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NY Phil Challenge Week 11: Don Juan

Nathan Cole

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Published: August 11, 2015 at 6:19 AM [UTC]

In Week 11 of my New York Philharmonic Audition Challenge, I'm asking my participants to think about the first impressions they made with last week's assignment of the openings of Don Juan and Mahler's 5th Symphony Adagietto. They'll need to use that info as they record a complete take of Don Juan. Last week we also looked at the New York Phil's audition packet and what information it contains for those who know how to read it!

Nathan-Don Juan

But let’s look now at the part of the packet we didn’t discuss last week: the excerpt list itself. Since this list is quite compact for a preliminary round, we can be sure that each selection was made carefully and for specific reasons. Certainly there are no major surprises; that’s a courtesy to you, the candidates, so that nobody is put off by a selection that’s out of left field. But these few excerpts plus the Mozart will give a fairly complete picture of a candidate’s playing.

Daniel Barenboim, when he was presiding over our auditions in Chicago, used to lament the fact that he had to hear excerpts at all: “I can tell everything from the Mozart concerto alone!” No doubt that was a subtle jab at what he felt was the rigid nature of our auditions and the Members’ Committee in Chicago. But in a way, he was right. Rarely did we hear a great Mozart concerto and then disaster, or vice versa.

Yet as difficult as Mozart is to interpret and perform, it doesn’t answer all the questions a committee might have. The Schumann, for example, answers this one: “Can the candidate start a fast section cleanly in tempo, then maintain that exact tempo for the duration?” It also answers: “What is this candidate’s idea about how to play brilliantly in a violin section?” The first question has only one right answer! The second is open to interpretation, but there are certainly answers that are unsatisfactory to a committee. Both are important questions for those who will be sitting with the potential hire for decades to come!

The Schubert excerpt, one we haven’t looked at yet, seems similar at first glance to the Schumann: fast and off the string. But while the Schumann is marked mezzo-forte and basically stays there for the duration, the Schubert requires more delicacy in the beginning. It also requires you to shift to forte after a couple of lines; how do you do that while still retaining a classical (non-aggressive) sound?

The Brahms excerpt is not the most commonly asked from the Fourth Symphony, and it’s very tricky technically. A solid fingering plan is a must. Also, it’s difficult to “feel” the tempo in this one: too fast, and the passagework becomes unplayable; too slow, it gets heavy and accented.

We’re holding off on the Debussy for another couple of weeks because it tests so many things at once: fidelity to the written dynamics; sense of sound and style; and ease of execution for the left hand. On the plus side, it’s rarely played well, so if you can gain a foothold in this excerpt you’ll be ahead of the pack!

Finally, the Mahler is the only “slow” excerpt of the bunch. Here, beauty of sound and connection between the notes is everything. So a rigid player will be exposed. But truthfully, such a player will have been exposed already in the Mozart concerto!

You could also look at each of these excerpts from a different angle: what’s the major pitfall in each one? In other words, what does a committee least want to hear, and can you do the opposite? Don Juan is usually scrappy and out of tune; Schubert slow and heavy; Brahms heavy, aggressive and messy; Debussy square and out of tune; Mahler choppy, without line; and Schumann uneven or rushed, aggressive and out of tune. Are you getting the feeling that intonation is important in these auditions?

Your job is to set the committee at ease as soon as you begin each selection. Each member of the committee should breathe a sigh of relief, as if to say, “I trust this player. They know what they’re doing.” If you can convince someone of that, the little details matter a lot less.

By now, some of you will be practicing more per day than you did when the Challenge began. If not, don’t worry! The amount of time is not all-important. There are many reasons to take the Challenge, and we all have our limitations. But the less time you have to work with, the smarter you have to be when you allocate it.

Each day, remember that you have several complementary tasks: to improve the general level of your playing through scales and etudes; to learn new material for the audition; and to review and improve audition material that you’ve already learned. As you go along, the balance of these three will change. Now there is more general work and new learning, whereas toward the end most of your work will be review. Just remember to constantly keep your mind and ear alive. If you lose focus, change material or change tactics. This way, you can accomplish in half an hour what a lazy practicer would take all day to achieve! Use your log to record your day-to-day time breakdown. You’ll find that looking back through the days will be a big help when you decide what kind of work has been most fruitful.

Week 11 assignment

This week’s major assignment is a take of Don Juan. I’ve prepared a video to help you, complete with my own take of this famous excerpt! To keep things fair, I recorded my take at the end of the video, just as I might play it for you during an in-person lesson:

Posted on August 11, 2015 at 7:49 PM
I cannot hear the video. Speech is far too quiet.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on August 11, 2015 at 11:31 PM
Try checking your settings, if the volume is too low. After you hit play, look at the little icon on the bottom left that looks like a speaker. If you mouse over the speaker icon, you'll see a bar to the right of it. Make sure it is pushed all the way to the right for full volume.
Posted on August 11, 2015 at 11:52 PM
Wait--this is Nathan Cole? Fantastic!

See--I just *knew* there was something real behind his words all these years.

Great stuff--really perceptive and clear ideas too.

From jean dubuisson
Posted on August 12, 2015 at 9:35 AM
Nate your videos are gems of violin education and it is priceless for me to see such a wonderful violinist up close dissecting and afterwards performing such a famous orchestral excerpt. You are bringing violin teaching on the Internet to an entire new level.

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