I’m fortunate to live in an area where I can hear a lot of good classical music live. The concerts are sponsored by several different organizations: the Kennedy Center in downtown Washington DC; the National Symphony, whose home is the Kennedy Center; Strathmore Music Center, which is close to my home; The Baltimore Symphony at Strathmore, the Baltimore Symphony’s second home; and the Washington Performing Arts Society (WPAS). Most of them have announced their concerts for the 2008-2009 seasons. Some of them give only sketchy information, for example, the name of a symphony orchestra or a performing artist, and let you guess the rest. WPAS probably sponsors more music and a greater variety of music, and their brochure tells it all. They have several fixed series, but they also give you the opportunity to choose your own series. The bad news is that ticket prices have gone up, even for the cheapest and crummiest seats, where I sit. Their brochure tells of many great concerts, but I had to choose only five. Here they are:
I have heard Hilary Hahn play solo (Bach S&P), with one other classical musician (a pianist in Mozart duets), and as a soloist with an entire orchestra (numerous concertos). Now for something different: I have heard her play duets with the folk guitarist and singer Joshua Ritter. Most of the time, they play Josh’s folk music with Hilary in the role of backup musician, but they also perform some classical music, in which their roles are reversed.
I have a personal interest in this type of performance because I often find myself playing backup to a singer/guitarist but without the benefit of prior rehearsal.
Hilary and Josh have played together for a few years, and they have grown into their respective roles of music partners. Hilary Hahn plays like Hilary Hahn in this duo. She does not try to emulate the sound of the great folk fiddlers. Her personal style fits as well with Josh’s music as with the music of a classical musician. When Josh is playing lead, Hilary’s eyes are riveted on him for visual, as well as musical clues, on what to do. In this clip, she starts out as a purely backup player, “humming” along with a few notes on her violin. After a while, her improvised harmony gets louder and more musically complex. Instead of a fiddle break (solo), which would take place in truly traditional playing, Hilary and Josh play a duet, with Hilary playing lead. The sound of the violin then subsides as guitar and voice take the lead again. At the very end, both musicians again play important roles. This song would sound much different and much more monotonous without Hilary. Josh’s guitar harmony is not particularly inspired, as Hilary’s harmony is. Perhaps most important of all, Hilary’s playing makes the entire piece sound so much sweeter.
Isaac Stern told a lot of interesting, true stories in his autobiography, My First 79 Years: Isaac Stern. One was about his trip to China in 1979, at the time of the Cold War between China and the U.S. Each country treated the other as “foreign devils.” Stern was surprised that the Chinese government let him and his video crew into the country; surprised that they let the crewmen take videos; and very surprised that they let Stern’s crew take their video films out of the country. Stern and his crew put together a video called From Mao to Mozart - Isaac Stern in China, and I knew I had to see it. I finally managed to see it by way of Netflix. I’m glad I saw it in my home because I went back to sections that especially appealed to me and watched them over and over.
This is no ordinary tourist film. Stern said that the best to way learn about a country was to interact with members of one’s own profession, in his case, musicians. He began his visit in Beijing, where the people showed little emotion and explained everything in terms of class structure. For instance, in a conversation about Mozart, the translator presented the view of the Chinese by talking in detail about the rise of the capitalist class system of which Mozart was an integral part. Stern, who was usually polite and respectful, burst out, “I refuse to believe that the rise of capitalism had anything to do with Mozart’s music.”
After a brief stay in Beijing, Stern’s group went to Shanghai, which they found very different from Beijing. The people were much more easygoing and talked more freely with the Americans. Stern gave concerts of some of the great violin concertos and was enthusiastically received.
He taught master classes, too. One was in a music school for girls who lived there in a dorm setting. They all got up at the same time in the morning. They all brushed their teeth at the same time. They all got dressed at the same time. (They were allowed to wear their personal clothing, not uniforms.) They all tied red kerchiefs around their necks at the same time. They all ate breakfast at the same time. They all went to Stern’s master class at the same time. (Does this remind anyone of the girl’s book “Madeline”?) Isaac Stern and the students were onstage in a large auditorium, and every seat was filled with people eager to learn. They all focused intensely on the teaching session.
The first student shown on the video was a shy girl about 10 years old. Her mastery of technique was awesome for one so young, but her emotional input was not as good. Each note sounded pretty much the same as all the others. Stern focused on a very short passage with just a few notes. One note in particular sounded almost like a space holder between the notes before and after it. I remembered that in Western classical music every note is important. It is there for a reason, and it should be played accordingly. Stern played the passage the way he felt it, and then he asked the student to sing it. She started to sing, and he cut her off after three notes. The third note was the previously neglected space holder, but when she sang it, she gave it a special, sweet sound. Stern got very excited. “Take what is in here,” he said, tapping her gently on the head,” he said, “and play it here,” and tapped her violin. She played the passage again, and this time, the note in question sounded clear and sweet. Stern put his arm around her shoulders, and the whole audience applauded.
The next student, a girl several years older than the first one, had more self confidence and looked like she was having fun throughout the master class. She played something more difficult technically, a series of stunning chords, and she played each one with the precision of a professional. When Stern played the passage, each chord had its own coloring. The progression of the chords kept everyone excited, holding on to the music to find out what would come next. When the student played it again, she colored the chords her own way. The passage was much more interesting to listen to than her previous version. The effect was stunning, and the audience applauded wildly.
Stern asked one of his Chinese hosts about something that he and the other American musicians with him had noticed. The kids in the eight to ten age group played astonishingly well, but those about ten years older played less well, and Stern wondered why? The Chinese man responded that it was because of the Cultural Revolution, which lasted about 10 years. The Chinese people were supposed to rid themselves of everything that was not Chinese, and that included Western classical music. The scene switched to a man who had been Assistant Director of a Western classical music institute and was punished severely for it. He was locked in a small, dark, smelly cell and was allowed to come out for five minutes each day to use the bathroom. He alluded to physical abuse, but he felt that the worst thing about his treatment was the humiliation. Many Chinese people who had been active in Western classical music committed suicide at that time because the punishments were so severe. (This is one part of the film that I did not watch more than once. It was just too painful.)
Isaac Stern returned to China in 1999, 20 years after his original visit. The video had an “extra” about his second trip. Beijing looked very different and modernized. Stern was able to follow up on some of the students he had worked with 20 years ago. The timid little girl was on the faculty of a music school. The older, more confident girl was concertmistress of a major symphony in Hong Kong. Stern played in concerts and taught master classes in 1999, just as he had in 1979. He still encouraged his students to play the way their emotions told them to and to make their playing very personal.
…and the beat goes on.