It's not every day that a famous violin teacher hands over her 1736 Stradivarius and tells you to give it a try.
But Friday was a lucky day for Eric, 16, of Alabama, who was one of five young artists who played for Yale Professor of Violin Ani Kavafian in a master class at the 2013 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School.
Eric played the first movement of Prokofiev's Concerto No. 2 for Violin. Afterwards she complimented his sound and asked him what kind of violin he was playing. He admitted that he didn't know the maker -- "I call it Mr. Maple and Mr. Spruce," he joked.
She worked with him for a while, trying to help him bring out the "schizophrenic" contrasts in the Prokofiev, from the tranquil beginning to the aggressive section that follows.
"I'm sure you're the nicest person in the world -- but I want you to play nasty," Ani said. "Channel nasty!"
He wasn't quite making it past scratchy to nasty.
"I just want to make sure it's not your violin," she said. That's when she pulled the surprise: "Well, here it is, you're going to play a Strad," and she handed over her violin. A whispery rumble ("Her Strad!") rolled through the room. She turned to the audience. "I'm not worried," she smiled,"I think he knows how to handle it."
He did know, and the change was immediate. A few minutes later she traded bows with him, without ceremony. She grew a little pickier, demanding he articulate the notes in certain ways. "You almost have to give dictation to what Prokofiev wrote, he was so specific," she said. Eric worked diligently.
"Are you okay with that violin?" she asked after a while. The audience laughed as he grinned, nodding enthusiastically.
Robyn, 21, of the New England Conservatory, played a sparkly and enjoyable third movement of the Mendelssohn Concerto. It's a fast movement, full of spiccato, and it happens after a little introduction that serves as a bridge from the slow movement. Ani focused on this transition, bringing Robyn back to the written page.
"Sometimes we memorize something, then we really don't look at the music for a long time," Ani said. "It's always fantastic to put the music up there one more time right before you perform the piece, and then you realize: Look what he wrote!"
Ani pointed out some dynamics that were written a bit differently from the way Robyn was playing. They came to the end of the bridge and Ani asked, "What's the actual rhythm in that last measure?"
Robyn played it, the way that quite a lot of people play it -- same music twice. I personally didn't notice anything awry.
"Is it?" Ani asked, holding up the music.
"Oh my God!" Robyn gasped. We all gasped -- a quarter than a half note, then two half notes. Not the same. Lesson learned!
"Promise me, look at the score one more time," Ani said, "you play it so well, but I think you could improve it, believe it or not!"
Ji Min played the first movement of Schubert's "Grand Duo," with Evan Solomon playing piano. Ani worked with her on a troublesome shift that required jumping from first to fifth position quite quickly. She said that when it comes to issues of fingerings, she applies a test to see if a fingering will work: "If I hit it nine out of 10 times, I use it; if I miss four or five times, I don't."
Ani suggested that whenever you go back to a piece after a hiatus from it, "get a fresh piece of music always, or you will be influenced by what you did 20 years ago."
Ani emphasized voicing in working with Angela, who played the Andante and Allegro from Bach's solo Sonata No. 2 in A minor.
The Andante has a pulsing bass, that one must play in double-stops, along with the melody. It's important that it pulses quietly: "This is background music -- take all the weight off the bow."
She had Angela play the melody without the bass line, which freed her to use more bow and expression. She wanted her to then play it exactly that way, with that freedom, while adding the bass.
"It's very busy, but can you do that while you're accompanying yourself?" Ani said. She also wanted her to consider changing her bowings, which included many slurs.
Many people work from the Galamian edition of the Bach Six Sonatas and Partitas, and in fact, Ani was a student of Ivan Galamian. But that doesn't mean she agrees with his Bach edition.
She had Angela turn to the back of the Galamian, where a copy of the original manuscript, possibly in Bach's hand, is printed. She asked her to try the bowings from the manuscript.
"This is so different from what Galamian did," Ani said of Bach's bowings. "Thank goodness he gave us the original in the back of the book. These days I don't even look at the front of the book; it's too confusing."
The original Bach shows far fewer slurs, and as Angela tried this bowing, she become more accustomed to it, and it seemed to ease up her playing.
Last, Emily played Ravel's "Tzigane," and Ani wanted more story.
"The story is more important than the violin," Ani said. How to think of this story? Perhaps it's about a Gypsy woman, who says, "Listen -- I've got something bad to tell you! It's been horrible, horrible!" and the Gypsy woman goes on to be very upset and distraught.
In order to tell the story, one has to pace its unfurling, to separate phrases, give a sense of the characters involved, and make it clear. And you have to keep control over the tempo.
"In your excitement, don't go nuts," she said. Keep the tempo in hand and consider the piano or orchestra in choosing various tempi.
I think I see why living-legend violinist Itzhak Perlman isn't wild about traditional master classes.
"I don't like proper master classes," Perlman said. "The actual goal is for someone to sound really bad, then you say something, they sound great and everyone claps."
Instead, Perlman has some fun with the format, playing more of a game with the students, a bit like the class he gives in a video you can find on his website. How many different ways can you play a piece? It's at least one way to start the conversation about violin playing without making a victim of your student.
On Thursday at the 2013 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School, he had students play various pieces, then he had them experiment with playing them in different ways. "The most important thing to me in music is to know that we have a choice in how to play it," Perlman said.
Perlman brought his own students: Francesca dePasquale, Valerie Kim, Caroline Suh, Jennifer Liu, Doori Na and Niv Ashkenazi. Each of them played his or her current piece, and then he asked each to play it again in one of four ways: 1. Expressively intense; 2. Melodically lyrical; 3. Aggressively dramatic; and 4. lacking in expression. He kept this list on his iPhone, then showed each student which to play, so we in the audience wouldn't know.
After they performed, we guessed which way they were striving for, and he talked about how how successful they were, what worked, and what else they might have done.
First up was Doori Na, who played part of Mozart's E minor Sonata.
"The first bar is going to sound really horrible, and I'm going to say one word and then: Sunshine," Perlman said. Everyone laughed -- we knew it was not that kind of master class. In fact, his students all seemed very at ease with their superstar teacher: able to converse with him and experiment -- publicly -- with their playing. If we didn't exactly get to see how Perlman works with a student in a private lesson, we certainly could see the results: students who played well and seemed to have a healthy, undamaged sense of themselves.
Perlman explained to the audience that Mozart had written the Sonata that Doori was playing after the death of Mozart's mother. He had Doori try it "aggressively dramatic," which meant more vibrato, a driving spiccato and more bow speed.
"Of course, the goal is not for the audience to say 'vibrato here, bow speed there,'" Perlman said. But it's interesting for our purposes as violinists.
As his students played, Perlman continued to serve us little bits of wisdom and humor. When Valerie played "Introduction and Tarantella" by Sarasate, he mentioned that at a certain point, we've learned to play the violin, and it's time now to make music. If you make a plan for how you want a piece to go, you aren't signing a contract that obliges you to play it that way for the rest of your life. "I don't want to hear the plan -- I want spontaneity," Perlman said.
Niv played the second movement of the Brahms with lovely sweet tone, and Perlman said, "That was 'B,' for 'Brave.' Sometimes I think certain things should not be played when you aren't warmed up -- the second movement of the Brahms is one!"
An audience member later asked: What is good to play if you aren't warmed up?
"An A-major scale!" he said, without hesitation.
Perlman asked Francesca to play the second movement of the Bruch "lacking in expression," which she achieved by played with nearly no vibrato.
"During Bruch's time, they played it exactly like this, no vibrato or anything," he deadpanned. Okay, not so much, it's a Romantic piece, not period Baroque. But experimenting and "playing different ways illuminates what you want to do."
About vibrato: "For me, vibrato is like a fingerprint of a string player," Perlman said. It is where you find the player's individuality and where you see the variety in different players.
After his students had performed, Perlman took questions from the audience. The first one was, did he enjoy studying with Dorothy DeLay, the late Juilliard violin teacher and pedagogue for which the "Starling-DeLay Symposium" is named?
"I hated studying with her in the beginning," Perlman said. He'd always had teachers who told him exactly what to do, so when she said, "Sugar Plum, what is your concept of G#?" it drove him crazy! "Just tell me if it's out of tune! Tell me what to do and I'll do it!"
