Violinists speak with reverence about Bach's solo works for violin -- the Six Sonatas and Partitas.
Why? Well frankly they flatter our instrument and they flatter us as musicians. Bach created entire musical worlds and then fit them into the hands of one violinist, on one violin. A three-voice fugue? Sure, we can do that on one violin. How about an entire suite of dances, all with their own harmony? Just need one violin.
It's no wonder that these works take a long time to learn, longer to perform well, and a lifetime to master. I love to play them; I love to teach them, and the revelations just keep coming.
So last month, when Los Angeles Philharmonic Associate Concertmaster Bing Wang gave an all-Bach master class, I jumped at the chance to go. The class took place at Chapman University in Orange, Calif. as part of the Southern California Junior Bach Festival. Four high school violin students from the Los Angeles area each played movements from Bach's solo Sonatas and Partitas. Wang, with an obvious love for both Bach and for teaching, advised them on style, technique, performance and more.
The first performer was Audrey, who played the E major "Preludio" from Partita No. 3 at a moderate tempo, with good intonation.
"This is a challenging movement, it takes commitment," Wang said. Also, it's not the typical Bach partita movement -- it's not a dance, so one can't tap into the feeling of a dance rhythm or step. In general, the movement is a long string of 16th notes, and "you have to play this so it doesn't sound like an etude." She commended Audrey for the beautiful nuances in her playing, such as the places where the music echoes itself. "I'd like to add a few more things into this beautiful performance," Wang said.
One way to shape a string of 16th notes is to bend the time, to use rubato, but Wang warned against putting the brake on too often.
How else to make this movement interesting? One way is with dynamics. As in much Baroque music, one can follow the musical line: get louder when the music rises in pitch, softer when it falls. Also, "Bach liked to write patterns," Wang said, and when we find patterns in the music, we can use tiered dynamics, assigning a dynamic to each part of a sequence of patterns. Other things to bring out in this movement include harmonic changes, key modulations, and the use of major and minor keys.
And how about the very beginning of the movement? "Do you think about the downbeat that is missing?" Wang asked.
"This is such a great start, it's so vibrant," Wang said of the beginning of the piece. It doesn't really matter if you start the piece up-bow or down-bow, people do both. But thinking about that missing downbeat gives it a different feel, especially if you really feel the downbeat on the second bar.
Wang encouraged Audrey to use more bow speed, and this can be a tricky concept to take in. It doesn't mean playing faster; it means playing the same speed but making the bow move faster.
In the bariolage section on the first page (starting m. 13), there is a way to feel the natural groove and bring out the important notes. In general, try to feel the down-bows, while allowing the up-bows be kind of a natural rebound. For this, "not only the elbow has to be relaxed, but the thumb has to be relaxed."
For the three-string bariolage string-crossings (m. 17-28): "the first step is to be safe," to actually hit the notes. "Now, show us the harmony and how it changes. It's like moving the dial on a kaleidoscope."
In the many places where a phrase is repeated loud then soft, make sure to really make the first one loud. "If you don't start it loud enough, you don't have enough contrast."
Toward the end of the movement (m. 119-122) it's easy to slow down to negotiate the big string crossings -- but don't do it! The music needs momentum there, so it can some to a rousing ending. Likewise, the last measure shouldn't slow down too much, and certainly it shouldn't slow down to the point where its rhythm is distorted.
Next, Alexandra played the "Bourree" (aka "Tempo di Borea," without its double) from Partita No. 1, with nice style and big sound. This is a movement
thick with double stops and chords, making it awkward in many ways.
That being the case, where is the musical line? It's important for the performer to be clear about what is at the core of all these chords, and also to make that clear to the listener. Wang played a passage for Alexandra, leaving out the double stops, then she had her try playing it and skipping the chords, just to make sense of the musical line.
Coming back to the chords, it's usually the case that "the more notes we have at a time, the more important the note." In other words, a double-stop is a way of putting emphasis on a note. A quadruple stop would signify even more emphasis and harmonic importance.
When it comes to playing the double stops cleanly, it takes planning and preparation. For example, one has to know how certain awkward chords will feel. Take for example, the second note of the piece, a quadruple-stop: "Place your hand on this chord and see what we have to do in order to make this clean." Chances are, it takes a bit of contorting, but you have to know just how to jump into that position. The bottom of the chord will come a little bit beforehand, so that the top of the chord lands on the beat.
Another issue Wang brought up with Alexandra was the bow-hold.
"The more advanced you are, the more difficult the right hand becomes -- the more the right hand determines who you are," Wang said. When it comes to this movement full of chords, "we have to use the frog to get the strongest chords." Using the frog requires a bow hand with a flexible thumb and with a pinkie balancing the stick.
Wang was raising an issue that is a common problem: when the pinkie is not participating in handling the bow. "With the pinkie not being on top of the bow, you'll have much more trouble balancing the bow stick," she said. "The bow grip becomes very front-heavy and you lose the balance." Without the pinkie taking the weight of the stick, that makes the bow feel much more tip-heavy.
Also, the thumb needs to be flexible, "not stuck in one position" -- meaning it should not be stuck either in a bent or straight position. She suggested playing open strings, at the frog, to get the balance with pinkie and flexibility with thumb.
Of course, any change to the bow hand will not happen overnight. "It is hard for us to get our of our old habits and use the bow differently," she said. "It is going to be quite an adjustment," but one that opens a new world of technique.
The next student, Gene, gave the "Loure" a smooth and Romantic interpretation, with a nice warm sound and loose vibrato. The piece has many repeats -- as many of Bach's dance movements do. "What would you like to do differently on the repeats?" Wang asked Gene. "Otherwise, we hear the exact same thing twice." Wang suggested some ideas: change the dynamics, add embellishments.
She also suggested lightening up, going toward the idea of an elegant dance. For example, chords in Bach should be very clean; they "shouldn't be the same as a chord in Saint-Saens or Bruch." Also, become aware of and eliminate any accidental glissandos in shifts; they should be clean and transparent.
They also worked on the very last note of the piece: how to end it without being abrupt or disrupting the mood. She suggested decreasing the sound, allowing the weight of the bow to drift off, and "once the weight of the bow is off, you can lift the bow."
Continuing with Partita No. 3, the next student, Christopher, played the "Gavotte en Rondeau" with nice variety to all the variations, and the "Giga." Her main advice was to resist the urge to stop at every cadence; to go for the longer line.
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