Tai Murray calls Eugène Ysaÿe's Six Sonatas for Solo violin "an opus of love and expression" -- written from the composer's love for Bach, for his friends, and for the violin itself.
Certainly her own new recording of these works -- released this spring by Harmonia Mundi -- reflects the same deep dedication. She plays them with the ease of someone who has lived with these pieces for a long time, and indeed she has, since her student days in Indiana.
Tai Murray, 30, has an impressive list of achievements: She received an Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2004 and was BBC New Generation Artist from 2008 through 2010. A recent recipient of the Sphinx Medal of Excellence, she was first-place Laureate of the inaugural Sphinx Competition in 1998. She has performed with artists including Marin Alsop, Richard Goode, Alan Gilbert, Kristian Järvi, Jaime Laredo, Dmitry Sitkovetsky, Benjamin Shwartz, and Mitsuko Uchida; and with orchestras all over the world, including the Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Baltimore Symphony Orchestras; BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Philharmonic London; BBC Scottish Symphony and more. She is a graduate of both Indiana University and the Juilliard School.
Tai, who lives in Berlin, spoke to me from New York about her family's role in starting her career, about Indiana University's connection with Eugène Ysaÿe; and about her involvement in the East Coast Chamber Orchestra.
"As far back as I can remember, the violin was a huge interest," Tai said. As a small child in Chicago, she would watch violinists on the television for long periods of time. When her family realized that the violin was not just a passing interest, they set her up with lessons, around the time of her fifth birthday.
"I started with Suzuki, and so I had the Cracker Jack box first," she said. Her Suzuki teacher, Brenda Wurman, died from a heart attack just three months after she started, and so she went to an all-traditional method. "But I had, by that time, gotten a very large dose of what Suzuki was all about."
Tai was one of six children, growing up with a single mom, and her family's support was crucial in her development as a musician.
"They encouraged my idealism, while making it very clear that it's going to take hard work," Tai said. They told her that being a musician isn't just a magical wish, "it really does take the dedication; it really does take the responsibility."
At the same time, they were willing to take a chance on Tai, to devote what limited resources they had to her musical studies, whatever the outcome. "There was no pressure -- my mother, my grandmother, they told me repeatedly, if this is not what you want to do, that's fine. We will move on, and there will be no guilt, there will be no 'you made us go through all this.'"
"The fact that they were willing to just throw the worries to the wind, in some ways, made it more inspiring for me," Tai said.
One example of her family's support came in the way that they handled one of her first big performances: when she played a Mozart concerto with the Chicago Symphony, at age nine.
"In retrospect, I know that was a huge deal, but at the time, there was no pressure," Tai said. They simply told her that she was going to get dressed up and play. "I was out there on my box, playing, and then when I finished, and I went back to the dressing room and played Legos with my brother. It was all on an even keel -- there was never any (fear) about it. So I never developed any neuroses about playing."
What's more, her mother didn't push for her to be a child prodigy. "Throughout my young life I was playing concerts, but it was never a full-blown career," Tai said. "My mother was adamant, 'You're not going to be a child star. That's not the goal, here.' That allowed me to develop a base. The focus was on the learning, and on finding out about music -- not about the moment of performance. I appreciated that."
Tai moved Bloomington, Indiana, when she was eight, during the early 1990s, and "Indiana University was, especially at that time, such a hotbed of musical knowledge. So many people were there -- (piano professor) Leonard Hokanson; Josef Gingold….It was a concentrated formula."
Tai originally studied with Mimi Zweig; then when Zweig went on sabbatical, Tai started with Yuval Yaron, who was to become her main teacher at Indiana.
"It was incredible to study with him, and to study with him as a young child," Tai said. Yaron has a reputation for being tough, but Tai found him to be the right match. "It was incredible to hear him play every week, because he was a demonstrator. He also was a responsible teacher -- he took it very seriously that he had someone young, someone that he knew he was making a really big impact on, in a way that wasn't the same as with some of his older students. We got very close."
"I studied with him for a long time, about six years," Tai said. "When Mr. Gingold passed away, in January of 1995, (Yaron) was with him when he died. He came to our house afterwards. (Gingold) was his surrogate father, and Mr. Yaron was heartbroken. I remember him saying to me, in that moment, 'Keep practicing, keep working.' In his devastation, he was also using that moment to inspire me. I felt that was a really big tell about what kind of person he was. I felt touched that he would consider me any part of it. "
Tai said that another wonderful thing about Indiana University was having that direct link to Eugène Ysaÿe, through Josef Gingold, who studied with Ysaÿe in Belgium. Gingold taught at Indiana for 30 years, teaching such prodigies as Joshua Bell and Jaime Laredo. Gingold's influence was profound, as many of Gingold's proteges taught at Indiana as well, and the musical family line not only went straight back to Ysaÿe, as Gingold's teacher, but it also went straight back to Henryk Wieniawski and Henri Vieuxtemps, who were Ysaÿe's teachers. Playing anything by those composer/violinists/teachers called up a certain mystique, history, and stories.
