Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Berl Senofsky Remembered Again

Here's an interview with RoseAnn Markow Lester who studied with Berl Senofsky at the Peabody Conservatory from 1971 through 1975, privately from 1977-1979, and again at Peabody from 1979-1981. She is on the faculty of Hood College in Frederick, Maryland.

1. What was your first impression of Berl Senofsky?

On the one hand, he was a formidable musical force; on the other, he took on the role of surrogate father. Berl was extremely protective of me, and although he was a giant in the world of violin, and I was properly awed by his talent, I also felt totally comfortable with him. I think I got away with saying things to him that others couldn't (being the fresh-mouthed teen that I was!) - challenging things, joking, questioning...I knew he loved me as a daughter.

2. What did Berl teach you about bow technique?

He said that what you do with the bow can make the difference between being a good violinist and a great one. The bow is the mouthpiece; if you have total control of the bow and speak through it the way your heart demands, you can say things in a very special, very personal way that is unique to you.

He also told me to relax. Flexibility is necessary. But controlled flexibility is what you want. He would say that "there's a lot more sound there than you think. Pull it out." The amount of sound Berl got was unbelievable. I think the fact that he was such a big man--and with such massive, muscular arms!--made a difference.

3. What did he teach you about left hand technique?

He would say to vary the speed of your vibrato according to the demands of the music. You should be able to give a sweet, relaxed vibrato as well as a very intense, tight vibrato, depending on what the music calls for. And keep it going! Don't stop vibrato before the note ends.

He taught that shifts should vary in speed. Sometimes you want the shift to be unheard; other times the slide itself enhances the music. Timing the beginning and end of the shift - and having it correspond with the bow direction change - also plays a part in the musical interpretation.

Berl had the most incredible trill! It was the cleanest, fastest trill I've ever heard. He gave a specific exercise for it that was guaranteed to work. Unfortunately, it's something much more easily demonstrated on the violin than explained in words.

4. What did he teach you about phrasing?

Play the music the way you'd sing it. Berl once told me something very simple, while I was working on a Bach solo sonata that made a big difference in how I approached many works: Always either "go to" somewhere or "come from" somewhere. Don't just wander aimlessly around the notes. Always have direction. And listen to the harmonies. Also, Berl took liberties with tempos; timing was so very important. He stretched and pushed in a way no one else had either the imagination or daring to do!

5. What did he teach you about sound production?

It's all in the bow. Have control of the bow. And color, color, color. I have yet to hear another violinist who could color notes - music - the way Berl did. That's one of the things that made his playing so special, I think. He felt things in a way no one else did.

6. What did he teach you about musicianship?

Never compromise musicality for the sake of technique, ever. Be daring. Take risks. I think that that attitude was, in some ways, a detriment to Berl. He was totally uncompromising when it came to musical interpretation. He was passionate about how he felt music, both in the playing of it and in the listening to it. Just a couple of months ago, when I was visiting with Berl and listening to his most recent CD with him (the Brahms and Prokofiev sonatas), I asked him, in awe, "How did you ever play with such incredible color; such amazing musical uniqueness?" His answer (with a little shrug - typical Berl!): "I just play what I 'hear' [in my head]." It was that simple to him. Obviously, he "heard" things differently from most people!

7. What are the three most valuable things you learned from Berl?

I learned to enjoy life. Berl had a difficult time setting limits to any area of his life, whether it be music, food, motorcycles (!), teaching, or anything else. He loved life! Which leads to another thing I learned from Berl: everything comes at a price. Berl's approach of "total immersion" in everything sometimes had less-than-satisfactory consequences. His love of food took its toll on his health, resulting in serious problems which could have been avoided had he been more moderate. But I don't think he ever regretted having indulged--he wanted to enjoy it to its fullest and was willing to suffer the consequences. I think his uncompromising attitude to musical interpretation had, on occasion, negative consequences as well.

Always play as though you are exposing your soul to the world - and don't be afraid to! Be daring. Be brazen. Don't compromise musicality. Don't worry about what the audience thinks. Play for yourself. (That's not to say Berl could always block out his audience!)

8. What is your most poignant memory?

Impossible to say. From the first time I met him as a young 15 year old girl until the day he died, I have stored away special memories. Some of the strongest right now are of social gatherings Berl had; music and food at his house. He loved to play chamber music, and would invite people over to play trios, quartets, and quintets, followed by lots of food. The first time I was included in this musical and gastronomic orgy, I was unaware of the "usual" procession of events. Silly me. I thought dinner was at dinnertime. But no. First, we played chamber music for hours and hours! It was at least 11 p.m. before we took a break for food! But then, the food was as much of a feast as the music was. Berl loved to eat. Needless to say, I was better prepared the next time, and ate before going.

My husband (Noel Lester) and I were visiting Berl earlier this year and were talking about violinists. My husband and I said that he (Berl) was certainly the greatest in our minds--no one else came close to satisfying our musical appetites the way his playing did. He scoffed, saying there were many great violinists. But then we asked him whose playing he liked better than his own, and he thoughtfully scratched his head, gave a little smile, and came up with no one! That's not to say he didn't greatly admire many other violinists--he did, and was quick to say so.

In spite of Berl's greatness as a violinist, it was touching to realize that he always had a lot of self-doubt. He always questioned whether the audience really liked it; whether we really thought it sounded good; good reviews seemed to always come as a surprise to him. Even when he won first prize in the Queen Elisabeth of Belgium competition, he felt undeserving of it, although the judges were unanimous in their decision. He always felt that someone else should have received it. I can't imagine anyone else playing better.

Berl had such tremendous influence on my musical development. I feel he has spoiled me in the sense that I seldom hear violin playing that truly satisfies me. I'm constantly thinking to myself, "Ah, but just think of how Berl would have played that!"

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