Saturday, March 31, 2007

Heifetz at Home

I know that I should be spending more time practicing and less time watching films of fantastic fiddlers on youtube. You probably should too, but here's just one more. It is from a publicity film. In addition to a close-up shot of him practicing a bit of the Beethoven Violin Concerto and some Dounis left hand exercises, we get to see him change a tire, play ping pong, and plant a flower.

Tags: , ,

Friday, March 30, 2007

Milstein Paganini Caprices

What a thrill it was for me to find these films of Nathan Milstein playing the Paganini Caprice #5, Paganiniana, and the Paganini Caprice #11 on youtube yesterday.

Tags: , , ,

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Gershwin as a Trademark?

In the spirit of Matthew Guerrieri's Soho the Dog post about the Rachmaninoff family copyright fiasco Guile of the Dead, I just came back from playing a concert with a piece called "An American in Paris Suite" with a TM (trademark) printed after the word "Paris." It is a re-orchestration of the original (with the saxophones removed!) and from where I was sitting I observed that there was some simplification in the string writing, and the edition had larger notes that were easier to read than the original. It was not the arrangement that bothered me though. It was the idea that the title of a piece of music could wear a trademark.

. . . and furthermore

GERSHWIN®, GEORGE GERSHWIN® and IRA GERSHWIN™ are trademarks of Gershwin Enterprises
PORGY AND BESS® is a registered trademark of Porgy And Bess Enterprises
RHAPSODY IN BLUE™ is a trademark of the George Gershwin Family Trust
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS™ is a trademark of the George Gershwin Family Trust
CRAZY FOR YOU® is a registered trademark of Crazy For You Enterprises
All Rights Reserved

I wonder if this is the kind of thing that the Rachmaninoff family wants to do with Rachmaninoff. What is this world coming to?

Tags: , , ,

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Bach St. John Passion

Now here's an accomplishment: a performance from 1985 that is both musically and historically informed of "Es ist vollbracht" from the St. John Passon with alto Panito Iconomu (what a voice!) and viola da gamba soloist Christophe Coin (who you will notice uses vibrato). Nikolaus Harnoncourt is directing the Concentus Musicus Wien. While you are there be sure to check out the other parts of the St. John Passon, as well as those by the Tölzer Knabenchor that are posted. This link goes to a documentary in German (without subtitles) about the Knabenchor, but there are oodles of videos of them in concert nearby.

Tags: , , ,

Soho the Dog Quiz

Here are my answers to the Soho the Dog quiz:

1. Name an opera you love for the libretto, even though you don't particularly like the music.

Ernst Krenek's ''What Price Confidence"

2. Name a piece you wish Glenn Gould had played.

Poulenc's "Babar"

3. If you had to choose: Charles Ives or Carl Ruggles?


4. Name a piece you're glad Glenn Gould never played.


5. What's your favorite unlikely solo passage in the repertoire?

The double bass solo in the slow movement of Mahler's First Symphony.

6. What's a Euro-trash high-concept opera production you'd love to see? (No Mortier-haters get to duck this one, either—be creative.)

Turandot with Ping, Pang, and Pong dressed as members of the Blue Man Group.

7. Name an instance of non-standard concert dress you wish you hadn't seen.

Actually it was kind of quaint, but ultimately a little disturbing: a string quartet of four teenage girls wearing white summer dresses and not wearing any shoes.

8. What aging rock-and-roll star do you wish had tried composing large-scale chorus and orchestra works instead of Paul McCartney?

Carole King

9. If you had to choose: Carl Nielsen or Jean Sibelius?


10. If it was scientifically proven that Beethoven's 9th Symphony caused irreversible brain damage, would you still listen to it?

I would, but I wouldn't inhale.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Quiz Answers

Return to the quiz

Vibrato from a practical standpoint

I have been involved with studying and playing "early music" since the 1970s, when it was in its relative childhood. Music from before the time of Bach played on approximations of early instruments had its official "Renaissance" in the 1950s, though a few 19th century pioneers like Arnold Dolmetsch (1858-1940) should be given a huge amount of credit for paving the road to "hipness" that we now all take for granted.

