March 2014

Gil Shaham Releases 'Music to Drive Away Loiterers' on April 1

March 31, 2014 15:26

Around the world, local governments and business owners have turned to classical music to keep loiterers at bay. “Whether it’s Handel piped into New York’s Port Authority or Tchaikovsky at a public library in London, the sound of classical music is apparently so repellent to teenagers that it sends them scurrying away like frightened mice,” said the Los Angeles Times. When violinist Gil Shaham heard the news, he combed the catalog of his recording label, Canary Classics, to create Music to Drive Away Loiterers, a virtuoso violin compilation that would scare off even most violinists (as soon as they saw the sheet music), for release April 1.


"As a violinist dedicated to his art, I have always looked for ways to help the Greater Good," Gil said. "When I heard that classical music was being used to drive loiterers away, I knew I had finally found my calling. I hope people enjoy this album...or not. Whatever."

No kidding, you can actually buy this on Amazon or on iTunes!

The question remains, can Gil Shaham truly drive away anybody with his playing? Consider the play list: Bizet (arr. Sarasate): Introduction from Carmen Fantasy, Op. 25; Fauré: Sicilienne Op.78; Fileuse Op. 80. No. 2 from Pelléas et Mélisande; Mendelssohn: Octet in E-flat, Op. 20: iii. Scherzo; Mozart: Sonata in E-flat, K. 302: ii Rondeau; Prokofiev (trans. Heifetz): March from Love for Three Oranges; Prokofiev: Andante from Five Melodies, Op. 35; Chen/He: Theme from Butterfly Lovers Concerto; Sarasate: Navarra for 2 violins, Op. 33; Edwards: Chorale from Maninyas; Sibelius: 3rd movement from Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47; Williams: “Remembrances” from Schindler’s List; Bloch: “Nigun” from Baal Shem; Dorman: Scherzo from Nigunim (Violin Sonata No.3); and Sarasate: Zapateado Op.23 No.2.

Will people respond to violin music the way they do to Rick Astley and run away? Might it all backfire and actually attract appreciative listeners? Or is this all a big joke?

2 replies interview with Daishin Kashimoto: Beethoven Sonatas

March 28, 2014 11:08

London-born Japanese violinist Daishin Kashimoto never really planned to be a concertmaster, but he has greatly enjoyed being just that, with the Berlin Philharmonic, since 2009.

Now in his mid-30s, Daishin began his career as a child prodigy. He was accepted at age seven to Juilliard pre-college, and as a teenager he won first prize in major competitions: in the Menuhin Junior International Competition (1993), the Cologne International Violin Competition (1994), the Fritz Kreisler Competition in Vienna (1996) and the Long-Thibaud International Competition in Paris (1996).

Landing the Berlin job was an extension of his penchant for chamber music -- a chamber music friend (who just so happened to be a Berlin Phil concertmaster) told him he should try for the gig.

His latest recording project shows that he certainly hasn't given up on chamber music: he just released a recording of all 10 of the Beethoven Sonatas for Piano and Violin, with Russian pianist (and many would say "genius") Konstantin Lifschitz. (iTunes has their recording on sale for $9.99 through May 25 -- not bad for 10 sonatas!)

Daishin and Konstantin

I spoke with Daishin over the phone a few weeks ago, from his home in Berlin, about his early influences, the culture at the Berlin Philharmonic, and his partnership with Konstantin Lifschitz in the Beethoven sonatas.

Laurie: What made you want to start playing the violin, and how old were you?

Daishin: I started when I was three and a half. My mom played the piano, and my dad just wanted me to learn an instrument. So we had lots of toy instruments at home, as well as my mom's piano. I was just fooling around with all these instruments as a baby, and apparently I played with the violin most of the time because, my mom says, with the violin and the bow, I was able to use two toys at once! So that's how it all happened.

Laurie: I noticed that you've lived in a lot of places and studied in a lot of places: born in London, then living in Tokyo, the United States, Germany. What have you gained musically from the different places where you have lived and studied?

Daishin: Well, it's interesting because I started (violin) in Japan. Of course, I was a baby! I'd already moved to New York by the time I was five. But I remember my teacher in Tokyo (Kumiko Etoh), making sure that I, and also my mom, took this thing seriously. If you're going to do it, do it the whole way. Try by getting better, not for the fun of it. That's kind of the stance she had. If you're going to study with me, then take it seriously; it wasn't just a hobby kind of thing to do. And my mom never wanted to force me to become a professional musician, but she always took it very seriously. She didn't want to have any regrets. Of course, when I was a kid, she took it much more seriously than I did! As Asian moms usually do! (He laughs) That really hasn't changed over the years, I guess!

Then we went to New York, and I was at Juilliard, pre-college, meeting a lot of kids my age every Saturday, playing in orchestra, getting lessons, doing solfeggi, and doing all the basic musical training. I remember always loving not just the music, but also just being together with these people. We were all trying to achieve a goal, one that seemed really far away. It wasn't about getting there, it was about the journey. That was something that was special to me, I really loved that time there.

Laurie: Who did you study with there?

Daishin: I was with Miss DeLay and mostly with Miss Naoko Tanaka. Then I moved to Germany when I was 11. I was first in Lübeck, in the north, studying with Zakhar Bron, the famous Russian teacher, until I was almost 19.

Laurie: That must have been extremely different from, say, Dorothy DeLay.

Daishin: Oh absolutely. Different worlds.

It was also a big decision for the family. In summers we would come to Europe for about two months for master classes and private lessons with different kinds of teachers, just so that I would get to know Europe. Then Mr. Bron said he would like to teach me on a regular basis, and that I should come to his class in Lübeck. I remember, there was a family meeting, and my dad asked me, do you really want to go to Germany to study with Mr. Bron? And I said yes, I felt that it was the right thing to do. And that was it! My parents kind of had to split up, because my dad still had to stay in New York and earn some money, and my mom had to take me to Germany. So it was a big investment from their side. I remember telling myself that, if they're going to let me come to Germany to study, then I really have to try to become a musician.

Mr. Bron was fantastic, and I was privileged to have eight and a half years with him. So this was a huge difference.

When I was 18, I moved to Freiburg, to the south of Germany, to study with Rainer Kussmaul, who is the former concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic. This was also very different, a German kind of school, compared to a Russian school (even though it was inside Germany, Mr. Bron was of the Russian school). So yes, I've had a lot of different influences. I was lucky to have been in New York, just by chance, because my dad was working there at the time. It's life, you never know what's going to happen.

Laurie: How long have you been concertmaster in Berlin, and what made you decide to go for that job?

Daishin: I've been here four and a half years. It was actually my friend and colleague, Guy Braunstein, who came up with this idea of me applying for the job. He was a concertmaster here in Berlin, and I was playing a lot of chamber music with him, and just being friends as well. He told me that the former concertmaster, Toru Yasunaga, was leaving, and that I should apply. I thought, what is this guy talking about? (He laughs) I really couldn't see myself doing this kind of job. It wasn't that I didn't have self-confidence; it's just that I hadn't ever thought of the idea of playing in orchestra until then. Of course, I would always listen to concerts, to these incredible symphonies, and I always wanted to take part at some point. I thought, what better place to learn these symphonies, than here in Berlin? So with this in mind, and with the urging of my colleague -- those things got me applying for it.

Laurie: So you had never played in orchestra before?

Daishin: Only in school orchestra.

Laurie: How do you like it, now that you've been at it for a while?

Daishin: It's a very different experience. It's a different kind of playing, it's a different kind of music-making. But not necessarily better or worse. It's just a different kind of thing, and of course, there are some incredible concerts that's we've done. This feeling of teamwork is something really new to me which I really love. I'm really enjoying it.

Laurie: I was a little curious about the culture of the Berlin Philharmonic, because I saw a video blog, in which you were supposed to play the Prokofiev Concerto, and they started by playing the Mendelssohn! Are they always silly like that?

Daishin: Pretty much, yes! (He laughs) You can feel that they really enjoy their work, that every day they come to rehearsal with pride, but also with this touch of enthusiasm that you don't find in other orchestras around the world. So it's a great working atmosphere.

Laurie: What is it like to work with conductor Sir Simon Rattle?

