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Some Master Class experiences, and a particular Master Class of Glenn Dicterow on October 17, 2012

Raphael Klayman

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Published: October 25, 2012 at 9:47 PM [UTC]


A Master Class is a different breed of animal. Part public lesson, part performance, part audition - and part firing squad, a Master Class is one of the most challenging activities that a student can participate in. It also can be one of the most stimulating and inspiring events that one can experience. It can be quite enjoyable too – especially if you just sit in the audience as an innocent bystander!

As a young man I participated in Master Classes of Arturo Delmoni, and later of Aaron Rosand. The Rosand Master Classes that I took part in, in Nice France, were semi-private and more intimate – a little like some of the Heifetz classes that we can see on film. In the past few years three of my colleagues with high school programs have invited me to come and perform and then give a Master Class. Most recently such an invitation has come from an impresario in Bangkok Thailand! All are pending, due to - what else? - funding.

But whenever I could, I've always loved to sit in on Master Classes. If we go to a fine artist's concert and listen and watch attentively, we can essentially get a lesson from that artist. How much more so at a Master class, where the artist not only demonstrates, but explains the why's and wherefores leading to the demonstration. And we certainly learn from the students too, who are usually top notch, and may be preparing for major auditions and competitions. (Of course this is not a substitute for, but a great supplement to, a direct lesson, where you get feedback from a teacher on what you're doing.)

Every artist has a different personality, and so every master class will have a different feel, and sometimes different format and agenda. I still have a fond memory of a Master Class in the mid-1970's given by the legendary pianist, Arthur Rubinstein, in New York's Alice Tully Hall. (Yes, I'm interested in the piano too, and other instruments. Plus, my girlfriend at the time was a pianist! I also once attended a Master Class of the great cellist, Janos Starker.) I still have a warm glow of Rubinstein's deep gold and bronze tone and his unique personal charm! Not long after that, but some years before my own work with him, I attended a couple of Master Classes at the Manhattan School of Music of Aaron Rosand. He just blew me away! I had grown up with recordings of Heifetz, Oistrakh and Francescatti. Not long before these events I had attended wonderful recitals in Carnegie Hall by Perlman and Rostropovich – then at the heights of their respective powers. But I don't think I had ever heard more compelling string playing than that of Aaron Rosand – especially at the first Class. At one point he tore into the Chausson Poéme, and played a large portion of it. It just put me in another world. I was later to experience the same hair-raising and emotionally shattering Chausson phenomenon in Nice, where I worked with Rosand. I learned more from Rosand in that one summer than I did in 4 years with a certain teacher that I had at Mannes and one year with another teacher, privately. Rosand is not your warm fuzzy type, though he actually can be very nice, caring and supportive. But he was probably one of the more intimidating Master teachers.

I also had the pleasure of attending Master Classes of Joseph Silverstein – soloist, chamber musician, and long time Concertmaster of the Boston Symphony. One thing I particularly appreciated was his giving members of the audience a chance to ask him questions. I also enjoyed attending a Master Class of Midori a few years ago at the Mannes College. One thing I took away from her class was how language can make a difference. Whereas someone else might tell a student “you're out of tune” or “your rhythm is all askew”, she would tend to say “I have questions about your intonation in this spot”. It's the same critique, but less intimidating.

And then there is Glenn Dicterow.

I first met Glenn (-while I am on a first-name basis with him, I don't mean to imply anything but the deepest respect and highest regard that I have for him-) in the mid-80's and had some private lessons with him over the course of a year. Having already heard him in the Vieuxtemps 4th concerto, and the Concertmaster solos of Scheherazade and Ein Heldenleben, I was blown away by him as well. I was quickly struck by his outsized virtuoso technique, his fine, expressive and stylish musicianship, his rich, beautiful tone and his great projection. As a soloist, chamber musician, recording-session player (with prominent solos in a number of movies), and as long-time concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic – he is as complete a violinist as can be. He studied with almost everyone, from Heifetz to Galamian, Szerying to Eudice Shapiro and other big West Coast names, with all the influences filtering through his particular talent and personality.

As a teacher I found him to be very focused and his criticisms always very constructive. They were along the lines of “this isn't working because...” rather than the “what's wrong with you?” type of critiques that some other teachers dole out. I found him to be supportive and encouraging. I frequently entered the lessons with trepidation, never feeling properly prepared. But somehow I'd always fly out of the lessons, excited and inspired. One thing that he stressed more than any other teacher that I've had is the importance of projecting into a hall. “Get those overtones to fly right out of the instrument” is a favorite expression of his.

Then, as with Rosand, I continued to keep in touch with Glenn on occasion by attending some of his public Master Classes whenever I could. Glenn was kind enough to take some private questions from me at the end of a number of master Classes whenever he had the time. He also put me on the spot once at the end of a class when he asked me to try a couple of violins that a maker was trying to interest him in. The class had finished after several highly talented and obviously extremely well prepared graduate students had played for him, he had demonstrated amazingly and with everyone still milling around, and me not warmed up, unprepared with anything in particular – and not even having with me my very minimally padded suede chin-rest cover to give me a bit of support - was supposed to play on two completely unfamiliar violins in front of everybody! “Sure, I'd be glad to” I said . Inside I felt more like Rocky Balboa before his first shot at Apollo Creed - “everybody says fight the big fight. Yeah, I'll fight the big fight. Probably get my head kicked in!” At first I was so nervous I could barely speak coherently. Fortunately I played better than I spoke and didn't at all embarrass myself.

On another occasion at the end of a Class, Glenn treated me by agreeing to play a bit on one of my violins and bows that I brought to show him. He started tuning it rather loudly, gauging, I think, its range and core. Suddenly he tore into the first allegro of the Bruch g minor concerto with such power, energy and presence that I felt a palpable shock wave that almost knocked me over. As I began to recover, he generously pronounced the Maday violin and Halsey bow “very good”.

