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V.com Weekend Vote: Should young soloists borrow a Strad, or buy a modern?

By The Weekend Vote
February 27, 2015 09:17

Events of the last week would seem to demonstrate how fickle arrangements can be, when one is borrowing a fine instrument such as a Strad.

I certainly feel for violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann, who had to give the 1711 Strad he was renting back to the German bank that owned it this week, right before his concert series with the New York Philharmonic. The bank is trying to sell the instrument and Zimmermann had the first option to buy, but by all accounts they priced it some million dollars higher than its already-sky-high valuation that was around $5 million.

Frank Peter Zimmermann
Photo by Klaus Rudulph

Young violin soloists face no small dilemma, when it comes to procuring a fine instrument. Should they borrow (or rent) the very finest instrument possible, knowing that it can be withdrawn at any moment from a sponsor, or that they might be asked to fork over millions of dollars to buy it at some undefined point in the future? Or should a soloist pass up on the chance to play an instrument like that, and instead invest their money and spirit in finding a modern violin that will live up to expectations and carry a much more reasonable price tag?

The simple answer is "get a modern, they're just as good." It's too simple of an answer, though. I've spoken to far too many experienced violinists to believe that there's nothing particularly special about the Strads and del Gesús -- to play one during the crucial beginning of one's career is to have an instrument that will inform your playing and sense of aesthetic for a lifetime. It's a special experience that just might be worth the possible pain of a bad break-up. Plus, you may wind up with a kind sponsor who just lets you use it for your entire playing career.

Or not! It gets very, very ugly, and soloists describe losing their beloved instrument like "losing an arm," one becomes so attached. Certainly, it is like losing your voice.

How would you advise the most promising young soloists today to handle the instrument dilemma?

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We Can Be Our Own Worst Enemy.

By Stephen Brivati
February 26, 2015 19:52

violin stringsWe are our own worst enemy.

Of all the Alexander lessons I took related to violin playing, I think the most meaningful for me was one in which the teacher (not a violinist) stopped me at the exact moment before I was about to pluck the violin out of its open case. "Think about how you would walk across the room to get a pencil. Compare that with the excitement you are feeling now and observe how it is affecting you, even though you are essentially doing the same physical act. In life we have 'choice points,' where we can stop and observe what we are doing and consciously use ourselves better. So instead of leaning over in that habitual way and grabbing the instrument willy-nilly, stop and feel the ease in your neck, as your head goes forward and up and you back widens etc…."

(One can perhaps see a little of the same kind of idea in Zukerman’s master class at the RCM where he tells an advanced student to always pick up the bow with the left hand and the violin with the right.)

Anyway, the significance of this during practice should never be underestimated. Currently there is a very interesting thread concerning tension in practice of Kreutzer No. 9 going on. When a serious and committed player like the OP in question works on this kind of etude, it is very common that excitement and determination work hand-in-hand to keep the practice sustained for twenty, thirty minutes or even an hour, especially when working on different rhythms and bowing patterns. Of course this is a virtue, but it is not a good idea. First of all, one is keeping muscles in a semi-contracted state for a long periods, so they may actually become more stressed than they should be. Rather like working on a computer with short-range focus and not stopping every ten minutes to allow your eye muscles to re-elongate on an object in the distance. Secondly, one is almost invariably practicing in tension. The violin happens to be like that……

If we start thinking in terms of 'choice points,' then we can stop every ten minutes and make a conscious reevaluation of our total physical state. We must have a checklist of questions. :

  • How am I standing?
  • Have I been holding my breathe? (Ten minutes is quite an achievement)
  • Is my bow hold ok?
  • Is my right thumb tense?
  • How about my left thumb?

I am not giving a complete list here but there isn’t actually that much to observe. Then take some time to reset yourself; visualize yourself completely relaxed; take mental stock of what you are actually trying to achieve and whether a change of course might be more useful, and so on. If necessary, set a timer to go off every five or ten minutes until one gets into the habit of doing this.

Hopefully, this way of thinking about how we use ourselves during practice will lead to greater productivity and less damage in the long run. After all, I still want to be serenading my sweetheart and annoying my cat at 90.


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Chamber Music Master Class with Arnold Steinhardt at USC

By Laurie Niles
February 26, 2015 14:50

It's not surprising to see in person that violinist Arnold Steinhardt has a way with words.

Steinhardt, who is a professor of violin and chamber music at The Colburn School, University of Maryland, Bard College and the Curtis Institute, also does a great deal of writing. He has his own blog called In the Key of Strawberry, and he has written two books, Indivisible by Four: A String Quartet in Pursuit of Harmony, about his journey as first violinist in the Guarneri String Quartet (which disbanded after 45 years in 2009); and Violin Dreams, more generally about his life as a violinist.

Steinhardt's gift for description was on display during a chamber music master class Friday night at the University of Southern California, during which he coached three student chamber groups for an audience of about 50. Smiling as he spoke, Steinhardt offered his suggestions with clarity and appeal, in language both efficient and richly meaningful.