Daishin: He's also one of those very fun guys! He also likes to do lots of silly jokes as well, and a really sweet person. It's always a pleasure; he rehearses fantastically with the orchestra.

Laurie: I also saw another video where you were doing an interview for a promotion on Youtube, the Berlin Phil Live Lounge. Do you see the orchestra making a lot of efforts to get into the 21st century and use technology to reach new audiences?

Daishin: Ever since (conductor Herbert von) Karajan, this orchestra is known to be a modern orchestra, or trying to be modern. Another project is the Berlin Philharmonic's Digital Concert Hall on the Internet. These things are fantastic achievements. Of course, we also take tradition very seriously, and I think it's important that we do.

But it's also nice to have this approach to the modern world, and also to the younger generation. We started these late-night concerts, Late Night at the Philharmonie, that start at 10:30. So after a normal orchestra concert, there is a smaller concert, without a break, with mostly fun or modern music, with orchestra musicians, even sometimes with Simon Rattle. The tickets are much cheaper as well, more for the younger kind of audience.

Laurie: How's it going over?

Daishin: It's great! In Berlin, there are so many young people, and it's very global as well, so many different nationalities and backgrounds. So it's like a global exchange, these late-night concerts. They're fun.

Laurie: I also understand that the American violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley is coming to the Berlin Phil as concertmaster. This leads me to ask, how many concertmasters does the Berlin Philharmonic have?

Daishin: There are three positions. It sounds strange, but we are three first concertmasters, with the word "first" in front, and then there's one concertmaster, which is kind of like an assistant in America. It's three equal bosses, and one underneath.

Laurie: So he will replace Guy Braunstein, the violinist who convinced you to audition in the first place?

Daishin: Exactly.

Laurie: I watched the video that Warner produced about your Beethoven Sonatas recording with Konstantin Lifschitz. I wondered, where did you do this recording? It looked like a slice of heaven!

Daishin: It was incredible, we had three sessions, and the first one we did in Switzerland, in the middle of pretty much nowhere, in the mountains. It was just incredibly beautiful. Every time we would take a break we would just go outside and there was nothing around except mountains and fresh air. Then we did the last two sessions in Berlin.

Laurie: Something you said, in that interview, was that Beethoven has a lot of challenges, I wondered if you could elaborate on that. What are the challenges for the violin, and how do you approach it? This is a massive undertaking, to do all the sonatas.

Daishin: It is crazy, crazy project. But it's also a life-dream for a violinist, doing all the Beethoven sonatas, next to doing the Bach. In fact, I had just done a tour of Japan with the complete Bach Sonatas and Partitas, which was an incredible experience. I felt that the next step for me could only be the Beethoven Sonatas.

Laurie: Why is that?

Daishin: I don't really know yet, but I think that doing Bach as a complete cycle is something you should do once, before you get too old to play these things. But Beethoven is a project which is not an end product for me. This recording is more of a statement of where I stand right now, how I feel this music right now. I know that later in my life, I'll probably see Beethoven from different sides, in a different way. It's going to be a lifetime thing.

Laurie: Do you remember the first Beethoven Sonata that you ever played?

Daishin: It must have been No. 1, or No. 5 (the "Spring"). Usually it's the "Spring" that you start with. I never played it as a kid; I was already more than 10 when I played Beethoven. I know all these small kids playing Beethoven No. 5 when they're six years old, but I didn't do that.

Laurie: What edition of the Beethoven Sonatas did you use?

Daishin: We used the Henle, the urtext. But of course, there are so many question marks about the material. Not everything is probably originally Beethoven; probably some of it is from editors. Some things Beethoven crossed out himself. Beethoven was also not that strict with what he wrote; he was a bit naughty, I guess. For example, he would write the same phrase twice, but would mark something different -- a dot forgotten or a slur forgotten. So we kind of had an ongoing discussion of how to understand or interpret the material.

Laurie: How long did that take you to put it together? It sounds almost like an academic study, as well as a performance.

Daishin: It is, but then luckily we've been playing together a lot, and playing these pieces together. It was a growing process.

Laurie: How many years ago did you meet Konstantin? How did you decide to do this together?

Daishin: The first time I met him, I was 12, actually. I've known him a long time; 22 years ago I met him for the first time, in Switzerland. He was playing and I was playing in a young musicians festival. He is a few years older than me, so he was probably 14 or 15. I remember listening to him and thinking, wow, there are really some geniuses out there! I was just incredibly amazed.

We played together for the first time probably about 12 years ago, starting with the Beethoven 9th Sonata, the "Kreutzer" Sonata, and some other pieces. Then we started playing together regularly.

Laurie: Something I noticed is that Beethoven calls these sonatas, "Sonatas for piano and violin," with piano first. Can you speak to how pianistic these are. How important is the piano?

Daishin: In the earlier sonatas, it's really obvious that it's a sonata for piano, with violin accompaniment, in brackets, let's say. But as you go to the later opuses, you see how the power balance gets different and gets more equal. For me, it already starts with the Spring Sonata, where the balance begins to shift. And then you have the Opus 30s, with Sonatas 6, 7 and 8 -- those are already almost equal. Then of course, the "Kreutzer" is completely equal. It's interesting to see how Beethoven's composing developed, in not-that-many years.

Laurie: Do you feel the violin writing is a bit pianistic as well, or no?

Daishin: Most composers that played the piano, they write pianistically. All the Brahms, it comes from the piano. Beethoven was the same. Maybe Mozart was a bit different because he was so good at playing the violin, but Beethoven wasn't famous for playing the violin. I know that he could, but he wasn't very good at it. And Brahms was a great pianist. So all these composers, I'm guessing they all started composing on the piano, then just assigned the music to the violin.

Laurie: It's not like Wieniawski or something.

Daishin: Exactly! Wieniawski would be very violinistic -- more difficult, but more violinistic. But I think it doesn't really matter, because it's all about the music.

* * *

Daishin Kashimoto plays the Händel/Halvorsen Passacaglia with cellist Jing Zhao:

2 replies

Strad Fest LA: The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra Celebrates the World's Finest Violins

March 20, 2014 14:07

The city of Los Angeles has long attracted the brightest stars and celebrities; just look at the beauties who are coming to town next week:


All seven of these fiddles, plus one more, will gather for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's Strad Fest LA March 26 to 29, celebrating the violins of Antonio Stradivari, made in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s in Cremona, Italy. In fact, they are some of the most valuable and finest violins made, ever. From left to right (for a larger image, click here:)

1. 1666 “Serdet" Strad: the earliest Stradivari violin known to have its original label.

2. 1708 “Ruby” Strad: named for its rich, extremely well-preserved ruby-tinted varnish and owned by The Stradivari Society, which lends fine instruments to leading emerging artists.

3. 1715 “Titian” Strad: considered among the finest violins of the maker’s Golden Period and revered for its unusual power, scope and focus. It was named “Titian” by a French dealer, who said its orange-red color reminded him of the paintings of the famed artist.

4. c. 1720 “Beechback” Strad: whose simple understated dark exterior belies its rich tone and full sound.

5. 1711 “Kreisler” Strad: formerly owned by the great Fritz Kreisler, it is currently owned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and played by its concertmaster, Martin Chalifour.

6. 1716 “Milstein” Strad: played for nearly 40 years by virtuoso Nathan Milstein and currently owned by Southern California philanthropists Jerry and Terri Kohl, who loan it frequently to LACO Concertmaster Margaret Batjer.

7. 1720 “Red Mendelssohn” Strad: which surfaced in the 1930’s in Berlin and is the inspiration for the 1999 Academy Award-winning film The Red Violin, which speculates on the instrument’s mysterious history after it disappeared for more than 200 years following its debut. Currently owned by Elizabeth Pitcairn.

8. 1714 “Leonora Jackson” Strad (not pictured): named for prominent American violinist Leonora Jackson, who died in 1969 in obscurity.

BatjerA gathering of Strads was something that LACO Concertmaster Margaret Batjer had already experienced and was excited to do again. "Decades ago, I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Cremona Strad exhibit," she said. "It was a very large collection of instruments, close to 50 Stradivariuses at the museum in Cremona. There were concerts that went on for this entire exhibit, which lasted for about a week. We had concerts where everybody in the orchestra was playing Stradivariuses! It was very fun."

