Primrose International Viola Competition: Master class with Pierre-Henri Xuereb; and Semi-Finals Performances

June 11, 2014, 11:59 PM · What a treat it's been to listen to the high level of violists at the Primrose International Viola Competition this week at The Colburn School in Los Angeles. I'm used to listening to violinists, so I'm finding myself easing into a different frame of mind to absorb the lower, darker sound of viola. For example, on Tuesday, during the quarterfinals, I found myself listening to two (excellent) Bach Chaconnes, from our solo violin sonata in D minor. Of course, on the viola, it's a fifth lower, in G minor. When I heard the opening chords I thought, no, I just don't feel like anything so intense on this sunny June afternoon. But the music pulls me in every time. How can anyone not be moved by that piece?

On the viola, I think it pulled me lower. What a huge exertion, physically and emotionally. When it goes back to minor at the end, I nearly cry, every time. Of course, neither Bach's solo Sonatas and Partitas for violin nor the Suites for cello were written for viola. Which work better, then, on viola? It's probably too general of a question, but to me I find the Suites seem a little more facile in the hands of violists, as something shrunk down from cello rather than upsized (and made a little unwieldy) from violin.

Not that this was any problem for the excellent violists on hand -- all of them here were handling either Suites or Sonatas + Partitas just fine!

* * *

On Wednesday morning several viola master classes took place, with Jerzy Kosmala, Pierre-Henri Xuereb and Wing Ho. I attended the master class with Pierre-Henre Xuereb, a jury member for this competition who studied with William Primrose when he was 20 and who currently teaches at the Paris Conservatoire.


Xuereb first spoke about Bach, after the first student, Salwa, played the Prelude from Bach's solo Suite No. 4. In fact, he said he could probably do an entire lesson on the first nine notes of that movement:


Which notes, he asked, are the most important of these nine? Her answer was the first two, then the last one (the bass, which she had been playing quite long). She said she'd been thinking harmonically, and Xuereb had other ideas. He said that to think harmonically about Bach is to think with a Romantic attitude; in Bach the harmony is secondary and the counterpoint is more important.

Thus the important notes are every note that goes up; the highest notes. The high notes are louder -- it's a fairly simple concept, and "with this music you have to find simplicity," he said. One way to bring out those notes is with vibrato, which is actually just fine in Baroque music. "We play modern instruments, so there is no reason to empty the vibrato from our playing, just because we are playing Baroque music."

Pierre-Henri Xuereb and Salwa

When she played it with more emphasis on those counterpoint notes, "already I'm hearing more contour, like a painter," he said. "If the notes start to sound the same, then it's something that can be played by a computer."

That said, "trying to exaggerate the piano, forte, pianissimo -- it doesn't work in this music. It has to be full of contrast, but all very close to each other."

He asked her if she felt there should be a space between the first and second notes, and she admitted she was making that space for a technical reason, the string-crossing. "You should never think of the technical first, you should think of the musical first," he said. He suggested varying the amount of time one takes for playing the bass note.

He also suggested not being afraid to use open strings. "With this music, it's okay, enjoy it," he said. "It should resound by itself."

When it comes to tempo, he said that the tempo in the Prelude movement of a Bach suite can vary, unlike the other movements. "After this movement are dance movements, and dances need a consistent tempo," Xuereb said. "But a Prelude is more free."

He also talked about the bottom two notes of each group, that they create kind of a line, but to bring that out, one should not necessarily punch out two loud notes. In fact, you can sing those notes in piano, and it's quite effective. Consider the idea that Bach liked to compose bass for viola de gamba -- a soft-sounding instrument.

The next student was Sequoia, 16, who played "Cadenza" by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. It's rather edgy and modern piece, full of gesture and dissonance.

"There are many way to do it," Xuereb said, "it's important you find one way and convince people."

Eastern Europe, the backdrop for this piece, is not exactly California, he said, referring to the sunny city where this master class was taking place. In fact, it can be a rather scary place, where you don't know who you'll encounter on the street or if perhaps you'll be dragged to jail for no reason. "You have to feel this world, this world of not-so-relaxed," Xuereb said of Penderecki's music.

What musical ideas can bring out the scariness? Playing it piano, perhaps. Also, use more vibrato on the dissonant notes to bring them out, and less on the consonant ones. "Choose the note that sounds the most dissonant and horrible to your ear, and put vibrato on it. That gives an intensity to the dissonances."

Or, maybe be expressive with no vibrato, "maybe it's even more scary."

Pierre and Sequoia

Also, not all the notes need to decay, as is the practice in other kinds of music. When you stop the sound, it just stops, no diminuendo. "In modern music, we can stop with the scissors," just cut it off.

