In October 2016, conductor Marlon Daniel asked me to join him for a trip to Cuba for the purpose of documenting both master classes and his time conducting. What started as a 'simple writing assignment' - as well as a tremendous opportunity to see a nation closed to Americans until very recently - turned into a tremendous educational journey and one of the most meaningful trips that I have ever taken.
One of the most meaningful and enlightening aspects of having the opportunity to travel to Havana was doing preliminary research on the history of both western classical music and violin playing as they have existed on the island. While we are fortunate in this day to have heard and met truly excellent musicians from Cuba, delving into the past gives a true glimpse at the foundation of the tradition as well as a fascinating historical context.
This history includes the life of violin virtuoso Claudio Brindis de Salas Garrido, who was born into a musical family in Havana on August 4, 1852. After early training first with his father and later with both Jose Redondo and the Belgian violinist Jose van der Gutch, Brindis de Salas (as he was known) traveled to Paris, winning the first prize at the Conservatoire de Paris in 1871.
In the 1945 book Music in Cuba, Alejo Carpentier referred to Brindis de Salas as “the most extraordinary of the black musicians of the nineteenth century....an unprecedented case in the musical history of the continent.” Indeed, Brindis de Salas was referred to as both “the king of the octaves” and “the Black Paganini” by European critics, and it is clear from critical notices that he was one of the greatest concert performers of his time.
On May 26, 1930 (approximately nineteen years after his death in Buenos Aires, Argentina) Brindis de Salas' ashes were laid into the ground in Havana. They were later moved to the Church of San Francisco de Paula in Havana, which is now a concert hall.
While I did not have a chance to visit San Francisco de Paula on this trip, I did have the opportunity to stand outside the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso, a neo-baroque masterpiece constructed between 1908 and 1915. Currently the home of the Cuban National Ballet, great artists including Norwegian violinist Ole Bull have performed at the Gran Teatro.
After marveling at this tremendous structure, Marlon and I again walked to San Felipe de Neri for a master class that I was to teach. Arsenio Marrupe, who also played for Eric Silberger, was the lone violinist in this class. The fact that there was only one violinist in this class was not disappointing considering that Arsenio performed Eugène Ysaÿe's magical, mysterious, and hair-raising Ballade during our session.
A few notes about Arsenio: this young man is a kind soul, a young man eager to learn and improve – the latter being evident through his performing in two master classes during the same week – and in possession of some truly captivating musical instincts. The fact that he is also technically solid was again made evident before we left for lunch as he played the Bach Chaccone with great skill, sensitivity, and musical acuity.
But back to Ysaÿe: our work began from the first three notes, making sure that the first double-stop was perfectly in tune and truly creating a sense of mystery by deliberately capturing the tension in the ascending line of sixths at the end of the first line.
In the next section, I reminded Arsenio that it was vital to maintain a sense of rhythmic integrity despite the opening being marked “in modo di recitativo”. This attention to rhythmic precision while allowing for some sense of rubato resulted in greater attention being placed on the intervals, especially the dissonances. Additionally, it was shared that we must resist the temptation to make accelerando during this section – while the music does get exciting, it is more important to resist getting carried away by placing emphasis on the musical structure. “Listen to and let us hear the intervals – this is most important.”
In the Molto moderato quasi lento section, Arsenio's playing was both beautiful and clean, and he responded immediately to the idea that he could make small glissandi between the large intervals after he played them both out of context, measuring the intervals in very slow motion. Again, we focused on the concept of rhythm and rhythmic integrity. Nearing the bottom of the page, I advised Arsenio to use more bow to make the accents in the descending fortissimo passage and later allow himself to really make rubato and ritardando at the end of this section.
That level of attention to the energy and direction of the music resulted in the perfect start of the Allegro in Tempo giusto, of which the first measure is both the resolution of the recitative and the first true statement of D minor in the piece and a one measure introduction to the swirling, macabre melody that is so familiar to all of us. When arriving on the theme, one does not need to stop both the bow and the sound to make the accents. It was also important to share with Arsenio that the second beats of the gesture are equally important and should not be rushed through.