The idea for a Strad Fest in LA evolved from LACO's annual fundraising Gala. "We wanted to honor Jerry Kohl, who is a donor to our orchestra, and to honor his ("Milstein") Strad, because I play it from time to time in our concerts. Then we thought, he loves Stradivariuses, what if we get a lot of Strads? I'm a great lover of Stradivarius, and so once this idea started developing from the Gala, we thought, how can we bring all these instruments and players in and not have more concerts?" she said. "It snowballed from there and turned into a four-day event."

The Strads are coming from all over the world: "Two are from London, and two are owned by violinists who are coming to the event -- one is in New York and one is in Houston. Three of them are local, in the Los Angeles area," Margaret said. All the instruments are violins, also; "I would have loved to have had some cellos, but cellos are more rare and harder to find. Also, we didn't have a viola; of course, he didn't make very many violas."

"It's a real gift, to hear these rare instruments, and it's a very unique experience to be able to hear this many of them, played at the same time, and not on a recording, but live," Margaret said.

Does Margaret remember the first time she ever played a Strad?

"I remember it quite clearly; it was in New York, and I was in a violin shop, Jacques Francais, the most prestigious violin shop in New York at the time," she said. "I was getting my violin worked on, and a friend of mine came in with another friend who had a lot of cache in the shop. Jacque got out a couple of Strads, and they were playing them, and they invited me to play. It was the first time for me, and I'll never forget it. We played for about 45 minutes to an hour, and all of us got to play all these different Strads. It was fabulous. They have such a unique sound. In a way, you have to learn how to play a Stradivarius. As they say about great cars: they drive themselves. Well, in a way, a Stradivarius drives itself. You have learn how to let the Stradivarius sing, because it's already there, you don't have to work very hard; you have to allow it to happen. On most violins, you have to work hard to create the sound that you want. In fact, there are players who don't actually enjoy playing Stradivariuses that much; they prefer a different kind of sound, the kind where you work a little harder."

"As a violinist, there are certain composers, certain makers, certain parts of your art that are the pinnacle, and of course Stradivarius, for me, was that," Margaret said of that first encounter with a Strad. "The same is true for Guarneri del Gesú; those are the two makers that I'd always dreamed of having one day. Little did I know how much they cost!"

How much? It's safe to say that for the eight stars of Strad Fest LA, it's in the $millions.

"I think you learn a lot from playing the great instruments," Margaret said. "You learn about what the possibilities are, and then perhaps you go back to another instrument and you strive a little harder to find those qualities in that instrument. You may not achieve it, but you definitely have grown and learned. I'm fortunate because I have a great violin, which is a half-Stradivarius."

A half-Strad?

"Well, I have a composite. For players, often, the Golden Period Strads are out of reach financially. So those that play them generally are loaned the violins, from either a foundation or a person. Then there are these composite instruments. There are more composite instruments in Europe than in the United States, and they are more valuable in Europe, strangely, than in the United States. When you think about the year these fine instruments were made, it was back in the 1600's and 1700's. The chance of damage happening to something so fragile over that amount of time is great, and so a lot of these instruments were damaged. (My) violin was made by Nicolo Amati, who was actually Stradivarius's teacher. The top must have been damaged at some point in the early 1700's, and the violin was taken to Stradivari's shop. Stradivari didn't do a lot of restorations, he mainly just made violins. But in fact, because it was his teacher, he made a new top for this violin and re-varnished it. So it's called a composite because it's made by both Amati and Stradivarius."

Wouldn't that be worth more, not less?

"That's what I thought," she said. But the answer is no; a composite is much less expensive. "When I found it in London, I thought, are you kidding me? This is the best of both worlds! So I'm very fortunate. Because of that, I have a really lovely, beautiful violin. But it's not the same as a Golden Period Strad; that's another world."

There are only approximately 600 surviving Strads, and that number includes guitars, harps, violas, cellos, everything. The ones that are intact are worth the most. If you really want to feel the magical power of these instruments, you might want to go to Cremona, the Italian town where Stradivari made his astonishing creations and where The Violin Museum just opened last fall. Before that, a number of fine instruments were kept in a chapel-turned-museum.

"Cremona is a magical place for string players," Margaret said. "You can walk a half a block from the main square, look up, and there is where Stradivari's shop was. You can see Amati's shop and all the workshops of the great Cremonese makers, and they're marked. It's a very historic city, obviously, for string playing. Then they also have the museum, and they have a collection of Stradivariuses and I believe a couple of Amatis. The caretaker (of the old museum, who now works in the new one) Andrea Mosconi, actually became a friend of mine. Almost all of his entire adult life, his job has been to get up in the morning, go into the museum, take the violins out of the case, play them, and put them back."

Why does he have to do that? "It has to do with the tension on the strings -- when a violin is not played for a long time, it takes a while to get warmed up, in a way," she said. "People actually do use those instruments from time to time, so his job is to keep them in playing condition. So when you don't play an instrument for a while, the habit is to tune down the strings, to release the tension on the bridge. This is very healthy for the instruments. Then after you've had the violin down for a while, you tune it up, and you've got to play it for a while and get it back in good form. Then you might release it again a month later. It's a cycle. These are living organisms. A violin is not like a computer; it's piece of wood, which is alive. So you have to treat it in a very special way, especially these great instruments. Nobody really 'owns' these instruments; they are only caretakers for the next generation. Because we hope that they will be around for generations and generations to come."

* * *

If you happen to be in Los Angeles, here are the Strad Fest LA events that you may want to check out:

  • Baroque Conversations, a concert with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, featuring Margaret Batjer, Chee-Yun, Cho-Liang Lin and Philippe Quint playing Telemann’s Concerto for Four Violins: 7 p.m. March 27 at Zipper Concert Hall.
  • Stradivarius Fiddlefest, a "face-off" with five of the Strads, played by Margaret Batjer, Chee-Yun, Cho-Liang Lin, Philippe Quint and Xiang Yu, attempting to outplay one another in a program of solos, duos, trios and quartets: 7:30 p.m. March 28 at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica.
  • Stradosphere: a Strad-Studded Gala Evening, a $750-per-person fundraiser for LACO that features all eight Strads.

2 replies

Practice for calm

March 19, 2014 15:43

You've probably heard the mantra, "Practice makes perfect." And if you've been around this instrument a while, you know that it's not true. Closer to the point is, "Practice makes permanent"! Practice something a thousand times wrong, and you've got it well-ingrained, wrong!

So some teachers say, "PERFECT practice makes perfect."

The only problem with this is the word "perfect." It's such a loaded word, with the potential to cause a lot of stress. I think that if we practice for the general idea of "perfection," we sometimes sabotage our ease of execution with the stress of perfectionism. So instead of simply making "perfection" the goal, make the goal something specific and doable, and then go about accomplishing it in the calmest, most unhurried state possible. Why is this important? Because we can actually "practice in" the feelings we have while playing something. Very often, we unconsciously "practice in" a stressful feeling. For example, I can recall occasionally having the following feeling for a specific passage: "OMG here comes the REALLY HARD part that I CAN'T PLAY, I'm going to mess it up, I'm so stressed out, this is so hard, here it comes, I'm going to miss it, AAAAAAHHH!"

As a result, even if you have practiced quite thoroughly, even if you have trained your fingers to do the right thing, you just might tighten up and miss the mark.

Last week, member and founder Michael O'Gieblyn gave us 17 excellent tips for practicing, and I would recommend every one.

I've got something to add, though: When you isolate that tricky place to practice, be sensitive to how you are feeling and what you are thinking as you do it. Are you holding your breath? Scrunching your shoulders? Clenching your stomach muscles? Grimacing? Waiting for a mountain tiger to pounce?

As you play in rhythms, or practice part of a shift, or practice just the open strings, or put it all together, do so with relaxed muscles, a feeling of calm in your belly and a generally non-cringing attitude. If you can consistently cultivate a feeling of calm as you accurately execute a particular passage, you will find that after a while, that calm feeling is ingrained. When you arrive at the passage in question, your body will relax, as you have practiced. I kid you not!

Happy practicing, and remember: difficult passage, calm execution!

