2009 Starling-Delay, day three: Masterclass with Itzhak Perlman

May 28, 2009, 9:52 PM ·

NEW YORK - Superstar violinist Itzhak Perlman had some fun with six of his violin students and answered questions Thursday at the 2009 Starling DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School.

Perlman, with characteristic humor, admitted he was slightly resistant of the masterclass format. "I find that I'd rather listen to someone privately, then we can really work," Perlman said. "Only a small part of it is actually beneficial to the victim – I mean the student."

So instead, Perlman promised a "Musical Buffet Picnic."

Itzhak Perlman
Itzhak Perlman, with students Michelle Ross, IhnSeon Park, Ania Filochowska, Seung Jung Oh, Aretta Zhulla, Nicole Leon
©Photo: Nan Melville / The Juilliard School

"Not every person likes the same thing on their hamburger – or on their Tchaikovsky Concerto," he said. "This is not about what is right, or 'fixing it,' this is about having choices."

"We have so much control of what we do when we play, sometimes I think we don't exercise enough of it," Perlman said. "You have a palette of colors and there's 12 of them, you only use two."

Perlman's students sat in chairs on the stage, and he engaged them, as well as the current "victim" and the audience, in coming up with different ways to spice up the various pieces they played.

First on the menu was Kreisler's Leibesleid, played by Ania Filochowska. After she played, Perlman asked for suggestions about other ways she could try playing it. Audience members shouted out suggestions: Elegant. Intense. Extremely romantic. They decided on "intense," speeding up the vibrato and bow.

"If you are lucky enough to play a piece more than one time, try something to make it more spontaneous," Perlman said. Next, she tried playing it "very romantic."

"I want cheesecake. With whipped cream!" Perlman said. She added slides and much vibrato. "That's what I want," he nodded his head affirmatively, pretending to eat cheesecake.

IhnSeon Park played part of the first movement of the C minor Beethoven Sonata with nice precision and intensity, good articulation and contrast. Afterwards he gave her a choice of trying it elegant, non-chalant or organic. They went for "elegant," with narrowing the vibrato and going for clean strokes at the tip.

Nicole Leon was given the challenge of making the first movement of the Beethoven Violin Concerto sound "old and tired."

"Well, I guess I should play it!" joked Perlman. "I'm not sure I like that flavor, but let's try it."

She tried a wide vibrato, slower tempo and heavy bow. Then, Perlman asked her to try it "angry," and pianist Evan Solomon, who accompanied for the masterclass, gave her a slightly stompy introduction to set the mood. She tried shorter strokes, rougher bow, fast attacks. Was it angry? In a way, it doesn't matter, the point is that "every time Nicole does something different with the bow, the character changes." Developing that diversity of options is what is important.

Perlman decided that student Seung Jung Oh should try playing the Brahms D minor Sonata, first movement, "expansive – like Brahms," he said, holding his hands out, as though encircling a large belly. "You know, they say that he wrote everything in the soprano and the bass," he said, pretending to play the extreme ends of an imaginary keyboard, "because his stomach was in the way!"

For expansive, don't rush, enjoy it. "Think of Misha Elman, his vibrato was 10 miles an hour," Perlman said.

When Aretta Zhulla was aiming for an "intense" Brahms Violin Concerto, Perlman said, "Forget it's Brahms, just think it's one of those storms. Vibrato every note, until everyone in here gets kind of uncomfortable. Just as an experiment. The deal is not to become a prisoner of a certain interpretation, that's what we try to avoid."

When Perlman had worked with each student, he opened the floor for questions from the symposium participants.

One person asked him to recount his favorite story about Josef Gingold, who had been his first chamber music teacher. He described how Gingold said he learned up-bow staccato from Ysaye; imitating in Gingold's accent, "Ysaye told me to put the bow on the string, then he said 'GO!' and I was so frightened I never lost it."

He also described the different between studying with Ivan Galamian and Dorothy DeLay.

With Galamian, "he told you what to do, and if you did it, you were fine," Perlman said. With Dorothy DeLay, "she wanted to involve me in the process – and I really hated it! Just tell me what to do, and I'll do it!" But in the end, DeLay's way worked well for him. "That's how I teach."

But there are limits. Even with intonation, DeLay wouldn't commit to a viewpoint, "she'd say, 'Sugar Plum, what is your concept of G sharp?" Perlman said. "With intonation, I'm still in the Galamian camp, it's either in tune or out of tune."

Another person asked about warming up before playing, and though he didn't have a specific warm-up regimen to recommend, "the important thing to me is, don't play with pain," he said. "If you have pain, something is too intense. Watch the shoulders, they have a weird way of rising. Some people say, no pain, no gain. With us, it's no pain, gain."

And what is his favorite piece of violin music? "The one I'm playing at the moment – I don't play anything I don't like."

When it comes to students, he said that it's more important to choose repertoire that fits their level of playing than to have them playing something showy. "The ability of the student to play it really well is more important than saying, 'I played the Brahms or Sibelius concerto,'" he said.

On performance nerves: "You will get nervous," Perlman said. "Nerves come on sometimes without any notice. The important thing is to know your enemy, know what happens to you. The more you play under tension, the better."

He also said that a serious violinist should have most of the major violin concertos in hand by the age of 19; for example, the Mozart, Mendelssohn, Wieniawski, Lalo, Bruch, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and Brahms. "If someone asks you to do something, it should not take a year of study to do it." It's important, in studying these works, to "decide on bowings and fingerings, and not change them."

"When a student starts a piece, please make sure they do all the movements," he said. "Don't let it go."


May 29, 2009 at 03:54 AM ·

_all_ the major concertos by 19?


May 29, 2009 at 05:15 AM ·

I like Perlman's philosophy that there is not one correct way of playing a piece.  It must have been fun listening to all the variations by different musicians.

Thanks, Laurie, for bring us daily reports on the Symposium.  They're all so interesting.  Reading them is wonderful for people who can't attend.


May 29, 2009 at 09:47 AM ·

Yes, that's what he said, all by 19. Maybe that's what he had! A number of people squawked about that, we don't exactly all get that kind of repertoire under the belt by then, but perhaps the serious soloist does.

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