I was originally attracted to the movement as a way of finding ways of playing baroque music (the stuff that I spent most of my time with since I was a flutist) in a more intelligent way than I had been playing it. I have read the well-known treatises, and have applied, for various periods in my musical life, "rules" that I thought would help me to better understand and play in a more "authentic" manner. I learned to play baroque flute in order to play music written for my instrument in the way that it would have sounded when it was written. I feel very fortunate to have devoted ten years of my musical life almost exclusively to the baroque flute and the recorder.

Because I was learning at a time when there were very few experts in the baroque field, and those experts were around were still in the experimental stage of their lives, I learned most of what I knew (and I guess still know) from treatises. The main thing, in retrospect, that I learned from reading treatises (the "big" ones are by C.P.E. Bach, Rameau, Hotteterre, Quantz, and Leopold Mozart) is that good musicianship needs to always be guided by taste. Each of these writers had a pedagogical agenda and addressed specific problems connected with specific students (Quantz addressed specific problems that his student and patron Frederick the Great must have had), and each had his own unique ideas about musicianship.

Some people read these treatises as "rule books." I know now they are not. They are personal statements by accomplished musicians who were in positions prominent enough to get their books published. These are the books that the people against vibrato (PAV, maybe?) regard as authoritative evidence.

All I know about vibrato is what I know from practical experience. I rarely use vibrato when I play Medieval and Renaissance music with recorder players (as a string player). Recorder players play with very little vibrato, if any, because a diaphragm-centered vibrato, the kind that good singers and good wind players use, sounds very wide on the recorder. Of course there are recorder players like Michela Petri who have total control over the instrument, but for most mortals a vibrato that doesn't originate in the throat oscillates too slowly to make any kind of impact on the musical line (and a vibrato that originates in the throat sounds horrible), so when I'm playing violin or viola with recorder players I find that my sound blends better when I don't vibrate.

During the 17th and 18th centuries recorder players started using a fast finger vibrato called flattement to add expression. It is usually made with the index finger of the right hand moving in the air to the side of the recorder's finger hole. If I were playing a French trio sonata with a recorder player (or a baroque flute player) using flattement, I would certainly want to vibrate in order to match his or her sound.

Leopold Mozart warned against having a tremolo in the sound. I think that he was warning against the evils of a bad vibrato, both vocally and instrumentally. He probably meant to say that it is more tasteful to not vibrate at all than to vibrate tastelessly. It is impossible to teach a good vibrato in a treatise. A good string vibrato comes from a lot of care, practice, muscle control, and most of all a correct physical position on the instrument. String vibrato is very easy and very natural once a string player has a good physical relationship with the instrument. Getting that relationship to happen takes a lot of work, and the musical rewards are great. Why should we deprive ourslves of the ability to express ourselves with all we have for the sake of what some people call "authenticity?"

David Hurwitz Article on Vibrato

I posted this 110 page article on the sidebar to the right because I want to read it carefully and often. Hurwitz raises some very good points that are worth considering when contemplating the "authenticity" of HIP performance practice.

Tags: , , ,

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

How to Practice . . . anything

Thomas Meglioranza calls this blog entry "Singing Atonal Music for Dummies," but it is a way of learning music that is great for all instruments. I would think that would work equally as well for learning tonal music as it would for learning atonal music. I particularly appreciate this passage:
I'll practice for a while singing with very exaggerated dynamics so that I strongly associate each section of the piece with a certain dynamic feeling in my body. I'll do this with all the markings--articulation, expressive markings, ritards, etc. always doing it in a way that at first feels very exaggerated. Even if I eventually decide not to do the markings as strongly, exaggerating them helps me physically remember that they're there, rather than having to read them from the score each time.

My basic philosophy for new music study is that it's NOT sight-reading or any kind of reading at all. When I'm performing the piece, I don't want to be READING intervals and COUNTING rhythms and REMEMBERING to 'do' dynamics when I see them in the score. These things should already be deeply embedded in my body and happen automatically.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Thoughts from Chesterton

Thanks to Christopher Floyd for these words from Chesterton from 1905. Though they have nothing to do with music, they have a lot to do with communities of musicians, whether they are created because they play in the same ensembles, live in the same physical communities, or even, perhaps, like to read the same blogs.