The last Dicterow Master Classes that I attended was very recently - Wednesday, October 17, 2012. Glenn is on the faculty of both Julliard and the Manhattan School of Music – MSM. At MSM he chairs the Graduate Program in Orchestral Performance. At the MSM Master Classes in this program, each student begins with a movement of a concerto, followed by a few orchestral excerpts – and who is better qualified to coach both? Since the impressions are fresh in my mind, I thought I'd go into more detail about this particular Master Class.

I came early to Greenfield Hall at the Manhattan School of Music and got a good seat close to the front. Three excellent graduate students – Henry Wang, Dan Bee Park and Christina Bouey gave extremely fine accounts of themselves in concertos of Tchaikovsky and Brahms, and some standard excerpts of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Mahler and Strauss. Glenn let them play quite a bit before stopping them. He demonstrated amply but not too much - not to show off but to illustrate.

The students were all excellent but Glenn Dicterow was...well, Glenn Dicterow! As soon as he tuned his del Gesu, some special sounds filled the hall. The symbiosis of great violinist and great violin was made manifest in burnished tones, dark and rich, yet clear, focused and centered, and with a seemingly effortless sonority and presence. The violin responded to his slightest sotto voce touch. But when it came time for 'blood and guts' its core more than held up to his brilliant playing. At one point when he played some of the minore F# minor section from the Brahms concerto, I couldn't help the tears welling up in my eyes.

Glenn maintains the highest standards and will not hesitate to be as picky as necessary to try to get the student from a very good effort to a totally convincing public performance that is not only accurate, but musical and three-dimensional in its presence. But he balances any criticisms with praise, supportiveness and even touches of humor. I took some notes and would like to share some nuggets. But there is nothing like the words when they directly come from the mouth of the master – especially when they follow some performance snag and are backed up by a demonstration. Also I can't vouch for 100% accuracy, but hopefully I will convey a few of his ideas:

> opening of the Tchaikovsky concerto – there should be freedom, yet proportion. Don't make any one note too long for no particular reason, and maintain the syncopated rhythm at the end of the opening even with a bit of rubato.

> Beethoven 9th, 3rd movement: your 1st note is your 1st impression. Don't throw it away.

> Brahms concerto, 1st mvt.: You're coming in after a long introduction with the full sonority of the orchestra in forte bringing you in – and then there is you and your one little violin. You must come in like a house on fire. Try to match the sonority of the orchestra. You've got to tear the place up!

In the chord passages – this is not the time to be too flexible with your fingers on the bow, or they will collapse, and you won't achieve the necessary sonority and projection. Keep them a bit stiffer and more spread out. Also be sure to maintain the dotted rhythm – they should never border on triplets.

> Especially in orchestral playing, if you use too much bow, you will fall behind. To control off-the-string passages above the middle, elevate the wrist slightly.

> In Mahler it's important to bring out all the little 'hairpins' of crescendo and diminuendo. When doing a slide, it's not just the slide; it's how you prepare the slide.

> In Brahms, the phrases go across the bar lines. It's a-symmetric.

> In the opening to Don Juan – there's no time to use the wrist; keep it in the fingers.

> In playing orchestral excerpts, you have to hear the whole score in your head.

As in a recital, the role of an accompanist in a Master Class is so important. This is usually done by piano students from the same school – and they usually do a very fine job. For some reason, at his class it was a MSM professor, and chamber music colleague of Glenn – Gerald Robbins - who did the honors, and he definitely brought to the proceedings a deeper level of maturity and weight – especially in the Brahms concerto.

After the class I went up to Glenn and we had a nice chat. I had e-mailed him a notice about a violin I'm selling ( He said that to the extent he could trust the quality of a sound file on his computer, he thought it sounded very good “-and some very nice playing from you, too, by the way.” That was certainly a nice cherry to put atop the afternoon's musical ice cream sundae! I then asked him a question that I believe had come up on a long time ago “Is Don Juan ever started up-bow?” He said that in his 40 years of orchestral playing, it always started down-bow. He said it was easier to grab the fast 1/16's that way. He seemed surprised that I'd want to start it up-bow. I said that for me, the first 3 notes didn't make that much difference, but that the next 4 – C-E-G-C and then the E (after which I would hook the following F# in a re-articulated down-bow) feel more comfortable for the string crossings, when I can start the C down-bow. I'm so glad he didn't ask me to demonstrate! In fact he surprised and flattered me by saying that he'd try it my way at home! Then we joked a bit along the lines of “professional Don Juan player – do not try this at home!”

I exited MSM and walked down one of Manhattan's longest streets, Broadway, where you can scarcely go a block without passing at least a couple of restaurants. I chose some tasty bargain fare and then made my way home on the subway from upper Manhattan to the southern tip of Brooklyn, where I live. But somehow the long ride seemed less tedious as I continued to bathe in the glow of that inspiring Master Class!

From Richard Watson
Posted on October 26, 2012 at 3:17 PM
Really good stuff, many thanks for posting.
From Nathan Cole
Posted on October 28, 2012 at 5:00 PM
I had to laugh at your Rocky reference... not only was it perfect, but I sometimes watch those scenes to get amped up for audition practice, some kind of "me against the world" thing I guess!

My wife got to study with Mr. Dicterow for her Master's degree and loved those two years. She always says she got her jobs because of him. Thanks for sharing this class!

From Raphael Klayman
Posted on October 28, 2012 at 8:37 PM
Thanks to Richard and Nathan. Yes, with me too, scenes in boxing and martial arts movies - especially the training process - have inspired me in my practicing for a challenging event!

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