Master class with Paul Kantor

June 7, 2017, 12:36 PM · If you're going to be brutally honest, it helps to also be exceedingly kind and polite about it - and to offer concrete solutions.

Rice University violin professor Paul Kantor offered all of that and more at the fifth and final master class at the 2017 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School.

Communicating carefully with each student, he acknowledged each person's efforts and strengths while also offering strongly worded suggestions for each.

First to perform was Haeun Moon, who played Waxman's "Carman Fantasie" with energy and a nice variety of articulations. She took off at an extremely fast pace near the end of the piece, a thrilling but slightly dangerous-feeling ride through tricky terrain.

Kantor praised her phenomenal preparation, stage personality and poise. Then he asked, "Of the fast notes in this piece, how many do you want us to hear?"

"All of them," she answered.

Kantor said that, though it was clear that she was playing all the notes with her left hand, "I'm not hearing all the notes." Technical brilliance and virtuosity "lives in the right hand," Kantor said. "If you want a sense of crackling virtuosity and brilliance, make sure every note that you place with the left hand is connected with the right hand," he said. That is, the fingers placed on the violin must connect with the movement of the bow.

Of course, it's not exactly simple. The bow is a complicated animal -- heavy at the frog, light at the tip. The stick is fat in the middle and slender at the tip; the bow hair is spread thinner at either end and bunched thicker in the middle.

For string players, it's a constant quest for the right part of the bow for any given note. "Not every stroke works in every part of the bow," Kantor said.

At a certain point Haeun stopped to re-tune her violin, trying to do it as quickly and unobtrusively as possible. Kantor made it clear that she did not need to rush this. "We have all kinds of time," he said, "you tune to your heart's content."

At one point in the cadenza, Kantor wanted her to shape the line more, as he was not hearing the phrase. "It sounds beautiful, but it doesn't go anywhere," Kantor said. "It was a shape that was missing for me."

"Which is the hottest note in this phrase?" he asked.

Paul Cantor and Haeun Moon

It was a B-flat.

"B-flat is the hottest note, but you're going to do it up-bow, at the tip? Am I understanding?" Kantor said. "Make the high point bigger than all the other notes," he said. The bowing wasn't helping her achieve that, so it needed changing. "Start with what you want, and then bring it to fruition."

She changed things around and created a more obvious phrase. "I understand now," Kantor said. "Now filter that through your own good taste."

Kantor took that approach a number of times: once a student achieved something that he suggested, he asked them to make it their own, to put their own filter on it.

"This is wonderful, I do hear all the notes!"

He continued to encourage more phrasing, because "if it's a series of beautiful notes, that is not as effective to the listener as a beautiful phrase," he said.

Another way to find the phrase: sing it. "Play the music the way you would sing the music," he said. "Your singing of it will be your least expensive and finest teacher."

Elena Kawazu played two violin solo works: Paganini Caprice No. 11 and the third movement "Andante" from Bach's Sonata No. 2 in A minor.

Kantor praised her excellence and ease, and he started the conversation with Bach. Looking at the bigger picture, he asked her, what is the shape and idea of all four movements of Sonata No. 2?

They agreed that the last movement is the most active, with its faster tempo. "It's kind of the most virtuosic," Kantor said, "he wanted to end with a bang."

The first movement is heavier and more grave ("Grave"). He asked her about the relationship between the first and second movement (perhaps he was hinting at the fact that the beginning of the Fuga harmonically resolves the first movement, which leaves us dangling.) Elena noted that the Fuga is more active and strict.

And then they talked about the movement she'd played, the third-movement "Andante." Elena described it as "meditative." Kantor asked, how do you want the audience to feel? "Relaxed."

He encouraged her to try it again, with this idea of being "meditative." The movement has pulsing eighth notes throughout most of it, in her original performance that heartbeat had been a little irregular. This time she played them more evenly.

"That felt more meditative," he said, but he still wanted more presence and rhythmic evenness in the moving notes, the 16th notes.

"Could you cherish all the 16ths?" he asked. When she focused on that, he said that it achieved a greater sense of serenity.

He asked her, "You tend to play with less vibrato. Why?"

Paul Cantor and Elena Kawazu

Elena gave a thorough explanation: "Vibrating a lot ruins the acoustics of the chords," she said, and when he asked further, she said that "for clarity, I prefer not to use much vibrato."