But he became a convert to her way of involving the student in the process of learning. "I think I now teach something like she did," he said, "although I don't say 'Sugar Plum'!"
When he hears student auditions, he looks for "somebody who can play a phrase and move me, someone interested in what is going on in the music. Sometimes it's just a small phrase that tells you, this person has an ear, this person recognizes what they are playing."
How many concertos should a young artist be able to play, at the drop of a hat? Six to eight, he said.
An audience member asked about the importance of theory. He said that theory and harmonic structure is important to learn, as a violinist, but in the end, the most important thing is to listen.
"Whether it's Frigidairian mode or Mixed-Up Lydian mode, it has to affect you viscerally," Perlman said. "When I perform, I have to tell the audience how I feel about the music. This is not a private affair, playing for an audience. It's a public thing. It's not like: 'I know what it sounds like -- none of your business!'"
Of course, one never really knows how an audience member reacts to your playing. "I'm always curious about whether the same spot (in a piece of music) gives people the same goosebumps," Perlman said. "Growing up, I had some LP records, and there would be a spot where the record was all messed up because I had to hear it over and over again!"
"I also spent a long time trying to find the elusive wrong note that Heifetz played," Perlman said. He even should slow records down to 15 rpm to detect a mistake. "I found two. You know, when we were growing up, we were trying to avoid the fact that there was somebody who was God, who was perfect."
Perlman said that he still gets nervous to perform. "Nerves are something you don't get rid of, you just get familiar with."
What motivates and inspires a committed young violinist to practice extra hours, to seek a demanding teacher, to strive toward becoming a true artist?
The ten young artists who are performing for master classes and recitals this week explored these questions -- answering with a good deal of wisdom -- during a panel discussion Thursday morning at the 2013 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School.
Symposium Artistic Director Brian Lewis moderated the discussion, first asking the young artists how they came to play the violin. Their answers varied: many had parents who were musicians ("I really wanted a long black dress, like my mom!"). Others had parents or relatives who were committed to having their child learn an instrument. Others showed a great love of music early on, singing and begging for lessons from a young age.
They all (unexpectedly!) had one thing in common:
"Did any of you start with the Suzuki Method?" Every single one of them raised a hand!
What keeps them motivated now?
"I love making beautiful music," Eric said. "I don't think I like anything as much as I like playing the violin."
Some said they were motivated by their teachers or orchestra conductors.
"I love the goosebumps you get when something goes really well," Angela said.
"The way the audience enjoys my playing motivates me," said Elli. "When the audience claps for me after I play, I always feel reborn in that second."
Ji Min said she was motivated by the dedication of her teachers and colleagues, "having people around tho are hard workers."
Robyn said she was motivated by some of the outreach she and fellow students at New England Conservatory did after the bombings in Boston. "I can't tell you how moving that was, to express for others, things they can't express themselves."
Ji Won said that for her the violin is a substitute for her voice. William felt music had opened doors for him, and "I feel a responsibility to defend and protect our tradition for future generations."
Brian asked them to name their favorite violinists, and their collective list includes superstar soloists, orchestra players, teachers, and even a few long-gone violinists they could have heard only on Youtube:
Do they listen to anything other than classical? Well, two said they only listened to classical, but the others had eclectic taste. Here are a few of the things they said they liked: Lady Gaga (okay, that was Brian Lewis), pop, Pink, Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Christian rock, Gypsy jazz, Beatles, old musicals and tango.
In general, the young artists said they practiced between two and five hours per day.
After participating in the discussion, the young artists had a big treat: picture with Perlman! Here it is:
Sylvia Rosenberg is one sharp thinker, who takes in a great deal of detail when listening to a student. And she doesn't hold back:
"Aside from the intonation, rhythm, and tone, you play well."
"It's a little bit 'nothing.' A little too casual."
"Play, don't cheat, because that's exactly what I don't like."
Ouch! Yet there is a certain kind of generosity in this kind of blunt assessment, a willingness to go straight for the blemish and clean until it's clear.
"Being nice, to me, is saying what I think," explained Sylvia during the master class she gave Wednesday at the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School.
I frankly wondered what she could possibly say to Gloria, 16, who played the first movement of the Sibelius with great poise. Her performance was pretty close to pristine, with many layers of polish already applied, and her posture was like that of a ballerina.
"This piece is played so often, I usually think 'Oh my goodness' when someone is going to play it again," Sylvia said. "I didn't think 'Oh my goodness' with you."
This might have been the strongest praise of the afternoon.
Sylvia wanted Gloria to stand more still, to stop rotating to the left when she played. Sylvia also shared her memory of living in Finland, where all winter long there was no light. Yet in June, there comes so much sun, all around the clock -- one day she saw the moon and the sun at the same time. The Sibelius concerto has something of that Finnish landscape from which its composer came.
After a certain passage, Sylvia asked Gloria, why had her bow made a scratch? Gloria thought the bow was too close to the bridge -- but actually, "you aren't close enough," Sylvia said, and it was true, it rang clear when she placed the bow closer to the bridge. There was a little scary moment, during a hand off of Gloria's bow to Sylvia, when the bow fell on the floor. It was okay, but everyone was quite careful for the rest of the afternoon, as Sylvia demonstrated on the students' very fine instruments: a Lupot, a Gagliano, a Montagnana, another Gagliano...
In talking about a diminuendo, Sylvia pointed out that Gloria does different bowings, in general, in this piece, than what she prefers. Gloria mentioned that she had referred to the urtext to see what Sibelius had written.
"My dearie," Sylvia said, "if you are trying to do exactly what Sibelius wrote, you have to do the diminuendo!"
She said she admired that Gloria had looked at the original score, but she finds that young people sometimes fall into a trap, obsessing over the urtext -- "It's a tendency of the young, 'holier-than-thou' student," she said. One needs to attend to the basics of rhythm and dynamics, above all.
She expressed her support for etudes -- if you have some difficult chords, then just go for 10 minutes before bedtime and play a page of them, say, Dont No. 4. Students should also practice 10ths, 6ths and fingered octaves while they are still young and flexible, so as to be able to stretch that "duck-webbing" in the hand before it becomes more fixed with age. After practicing things like 10ths, one should practice thirds, to get the hand back into a normal position.
Next came William, who played the "Danse Rustique" from Ysaye's Sonata No. 5 in G major, a solo piece.
She wanted to hear it faster, with more precision, emphasizing the quirky 5/4 rhythm, which was unusual in the time the piece was written.
William had the misfortune of not knowing with complete certitude what the word cédez meant in the music. It is unlikely that he will ever neglect to look up such a thing again.
After threatening to go home on the spot, Sylvia said, "I really encourage people to learn 12 words in French, 12 words in German and 30 words in Italian, and go around the world." She she moved on and spoke of other things, but she didn't let it go: at the end of his lesson she suggested sending him to a French teacher for an hour!
The other things she pointed out in the music: "Is this a person dancing on her toes or on her heels?" Sylvia asked. Her heels, they agreed -- it is peasant music, and full of open strings, too. In playing a double-stop fifth, which lacks the defining third, "can you make me wonder, is that going to be major or minor? There can be a moment of suspense," she said.
These details have to retain their sense of wonder and spontaneity. "When we have a hard piece, we practice and practice," she said, "but we can't lose sight of the fact that it's special."
Ji-Won, 16, played the first movement of the Brahms Sonata in D minor.
Sylvia asked her to be more aware of when she is leading a section, when she is closing a section, and how it relates to the piano part. She also wanted her to get rid of unintentional accents and vibrato that causes an emphasis on the wrong notes.
"You are too artistic to be betrayed by your fingers," she said.
The climax of the first movement of the Brahms D minor sonata must be so compelling that "I want to hear -- like I MUST hear the end of that story!"
Sylvia also drew her attention to the fact that the piano plays an "A" pedal over and over and over in the development, and that one must be haunted and obsessed by all those A's. "It's obsessive, in a good way," Sylvia said. "It has to get on your nerves a bit, it's there constantly."
