Let's face it: playing the viola can be an awkward proposition.
In order to produce its sonorous low voice, the viola must be physically larger than a violin, so that those long sound waves have space to resonate. At 15 to 17.5 inches (38 to 45 cm) long, the viola can be just long enough and heavy enough to cause great physical strain and technical difficulty.
But what if it were shaped like, say, this?
Above, a young violist and budding composer whose name is Sequoyah, holds a "Pellegrina" model viola made by luthier David L. Rivinus, who recently gave a show at Metzler Violin Shop in Glendale, California.
I was unable to attend the show myself, but afterwards, these instruments were the talk of the town among Los Angeles-area violists. Why? Because that lopsided body is not just for kicks; it's part of an ergonomic design that allows for those long sound waves to have their space in the viola body, while shortening certain key distances to go easier on the human body.
In fact, the "Pellegrina" is actually 20 inches long at its longest point, but the distance from chin to hand is considerably less than that -- more like a 3/4-size viola. The fingerboard is also banked, or turned sideways, for less torque on the left hand.
Rivinus started developing the instrument 20 years ago, and now there are approximately 75 of them in circulation, including a number played by principal players in major symphony orchestras around the world, such as the San Francisco Symphony.
"Player injuries among violists and violinists are at epidemic levels. For the last two decades I have worked hard to address these concerns, specializing in the problems of neck, back, shoulder, elbow and hand pain," Rivinus said in a press release. "I have developed three models of viola and violin, all designed to bring the string player significant relief and, because the instruments do not exacerbate existing conditions, they assist the player to slowly heal."
Sequoyah, who has been on a long search for his full-sized viola, took home a "Pellegrina" for trial after the show at Metzler Violins. He let me take it for a spin while I was at his house for my son's piano lesson. (His mom teaches my son piano).
Usually, when I raise a viola to my chin, my first thought is something like, "...and THIS is why I don't play the viola." It feels like I'm trying to put a boat on my shoulder -- it's that big and cumbersome to me. I'm 5'4", and though I don't have an officially "small-sized" violin, I'd say my own violin is probably on the petite side.
This one seemed huge, but once it was on my shoulder, it was pretty darned comfy, and not terribly hard to navigate. Wow!
Sequoyah is still looking, but the Rivinis remains under serious consideration, as its price-to-sound ratio was quite good. He found the sound to be even across the strings. It was also rather bright, but it did not crack. And the look? He wasn't sure if his teacher would like it, but he found its unique look to be an asset.
To my eyes, the look is nicely carried through the entire instrument, with details that match the instrument's asymmetry. For example, the tapered tailpiece:
…and the slightly-uncoiled scroll:
These instruments were also of great interest to Pasadena violist Sharon Ray, who was attracted to the ergonomic design. "I am the poster child for viola-related injuries," Sharon said. "When I graduated from Curtis in 1979, I couldn't play a lick because of pain in my back (rhomboid area), neck (C2-C7), left triceps, and pain going down to my hand and fingers. I was told by two of Philadelphia's top neurosurgeons that I would never play again. That was in 1980."
And for 25 years, she didn't play. Then in 2005, she met a chiropractor who helped her get her back and neck back in shape so that she could play again. She still plays a big viola: "I play a Michael Fischer, the big one, and I wouldn't trade it for anything!" she said. "It's worth it to me to have to swim, lift weights and bands, stretch -- whatever it takes for me to play it. My viola is such a monster that one of my students named it 'Godzilla!'"
Her back feels pretty good most of the time now, but she still goes through periods of pain, she said.
Of the Rivinus viola, "this instrument was comfortable from the moment I picked it up," she said. "I like the sound, but found it lacking power and tone on the C and G string - my personal taste. That being said, I would love to own one in the future."
Does it look too funny to play at a gig? "Yes, I would play one on a gig," she said. "The look doesn't bother me!"
I don't know who needs a peaceful lullaby more -- a baby or its parents. In either case, violinist Rachel Barton Pine picked the best of the best instrumental lullabies and assembled them in a soothing album called Violin Lullabies, to be released next week.
A lullaby album is a slightly ironic choice for Rachel, a self-proclaimed headbanger, who occasionally dons black leather to play in her heavy metal band, Earthen Grave.
"I spent all these years as a sort of missionary on behalf of what I think is the greatest music of all, classical music," Rachel said. "I go to my fellow rock fans and say things such as, 'Classical music isn't just pretty, sleepy stuff, it's just as intense and exciting and dramatic as the best rock music!' And now what did I do? I made an album entirely of pretty, sleepy stuff! But you know what? That music has its place, too. As long as people don't think that's the only thing classical music is, why not indulge?"
It's actually not so easy to find an album of classical lullabies. "Most things are synthesized, or there will be an orchestral collection of slow movements, which are pretty and slow, but they're not specifically lullabies," Rachel said. "That was exactly why I made the album, because I realized that nothing that I was looking for for my daughter actually existed!"
