; it was just finding that way to blend our style and make it all hang together. And I'm just so pleased with how it came out, it was everything I was envisioning.
A quick look at Leila Josefowicz' concert schedule shows that her winter and spring is packed with performances of Esa-Pekka Salonen's Violin Concerto, Out of Nowhere, which was written for her, as well performances of the Stravinsky Violin Concerto in D.
Last year I spoke at length with both Salonen and Josefowicz about their collaboration -- now I find that they are about to do it again with the very same team and venue as the premiere -- this weekend in Disney Hall, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic!
I checked in again with Leila to see how she's feeling about the piece, having lived with it now for some four years. She'll also be playing the piece this season with the New York Philharmonic (its NY debut), Toronto Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra (UK premiere) and Orchestra Filarmonica della Scala.
"It's really grown to feel part of me, and become very natural," Leila said, "Very wonderful feeling, since it was tailored made to my way of playing - now it's really in me. Some things will always be very difficult for me and any player out there, but that's part if the charm and challenge of the piece; it's meant to bring you to the edge."
How are the audiences responding?
"People are very blown away by the different moods of the piece, the rock ending of the third movement and then the very mysterious and somewhat undefinable feeling in the slow and grand last movement," she said.
And how about being back in Disney Hall, where the piece first came to life?
"I associate most of my new premieres with Disney since so many great ones have happened there, such as the Esa-Pekka Salonen and the west coast premiere of Steven Mackey's 'Beautiful Passing,'" Leila said. "But Esa-Pekka Salonen's is the performance -- before his departure -- in my heart, really."
Another piece that Leila will play frequently this year is the Stravinsky Concerto, which she'll play with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, New World Symphony and National Arts Centre Orchestra of Ottawa.
"I get great joy out of the Stravinsky because of the great character that, in my opinion, is written into the score," Leila said. "I started playing it in the last four years, which is relatively late, but seems now to have perfectly settled into my mind, body and repertoire. There are so many interactive elements to it, one is always playing in conjunction with another member of the orchestra in a sort of duo or trio or more. So to be listening and very aware and sensitive to the surroundings and acoustic is essential- while doing very difficult things on the violin!"
It's time to throw away the old attitude that orchestral playing is the last resort of a failed soloist. In fact, orchestral violin playing is a competitive field that requires a great deal of training and experience, and for many, it's their first-choice career.
"It's a great job to have," said German violinist Martin Wulfhorst, who was not even out of high school when he began his professional orchestra career. "That old idea, that the soloist is the god, and that being the soloist is the only valuable job and playing in the orchestra is some inferior thing -- it's a terrible attitude. We have to reevaluate that completely."
To that end, Wulfhorst, who is associate concertmaster of the Hamburg Symphony, has written an encyclopedic, two-volume textbook on orchestra playing for violinists, called The Orchestral Violinist's Companion, which was released this fall by Bärenreiter.
"We are highly specialized, very qualified people, artists and craftsmen, who have to know and be able to do a lot," Wulfhorst said. "I think the demands today are higher than ever before in orchestras. We play huge repertoire, from Baroque to cross-over. We play it in many more styles than ever before. It used to be that you just knew how to play Mozart or Brahms; now we have conductors who want anything ranging from something that borders on historically-informed performance practice to something that's really Romantic in style. We have to cover all that, to be able to do all that."
Which makes it all the more puzzling to realize how few books have been written on the subject.
"There are a million textbooks about conducting, violin playing, shifting, vibrato, piano playing, clarinet playing," Wulfhorst said. "But there's nothing about orchestral playing. It's absurd, isn't it? It's a job without a textbook, which shows again, as I see it, this derogatory attitude towards the job; it implies that it's a job for which you need no special instruction -- you can just 'do it.'"
Of course, most of us understand that this is not the case. Orchestra playing requires myriad skills, both technical-musical and interpersonal.
"I asked myself, where would you learn something about orchestral playing, if you didn't have the luck of sitting next to a great player, all the time?" Wulfhorst said. He sees the book as both a textbook and a reference for college students, young professionals, experienced professionals, people who do auditions, and even conductors.
"I tried to create something where you can pick and choose any section that would be useful to you," Wulfhorst said. To that end, he's created both a website and a Youtube video to help people navigate and supplement the books. (Probably most helpful to me was something I found on the website, the PDF flyer describing the contents of the book.)
The book is vast in scope, offering technical exercises and excerpts from 340 works by 87 composers. But beyond the many pages of violin technique instruction, Wulfhorst also includes a great deal of practical advise on a wide range of related issues including health, relations with fellow musicians, performance practice, career choices, history of the profession, training and more.
How did Wulfhorst manage to gather so much information? For one, he started at an early age.
"I was very, very lucky," Wulfhorst said. "During my last years of high school, we were living in Kassel, a city near Frankfurt, (Germany). I got to play as an extra player in the Orchestra of the Staatstheater in Kassel, which is an opera and symphony orchestra. I got to skip school in twelfth grade! (He laughs) So I played symphony concerts and opera performances, and I just loved it. I learned a lot from the older players -- of course, I was the only high school student. I was lucky that I had very, very nice colleagues. It could have been an awful experience, but it turned out to be a great experience. I knew then that I loved playing in orchestra. I loved orchestral music, and I loved the sound of playing in a big section.