Next, Eric, 16, played both the Largo from Bach Sonata No. 3 in C major, and Paganini Caprice No. 24. She talked mostly about the Bach, as time was beginning to run short in the master class. She spoke about Bach's intentions, "not that I've telephoned Bach lately," she said. But the clues are in the music, and one should be intentional about which voices should be brought out. In this piece and in others, she wanted voices separated during sections of question and answer, so there is no sliding or connection between notes during the transition from one voice to another. Each voice should -- and does by virtue of the way Bach has composed it -- have its own integrity.
She emphasized that the codas in the Bach sonatas are always a fantastic commentary on everything that has happened in the movement.
Lastly, Marié, 19, played the first movement of the Mendelssohn Concerto.
Sylvia asked if she had learned it as a younger child, and she said she had.
"It's a little automatic," Sylvia said, and she wanted it more appassionato, with more commitment. Sylvia also said that she is allergic to smoothly slurring the fourth and fifth notes of the piece because there is a dash over the E, indicating it should be separated. Marié started explaining the different versions she'd seen, edited by different violinists…
"Whether it's David, Joachim or Joe Blow, it's got a dash!" Sylvia said.
She said that when one is trying to get a musical idea across better to the audience, not to think of exaggerating, think of projecting.
Violinist Giora Schmidt played a recital that ranged from the outrageously virtuosic to the most quiet and intimate of music -- a fitting musical display to top off the first night of the 2013 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School.
Giora and pianist Victor Santiago Asuncion proved a well-matched pair, showing a beautiful synchronicity in sound, timing and musical idea throughout the evening.
They began the recital with a performance of Beethoven's Sonata in D Major, Op. 12 No. 1, both displaying crystal-clear passagework. I especially enjoyed the second movement, a theme and variations that was in turn playful, dramatic, and gentle.
The Schumann Sonata No. 1 in A minor, Op. 105, is an old favorite for me, and probably for many people who were in the room. (Imagine playing for this room of nothing but well-schooled violinists -- a little daunting!) Their performance was full of energy and musical tension (the good kind) in the first movement. The second-movement Allegretto is such a contrast; knowing I was in such good hands with these sure performers, I simply relaxed. What a funny movement it is, kind of disjointed, like an unplanned day in the sun. In fact, it was a lot like my day in New York: stopping, pausing to look at things along the way, then those things seem to flutter off. It seemed to me that this movement would make great music for some animated film. They ended the movement so beautifully, in good partnership.
Earlier in the day, Indiana University violin professor Jorja Fleezanis had spoken about finding one's voice on the violin, and when they played Faure's Sonata No. 1 in A major, Op. 13, Giora seemed to be illustrating her point, playing the first movement in a singing voice with so much conviction -- extremely clear in line, idea and tone. The second movement was more dark and mourning, a study in stillness and artful vibrato.
But the gem of the evening, in terms of dazzling fiddle playing, had to be the Valse-Caprice ("Caprice d'après l'Etude en forme de Valse" by Eugene Ysaye. I have a theory about why I've never heard it played live: It's too hard for anyone to play well enough to perform! But this can't be exactly true: Giora Schmidt rocked this piece. He played it with the kind of virtuosity that makes impossible passages sound inevitable, with a many-colored palette and wonderful timing. I enjoyed the way the music falls skyward into heaven so many times (way up high on the fiddle), then the last time goes there with great conviction. This piece explores every far region and reach of the violin, he made it look easy. Of course, he played for a room full of people who know how much work that takes!
As an encore, Giora played the "Berceuse Sfaradite" (or "Sfardic Lullaby") by Paul Ben-Haim -- a beautiful piece that I'd never heard. With permission, I caught it on video -- it is muted and gentle, so pick a quiet place and time to listen:
A side-note: Just to remind us all that we live in the 21st century: Giora did not use sheet music; he used a computer tablet and foot pedal while pianist Victor Santiago Asuncion had a human page turner.
Being in New York, meeting new colleagues and reuniting with old ones -- this is part of the fun of going to Starling-DeLay! Here are a few pictures from Tuesday, the first day of this giant gathering of violinists:
It was a rainy day, but this did not matter! I spent the morning with my Denver colleague, Arlette Aslanian, who took this picture of me with my new umbrella:
Of course, one cannot go to New York without getting pizza, and this was amazing stuff, from Lombardi's in Little Italy.
We came back to Juilliard to find a room full of fiddlers, meeting and greeting!
Do you know any of these violinists and teachers from around the world?
"Don't think for a minute that I think of your wretched violin, when I compose a melody."
Indiana University Violin Professor Jorja Fleezanis quoted those words from Beethoven at a master class on Tuesday, the first day of the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School. Of course, we have to think of our wretched violins and all kinds of things, but ultimately, it's all about giving voice to that melody.
That was a theme that kept reappearing as Jorja worked with five young artists from all over the United States, ranging in age from 11 to 20.
Emily, 14, started the first master class beautifully by playing the first movement of Prokofiev's Concerto No. 1 with great control and technique.
"This has to be one of the most singularly transporting pieces," Jorja said of the Prokofiev. She also pointed out that the words the composer wrote in the score are also quite unique. Instead of words we normally see in music, like "dolce," he gives us "sonando," a word that means dreamy or magical. The violinist Joseph Szigeti described this movement as a "fairy tale."
The piece begins with one long, unbroken line, and one way to make this more clear is to be aware that, in this case, the musical line is unrelated to the up-bows and down-bows we take to play it. Though singers are often jealous that we string players never have to take a breath when playing a phrase, we have our own issues: "The down-bow and the up-bow can become a major interrupter of the phrase," Jorja said. We have to create the phrase as if there are no up-bows or down-bows. It's very easy to kind of dip at the bow change, with the body, with the bow. But if one can keep the violin still and keep the vibrato alive at the bow change, it can help.
She had her sing that long line, being careful choosing the consonants or vowels that start each note, keeping it sustained, "like a rainbow, a huge arch."
She also talked about holding bow lightly so not to force the sound: "I'm hardly holding the bow -- it's like I'm holding a feather in my hand. Don't be afraid to keep it much more suspended."
"The thing about music is that you have to be committed every millisecond" -- the second your attention flags you lose your expression. "Don't think about the fact you are doing a performance, think about the fact that you are making this music right now. It's inside your belly."
The place where the bow contacts the string is really where music is born on the violin, and if you move around too much, you risk losing that connection. "Don't get willowy," she said.
The youngest player of the day came next: Elli, 11, who played both the Preludio from Bach's E-major Partita, and also Paganini Caprice No. 20.
Elli played with wonderful facility and technique -- she could play the Preludio so fast! But the question was, is that what she wanted?
When Jorja asked Elli how she felt about the beginning of the piece, she said that "it was supposed to be grand, but I think it was too fast for that." Part of the problem could have been the hall -- the bigger the hall, the more time you need to give to the notes.
"For the audience to understand it, it's important you are not shrinking it too much, so the curves and shapes in the music don't become too miniature," Jorja said.
Elli played the beginning again, in a slower tempo, but then when she hit the 16th notes, she took off running. Elli admitted it was a little on the fast side; Jorja characterized it as "instant Presto!"
"With our strengths, we have to be careful of what is going on, and that we are in command of ourselves," Jorja said. Playing fast -- impressive as it is -- might not be what the music needs.
Elli tried doing the 16th with more a of a broad detache, and that cured the problem: "Now it fits into one organic tempo," Jorja said.
Jorja also spoke a bit about the key of E major. "What would E major be like," she asked Elli, "if it walked up to you?" They decided that E major would have a rather powerful, strong, flashy and bright personality.
The E-string, "it's a bright miserable thing on our instruments," Jorja said, to much laughter. "You have to be careful -- it can become strident," she said. Don't push the E.
"Look at that light," she said to Elli, pointing at one of the stage lights. "If you look straight into it, you get to a point where it's too bright, and you don't what to look at it any more. That's E major. Remember that about E major."
Elli then played Paganini Caprice No. 20, after which Jorja said, "I'm really glad I came to New York -- I wish I could have played like that when I was 11!" Jorja mentioned that the pedal D is always too loud in this caprice, no matter who plays it. Just concentrate on the A and "just graze the D string," she said. In fact, "look at the A string with your eyeballs!"