Another reason "goes back to my usual, geeky, sheet music collecting habits," Rachel said. "Years ago, I started to notice that various composers had written berceuses for the violin. ("Berceuse" being the French word for "lullaby") I would buy somebody's 'Six Short Pieces' or a random collection of their works, and I'd notice, 'Oh, there's a berceuse in there.' This kind of struck me, at the time, as being intriguing because… these very short, delicate, unabashedly melodic, very simple little pieces -- it's almost like repertoire that we don't pay a whole lot of attention to any more."
So the idea for an album of all lullabies, berceuses and wiegenlieds began many years ago. When her daughter, Sylvia, was born in 2011, "I decided to finish the project," Rachel said. "I have a great nursing pillow, so she would be breastfeeding while I was on my laptop, contacting libraries around the world. I thought, if I don't keep looking and get every last one I can possibly get, maybe I'll miss a gem or two. I ended up compiling more than 150 of these pieces."
Most people know that Johannes Brahms wrote a lullaby, a tune which remains a favorite today, sung worldwide by mothers in rocking chairs, co-opted by characters on television shows and embedded in the musical mobiles hanging over babies' cribs. But lullabies flowed from the pens of many other famous composers: Manuel de Falla, Gabriel Fauré, Edvard Grieg, Maurice Ravel, Ottorino Respighi, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Jean Sibelius, Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinsky and Eugene Ysaÿe, to name a few. In all, Rachel's album includes 25 lullabies, with an extra three included in the download-only version. She is accompanied by pianist Matthew Hagle.
"Indeed, some of the composers on here are very famous, some are semi-famous, and some are completely and utterly obscure," Rachel said. "Who has ever heard of Mikhail Antsev or Vladimir Rebikov or Ludwig Schwab? Or Alexander Iljinsky? It's a funny thing: Iljinsky's lullaby kept popping up in collections from the late 1800's called, 'Favorite Violin Music,' or, 'Best-Loved Violin Recital Pieces.' I thought, 'Wow, here's this 'One of the Most Popular Violin Pieces,' and yet now, we've not only not heard of his lullaby, we haven't even heard of him! Or Camillo Sivori -- we know him as Paganini's only student. But his lullaby, according to the sheet music published in the 1800's, is his 'best-known piece'! And now, we've never heard of that piece, or any of his others!"
One of the beauties of these pieces is that they are short and self-contained. "It's amazing how much sophistication can be brought to a piece of two minutes long," Rachel said. "Every single one of these pieces is a lullaby, and yet every single one of these pieces is a legitimate work of classical concert music. This is not 'Rock-a-bye Baby' arranged for the violin. That might have been quite nice, but that wasn't the direction I wanted to go in. I wanted to find actual concert music that happened to be lullabies."
"Violinistically, what's fascinating is a way of approaching the instrument physically that is limited, and yet allows for a great deal of individuality within those limitations," Rachel said. "You're not going to let your vibrato ever be as robust as it can; you're not going to ever let your sound fully bloom. Yet within the delicacy and the subtleties, you have so much room for nuance and color."
"Some of them, I really envisioned that they were describing the warmth of rocking your baby and lulling them to sleep," Rachel said. "Some seemed to be describing sleep itself: very delicate and peaceful, like the feeling you get when you look in on a little sleeping angel baby. And some of them, I'm convinced, are almost creating a dreamscape: that mysterious, magical, other-worldly quality of our dreams. "
"About half of the tracks use mute. I can't even think of any other violin album in which half of the entire CD is muted!" Rachel said. "But I did not use the mute that I use in concert, which is one of those little violin-shaped mutes, the kind that's made out of a softer rubber than a Tourte mute. If I'm performing the second movement of the Tchaikovsky Concerto, for example, I basically want the impression of a mute, but I still need to be able to project my sound to the back row. For the recording, with the microphones up close, I could really go for color; it didn't matter if the decibels were softer than would work for stage. Luckily, my friend Fred Spector, the retired longtime first violinist of the Chicago Symphony, owns the world's largest collection of stringed instrument mutes. I actually had two podcast episodes (Episode 11 and Episode 13) early on in my Violin Adventures podcast, about Fred and his mute collection. He has about 5,000 different mutes, representing 2,000 different types."
"I actually got to go through his collection and pick different shapes, different materials, and find three for the recording. I basically grouped the muted lullabies into those three categories: the warm, soothing ones (using a leather mute, that I actually do own, and that's more of a round shape, a little bit thicker); the delicate, dreamy ones (sort of a rectangular-shaped leather mute with two feet); and then the mysterious ones, where the mysterious-sounding mute (made out of resin, kind of like a lady's hair clasp of 100 years ago, and shaped almost like a practice mute though lighter, very large, with three feet) made them even more mysterious!"
The search for the perfect tone color didn't end there, either. Rachel had luthier Paul Becker do a tonal adjustment on her instrument for each set of lullabies in each category.