While studying at the Berlin Conservatory, he played full-time for a year at the Orchestra of the Berlin Opera (Deutsche Oper). "That was a great experience because they had a huge repertoire," Wulfhorst said. "In one season we did about 70 operas and ballets."
Did you say 70, as in "seventy"?
"Yes, 7-0. It was the old repertory system, where you had a steady cast of singers and a steady repertoire," he said. "There was always a Magic Flute in the repertoire, there was a Flying Dutchman or Traviata in the repertoire -- so I really got to play a lot. But that is what it used to be, in Germany. They had huge repertoires." It was not a situation you play one opera in block, with the same cast, same orchestra, same players, same conductors, and then you go on to the next opera. "Now I think now very, very few opera orchestras have the means to do this huge repertoire -- that really changed."
These days, orchestras face a scarcity of rehearsal time, although as Wulfhorst describes it, German orchestras seem to have a lot more than the rest of us.
"We're living in paradise in Germany -- when we have a symphony concert, we have usually four days of double rehearsals, plus a dress rehearsal," Wulfhorst said. "That is luxurious by a North American standard."
Indeed it is. Many North American orchestras have three rehearsals; with luck, four. "Britain is awful," he said, "when they do a Beethoven 5th they don't even play through!"
The fact that the arts are state-subsidized makes a difference in Germany, he said. Without that, the financing for an orchestra can be very volatile, as Americans well know. It just takes one big sponsor going bankrupt; that can pull an orchestra under. And then the implications effect the musical life of the entire community.
"Then the culture is gone, there are no more good instrumental teachers," Wulfhorst said. "There are these things that are sort of cross-subsidized when you do have a good orchestra. (Orchestra musicians) do extra things like teaching and chamber music, for fees that they usually couldn't afford to do. So the orchestra culture subsidizes all the other musical areas, including education, which is a very important point."
Wulfhorst also spent time in America, where he got a masters at Brooklyn College, studying with Masao Kawasaki and Itzhak Perlman, and a PhD in Musicology from City University of New York. For about 15 years he has been associate concertmaster of the Hamburg Symphony.
Mentorship from other orchestra players an invaluable part of Wulfhorst's education, even if he found himself in a "sink or swim" situations at times, playing in professional orchestras at a young age.
"It was really taken for granted that if you're a young player, you make mistakes," he said. "The thing was, you would never make the same mistake again. People would see: either you learn or you don't. To be blunt, it's the same in auditions. I've seen people who have made terrible blunders in auditions and got jobs and turned out to be excellent players. I think musicians are pretty smart, in general, that way. They don't want machines; they want people who really can do their jobs very well."
These days, what are people lacking, when they show up to their first job?
"The biggest problem that many experienced conductors and players sometimes have with the young players, is that we question, do they really want to be in an orchestra?" Wulfhorst said. "Because sometimes we don't get that sense. Sometimes you just feel, when a young player is accompanying Tchaikovsky Concerto, that they're dying because they'd much rather play the solo than the second violin part!"
A true orchestra player is someone who can get into what Wulfhorst describes in his book as "Orchestral mode."
"You meet players who are great instrumentalists and musicians, but some of them, when they are in the orchestra, are not that good," Wulfhorst said. "On the other hand, you have people who are maybe not the best instrumentalists -- they can't play any Paganini -- but they are wonderful orchestral musicians. Sometimes you see orchestra performances that work, or that don't work; sometimes you see players who don't get a job, or who fail their trial year. So I really tried to get to the essence of it, really asking, beyond all the technical-musical stuff, what are the things that are most essential when you're playing in an orchestra? And I think I wrote wrote this list 50 times!" (He laughs)
The most important thing about "Orchestral mode" is responsibility, commitment and respect, Wulfhorst said. "That really guides you in all the aspects of orchestral playing: Respect towards the music, towards the players, the conductor, and the audience."
One also needs to be adaptable: to adapt one's playing to circumstances, to the playing of the section, to the playing of the leader, to the acoustics, and so on.
"Another important thing is something I call the 80/20 focus," he said. "That means having, at most, 80 percent of your concentration taken up with your playing. You need at least 20 percent to observe and to listen to everything around you, and this is where I think young players often have the greatest deficits, simply because they're not aware that that is a very important principle.
"Also, you need a wide range of technical and musical resources," he said. "For example, when you're a soloist, you can pick the kind of spiccato that you like or that sounds best on your instrument. But when you're sitting in the section, you have to the kind of spiccato the section leader wants or the conductor wants. Next, you need 'push-button technique,' which means you have to have all these different kinds of techniques ready and at your disposal at any given moment."
"Another thing you need is physical ease, physical endurance, because we are so-to-speak the 'marathon runners' among instrumentalists," Wulfhorst said. "That's very important, and that's also where young players sometimes have absolutely no training. When you're sitting in a, say, Schubert Ninth Symphony, and you've never played it, and you have to do same-day dress rehearsal, concert, if you don't know what it is to really economize, you're dead by the third movement! "
And then there are simple things: accuracy and discipline. "You have to be very exact, because everything you do affects everybody else. If you make a mistake, if you're very sloppy with dynamics and so on, it really affects everybody."
Last, you need speed and prioritization, which means you have to know what's most important at any given moment, both when it comes to playing and when it comes to other things. "For example, you need to prioritize when it comes to making remarks, asking questions, saying something. That's very important for leaders especially; they have to know when to be quiet and not say anything!" (He laughs) "And when they say something, they have to say something that really helps."