Ji-Won, 20, played the second movement of the Mendelssohn Concerto, and with this lyrical movement, Jorja emphasized finding your own voice.
In fact, she asked Ji-Won to speak, to say, "I love Mendelssohn."
In all likelihood, Ji-Won was not expecting this. "I love Mendelssohn?" she said, in a small, high voice. Jorja insisted that she deepen the voice, say it from the gut: "I love Mendelssohn," and so she did.
"I listen to a lot of singing," Jorja said. "The act of singing repertoire is how learn to make a line really cantabile."
She asked Ji-Won to use her imagination to describe the feeling of this movement. What are the colors? What would be inside, if you tried to chew into it? What is the character?
They settled on playing it very simply, like a conversation with a dear old relative, maybe a grandmother. Go only at the speed of that conversation, and with a character that is intimate, sweet and loving.
In a complete change of pace, Robyn, of the New England Conservatory, lined up five music stands to take on Berio's "Sequenza VIII" for solo violin.
First of all, it was an experience in itself to hear this piece played live. Robyn explained beforehand that the piece had three parts: the first a conflict between the notes A and B; the second a frenzy in perpetual motion; and the third an eerie fantasia and return to the original A-B conflict.
I definitely heard the A-B conflict, but then my mind wandered quite a lot. To me, the very fast notes, played quietly and interrupted by chords in the middle section -- sounded like a fly buzzing around a drunk guy, who occasionally swats at it, to no avail. The fly keeps on, driving the man wild. He grows more annoyed and flails at it violently, but the fly lives on. It flies around the room, up to the ceiling.
After Robyn put on a (neat red, bling-y) mute, I could see that the fly had actually lapped up come of the man's beer, after the man had died from crazily attempting to kill the fly. The fly sings an operatic soliloquy until it barely has a voice. It continues to buzz a little, but it is now lying on the floor with its legs up -- twitching, twitching…dead.
I was glad when Jorja said that it's important that we experience music with which we are neither familiar or comfortable. "It's okay if we sit here and don't know what she's doing," Jorja said, "because she, as the performer, was completely in control."
Jorja thanked Robyn for the amount of commitment that it took to bring this piece to life. Indeed, I could peek at the music from where I was sitting, and wow! The manuscript itself was puzzling and dense, riddled with double stops, extremely high notes, very fast notes -- not for the faint of heart, to figure this out!
Jorja emphasized the fact that this piece is a solo endeavor, "this is Bach gone galactic," she said. Every nuance, every contrast, is the responsibility of the soloist alone, and one has to play on the edge of one's ability to bring it off.
Though it's a very physical piece, "don't think about just exerting yourself," Jorja said. "Think about how the energy of forte grows out of the energy of piano."
She described the music as an organism that flares out then creeps back in, like an underwater sea creature. She also advised that next time she played the piece, she line up the music in a way that it doesn't hide her from the audience. (Another idea: digital sheet music!)
Lastly we heard Angela, 16, play the third movement of the Sibelius Concerto, which was once characterized by Donald Tovey as a "Polonaise for a Polar Bear," as Jorja said. It is based on a theme from one of Sibelius's early string quartets.
"Think of it, not as a polar bear particularly, but as a peasant tune," Jorja said. She encouraged Angela to enjoy the music a bit more, "it's so much more enjoyable, to see you enjoying yourself," said said.
Jorja also talked about her own experience, taking Alexander Technique lessons from non-musicians. Since they did not play the violin themselves, they would question every physical thing she would do that didn't seem to make sense. It made her question how much of her playing was hindered by what we traditionally do, as violinists, with the body.
In the end, one needs to use one's center of gravity and feel secure. If you sway and move, you must still always attend to the physical details required to make the music. "Be careful about when you try to do something theatrical, just never lose control of what you're doing," she said.
At the end of the masterclass, Jorja reiterated the importance of finding one's voice, quite literally. Music resides in the center of our bodies; without the voice, we are attempting to make music with just our fingers and extremities.
She also read us a lovely poem called To Play Pianissimo by Lola Haskins:
Also, check back, I hope to have video up of Jorja working with Emily on singing the Prokofiev, in a few days, and I will embed it in this blog.
Good night from New York!
Next week more than 200 violinists from 32 states and 14 countries will flock to New York for the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School, and I'm happy to say that I'll be among them!
This is my fourth time to attend the biennial event, and I've always enjoyed the shared wisdom, the amazing student performers and master classes, the pedagogy classes, and the opportunity to mix with colleagues. I'll be writing about it each day, and you can also read our coverage of the last three Symposiums here.
Itzhak Perlman at the 2009 Symposium, with students Michelle Ross, IhnSeon Park, Ania Filochowska, Seung Jung Oh, Aretta Zhulla, Nicole Leon
©Photo: Nan Melville / The Juilliard School
This year's events begin on Tuesday. It's a great lineup, including master classes with Itzhak Perlman; Jorja Fleezanis of Indiana University; Ani Kavafian of Yale; William Preucil of Cleveland Institute of Music; and Sylvia Rosenberg of The Juilliard School. The students selected to play at those master classes are Robyn Bollinger, 21, of New Jersey; Elli Choi, 11, of New York; Gloria Ferry-Brennan, 16, of Washington; Ji Min Lee, 24, of New York; Marié Rossano, 19, of Washington; William Shaub, 20, of Ohio; Emily Shehi, 14, of Kansas; Ji-Won Song, 20, of Pennsylvania; Eric Tsai, 16, of Alabama and Angela Wee, 16, of New York.
We'll also attend pedagogy classes (they gave us quite a repertoire list to bring -- very heavy on Bach, which makes me happy). Brian Lewis of the University of Texas at Austin will discuss "The Musical Gems of Josef Suk"; we'll have two separate classes on various aspects of Bach's solo works, one with Katie Lansdale of The Hartt School and the other with Michael McLean of The Colburn School; and Odin Rathnam will talk about "Principals of Ivan Galamian in Practical Application." Well also hear William Preucil and Giora Schmidt in recital.
This year I can officially say that I've been teaching for 20 years. I've learned so much from my students, my colleagues and my mentors, and I still absolutely love to teach. I've also probably made every mistake you can make -- being an overconfident "new" teacher, feeling threatened by other teachers, etc.. I've watched fantastic teachers, I've seen teachers struggle.
But one thing has emerged for me: the importance of cultivating a supportive community of colleagues, teachers and students. It's important not just to our sanity and health as teachers, but also to our overall endeavor of promoting the violin as a worthwhile activity for all. And it doesn't just happen, we have to cultivate that supportive environment.
How do we do that? Here's a start: I've compiled a list of ways to be a supportive teaching colleague.
1. Learn to accept different ways of doing things. You may disagree with other teachers, but refrain from talking with students and parents about another teacher's faults. You can explain to parents why you do things your way without pointing fingers and accusing other teachers of being "wrong." When you publicly disrespect other teachers, you not only break trust with your colleagues, but you also show yourself to be insecure and unprofessional.
2. Share your good ideas with other teachers. Let them watch your lessons. This is how we raise the the overall standard of our profession, by spreading the use of good ideas and having a free exchange that feeds all of our creativity.
3. Try ideas from your colleagues and observe their lessons; it brings you closer and can enhance your teaching greatly.
4. When you recommend, recommend highly. Stick with the truth, to be sure, but don't hold back your praise of other teachers' strengths.
5. Help other teachers when they ask; give good advise to beginning teachers.
6. See new teachers in your area not as a threat, but as an opportunity to grow your community of students. Having more students in your community will provide everyone with more opportunities for music-making, so join forces and build it up!
7. When working with another teacher's student at a workshop or during the summer, take care not to damage their relationship. You might even seek to praise their "home" teacher. If you feel the student needs to change something, go about it in a positive way. Don't blame the other teacher for "teaching wrong." The problem could be something that the teacher has worked hard to fix, or that the student misunderstood. So many times, I've heard, "My teacher told me to do that!" then I discovered later that the teacher said, or at least meant, something else entirely. (I've even heard "YOU told me to do that," from my own students when I'm correcting them, because they misunderstood!)