"Two of the three mutes caused my violin to have wolfs, and by bad coincidence, some of the notes that got wolfed were notes that feature prominently in the pieces I was playing with that mute!" Rachel said. "So I had my luthier readjust the feet of my bridge for each group of muted lullabies. I had my normal tonal adjustment for the unmuted pieces, and then he adjusted it for one mute, adjusted it for another mute, and adjusted it for another mute as the session went along. Obviously, in concert, you're not going to be changing your adjustment in the middle of the performances. But believe me, without changing the adjustments, the wolfs would have been machine-gunning in the middle of a delicate lullaby. That just wouldn't have been good! WFMT studio is only a 20 minute drive from downtown Chicago, so I just popped into the shop before each day's session, when I was doing the different groupings of muted lullabies."
Now that Rachel has uncovered so many lullabies and chosen her favorites, she will also release the collection as a book of sheet music, with her own fingerings, bowings and performance suggestions. That likely will come out later this summer.
"It will be a very generous collection. Some of these pieces are out of print, others you can find quite easily, and everything in between," Rachel said. "There will be edited versions with all of my fingerings and bowings that match what I did on the album. And then the piano accompaniments will be included as PDFs on the CD-ROM, which will also include music-minus-one tracks, played by Matt Hagle."
While the pieces are sophisticated enough to be performed by professional artists, "the technical level demanded to play the notes is intermediate. Most of these lullabies can be played by intermediate students or adult amateurs," Rachel said. "There are three that are a little bit more difficult, and I've actually provided simplifications of them. So almost all of these pieces can be played by people who aren't very advanced on the violin, which is really exciting. I can just imagine a sibling, or a parent or an uncle or an aunt or a grandparent, being able to welcome the new baby in their life with their own renditions of some of these lullabies, with the music from the sheet music book."
How does the 18-month-old Sylvia feel about all these lullabies?
"She certainly heard me rehearsing them, and picking them and playing the edited versions back and playing the rough takes back so that we could look at track order -- she's heard them a million times," Rachel said. When she hears her mom playing, though, she tends to perk up attentively instead of nodding off. When Rachel wants to lull Sylvia, she's more likely to sing to her, and hold her.
"That's the thing -- when people ask, 'Are you playing these to your baby live and in person?' Well, how can I nurse her and play the violin at the same time? (She laughs) I sing to her, just like my mom sang to me," Rachel said. "Of course some of the tracks on 'Violin Lullabies' are our songs, like the Brahms and the Schubert and the Summertime. Then of course we have a lot of the folk song lullabies as well that I like to sing to her."
She also sings Sylvia songs from Suzuki Book 1.
"When Suzuki chose these German folk songs, one of the reasons he selected a lot of them is because they were songs that German parents of that time traditionally sang to their children. They were tunes that kids would already have in their ear, and then start to play on the violin," Rachel said. "That whole concept sort of gets lost when you take the Suzuki repertoire to parts of the world where those folks songs were never folk songs, or now probably even in Germany, the parents no longer sing those old songs. But I thought, rather than playing the CD of a violinist playing folk songs, why don't I just use some words? I got various lyrics from some of my friends who are Suzuki teachers, and from my sister, who had a whole set from her Suzuki pedagogy class that she took during her masters program. For some of them I've just made up my own silly words; I have a set of words for Perpetual Motion about dinosaurs. So I actually just sing the Suzuki songs to her! She does have a little 32nd-size violin, and we get it out every day. She knows the names for all the parts, and she knows which is her bow hand, and how to put her hand on the shoulder of the violin and put it up on her shoulder. Obviously she doesn't yet have the physical coordination to be able to do anything for real, but I'll bow a few "Mississippi Hot-Dogs" across the strings with her, and she gets a big smile on her face."
Incidentally, Sylvia is one well-traveled toddler: She already has 16 stamps in her passport, and by the time she hits her third birthday, she'll likely be eligible for Executive Platinum -- she can upgrade to first class! Rachel has traveled with her husband, Greg, for 17 years, and that's simply how life is for them, and now for Sylvia. But finding a nanny was a challenge.
"Sylvia started touring with me when she was three weeks old," Rachel said. "Our first nanny was from a traditional nanny agency. We explained the lifestyle to her, and she said she was up for the adventure, but it turns out that she had been a little bit unrealistically optimistic. After about three months she said, 'You know, I just can't do this any more,' and really left us a bit in the lurch, because she quit suddenly and unexpectedly." The mother of a Vamos student stepped in and traveled with them for five months, while they found a new nanny. They ultimately found one through an agency especially for musicians, called ChARTer Nannies.
"It's a great idea because there's a self-selection that goes on -- nobody is going to sign up with the agency unless they are actually looking to live that lifestyle, which is a lot different from somebody who reluctantly agrees to try it," Rachel said. "These are young ladies who love traveling, love music and are not put off by the flexibility and unpredictability of a schedule where the flight might be late, then we have dinner with the conductors and the donors at 11 p.m., then a 7 a.m. radio show the next day -- it can be very, very intense."
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BELOW: Rachel Barton Pine plays the Brahms Lullaby on her 1742 "ex-Soldat" Guarneri del Gesu, which was picked by Brahms himself for his protégée, Marie Soldat.
The music community in Britain and all over the world is celebrating the life of conductor Sir Colin Davis, who died Sunday at the age of 85.