Wulfhorst also wrote an entire section in his book on physical health.
"I've been pretty lucky; I've always had teachers who came from orchestra background, and they emphasized the importance of posture," Wulfhorst said. "I use a very high chin rest. And that has really saved me, I think, from a lot of wear and tear because it lowers your playing plane. It also moves your ear away from the violin, which is also a very good side effect. It's much better to have a higher chin rest than to have an even higher shoulder rest."
And one last piece of advice:
"One thing that people should really, really pay attention to is the way they learn pieces. That's the greatest capital we have, I can't stress that enough. It's fine to spend a lot of time practicing these exercises, all the excerpts I have; but more important than that is to think about the way you practice and learn, because that can make the biggest difference to your success and happiness as a player," Wulfhorst said. "Most people practice the way their one favorite teacher taught them, and they don't necessarily question that. What's very important that you develop some kind of routine: how do you learn a piece? And in that process, you also need to find your goal: the idea, how should that piece sound? Because if that goal isn't there, all your practicing is totally in vain."
A lot of absurd and ridiculous things are happening in the world, but this article in The (U.K.-based) Telegraph, "US orchestras are greedy and overpaid," surely takes the cake.
Basically, the author, Ivan Hewett, argues that reasonable pay for classical musicians is actually exorbitant pay, and that after all, classical musicians are "doing what they love," why do they need to be paid for that anyway?
He seems to be inspired by the unfortunate, year-long lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra musicians, who have been fighting a proposed 33 percent cut in their pay. The author seems to be on the side of lowering the musicians' pay as much as possible, so they can be on par with their miserably underpaid British counterparts.
Most egregious in his eyes, seems to be the Los Angeles Philharmonic, "richest of the lot," with its players earning an average of $122,000 a year. Well, I live in Los Angeles, and $122,000, while it's a good wage, is no astonishing sum for a top professional of any kind around these parts -- and in a country, which, unlike Britain, has no universal healthcare. (Even if health insurance is part of someone's "compensation," one still has to pay high out-of-pocket costs for care, up to thousands of dollars a year. This make a huge difference.) And $122,000 a year certainly wouldn't buy a person a median-priced home in any decent LA-area neighborhood, without resorting to a risky, non-traditional mortgage.
...or England (photo from Wikimedia Commons).
Hewett compares LA Phil compensation (a top orchestra that is currently enjoying top popularity) to the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, which "advertised for string players at salaries ... around the £30,000 mark." (That's about US$50,000 a year).
What he does not mention is that Hallé Orchestra is one of the most infamous examples of an underpaid orchestra; in fact British journalists have cited the Hallé in articles about how abjectly miserable British musicians are, due in part to their awful salaries that require them to do so much "on the side" to make a living. I can personally attest to their misery; "The situation is awful here for musicians," is something I hear in pretty much every conversation I have with my British working-musician friends.
I don't agree that a "Race to the Bottom" is in order, to equalize all musicians' misery. Instead, I would argue that the fine and hard-working musicians of the Hallé Orchestra should earn quite a lot more.
The author reveals his true nature mid-way through the piece when he states: "Why does a musician need to be 'compensated' for doing what he/she loves?" (He feels that the American word 'compensation' is ridiculous; the word is used because we have to talk about more than 'salary' if our employer is to help at all with health care benefits.)
To that I would ask: Why should any professional of any kind, who entered his or her profession via a feeling of calling ("love"), should be paid for his or her work? Why should a newspaper writer, for example this gentleman at the Telegraph, get paid for doing what he loves, too?
Average American salaries are falling due to a decline in union representation. Orchestras are one of the few industries that have retained unions, and that's why they're fighting to hold the line against the ongoing flow of income from workers to managers in the American economy. That's a good thing, deserving our support.
We only hurts ourselves when we turn on other workers who are fighting to keep their pay. Imagine that there are 12 cookies on a table, in front of a wealthy manager and two workers, one in a union and one not. The manager takes 11 of the cookies, then turns to the non-union worker and says, "Hey, you'd better watch out. That union guy next to you is going to take your cookie!"
The situation in Minnesota came about through gross mismanagement, not musicians' greed; it has been covered so extensively by the media that this is clear. And yes, when you lock out workers for a year, or succeed in cutting their pay, it is true that talented people will go where they are well-compensated, if they possibly can. For a counter-example that might resonate with our English readers, what would happen if we cut the compensation for the average Premier League football player (average: US$1.5 million a year) to that of a player in America's Major League Soccer, where the average player earns around $100,000 a year? How many top soccer players would England lose if they were to be paid only as much as their American counterparts, and how long would it take before fans abandoned the Premier League, as a result? In the last year, many of the locked-out musicians in the Minnesota Orchestra took flight -- they left for very fine orchestras, and Minnesota lost their talent.
It is possible to pay classical musicians well and to have a successful and popular orchestra, it's working very well in Los Angeles, and it is a wonderful thing for the city in myriad ways. While the Minnesota Orchestra is a bad example at the moment, there are successful orchestras in the U.S. that could lead the way. I say we look to examples of success and aim to emulate those, rather than holding up the idea that musicians should suffer for "doing what they love."
People love playing there, people love going there. Now 10 years old, Walt Disney Concert Hall stands in Los Angeles as a triumphant commitment to culture -- a happy and thriving marriage of the old and the new.