8. Participate in teaching workshops and make an effort to learn your colleagues' names and special interests. Socialize, if it seems appropriate!
9. Go to other teachers' studio recitals. Nothing shows more support than being there in the audience and seeing the students at their best.
10. If there are problems with a colleague, seek to resolve the problems by address them honestly with that colleague. Don't tell 30 other people about the problem first!
11. Have your students buy sheet music; don't photocopy the music for them. This is how we support composers, arrangers and publishers that make a living by creating wonderful things for us to play! If possible, pass this attitude on to your students and their parents: that we buy the music, especially from a living composer or arranger.
12. Encourage your students to support each other, not to tear each other down. Again, stick with the truth, but conspicuously praise their strengths, and encourage them to acknowledge each other. Have them play together. Don't pit the students of your studio against the students in another. Instead, think of ways to have them make music together.
I'm sure I've left some things out, please feel free to add to this list and comment!
One might think that after 10 days of grueling competition -- playing Paganini, solo Bach, Ysaye, Mozart, a new modern piece, a recital program, a full concerto -- Belgian violinist Marc Bouchkov might be able to rest, having won the gold medal. Not so!
Yet he seemed very much up to the task of being the laureate, with all the interviews, socializing and extra concerts that involves.
Last Friday, after playing Ysaye's "L'Aurore" from Sonata No. 5 for a special group at CBC Radio-Canada headquarters, then appearing for a long radio interview in French, he sat for an interview -- in English -- with me. This was all just a few hours before performing the competition's Gala Concert, followed by a reception in which he greeted many well-wishers, sponsors and fans.
"The violin was part of our family," Marc said. "Of course, when it is like this, it is a very musical home -- you can hear the violin from every room. As a child, it's like hearing someone speaking. If you hear somebody speaking, you start to speak the same language -- usually! (he laughs) So if somebody plays the violin, you will not say, "I want to play the trumpet." You probably want to play the violin. That is what happened to me. Of course it starts with the imitation, you take a wood thing and pretend to play like a big soloist and things, and then the parents ask, 'Do you really like it? Would you really like to do this?' And the child answers, 'Yes, of course! I want to be like you!'"
His grandfather taught him for about eight years, then he studied with Claire Bernard at the Conservatory of Lyon, then with Boris Garlitsky, first at Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in Paris, then in Hamburg. He has participated in many contests competitions, including the 2012 Queen Elisabeth Competition, at which he was an unranked laureate.
He played his first big competition at age 15, the Louis Spohr Competition in Weimar. "I did it because I saw that a lot of other people were doing competitions, and we decided to try," he said. He was well prepared and made it to the finals -- then, "I didn't get anything, no prize! At that age, this is really a shock, like taking hammer shot on the head." It brought him down to earth with a big thud. Fortunately, his parents had perspective. "They taught me how to learn from the mistakes; how to learn from a failure." One failure should not make you give up and be destroyed; instead, one can learn and come back even better afterwards. And that he did, winning first prize in the Henry Koch International Violin Competition in Belgium several years later.
He continues to seek to learn from the mistakes, and even from the victories. "You need the nerves to think this way, but if you do, you will never stop. There is no moment when you will say to yourself, 'Well now it's over.'" Marc said. It's tempting to reject negative comments from judges, but analyzing those comments can lead to great self-improvement.
"You analyze and you analyze -- it's a very important characteristic to have, to be able to analyze what's going on: to analyze yourself, to be self-critical, and to analyze the people around you," he said. He said he learned a lot from his colleague, Andrey Baranov, who won first prize at the 2012 Queen Elisabeth Competition. "I basically discovered him, not only on the violin but also as a person, and I must say that I learned a lot from him. I really respect what he's doing, and I think he is a model, as far as being self-critical, being able to analyze, and also -- not speaking too much! The more you keep for yourself, the more then you can provide on the instrument later. And he's very good at it."
Marc plays on a Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume violin from his sponsor, Brigitte Feldtmann. The shoulder rest on the back is home-made -- a very low rest designed simply to keep his shoulder from dampening the sound:
One obvious characteristic of Marc's playing is his presence -- his involvement in the here and now -- and his awareness of his partners in music-making, be they one pianist or a whole orchestra.
"The music we are performing can be personal, but you have to share it," Marc said. "You have to share it whether is is a symphony, or a concerto, or chamber music, or even if it's solo music. If it's alone, you have to listen to yourself, and to the silence which accompanies you. You have to share it with the silence around you.
"In chamber music, you have to play with other people -- their part is exactly as important as yours," Marc said. "Without their part, you're nobody, and without your part, they're nobody." Even in an orchestra, everyone's part is equally important, "everybody has to participate, everybody has to be involved." A soloist may play louder, may play for a longer time, may have the melody or more notes, but the other parts must be given equal consideration. "To consider every part is extremely important, and a pleasure, when you come to play with an orchestra," Marc said. "It's a very social thing to be a musician. You don't have to be social out of the music -- maybe you can be totally alone and living in your place. But as soon as you take out the instrument to make music, you have to be social. Even if you're alone, you have to be social with the atmosphere around you."
Another place that Marc feels a link is with the orchestra, and not just as a soloist, but as an orchestral player. He has played for several years as a section player in the North German (NDR) Radio Symphony Orchestra
"I respect it and I love it," Marc said of orchestra playing. "This is my counterstrike against all this policy of: 'Never go in the orchestra, you're a soloist! The losers go into the orchestra!' You hear this from a lot of teachers and from a people who consider themselves big artists. But never listen to it! It is totally wrong."
For Marc, playing in the orchestra has allowed him to see how it works from the inside. "If you know it from inside, really from the inside, then you can build an image when you're coming to play as a soloist with the orchestra." In other words, he can feel at home, as a soloist playing with a professional orchestra.
And what if the orchestra is conducted by Maxim Vengerov, as it was in the finals and gala concert in Montreal?
"Honestly speaking, it has been an unbelievable experience," Marc said. "I grew up with Vengerov's recordings. I loved so much the way he played Max Bruch Concerto, I wanted to learn like him! I even studied some concertos by ear -- I didn't have the score, but I would play with earphones, listening to his recordings. For me, Vengerov is still this unbelievable figure of the violin of this century. He conducts very well."
"I was really pleased that he was going to conduct (at the competition)," Marc said. "I didn't know him at all as a person, and I was a bit scared to meet him, of course! But when I saw him and when we started to speak, I was sure that it could be nothing but good. He's very respectful towards the younger musicians and towards the less-experienced musicians, and he helped us. His way of dealing with the orchestra is very respectful and very noble. I love that -- this has been a very nice experience."
* * *
BELOW: Marc Bouchkov performs Ysaye's "Caprice d'après l'étude en forme de valse" in the semi-finals of the 2012 Queen Elisabeth International Violin Competition:
How heartening to see such a big turnout on Friday night for the final Gala Concert of the 2013 Montreal International Musical Competition!
The three laureates -- Marc Bouchkov (first prize), Stephen Waarts (second prize) and Zeyu Victor Li (third prize) -- and three remaining finalists -- Fédor Roudine, Ji Young Lim and Chi Li -- played to a nearly-full house at the Maison Symphonique de Montréal.
Above, I have linked the performers' names to their semi-final performances, because I do believe the semi-finals truly showcased their emerging artistry, and in many cases they gave truly stunning performances.
This final concert -- well, it was a bit more like those final Olympic figure skating exhibition galas, when the competition is over, the athletes are exhausted, and nobody is making their triple-lutz jumps any more. Maxim Vengerov finally did get to conduct something besides the Tchaikovsky Concerto, with Chi Li playing the last movement of the Mendelssohn, Ji Young Lim playing Saint-Saens "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso," Zeyu Victor Li playing Ravel's Tzigane and Marc Bouchkov playing Sibelius Concerto. Fedor Roudine reprised his last movement of the Tchaikovsky and Stephen Waarts, the first movement of the Brahms.
