"Don't think for a minute that I think of your wretched violin, when I compose a melody."
Indiana University Violin Professor Jorja Fleezanis quoted those words from Beethoven at a master class on Tuesday, the first day of the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School. Of course, we have to think of our wretched violins and all kinds of things, but ultimately, it's all about giving voice to that melody.
That was a theme that kept reappearing as Jorja worked with five young artists from all over the United States, ranging in age from 11 to 20.
Emily, 14, started the first master class beautifully by playing the first movement of Prokofiev's Concerto No. 1 with great control and technique.
"This has to be one of the most singularly transporting pieces," Jorja said of the Prokofiev. She also pointed out that the words the composer wrote in the score are also quite unique. Instead of words we normally see in music, like "dolce," he gives us "sonando," a word that means dreamy or magical. The violinist Joseph Szigeti described this movement as a "fairy tale."
The piece begins with one long, unbroken line, and one way to make this more clear is to be aware that, in this case, the musical line is unrelated to the up-bows and down-bows we take to play it. Though singers are often jealous that we string players never have to take a breath when playing a phrase, we have our own issues: "The down-bow and the up-bow can become a major interrupter of the phrase," Jorja said. We have to create the phrase as if there are no up-bows or down-bows. It's very easy to kind of dip at the bow change, with the body, with the bow. But if one can keep the violin still and keep the vibrato alive at the bow change, it can help.
She had her sing that long line, being careful choosing the consonants or vowels that start each note, keeping it sustained, "like a rainbow, a huge arch."
She also talked about holding bow lightly so not to force the sound: "I'm hardly holding the bow -- it's like I'm holding a feather in my hand. Don't be afraid to keep it much more suspended."
"The thing about music is that you have to be committed every millisecond" -- the second your attention flags you lose your expression. "Don't think about the fact you are doing a performance, think about the fact that you are making this music right now. It's inside your belly."
The place where the bow contacts the string is really where music is born on the violin, and if you move around too much, you risk losing that connection. "Don't get willowy," she said.
The youngest player of the day came next: Elli, 11, who played both the Preludio from Bach's E-major Partita, and also Paganini Caprice No. 20.
Elli played with wonderful facility and technique -- she could play the Preludio so fast! But the question was, is that what she wanted?
When Jorja asked Elli how she felt about the beginning of the piece, she said that "it was supposed to be grand, but I think it was too fast for that." Part of the problem could have been the hall -- the bigger the hall, the more time you need to give to the notes.
"For the audience to understand it, it's important you are not shrinking it too much, so the curves and shapes in the music don't become too miniature," Jorja said.
Elli played the beginning again, in a slower tempo, but then when she hit the 16th notes, she took off running. Elli admitted it was a little on the fast side; Jorja characterized it as "instant Presto!"
"With our strengths, we have to be careful of what is going on, and that we are in command of ourselves," Jorja said. Playing fast -- impressive as it is -- might not be what the music needs.
Elli tried doing the 16th with more a of a broad detache, and that cured the problem: "Now it fits into one organic tempo," Jorja said.
Jorja also spoke a bit about the key of E major. "What would E major be like," she asked Elli, "if it walked up to you?" They decided that E major would have a rather powerful, strong, flashy and bright personality.
The E-string, "it's a bright miserable thing on our instruments," Jorja said, to much laughter. "You have to be careful -- it can become strident," she said. Don't push the E.
"Look at that light," she said to Elli, pointing at one of the stage lights. "If you look straight into it, you get to a point where it's too bright, and you don't what to look at it any more. That's E major. Remember that about E major."
Elli then played Paganini Caprice No. 20, after which Jorja said, "I'm really glad I came to New York -- I wish I could have played like that when I was 11!" Jorja mentioned that the pedal D is always too loud in this caprice, no matter who plays it. Just concentrate on the A and "just graze the D string," she said. In fact, "look at the A string with your eyeballs!"
Ji-Won, 20, played the second movement of the Mendelssohn Concerto, and with this lyrical movement, Jorja emphasized finding your own voice.