But the 2,265-seat, shining metal house of music, designed a quarter of a century ago by Frank Gehry, is more than an easy-to-recognize symbol for Los Angeles and for the world. It is a structure that houses and supports symphonic music in practical ways, every day. In fact, the degree to which every aspect of the Disney Hall complex supports music lovers and music makers is astonishing. Its acoustics have an immediacy that demands extra attention from both music-maker and audience member. It offers spacious rehearsal rooms, practice and dressing rooms, plentiful space for instruments, ergonomic chairs for musicians, big wooden music stands, office space, meeting space, a cafeteria and well-stocked gift store (want a score for the symphony they're playing tonight? a recording of it?), a garden -- the list goes on. Beyond anything musical, the 3.6 acre Disney Hall complex also arguably has the best parking garage in downtown LA.
If only all symphonic organizations had this: a facility that truly facilitates the art.
But bringing Disney Hall into existence was not easy -- it was an ardent fight, all the way. It began more than 25 years ago, in 1987, with a $50-million donation from Lillian Disney, widow to Walt Disney. At the time, the Los Angeles Philharmonic played in the boomy-sounding but beloved Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. ("Why do they need a new hall?") The project stalled for 16 years over demands by the city for a parking garage, acoustical concerns, earthquake codes, and a budget that soared far beyond original expectations -- ultimately it cost $274 million. At times it seemed that the new hall never would be built.
But it was. As the Los Angeles Philharmonic continues its month of celebration for Disney Hall's 10th anniversary, I spoke with four LA Phil violinists -- Martin Chalifour, Bing Wang, Nate Cole and Akiko Tarumoto -- about what the hall has meant to the orchestra and to them.
Concertmaster Martin Chalifour played in the LA Phil during the time when the construction of Disney Hall was still in limbo -- then for the excitement of the building's ultimate construction and grand opening on October 24, 2003. Something that jump-started the project was a residency that the orchestra did in 1996 in Paris, for a Stravinsky festival conducted by then-relatively-new LA Phil Music director Esa-Pekka Salonen and the French composer and conductor, Pierre Boulez. When some of the board members heard the quality of the orchestra, playing in the acoustically-superior Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, they began to understand first-hand, the need for a new hall back home.
"The feeling went from one of despair - after construction stopped and we had nothing but a parking garage – to a feeling of elation after we earned international acclaim and recognition for our Stravinsky Opera residency in Paris in 1996," Chalifour said. "From then on, we had gathered new momentum and enough support to get the project going for good."
Violinist Akiko Tarumoto also played for several years in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion -- her LA Phil gig was her very first job.
"My first audition for this orchestra was in January 2000," Tarumoto said. "I was still in school and very much dazzled by everything about my first job, including the cavernous Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. I remember coming out of the audition onto Grand Avenue and seeing an enormous dirt pit across the street, and then hearing someone in the orchestra mention that it was the site of the new hall. But it was mentioned with some skepticism, as if it might not happen at all."
"When it was finally clear that it would be completed," Tarumoto said, "I didn't have a sense of what that meant because I hadn't been there for the long wait and struggle. But to say that it was an exciting time to be in the orchestra would be an understatement. The joy and adrenaline of the first concert at Disney Hall, where we played Rite of Spring, are something I'll never forget."
What was the difference, to a musician, between playing in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and playing in Disney Hall?
"It's an interesting experience to have played in Dorothy Chandler for three years, in Disney for the first season, and then to come back seven years later," said Tarumoto, who played in the LA Phil four years, then played in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra before coming back to LA last year. "My colleagues will not be surprised to hear me make a fashion analogy, but in the old hall there was a lot of room, physically and acoustically, and it was quite forgiving in the way a baggy sweatsuit might hide a few extra pounds. And we got to Disney and it was the equivalent of being shoved onto a runway in the skimpiest of bikinis. So we had to really learn how to be comfortable being so exposed. On my return after all those years, I realized that the orchestra has achieved that comfort level, but the challenges of maintaining and elevating the necessary musical standard are never-ending."
Many musicians say that the clear acoustics in Disney Hall have shifted their perception and made the orchestra feel more like a chamber ensemble.
"Disney was a 180-degree shift for us -- much more warmth, reverb and clarity," Chalifour said. "We suddenly did not have to push the sound and play our string instruments so close to the bridge all the time to play beyond 'forte.' Being able to relax and pull a warmer sound out of instruments gave us more the feeling of playing in a giant chamber group. The added clarity helped the ensemble tremendously as the instrument groups could hear each other better, and we even started to sound like a different, improved orchestra in other halls after just a few months."
And how about after 10 years?
Violinist Nathan Cole joined the LA Phil as First Associate Concertmaster just two years ago, so instead of comparing Disney to the Dorothy Chandler, he sees it in the context of other halls around the world.
"In order to project quality to the back of the hall, we have to have it on stage as well. That means that we get a 'fair' or 'true' representation of our sound immediately, which is very nice to have when you're working on group sound. Disney really seems to be one of those halls where there isn't a bad seat," Cole said. "No seat is especially far away, and from what people tell me, the orchestra sounds like a group no matter where you're listening from. That isn't the case in every hall, where you have 'dead spots' and areas where the brass, woodwinds, or strings are predominant. We like to control the balance on stage, then let the hall carry that to all of the listeners. There is a difference, for sure, when we play in a hall like Vienna, where we can hear an audible 'bloom,' or reverb, of several seconds. An orchestra that plays in a hall like that every day has to make certain adjustments. For example, the softest dynamics really must be nearly inaudible in order to sound quiet. That was a challenge for us when we played there. But creating a sustained, connected sound was second nature there, because we have to struggle every day to carry that off in our modern hall, without its lavish reverb. Neither one is objectively better than the other, but the group has to be aware of the differences."
