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Jennifer Koh Concludes Her Six-Year Bach and Beyond Series

By Laurie Niles
January 28, 2015 07:48

Why is Bach still relevant today?

This has been the subject of a six-year project for Grammy-nominated violinist Jennifer Koh, called Bach and Beyond, initially inspired by Bach's 325th birthday in 2010. The project took the form of a three-part series of recital programs that Jennifer devised, exploring the history of the solo violin repertoire by pairing Bach’s Six Sonatas and Partitas with related modern-day works and new commissions.

This weekend she celebrates the third and final installment of this series with a concert at 8 p.m. Saturday at 92Y in New York. She will take the recital program on the road, with "Bach and Beyond, Part III" recitals this spring at Oberlin College, at Strathmore Hall in North Bethesda, for the University Musical Society in Ann Arbor, for Cal Performances at UC Berkeley, and at the Athanaeum Music and Arts Library in La Jolla.

Jennifer Koh
Photo by Jeurgen Frank

"My initial hope for this project was to create programs that highlighted the rich possibilities for solo violin recitals," Jennifer said, "My personal goal was to make programs that create a historical journey that illustrates Bach's influence over repertoire written for solo violin and to expand that repertoire through new commissions."

The new commission for Saturday is the world premiere of John Harbison's "For Violin Alone," co-commissioned by 92Y. "I think there is definitely influence of Bach’s Partita form, as there are dance movements which are inspired by an array of American influences like folk and blues," Jennifer said of the new work. The program also includes Bach's Sonatas No. 2 and 3, and Berio's Sequenza VIII.

Importantly, Jennifer's "Bach and Beyond" project has been the inspiration and showcase for some wonderful new music and music-related projects, featuring the following world premieres over the last six years:

  • Tal Rosner (video artist)
    • Ligeti Synergy: Video art collaboration with Ligeti’s Violin Concerto, Poeme Symphonique, and Le Grande Macabre using motion capture with Tal Rosner, video artist (2016)
    • Violin/video collaboration project of Salonen’s lachen verlernt as part of Bach & Beyond Part 1 (Oct. 2009)
  • Kaija Saariaho
    • Recording of Frises for violin and electronics on Bach & Beyond Part Two (Spring 2015)
  • John Harbison
    • For Violin Alone as part of Bach & Beyond Part 3 at 92nd Street Y (Jan. 2015)
  • Phil Kline
    • Dead Reckoning: Partita for solo violin as part of Bach & Beyond Part 2 (Nov. 2012)
  • Missy Mazzoli
    • Recording of Dissolve, O my Heart for violin on Bach & Beyond Part 1 (Oct. 2012)
  • John Zorn
    • Passagen for solo violin at Miller Theatre (Dec. 2011) -- performing in Bach and Beyond Part Three

"I think my relationship with Bach is constantly evolving, and I am grateful to the new works from all the composers," Jennifer said. "I was incredibly happy to see how each composer took singular aspects of Bach and then made those works completely their own. It is inspiring to realize that everyone has truly individual responses to Bach’s music, whether it be composers, listeners or players. It’s a great testament to the depth in Bach’s music, but maybe even more importantly, it’s a testament to the evolution and relevancy of music."

* * *
Jennifer Koh plays Chaconne from Bach, Partita No. 2 in D minor

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How do you get to Symphony Hall? Practice Your Viola!

By Karen Allendoerfer
January 27, 2015 19:44

I had been meaning to blog for a while and not doing it, but I have a good excuse: too busy practicing.

I last blogged about being accepted to the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Onstage at Symphony program, which may start tomorrow, or may not, depending on the weather conditions. Blizzard Juno hit the Boston area early this morning, and delivered quite a bit of snow. This cardinal took refuge from the storm in a pine tree right outside my window:
From violinist.com blog

Back in Western New York where I grew up, though, I don’t think we would have called this a blizzard, let alone had two snow days. (Yes, in my day, I really did walk to school uphill both ways in the snow carrying a heavy VSO. Ha!) By tomorrow night, even Boston should be dug out enough to find Symphony Hall.

So, it’s the night before the first rehearsal, and frankly, I’m nervous. I applied to the program for both violin and viola, thinking I’d have a better chance with two instruments to choose from. It was a good strategy, apparently, but that means I’ve spent the past 7-8 weeks learning difficult music on my 2nd instrument and getting reacquainted with alto clef. Back in December it seemed like I had a lot of time, too. The concert wasn’t until next year! And there was even winter break in which to practice.

From violinist.com blog

So I brought my fresh, shiny, smooth music (Marked “Boston Symphony Orchestra”) along to my lessons. I have a separate viola teacher now, because my violin teacher retired from playing the viola a year or so ago, but she also thought this was a cool experience and wanted to hear all about it. Both teachers recommended that I not only listen to the piece and follow along with my part, but that I get a score and follow along with that.

