As part of the Sphinx Competition last week in Detroit, participants had the opportunity to take masterclasses with members of the jury. On Saturday, two violists and a violinists played for violist Michael Tree, who is a professor at The Juilliard School and Curtis Institute and founding member of the Guarneri Quartet.
Sphinx jury members Pamela Frank and Michael Tree
He spoke of the importance of being able to control one's vibrato.
"The test of a successful vibrato is that there are not gaps in the middle of notes," Tree said. "It should be even, from note to note, unless we decide otherwise." Discomfort, inconvenience or the presence of shift are not excuses to stop vibrating. "Senza," or no vibrato, can be a nice effect for a moody, distant quality, but it should be intentional. "If one fourth finger has no vibrato, suddenly, for no reason, that's hard to rationalize."
While vibrato should not be overdone in something like Bach, "I'd ask for a single drop of oil on each note."
Also, some words of wisdom on glissandi:
"Nothing is more beautiful than a glissando in the right place, at the right time, but if we surround that glissando with a lot of shifts -- which we will call transportation -- it gets predictable, and even boring," Tree said. In other words, if every shift has a slide, then none of the slides will be effective or special as used for musical expression.
He also advocated fingerings that use extensions, contractions and crawling up and down the fingerboard, to avoid overly-frequent and disruptive shifting. He demonstrated a four-octave arpeggio, on the viola, with not one shift.
"When you multiply a situation like this 100 or more times, it's a cleaner way of playing," he said. "These fingerings almost never appear in print -- they look odd on paper."
But he said "be very skeptical of what you see printed." Many times, printed fingerings are a reflection of 19th-century ways of playing -- they are old-fashioned.
In working on the Walton viola concerto with Michael, 19, of Philadelphia, he emphasized that "our responsibility as players is to present our listeners with a clear idea of the music -- where the bar line is," Tree said. Our own familiarity with the music can get in the way. "The poor listener is often left with no particular grasp of the structure or the bar lines. The listener deserves to know where the strong beats are. You can't be too cavalier about rhythm."
He showed Michael a substitution fingering for an octave passage, crawling down the fingerboard and using substitutions and extensions.
"Wow," said Michael.
"I'm getting away with murder, getting from here to her without a shift," Tree said. "I think there's something almost immoral about what I'm doing! But there is no point in working harder than we have to. I listen to maybe 50 Walton concertos a year -- I can say I seldom find fingerings I would consider modern."Tweet
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