"It’s live, warm when it needs to be, and bright too," Chalifour said. "Despite its size, the hall lends itself well to all genres: from small Baroque groups where we can get away with playing lightly – even no vibrato - to jazz, to the very largest Romantic repertoire. And all without the need to tamper with adjustments and movable acoustic panels."
In fact, "the acoustic of the hall is so live that we hear every cough and program dropping from the audience!" said violinist Bing Wang.
And it's not just the sound and resulting tight ensemble that makes members of a big orchestra feel like they are playing in a chamber ensemble. It's also a feeling of being closer to the audience.
"I love that the intimacy of the space brings orchestral playing closer to chamber music than any other place I've ever performed," Tarumoto said.
"Disney really shines because the audience is so close, and they're all around us," Cole said. "It's really a reminder that we are performers the moment we emerge from the wings, not just when we're playing notes. I recognize the 'regulars' in the crowd, and not just in the front few rows. They recognize me, too, in some cases, and they'll come up before a concert or at intermission. I can see facial expressions in the crowd, and I love 'scanning' the audience when I'm counting rests. After all, the audience is what makes a live performance the event that it is, and that audience is not just an anonymous mass. They're each experiencing our concert in a different way, and I love seeing and hearing that, up close."
Many of the things that make Disney Hall special are features that audience members cannot see; things that give orchestra members a feeling of support. (The one time I played at Disney Hall, I really felt supported by the spaciousness and thought given to back-stage areas.)
"It is so functional and pleasant to work there -- just amazing," Chalifour said. "There are tons of practice rooms, some with carpeting, some larger ones with hard-wood floors, windows, sunlight, and good pianos. We are blessed. The green room is quiet and close to the dressing areas; the musician lounge provides plenty of space for everyone to rest and chill, get a bite to eat or do some quiet reading."
"I really appreciate the thought that went into the non-musical aspects of the hall," Cole said. "Disney has more natural light than almost any other hall I've played in, both on stage and especially backstage. In many halls, you have to climb stairs up or down, just to get to the off-stage area, which is usually cramped as it is. Carnegie is like this, as well as the Musikverein in Vienna, just to name two of my favorite-sounding halls. You really feel like you've descended into the pit just to get to your seat! And forget about playing a few notes off-stage. There's no room to maneuver, much less put the bow to the string. But at Disney, the generous off-stage area moves right out to the backstage hallways, which are much wider than average. This lets the stagehands get instruments, equipment, and sets on and off, while still giving us room to pass by. I can't tell you what a difference that makes to our day-to-day operations. And there's much less chance of an accident with an expensive instrument this way."
"I actually enjoy practicing at the hall, which is a first in my professional life," Cole said. "We have a nice, big lounge with a wall of glass. Oh, and free musician parking -- I'd never had that before, either. Overall, I do feel like the physical properties of the hall reflect the organization's commitment to letting us make the best music that we can."
"There's no question that the identity of the LA Phil is tied inextricably to the hall. Everybody knows what it is, and at least something of what goes on there," Cole said. "When I was in Chicago, it was a great orchestra, but if I talked to a random person on the street, they might ask, "Okay, you're in an orchestra, where do you play?" If I said, 'Symphony Center,' or 'Orchestra Hall,' which used to be the name of the building, I'd often need to follow up by saying, 'It's on Michigan Avenue,' or 'across from the Art Institute,' which everybody knew about. Even when you walked right in front of the hall, it sat there crunched between two giant office buildings. It's beautiful inside, but still.
"When I say, 'Disney Hall,' everyone in LA knows what that is and what it looks like. And I almost never enter or exit the hall without some tourists taking pictures of the hall, or of themselves in front of the hall. And I love that so many people, tourists and locals, go through the hall on tours."
"There are only a few other 'orchestra-hall-city' combinations in the world of such universal recognition that spring to mind, such as the Concertgebouw, with its orchestra of the same name in Amsterdam; the Vienna Philharmonic in the Musikverein; the Berlin Philharmonic in the Philharmonie; the Boston Symphony in Symphony Hall," Cole said. "I'm sure I'm leaving some out. The Berlin hall and Disney are relatively new, of course, which makes them all the more striking for having garnered that kind of name recognition already."
Is there anything bad about Disney Hall?
"The fabric on the seats has been much maligned, and it did look pretty strange to me the first time I saw it, at my audition!" Cole said. "But legend has it that Mrs. Disney insisted on the fabric as a condition for building the hall. And it has grown on me. You know, many people hated Frank Gehry's design when they first saw it as well, but most of those have changed their minds. I say, let's let the fabric remind us that there are philanthropists out there whose greatest desire is to further the arts. I smile every time I look out at those seats!"
Violinist Sarah Chang wowed a near-full house Sunday afternoon in Santa Monica, Calif., with her energetic performance of the Bruch Violin Concerto with the New West Symphony, under its new conductor, Marcelo Lehninger.
Dressed in opulent pink satin, she commanded all available space with her presence and sound. Literally, the stage hands cleared an unusually wide area in front of the first violins to accommodate the larger-than-life superstar, whose energetic motion had her walking about the stage, leaning near-backbends for high notes and whipping her bow in full circles at the end of musical phrases.
