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Laurie Niles

2009 Starling-Delay, day two: Masterclass by Joel Smirnoff

May 28, 2009 at 5:00 AM

NEW YORK - Today we bring you, from the 2009 Starling-Delay Symposium on Violin Studies at Juilliard, a masterclass by Joel Smirnoff, President of the Cleveland Institute of Music and longtime first violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet.

Smirnoff watched each student from the audience, then sat onstage to work with them, offering performance advice as well as his thoughts and experiences about the pieces at hand.

First on the program was 16-year-old Marie-Christine Klettner, who wowed us yesterday with the first movement of the Paganini concerto. Today she played the first movement of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 4. And, she wowed us again: her Mozart was clean, clear, stylistic, and on top of that, interesting.

"You have a wonderful voice on the violin," Smirnoff told her. Mozart was a true child of the enlightenment, he said, and Mozart's music came at a time of great change and new thought.

Smirnoff worked with her on the beginning of the piece, with its little descending pattern, which is simple the first time and then in 16th notes the second time, a little variation.

"You have to approach it like you came up with that (variation), and you are excited about it," he said. Sometimes it's best simply to surprise the audience. "You don't want to constantly prepare the listener for what's happening next."

Smirnoff also discussed trills, which are "the equivalent of a pirouette in dance," he said, like a spin. "Trills are energizers."

When Su Hyan Park, 17, of the Juilliard Pre-College Division played several movements from Bach's D minor Partita, Smirnoff recalled an instance when he'd been nervous about playing Bach, and a colleague assured him, "You have no reason to be nervous; no one will like it anyway!" Sad but true: for violinists, the Bach Sonatas and Partitas are some of our most beloved works, close to our hearts. Some would say straight from God. Yet we never trust each other – or ourselves – to do them justice!

Still, we love to play them and hear them. In working with Su Hyan on the Sarabanda, Smirnoff pointed out that this movement has the germ of the great Chaconne in it – the Chaconne being the last movement in the D minor Partita and perhaps the most sacred of all Bach for us fiddlers.

He suggested that she watch out for the unconscious use of portamento in the Sarabanda. "Portamento should be a clear decision, but it should not be a habit," he said. Learning to play a pure legato allows for a slightly more passive stroke, so that the music appears to be happening to the performer. This is appropriate for this particular piece.

"These pieces are spiritual pieces," Smirnoff said. "The Chaconne should sound as though the Chaconne is happening to the player, not as though the player is giving you the Chaconne." When the music is happening to the performer, it's more moving for the audience.

He also talked about playing the Sarabanda a little less smooth and connected. "It's important, even in Bach, that there are breaths," Smirnoff said. "Try this: look at a piece of music, and find out: how long can you sing it without a breath?" At that point, put in a breath, just like a singer would.

Singing also informs us how to play the Giga, with its running notes. When they go high, we get louder, when they go low, we get softer. Why? Because in singing, one must push harder to sing high.

Marie Rossano, 15, played a most amazing cadenza and last movement from the Shostakovich Violin Concerto. She had poise, pacing, gnarly chords, speed, accuracy. I really enjoyed it. Smirnoff advised her to refer to David Oistrakh's recording of the piece as a guide, since the music was written by the great Soviet composer for the great Soviet violinist.

Stephen Kim, 13, of San Francisco played most of the first movement of the Tchaikovsky concerto in a lovely lyrical way, and Smirnoff gave him advise for his fast passages: "You want it to sound fast to the audience, but not feel fast to you," he said. "The notes were so fast, I couldn't here them. We want to hear it all. Make sure you are thinking about what the audience can actually hear."

Though Kim's intonation was quite good, Smirnoff also said that in an audition or competition, when it's down to the final few contestants, intonation is the deciding factor. "At the world-class level, the person who plays the most in tune will win," he said. "At the very end of a competition, it's back to basics."

I think my favorite point that Smirnoff made came with the next performance, after a thoughtful and well-executed performance of Bach's Allemanda, Double and Corrente, Double, by Stefani Collins of Greensboro, North Carolina.

How exactly should one play those "doubles"?

"It's as though Bach is reflecting on what he just wrote," Smirnoff said of the Double for the Allemanda. The Double can be more contemplative – so less is more. "Make the mountains a little lower." In the Double, it's no longer a dance, no longer an Allemande, but now a reflection of what was just played. As such, "you can play freer, but with this quality: sometimes you dwell on it, and sometimes you throw it away." Collins took this idea and transformed the Double.

Byol Kang of Germany played a beautiful, expressive last movement of the Brahms A major Sonata, and my favorite comment from Smirnoff about Brahms was that "I really kind of disapprove of Brahms and his philosophical pessimism – he poses problems and never solves them," Smirnoff said. For example, in the middle of the second page, the music builds in tension and turbulence, then Brahms just shakes it off with a cute little triplet figure toward the bottom of the page, no further explanation or exploration. He does similarly frustrating things at the end of the D minor Violin Sonata, the Clarinet quintet and the Fourth Symphony. "He asks these very portentous questions then just says, ehh," he said, flipping his hand.

From Bill Busen
Posted on May 28, 2009 at 5:13 AM

I heard a high-school senior play the Passacaglia, Cadenza, and Burlesque a few weeks ago who told me her inspiration was Kogan, rather than Oistrakh.  There were suppressed sniffles around me in the audience, so I guess I gotta go with Kogan. (She really was influenced by that stunning performance.)

From Ray Randall
Posted on May 28, 2009 at 3:06 PM

Interesting insights.

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