Davis was Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra from 1995 to 2006 -- the longest-serving conductor in the LSO's history -- and held the titles President of the London Symphony Orchestra and Honorary Conductor of the Dresden Staatskapelle at the time of his death. He also was music director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, from 1971 to 1986; and music director of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra from 1983 to 1992. He was knighted in 1980.
For a flavor of his legacy, scroll through the memorial page on the London Symphony Orchestra website, where more than 400 messages of condolence, poetry, remembrances and personal thanks have been posted, including many by recognizable soloists, orchestra members and singers from all over the world who worked with him. (And the posts are in a number of languages!) The Guardian also has compiled remembrances from famous conductors, musicians and administrators.
Photo by Keith Saunders, courtesy London Symphony Orchestra
As a teenager at Christ's Hospital School in West Sussex, Davis learned to play the clarinet. An obituary by the BBC quotes Davis, describing hearing a recording of a Beethoven Symphony for the first time during those days: "It was a revelation…I had never heard so much energy concentrated into half an hour. I wanted to be a musician and I wanted to be a conductor. It was the most irrational decision that I have ever made."
Especially since he didn't play the piano, having grown up in a home without one. In fact, his lack of piano skills kept him out of the conducting program at Royal College of Music, where he studied clarinet instead.
Nonetheless, he was conducting by the time he was 30 -- a rather young and firey personality conducting musicians older than he was -- and often times clashing with them. It was during these days that he was considered, but actually rejected for posts as chief conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Royal Opera House, according to National Public Radio's obituary. If his professional life was rocky during those days, so was his personal life; his first marriage ended in the 1960s, when he left his wife and married the family's former au pair, with whom he later had five children -- and a long second marriage.
He served a tenure with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, beginning in 1971, and by the time he took the helm with the LSO in 1995, he was a widely respected maestro, who led the organization through a series of successes, including international tours, Grammy awards and explorations of Mozart, Berlioz and Sibelius. Davis also was principal guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic from 1998 to 2003.
He also enjoyed pipe smoking, and knitting!
I leave you with a few comments to ponder, taken from the London Symphony Orchestra Sir Colin Davis memorial web page:
From Rod Stafford, LSO Friend: "With the sad, sad news of Sir Colin's passing the world is a lesser place for we have lost not only one of the greatest of all conductors, but also a quite exceptional person. I send my sincere condolences to his immediate family - and to his wider family of countless musicians and music lovers whose lives have been enriched by Sir Colin.
For more than 50 years I have marveled at the integrity, the humanity and the great sense of love for the music that so characterised his performances. His breadth was enormous: although his Berlioz, Mozart and Sibelius were incomparable, his unique wisdom and authority also gave us magnificent readings of much of the concert and operatic repertoires.
I was fortunate to hear him conduct many orchestras on hundreds of different occasions. He inspired many to play better than they believed possible, and the unique and wondrous collaboration with his beloved LSO gave the world one of the greatest of all conductor / orchestra partnerships. His memory will burn bright forever with his gift to us of an enormous recorded legacy to remind us always of his music making. Farewell, Sir Colin, and thank you…"
From David Lawrence: "What a privilege it was to have met and studied with Sir Colin at the Royal Academy of Music. The first thing he taught us was that none of us should worry, since no-one starts conducting properly until they are 60. He taught us passionately that it is no good trying to be a conductor in front of an orchestra, that what is important is to stand there and be a musician. His passing is deeply sad. He takes with him an unfathomable understanding of music, musicians and humanity, but through the endless generosity of his experience, his life and legacy will live on through us all."
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Documentary + performance of 2000 Proms concert featuring the Requiem by Hector Berlioz, with students from Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the Paris Conservatoire, and the Philharmonia Chorus and Symphonic Voices (performance begins at 12:18):
Interview from 2012: Sir Colin Davis and Nikolaj Znaider
* * *
I was pretty tired after playing for the early church service yesterday -- a service that featured two pieces of modern, atonal music written by a member of the congregation, for soprano plus a quartet of flute, violin, viola and cello. It was handwritten, rather exposed, with frequent meter changes and some rather awkward 32nd notes. It was a fun challenge, and with some excellent and good-natured colleagues, who voluntarily got together before the service for one more rehearsal. But I was already pretty spent.
Knowing we'd be playing it all again in an hour for the second service, I was thinking pretty hard about my coffee, which was sitting back in the green room, getting cold. I'd just determined that I'd socialized adequately and I could make a beeline for the breakroom, when a young mother came up to me, holding in her arms her curly-haired toddler girl.
"Emma (not her real name) didn't really get to hear the music at the service because we were sitting outside in the back, and she was so disappointed!" said the mother, indicating her girl. "Could you tell her a little about your violin?"
Choice: Say something nice but cursory, and get back to my coffee and colleagues. Or, seize the moment.
"Well, this is a violin," I said, resigning myself to cold coffee. I looked at my rather shy, new young friend and smiled, slowing myself. "It is about 200 years old, if you can believe that!" I thought of the article I'd just read in the BBC: "Before it was a violin, it was a tree that stood in a forest for hundreds of years," I said. "Birds lived in that tree, and squirrels climbed up it and the wind blew through the leaves. Then someone took the wood from that tree and made this violin from it. They made my violin a long time before I was born, and people played music on it before I was born. I wonder what they played! What songs do you like? Do kids still know the Barney song?"