It is truly wondrous when many of our life experiences come together, especially so in music. While working through the second page of the Ballade, I found myself remembering one of the things that Kenneth Goldsmith told me in 1995 during my first lesson with him: “Music is not a run-on sentence.” I do not share this to imply that Arsenio did not have a concept of musical structure: quite the contrary, as you will gather as you continue reading. However, in pieces that are “knotty” there can be a tendency to focus on the gymnastics of the left hand while not always thinking about how we speak with the bow. Arsenio, when shown where to finish phrases and gestures, responded immediately and effortlessly. He continued to do so during the fifth and sixth lines as he was reminded not to rush through the rising double stops and rather find places where rubato could take place within a framework of rhythmic and harmonic integrity.
Throughout this section there were questions about fingerings, and it became clear that Ysaÿe's fingerings created a truly exciting affect during an short, ascending line of double stops that went from piano to forte.
When asked about the reason for making so many changes in tempo, Arsenio responded “Loco.” Crazy. YES, crazy – and we laughed, while also pointing out that the marking loco on the third page is because there is a printed 8va section in the preceding measure. There is no doubt that the Ballade can be interpreted as a “violinistic mad scene” with its twists and turns, rich and disturbing harmonic changes, and tremendous technical demands. However, Ysaÿe's stunning command of the musical language of his era make it paramount for both the violinist and the audience to clearly hear every sonority, as it is through the deliberate attention to these that the “madness” comes out: when playing the Ballade (or any work), our highest task is to bring our attention to the energy and direction of the music.
This “madness” is also expressed by the changes of character throughout the piece, particularly that of the sextuplet section of the third page, and we experimented with making the character and dynamic change happen on the first triplet of the page. Arsenio played these passages with great agility. When reaching the short C-minor section, I reminded him that it was paramount to hear the line whenever the descending/ascending third gesture appeared.
After an effortless and exciting journey through lines of double-stops, we reached the fortissimo descending sixth/tenth passage. “As this is marked fortissimo and continuing the diminished harmony, you can start slower at the beginning of the descent for effect, but get back to tempo quickly.”
In the following dolce con espressivo A minor section, the theme appears in variation, and is followed by a series of arpeggios and string crossings. “In places where it seems that we're wandering, it's even more important to remember the structure,” I said. This concept remained important through the
a tempo – grazioso section, and it was truly impressive to witness the number of times that Arsenio played these passages with the intention of truly understanding as opposed to simply “correcting”. Yes, this young man showed himself to be on a mission.
For the absolutely devilish transition filled with tenths and sixths that leads to the a tempo reappearance of the theme (on the fourth page): “Use flatter hair through these three measures, and keep the bow closer to the bridge so that you maintain the fortissimo – and make sure that you do the ritardando.” Another moment of “understanding” came when I told Arsenio to start the passage again – then humorously said “Maybe not start there”. While it is necessary and good for us to tackle difficult passages head-on, there are times that it is wise to let steam out of the pressure cooker, no? “Make sure that you pay attention to what you're doing with the bow, especially during the ritardando and playing on the lower strings, as it is still fortissimo. It may sound like too much under your ear, but in a hall it will be appropriate.”
In the final Piu mosso, “Flatter hair throughout, and keep it, especially as it is marked to play at the tip. Also, make sure that the sound in the strokes are even – almost creating a 'wall of sound', and placing the accents where they should be.”
With the last three measures being marked Vivo after poco a poco slargando, I suggested to Arsenio that he really take off blazing, with very little time between the ending of the slargando passage and the dissonant three-note chords that take us to the end.
“That's a LOT going on in seven minutes,” I said at the end.
After this class, Arsenio took me to a Japanese restaurant in Old Havana that is owned and operated by two Cuban women. Lunch and great conversation was shared with Arsenio and two other musicians of the Havana Lyceum Orchestra, all of whom shared both gratitude for the opportunities that they have and a refreshing perspective that included the fact that we as musicians should afford every opportunity that we have to travel, so that we can gain understanding of the world and of musicmaking as it exists throughout the cultural capitals.
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