Saturday, September 30, 2006

Beethoven played by the Iraq National Symphony

This New York Times article about the Iraq National Symphony Orchestra tells about the tragic situation in that country for musicians. Hearing the orchestra play Beethoven on an "audio slide show" link on the page made me cry. The quality of the playing is not high: it clearly reflects the fact that the musicians are not allowed to practice their instruments, but the emotional content of their performance is extraordinary.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Good Enough Never Is

About ten years ago I was in the strange position of being able to invite Debbi Fields, the founder of Mrs. Field's Cookies, to the local university. It was when I worked at the university radio station, and during a time when there was a bit of fire damage, I was put in charge of organizing a fund raiser. Because the sister television station was airing a Mrs. Fields cooking show, hosted by Debbi herself, I thought it would be a great idea to have her talk at our fund-raising party, and serve desserts from her cookbook with dinner. Somehow it managed to work, and everything was a great success. We even duped Debbi Fields into thinking that we had a functional station, even though we all knew that it was a quagmire of dysfunction.

Her big motivational talk was about the idea of excellence, that "good enough never is." In walks of life and professions other than music, this is something of a revelation. In music the reality that "good enough never is" is something that practicing musicians face every day, with every note. It's not good enough to play well once--you have to be able to do it again, and you have to be able to do it on demand, not just when you feel like it. And no matter how well you play a piece, there are people who will play it better. No matter how much insight you have and how much structural knowledge you have, there are people who have more. Once you get beyond the age of 12 or so, there are always people who are younger than you, who can play as well as you can, or better. After a good concert, it's back to square one, back to getting the strength to play as well again. The response of an audience is short-lived, because the real excitement of music fades away as soon as the concert is over.

But then again, the idea that "good enough never is" keeps us fascinated with exploring the possibilities of nuance and bow changes, and it allows us to open our ears and try to hear more counterpoint, more voices, and more in the way of orchestration when we play in ensembles. It helps us to listen more closely to music that cannot be improved upon (like most of Bach's music, most of Mozart's music, most of Haydn's music, and most of Beethoven's music, to give a few examples) and learn to ride a stream of musical thought that goes far beyond just playing well or trying to write music that is meaningful.

I really got a kick out of meeting Debbi Fields. Now if she would just start making a line of vegan cookies, that would be really exciting. I'll be happy to let her know if they are good enough.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Practicing Debussy

I am finally coming to terms with my double life. I have decided that it is morally and ethically correct for me to switch from violin to viola whenever I want to, and that it is fine to enjoy everything there is to enjoy about both instruments. Actually, what I enjoy most (on either instrument) is to cross the bridge between not being able to do something--to play a passage or a piece--and being able to play it.

Tonight the challenge is Debussy. My pianist friend and I have a recital set up for Mozart's Birthday (January 27th--his 201st), and in addition to a bunch of Mozart, we're playing the Debussy Sonata. I have an old French edition without any fingerings or bowings, so I am totally on my own to figure out what to do. I thought of cheating--watching some of the Indianapolis Finalists who have their recitals archived on the IVCI website--but I'm not going to even watch (or listen) until I have figured out everything for myself.

Working on this piece seems to tighten the screws in my brain. It makes me get sounds out of the violin that are actually violin-like. A year ago I played violin like a violist, embracing the darkness of the lower register and avoiding any resonance on the E String. Now I think I might even pass as a violinist.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Shostakovich Birthday Tribute

Yesterday's Los Angeles Times has a perfect birthday tribute to Dmitri Shostakovich written by Miles Hoffman. If the LA Times link does not get you to the article, try Arts and Letters Daily and look at the column on the left, under "Articles of Note." If Shostakovich were alive he would be celebrating his 100th birthday today, but since he died in 1975 we'll all just have to do the celebrating for him (and we are).

Saturday, September 23, 2006

After Indianapolis

The people who run the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis work for four years in order to make the event happen once every four years. I can easily say that it is worth all the effort, and that it's even worth the wait.

I arrived in Indianapolis in the middle of last week, in the thick of tremendous excitement: the beginning of the final round. It seemed like the entire music-loving population of Indianapolis, plus violinists and music lovers from around the world, were all focused on one thing: listening to six highly accomplished violinists play. The energy was tremendous, and people who had been listening to the previous rounds of the competition had developed serious personal feelings about the people playing.

There were IVCI flags all over the downtown, and a huge amount of community pride. I met wonderful people, and I could talk with them about what I heard--even at intermission. The vioinlists were so good and so different from one another, that we in the audience could disagree on matters of taste and style, and still find common ground. And everyone was happy to say what they thought. In normal life people tend not to say what they think, for fear of offending someone or exposing themselves as ignorant. The audience in Indianapolis was so used to listening critically, that talking about the music came quite naturally. And everyone was equally enthusiastic about Augustin Hadelich.