* *

Here a few words about the same thing, in video format:

6 replies

Interview with Stephen Waarts, First Prize Winner in the 2014 Menuhin Competition Senior Division

March 13, 2014 14:35

For someone like American violinist Stephen Waarts, who handles competitions with so much grace, is it possible that competitions are actually…fun?

"I wouldn't say competitions are 'fun,'" said Stephen, laughing, as we spoke in Austin at the home of his host family the morning after his winning performance at the Menuhin Competition. "But they give great opportunities. For example, I get to play with the Cleveland Orchestra today, which is awesome. And recently I did the (2013) Montreal (International Musical) Competition, where I worked with Maxim Vengerov, which was also great."

Stephen won First prize, the Bach prize and the Composer prize in the Senior division of the 2014 Menuhin Competition earlier this month.

Stephen Waarts

Indeed, despite his rather mellow demeanor, despite that he's still just 17, Stephen has been on a serious fast track, and not just with the violin. For example, he graduated from high school at age 14, showing a special propensity for math and winning a number of national math awards. Musically, he also graduated from the San Francisco Conservatory Preparatory at age 14 and is currently working on his bachelor of music at Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

His repertoire is already vast, his performances have spanned the globe, and his awards are stacking up. At this point, he has more than 35 violin concertos in his fingers, including challenging ones such as Paganini Concertos No. 1 and 2, the Berg Concerto, Ernst Concerto, and Wieniawski Concerto No. 1. Besides playing with the Cleveland Orchestra at the conclusion of the Menuhin, he has played dozens of concerts in his native California and given performances at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. He's traveled abroad to play in Canada, Germany, Spain, Norway, and Russia.

He's done well in other international violin competitions: he won First prize at the 2013 Young Concert Artists International Auditions, Second prize at the 2013 Montreal International Musical Competition, Third prize at the 2011 Sarasate Competition, Second prize in the 2010 Menuhin Competition-Junior Section, and First prize at the 2010 Spohr Competition-Junior Section.

Stephen was born in 1996 in Fremont, Calif. (near San Francisco) to Orli and Robert Waarts, both natives of Holland. It was his twin brother, Michael, who first took an interest in the violin.

"I heard the concert at my elementary school, which was a private school," he said, "and my brother and I -- mostly my brother, actually -- wanted to start playing. So we both started playing. I continued, and he stopped maybe four or five years later."

Stephen started in a Suzuki violin program with Krishnabai Lewis; "I was five and a half when I started, and I think I got to Book 4 or 5 and then switched teachers. But I went to at least one Suzuki camp, which was fun," he said.

He continued lessons with Jenny Rudin, then with Li Lin of the San Francisco Conservatory, where he also studied musicianship and composition, often writing his own cadenzas for concertos. At Curtis, he currently studies with Aaron Rosand. He also plays the piano and likes to paint.

Stephen actually played his first competition when he was seven, performing the Kabalevsky Concerto.

"That was a small local competition. My teacher wanted me to do it, and it was fun, so I did it," he said.

He actually did just call a competition "fun."

"It's also a good motivator, to prepare a program and have it all done and ready, and to get feedback," he said. And then there are those opportunities, like playing with the Cleveland Orchestra, and working with conductor/violinist Maxim Vengerov last year at the Montreal competition. What was that like?

"It was great; (Vengerov) was really supportive, and a fun guy," Stephen said. "I really enjoyed it. I don't think I felt uncomfortable at all with him."

A violinist himself, Vengerov had a few ideas. "There was one place in the Brahms Concerto where he wanted it a little slower tempo, and I've been doing it like that since then," Stephen said. (And by the way, I was there for that performance; it was tremendous. You can hear it here.)

Stephen Waarts

How does one cope with the stress and sheer physical exertion that an international competition demands? How would he advise younger musicians than himself?

"Don't look at it as a competition - I mean everybody says this - but just look at it as concert that you have to be really well-prepared for, and just have fun," he said. "I didn't really look at even Menuhin as a competition, when I was playing. I just thought to do my best and not worry about anybody else."

Some of the things he does: "Before any concert, maybe the week before, I like to run the pieces at least once every day, so you get the feeling of running it through. Sometimes I'll even record myself and listen back, and that's really helpful. And slow practice, a lot."

Stephen played Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2 for the Finals in the Menuhin Competition. How long was that in the works?

"The Prokofiev, I learned this summer," he said. "I always like to cycle through pieces, to both work on a piece and then take a break from it, and then work on it again. I think it gives you a new perspective, and you also feel more comfortable. So I studied (the Prokofiev) over the summer, then I stopped it in August, after I did the audition tape for Menuhin. Then I took it back in October, for an audition in November. Then after that, I stopped it until the middle of January and then I took it back."

Stephen said that his favorite violin concerto was probably the Brahms, but recently he enjoyed playing the Bartok Solo Sonata. "And I've been wanting to play the Britten Concerto for a long time, so maybe I'll do that next!"

What else is next? More competitions?

"No, not right now," he said. "I have a concert in two weeks, and that's my main thing after today. After that, I think I'm just going to spend the rest of this school year working on pieces with my teacher that I haven't played much for him before."

* * *

Unfortunately, Stephen's performance of the Prokofiev Concerto No. 2 was not recorded, but here are his performances for the rest of the Menuhin Competition. Enjoy!

* * *

Senior Semi-Finals
J. HAYDN String Quartet Op. 76, No. 2 "Quinten," movements 1&4
DONALD GRANTHAM "Black-eyed Suzy"
S. SZYMANOWSKI Nocturne and Tarantella, Op. 28


* * *

Senior First Round
J.S. BACH Solo Sonata in G minor, BWV 1001, Siciliana and Presto
W.A. MOZART from Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K.219
N. PAGANINI Caprice No.4 for Solo Violin, Op.1
F. KREISLER Danse Espagnole (Manuel de Falla)


7 replies Interviews, Vol. 1 is now available!

March 7, 2014 15:03

I'm happy to announce that our first book, " Interviews, Volume 1," with a foreword by Hilary Hahn, is now available, in paperback ($19.95) and for Kindle ($9.95)

The 300-page collection includes more than two dozen exclusive interviews with top violinists that I've done for over the past six years, including pictures of the artists. Which interviews are included in this book? You can get a magnifying glass and look at the cover art, which includes all the names. Or, you can just look at this list:

The Interviews: Volume 1Anne Akiko Meyers
Adele Anthony
Rachel Barton Pine
Joshua Bell
Nicola Benedetti
Sarah Chang
Zachary DePue
James Ehnes
Simon Fischer
David Garrett
Augustin Hadelich
Hilary Hahn
Janine Jansen
Leila Josefowicz
Clara-Jumi Kang
Judy Kang
Tasmin Little
Anne-Sophie Mutter
Elmar Oliveira
Philippe Quint
Ruggiero Ricci
Stanley Ritchie
Lara St. John
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
Esa-Pekka Salonen
Philip Setzer
Gil Shaham
Maxim Vengerov

Though this is a long list, I still was not able to include everyone that I wanted to include, which is why I've called this book "Volume 1."

As I assembled this collection, I was pleased to find that far from being 27 completely separate stories, there are a great many threads that connect one violinist's story to another's: common teachers, repertoire, experiences, approaches -- even instruments that start in one violinist's hands and end up in another's! At the same time, there is great diversity of thought as well; for example, the story of James Ehnes' arduous search for just the right instrument contrasts completely with Nadja Salerno Sonnenberg's humorous banter on the same topic. What kind of violin do you play, Nadja? "I play a used one," she said, "I found a good instrument and I just stuck with it. There are better instruments out there, certainly there are worse instruments, but I feel fine."

Some of the interviews are several years old, and one can see that the seeds of the future lie in the things that violinists said years ago. For example, Anne Akiko Meyers speaks in 2008 of having to borrow many instruments in her early career, and how returning them was "like having your left arm amputated." She now quite famously has been guaranteed lifetime use of the "Vieuxtemps" Guarneri del Gesù.

The book also contains a special interview with Ruggiero Ricci, which I did with him in 2007, just five years before his death.

Each interview has an introduction, written especially for the book, that makes some of these connections and brings the reader up-to-date with a developments that occurred with the artist after the interview.