The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique. The men of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are all descended from the same sacred cow; but in their souls, by the divine luck of things, there will always be more colours than in any tartan. But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists is hell. A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Tartini's Art of Bowing

Tartini's Art of Bowing, 50 variations on a theme by Corelli for solo violin, is a really wonderful violin workout. The variations are so much fun to play that it is easy to forget that they are actually good for you. And our kind friends at the Werner Icking Music Archive have a beautiful edition for anyone to download as a PDF. There is a version for violin (the original), and there are also versions for viola, and cello.

The picture here is not about the Art of Bowing, but it is about Tartini's Devil's Trill sonata, which came to him in a dream.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Friday, March 16, 2007

Beethoven 9 on Youtube

My music appreciation classes are finally starting to understand what we have been talking about for half a semester, so I thought for a treat I would play them this recording (boy, was I thrilled to find a film of it on youtube) that Leonard Bernstein made of Beethoven's Ninth on December 12 1989 in the Berlin Schauspielhaus right after Berlin Wall came down. The musicians are from the Bavarian Radio Orchestra, the Staatskapelle Dresden, the Kirov Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, and the Orchestre de Paris. The soloists are June Anderson, Sarah Walker, Klaus Konig, and Jan-Hendrik Rootering. Schauspielhaus Berlin, 25-12-1989. ) Notice that they changed the words in the last movement from "Freude" (joy) to "Freiheit" (freedom).

Here is some of last movement:

Before I came across the Bernstein video, I happened upon a film of a portion of a performance of the Ninth that Furtwangler did in 1942. I do not want to link to because it really gave me the creeps. You can search for it yourself if you are curious.

Tags: , , ,

Thursday, March 15, 2007

National Philharmonic of Russia Concert

My husband Michael and I went to a concert last night by the National Philharmonic of Russia with pianist Olga Kern that is part of their United States tour. I certainly understand why the International Observatory of Russia named a star after Vladimir Spivakov. It was a remarkable concert.

The concert made such an impact on me that this morning when I was making my 22-minute drive to work (I would normally listen to the radio) I spent much of the time thinking about the contour and structure of the big tune in the last movement of the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto. Of course I know the tune very well, but I have never been fascinated by it before. (You know it too, I'm sure--many people know it from the film "The Seven Year Itch" or as the once popular song "Full Moon and Empty Arms.") Last night's performance was the first live performance I have heard of the piece in probably 25 years, and most of the recordings (played too often on the radio) I have heard treat the melody as one huge cliché. This orchestra and this wonderful pianist treated the melody (and every other phrase and melody in the piece) as something rare and special, making it clear that having the opportunity to play it is as much of a treasure for the musicians as having the opportunity to hear it played so beautifully by the audience.

I also started thinking about the orchestral colors in the Shostakovitch 5th Symphony, a piece I also know very well. In last night's performance I heard things in the music I have never heard before. The orchestra's playing was a mixture of comfort and excitement. It was clear that all the musicians were comfortable and extremely happy to play with such a fine conductor, and a conductor who made it clear that he had a huge amount of respect for the orchestra. He was able to let the music move from total placidity to explosive excitement without getting in the way. His tempos were also right on, and he seemed to be able to work with shade and contour in the orchestra's sound. The experience was one of music, not of ego.

The concert protocol was interesting. The orchestra sat with Classical Period seating (first and second violins on the left and right of the conductor, cellos next to the first violins, basses behind them, and violas between the cellos and the seconds). The woodwind players had sounds that were very different from the American wind sounds I have gotten used to--not better, just different. There was less of a reedy core to the flute sound; the oboe and clarinet sounds were more alike in timbre than in American or European orchestras, and the bassoon sound was delicate and more like the French "bassoon" than the German "faggot." I really enjoyed hearing these timbral differences. For me the timbral difference in an orchestra's wind section works like regional differences in food preparation, and this was a rare opportunity to hear a set of new musical spices "waking up" familiar musical dishes.