From violinist.com blog

I don’t know why I had been so resistant to the idea of reading a score previously. Maybe I was just afraid of all that paper. Or all those clefs. But once I got into it, I couldn’t stop. I read the score in bed. I read it while exercising on the elliptical. I read it on my ski vacation. It’s like a cheat sheet for when the conductor asks you, annoyingly (and annoyed), after stopping for the 3rd time in rehearsal, “so, violins, who are you playing with during that passage?”

I’m sure reading the score is helpful for violins too, but it seems especially helpful for violas.

Sometimes we’re with the violins.

From violinist.com blog

Sometimes we’re with the horns.
From violinist.com blog

Sometimes we’re just by ourselves, but it’s still helpful to know what everyone else is playing so you know not to come in with them and make a fool of yourself.

From violinist.com blog

Sometimes your ear fools you, especially if you’re also a violinist and used to listening to violin parts. Violas don’t always play the highest note at the highest point of the phrase.

From violinist.com blog

I may not get every note. I may still have some occasional violin moments with the clef, but now I always know where I am in the piece. Learning the score, even a little bit, is the best insurance I’ve found against getting lost. Echoing the good advice from other violinist.com bloggers: do what your teacher says.

For a while I got into a little practice routine. My regular orchestra started up again at the beginning of January, and out came the violin. On days I wasn’t teaching, I would practice the viola in the morning when I had more time, then put it away for half a day and take the violin out in the evening. Every day, the switching. In the morning: this thing is so huge. It’s clunky and I have to stretch my fingers. This bow is heavy. In the evening: this is a toy. It’s so tiny and the bow is so bouncy. Next morning: this thing is huge and clunky. Evening: tiny and bouncy. Morning: huge and clunky. Now I remember why I stopped trying to play both instruments at the same time. Not much longer now. The viola concert will be over soon.

I confessed my nerves to my viola teacher earlier in the week at my lesson, rescheduled just ahead of the storm. I dithered about even going to the lesson at all. Shouldn’t I just stay home and keep woodshedding the parts? But maybe he’ll see something I wouldn’t have thought of. I should go. I went.

And I’m glad. While I have some pre-rehearsal jitters, I feel okay. I know I’m not going to drown. My teacher was reassuring and kind. At the lesson we did indeed work on some things I never would have thought of on my own. He gave me some bow hand exercises to increase finger flexibility and recommended using more finger/wrist and less arm in some troublesome passages. Even my first fumbling attempts at that in the lesson resulted in a clearer and more focused sound in those passages. We also worked on my longer-term project: relaxing my vibrato and making it more continuous.

Now, on the eve of the first rehearsal, what I’ve decided to do is to play through the whole program a few times to build endurance. Sometimes I can spend so much effort breaking a piece down into its component parts that I don’t realize until the dress rehearsal, or even the concert, just how looooo-ooong the program really is, and I get tired just sitting there and daunted by how much is still remaining. None of these pieces is particularly bad. At 17:00 exactly, my recording of the Liszt is the longest of the four. But I still find that it’s helpful to know what to expect in terms of length, and to make sure to build in relaxation accordingly.

And you know what, sometimes it’s just great to be playing the viola part. Have fun, violinists!

From violinist.com blog

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Music and Your Brain

By Laurie Niles
January 27, 2015 16:08

A childhood rich in language and music education wires a person's brain better to perceive the meaning in sounds -- and it's a clarity that lasts a lifetime. But when deprived of meaningful sound in childhood, a person perceives static around sounds and is less able to render meaning from them.

This was one of the fascinating points brought up by professor and researcher Nina Kraus, who is Principal Investigator at Northwestern University's Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory in Evanston, Ill. She was speaking a forum called "Music and Your Brain – the Science of Change," at the KPCC Crawford Family Forum, a public radio event in Pasadena, Calif. (You can watch the whole program here.) She was joined by Suzanne Ginden, founder of the Boyle Heights Community Youth Orchestra in Los Angeles; Kristen Madsen, Senior Vice President of the GRAMMY Foundation and Musicares; and moderator Mary Plummer, Arts Education Reporter for KPCC.

A person's childhood exposure to meaningful sound appears literally to wire his or her nerves for sound perception, Kraus said.

L-R: Mary Plummer, Nina Kraus, Kristen Madsen and Suzanne Ginden

"With unprecedented precision, we can measure how the neural system responds to sound," Kraus said. Using electrodes, researchers have measured neural responses to language among two groups of children: those whose mothers had a high level of education, and those whose mothers had less education.

"Children of moms with more education heard more words and more complex language," Kraus said. "Kids who had moms with less education had more neural noise -- the neural response to noise was less precise."