"No, she doesn't watch T.V.," her mother said. "She does know Twinkle Twinkle Little Star…"
I played the old Barney song anyway (which is a very slow "This Old Man,") and she listened quietly, hugging her mom. A small crowd began to gather, in the front of the church. I segued into a nice "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," a slow and pretty one.
"Wow, thank you for the concert!" said the mom, as I finished.
"You are most welcome!" I said. I noticed later that she stayed with her daughter, sitting in the front row, for the second service, so they could watch and hear the music the little girl had missed the first time around.
These days, we can't count on others to introduce the violin into children's lives; we have to seize the opportunity when it comes along. You might be the child's relative, who just watched a squirmy toddler through a long program and would happily go home rather than introduce yourself to a musician. You might be the musician who just finished playing and is thinking about coffee and how to count that random five-beat bar better next time, who isn't exactly in "teaching moment mode." You might be an amateur musician or parent, a little harried when another parent, who sees your involvement in music, comes up to ask how to get involved with music for their own child. Whatever your role, if that "teachable moment" lands in your lap, don't miss it!
There's certainly no guarantee that children will be introduced to instrumental music at school, and for so many people, the sight of a real instrument anywhere during the course of daily life is a rare event. What a fascinating object a violin can be. If people seem curious about it, let's encourage and feed that curiosity.
How does a person continue performing, over a four-decade career?
It's all about loving what you do and nurturing a lifelong spirit of curiosity about music and music-making, said Elmar Oliveira, who hit the world stage in 1978 with his gold medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition and continues to perform, record and teach today.
The first violinist to receive an Avery Fisher Prize, Oliveira has a considerable discography, stretching over three decades and ranging from Beethoven to modern composers. He is one of the foremost connoisseurs of the instrument, having likely played more Strads and Guarneris than any other living violinist, but also championing the fine violins made by living makers. Currently he plays the 1729/30 “Stretton" Guarneri del Gesu as well as several contemporary violins.
For his latest project, he's taken up the Violin Concerto by Robert Schumann, recorded live with the Atlantic Classical Orchestra which plays in Vero Beach and Stuart, Florida. The recording includes a conversation between Oliveira and the orchestra's conductor, Stewart Robertson.
It's a slightly unlikely piece. Schumann's Violin Concerto has made little headway, in terms of popularity, in the 150 years since its composition in 1853. This is likely because its dedicatee, Joseph Joachim, never performed it publicly. Also, both Clara Schumann, the composer's wife, and Johannes Brahms kept the work secret, declining to publish it along with the composer's other works. Thus the work has remained somewhat obscure and less examined than others of the same era.
Schumann said that the theme of the concerto's second movement was dictated to him by angels; specifically, the spirits of Mendelssohn and Schubert. Composed less than a year before Schumann's suicide attempt and complete descent into madness, the piece seemed, to those closest to him, a product of that madness. That second movement, though, is one of the most divine moments in the piece.
I spoke to Elmar Oliveira over the phone, while he was in Florida, where he winters and teaches at Lynn University. We talked about his career, about teaching and performing, about fine instruments and about the Schumann Violin Concerto.
* * *
Laurie: Where were you born, and what made you take up the violin?
Elmar: I was born in Connecticut; my family was Portuguese. My parents and both of my brothers were born in Portugal, and I was the first American-born. My father had the incredible love for the violin. He was an amateur; he picked it up on his own. He was an amateur mandolin player first, and then he played the violin. When he was nine years old he heard the violin in church, and the sound never left his being. So it was almost like an obsession, as if no other musical instrument existed except for the violin! (He chuckles)
Laurie: At what age did you decide to play, and what made you want to play?
Elmar: First of all, my brother, John, was a professional violinist, and he was 11 years older than me. He played in the Kansas City Philharmonic at that time, then he played in the Houston Symphony for almost 20 years. He was actually one of my first teachers, and I heard the violin all the time. I probably heard the violin in the womb! If it wasn't my brother practicing, it was the long-playing records being played, or the radio -- but the violin was constant in the home. Consequently, I already could whistle and sing all the violin concerti, all the sonatas, all the short pieces -- because I had heard them. Actually I started in the public school system, which was a really great thing at that time, and unfortunately we have none of it any more. That was in Naugatuck, Connecticut. I started learning the violin rather late, actually -- I was nine years old. I actually started in the school with a violinist who was a pupil of George Enescu, and was also my brother's first teacher. I developed very, very quickly, once I picked up the instrument. At the end of a year I played my first recital. I was 10 years old, and I remember I played Brahms Hungarian Dances, Mozart Turkish Violin Concerto, and all kinds of little short pieces -- it was quite something for one year of study.
Things just progressed from there: I won my first competition when I was 14 years old, and I played with the Hartford Symphony on television for that particular competition. Then two years later, I won the Young People's Concerts competition and played with the New York Philharmonic, and it just kept going. The big deal was when I won the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1978.