Winners of the special awards were announced in an awards ceremony that preceded the performance. They included:
Best performance of the Compulsory Canadian Work ("Rhapsodie pour violin et piano" by Jean Lesage)
Luke Hsu, 22, of the United States
Radio-Canada People's Choice Award
Stephen Waarts, 16, of the United States
Wilder and Davis Award for the Best Semi-Final Recital
Marc Bouchkov, 22, of Belgium
(Hear that performance, with Victor Kissine "Caprice" (beginning); Brahms D minor Sonata (10:29); and Ernst "Last Rose of Summer" (33:35), here)
MIMC Grants for the Unranked Finalists
Prize: $2,000 each
Chi Li, 19, of Taiwan
Ji Young Lim, 18, of South Korea
Fedor Roudine, 20, of France
To reiterate, the winners of the 2013 Montreal International Musical Competition were named on Wednesday night, and they are:
Marc Bouchkov, 22, of Belgium, first prize of $30,000 CAD, and a "Sartory" model bow by Sandrine Raffin, valued at $3,700 CAD.
Stephen Waarts, 16, of the United States, second prize of $15,000 CAD
Zeyu Victor Li, 16, of China, third prize of $10,000 CAD
You can listen to performances from both nights of finals on the CBC website. A Gala Performance will take place Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET, featuring the winners playing with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal and guest conductor Maxim Vengerov. Winners of the special awards will be announced at the official awards ceremony, preceding the gala concert.
* * *
Here are a few highlights Wednesday's performances, as well as some thoughts to follow.
Wednesday's performances featured Zeyu Victor Li; Fédor Roudine, 20, of France; and Stephen Waarts.
Zeyu Victor Li played the Tchaikovsky Concerto with tidy technique, and a nice buoyant quality to his sound. He took some very fast turns with the tempo, which is the soloist's prerogative; yet, one must be aware of how fast a large organism such an orchestra can respond, even under the best circumstances. Music takes place in real time and requires give-and-take -- not-together is not-together, whatever one's ideals. That said, this was a very fine performance, with uncomplicated sound, good projection and great technique in the cadenza. In a concerto that can be an avalanche of notes, every note was clear, even in the fastest and most technical passages.
* * *
The Tchaikovsky concerto remains that infamous piece whose dedicatee pronounced it "unplayable," and on Wednesday, Fédor Roudine didn't quite have the kind of control over intonation and consistency of tone quality that puts an audience at ease. He does have a nice deep sound and some incredible chops, taking the third movement at quite a fast clip.
* * *
Stephen Waarts had a beautiful grace in his playing from the first note of the Brahms Concerto -- and then he warmed up and got even better! His impeccable intonation soothed the soul, and his concept of the piece was a cohesive whole -- he made it look easy. I stopped worrying, relaxed and enjoyed the beauty that is Brahms: the soaring melodies, the quirky rhythms that pop out of a cluster of notes well-played, the warmth of emotion.
FINAL THOUGHTS + scroll down for COMPETITION ART!
I will confess to you a certain kind of wariness, when I learned that I'd be listening to four Tchaik concertos and two Brahms during this final round of the Montreal competition, but I found all the performances so very individual.
Isn't that the complaint, that high-level music schools stamp out musicians who all play the same? That there's nothing new left to do with the classics? It's not a legitimate complaint. I saw very distinct personalities and enjoyed their musical revelations.
Hats off to Maxim Vengerov, who had the task of conducting the Tchaikovsky four different times, with four different sets of tempi, four different personalities and all the possible pitfalls that come with accompanying pre-professional soloists. He impressed me as a solid and steady leader, displaying an attitude of support toward each soloist.
For me, Stephen Waarts was a very close second in this competition, with his mature and refined Brahms, and I fully expect to see him winning a major competition in the next few years. That said, Bouchkov seems so clearly ready for the concert stage; he has that special kind of charisma and awareness of both orchestra and audience that draws a listener in, makes one want more. I enjoyed listening to all six of these fine young musicians and only regret I was not here to hear the other rounds! Fortunately we can all listen to them, and here is the website for that.
I love that music inspires people in different ways. It inspires some people simply to look at the world in different way, but it can also fan our creative urges, inspiring some to make more music, or to write. Last night inspired my friend, Los Angeles artist Lark Larisa Pilinsky, to draw! Here are her sketches of the evening's three performers; I feel like she really captured something of their playing.
MONTREAL -- Winners of the 2013 Montreal International Musical Competition were just announced!
1st: Marc Bouchkov of Belgium,
2nd Stephen Waarts of US and
3rd Zeyu Victor Li of China
More to come in the morning.
The sun appeared in Montreal Tuesday; it was actually setting as I walked over to the Place des Artes for the Montreal International Musical Competition finals, in which six young violinists will play their final concerto with orchestra, over the course of two days.
Tuesday performances featured Chi Li, 19, of Taiwan; Ji Young Lim, 18, of South Korea; and Marc Bouchkov, 22, of Belgium. You can listen to those performances on the CBC website, where tonight's performances also will be webcast, beginning at 7:30 ET. Tonight's performances will include Zeyu Victor Li, 16, of China; Fédor Roudine, 20, of France; and Stephen Waarts, 16, of the United States. All the candidates will play with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, with guest conductor Maxim Vengerov.
Here are some highlights from Tuesday's performances, which took place at Montreal's Maison symphonique ("Symphony House") against the backdrop of 13 flags, representing the countries of the 24 candidates who participated in the Montreal International Musical Competition:
* * *
First on Tuesday night was Chi Li, 19, of Taiwan, who played the Tchaikovsky Concerto, with a very appealing vibrato and well-calculated sense of timing:
* * *
Next, Ji Young Lim, 18, of South Korea played the Brahms Violin Concerto, her performance picking up energy and momentum as she went along. The first movement ended with beautiful poignance, and if I could personally give her a prize for "string-crossing technique," I would. Also, hats off to the Orchestre symphonique's oboist, whose beautiful solo opened the second movement.
* * *
As happens in competitions, we will be hearing a lot of the same concerto: four Tchaikovsky concertos and two Brahms! Tonight was a two-Tchaikovsky night: Marc Bouchkov, 22, of Belgium closed the evening with a playful and competent performance of the Tchaikovsky Concerto. His awareness of and involvement in the orchestra part gave off a feeling of happy camaraderie and music-making, as he channeled the drama by nodding to this section or that, showing how the violin was answering the cellos section's question, or playing along in parts of the orchestral tuttis.
Again, here are all those performances on the CBC website. Happy listening!
* * *
And on a different note, I'm really enjoying Montreal, and I'm attempting to speak more French. Here are a few pictures from my adventures. First, Les tulipes:
I'd never seen Maxim Vengerov play live, then for the four years when he stopped playing, it looked like I never would.
But never say never! On Monday night, Vengerov played the Beethoven "Triple Concerto" for violin, cello and piano in a "Concert Prestige" to benefit the Montreal International Musical Competition Foundation. I was happy to be in attendance, among 1,200 people in the new Maison symphonique de Montréal ("Montreal Symphony House"), an impressive concert hall that is not yet two years old. It's a lovely hall with some modern aesthetic touches, such as organ pipes that dangle like silver stalagtites along the back wall, and three decks of wooden balconies that surround the floor.
I was immediately caught by Vengerov's presence and sound, playing the 1727 “Ex-Kreutzer” violin, and also the young cellist Tetreault, who played on the 1707 "Countess of Stainlein, ex-Paganini" Strad.
While these two were quite dramatic, pianist Salov simply nailed everything with quiet competence and little fuss. I wondered about the stage placement that had his back to the others (is this standard in this piece?) -- but nonetheless he was spot-on. Though clearly Salov's background points to a lot of solo piano playing, he seemed a natural collaborator.
The Triple Concerto is full of virtuosity of a non-flashy nature for the cello and violin, like fast, awkward passages that nonetheless require impeccable intonation. Even in places where the soloists play accompaniment to the orchestra, Beethoven doesn't settle for an easy, restful, "I'm not the melody here" pattern; he makes them grab crazy notes from the sky and flutter conspicuously over the orchestra. Would you like to walk a tightrope, wearing a bathing suit? While juggling knives?
I thought our heroes gave a generous and heartfelt performance. The cello solo at the beginning of the second movement was captivating, and the third movement featured some nice high-speed tandem coordination among the three soloists.
