Master Class with Robert Lipsett at Sounding Point Academy; Aubree Oliverson Recital

July 28, 2023, 8:13 AM · In violin playing, it's all about the details, and violinist and pedagogue Robert Lipsett is a master at honing in on just the right ones that will make the difference.

In June I watched Lipsett teach a master class at Sounding Point Academy at the Colburn School, where he holds the Jascha Heifetz Distinguished Violin Chair. He also serves on faculty at the Aspen School of Music and previously taught at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music.

Robert Lipsett master class
Robert Lipsett with Sounding Point students Sophie Bell, Ocean Chow and Harin Kang.

Lipsett has a mile-long list of distinguished former students; to name just a few: Leila Josefowicz, Jennifer Frautschi, William Hagen, Steven Copes, Robert Chen, Sheryl Staples, Blake Pouliot - as well as two of the teachers at Sounding Point Academy, Danielle Belen and Fabiola Kim.

It's easy to see why. Lipsett brings a combination of historical knowledge, reverence for the great violinists of both past and present, and a vast knowledge of the repertoire, teaching with specific and practical solutions to the high-level technical challenges of playing the violin.

Plus, there's something in his demeanor and dry humor that seems like a steady admonishment: Go practice. Now.

In the master class, presented to the 80 students plus faculty, Lipsett worked with three students, starting with Harin Kang, 21, who played "Tzigane," written in 1924 by Maurice Ravel.

After her excellent performance, Lipsett started with a little history lesson. In the 19th century, he explained, there were a number of important virtuoso violinists such as Niccolò Paganini, Heinrich Ernst, Pablo de Sarasate and Henryk Wieniawski who wrote pieces for themselves to play, pieces that remain for us now to play.

In the 20th century, though, this tradition waned, and few violinists wrote original pieces - the exception being Fritz Kreisler. Jascha Heifetz turned to transcriptions, which he wrote in abundance, but he did not write the kind of original showpieces his 19th century predecessors had written.

This being the case, the French composer Ravel, though he was not a violinist himself, "kind of out-did the violinists," when it came to "Tzigane," a challenging piece full of technical feats such as harmonics, double-stops, left-hand pizzicato, extended trill passages, etc.

For example, "in the middle of the piece you have the theme mostly in natural harmonics," Lipsett said.

Tzigane 1

"Did he plan that out?" Lipsett said. Indeed he did. "He went to a lot of trouble to get to this key." So certainly, don't play this passage with artificial harmonics.

Lipsett went over the score in detail, offering insights and technical advice.

The opening is a "quasi-cadenza," to be played on the G string until all but the last few notes on the first page.

"As a violinist you are kind of a detective for what the composer wants," Lipsett said. Ravel's writing here is meticulous - "sometimes he has markings on every measure." That being the case, it's not a "cadenza" in the sense of it being totally free, as some violinists are inclined to play it. Since Ravel went to the trouble of putting in so much instruction, it pays to heed the composer's wishes. "If you stick to it," Lipsett said, "it works."

Lipsett was also interested in starting the performance even before the first note - he asked Kang to walk out on stage again. This piece starts with the violin alone, so "maybe you can build a little drama before," creating some anticipation by waiting a little longer before starting the piece.

He also wanted to check her bow, and when he did, he found it to be too loose. "I'm going to create a miracle right now," he said, and he simply wound it up a bit more. (It actually did make a noticeable difference!)

Looking again at the score, at No. 1, he pointed out that the slides go only up, not down.

Tzigane 2

"I like to avoid sliding both directions here," he said. To do so, he advised reaching back for the Bb, rather than shifting back to it.

For all that sul G playing, "open up your vibrato even wider," he said. The higher we play on the G string, "the more we need to play with an extra amount of vibrato for it to sound good."

She tried playing with a wider vibrato, which got even wider as Lipsett said, "Wide, wide, wide!" Then he asked, "Who thinks that sounds better?" Everyone applauded. "It's not easy. It's hard work to vibrate that much, but it sounds good."

At No. 2, the theme comes back in octaves, fortissimo.

Tzigane 3

Composers are taught that octaves are louder, "clearly he wants more sound here," Lipsett said. "You have to work hard, don't disappoint me!" The audience laughed. He also asked her to watch for accidental accents at the end of notes - "Record it," he said. "You won't like it, and it will go away."

At No. 4 Ravel writes a double-stop tremolo:

Tzigane 4

The way she was playing it, "it's fast, but I'm losing the tremolo," Lipsett told her. "Pick up your fingers higher - don't worry about speed so much." No one will notice if it's a little more methodical, and that will make it more audible as a tremolo.