So I invite you to buy our book! If you buy a paperback copy of the book through Amazon, you soon will be able to add a Kindle version for just $2.95, under Amazon's Kindle Matchbook program.

We're planning a book launch party in Pasadena, as well as some other promotions for the book. In the meantime, we appreciate all the support from our friends and readers in buying the book and rating it highly on Your purchases and recommendations encourage Amazon to suggest the book to other customers, helping expose it to more potential readers. (And if you'd like to "like" the book on Facebook, the official page is at

* * *

This business of publishing a book brought me to another question, one that I'm making into this week's "Weekend Vote": Do you prefer to read paper books, or e-books?

I feel like this difference has less to do with age that it does with personal preference. For example, my teenage daughter, certainly a member of the "digital native" generation, prefers paper-and-print books to her Kindle. In fact, her tech-savvy grandfather has pushed two separate Kindles her way over the years, and she's completely rejected both. She just prefers the feel and the look of a "real" book and loves visiting used book stores, where she can scoop up of a pile of old paperbacks.

That said, her grandfather -- who is of a generation that grew up with print books -- fully believes that "there will be no print books" in the future and that the e-book is the best and only way to go.

I can see both points. I have a Kindle (the easy-on-your-eyes older model), and I love to read the New York Times on it, instead of reading the paper either on newsprint or on the Internet. I enjoy taking it on the plane because it is so compact and lightweight, yet can carry dozens of "books" in it.

At the same time, I don't feel I can flip through the Kindle in the way that I can flip through a paper book. Yesterday, I showed my book to a long-time student, one that has never taken a huge interest in the larger world of violinists. As she leafed through it, she said, "I think I just want to look at the pictures." But as she was examining each picture, she started asking, "Who is this? What is her story? What is his story?" Even as libraries go digital and the world goes digital, I still don't ever want to give up the experience of going to the book store or an old-fashioned library: the smell, the feel, the real-world feeling of a book. It feels like a connection to the past, too: Who held this book before I did, who wrote that note in the margin?

So which is your preference these days, when reading a book? Do you prefer it as a paper book, or in e-book form?

13 replies

Interview with Rennosuke Fukuda, First Prize Winner in the 2014 Menuhin Competition Junior Division

March 6, 2014 16:03

At one point during his technically astonishing performance of Waxman's "Carmen Fantasy" during the Junior Finals of the 2014 Menuhin Competition in Austin, the 14-year-old Japanese violinist Rennosuke Fukuda seemed to completely take over as leader of the orchestra. The tempo was his tempo, the music was his music, the spirit was his spirit.

PhotoThus I wasn't surprised to learn, when interviewing him backstage after he was named the First-Prize winner, that beyond his violin studies, Rennosuke aspires to be a conductor.

Rennosuke does not speak English, so I interviewed him with the help of Tomoko Kashiwagi, who served as both his piano accompanist and his translator throughout the Menuhin Competition.

"A conductor has the job of bringing everybody together, and to do that makes everybody happy," he said. "I want that kind of job." He has tried his hand at it, conducting for his public high school in Japan on occasion. What pieces would he most like to conduct? Without hesitation, he said he'd like to conduct Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Beyond that, perhaps Beethoven's Fifth -- these are simply great pieces, he said.

What was his favorite thing about the Menuhin Competition? "Playing the Carmen Fantasy by Waxman," he said -- the performance he had just given. It's a piece that he'd been preparing for two to three years, he said, and he loves it because of the way it feels: grand, tumultuous, full of tension.

Rennosuke started playing the violin at age three, and he won his first violin award at age four. Even before he was born, "my mom already had the idea that if I was a boy, I would play the violin," he said. He studies violin with Machie Oguri, and most recently he won first prize and the "Virtuos" prize at the September 2013 15th Kloster Schöntal International Violin Competition in Germany. He also performed at the 2013 UNESCO charity concert in Paris for victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake.

What does he like best about the violin? "I'm happy when everybody claps for me," he said. (It must have been a happy week -- he enjoyed many ovations, for his performances that occurred over the 10-day Menuhin Competition!)

Photo courtesy The Menuhin Competition

Those happiest moments are the result of a great deal of hard work. When I asked, "How long do you practice?" he needed no translation to understand that question; he's heard it before. Rennosuke said that he practices three or four hours on weekdays, and six to seven hours on the weekend, if he's feeling good. (Just four if he doesn't.)

Do you like to practice? "I hate it!" he said, laughing. But the performing is another matter: "I try to enjoy the performance; I try not to think too much about it (as a competition)," he said.

Some of his favorite violin pieces are the Bruch and the Tchaikovsky Concertos, he said. He looks up to a number of violinists, including Japanese violinists Mayuko Kamio and Daishin Kashimoto. He also likes to listen to the recordings of Perlman and Heifetz, and he likes recordings by Olivier Charlier, one of the judges for the competition.

He said that he made a lot of friends at the Menuhin Competition. "Everybody is so good, I was really surprised," he said. He thought a lot about how to make his own unique character come forward and to enjoy the performance, he said, so he had fun with it. He also learned a lot from the other competitors; he particularly admired the sound of fellow finalist Daniel Lozakovitj, who placed second. "His sound is just so pretty," he said. He thought that some of the competitors that didn't advance from the first round were also technically very sound. Seeing the other competitors play gave him a lot to think about, he said.

* * *

In case you missed them, here are some videos of Rennosuke's performances at the Menuhin Competition.

Junior Final Round: Rennosuke Fukuda played Franz Waxman's "Carmen Fantasy" with the University of Texas Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Gerhardt Zimmerman.

* * *

Junior Final Round: Rennosuke Fukuda played Beethoven Sonata No. 1 in D major with pianist Tomoko Kashiwagi, Op. 12; Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia, with cellist Bion Tsang

* * *

Junior First Round: Rennosuki Fukuda played the following, with pianist Tomoko Kashiwagi:
1. G.F. Telemann -- Fantasia for solo violin, No. 10 in D major
2. H. Wieniawski -- Etude-Caprice Op. 18, No. 4
3. Freestyle Improvisation
4. Dan Welcher - "The Cowboy and the Rattlesnake"
5. W.A. Mozart -- Adagio K. 261

Archive link

Menuhin Competition 2014: Jurors Brian Lewis, Ilya Gringolts and Olivier Charlier Give Master Classes

March 5, 2014 17:50

Having a master class with a jury member is one way to get an idea of what details they are seeking in a competitor's playing. At the Menuhin Competition, all of the jurists gave master classes. We already visited the master classes given by Pamela Frank, Joji Hattori and David Kim; on the final day of the competition were three more sets of master classes by Brian Lewis of the Butler School of Music, Ilya Gringolts of the Hochschule Basel, and Olivier Charlier of the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris.

Unfortunately, many of these classes were happening simultaneously, so I regret I could not attend them all. Particularly, I was unable to see the master class of the French violinist Olivier Charlier, about whom many students were raving with gratitude afterwards. I saw mostly the master class by Brian Lewis, with a little peek into the class given by Ilya Gringolts.

Brian and Ari

The first student who played for Brian Lewis was Ari Boutris, 13, with Wieniawski's "Polonaise."

After Ari played, Brian started by describing the composer, Henryk Wieniawski: "He was a very wild man with big appetites," he said, adding that he liked to gamble (even losing his del Gesù in a bet once) and to drink a little too much, er, milk.

"When you play this, you have to be very wild and find each character of each section," Brian said. "Each gesture means something."

The music is also full of "appoggiaturas," a great word that literally means "to lean," he said. Musically, "we're going to lean on the note that doesn't belong. Mozart is full of these," and they create musical tension.

He asked Ari to name three things in his playing that he was already doing well (and there were more than that!) When Ari hesitated a little, Brian explained, "All my students can easily list what they what to improve, but you have to be able to let the things that you do well, also, and be very specific in your analysis." They came up with a list of three things he did well already, and another list of three things to improve, one of which was intonation. On the subject of that, Brian quoted his own late teacher from Juilliard, Dorothy DeLay; "Intonation is the thing you'll be doing your whole life," he quoted, adding, "you won't ever get done with intonation work!"