Laurie: That was a very big deal, not just because it was the Tchaikovsky Competition, which carries so much prestige, but also because of the political environment at that time.
Elmar: The story I heard was that Leonid Kogan, who was the head of the jury at that time, actually had to call Brezhnev and speak with him and say, "You know, there's this American violinist, and I don't think there's any way we're not going to be able to give him a gold medal…" and that's what happened!
And you have continued to play, to have a successful career for the last 35 years. It doesn't always work that way. Sometimes people burn out pretty young because it takes so much work and dedication. How have you been able to sustain your inspiration?
Elmar: I think it all has to do with the love of the violin, the love of music, and the love of what you're doing. It also has to do with your curiosity about what to do and how to develop as a violinist and as a musician.
Also, I've learned so much over the years from my teaching -- not only about how to teach my students: how to get them to play properly, to advance and to try to be artists -- but also about my own playing. It's this constant studying, delving into the scores, the composers, the concertos and the sonatas, and having to be able to communicate that to my students. And of course, there are all the different performances over the years. For me, there's never anything boring about it; it's always just constantly demanding: both what it is that you see in the musical score, and what you see in the violin playing.
Laurie: How long have you been teaching?
Elmar: I was in my late 20s when I started teaching. I came back from the Tchaikovsky Competition, and one of the things that I did do was teach. I've taught in various different places: Binghamton University, Cornell University, Manhattan School of Music, SUNY Purchase. I've given master classes all over the place: Curtis, Peabody. And of course now I'm associated with Lynn Conservatory of Music at Lynn University, and it's just really fantastic.
Laurie: You like teaching, obviously. Not all performers do!
Elmar: I could not live without teaching. It's so much a part of my being, of my soul. The thought of getting really gifted students to go to the next level of playing means so much to me; I couldn't live without being able to help young players do that.
Laurie: Something I noticed in your bio for Lynn University: you talked about your teaching philosophy, and you said that you liked to nurture the proper psychological approach to performing. That intrigued me. What is the proper psychological approach to performing? I'm a violinist myself, and I know that I have felt a whole range of feelings when performing.
Elmar: One of the biggest issues is: How do people perceive walking out on stage and playing a concerto with an orchestra, or a recital with a piano? What are they thinking of when they go out there? Of course, everybody is nervous, and how does one deal with nerves? There are so many different issues. The first: where the concentration is, when you are walking out there to perform. If the obsession is with the nervousness, then the concentration is not on the playing, it's not on what you're doing. So one of the key things to do is to learn how to focus on what you're doing, not on your nervousness. Concentrate actually on the playing, be able to start something and, no matter what you're feeling in terms of nervousness, be able to let go of (the nervousness) as quickly as possible and immerse yourself in what you're doing, whether it's concentrating on the musical aspect or the technical aspect. In my case, I feel that there's never a moment in performance where those two things don't go hand-in-hand. So this is what I try to impart in my students. Also, I try to get them to do a lot of performing. If you do it once a year, it's quite different from doing it 20 times a year.
There are just so many issues with the psychological preparation of going out on to a stage and performing, I can only talk about maybe a tenth of the things that you really need to talk about with your students.
Then of course there's the psychological issue about what performance means to an individual student. Some people are only obsessed with "success," and that may be one of the worst things about performing. Because it's not about personal success, or what you achieve and how people perceive of you. It's about the big picture: Where are we all going, with music, with performing? The ultimate goal is to be able to understand what it is that you're playing in a very, very complex way, and to communicate that to your audience.
Laurie: I would think your perception of the audience must have something to do with it, too.
Elmar: I feel that one never plays for one's self. Although one sets particular goals that one wants to achieve for oneself, the ultimate thing in performance is to have the sense that the audience is 150 percent absorbed in what you're doing. Because otherwise, you might as well just play in your living room.
Laurie: Do you remember your first encounter with a really fine instrument, and what that was like?
Elmar: I suppose, the first really great instrument that I played on was the instrument I was loaned to go to the Tchaikovsky Competition, the Holroyd Strad -- it was a really great instrument. Even before that, I was loaned the Empress Catherine Stradivari, to play my New York debut, when I was 19 or 20 years old. That was a great instrument also. When I played on that, of course, my entire sense of playing was very different than playing on a mediocre instrument, or an average instrument.
I'm of the perception that an instrument does not have to be a Stradivari or a Guarneri or a Guadagnini or a Vuillaume to be a fine instrument. It could be made in England, it could be made in Africa, it could be made in China -- everything depends on the sound of the violin, what it does for you in a hall, and how it feels in your hand. Those issues are the most important issues. Whether a violin projects in a hall -- for a soloist that's a very important thing. Rostropovich used to say, and I think it was absolutely 100 percent on the mark, (his unaccented American English takes on a Russian accent) "I don't care what cello you give me: Give me a loud cello, I put quality in."
There's such a great truth about that. Just think, pianists have to travel and play on whatever piano is available to them. A pianist who has a great sound and knows how to produce great sound could be playing on a mediocre piano; it still sounds great.