I feel for the judges. I couldn't imagine keeping quiet about what I heard both on line and in person. They were not allowed to talk with one another about any of the performances while the competition was still going on, and they had to do it day after day for two weeks. All of them are such upstanding professionals that I'm sure they stuck to their vow of silence. What a relief it must have been to finally be able to talk about the violinists--after it was all over, when everyone was planning to go their separate ways, back to their normal lives.

I left Indianapolis early in the morning after the end of the competition. For me it felt the way it feels when a circus rolls into town, puts on a great show, and then packs up and leaves. It is very sad, but the memory of the event seems to linger. I'm hoping that the sad part of this sweet sadness passes, and that I will be reminded of the 2006 IVCI every time I get a chance to hear the finalists play concerts in the "real world" or get to hear their recordings.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Proud Mom

Last night my 17-year-old son Ben Leddy and his friend Bryn Rich gave a performance at his high school variety show (Ben is the one on the right side of the screen with the high baritone voice). Bryn's mother videotaped it and put it on YouTube, and I'm putting it here.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Indianapolis Finals: Size matters

I have been waiting to write about being in Indianapolis for the finals of the competition until after the competition was finished. I am very pleased that Augustin Hadelich won the gold medal and the use of the Gingold Strad, but like nearly everyone I have talked with, I am baffled by the computerized results of the judges' decisions for the ranking of the other finalists. I imagine that many of the judges are baffled as well. What matters to me is that Hadelich will be able to use a first-rate instrument, and that he will have a chance at a real solo career. He is an extremely special musician on top of being a first-rate violinist.

I am grateful to this competition for introducing me to Yura Lee (yes, I go to meet her--she is an absolutely delightful person, and her superb musicianship reflects her personality completely). I believe that she has an original and necessary voice as a violinist, and I know that other violinists and other music lovers were moved and inspired by her performances in every round of the competition. For me her playing represents a living ideal of music making for all the right reasons: to engage performers and listeners in a kind of dance. She is a very generous musician, and she gives of herself in a very unselfish way. Because of her small size she has to work twice as hard as violinists with larger hands and longer arms. She is a physically small person, but she is a very large musician. Seeing such a small person make such large musical gestures can give the impression that those movements are extra-musical and unnecessary. In Yura Lee's case she is trying with every square inch of her body and her entire musical soul to set the air in the hall in musical motion.

In the "meet the jury" forum on Saturday, an audience member asked a question specifically about judging based on physical motion. The jury members that answered said that they did not take that into consideration at all. I don't think that such a thing is possible unless he/she is either blind or is unable to see the person performing.

Barnabas Keleman, the 2002 IVCI Gold Medal winner, played a wonderful recital between the semi-final round and the final round. He is a large man who plays with very large gestures, both musical and physical. There is no doubt that he is a great artist, and because of his physical size relative to Yura Lee, he can get away with large gestures.

I feel that Yura Lee should have gotten second place in this competition on the basis of her exceptional violin playing and extraordinary musicianship. I don't want her to change anything about her playing. I don't think that she should consider "toning down" the movement because it might get in the way of the marvelous (and original) things that she does as a musician.

The IVCI is planning to keep all the performances, not just the performances of the semi-finalists and finalists, archived on their website for three months (the interactive commemorative program guide is the best way to get to them).

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Bartok and Shostakovich Concertos in Finals

It looks like we will get to hear three performances of the Bartok Concerto #2 this weekend in Indianapolis. I don't think that the Bartok Concerto is on the "A" list of concertos that orchestras ask for when they engage violinists as soloists (the big Romantic concertos are the ones that draw in the audiences). Likewise with the Shostakovich, but because this is the 100th anniversary of his birth (I believe it is the 25th of September), he has gotten a great deal of play this year.

I'm hoping that these violinists play these concertos, particularly the Bartok, so well that every orchestra will want to play them.

Here are the finalists and the concertos they are playing


Lamsma: Mozart 5
Lee: Mozart 5
Choi: Mozart 3


Hristova: Haydn
Golden: Mozart 4
Hadelich: Mozart 2


Lamsma: Shostakovich
Lee: Bartok
Choi: Shostakovich


Hristova: Bartok
Golden: Dvorak
Hadelich: Bartok

Monday, September 11, 2006

Very Different Styles from the Same Teacher

How interesting to hear Stephanie Jeong and Anna Tifu in back-to-back recitals. Both are fine violinists, both are students of Aaron Rosand, and their musical personalities are very different from one another. Jeong seems to have a larger sound than Tifu, but Tifu is also an excellent violinist. Her interpretation of the Beethoven Spring is rather convetional to my ears, and her sound in it wasn't as strong as some of the other semi-finalists were in their Beethoven Sonatas. Her Franck was really fine, as was her Tzigane. The last performance of A Night at the Chinese Opera was just great, maybe one of the best of the 16 readings, but so was the penultimate performance by Jeong.