"Is clarity the highest value?" Kantor said.

"I've never thought of that," she said. The sound is more pure, though, without vibrato, she said.

"Maybe singing, lyrical and warm are higher values than pure," Kantor suggested.

Still, she wasn't buying it. Having verbally justified using less vibrato, she subsequently played with even less vibrato than before. "You're right, it is incredibly pure," he said. "What was lost for me was the tension and release."

From my vantage, he seemed to want her to try playing with more vibrato, but since her convictions were strong, he let this be. "I respect your point of view," he said.

They turned to the Paganini Caprice No. 11.

The Bach and Paganini works have some things in common: both are solo pieces, both written for the violin. Certainly Bach and Paganini had different goals in mind when composing their solo works. Who were they writing for? Kantor answered his own question: Bach was writing for God, for eternity. Paganini was writing for himself, to show off.

"Should these two pieces sound the same?" he asked. Of course not. Not only did they have a different approach, but they also were writing in different centuries. He wanted her to experiment with making the Caprice sound really rich in certain places, and to correct the rhythm.

Next, Enrique Rodrigues gave a smooth and solid performance of the first movement of the Sibelius Violin Concerto -- in control, and satisfyingly correct. I found myself asking, why was I nodding off? One likely explanation was that Starling-DeLay had made for a long week, with little sleep -- everyone was tired. And yet with so much goodness going on, I felt I should have been on the edge of my seat.

Kantor praised Enrique's elegant playing: "On all the most difficult levels, you played beautifully," he said, pointing to his "suave, elegant sound," and mastery of the notes. And yet, there is more to find in this piece.

"There is a gold mine of information that you aren't following," Kantor said. "The stuff that is going to give it its emotional power, you are either ignoring or not aware of."

Kantor explained that he had a copy, not just of the urtext, but of Sibelius's original manuscript, which he procured from a museum in Helsinki.

"I took the trouble to get it from Finland and bring it with me," Kantor said. "It is only different from your edition in a few small ways."

For example, in the cadenza, "in Sibelius's handwriting, I think this is a very enthusiastic crescendo," Kantor said. "This has a volcanic quality of eruption."

There are a series of arpeggios with hairpins, in which the top is loudest, every time. Kantor was absolutely dogged about getting Enrique to play it with those dynamics. After Enrique repeated it a first time, Kantor said, "I'm not getting it!" A second time: "Could be even more - like a lot more." Third time: "You chickened out on the last arpeggio." Fourth time: "I think it's almost 50 percent there!"

Paul Cantor and Enrique Rodrigues

"I should be able to take dictation on all the nuances of this music, from your playing," Kantor said. "You can take your excellent playing to a very high level, very quickly, by adding these things.

Another thing he pointed to in the score was the exact length of a pickup note. He had him try playing it as a half note, then a quarter, then an eighth, then a 16th. The pickup is actually an eighth note, but Enrique had been elongating it.

"To me, even though the notes are the same, the message is very different," when the pickup is played with exactly the value that Sibelius assigned it.

Kantor also pointed out a 16th triplet that Enrique had elongated to a regular triplet. When when played it as written, it really did pack more punch.

"We're talking tough love here, but we're all still standing," Kantor said. "My guess is that this is the very first time you've played the correct rhythm, in your life," Kantor said. Is that how it should be? To discover such a thing in front of this kind of audience?

No. Instead, the first time you read through a piece of music, you should be vigilant about what the music says, Kantor said. Because, as the saying goes, practice does not make perfect; practice makes permanent. "One of the paths to truth runs through accuracy," he said. By attending to the dynamics and the subtleties of rhythm that are written in the score, "you can easily bring your playing to another level," he said.

The Sibelius Concerto, as popular as it is, is actually a rather unusual piece of music. If, for example, every single bar in a certain passage has a hairpin, "I need you to terrify me!" Kantor said. "If you normalize this bizarre piece, I think it loses something. He wrote something that is actually a little scary and a little off."

"You're in a great place," he told Enrique, "you have an important and not-hard job to do": putting in place those details and making them apparent to the listener.

