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.
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