Xuereb also encouraged Sequoia to experiment with all kinds of fingerings, and in fact they took one passage and tried it many different ways: in first position, third, fourth, second, and even crossing strings to purposely play open strings. You don't have to adhere to one way or one set of fingerings. As long as the effect is convincing, you can use completely unconventional fingerings. If you choose amongst eight fingerings, "then it becomes your decision," and you'll be more likely to convince your audience.

"Many times, my students find fingerings, and I steal from them!" he said.

Something Xuereb said he learned from his studies with William Primrose was the idea of making string crossings with as little movement as possible. "Many people try to use the movement for articulation," he said, and the result is they make more motion when trying to play louder or bring out something. "But the articulation is not in the movement." Instead you can just use longer bows.

Next, a student named Olivia played the Adagio and Presto from Bach's solo Sonata No. 1 -- for violin we say it's in G; it would be in C for viola.

For the highly ornamented Adagio, "the only time you can make rubato is when the values stay the same," he said. In other words, when you are changing from eighths to 16ths and then 32nds, one has to stay in proportion. Taking time there only confuses the ear, but one can take time in, say, a group of eighths. Bach wrote everything out, and if you can stay true to the written rhythms, "then this music becomes really genius." For example, just think of rhythmic range of this one movement: from a group of 64th notes (played about as fast as you can play), and the last note of the piece, a whole note which lasts a very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very long time, if one counts it honestly.

As for the Presto, "I spent my life looking at the music thinking, what did he want?" Xuereb said. His conclusion? Bach wrote that it's in 3/8 -- but only because he had to write something. Forget that! It goes between being in three and being in two, and one should fully embrace three when it's three, and two when it's two.

In conclusion, "With Bach, we have to have a million ideas and look for more all the time!"

* * *

During the latter part of the day, four competitors played their semi-final round performances: 55-minute recitals for each of them. For this they had to play two movements of Bach; a full sonata; the first movement of the Kegelstatt Trio by Mozart, K. 498 (with clarinet and piano); a Primrose transcription; and a commissioned work by composer Christian Colberg, called Aldansa, a solo piece with a small string ensemble.

On Wednesday were performances by Kei Tojo, Born Lau, Cong Wu and Matthew Cohen. I was able to see only three of the four performances, unfortunately I was unable to attend the performance by Born Lau! Highlights from the others: Kei Tojo's sweet tone and excellent sense of timing; Cong Wu's attentiveness playing chamber music; and Matthew Cohen's dedication to fully bring to life the new composition by Colberg. There were many more great moments, and undoubtedly there will be more tomorrow when the other four finalists play. You can watch the video stream on the Primrose International Viola Competition page.

* * *

One last observation from this violinist, watching so much viola-playing today: about Bach. When I see a violinist play Bach, I'm observing someone play pieces that I've studied extensively and played for decades. But watching violists play Bach Suites was something different; I could see and hear much of it with the eyes and ears of an audience member, with no major preconceptions about fingerings, bowings, specific conventions, and in some cases, the notes! Here's what I realized: I just wanted to enjoy a beautiful sound and pure pitch, to understand the rhythm, and to hear which voice was which and where it was going. Sometimes we forget those simple things. I enjoyed hearing some of these pieces as a baby would and being pleased -- or confused -- in straightforward reaction to hearing music.


June 12, 2014 at 06:12 PM · Laurie has given a fine account of what sounds like a wonderful masterclass. I would like to address one statement that I believe to be inaccurate; that the Six Suites of Bach were not originally written for the viola. Bach wrote solos for the viola and viola d'amore, but none for the cello. He played the viola but not the cello. The Suites lie mostly in first position on the viola, playable without unnecessary changes of position. Not so with the cello. No better evidence can be offered than the excerpt shown from the 4th Suite. With the exception of a single note, it can be played on the viola entirely in 1st position. On the cello, there are almost constant shifts between notes. There are countless other examples, as well.

June 13, 2014 at 04:59 AM · Larry, that is fascinating! Tell us more!

June 13, 2014 at 09:56 AM · Briefly, Bach’s Suites may have been written for himself, and the first five were likely composed around 1720. Bach wrote similar collections only for instruments he himself played. He played the violin, viola, harpsichord and organ, but not the violoncello. Bach wrote the 6th Brandenburg Concerto (1721) for two violas, but no cello concerto. The 6th Suite, written after 1723, was for an unspecified "5-string instrument,” such as the viola d'amore, which was quite popular in the late 17th century. Bach used the Vd'A in his St. John Passion (1724), and he no doubt knew how to play it, also. Anna Magdalena's manuscript is a transcription for cello. What better time for violists to reclaim the Suites than during the Primrose International Viola Competition?

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