In fact, she asked Ji-Won to speak, to say, "I love Mendelssohn."
In all likelihood, Ji-Won was not expecting this. "I love Mendelssohn?" she said, in a small, high voice. Jorja insisted that she deepen the voice, say it from the gut: "I love Mendelssohn," and so she did.
"I listen to a lot of singing," Jorja said. "The act of singing repertoire is how learn to make a line really cantabile."
She asked Ji-Won to use her imagination to describe the feeling of this movement. What are the colors? What would be inside, if you tried to chew into it? What is the character?
They settled on playing it very simply, like a conversation with a dear old relative, maybe a grandmother. Go only at the speed of that conversation, and with a character that is intimate, sweet and loving.
In a complete change of pace, Robyn, of the New England Conservatory, lined up five music stands to take on Berio's "Sequenza VIII" for solo violin.
First of all, it was an experience in itself to hear this piece played live. Robyn explained beforehand that the piece had three parts: the first a conflict between the notes A and B; the second a frenzy in perpetual motion; and the third an eerie fantasia and return to the original A-B conflict.
I definitely heard the A-B conflict, but then my mind wandered quite a lot. To me, the very fast notes, played quietly and interrupted by chords in the middle section -- sounded like a fly buzzing around a drunk guy, who occasionally swats at it, to no avail. The fly keeps on, driving the man wild. He grows more annoyed and flails at it violently, but the fly lives on. It flies around the room, up to the ceiling.
After Robyn put on a (neat red, bling-y) mute, I could see that the fly had actually lapped up come of the man's beer, after the man had died from crazily attempting to kill the fly. The fly sings an operatic soliloquy until it barely has a voice. It continues to buzz a little, but it is now lying on the floor with its legs up -- twitching, twitching…dead.
I was glad when Jorja said that it's important that we experience music with which we are neither familiar or comfortable. "It's okay if we sit here and don't know what she's doing," Jorja said, "because she, as the performer, was completely in control."
Jorja thanked Robyn for the amount of commitment that it took to bring this piece to life. Indeed, I could peek at the music from where I was sitting, and wow! The manuscript itself was puzzling and dense, riddled with double stops, extremely high notes, very fast notes -- not for the faint of heart, to figure this out!
Jorja emphasized the fact that this piece is a solo endeavor, "this is Bach gone galactic," she said. Every nuance, every contrast, is the responsibility of the soloist alone, and one has to play on the edge of one's ability to bring it off.
Though it's a very physical piece, "don't think about just exerting yourself," Jorja said. "Think about how the energy of forte grows out of the energy of piano."
She described the music as an organism that flares out then creeps back in, like an underwater sea creature. She also advised that next time she played the piece, she line up the music in a way that it doesn't hide her from the audience. (Another idea: digital sheet music!)
Lastly we heard Angela, 16, play the third movement of the Sibelius Concerto, which was once characterized by Donald Tovey as a "Polonaise for a Polar Bear," as Jorja said. It is based on a theme from one of Sibelius's early string quartets.
"Think of it, not as a polar bear particularly, but as a peasant tune," Jorja said. She encouraged Angela to enjoy the music a bit more, "it's so much more enjoyable, to see you enjoying yourself," said said.
Jorja also talked about her own experience, taking Alexander Technique lessons from non-musicians. Since they did not play the violin themselves, they would question every physical thing she would do that didn't seem to make sense. It made her question how much of her playing was hindered by what we traditionally do, as violinists, with the body.
In the end, one needs to use one's center of gravity and feel secure. If you sway and move, you must still always attend to the physical details required to make the music. "Be careful about when you try to do something theatrical, just never lose control of what you're doing," she said.
At the end of the masterclass, Jorja reiterated the importance of finding one's voice, quite literally. Music resides in the center of our bodies; without the voice, we are attempting to make music with just our fingers and extremities.
She also read us a lovely poem called To Play Pianissimo by Lola Haskins:
Also, check back, I hope to have video up of Jorja working with Emily on singing the Prokofiev, in a few days, and I will embed it in this blog.
Good night from New York!
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