Brian emphasized that one must relax the body, as "physical tension is the enemy of music." He then asked everyone in the room to stand up, so we could all learn some exercises to do, before playing the violin. Brian said that he does these exercises every morning, starting with a pretty simple swing of the arms, coordinated with knee bends:

Unfortunately my phone-video did not capture the entire demonstration, so here is a description of the other warm-up exercises Brian recommended:

  • Imagine putting three lemons between your shoulder blades, then "make juice"
  • Pinkie up, pinkie forward, up, forward….(Here's a demonstration)
  • Rub hands together vigorously
  • Arms out to the side, stretch hands up
  • Massage face (pinch your own cheeks a little)

Next was Esther, a student from the Butler School, who played part of the Elgar Violin Sonata. When she finished, Brian said that "I would love for you to live in a bigger box." For example, Elgar write "fff" at one particular spot; "he wants volume of sound." Brian had her play about three places in the sonata that were similar in terms of notes, but different in terms of dynamics, just to illustrate the range of dynamics needed.

He also wanted more character, and one way to do that is to be more demonstrative about when the bow stroke changes in the music.

Brian talked about "zero-gravity playing," playing in a position where the bow slides neither toward the bridge nor toward the fingerboard, but just rests where it is because the violin is held flat, not sloping down. Such a position allows for maximum projection; "Take your sound and bring it to everyone in the audience -- fill the space."

He also talked about having a rapid bow stroke and opening from the elbow. To practice opening rapidly from the elbow, he had everyone try a karate chop, "HAH!"

Brian karate chop

Another exercise for opening the elbow and adding speed to the bow stroke is to do scales with a tiny down-bow at the frog, then travel in the air to the tip for a tiny up bow, then continue: frog, tip, frog, tip. Then double the speed! Here's a short example:

He said that when you perform something, really go for the "wow" factor, try to find "what makes you special with your voice." Performing is your chance to really say something; "when you are standing up performing, it's the only time people aren't going to interrupt you!"

Brian answered questions at the end of his class, for example: How do you stay inspired to practice? He said he is inspired by going to concerts, and also by learning new music. "You don't have to learn the whole thing at once, start with just one phrase," he said.

To make practicing more appealing: The first thing he does when practicing is to spend 10 minutes playing anything he wants, anything at all. It helps him open the violin case -- because "the hardest thing about practicing is opening the case." He said he also likes to read and learn the history behind the composers and pieces he is playing.

Listening also is important. If you listen to a number of versions of the piece you are playing, "there is a history in your ear about how the piece goes." And that doesn't mean that you will wind up trying to clone the pieces you've listened to; instead it simply gives you a point of departure. Because, of course, you are going to…"study the score -- the full score," he said.

One way to approach a new piece is to simply read through the whole thing and put brackets around the places you can't play. Then go straight to those places and practice them. As a student at Juilliard, he once took a challenge to learn the Sibelius Concerto in three days, with the help of his teacher, Dorothy DeLay. They canceled all his classes and went to work; he practiced eight hours a day; two and a half of those with piano. "On the third day, I had to play the whole concerto in master class!"

But it taught him an important lesson: "By knowing how to organize your practice time, you can learn more and more." Keeping a practice journal can help with that, as can keeping consistent practice. He said that at one point when he was younger, he went for seven years without missing a day of practice!

* * *

I peeked in for a few minutes for a master class given by Ilya Gringolts, who was helping a student with phrasing.

Ilya master class

The student was holding every fourth beat, without really being conscious of doing so. "It's predictable and harmful to the melody," Ilya said. "You have to think over the bar line, think longer phrases." He asked her, what is it in music that moves people? "I'm thinking of two things, he said, "rhythm and harmony. Those are the two things that move us the most in music."

1 reply

The 2014 Menuhin Competition concludes with awards ceremony and Cleveland Orchestra gala

March 3, 2014 22:44

AUSTIN, Texas — Yehudi Menuhin said that two things make for a fine violinist: First, being a master of the instrument and a servant to the music; and second, accepting a social responsibility, to use music to bring people together and give them hope.

That's what Aaron Menuhin told the young artists who participated last week in the competition founded by and named for his grandfather.

The Menuhin Competition concluded on Sunday with the announcement of special prizes and a sold-out Gala Concert at the Long Center for the Performing Arts in Austin. The concert featured first-prize winners Rennosuke Fukuda and Stephen Waarts performing with the Cleveland Orchestra, as well as a performance by jury member Arabella Steinbacher.

At an awards ceremony preceding the concert, Butler School of Music Interim Director Glenn Richter said that the competition had brought a certain excitement about classical music to Austin, where the competition rounds and performances drew increasing crowds over the 10-day event. A children's concert that was given Saturday by the Cleveland Orchestra for local youth also put a spotlight on the special events going on as part of the Menuhin Competition.

"The buzz comes from the talent of all the competitors," Richter said. "I think that Austin gets it."

Aaron Menuhin gives Junior Competitor Alex Zhou his award
Aaron Menuhin gives Junior Competitor Alex Zhou his award. Photo courtesy Menuhin Competition

Here is a run-down of the winners and the prizes they received, including the additional prizes:

First Prize: Stephen Waarts -- US$10,000 and a one-year loan of a fine old Italian violin from Christophe Landon Rare Violins (On Sunday Christophe brought a c.1750 Gaspare Lorenzini, but if it doesn't suit Stephen, he can pick another)
Second Prize: In Mo Yang -- US$7,000
Third Prize: Christine Seohyun Lim -- US$5,000
Fourth Prize: Stephen Kim -- US$3,000

Seniors additional prizes:
Chamber Music Prize: Stephen Kim -- US$1,000
Bach Prize: Stephen Waarts -- US$1,500
Composer's Prize: Stephen Waarts -- US$1,000
ECMY Prize: Aaron Timothy Chooi

First Prize: Rennosuke Fukuda, -- US$7,000 and a one-year loan of a fine old Italian violin by Florian Leonhard Fine Violins (Likely a 1680 Andrea Guarneri, if it suits the young artist)
Second Prize: Daniel Lozakovitj -- US$5,000
Third Prize: Ludvig Gudim -- US$3,500
Fourth Prize: Alex Zhou -- US$2,000
Fifth Prize: Jaewon Wee -- US$1,500

Juniors additional prize:
Composer's Prize: Alex Zhou -- US$1,000

All unplaced Junior finalists receive US$500.

After the ceremony I spoke to one alumnus of the competition, and also a Junior participant in this year's competition.

"It is like a family -- all these guys will keep coming back," said Juilliard student Ariel Horowitz of the participants in the competition. An alumnus of the 2012 Junior Division Menuhin Competition, she had come from New York to help with the "Passing of the Bow" ceremony. She said that though she did not place in the 2012 competition, "it didn't matter at all. It changed my life and opened so many doors for me."

"It definitely makes you practice more, seeing all these competitors," said Ari Boutris, 13, a Junior competitor this year. I asked him how he prepared for the competition, and he said that he had to work in his practice time between regular school and baseball, but it's a challenge. "A thirty-hour day would be helpful!" added his mother, Mika.

Ari and mom

"This is my first competition, so I'm learning so much, just being here," Ari said. "Hearing the judges play and the competitors play was so inspiring." During the competition, he stayed with a family in Austin, and a Senior competitor also stayed at the same house. "It was so inspiring, just hearing him practice." He also enjoyed hearing more in detail what judges thought, when they gave master classes.

The Gala Concert took place in the evening, and it began with the aforementioned "Passing of the Bow" ceremony.

Passing of the bow ceremony
Passing of the bow ceremony. Photo courtesy Menuhin Competition

The 2016 Menuhin Competition will take place in London, so American competitor Claire Wells of Texas walked on stage, wearing her cowboy hat and playing some Texas fiddle music. She then passed the bow to competitor Daniel Lozakovitj (of Sweden, as there were no competitors from U.K.!), who walked off stage, playing Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance."

The Cleveland Orchestra started with "Carnival Overture," followed by Junior First Prize winter Rennosuke Fukuda playing "Praeludium and Allegro" by Kreisler.

Rennosuke Fukuda plays with the Cleveland Orchestra
Rennosuke Fukuda plays with the Cleveland Orchestra. Photo courtesy Menuhin Competition

Senior First Prize winner Stephen Waarts then played the first movement from Prokofiev Concerto No. 2.