One of Gingold's stories was about the premiere of Ysaÿe's Sonata No. 3, the "Ballade." Though Ysaÿe had dedicated the work to George Enesco (1881-1955), the young Gingold gave its premiere -- in front of both Ysaÿe and Enesco. Gingold was backstage, warming up for the concert, and "he was so nervous, he had a brain freeze -- he couldn't remember how it started!" Tai said. "So he walked out to Ysaÿe and said, 'Maestro, I'm really sorry, I really did practice, but I can't remember how it starts!' And Ysaÿe said, 'Well it goes like…oh, I can't remember either!'
Of course, Gingold remembered the piece, gave its world premiere, and the rest is history. "But he loved telling that story, I think I heard it three or four times!" Tai said.
Another one of Tai's teachers, Indiana University violin professor Franco Gulli, also had a personal relationship with Ysaÿe and told some great stories. "He'd talk to me about how Ysaÿe and Kreisler were having this argument about how the the ending of the second movement of his sonata (No. 4) should go, Tai said. (Ysaÿe dedicated the fourth of the Six Sonatas to Kreisler.) "In the score it's written a D, pizzicato. Ysaÿe said, I should probably resolve it, even though this Passacaglia has been going through it the whole time, but Kreisler said, well, no, because it goes into the last movement…basically, they were arguing about something Ysaÿe had written. Little things like that inform how I approach the music. There's so much history, it's amazing."
For those who has never seen the music for the Six Sonatas by Ysaÿe, it includes some unique notation. An appendix at the front of the book explains nearly 30 made-up symbols that Ysaÿe uses to communicate various techniques in these works.
"It's so exact," Tai said of the Six Sonatas. "Just looking at the score, it seems like there's so much there. Where do you start? He was so specific about the markings and the fingerings….All of that can get so technical, but that's not what it's about. It's really just about the intent. It becomes a lot more simple if you think: there's a line here, or he's trying to say something here."
"The Sonatas are an homage to Bach. He loved Bach," Tai said. As Bach wrote six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, Ysaÿe wrote six Sonatas for solo violin. He even quotes Bach in a few, such as "Obsession" movement in the second Sonata.
"They're also written for his friends, people he looked up to," Tai said. Ysaÿe dedicated each Sonata to a specific violinist: Joseph Szigeti, Jacques Thibaud, Georges Enesco, Fritz Kreisler, Mathieu Crickboom and Manuel Quiroga. "They were incredible musicians in their own rights -- they all had personalities," Tai said. Knowing something about those musical personalities helps one know how to approach the Sonata.
"Then on top of all this, by the time he was writing these, he couldn't really play any more," Tai said. Ysaÿe had a host of medical problems, including severe diabetes. "Somehow he was able create all this incredible violin writing, and he couldn't necessarily do it. To me, it really shows someone who was not made bitter by his situation, but who was actually grateful that he was able to experience any of it at all. Going by all the stories that I've heard, he was a really gregarious person, really nice, always making jokes, a jolly individual. And of course, not all the moments in the sonatas are jolly. I would say it probably runs the gamut of emotions."
"The two underlying feelings that I get from these Sonatas are joy and love: Love for his instrument, love for Bach, and love for his friends," Tai said. "So it is an opus of love and expression."
Tai recorded the Sonatas on a Giovanni Tononi violin, which has been on loan to her for the last two years.
"I love it; it's an incredible violin," Tai said. "I tend to give my instruments nicknames -- the owner calls this violin 'Tony,' but I call it 'Spitfire' because it has this crackle underneath the sound, which I love."
"Spitfire" also describes its personality: "It can spit at me! Like it's saying, 'I didn't like how you approached me so I'm going to make an awful sound.' It does do that!" (she laughs)
"It's actually a very small model; it's Amati-size. And it's so old -- circa 1690! It's been through so many different set-ups, I'm sure, from the Baroque to now. Looking at it, it's hard to imagine that so much sound could come out of it. But more importantly than that, it has so many colors. It's a very expressive instrument. For me, it's physically easy to hold.
Her other violin was made by the living maker Mario Miralles of Altadena, Calif. "I've nicknamed that violin 'Honey,' because it'a a very sweet-sounding instrument. It's a very smooth instrument, and I love it. I've had since 2007, and it's a great instrument."
Tai also plays in the East Coast Chamber Orchestra (ECCO), a conductor-less ensemble based in New York, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary.
Check them out, "Allegro con spiritu" if I've ever seen it:
"Everyone kind of met separately, at festivals, or at school, or just wherever, as young musicians," Tai said. "It was the brainchild of Nick Kendall. He just thought, 'Let's meet three times a year, make music and then disband so we miss each other a whole lot.' It's so much fun. Every individual is so accomplished, so talented -- everyone is a musician's musician. So the idea that we are able to pool our resources at these specific moments in time, it's a very inspiring for me."
They also stand to perform.
"No one actually said, 'We're going to stand,' we just did!" Tai said. "It probably makes it easier for us -- because we do not have a conductor. I've noticed that, for example, someone might jiggle in the viola section, and we'll realize, 'Oh, we're getting a little slow.' There's that sort of communication, and standing makes it easier.
Here is Tai Murray, performing Ysaÿe's Sonata No. 5 ("L'Aurore" and "Danse Rustique," dedicated to Mathieu Crickboom) at Settlement Music School's Distinguished Alumni Recital in November 2010:
Here also is an interview associated with her new recording in which she talks about the Tononi violin she plays, and then she performs Sonata No. 4 (dedicated to Fritz Kreisler):
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