Master Class with Stephanie Chase

June 1, 2017, 10:33 PM · Working with young artists seems to come naturally to violinist Stephanie Chase, who showed no hesitation with her ideas and ability to explain them to students Thursday at the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School.

Even in the limited setting of a master class, Chase easily reduced the task at hand to a thoughtful and cohesive list of priorities to address in each student's playing.

Chase, who studied with Sally Thomas at The Juilliard School and with Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux, currently teaches at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. A recipient of the Avery Fisher Career Grant, she is a well-seasoned soloist, and her 2006 recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto with The Hanover Band was the first-ever to be recorded on period instruments.

During Thursday's class she demonstrated quite a lot, often playing the solo part in unison with the student. If Chase wanted to show the student a different way, it was rather "out-of-unison" as she played faster or slower then the student, just letting it all clash. At first I found this jarring, as the disunity came off a little like an argument. But then I noticed that every single student who played for Chase was smiling and at ease by the end of their time together on stage.

Teaching by its very nature is disruptive, if you wish for a student to consider a change. I suspect that these students appreciated her tenacity in getting her points across, whether they ultimately decide to implement the new suggestions or not.

First on Thursday was Elena Kawazu, who played the first movement of the Beethoven Violin Concerto. She played with a gorgeous vibrato and sound, good control, and a bit of a soft touch that sometimes bordered on cautious.

"I'm concerned you're not producing enough sound," Chase said. "It's not a matter of playing louder," she said, because a single violinist can't be literally "louder" than an entire orchestra. But "you want to produce a sound that has a core to it and that sets you apart."

Just as a person without a microphone must project and enunciate to be heard in a large room, one must do the same on the violin to be heard in a hall.

She asked her: Is your bow following your left hand, or is your left hand following your bow? "Try putting the bow in charge, and then the left hand goes with the bow."

Chase talked about her own research on the Beethoven Violin Concerto, which she did in preparation for her recording of the piece on original instruments. "I have a copy of the autograph," she said. Beethoven's original manuscript is so full of markings and marginalia, she said, that at first she couldn't tell which way was right-side-up or upside-down. One thing she concluded was that sometimes composers and editors of this period put slurs over impossibly large groups of notes -- so it's all right to break them up.

In other words, doing the marked bowings at the beginning of the Beethoven Violin Concerto can actually cause some stagnation. "Your bow is moving so slowly, your sound disappears," Chase said. "Make it sound legato, and change the bow more often. And be careful you don't stop and smell the flowers everywhere."

The four repeated notes that appear so often in this theme need to always carry a sense of flow, she said.

Addressing an issue of position, she asked Elena, "You raise your shoulder before you play -- why?"

Stephanie Chase - Elena

"I'm nervous!" Elena answered.

"When you raise your (right) shoulder, there's tension," Chase said.

She suggested using motion to help: little up-bow in the air before entering on a down-bow. "Get the bow in motion before you play, and don't let it stop," she said. Elena said that sometimes she tenses the shoulder to keep the arm from shaking and thus keep the bow from shaking. Chase said this is a natural tendency, to feel that you have to hold things tighter when you are nervous -- but it's not necessarily the best solution. "Grab the floor with your toes if you're nervous," she said. "Put the tension somewhere else!"

Next Marley Erickson played the Allemande and its double from Bach's Partita No. 1 in B flat minor, and then Paganini Caprice No. 17. The Bach was very resonant, with intonation that was in sync with her violin. Caprice 17 is the one with descending runs and bouncy double stops. Or -- so I thought. Once again, Chase had some information from the manuscript -- "IMSLP has the autograph copy of the Caprices," she said, and the way she reads it, those double-stops that are often played with a bounce are supposed to be more like portato -- smoother, in other words, for much of the Caprice. Marley gave it a try.

It goes to show that even the best-edited music often has errors, she said. "Ultimately, it's best to make your own edition," she said. For the descending runs in that Caprice, "think of gravity -- those notes accelerate." Also, she pointed out that each run is simply an ornamented appoggiatura.