Stephen Waarts plays with the Cleveland Orchestra
Stephen Waarts plays with the Cleveland Orchestra. Photo courtesy Menuhin Competition

Next, Arabella Steinbacher, dressed in flashy hot pink, played Ravel's Tzigane with great flourish. One hears that piece played with piano so often, I enjoyed hearing the color of the orchestra part.

Arabella Steinbacher
Arabella Steinbacher. Photo courtesy Menuhin Competition

Last on the program, the Cleveland Orchestra played Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5. It's frequently played, but what a treat, to hear it played so well. When the Cleveland Orchestra lets loose, they do so through such a focused channel; it's so powerful! I hadn't seen Giancarlo Guerrero conduct before now (in fact I haven't seen Franz Welser-Möst either, at first I thought it was him!), and I enjoyed watching him. Whatever his gestures do for the orchestra, they serve as a great audience surrogate, as if one could simply conjure these kinds of sounds with those sweeping gestures.

Cleveland's magnificent sound reminded me of the power of hearing music unfold live. It washes over the listener, the energy given off by the gestures of every single musician, the intelligence and intent behind each individual. It all culminates in a whole, in one live moment in time. This was full hall contained more than 2,000 people, on stage, in the audience. They all shared one experience: a wash of sound waves that vibrates the walls, the chairs, the program in my hand, the bones in my body. That's power. Big, Texas-style power. It can't happen through computer speakers; it can't happen alone in a room -- that's just not the same experience.

As I left Austin Monday, waiting for a much-delayed flight back to Los Angeles, I picked up a T-shirt in the gift store. It says, "Austin, Texas: Live Music Capital of the World!" Of course, the words appear over an electric guitar, with a swirl of stylized piano keys and horn bells, and wings for special effect. Austin is a town with a proud tradition of live music, with singing on the street and a band in every pub. But as host to an international violin competition, Austin proved fertile ground for live classical music as well. May it grow!

* * *

For those of you who were curious about what kind of violins the competitors were playing, I compiled a partial list. (Email me if you'd like to add information to it!)

Stephen Waarts: Vuillaume, 1868; self-owned
Aaron Timothy Chooi: Guarneri del Gesù, 1729; Canada Council Instrument Bank
Christine Seohyun Lim: Andreas Guarneri; Curtis Institute
Ji-Wong Song: John Lott, 1800s; Curtis Institute
In Mo Yang: Michelangelo Bergonzi, 1764; Munetsugu Angel Competition, Japan
Stephen Kim: unidentified Italian instrument, 1700s; self-owned
Jaewon Wee: Gagliano, 1750; rented
Ludvig Gudim: Hermann Janzen, 2013.
Ari Boutris: Vuillaume; private loan
William Hagen: Andrea Guarneri, 1675; self-owned

* * *

One more note: We're not yet finished with our coverage of the Menuhin Competition! I have a post from Brian Lewis' master class, as well as interviews with first-prize winners Rennosuke Fukuda and Stephen Waarts still to share with you. Watch for those later this week on

2 replies

Impressions from the Menuhin Competition Senior Finals

March 2, 2014 02:51

AUSTIN, Texas — By any standard, the music-making was exceptional at the Senior Finals concert for the Menuhin Competition, in which each of four finalists performed a full concerto with the Austin Symphony Orchestra for a full crowd of more than 2,000 at the Long Center for the Performing Arts in Austin, Texas on Saturday.

We know how it all came out, but I will do my best to bring you there with words. Unfortunately, the Competition was unable to obtain permission to live-stream or record this concert. However, Sunday's evening Gala Concert will indeed be live-streamed at this link. It will feature the Junior and Senior first prize winners, the Cleveland Orchestra, and jury member, violinist Arabella Steinbacher.

On Saturday, our performers for the evening were the Senior Finalists: American Stephen Kim, 18; American/Korean Christine Seohyun Lim, 19; American /Dutch Stephen Waarts, 17; and Korean In Mo Yang, 18. Every performer was younger than 20, but each played with professional polish, reliability and presence. To hear any one of them at a symphony concert would be a pleasure, to hear all four in one night -- what a treat!

The evening opened with a performance by Christine Seohyun Lim, who played the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto.

Christine Seohyun Lim

Ah, the opening of the Mendelssohn Concerto -- so pleasing to the ear and so awkward for the fingers! Not for Christine. Her opening was absolutely solid, with dead-center intonation and a beautiful musical line. Throughout the piece, she coordinated well with the orchestra, and her first movement had some exquisite moments of silence, particularly in the cadenza. She really kicked out the triplets that often get lost, for an intense and effective accelerando at the end of the first movement. The second movement opens with a singing melody, and hers was so vocal, I could almost hear the lump in the singer's voice from being on the verge of tears. Best of all was the last movement. As I listened to the dizzying 16ths, I suddenly understood her (awesome) swirly mermaid dress and how it related to this piece! Beyond dizzy, it was smiling, playful, and a wash of notes, like a back-and-forth conversation with the orchestra, or maybe a playful chase. What invigorating playing.

American Stephen Kim, 18, played Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major, Op. 19. This concerto opens with a haunting and continuous line, which he played with a lovely tone. Eventually the music maxes out at the top and breaks into kind of a flurry. Here, orchestra and soloist were not together (and this happened a second time with In Mo Yang's performance of the same piece, so we can't blame the soloist entirely). Stephen's high filigree at the end of the first movement was accurate and other-worldly -- this movement seems to end in outer space and fly off on an alien ship. Stephen's playing brought forth some vivid images for me. Prokofiev is hardly cream-puff music; especially in the second movement "Scherzo vivacissimo," which sounds brutal and spooked out, like running through a kaleidoscope of distorted and unpleasant images. The end of the last movement sounded to me like a warbling bird that loses its balance and falls from the sky, then returns and makes it to the top. The audience fell silent for a long time, then much applause.

Stephen Kim

After an intermission, Stephen Waarts performed the other Prokofiev Violin Concerto, No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63, which begins low and spins out a line that seems quite melodic until it breaks into spikiness. The first movement is full of interruptions and nonsequiturs: fast playing that sounds out-of-breath and hurried. Stephen was pulling off broken bow hair already by the first orchestral interlude. I have to note that conductor Peter Bay, excellent partner that he was, kept smiling at the soloist, and this seemed so incongruous to me in this piece!

Stephen Waarts

The way Prokofiev set up this piece, every time the movement seems to get going with a gorgeous melody, it trails off into choppy waters. At those times, when the music presented a thick texture of busy string crossings, angular double stops, big leaps and notes, Stephen was always able to find the musical line through it all. The second movement has a clear melody and statement, and Stephen made it with gorgeous tone and well-suited vibrato. Stephen also had no trouble landing the sudden and extreme leaps up the fingerboard to catch very high notes. In fact, this movement has some of the highest notes in the violin repertoire, and they sounded just gorgeous in his hands. The last movement was a wild, rollicking, evil dance with lots of double stops. The music fits together like a complex and intricate clock made by a madman genius. There's a great deal of fast-paced asymmetry and offsetting things by just a few notes. It sounds wrong when it's right, and so how does one know if it's right? On this night, I finally knew. In fact, I heard a few things I hadn't heard before because they meshed just right; I saw how they fit. The movement ends in relentless and rather repetitive passagework, but Stephen had us hanging on every note.

Korean violinist In Mo Yang, 18, gave the last performance of the evening, Prokofiev Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 19 (the same piece that Stephen Kim played).

In Mo Yang

As I mentioned, the orchestra and soloist had some ensemble problems toward the beginning, after which all went well in terms of collaboration. In Mo also was able to take a thicket of notes and give it meaning; in this case, a certain jazzy and syncopated feeling. His moments of stillness were very effective, and his high filigree at the end of the moment really rode the flute (piccolo?) solo. The second movement was indeed "vivacissimo" -- so fast! There is a series of fast glissandi up the fingerboard, and he nailed the harmonic at the top of each one every time. The end was so fast it sounded like a bee buzzing around the room -- a very in-tune bee. The last movement sounds like a series of attempts to climb up the side of a mountain, each climb a little different. His pacing and dynamics really helped build the tension, until it goes back to the the simple theme from the first movement, set to trills. In Mo's trills are really, really fast. Beautiful playing, and he got a standing ovation.