For an encore, Vengerov played a favorite, "Meditation from Thais," accompanied by all. My only regret was that I'd have loved to have heard the cellist play an encore as well!
But the Meditation brought goosebumps to all, myself included, and I've heard it more than a few times. It's an oldie, it's a goodie, but I'm still impressed when a performer can get 1,200 people to all stop breathing at once, and Vengerov absolutely did. (Geek note, he played that harmonic at the end way up the fingerboard, not as an artificial harmonic. Nice, I like it.)
The concert opened with Orchestre de chambre I Musici de Montréal and conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni, performing Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, a frequently played piece that is dear to orchestral musicians' hearts everywhere (that's right, if you don't like it, you are a tiny-hearted Scrooge, in my estimation). But it's not a piece to take for granted -- I worried a bit during the (very exposed) introduction, when members of the string section had different takes on the tempo offered, but the orchestra warmed up nicely in the "Vivace." In fact, I was still out of breath when they segued straight into the second movement -- how can one land in the second movement with such a calm heartbeat, after riding at such a breathtaking gallop in the first?
The first and seconds sat opposite one another, a nice choice in a symphony that has so much back-and-forth, question-and-answer. In the third movement, the chamber orchestra showed that it is indeed a fast-driving car, and I think I enjoyed them most when they played fast -- very exhilarating! By the fourth movement I was jumping out of my skin. It is almost too much to ask, to listen to this piece live, without playing it! But being outside the orchestra does give one a larger perspective. I never noticed how the fourth movement is so triumphant, but with a strange limp! A joy to hear this symphony.
A joy to be in Montreal!
MONTREAL -- Here I am in Montreal, where the Montreal International Musical Competition, which features the violin this year, has been in progress since May 7.
The annual competition rotates between voice, violin and piano -- this year it's all about the violin. Judges, which include Vladimir Landsman of Canada; Mark Kaplan of the U.S.; Andre Bourbeau of Canada; Rodney Friend of the U.K.; Michael Frischenschlager of Austria; Yuzuko Horigome of Japan; Regis Pasquier of France and Barry Shiffman of Canada, have narrowed 24 competitors from 14 countries down to six finalists.
The finalists (left to right) are: Zeyu Victor Li, 16, of China; Ji Young Lim, 18, of South Korea; Stephen Waarts, 16, of the United States; Marc Bouchkov, 22 of Belgium; Chi Li, 19, of Taiwan; and Fédor Roudine, 20, of France. They are competing for prizes valued at CA$130,000, including $30,000 for first prize; $15,000 for second and $10,000 for third.
If you'd like to hear performances from the semi-finals, they are all on the CBC Music website. (For example, I've been listening to American finalists Stephen Waarts' Ravel Sonata for the last 20 minutes and it's totally thrilling.) Here also is more coverage, www.espace.mu/cmim, with a nice introductory video which is in French.
Tonight I will attend the "Concert Prestige," a performance that will feature violinist Maxim Vengerov playing the Beethoven Triple Concerto with cellist Stéphane Tétreault and pianist Serhiy Salov, with Orchestre de chambre I Musici de Montréal. That concert benefits the Montreal International Musical Competition Foundation. Vengerov also will conduct the Finals and Gala concerts later this week, with the Orchestre symphonique de Montreal.
I'll be reporting back from all those concerts! Meanwhile, I've been getting to know Montreal, this beautiful, French-speaking city in Canada that some how I'd never before visited! I explored a bit of Old Montreal today and got my California blood going with some actual cold weather! Here are some pictures:
First, I definitely can see what people mean, when they describe the Old World charm of Montreal. For example, the cobblestone streets I found next to the Bonsecours Market:
And horse-drawn carriages:
I also like the Build-a-Bear (or in French, Univers Toutou) right next to this grand church.
On my way back from Old Montreal to the hotel, I popped in to Steve's Music Store, which is really more of a guitar store than anything else. Nonetheless, I caught this father, Jonathan, outfitting his four-year-old girl, Tea, with her first violin. He said he comes from the Magdelen Islands, where a very high percentage of the population plays fiddle -- kind of a Celtic/French folk/bluegrass mix. Nice! And maybe Tea is the world's newest violinist, eh?
Here's how Milwaukee Symphony Concertmaster Frank Almond describes his relationship with the 1715 Lipinski Stradivari violin, which he has played since 2008:
"It is an honor and privilege to be passing through its life."
And what a life it's had: from the practiced hands of Antonio Stradivari in his "Golden Period"; to the famous and prolific violinist Giuseppe Tartini; to Karol Lipinski, rival to Paganini and friend to the Schumanns; to the Röntgens, a three-generation family of violinists tied to the Gewandhaus Orchestra; to America, to Cuba, then to the Estonian violinist Evi Liivak, who had escaped the Nazis in World War II -- and now to Frank Almond.
"The more I learned, the more I was amazed," said Frank, speaking to me over the phone from Milwaukee. "It was like a movie that you couldn't possibly have written -- it was way past The Red Violin -- and it was real. From Tartini on down, there was a real story to tell, and I felt like it needed to be told, not just because of the mystique of Stradivari, but also because it's just amazing information. And here it is, sitting in the city of Milwaukee."
Frank's latest project, A Violin's Life, aims to tell that story by resurrecting pieces from centuries past that were likely played on this instrument -- some still well-known, others largely forgotten. Aided by a successful Kickstarter campaign, he and pianist William Wolfram recorded the "Devil's Trill" Sonata by Giuseppe Tartini; Violin Sonata No. 2 by Julius Röntgen; and Violin Sonata No. 2 by Robert Schumann, as well as Karol Lipinski's solo Caprice No. 3.
Even the story of how Frank came to play the Lipinski Strad sounds like the unlikely plot of a novel, perhaps one called "The Stradivari Code."
"It's still my favorite instrument story, and I've had a lot of really good instrument stories," said Frank, who has been concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony since 1995 (minus a few years in Europe) and currently teaches at Northwestern University. "This one was really -- shocking, in a way!"
It all began with an email from a stranger: We have an old violin, left in an estate; we think it's quite valuable. What should we do with it? He'd seen this type of email before; "it happens a few times a year, somebody finds a violin in their attic or something -- it's an old story."
Naturally, he was a little skeptical. "But the thing is, there were a couple of really interesting details that they happened to drop in the email," Frank said. "It seemed clear that they knew they had something really important, that it wasn't just a dumb violin up in somebody's attic."
For example, they called it by its name, the "Lipinski" Strad, and all the information they gave added up: the year it was made, and the last time it was sold.
A peek into Toby Faber's 2006 book, Stradivari's Genius, stoked the mystery further: "Since its last recorded sale in 1962, the Lipinski (Strad) has dropped from sight." (p. 9)
He sent an email to his friend, Chicago-based luthier Stefan Hersh, who agreed, this might be for real.
As it turned out, the family was in Milwaukee to take care of their relative's estate, so they met a few days later.
"I met them at this storage locker, and we hit it off really well," Frank said. "They showed me old programs, old papers from Jacques Francais and insurance. It was clear that they were talking about this instrument."
The Strad itself, however, wasn't there. Where was it?
"It turned out that they had put it in a bank vault -- a regular bank vault at M & I Bank, which happened to be about, I'd say, 100 yards from the concert hall," Frank said. "It was ironic -- I'd been playing all the time in this hall, and there was a 1715 Strad, down the street in a bank vault!"
A few days later, Stefan came up from Chicago, and they went with the family to the bank vault.
"We sat in a room with a table, somebody brought in this old Jaeger case, and there it was!" It had been in the bank vault for some nine months -- safe, but probably not ideal with its extremely low humidity. Still, "it was actually in pretty good shape. At that point, it probably hadn't been played for about 20 years. It wasn't really in playable condition at that time, but there was nothing really major wrong with it. You could tell immediately that it was The Violin, just from the identifying markings -- it's hard to fake a 1715 Strad."
After poring over their many options for many months, the family ultimately decided to keep the violin --- and lend it to Frank, who has experience with Strads, having played the 1710 Davis Strad (1710) while concertmaster of the Fort Worth Chamber Orchestra and the Dushkin Strad in Milwaukee.