I feel for the judges because the musicians in this semi-final round are so impressive. My "short list" has eight people I would like to hear in the finals: Saeka Matsuyama, Simone Lamsma, Yura Lee, Bella Hristova, Augustin Hadelich, Celeste Golden, Stephanie Jeong, and Anna Tifu.

Very Exciting Bartok

Celeste Golden's performance with Akira Eguchi of the Bartok Sonata #1 was simply sensational. It think it was my favorite piano performance by Eguchi of the Competition. Augustin Hadelich's solo Bartok yesterday was also fantastic.

I imagine that Celeste Golden will be in the finals (her Romantic Concerto is the Dvorak), but some of the other people I imagine will be in the finals will be playing the Bartok Concerto #2. It is very likely that we will hear multiple performances of that piece this weekend, making the IVCI a sort of accidental Bartok festival.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Augustin Hadelich

I was completely bowled over by the recital I heard Augustin Hadelich play in Indianapolis today (I heard it on line). I think that the difference between him and all the other violinists I have heard in this Indianapolis competition is that I could imagine myself playing like most of the other violinists, that is, if I had enough technique, strength, stamina, and if I had healthy nerves. With Augustin Hadelich it is different. When he plays, he challenges my musical imagination. I feel like I can understand his playing physically, but the excitement, intensity, and personal investment that goes into every note and every phrase sends his playing to a completely different musical level from anything I could ever even imagine attaining or really understanding.

I had my violin case open while I was watching his recorded performance, and I looked at him, and then looked at the picture of Michael Rabin I keep in my case. My reaction to Hadelich's playing is not that different from my reaction to Michael Rabin's playing.

The video of his recital is archived now, and may only be available for a few more days. If you want a thrill go here and follow the link to listen to the performances of the finalists.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

My moment with Chinese Opera

Listening to Bright Sheng's A Night at the Chinese Opera reminds me of my first encounter with Chinese Opera.

In the early 1980s I was filling for a music teacher on maternity leave at St. Catherine's School for Girls in Hong Kong. The pictures on the introduction to their website look exactly like the school looked over 20 years ago. The uniforms are the same, and they still have an orchestra (which was started by Keith Anderson, the person who now writes program notes for Naxos).

One afternoon I went on a field trip with my students to a rural part of Hong Kong that the other teachers said was very much like rural China. My job was to teach the girls at St. Catherine's Western music, and they decided that the bus ride was a chance for them to teach me something about Chinese music (I loved these girls).

First they taught me to sing Ach du lieber Augustine in Cantonese, and then they started singing some music from a Chinese opera. I was completely surprised by what I heard. They used their voices in very strange ways, but they seemed completely comfortable (these were very musical girls). I was also amazed that these young children would embrace what seemed to be a rather adult musical style. I guess I likened it to American children introducing their Chinese teacher to Western music by singing a bit of Verdi.

When my six weeks at St. Catherine's were up, the students gave me a box of small ceramic masks that represented characters in Chinese Opera.

Tremendous chamber music playing

What a treat to have just heard Yura Lee play Beethoven's First Sonata and Brahms' Third Sonata with Rohan De Silva at the IVCI this morning. I didn't expect to hear such fine chamber music playing in a competition! Their reading of the Bright Sheng piece was a true dialogue--extrordinarily engaging and exciting. Now on to Ysaye.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Bright Sheng's A Night at the Chinese Opera

What an exciting event this is: a world premiere of a fantastic new violin piece at the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis that is available for everyone to hear on line. Last night we got to hear the piece twice, and it was played with two vastly different interpretations.

Saeka Matsuyama, a Japanese violinist played it with rhythmic spring that immediately evoked images for me of the delicate and "over the top" stylized characters of the Chinese opera. Her performance was engaging and charming--dramatic and strong, but never "dramatic" in an overtly Western way. I particularly liked her range of sounds (that sounded like Chinese instruments), and her liberal use of slides.

Daniela Shtereva, a violinist from Bulgaria and her pianist played the piece in a far more aggressive way that sounded more like Western drama. Frankly it sounded like a wild night at a Bulgarian opera, which is highly appropriate because her dramatic, musical, and cultural experience comes from a tradition that is in a different world, both geographically and culturally, from the world of Chinese opera.

I'm really looking forward to today's performances.