Kraus played two recordings, representing how each of those two groups heard language: in one recording, the language came through clearly; in the other, the language was embedded in static and more difficult to discern.

If every time you hear a sound, you process it in a different way, then it's hard to get any consistent meaning from that sound and the result is a fuzziness in perception. That "fuzz" has profound implications for a child's future ability to learn from a teacher in a classroom setting and even to learn to read.

How can a child who starts out with that kind of a disadvantage turn things around? One possibility might be music education.

"It turns out that musical experience -- the activity of making music -- changes how the brain processes sound," Kraus said. And those ingredients in sound processing track with language and reading development. "The learning of music might translate to becoming a better communicator," she said.

But to have any effect, one needs to actively play or sing music, and over an extended period of time.

In studying children in music programs, "we didn't see any measurable changes after one year of music-making," she said, but after two years of music-making, they were able to measure fundamental biological changes in auditory learning.

"Biologically, we are what we do," Kraus said. "It's the repetition, the constant reinforcement of neural circuits that shape us." (Hey does that sound familiar? 10,000 times?)

Research found that children who can match drumbeats have better language potential than those who could not. "There's a lot of rhythm in language," Kraus said. "The simple ability to track to a beat, tracks with language development." It is possible to see, measuring the brainwaves of a two-year-old child, if that child can track the rhythm of sound, and if not, that child may be at risk for language problems in the future.

Learning rhythms doesn't require a lot of training, but the skill can get stronger with practice and instruction.

Given that music education is scientifically proven to boost a child's brain development in myriad ways; it would make sense for communities to devote enormous resources to ensuring the success of music programs, in all schools. Sadly, it isn't so. Music education programs, at least in the United States, tend to be piecemeal, poorly funded, rarely supported for more than a few seasons, and always positioned directly under the budget-cut ax.

But music teachers keep trying.

Music teacher Suzanne Gindin described the program that she founded two and a half years ago in one of Los Angeles' poorest neighborhoods: the Boyle Heights Community Youth Orchestra. Based on an El Sistema model, the program provides music instruction and instrument loans, free of charge, to children aged six to 14. About 65 kids signed up for the program in the beginning; that number later dropped to about 25. After the initial enthusiasm of signing up, kids and parents discovered that "it's hard to play an instrument," Ginden said.

Boyle Heights Community Youth Orchestra student, Daisy, plays a solo

The people who stuck with it tended to have parental support, or they lived close by. "Those who are sticking with it, see real results," she said. Not only are those children getting proficient on their instruments, but their parents also report improvements in math grades, reading skills and sociability.

Kristen Madsen, of the GRAMMY Foundation, said that oftentimes for local music programs, "The threshold of making a difference financially is small." Combine a reasonable-sized grant with a dedicated teacher, and a lot can happen. An overwhelming majority of Americans believe that music should be a regular part of educational curriculum, "and yet, it gets marginalize," Madsen said.

Because music and the arts have been marginalized in education for so long, "a whole generation of teachers is not versed in teaching the arts," moderator Mary Plummer said.

Imagine, if a music curriculum (or any curriculum, for that matter) could be developed, based on the groundbreaking information that scientists like Kraus know about brain development, instead of based on politics and marketing. Imagine if the teachers and the programs at a school weren't pitted against each other in a zero-sum fight for time and resources, but viewed as combined disciplines.

"What if our school curriculum was based on her science?" Ginden said, gesturing to Kraus. One could create symbiotic lesson plans that matched a child's language and math development to the child's musical development. For example, a music teacher could be teaching kids to track a beat in preparation for the reading teacher to introduce various concepts in phonics.

One audience member was a teacher at a charter school with no music education. Her only option so far had been to have the kids sing to computers, which wasn't exactly active music-making. She asked the panel how she, a non-musician, could add some music to her classroom. Ginden, who has had experience teaching music curriculum to non-music teachers, suggested starting a recorder program, which is relatively inexpensive and allows kids to learn to play an instrument and possibly even do some music reading. Also, "Sing songs about everything you do," like from putting away papers, etc. She also pointed her to LessonPlans.com and also the Little Kids Rock program.

Boyle Heights kids
Students from the Boyle Heights Community Youth Orchestra, Suzanne Ginden, director

In conclusion, we heard a lovely concert from 12 of Ginden's students, who had waited patiently and silently through the talk, then played with with steady confidence and competence, sang a song in Spanish, and answered questions from the moderator in English. From my vantage, both their musical and language skills were well on their way.

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The Week in Reviews, Op. 67: Maxim Vengerov, Aisslinn Nosky, Philippe Quint in Concert

By Robert Niles
January 27, 2015 14:15

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.

Maxim Vengerov performed the Tchaikovsky with the New York Philharmonic.