Indeed, she performs with a sense of the theatrical, which encompasses not only the music but the full package: her demeanor, her motions, her attire. She played three performances of this concert, in Oxnard, Thousand Oaks, and Santa Monica, California. My moles in the New West Symphony report that she wore a different stunning dress every night.
Back when I interviewed Sarah in 2009, she said, "a concert is an event. With operas, you have costumes and lighting, and you're telling a story, in a character. At a concert, you can basically wear whatever you want. But at the same time, you are, in a way, loosely representing the composer, and I think you should keep that in mind."
The composer for Sunday's performance was Max Bruch, with his famous Violin Concerto in G minor. It's a favorite in the violin literature, and obviously it's an old friend to Sarah Chang. The Bruch is also pretty good barometer of an orchestra's fire; the simple orchestral accompaniment occasionally rushes full-tilt into lushly Romantic interludes with intricate string work and full winds and brass. New West met the challenge with enthusiasm. Sarah stood for these orchestral interludes with hand on hip, violin held by the scroll in her bow hand -- a force whether she was playing or not.
Sarah plays with a focused sound and a fast and continuous vibrato. By the second movement, even the squirrelly teenagers sitting near me were coaxed into silence. (A good number of high school students were present at the concert; beforehand an announcer took a poll, "How many of you in this audience are seeing a symphony concert for the first time?" About 50 young hands went up -- well-played, New West Symphony!)
The last movement went at quite a fast pace, Chang playing with muscular clarity and literally kicking up her skirt. The audience was fast to its feet for a standing ovation, though it did not receive an encore. Sarah did greet her fans at intermission, though, generously signing autographs and posing for pictures.
Before the second half of the program began, the orchestra's new conductor honored the orchestra's longest-playing member, Gladys Secunda, who was retiring from the second violin section after 19 years. She had been there since the inception of the orchestra. I found that simple acknowledgment to be rather profound and heartening: the new honoring the established.
The second half definitely had a Latin American flavor, perhaps in honor of new conductor Lehninger, a native of Brazil. Works included the "Cuban Overture" by Gershwin; "Two Tangos" by Piazzolla and "Four Dances from Estancia" by Ginastera. More high-energy playing -- what a great way to begin a new era for this orchestra.
Between the government shutting down, the New York City opera going broke, the year-long-locked-out Minnesota Orchestra's conductor resigning and now finally Josh Bell's huge opening night at Carnegie Hall being canceled -- I'm feeling extremely bummed out today!
Here are some of my thoughts on this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week.
On Tuesday in Minnesota, conductor Osmo Vänskä resigned from the Minnesota Orchestra, followed quickly by the resignation of Aaron Jay Kernis, founder and director of the orchestra's Composer Institute.
It was a huge blow to the orchestra musicians, whose ranks have been getting thinner and thinner as musicians seek work in other cities. The picture below illustrates who has left the orchestra -- and that has usually meant they have left the community. The picture gets more ghostly every time I visit the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra Facebook page.
Looks like they're going to have to get the Wite-Out again to erase one more from their community: their conductor.
I asked v.com member Emily Hogstad if she'd like to bring us up to speed about it -- she lives in Minnesota and has been writing passionately about the situation (and accurately, I was told by a Minnesota defector who had served on the negotiating committee). But she was having a hard time with this bitter pill, she told me. She admitted, it brought her to tears. That's because the decision to decimate an institution it not a game, it's a decision that has a real and lasting affect on people in the community, not just the players involved.
In this case it's pretty clear that Minnesota Orchestra management was going for a union bust and absolutely did not/does not care about the effect this radical "cost-saving measure" of kicking the city's professional musicians to the curb will have on the city's cultural and musical life. It goes far, far beyond lacking a basic respect for the musicians, who are professionals at the top of their game, both physically (yes, playing an instrument at that level requires astonishing physical dexterity) and intellectually. Not only don't they respect them, they seem to feel they are easily replaced with cheaper labor.
A symphony is considered an "institution" for a reason: it serves as a center of gravity for the musical life of a city. It allows symphony patrons can come to hear live music, yes. But it's a lot more. The symphony allows history gets a hearing. It also has the capacity to try a broad range of musical experiments, to reach out to new frontiers. It can help a community celebrate an event; it represents the city's culture to the rest of the world. It brings community together for the sake of music -- everyone together in the hall, whether it's the Friday night subscribers or busloads of children from all over the city who sit together to hear music unfold.
The very existence of that group of incredibly talented musicians and their leader has a profound affect on its community. Musicians teach music lessons to children in their community, they lead workshops and help with the youth orchestra. They also talk to adults: they fan the passions of amateurs, they help everyone who touches them see a little something new about music in the world.
Yes, you pay the musicians you employ, you allow them to have a life in your community. And no, you won't easily replace them. When you tear down a tree that has been standing for 110 years, do you expect to plant a replacement that will immediately have the majesty, strength, size, history in the community, and frankly the love and recognition that the old one had?
Ain't gonna happen!
As for tonight's cancelled Joshua Bell concert that would have opened the season for Carnegie Hall: I haven't found a similarly compelling argument to support labor on that one, though here is their argument. The fact of the matter is that somehow, no one could resolve this in time to prevent the cancellation of a concert that would have both filled the house and brought in a lot of money. (Last year's raised $2.7 million, according to the New York Times).