The violin, a "large-pattern" Strad, had been played by Evi Liivak, who had died in the late '90s. Evi's husband, pianist Richard Anschuetz, who had Milwaukee roots, just hadn't been able to part with the fiddle.
Considering their story, one can understand why. Richard and Evi's romance blossomed in the rubble of World War II; they met at the Nuremberg Trials. She had been a child prodigy in Estonia. Her studies at the Imperial State Academy of Music in Budapest were interrupted when her father was killed by the German Gestapo. He was an Estonian patriot, and after his death, so was she, playing for Estonian refugees and refusing to play for German officers. Anschuetz, an American pianist, was working for the U.S. Army as a translator at the War Crimes Trial when they met. The two married in Paris and eventually wound up in New York City. Their life with the Lipinski Strad began when Anschuetz's mother, Rosalind Elsner Anschuetz, bought it for Evi's use from the Wurlitzer Instrument Company of New York in 1962 -- for $19,000! (One can only ponder what it would collect now -- millions, no doubt!) Though she was never a huge name, Evi Liivak toured some 35 countries, playing recitals and concerts with the Strad.
But where was the violin before that?
"There was a family in Cuba that owned the instrument from the 1940s until the early '60s," Frank said. He learned more about this several years ago, when the son of that owner tracked down Frank after a concert he played in Florida. The owner "had literally escaped Havana in about 1961 -- he sort of saw the writing on the wall. He wound up in Florida, where he sold the instrument because he had to start over. He basically escaped Cuba with the instrument and his two daughters. He was the last person to own it before it was sold to the current owners."
"Well, remember that Havana was a very culturally aware place, with a long history of classical music, up until the early '60s," Frank said. "The son was a violinist, he was taking violin lessons, his father bought the violin as an investment in the 40s, from Wurlitzer."
The owner was a supporter of the Havana Symphony, and "when soloists would come through, they'd come over there and he'd show him his instruments." The son showed Frank a card with the years and the names of everybody who had come over to the house to play the violin. How many violinists were on that list? "At least 15 -- 15 of the most famous violinists I'd ever heard. It was amazing. He specifically remembered that Heifetz played on the instrument for a little while and thought it was too big. He didn't like the fingerboard -- said he wasn't comfortable playing on it!" Among the other names included Nathan Milstein, Isaac Stern, and Michael Rabin.
But we're just scratching the surface, here. Let's crank up the way-back machine and go back to the early 18th century: this instrument was first owned by Giuseppe Tartini, the colorful Italian who dodged life as a priest to become a violinist whose most famous work is arguably the "Devil's Trill" Sonata, which Frank plays on the album.
Tartini's pupil, Signor Salvini, inherited the fiddle and gave it to Karol Lipinski -- and that's also a heckuva story (well-documented but possibly a bit exaggerated). As Lipinski related to a friend: Upon hearing Lipinski play for him at his house, the elderly Salvini smashed Lipinski's violin to bits. He then offered him his teacher's Strad, the beauty which he said could be best unlocked by Lipinski's hands.
"Lipinski was incredibly famous, and a prominent cultural figure in the 19th century, even though a lot of people don't know who he is now," Frank said. "He was very close with the Schumanns, he had a long history with Ferdinand David and Mendelssohn." He also played a number of public duet contest concerts with Paganini.
Of course, we've all heard of the 24 Caprices by Paganini, but how about the Caprices by Lipinski? Frank plays his solo Caprice No. 3 on A Violin's Life and he admits that it was both hard to play and hard to find.
"Lipinski came from that sort of virtuoso tradition; there was a reason he was up there with Paganini, playing those little contests," Frank said. "He was a fairly prolific composer himself, certainly not as much as Paganini, but definitely from the same philosophy. Nobody's going to lump Lipinski in with the Hall of Fame composers of the last 200 years, but I thought it was a nice little piece for solo violin, and I thought it was representative of that tradition and his work." Frank found the music through a student who was playing it on YouTube, but also "you can still get a lot of this music from the Karol Lipinski Academy in Poland, in Wroclaw."
Frank included Schumann's second Violin Sonata in A Violin's Life because "Schumann and Lipinski were very close. He and Clara and Robert played quite a bit of chamber music together, and my guess is that they almost certainly played this sonata, on this violin, with either with Robert or with Clara at the piano."
After Lipinski died, the violin found its way into the Röntgen family of Leipzig, Germany.
Engelbert Röntgen played this violin as concertmaster of the Gewandhaus Orchestra from 1853 to 1897 -- a crucial time and place in the history of Western music. "We did the math and realized that this was the violin the concertmaster was playing for the premiere of the Brahms Violin Concerto, with Joseph Joachim standing 10 feet away with his 1715 Strad," Frank said. "There were tons of those stories. It was also the violin being played for premiere of the Brahms Double Concerto, with Brahms conducting."
One of the most interesting pieces Frank plays on this CD is the Sonata by Engelbert's son, Julius Röntgen.
"Nobody really knows who he is any more, but he was extremely prolific; he wrote hundreds of works," Frank said. Finding even one of those works required a some detective skills: "I started at the Northwestern Library. There were copies of various sonatas around, but nobody would loan them out because they were in places like the Vienna State Library or in Amsterdam, and most were out of print." Finally he found a copy of the violin sonata at Juilliard.
"It was really something, to sit in a room with Bill (pianist William Wolfram) one day and read this music through, because, for sure, nobody had read that piece in probably 80 years," he said. "Certainly nobody had performed it --it was totally out of print. So we thought it would be great to record it.
Bridging the Röntgen era to the present, "there are several decades of this century that we left out of the project," Frank said. "Maybe that's a future project."
And the future of the Lipinski Strad? Frank has everything to do with that. Is he haunted at all, by the extraordinary history behind the fiddle that is now his constant companion?
"If you start thinking about everything behind that instrument, it's easy to feel quite tiny!" Frank said. "Sure, it was creepy to play the 'Devil's Trill' Sonata for the first couple times. But that's what the violin is for: playing. It's going to be here a lot longer than I am, and every day that I'm able to play on it, to me, it's amazing."
Frank Almond performs, and talks about, Tartini's "Devil's Trill" Sonata, with pianist Jeannie Yu:
One of the many wonderful things about teaching young students is the fact that I get to be the first to tell them certain fascinating, even awe-inspiring things about the violin, its history and its heros.
That is, if I remember.
It's pretty easy to forget, actually, while tending to other important details:
"What does that sharp mean in this key signature?"
"The frog is getting lonely, please visit the frog more often!"
"Your thumb, your thumb…!"
"Nice vibrato, keep doing it!"
Yesterday, I raised the topic of Paganini, almost as an after-thought: "You are playing Witches Dance! You must hear the original!"
I fished out our V.com friend Emil Chudnovsky's recording of "Le Streghe" from my tower of CDs and let it roll.
Here is another favorite, with Eugene Fodor (Skip to 3:20 if you want to go right to the part excerpted in the Suzuki book. Then of course you'd best go back and listen to it all!):
That's right, in the middle of Suzuki Book 2 is an arrangement of Paganini's "Le Streghe," translated as "Witches Dance." One might not be thinking of Paganini quite yet, when working with a Book 2 student. But why not? There it is!
"Have you ever heard of this gentleman, Niccolò Paganini?" I asked.
(By the way, Eugene Fodor himself corrected me, when I kept saying "Paganini" like "magazini" while interviewing him -- "It's POG-anini! Not PAAAG-anini! Say it right!")
She had not heard of Paganini -- I had not expected that she would have. So as we listened to "Le Streghe," I told her about this wonder of the early 19th century, who amazed people so thoroughly that they were convinced he had sold his soul to Satan in return for that wicked technique. (Another explanation for his amazing technique could possibly be: a great deal of practicing, combined with an unusually wide hand-span, which many believe was actually due to Marfan syndrome, a genetic condition which causes unusually long limbs and fingers.) I also told her that Paganini wrote "some of the hardest music for the violin," which she had no trouble believing, while listening to "Le Streghe"!
Such things are worth the occasional five- to ten-minute tangent, yes?
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