Laurie: But there's still a difference. Right?
Elmar: Of course there's a difference. Because a great instrument, in terms of quality and response, can actually enhance your playing. You can learn from your instrument.
Laurie: In what way?
Elmar: Sometimes you have to do certain things on a particular instrument to make it work; whereas on a great instrument, you might do it differently and all of a sudden you realize that something in your technique just stepped up two notches. A great instrument can change the way you approach something. You learn, all of a sudden, something about a particular stroke with the bow, how you do it on a great instrument, very different than how you might do it on a mediocre instrument -- and you might have been doing it wrong. So that's how you learn from playing on a great instrument.
Laurie: You have played on a lot of fine instruments -- how many Strads have you probably played on in your life?
Elmar: Prior to me, I think maybe Ruggiero Ricci had played the most great instruments anywhere. But I think I finally beat him on that! (He laughs) I've played, performed and recorded on so many instruments -- the Bein and Fushi project that I did, the Library of Congress collection -- just so many instruments! It's been quite an education and a great experience for me.
Laurie: What do you find they have in common, or they don't? Where there any surprises?
Elmar: I find that they're all different. There are never two instruments that feel or sound exactly the same. The great instruments all have their great qualities, and they all have their drawbacks, as well. It's not like you pick up a great Stradivari or a great Guarneri and all of a sudden your problems are solved. There are things about the instrument that you have to learn to coax out of it.
Laurie: Some people say that sometimes a Strad or a Guarneri is actually harder to play.
Elmar: Sometimes that's true, sure. Therefore ease is not the only thing you should be looking for, when you play a great instrument. There are so many different qualities. Of course, ease is one of the essential things that you would like to have. You'd like an instrument that you could put in your hands and you just play and it feels very comfortable. But there are other issues, like sound and timbre and quality of darkness or lightness of the sound, malleability of the nuance of the sound, whether an instrument can respond to different bow pressures and speeds and all kinds of different things.
Laurie: A number of years ago, you performed with the Pasadena Symphony, and I was in the orchestra. I remember that everybody thought you were playing on a fancy instrument, and then you said, "No, it's actually a $12,000 instrument from Salt Lake City!"
Laurie: All the violinists in the orchestra were saying, "What?" and looking at this instrument. So I wanted to ask you what your thoughts are on the current state of violin-making. Are the moderns just as good as the old masters? Is that even a relevant comparison?
Elmar: Here's what I'll say about contemporary makers: I'm perhaps the greatest champion of contemporary violin makers, as far as a player is concerned. Because I've owned so many of them, and I've bought so many of them, and I've supported many of the great modern violin makers, from Joseph Curtin and Gregg Alf at the beginning, through John Young and even the Chinese makers. What I'm finding, in the last 30 years, is that the level of making of contemporary instrument makers is at the highest peak that it's ever been since the Golden Age of violin-making in Cremona.
Elmar: There are a lot of reasons for that. I think that one of the biggest reasons is that over the last 30 years, all of the big violin-making schools have cropped up and people have been able to go and study and work for two, three or four years, in these school workshops. In that amount of time, the knowledge that we've gathered about violin-making has been so extensive, in terms of the graduations of the great instruments, the varnish, the kinds of wood that were used, the workmanship, how different things were accomplished by the great classical makers, in terms of molds and carving and all kinds of such issues. There's never been a time like this! I think that the fine violin makers that are making instruments today can only be surpassed by the greatest classical makers of Cremona of the 18th century. The people who are making instruments today absolutely do compare to a lot of those makers.
Laurie: And for you, without the question of whether one is better than the other, is there a difference that you can generally talk about between a 300- or 400-year-old instrument and an instrument from today?
Elmar: I think the basic difference is how the instrument sounds under your ear, and if you're a really sensitive player, you're looking for color and nuance in the sound. On certain (modern) instruments, it's closer to the old Italian instrument sound than others, but it's something you have to sort of produce on a new instrument. On an old instrument, a lot of that is automatically there in the sound. I think that this has entirely to do with time. With how much an instrument was played, how much time is given to change, to absorb all the climatic differences that go on. Just imagine that the Stradivaris and Guarneris have been around for more than 300 years, and these instruments are being made last year -- they're comparable to some of these instruments that have been around for over 300 years! I think that's one factor that you can never discount that one factor, when you're playing on a new violin: time. Time is so important.
Laurie: Does it help that an instrument has been played on by many people, or by certain people?
Elmar: I'm a firm believer that the instrument takes on the identity of the player, so if it's a really good player playing an instrument, it should sound better going from one player to the next. If there's a bad player in there, you have to get the bad vibrations out. I really believe it!
Laurie: I think to non-violinists, we all sound kooky, but just about every violinist I talk to nods their head in agreement.
Laurie: To turn our attentions to Schumann, what made you decide to dive into this rather complicated concerto by Schumann, and how long have you been playing it?
Elmar: I grew up listening to an old recording that I had of (Henryk) Szeryng, an old Mercury recording with Antal Doráti. I always had an attraction to this concerto because of that recording. I felt that when this concerto could be played really, really well, it was very successful on a lot of different levels. And the second movement of this concerto is one of the greatest second movements of any Romantic concerto.