But it isn't just the money that upsets me. The basic reality is that this great zing of tremendous energy that would have fed New York City's cultural life -- the part of its cultural life that loves and supports violin-playing, Joshua Bell, Esperanza Spalding, symphony music -- just got lobbed into the ether.
It zaps me, too. It's about all I can say. Even from all the way across the country, I feel the fizzle.
Composer Bright Sheng never forgot his first impression of watching violinist Gil Shaham perform the Mendelssohn Concerto at an outdoor concert many years ago:
"The notes were just flying off in the air -- that image was just incredibly vivid and strong," Bright said.
In that spirit, the highly accomplished Chinese-born composer has written a violin concerto called "Let Fly," which Gil Shaham will premiere this weekend with the Detroit Symphony, with Leonard Slatkin conducting. (And mark your calendar, it will be webcast live at 3 p.m. EDT this Sunday). The work was co-commissioned by the Detroit Symphony, the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London and the Singapore Symphony. Gil will play the work with all three orchestras this season.
Both Gil Shaham and Bright Sheng spoke with me last week about the new violin concerto and their collaboration. Gil also spoke to me about some of the other works he'll be playing this year, including the John Williams Violin Concerto and the piece he helped to popularize with his 1990s recording of it, the Korngold Concerto.
Back to the premiere in Detroit, Gil and Bright described the concerto as ranging in character from the kind of music sung from mountaintops to the simple rhymes sung to a small child. They also mentioned what sounds like a rather unique passage of natural harmonics!
"I love the piece," Gil told me last week by phone. "It's in one movement, but it goes through basically three traditional movements. And the writing is very original for violin; there's a very effective passage in the second movement, where the violin accompanies the tune in the orchestra with just harmonics, all harmonics on the violin."
The first movement begins with a melody that has the feeling of a Chinese "Flying Song" -- which also plays into the title of the concerto, he said. What is a Chinese "Flying Song"? Well, here is one example that composer and violinist mentioned, and here's another example.
"There is a tradition in some mountainous regions in China of these very loud songs," Gil said. "It's different from Swiss yodeling, but it's similar in some ways." Tradition has it that lovers who were separated by distance would use this kind of song to communicate over mountaintops. "One partner would be on top of this mountain, and he'll sing this loud song, and then the other phrase will be returned from the other mountaintop," Gil said. "There is a long and ancient tradition of these 'Flying Songs.'"
"I grew up in China, with all these songs in my head," Bright said. "The 'Flying Song' is a genre of folk singing in the southern part of China, mostly in the minority ethnic groups. Actually I didn't use much of the material, per se, but the image of singing in the open fields, singing in the mountains, singing outdoors with the kind of sound that projects -- that was kind of the image that I thought of, when Gil first asked for something to listen to."
Another inspiration for the piece is a child rhyme that Bright wrote in 2010 for his then-newborn daughter, Fayfay, whose name is a homonym for "to fly" in Chinese. "She recognizes it to this day, whenever I play it," Bright said. This simple tune appears in parts of the concerto; "when it comes, it's obvious, it kind of takes over, and just disappears again," Bright said.
"Then the last movement is a kind of folk-based dance," Gil said. "It has double stops and accents and the odd-metered bar, the 5/8 and the 7/8, every once in a while. If I had to describe the whole concerto, very quickly, I would say it's a little bit like Bartok meets Chinese folk music tradition."
Though Bright is very familiar with the violin, having composed for violin and conducted for many years, he is not a violinist himself.
"Violin is a fantastic instrument, as you know, and especially when it's played the way Gil plays it, Bright said. "You have everything: you have power, you have very lyrical and sweet sound. I tried to explore that."
"Gil helped me a great deal after I finished (writing the piece)," Bright said. "My objective, as a composer, is to write a piece that sounds very virtuosic but is not so hard to play. That's very hard; even if you play the instrument. Unless you're a virtuoso like Gil, you never get that level." History gives us many examples of famous violin concerti that were written by a composer, with help from a virtuoso violinist. "I strongly believe that that kind of collaboration is really crucial for the piece to be alive and to take off."
For example, Joachim helped Brahms with his violin concerto. "We don't know how much was Joachim and how much was Brahms, in terms of the facility, and realizing it. And sometimes we don't know musically, as well."
Bright said that he asked Gil to help him with the playability of the piece. "We went through a lot," Bright said. "I told Gil, I know you can play these passages, but any suggestions you can make for it to sound or play more easily, that would be great. He made quite a few, and it was always for the better. I hope this piece will be played a lot, not only by Gil, but by other violinists as well. I want a conservatory student to be able to take it to a concerto competition, for people to be able to play it at school."
To that end, he already has composed a piano reduction of the orchestra part and plans to publish the score with Schirmer in the near future.
For his part, Gil was happy that the composer could tell him directly what he had in mind musically.
"I'm very lucky that Bright was able to spend a good amount of time with me, to talk about the piece and the passages and what he wanted," Gil said. "Hopefully I can come close to what he wanted. It's very exciting because no one's heard it before. It's a little riskier, but that makes it more fun, too!"
Both composer and violinist mentioned the use of harmonics in the second movement.
"The first time I heard Ravel's Tzigane, I was totally mesmerized by how well Ravel wrote for the instrument, and I really studied the score," said Bright, who also is a Professor of Composition at the University of Michigan. "Now I tell my students, if you want to learn how to write for harmonics, you should study that piece."