  • The New York Times: "...Mr. Vengerov delivered an engrossing account of the Tchaikovsky, enlivened by the glossy, warm sound of his 1727 Ex-Kreutzer Stradivarius..."

Maxim Vengerov
Photo: Naim Chidiac

Aisslinn Nosky performed the Haydn with the Handel and Haydn Society.

  • Boston Globe: "Nosky, who led the 15-member ensemble, was a mischievous soloist in the Allegro moderato first movement. The Adagio serenade over plucked strings went quickly, like an intermezzo, whereas the Presto finale was not rushed. It all sounded casual and easy, but not without heart."
  • Boston Classical Review: Her playing was consistently sparkling in its energy and finely attuned to Classical polish and style.That is due to Nosky’s shimmering tone and exceptional command of her instrument."

Philippe Quint performed works by Lera Auerbach in recital with Auerbach and cellist Joshua Roman.

  • Examiner.com: "His accounts of the intensity of the individual movements and the manic quality of the mood swings from one movement to the next seized the attention from the opening gesture and would not let go until the final cadence."

Elena Urioste performed the Elgar with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra.

  • Times Argus: "Urioste, with a warm and personal sound she used expressively, managed the full range of emotions from fiery virtuosity to intimate tenderness, with flair and depth. It was not only exciting, her playing in the slow movement brought many to tears."

Daniel Hope performed the Korngold with the San Antonio Symphony.

  • San Antonio Express-News: "British violin star Daniel Hope immediately proved why he is so widely recorded. Hope possesses a powerful instrument, a richely textured Guarneri, and he knows how to use it. His bow control is so complete, it widens his range of expression."

Gidon Kremer performed works by Weinberg and Mozart in recital with pianist Daniil Trifonov.

  • New York Classical Review: "Here and there on Friday he was able to muster a warm tone, but for the most part, he sounded anemic, his vibrato weak and his intonation unsure."

William Preucil performed the Dvorák with the Cleveland Orchestra.

  • NUVO: "Preucil played with an infectious liveliness well matched to the main theme of the movement, with the orchestra behind him in a consistently tasteful and complementary mood."
  • The Plain Daler: "Seated on a platform next to Hrusa, the artist dispensed with virtuoso display and concentrated instead on melody and feeling. The result was a compelling musical trilogy that was gritty, bright and resilient by turns, and often lyrical enough to suspend time altogether."

Julia Noone performed Szymanowski's Violin Concerto No. 2 with the New World Symphony.

  • South Florida Classical Review: " She has a wonderful tone, with a rich vibrato that gave heat to the soaring passages with which the work abounds, displaying a technique that allowed her to make effortless leaps up to the highest notes without a break in the melody. Yet she also imbued less showy passages, such as the long inward-looking melodies, with expressiveness and meaning."

Marc Bouchkov performed the Tchaikovsky with the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra.

  • The StarPhoenix: "Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra guest soloist Marc Bouchkov was so animated Saturday night he could have been making a violin workout video...Bouchkov’s lively performance will linger long for those lucky enough to have witnessed it as the high point of the symphony’s Northern Lights concert."

Sarah Kwak performed the Glazunov with the Oregon Symphony.

  • The Oregonian: "She gave it lyrical depth, thoughtful phrasing, myriad shadings of tone and easy technical prowess — the last movement, a delightful set of variations on a jaunty tune, was a virtuoso thrill ride of flying fingers, double stops, pizzicato and high harmonics, and she coasted through it."

Kyra Humphreys performed Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 4 with the Royal Northern Sinfonia.

  • The Northern Echo: "Playing with characteristic zest, Humphreys delivered a scorching cadenza that explored every emotional possibility of her instrument, while her adagio was invested with an ineffable grace."

Bella Hristova performed the Sibelius with the Omaha Symphony.

  • Omaha World-Herald: "But though her virtuosity was evident Saturday night in Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, she never seemed to truly take command of the stage or match the passion and fire of the orchestra behind her."

And in other news:

The New York Philharmonic has named Esa-Pekka Salonen Composer-in-Residence.

  • Gramophon: He will compose works for the orchestra for three years, beginning in the 2015/16 season. In the 2015-16 season the New York Philharmonic will perform Salonen's LA Variations (September 25-26, 2015) and Karawane (March 17-19, 2016), and Salonen himself will conduct Messiaen's Turangal?la-symphonie (March 10-12, 2016). Salonen will also oversee the Philharmonic's new music biennial festival in June 2016.

Violinists Itzhak Perlman and Nicola Benedetti will join manager Charlotte Lee at her new agency, Primo Artists.

  • WQXR: "A top manager at IMG Artists has left the management agency after 17 years and brought two of her biggest-name artists with her."

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

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