The first quartet set the bar high, with an energetic performance of the first movement of Mendelssohn's String Quartet, Op. 44, No. 2. It's a movement full of fast unison runs, and their playing was satisfyingly on-pitch, in time, and marked with awareness for one another.

USC quartet with Steinhardt
Arnold Steinhardt (center) with quartet members (L-R) Eunghee, Benjamin, Chloe and Mann-Wen

"You really captured the essence of this piece, the emotional intensity," he said after their initial performance.

He suggested to the first violinist that her sound in the opening would have "more spin" if she could use more bow. He did not want to change the volume, just the quality of the sound. "If you use more bow, the sound has more wings," he said. In another passage, he wanted a note emphasized, but not with an accent. "Could you give it a little more of a heart pang?" he said, suggesting the use of vibrato rather than any change of bow stroke.

He asked the first violinist to really go for a high note, and when she overshot it, he applauded the effort. "You took a chance and you went for it, and I think that's really important," he said. He quoted Heifetz: "Practice as if the whole world depends on it; perform as if you don't give a d*mn."

In order to get a little more volume from the second violinist, Steinhardt reminded her that "you're two yards back from the first violin, so you have to push just a little harder."

He suggested that it's possible to change color by changing strings, so plan fingerings accordingly. "You don't have to work hard to change the color if the string has done it for you," he said.

He advised them to "work harder in clearing the thick texture." The density of Mendelssohn's writing offers a challenge: in order for the important lines to emerge, one person needs to get louder while the rest get softer. "How much do you want to be out of the water?" he asked. "You are only this much out of the water," he said, holding his hand like a waterline, up to his nose. He lowered it to his chest, "You want to be a least this far out of the water. Take a chance in doing too much," he told the cellist. "Too much" ended up being just right.

Steinhardt noted a place in the cello part, where Mendelssohn puts a "fancy curlicue" on the second iteration of a repeated figure -- "put a little rubato on it so that it sounds like you are improvising it, like you got tired of the first way and just made up something," he said.

For an ascending flourish in the first violin, he advised her to play it with a little more flair, referencing one of our more showy violinist-composers: "put a little bit of Wieniawski in Mendelssohn!"

Next, a trio performed the first movement Ravel's piano-violin-cello Trio in A minor, an atmospheric and mercurial piece, ranging in texture from rumbling low chords to icy-high harmonics. I must add: it was really a pure pleasure to hear every one of these accomplished student groups perform. They'd already achieved a high level, and then they responded to Steinhardt's suggestions wholeheartedly, with immediate effect.

USC trio
Playing the Ravel Trio, with (L-R) YuEun, Dawoon and Coleman

For this piece, Steinhardt focused on staying true to the composer's tempo markings. "If it's too slow all the time, it gets to be formless," he said. Though it's not necessary to time everything exactly to the metronome marking, it is important to obey the relationships between the various tempo markings. "It's so gorgeous, the temptation is to play it slowly," but it needs motion. "Keep the flow, even though you want to pick a few daisies here and there. Don't pick too many daisies," he said. He focused on where to move forward and where to hold back in the movement. And here's a little trick: speed up just a bit before a place where you are supposed to slow down. "If you have a ritard coming up, it's more interesting if you move a little into the ritard," he said. If the composer asks for a long slow-down, be sure to start the passage fast enough so that the slowing will not feel like dragging. "You have to cook up your own recipe here, but it has to have fluidity," he said.

Another quartet played the first movement of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 11, Op. 95. As they played it, something seemed a little disorganized to me, despite good playing. What was it? Steinhardt identified it easily: it needed more speed.

"If you pick a tempo that's not quite right, no matter how well you play, the tempo ends up being your enemy," he said. This movement should be "bubbling," he said, but at a slow tempo, it gets too note-y. At a faster tempo, "even if you play it badly, it's going to sound pretty good. It's going to be a lot easier to capture the essence."

Sure enough, a faster tempo tightened the music and improved the overall effect.

His other suggestions were about balance: the beginning of this movement has all four instruments playing in unison, and when this is the case, it's not necessary to dig in quite so much. "You can cool it a little," he said, "otherwise the danger is that you are going to lose your good sound."

Steinhardt with violinist
Steinhardt offers a suggestion to violinist Roberta

In places where the violins play in octaves, the lower octave should really sing out to balance the voices, as the higher octave will automatically sound louder because of its favorable range.

When it comes to pressing for sound, the cello and viola can press and still sound nice, but "if you two press," he said to the violins, "it's going to scream!"

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The Week in Reviews, Op. 71: Alina Pogostkina, Augustin Hadelich, James Ehnes in Concert

By Robert Niles
February 24, 2015 21:09

In an effort to promote the coverage of live violin performance, Violinist.com each week presents links to reviews of notable concerts and recitals around the world.