The new violin concerto allowed him explore harmonic writing in a new way -- maybe completely new. "Basically, you play all the harmonics with one hand position, natural harmonics, but you play quite rapid and it's kind of fast-running melodic notes happen. It's not that hard, and it sounded quite virtuosic. And if you orchestrate with doubling of harp harmonics and pizzicato or glockenspiel or something like vibes, in the background, just a few notes here and there doubling, you get this very pin-like, splendid kind of sound palette."
"Actually, you guys don't have a lot of repertoire that particularly trains players in natural harmonics," Bright said. (I couldn't counter. There's Bartok Rumanian Folk Dances? But that's all artificial...)
With artificial harmonics, "you're constantly moving and adjusting the interval -- it's hard. With natural harmonics, it's actually all in one position. You don't move the hand a lot," he said. "Basically, if you have the left hand stay in one place, you have four strings and all these possibilities of combinations. You can get the entire E major, B major, G major and A major scales. So we'll see how it goes!"
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In addition to the premiere of Bright Sheng's Violin Concerto this weekend, Gil Shaham's upcoming season has a number of highlights, so we spoke about a few, including a performance of John Williams' Violin Concerto with the Chicago Symphony, conducted by John Williams, and a good number of performances of the Korngold Violin Concerto.
The Violin Concerto by John Williams is not the most commonly-played piece by that composer -- not even the most-commonly played violin piece he's written (surely that would be Schindler's List). But Gil Shaham did record the piece in 2001, with the Boston Symphony, with the composer conducting.
"John Williams is a brilliant musician and great artist, a great person," Gil said.
The violin concerto, completed in 1976, certainly is not "Star Wars" for violin; it is a work clearly intended for the concert stage. The piece was written after the death of Williams' first wife, Barbara Ruick, and it is dedicated to her. "I do think that the piece is dark; maybe darker than most people expect when they go to a concert and it says, 'John Williams Violin Concerto.'"
"It starts out with a low violin, playing an abstract melody -- a little dark, a little unsettled," Gil said. "This melody grows into the slow movement melody, which is like an aria for violin. Just when you think it's going to cadence on a beautiful octave, it gives you this very dissonant major 7th, or minor 2nd. I remember John saying, 'Well, you know, every rose has its thorn.' Then comes this last movement, which I remember him talking about it revolving around the note 'G.' It has these chimes and bells, and this witchy violin tarantella. It all builds up to this huge climax, a moment of apotheosis, where that opening melody from the first movement is inverted, the sixths are inverted into thirds, and the violin just soars and sings. I love the piece, I love playing it; I'm thrilled that we'll have a chance to play it again."
Among many other performances, Gil will also play the Korngold Concerto in eight different cities across three continents this season. Many young violinists point to Gil's 1994 recording of that work, along with the Barber Concerto as the recording that made them fall in love with the piece. But how exactly did he find the Korngold, which was definitely not a "Top 10" violin concerto in the early 1990s?
"The Korngold violin concerto," Gil said. "When I was a kid, I was 15, I remember there was a conductor in Israel that I knew, by the name of Yuri Ahronovitch. He said, 'Gil, you have to learn this Korngold Violin Concerto. You have to see it, it's brilliant. Korngold, he was a genius, you have to see this!' And we planned to play a concert a year later in Jerusalem."
"I guess at that time, and maybe hopefully still today, I was up for anything! I said, sure, I'll learn the Korngold Violin Concerto," Gil said. "And I just loved it, right from the time I started learning it. Yuri has passed away since, and that concert never happened. But in the process, I learned this piece. And I always thought it would be fun to play it."
The second movement of the concerto is based on a score Korngold wrote for the 1936 film Anthony Adverse. "He won an Oscar for that," Gil said, "and the other parts of the piece are also from the movies, from Juarez and The Prince and the Pauper."
In the beginning, Gil said he had a very hard time getting the Korngold Violin Concerto programmed. "Conductors didn't know it, and orchestras didn't really want it," Gil said. "Marketing departments said, 'No, we can't sell tickets to Korngold.' When I spoke with the record company at the time, they said, 'Oh we don't know, Korngold? We can't really sell that.'"
"We finally made a recording, with Andre Previn conducting the London Symphony. We did Korngold and Barber Violin Concertos -- it was kind of an East Coast-West Coast recording," Gil said. "We were very lucky because that recording ending up surprising everyone, doing better than they had expected."
Fast-forward a decade or two, and things changed radically for the music of Korngold. "Maybe 10 years later or 15 years later, when I would talk to orchestras about playing the Korngold Violin Concerto, they would say, 'Oh no, we can't have it, we just did it last year!'" Gil laughed.
It's too bad that the composer can't witness the way the classical world has embraced his works. When the Violin Concerto first came out, New York Sun's Irving Kolodin derided it as "more corn than gold."
"I remember talking to some members of the Korngold family and reading his biography, and it was really sad," Gil said. Korngold was a child prodigy, and when he was young, he wrote operas that were performed all across Europe. "Once he left for Hollywood, he was shunned. Apparently he very much wanted to be accepted back in traditional classical circles."
Now, he is.
"I think his music is totally brilliant," Gil said. "Somebody once gave me a cassette tape of a recording that was made at a house party in Hollywood. Korngold just sat down at the piano and improvised improvised for 90 minutes. It's so beautiful; it's incredible! It's kind of nice that his music is accepted again."
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