Laurie: What makes it so?
Elmar: There's a certain intangible, Romantic, nostalgic quality about it that you can't put your finger on, but it's so beautiful. He described the theme of the second movement as coming to him from the angels, and that's exactly the way I hear it. I feel like it's something that a human being can't really produce. It's got to come from somewhere else. And as kooky as that sounds, I think that most of the great music, of Brahms or Beethoven or Tchaikovsky or Sibelius, I think it does come from somewhere else. Of course, you can analyze it: This was a theme that he developed this way because the tonic goes to the third and blah blah blah -- but that doesn't tell you where the inspiration comes from.
Laurie: It was a concerto that I wasn't familiar with, and it almost sounded like Mahler or something to me.
Elmar: I know! First of all, this concerto is the unique language of Schumann. I'm a huge fan of Schumann, but when you go back and you look at the very few works that he wrote for the violin, both sonatas are enigmatic. It's not some kind of music that you can sit down in a concert hall and listen to comfortably, as you would listen to a Brahms symphony. There's always something about it that makes you think, 'How did he do this, why did he do this?' That's what attracted me to the concerto.
Laurie: What would you say to the idea that he wrote it that way because he was insane? It was, after all, among the last pieces he wrote before being committed to a sanitorium.
Elmar: I would say that's a totally insane idea. He knew very well what he was doing. There were moments when he may not have been so clear, but I feel very strongly that when he wrote this violin concerto, he was in a total state of clarity. Everything seems to work, to me. It's just a question of how much you want to build into it and try to find what it is that works in the piece.
Laurie: If I were wanting to play this piece, what are some of the particular technical challenges that I'd face?
Elmar: It's very un-violinistic; it's much more like piano writing than it is like violin writing. So the challenges are there, first of all, to overcome the technical issues that Schumann writes in the score. For me, they're all solvable. I feel like they're all solvable, but it's not the kind of solvability, if that's a word, that you look at it and it comes to you right away. You have to sit down and look at it and figure out what the best way is to express musically what he wrote in a very un-violinistic way.
Laurie: So this is a challenge.
Elmar: It's a big challenge. Much less in the first movement than in the last movement, but there are sections in the first movement where there are extremely problematic spots for the violin. It doesn't play itself, not by any means.
Laurie: Something you were saying in the conversation that comes with the album is that the last movement is virtuosic, but not in a way that necessarily the audience is going to see it as virtuosic. It's not like Paganini, where everybody drops his jaw and says, 'Look what he's doing!"
Elmar: Absolutely! Yet it's no less difficult than Paganini. In fact, some Paganini is more idiomatic and easier to play than this!
Laurie: Well, Paganini was a violinist! Still, I was reading about this concerto, and has it really been played only as seldomly has they say? Did it really have these long periods of time where no one played it?
Elmar: Yes. It was not played because Joachim nixed it, and Brahms nixed it, and Clara Schumann nixed it, for whatever reasons. My understanding is that Joachim's private performance with Schumann there was not good at all. And it's very easy, when the performance is not great, for a violinist to say, "You know what? It's not a great piece." It's very easy to say that.
Laurie: Not my fault, your fault.
Laurie: But it sounds like it wasn't even played very much in the 20th century!
Elmar: It's not made its way into the standard repertoire, for whatever reason. I think because it is problematic and so people shy away from it. I think that the violinists that are a little more adventurous don't feel that way. They feel that this is a worthy piece, and I'm going to go ahead with it, I'm going to make it part of my repertoire. A few people have. Kremer has played it, and Frank Peter Zimmermann and Joshua Bell, but very few and far between.
Laurie: Is it difficult for the orchestra? For example, the syncopation issue in the second movement.
Elmar: That's a challenge. I think the biggest challenge for the orchestra is the ensemble between the orchestra and the violin solo. Because the physical writing is rather mainstream, even for Schumann: you have pretty much the violin doing what it's doing and then in the tuttis the orchestra plays whatever it needs to play. It's not like Brahms Concerto, where you have underlying thematic material in the orchestra and the violin is doing something, it's just mostly violin, tutti, violin, tutti.
I would just say that, you were asking me if I've played this concerto a lot. Actually, this is the first time I've played it. And it's the first time that this orchestra, the Atlantic Classical Orchestra, has recorded a CD, so it's their first CD. And I think that's pretty important because the caliber of the orchestra is very wonderful, yet nobody's heard of it.
Laurie: What made you decide to record it live, instead of in a studio?
Elmar: I love live recording, I just feel that live recording has an element that's very hard to capture in the studio. When you're on the stage and there's the chemistry between the orchestra and the conductor and the audience -- I don't think that can be replaced.
Laurie: It's a little more risk and excitement.
Elmar: Absolutely. Everything you hear that's done in the studios these days is note-perfect and everything is together, so you really don't know how people play. For me, even if something isn't perfect, it really gives you a sense of performance, live recording. And I just love that.
More entries: March 2013
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Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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