At No. 8 is a passage with a lot of grace notes:

Tzigane 5

Lipsett advised playing the eighth notes as double stops: "It fools the ear and gets the result."

And this bit:

Tzigane 6

You have to balance the pizzicato. "Danielle Belen has made a science of this section," Lipsett said, "She invented an exercise, and these things came out like bullets." I guess we'll have to ask Danielle about that - another blog for another day!

The last page of the piece is all about the accelerando, and violinists often speed up, then start again slower and speed up several times.

"I'm not a fan of starts and stops," Lipsett said. "I'd look to make one giant accelerando. Otherwise, it messes with the orchestra, and it's also not written in the part." Lipsett had Kang play the whole last page, as he clapped the tempo in a steady accelerando.

The last three notes are marked "pizzicato," but Lipsett said, "The pizzicato is a little bit of a let-down - arco works."

Next, Sophie Bell performed the first movement of Dvorak's Violin Concerto in A minor.

Instead of focusing on quite so many specifics of the piece, Lipsett made an overall point about some playing habits that violinists can easily acquire without noticing.

"Our hands want to work together, it's the way we're wired," Lipsett said, and so the bow reacts when we put down the fingers. Specifically, he was noticing a subtle stopping in the bow, every time she put down a finger. Mind you, her playing was very accomplished, this was quite subtle, but it can affect the sound.

"You've dulled your own sound, you've turned the faucet off," Lipsett said. The effect can be a nervous sound. Great artists who have a sound that just flows - "they're not stopping the bow. It's hard to get your sound projecting if you stop it."

This is a hard problem to solve, because sometimes the player can't really perceive it. "When you are the person doing it, you can't really hear it," Lipsett said. "But you can see it. You have to use your eyes to conquer it. Look at your own bow arm in the mirror."

"You really have to rewire the brain," he said. One trick is to actually speed up the bow with every new note, giving a little push for every left-hand placement in a slurred passage.

As soon as he pointed all this out, she made efforts to smooth out the bow, and he acknowledged that it was already helping.

"It's kind of magical, it changes your sound in a beautiful way," Lipsett said.

He then turned to the opening of the piece, which begins with a big chord.

She was doing a big wind up, then stopping, then doing the chord. "Try just going straight into the chord," he said.

"Almost all motions we make have a preparation to them," he said For example: swinging a tennis racket, hitting a golf ball - even in walking, you throw your weight forward.

"For some reason, the violin is not as natural with this," he said.

Lipsett also shared some history of the concerto - and of how the famous 19th century violinist Joseph Joachim helped Dvorak write it.

"Joachim helped many composers write their concertos," Lipsett said. "He was a complete musician, and tremendously respected." Of course, he inspired Dvorak to write the concerto, then offered much criticism, changing nearly every bar.

The Dvorak violin concerto has not been as successful as other concertos - but it has been getting more play in recent years.

"I think to be successful in this concerto, you have to bring an energy to it and sell it," Lipsett said. The piece is long, so you have to keep the tempos up and keep the audience in your hands. Aubree Oliverson happened to be in the audience for the master class. A former student of Lipsett's, she was giving a recital that night. She has performed the piece with some frequency, so Lipsett asked her opinion.

"Audiences love it," Aubree said. She advised not taking time in too many places - save any slowdowns just for the important parts.

Next Ocean Chow, 13, played Franz Waxman's Carmen Fantasy - a bit of history from Lipsett: this piece was part of Waxman's score to the 1946 movie "Humoresque," and while it was meant for Jascha Heifetz, a young Isaac Stern played for the film. Heifetz did later ask that the piece be made longer, and he championed the work.

It's a very challenging piece, and Chow did a great job. By this time, the master class was nearing the end, so there was not as much time for comments. He did mention an idea that he had mentioned previously: that even if your fingers can go very fast, sometimes it is better to be a little more deliberate - "no one will notice, but it will be a lot more clear."

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Later in the evening was a recital at Colburn featuring Aubree Oliverson and pianist Rohan De Silva playing works by Handel, Stravinsky (Suite Italienne), Bach (the Chaconne), Kreisler, George Gianopoulos (who was in the audience for his "City Vignettes") and Saint-Saens.

It was an energetic performance, lively and full of flair, with everything so strong and accurate. As an encore they played Pauline Viardot's "Berceuse" for violin and piano - what a lovely piece. Here she is, playing it earlier this year with pianist Hakon Austbo:

If you have not heard of Aubree, I think you will!

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