When one plays Paganini, it's important not to get into contorted playing positions, Chase said. Raising your arm should be as natural as raising it to shake someone's hand, with no awkward twist needed in that motion.

Stephanie Chase-Marley

"The whole idea of being a virtuoso is that you're sort of showing off, but it's elegant, it's easy."

Also, "your bow should be able to do things we do with language: consonant sounds followed by vowel sounds," Chase said. Among the consonant sounds one should be able to produce with the bow are "T," "B," "V" and "P."

Next was Hannah Cho, who played the first half of the lengthy first movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto -- very accomplished and tidy playing. Chase prefaced her comments with "anything I would say would be very minor." Nonetheless she shared some ideas for Tchaik: after the solo introduction and in the first statement, "do something special with that ornament on the A." As an ornament, it should not sound metronomic or routine, but rather like something improvised. For the figure that leaps up (A up to F#, right at the beginning of the first statement), "try to bring the bow into the air," each time that figure comes around.

Stephanie Chase-Hannah

Dynamics should also have character. Be aware of the many things that "forte" can mean: not just "loud," but consider ideas like noble, heroic, brave. "Piano" can also carry more nuance than "soft" -- it can mean weak, afraid, many things.

Chase suggested a bowing for one famously awkward passage:

Tchaik

"Just play it all separate," she said. Separate and off the string -- it did appear a lot easier. She said you can do the same thing at the end of the piece (I did not catch the specific passage).

Next was a performance by Gregory Lewis of the "Grave" and "Fuga" from Bach's Sonata No. 2 in A minor. Gregory gave a committed performance with a lot of elegance and cohesion, if a few awkward string crossings. The fugue was very solidly memorized - no easy feat to play that live and by memory! Add to that, when he was finished, Chase asked him to play the bassline for the "Grave," without looking at the score, and he had no trouble doing so.

Stephanie Chase-Gregory

Chase talked about where one can derive a sense of rhythm for a piece as slow as the "Grave." Back in Bach's days, there were no metronomes and a lot less machinery, so the Baroque concept of rhythm came from more natural sources: one's pulse, one's walking pace and one's breath.

We breath slowly, about 12 breaths per minute -- so "the concept of exhalation and inhalation might be a helpful idea in some of these slower movements," she said. "Feel like you're breathing with the bow."

Even when one starts feeling the rhythms as a pulse or breath, it's helpful to be aware that Bach liked to mix things up. For example, "when Bach is using triplets, he's often removing the sense of pulse."

He also uses misdirection with harmony: "He'll conclude something with harmony - then he brings in a lot of dissonance," Chase said. "This movement is unresolved." The "Grave" ends with a very long E, which only resolves in the next movement, with the "A" in the subject of the Fuga.

To conclude the long-running master class, Elli Choi gave a very powerful performance of the first movement of the Brahms Violin Concerto.

Elli Choi Stephanie Chase

Elli, 15, a Juilliard Pre-College student, has participated as a student artist in a number of past Symposiums and is a veteran of the competition circuit. Her mastery, accuracy, rich and projecting tone and overall alpha presence put the listener at ease. I wondered what Chase could possibly say.

And yet, Chase had some excellent ideas that seemed to resonate with Elli. In the opening of the piece, Brahms writes rhythms that give it a sense of acceleration, and "I would use more of a sense of acceleration; it's a little vertical," Chase said. She seemed to want more of a sense of abandon: "You play with such attention to quality of sound, make sure it doesn't get heavy."

Then the mood of the concerto goes from ferocious to mysterious and "you can swirl a little more to get that sense," she said.

Similarly, "your chord playing is nice, the sound quality and control is great -- but I'm losing a little of the sense of the line." Those musical ideas seemed just right for encouraging her to keep striving for another level.

This master class was to end at 5 p.m. -- dinner time. When, at 5:20, Chase said, "Oh we have only a little more time," a person near me nodded and said to no one in particular, "Take the time you need." She meant it. It was a joy to see someone work so effectively and respectfully with these young artists.

* * *

In the evening was a recital by student artists, followed by a little celebration of Dorothy DeLay's centennial this year: we had cake!

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