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Laurie Niles

2011 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at Juilliard: Master Class with Joseph Lin

June 8, 2011 at 9:28 PM

If Bach is a mystery, violinist Joseph Lin is a brilliant sleuth.

Sometimes Bach seems like minefield, with so many chances for a mis-step, so many rules and so much analysis required. But when Lin talks about Bach, the analysis seems more like revelation and the choices like opportunities for expression.

Lin, the new first violinist for the Juilliard String Quartet, also was Assistant Professor at Cornell University, where he led a project to study the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin and create new music inspired by Bach. He was a founding member of the Formosa Quartet, has won numerous awards and competitions and also has recorded solo works by Bach and Ysaye.

"There are so many ways to play Bach -- Bach gives us the greatest degree of freedom and choice of all the repertoire," Lin said in a masterclass he gave last Thursday at the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at Juilliard.

Brandon Garbot took the stage first, playing the third and fourth movements from Bach's Sonata No. 1 in G with buoyancy and inventiveness.


Joseph Lin demonstrates for Brandon Garbot. Photo by Nan Melville for The Juilliard School.

Lin said that he used to approach Bach in a very "Glenn-Gould" way, with meticulous preparation. "Bach was so carefully crafted, I wanted an equally well-prepared approach to performance," Lin said. "But I gradually moved away from that."

Instead, he now allows for more spontaneity. Practicing in a way that is contrary to the usual concepts allows us to see possibilities. Try playing fast music slow, or loud music soft, and a bigger picture can emerge. For example, playing the third-movement Siciliana faster allows its more noble quality to emerge, and it gives us a view of the bigger picture. Then one can bring those qualities back to the slower tempo, if one chooses.

"We all love playing Bach in the church, where we can really hear those harmonies ring," Lin said. It's important for the music of Bach to have that resonant quality.

Bach's original manuscript (which can be found in the back of the Galamian edition of the Sonatas and Partitas) does not call for hooked bowing in the Siciliana, though many editors add them. Why not try Bach's original bowing? He was a violinist, after all. A hooked bow forces a stop in the bow, so that two notes can be played with the bow going in the same direction, Lin said. Instead of stopping the bow, creating an articulation, just let it stop by releasing pressure, he said. If the notes are played with separated bows, "it gives more impetus to the 16th notes."

Furthermore, one can ask, "What is the intention of a 16th-note, instead of an 8th note?" Lin said. The 16ths, being faster, could be seen as an energizing, motivating element, he said. "To me, the 16ths could propel us."

Also, the open strings in Bach are part of that church-y resonance.

"You can enjoy the open strings in Bach more," Lin said. "And the baseline can be a little more resonant than the notes above. Try to massage your open strings so that they ring as long as possible."

Lin encouraged Brandon to look at the Presto in the G minor Sonata from more of a distance. "It could have been faster, a little more wild," Lin said. "It's basically just G minor, elaborated, just think of the resonance of G minor. " Lin said he prefers to stay in the lower positions (m. 12) which makes for more string crossings but produces more tone, more color changes.


Joseph Lin, left, and Marié Rossano. Photo by Nan Melville for The Juilliard School.

For a break from the Bach, Marié Rossano played the first movement from Prokofiev's Concerto No. 2 in G minor, very well-prepared, with lovely loose vibrato and accuracy in the highest registers.

"The way he goes from key to key is very peculiar," Lin observed of Prokofiev's compositional style. The piece is about chromatic modulation, Lin said, so don't let any notes fade into the background. "Find the sound that on one hand projects, but also draws us in," Lin said.

Back to Bach, Ji-Eun Anne Lee played the first movement "Grave" from Bach's Sonata No. 2 in A. (Ladies and gentlemen, please get out your scores for the Bach Sonatas and Partitas…)

Lin said that his favorite moment in Ji-Eun's Bach was at m. 17, a run that she played as a headlong rush up to a D. "You had the sweep of that," Lin said. "That kind of sweep is something we can use more often in this music."

He said that the drama is in the interesting chord progressions. For example, at the very beginning of the "Grave," the bassline descends: A-G-F-E-D. It's easy to miss this, though, because the "F" jumps up an octave.

Sometimes, Bach will write something that seems impossible, as in m. 14, a group of 32nd notes that starts with a "C" on the G string then crosses all the way up to the Eing for a Bb. Can you really negotiate a threeing jump in a 32nd-note's time?

"You're not going to be able to play all those notes in time, but that's the point," Lin said. Bach knew what he was doing. The first note gets baseline emphasis; then the rest of the notes are a melisma, a run that pours downward like a waterfall.

The second movement in this Sonata is a fugue, and Justine Lamb-Budge played it with excellent attention to voicing and good direction. It's a very long and repetitive piece and she nailed it by memory.

"Bach's fugues are some of the most difficult and intimidating works to learn, not to mention to perform," Lin said. (Let me add: particularly THIS one!)

He suggested experimenting with playing the fugue at a faster tempo, "see what that does to your sound and to your conception of the piece," Lin said. Again, he asked for a more open, resonant sound. "We really want to hear those polyphonic voices ringing with each other," he said.

Lin gave her (and us) some ideas for this fugue, and I'm going to give them to you, with measure numbers. I actually just wrote it all into my part -- it's great stuff for the Bach wonk in us all:

In m. 30 he suggested using Bach's bowing, which puts every other subject in reverse, bow-wise, but thereby gives it a question-answer feel. At the wickedly finger-twisting m. 40, he wanted more time on the bottom notes (in some cases these chords are broken downward, he did not suggest doing that). After taking time for the finger-twisting, he said that the "rubber band can release" in m. 45; it can move forward in this section that is really just figuration and not harmonically that significant. At m. 60, "just tumble into it," some double-stop barriolage. The progression at m. 103 should start soft then build -- all the way to m. 112.

Here's the really cool part: first look at the first nine notes to see the fugue subject. The fugue subject reverses itself at m. 125, but before it does so, it states itself in shortened form (just the first three notes), right-side-up, some dozen times in the preceding measures, m. 112-124. I went in an circled every three-note pattern, and these can be emphasized throughout this passage. (One version of the S and P's that I have, the Schott, already had lines over a number of these).

Later, we have a long descent, note-wise and dynamic-wise, from m. m. 232 to m. 239, where, at the very low point, the fugue subject once again gets inverted.

My brain was pretty full by the time Francisco Garcia-Fullana took the stage to play the first movement from Brahms' Sonata No. 2, which he did with fullness and attentiveness to the piano part. I could only think of what a privilege it was to be in New York, listening to these extremely talented young people playing gorgeous music, and to see the gracious way that Lin was offering them his thoughtful advice.

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