This experience seems to be to be a lot like giving a bunch of visual artists the same set of objects to paint, using the same colors and the same materials, and observing that resulting paintings might have far more to do with the individuality of the artists than the objects themselves. This is a remarkable chance to witness the blurring of the lines between a composer and a collaborating performer, particularly since in this case it is the performer who is being judged.

There is also the cultural aspect. Bright Sheng grew up in Shanghai, but he was schooled in the Western musical tradition. Still, his music reflects who he is, and much of it is his music, though it uses Western instruments and techniques, consists of musical response to Chinese culture. He is such a fine composer because he writes music that reflects who he is as a musician as well as his cultural heritage. It is music that really works, music superbly written for the violin, and music that speaks in a way that goes far beyond the limits of spoken (or sung) language.

We are at an odd musical crossroads. There is no doubt for anyone listening to this competition that some of the most sublime musicians and finest violinists, playing music that we used to say belonged to a Western tradition, are from Asian countries or have one or two parents who come from countries in Asia. These musicians have, until now, been evaulated on their performances of music that has always been part of the tradition of the West.

All of a sudden things have changed, and we have the unique chance to watch and listen to it change before our very eyes and ears. All of a sudden 16 fantastic violinists who have been steeped in the traditions of the music Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Paganini, and Ysaye, are stepping out of their musical skins and taking a huge leap out of that tradition into a world of musical wonder that most of them have never explored before: Chinese Opera. Bright Sheng is giving it to them on a silver platter, and they are giving it to the whole world for everyone to hear as it happens, in streaming audio.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Day Three: Waiting for the results

I'm trying to be patient. I imagine that thousands of other people (or maybe hundreds of thousands, who knows) are logging onto the IVCI website with the hopes of finding out who they will be hearing in the semi-final round.

I heard two violinists today who I really loved: Stephanie Jeong and Emilie-Anne Gendron. I heard Stephanie play at a master class ten years ago when she was 9. She played like a 20-year-old then, and she has continued to grow as a violinist and as a musician. I guess I would say that she plays with the musical mind of a very smart woman in her 60s, and has the physical stamina of a 19-year-old. She gets a personal award from me for the most inspiring use of the outer extremes of the bow. Gendron (who has a real college degree) played a stunning short piece by Sibelius, and my favorite Paganini Caprice (for listening), #9 (the one that imitates flutes and horns). I also loved her Bach A minor.

Well, it is time for me to try the IVCI website one more time. I hope that the results come in before I start teaching this afternoon.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Day Three of Listening to Violinists in Indianapolis

I have decided to be bold and list the violinists I have heard so far that I hope to see and hear in the semi-final round of the Indianapolis competition. There are seven people playing tomorrow.

Saeka Matsuyama (I liked what I heard through the technical recording difficulties)
Simone Lamsma
Daniel Khalikov
Zhijiong Wang
Ryoko Yano
Yura Lee
David Coucheron
Ye-Eun Choi
Bella Hristova
Yang Xu
Rachel Harding
Augustin Hadelich
Eunice Keem

Of course my list doesn't mean much of anything, but it will be fun to compare with the list that comes out of the computed calculations of the judges.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Indianapolis Competition Day Two

Like any good addict I have organized my day around my addictive activities, which means I basically spent most of the holiday today watching and listening to the competition. I did my eating and practicing during the breaks, and I listened to the archived performances that I missed because I was teaching.

Practicing this evening has been interesting for me. I was worried at first that I would be horribly disappointed with the level of my playing (I don't think I'll ever be able to play Paganini, even in private), but I feel like I really learned a lot from watching these young people play.

There are people I would love to hear play again, so I guess it does mean a lot to me who gets into the next round. I just hope that the judges have similar musical tastes to my musical taste. It seems that with playing at this high technical level, the thing that people will be judged most on is musical personality. Today there were people with musical personalities I liked with techniques that let them down and made them tense, and there were people with musical personalities I did not like who played without any technical flaws at all.

I'm looking forward to tomorrow.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Listening to Violinists in Indianapolis

Now I understand how sports fanatics feel. I have been basically tied to my computer all day listening and watching (in real time) the prelimary round of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis and I find it really hard to stop. I really like the way some of the violinists play, and I am indifferent to others. I'm glad I'm not one of the official judges of this competition, but I'm glad that I am able to watch and listen and learn about the process of judging, because, try as I may, I judge most of time. The only time I don't judge is when I am dazzled or fascinated by someone's musicianship.

I wonder how this computer access will affect the violinists who are playing. I'm sure that all of them are curious about one another's playing, and I'm sure that the voyeuristic ease of listening and watching on the computer would be very tempting for violinists who are playing this afternoon and in the rounds during the rest of the week.