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January 2015

The 'Ein Heldenleben' Journey: Part 2

January 18, 2015 02:56

This can also be read here at my own personal blog along with a variety of other topics and conversations.

The last week has been a somewhat patchy one. Life has been getting busier and I'm in the process of finding a new violin, which is not only proving time consuming and emotionally draining, but also a massive headache regarding the insurance policies of various violin dealers. Irrespective of all that, most things feel back to normal with managing life and regular practice.

Most significantly, I can feel my physical form returning with regards to violin. The cobwebs of a few weeks off are well and truly being swept away and my sense for the subtleties of both hands definitely seems to be returning. This has all been helpful with my progress on the Strauss. I got a chance to listen to the whole thing earlier this week and it is truly a magnificent piece (with some incredible string writing). In particular, there is a section a few figures after the solo ends which is particularly sublime in my opinion (and also included in my excerpts). Also upon further exploration, I've isolated my excerpts properly and (perhaps thankfully) a part of the solo isn't required for this audition. In some regards, it feels like a bit of a shame that I'm not required to learn the whole thing and I think it would feel like much more of an achievement, but hopefully it won't be the last time I have to tackle anything from this work!

The first half now feels fairly solid in terms of the fingerings and bowing and for the most part I don't have any trouble playing at tempo. (That said, counting the rests is still proving to be a bit perplexing). I've also listened around to a number of renditions of the solo in my bid to approach this more musically. The diversity of interpretations is really something, and everything from tempo to use of rubato differs between all the recordings I've listened to. Some are quite liberal in interpretation while others are much closer to what is written on the page. Since I am learning this completely from scratch and have no preconceived notions anyway, it has all proven to be very interesting and helpful.

Now that the first half is predominantly under the proverbial belt (of course there is still much polishing going on), I've spent a lot of the last week experimenting with tempo, tone colour and the varying directions the musical markings provide. For example, I've spent a great deal of time trying out different ways of playing the numerous 'calandos' that Strauss has marked. How much does one slow down or get quieter? Similarly, achieving a 'somewhat sentimental' sound has been and interesting challenge.

The latter part of the solo which descends into what I can only term madness via the means of manic triple stops has presented its own set of challenges. The obvious hurdles of tuning and tone production aside, one thing I've found particularly difficult is the use of rubato to make it technically achievable but also musically valid (and again the variations are fairly broad on YouTube). Needless to say, a lot of rhythm and slow practice is still going to be needed for this one.

On the whole, I think most things are beginning to settle down and all of it feels much more comfortable and familiar. I still feel however that I'm a while away from making many of the musical decisions I will need to make later on. I don't really mind yet. After all, musical interpretations are at the best of times, always in a state of flux and the more I become acquainted with this piece of music, the more possibilities there seem to be.

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The 'Ein Heldenleben' Journey: Part 1

January 8, 2015 19:56

This can also be read at my personal blog along with other posts on things such as travel here.

So with the New Year comes the end of my break from violin and a fresh set of repertoire to learn before the new semester commences. Among the competitions I'm angling for and the normal swathe of technical and repertoire requirements for the university year lies an audition for the position of concertmaster of the university orchestra. This was a position I was successful in attaining last year, though for the sake of my sanity as a second year student, they put me in the associate chair to be mentored by professionals.

In order to re-win the position this year however, the infamous violin solo from Strauss' Ein Heldenleben stands in my way. It's not the only excerpt on the list but it certainly the most daunting and unfamiliar to me! So in this short series I intend to document my preparation from start all the way to the audition in about one and a half months time.

Today marks the end of my first full violin practice week in a while now and I've more or less gotten straight back into it (around 4-5 hours a day). This has involved basic technical work, some Paganini and Dont caprices, some solo Bach, the Saint-Saens third violin concerto (of which I'll play the first movement for this audition) and these excerpts. I made a point to start with the easier excerpts first (some Beethoven, Brahms and Bach) to build a bit of confidence and to make sure they were achievable in the time frame with less attention (which I'm now satisfied they are). However, since then, most of my time spent on preparing these excerpts have been directed to the Ein Heldenleben solo.

Being completely unfamiliar with the piece and solo, my first priority was to listen to the solo a number of times. Thankfully, there are many clips on YouTube which highlight this solo (though I do intend to listen to the whole work at some stage). When I start a new piece, I usually try to sight-read at least a part of it through as best I can. I find it helps me get a feel for what kind of technical and musical challenges I am likely to face when tackling something new. Needless to say, I didn't get very far very fast

Before deconstructing the music and learning it properly I decided to translate any unfamiliar terms on the page (my German is fairly limited) and write them in so I'd be aware of them when I was learning the part. I also did a bit of reading up on the solo, and there is a fantastic blog post by Noah Bendix-Balgley (current Concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra) in which he talks about how he approached the solo for a recent concert tour.

Next came the arduous process of learning the notes, rhythms, bowing and fingerings. To say this solo is unstable rhythmically and tempi wise is a rather large understatement. Initially I spent a lot of time watching the solos for bowing and fingering ideas, as well as interpretive approaches (which of course influence bowing). This process is proving to be quite time consuming but a week later I'm fairly satisfied with what I've got for at least the first half of the solo.

What I've found most challenging thus far is definitely the multiple tempi, odd rhythms and of course the very virtuosic nature of the writing. Despite this, slowly but surely, things are beginning to come together and a week later, I am actually not that uncomfortable with the first half. I feel much more comfortable technically (though it still needs a vast amount of polish) and I am getting a better feel for the music. Whilst I'm satisfied with the progress, there still a lot of unlearned material and many other things that are not related to this audition to focus on.

By the end of next week, my aim is to have all the material to some extent learned. Not necessarily at tempo or continuously, but to have removed any sense of unfamiliarity from the music. With the part that's already learned, I'd ideally like to be able to maintain a solid tempo through it, and have cleaned up rhythm and intonation significantly. More importantly, I want to have switched my approach from a technical to musical one.

Whether or not I achieve that is yet to be seen (especially as life is getting busy again) but hopefully there will be good things to report next week!

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