And speaking of a standing ovation, take note of these young artists and all those who participated this week in the Menuhin Competition: They are the future of music!


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Senior Division Laureates Announced in Menuhin Competition in Austin

March 1, 2014 22:06

AUSTIN, Texas — The Senior Division laureates for the Menuhin Competition were announced Saturday night, after a concert in which all four finalists performed with the Austin Symphony to a sold-out crowd of more than 2,000 at the Long Center for the Performing Arts in Austin.

"If (Yehudi Menuhin) were here tonight, he would be absolutely thrilled as to what happened to this competition," said competition Artistic Director Gordon Back. "Tonight you have witnessed some of the best playing you'll hear in any competition, in any city, of any age."

Announcing the winners, jury chairman Pamela Frank said, "I would like to thank these young players. Tonight was a culmination not only of a celebration of the violin, but also a celebration of music in general. Tonight, this was one of the greatest concerts I've ever heard, period. We have four fantastic artists in our midst, and we will hear more from them. The big winner is the music world, to have you all in it."

The winners are:

First Prize: Stephen Waarts, 17, (American-Dutch) - Studies at Curtis Institute with Aaron Rosand
Second Prize: In Mo Yang, 18 (Korean) - Studies at New England Conservatory
Third Prize: Christine Seohyun Lim, 19 (American-Korean) - Studies at Curtis Institute
Fourth Prize: Stephen Kim, 18 (American) - Studies at Curtis Institute with Shmuel Ashkenasi and Joseph Silverstein

Left to right: Stephen Kim, Stephen Waarts, In Mo Yang and Christine Seohyun Lim

Archive link

Impressions from the Menuhin Competition Junior Finals

March 1, 2014 01:54

Seven young violinists, ranging in age from 12 to 14, played in the Junior Finals Friday in the Menuhin Competition at the Butler School of Music in Austin. Those finalists were: Ilana Zaks 13, (American); Rennosuke Fukuda, 14, (Japanese); Elvina Sung-Eun Auh, 14, (Korean/American); Jaewon Wee, 14, (South Korean); Alex Zhou, 12, (American); Daniel Lozakovitj, 12, (Swedish) and Ludvig Gudim, 14, (Norwegian). (For a list of the Junior laureates from this round, please see this story.)

The Junior Finals had two components: one in the afternoon, and another in the evening. Overall, the varied repertoire and requirements allowed for each young violinist to showcase a wide range of capabilities.

During the afternoon, each competitor was required to play the first movement from a specified Beethoven, Schubert or Brahms Sonata. Also, each performed the Handel-Halvorsen "Passacaglia," with cellist Bion Tsang. Incidentally, Bion Tsang should also receive an award for giving seven performances of this not-exactly-easy-to-play duet all in one afternoon, and with kids who had the chops to ride the piece like a speed demon. He did it with sensitivity and fantastic technique, all with a supportive smile and reassuring demeanor for each contestant.

Playing Beethoven sonatas allowed the young artists to show how cleanly they could play and how well they could interact with piano in these rather pianistic works, which don't leave any room for even a little sloppiness.

Some highlights: Alex Zhou began Beethoven Sonata No. 5 Op. 24 with an outpouring of warm tone and played with maturity and assurance, as well as many degrees of piano and forte. His Handel-Halvorsen was rhythmically clear, with ringing and accurate pizzicato and an exciting accelerando at the end of the movement.

Daniel Lozakovitj immediately grabbed me by the ear with his beautiful vibrato in his Beethoven No. 5, Op. 24. When it was over, he hugged the pianist. He seemed to have a friendly and deferential personality that also showed in his playing; during the Handel-Halvorsen he seemed to be making such a sincere effort to enter into a true musical conversation with the cellist that he actually stepped in his direction, inching his way toward the cellist throughout the piece. When it was over, he insisted that Bion Tsang accompany him for the curtain call.

Daniel Lozakovitj

In his Handel-Halvorsen, Rennosuke Fukuda had us captivated during the slow and chordal variation. In this picture he is playing Beethoven Sonata No. 1 Op. 12.

Rennosuke Fukuda
Rennosuke Fukada plays with pianist Tomoko Kashiwagi

Elvina Sung-Eun Auh played an elegant and thoughtful Sonata No 8, Op. 30.

Ludvig Gudim was the only one to play Brahms Sonata in G, which he did from memory and with an exciting ending.

Ludvig Gudim

In the evening was a concert at Bates Hall -- which was filled to capacity with audience members of all ages -- in which each contestant played a showpiece with the University of Texas Orchestra, with Gerhardt Zimmermann conducting. Four of the violinists played Waxman's "Carmen Fantasy," and three played Sarasate's "Zigeunerweisen" -- none of the competitors had chosen the other two options, which were Wieniawski's "Polonaise Brillante" and Saint-Saëns' "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso." It did seem a little unbalanced to put the extraordinarily technically difficult Waxman up against the less-difficult Sarasate!

Ilana Zaks opened the evening with the "Carmen Fantasy," for which she wore a red dress. In fact, there was a lot of red concert wear in honor of the fiery and sensual Carmen! Ilana seemed to thrive on the energy she was getting from the orchestra, and her excellent performance was met with enthusiastic applause.

Alex Zhou played Zigeunerweisen with incredibly good sound -- his fast clip proved just a bit faster than the orchestra's at the end!

Playing "Carmen Fantasy," Rennosuki Fukuda was simply astonishing. Toward the beginning of the piece, he seemed to be fitting himself in with the orchestra; then he simply took over the reins and everything flowed from him, from then on. He knew when to hold a moment, or when to let a double-stop run flow like water. It was very articulate -- notes that don't usually come to the surface in this densely-notated piece rang out clear. There was no chance this thing was going to unravel during the swirling tornado of notes at the end; he just stood steady and victorious.

Rennosuke with orchestra

And yet there was more excellence to come. Daniel Lozakovitz played the introduction of Zigeunerweisen with his heart-breaker vibrato and kept the tension going. The beginning of this piece is full of stops and starts and it can get, let's say it, boring. Not so with Daniel. He can string the audience along, make it feel like he's just about to tell us the punchline, but no, he keeps dodging it, keeps playing peekaboo. As he did with the cellist, Daniel insisted that the conductor stand with him to take the curtain calls.

Elvina Auh's "Carmen Fantasy" would have earned her accolades in any other company; on this night it was a little ragged next to the extraordinary accomplishments of her peers at this competition.

Ludwig Gudim played Zigeunerwiesen with a generous amount of wide and fast vibrato. He has a special kind of presence on stage, moving a great deal with the music.

Jaewon Wee gave the "Carmen Fantasy" a nice, dancing feel, with lilt and bounce where needed. The considerable tricks that Waxman requires were precise and audible, and the very complicated finale of the piece was riveting.

As jury member Pamela Frank said when announcing the prize winners: the accomplishments of these bright and promising young artists bode well for the future of our art. For a list of the prize winners in the finals, please see this page.

* * *

And if you'd like to watch for yourself, here is video of the evening concert:

First half:
15:08 - Ilana Zaks: "Carmen Fantasy" by Waxman
27:59 - Alex Zhou: "Zigeunerweisen" by Sarasate
39:04 - Rennosuke Fukuda: "Carmen Fantasy" by Waxman
51:49 - Daniel Lozakovitj: "Zigeunerweisen" by Sarasate

Second half:
2:59 - Elvina Sung-Euh Auh: "Carmen Fantasy" by Waxman
15:53 - Ludvig Gudim: "Zigeunerweisen" by Sarasate
27:15 - Jaewon Wee: "Carmen Fantasy" by Waxman

Here are links to the afternoon round, with Beethoven or Brahms Sonata and Handel-Halvorsen:
Ilana Zaks 13, (American):
Rennosuke Fukuda, 14, (Japanese):
Elvina Sung-Eun Auh, 14, (Korean/American):
Jaewon Wee, 14, (South Korean):
Alex Zhou, 12, (American):
Daniel Lozakovitj, 12, (Swedish):
Ludvig Gudim, 14, (Norwegian):

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