Elli Choi was next, playing the "Grave" from Bach's Sonata No. 2, and Paganini Caprice No. 4. In both cases, she brought real artistry to her performance. The Bach was not just shaped, but sculpted, with a sensitivity to each bow crossing and double-stop that made the result very clean. The Paganini had rhythmic drive and energy, and in this highly technical piece, she managed to both execute its difficulties with apparent ease and to create long musical lines. She gave permission to record her performance, and here is her Paganini Caprice No. 4, which was recorded by Rick Erickson:

It's hard to imagine what to say after such a performance, but Kantor wanted to help her find more humor in this music, which seems to musically depict laughter in places. He asked her why she chose to project seriousness, and she said that actually, she feels the humor inside but somehow looks serious. Was he wanting her to change facial expressions?

Not really, he said; the face is actually the last thing to be concerned about. "If you hear those happy sounds, your face will respond," he said.

Instead look to the music. The first part of the Caprice is legato, then comes this chirpy part. One can find the humor in that by bringing out the contrast, perhaps making the chirpy notes comically short.

"Would you be willing to make a small sacrifice in quality of sound, for character?" he said. "Sometimes beauty of sound is not the highest value; sometimes character is."

Last was Hannah Cho, who played Ysa├┐e's Sonata No. 4 in E major. It was a strong performance, with emotional range and expression, which seemed to hold the audience rapt, even at the end of a long day.

"You have wonderful artistic patience," Kantor said, "you let it unfold, with no sense of worry or hurry."

He asked her what edition she was using; it was the popular Schirmer edition. Kantor pointed out that Henle had come out with an urtext edition about 10 years ago, and "there are some serious differences."

"May I blow your mind," he asked politely, holding up the music. The original asks for all kinds of permutations of "forte," though most editions put a "dolce" in certain places.

Paul Cantor and Hannah Cho

"It's an awful lot of loud, but he wrote it that way," Kantor said. "We seek variety, but there is expressive value in something that stays in one dynamic....It's a beautiful challenge."

Without the element of changing dynamics, you have to find expression elsewhere. A few possibilities: articulation, texture, stroke.

"If you can keep up (the forte dynamic" the whole time, then when we get to the "Tranquilo," it will be such a relief.

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June 7, 2017 at 11:14 PM · "the bow hair is spread thinner at either end and bunched thicker in the middle." Is bow hair not laid parallel?

June 8, 2017 at 01:22 AM · The act of playing the bow bunches the hair in the middle, but the act of playing the bow does not bunch it at either end, where the hairs are attached. If you were to pinch the hairs together in the middle, that is a whole different thing then pinching them right at the frog or right at the tip. At the most extreme ends, the hairs cannot be pushed together. Does that make sense?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Okay, the above explanation was not quite right, and I've received a clarification from Mr. Kantor: What he meant is that at both the tip and the frog, the hair is farther from the stick, where in the middle, the hair is closer to the stick. Thus it behaves differently at both ends vs. in the middle. Hope that helps!

June 9, 2017 at 11:12 AM · I see what you're saying, just not sure I can really visualize it. I will watch my daughters bow up close next time

June 9, 2017 at 05:57 PM · What MC teacher has said: "You an artist. A vehicle of expression. What you have played is technically accurate, and you have expressed authentically. Anything I can offer from this point is merely an opinion. But as an artist, you have arrived. Now go. Express your voice to the world." ??

Or.. let's see a mc where the teacher actually needs to teach something.

June 11, 2017 at 02:44 PM · It's true, a lot of these master classes take place with absolutely fantastic students. Teaching the very highly-self-motivated and highly-accomplished student is kind of a different ball of wax, from teaching the average student. For teachers, it's eye-opening to see how a practiced professor teaches this rather rare breed of student. And it's great to see just how high it's possible to aim, for a young student.

It would be interesting, though, to watch a master teacher teach a student who has more issues, as this is really more the norm in the real world!

June 12, 2017 at 03:55 AM · I agree! After all, it is a teaching symposium after all, right?

Or, is it a "show off the star pupils of famous teachers to make both the pupil and teacher look amazing" symposium. Just sayin'. It's kind of disturbing the more I think about it.

June 12, 2017 at 08:54 PM · In regards to the bow: Do you mean that the moment of force is greater in the middle of the bow? The hair in the middle has the greatest distance from the tips, where it is attached, so it takes less force to move the hairs there than it takes to move them where they are attached.

June 13, 2017 at 03:37 PM · Disturbing? Maybe in the good sense of the word. If it disrupts our normal mindset and gets us thinking, "Wow, we can aim high, REALLY high!" Knowing that this level exists is actually very inspirational to me.

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