Alina Pogostkina performed the Beethoven with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Scotsman: "Runnicles’ shaping of the Beethoven Violin Concerto was completely at one with soloist Alina Pogostkina, who breathed fresh flavours and natural musicality into this well-worn masterpiece."
  • Herald Scotland: "In short, Runnicles is a conductor who matters, with a band which, 30 years ago on the periphery of things, is now absolutely central to music in Scotland. And if that assertion needed demonstration, it was all there on Thursday, with the most delicate, exquisite account I think I've heard of Beethoven's Violin Concerto which, in the intimately-expressive hands of soloist Alina Pogostkina, and the masterly,unhurried, close-up-and-personal care of Runnicles and his ultra-responsive SSO players, was like chamber music, drawing you into its thinking. It was quietly and undemonstratively heart-stopping in its beauty."

Alina Pogostkina.png

Augustin Hadelich performed Lalo's "Symphonie espagnole" with the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Patriot-News: "This is his third concert with the HSO, and the next time Hadelich visits the Forum, you will hear me screaming Beatlemania-style from wherever you happen to be....The orchestra provided as lush a foundation for Hadelich's performance as Michelangelo Antonioni provided Monica Vitti when he lit up the Aeolian Islands with her smoldering grace in "L'avventura." I mean it was sexy, and the end knocked a gasp out of me."
  • The Sentinel: "Soloist Augustin Hadelich proved conclusively on Saturday night that his spellbinding command of the violin has only gotten stronger since his last visit to Harrisburg in 2010."

James Ehnes performed Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Boston Globe: "Canadian violinist James Ehnes gave a measured, laid-back reading, offering mystery rather than intensity. His encore, the Largo from Bach’s Third Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin, was sublimely elegant."
  • The Boston Musical Intelligencer: "I have long admired Ehnes’ playing from his recordings so jumped at the opportunity to hear him live. He did not disappoint. It was as elegant as ever. Ehnes was sheer perfection."
  • Boston Classical Review: "The presence of Ehnes’s violin tone in the large hall seemed as intimate as chamber music, as he effortlessly projected the finest details of Prokofiev’s fantasy-like score. In the piece’s central scherzo, the violinist dazzled with scorching scales, left-hand pizzicato, slashing martellato, and fast, whistling harmonics, all without losing his impeccable cool. Ehnes received, and deserved, the biggest ovation of the night."

Philippe Quint performed Bernstein's "Serenade" with the Grand Rapids Symphony.

  • The Grand Rapids Press: "Quint grabbed the audience by its lapels and refused to let go, announcing his arrival with noble authority before stepping back for a more childlike and playful romp and a series of technical hurdles he made seem rather effortless. His ringing, singing tone, and rock-solid intonation made for a mesmerizing, serene, fourth movement while navigating rocky waters. His athletic performance of the snazzy finale captivated Friday's audience into prompt standing ovation and two curtain calls."

Ilya Gringolts performed the Harris with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.

  • The New Zealand Herald: "conductor, orchestra and soloist positively relished the very symphonic thrust of this writing. There was no lessening of tension in the faster sections, either, marked by unfailingly idiomatic writing and an almost Stravinskian sense of propulsion. After 20 minutes, a journey had been taken and resolution achieved, as Gringolts gave us his final exquisitely whispered gestures."

Gil Shaham performed the Berg with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

  • Philadelphia Inquirer: "Gil Shaham was soloist, only sometimes achieving full intensity. He had a habit of pivoting between facing conductor and concertmaster, which might have had an intra-ensemble purpose. But it also meant he was sometimes turning his body to eclipse his own sound."

Ji Won Kim performed the Tchaikovsky with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Sydney Morning Herald: "Violinist Ji Won Kim drew audience approval for her admirable display of technical facility, secure intonation, fluid bow and a beautifully expressive canzonetta. Kim's performance grew more assured with each passing minute, yet the marriage between soloist and orchestra was often uneasy, threatening to derail in a fast-paced finale."

Karen Gomyo performed the Pintscher with the National Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Washington Post: "It’s an able and impressive piece, sending Gomyo, who is capable of fine sound, fingering in nervous skitters across the strings and finally dying out with the windy sound of tuneless breath, a bow scraping not strings, but the wood of the violin. But I was less taken with it than I’ve been with other Pintscher pieces, however glad I was that the orchestra committed to showcasing the work of an important artist."

Roman Simovic performed the Glazunov with the London Symphony Orchestra.

  • The Telegraph: "The soloist Roman Simovic had a delightful sweet-toned lyricism, and an easy, smiling virtuosity. It was just what was needed to reveal the charm in this somewhat earnest, solidly-crafted piece."

Midori performed the Schumann with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

  • ArtsATL: "Even with the orchestra backing off on volume, as they did, Midori’s solo violin had difficulty cutting through. It doesn’t help that Schumann’s music in this instance is not all that interesting or engaging in the first place. Not the best vehicle for Midori, thus disappointing."

Ning Feng performed "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso" in the Los Angeles Symphony's Chinese New Year Concert.

  • Violinist.com: "He played...with beautiful expression, agility and character."

Daniel Szasz performed Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" with the Alabama Symphony.

  • ArtsBham.com: "As thunder and lightning, a hunt with howling dogs, and a virtual aviary unfolded, Szasz contributed supple and sensitive solos."

Please support music in your community by attending a concert or recital whenever you can!

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