Also, there was no real tuning ritual--everyone tuned backstage. Before the concert the stage was empty, except for cellos and basses resting (or maybe lounging) belly up on their chairs. The musicians entered like chamber musicians, and the concertmaster entered the stage with everyone else. The audience didn't quite know what to do: they began clapping, but the number of musicians entering the stage (more than 100) made it difficult to keep clapping until the last musician was on stage.

I really did not know what to expect from this concert. I had heard from Russian friends that after the government stopped supporting music, life was very difficult for musicians. Orchestras folded, and a lot of musicians were out of work. I'm glad that the Russian government is supporting music again. Music itself has nothing to do with politics, but a good lesson that this country might learn from this tour is how much a little government support can do for music.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Rampal in the Jungle

I really don't know why I thought of this, but it is a good story to share about my adventures in the musical jungle of the New York 1970s.

I believe that it was my second or third year at Juilliard when Jean-Pierre Rampal came to town to play a concert with Julius Baker. My teacher wanted to involve his students in this concert, but somehow, in arranging for a kind of "flute orchestra" (this was before the concept of the "flute choir" came about) for one of the Boismortier "concerti" (commonly known as one of his flute quintets), every flute student in town seemed to have been involved. There must have been more than 100 flutists playing during the "tutti" sections.

When Rampal made his appearance at our rehearsal, Julius Baker introduced him to his Juilliard students. I said something (probably stupid) in my bad high school French. Whatever I said must have prompted him to ask my teacher to put me in the front circle of 6 soloists. The circle included Rampal, Baker, Marya Martin, Alan Cox (Baker's former prize student: he got to play the bass flute), and me, doubling the bass flute part an inaudible octave higher on the C flute. The fourth soloist might have been Karl Kraber who taught the students from the Mannes School of Music that were part of the "tutti" section, but I'm not absolutely sure.

Though I supposed I should have felt honored (why? For being the focus of Rampal's non-musically-motivated attention?), I did not like the resentment I felt from all the other flutists who wished they could be standing in the "inner circle." After the performance I remember being fawned over by some of the New York managers who kept tabs on the classical music star scene, and I remember being treated as if I had achieved something special by being "featured" at that concert. One very powerful manager even talked to me for a long time, and I found myself being repulsed by another conversation I had at the party after the concert.

If I were a different kind of person I suppose I would have "milked" the experience for all it was worth, regardless of the fact that whatever I "got" from it would have had nothing to do with my musicianship. That evening was my first taste of what I didn't like about the "who you know and how you know them" part of the music business that fertilized the musical jungle of the New York 1970s.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Last FM: a Mainstream Classical Music Barometer

Just for fun I clicked on the Technorati link for "Classical Music" and found myself looking at this list of 100 pieces ranked in order of popularity. These are the pieces that people have "scrobbled," whatever that means, at Last FM.

Pachelbel's Canon is (no surprise) number 1 on the list (as well as #7 and #46 due to some common misspellings). I image that it will always be at the top of this use-generated list because its perennial use in weddings. I have been playing weddings for the past 15 years, and it is very rare that a bride doesn't want to have the Pachelbel Canon played. (It happens to be a very useful wedding processional because it is possible to tailor it on the spot to be any length and to fit any "mood." In spite of what some people might say or how "tired" some people might be of it, I think it is a remarkable piece.)

I was not surprised to see the "Lacrimosa" from Mozart's Requiem in the number 2 spot because of its exposure on the basketball shoe commercial, and I was not surprised to see a bunch of pieces that are used in many of the standard music appreciation textbooks. I was not surprised to see music used in a few Star Wars films, but I was surprised to see Shostakovich's The Gadfly and Five Days-- Five Nights as well as some Debussy Preludes.

The labels on this list are sometimes incorrect. Young people often confuse the composer of a piece with the performer on a recording, hence the use of that all-purpose (and misused) word "artist." Some of the labels on this self-generated list confuse the "artist" with the composer. Maybe the people at Last FM or Technorati will fix that and make the resource even more useful for people new to classical music.

More on the Audience for Classical Music

. . . I finally figured out that it's not about being knocked out of my chair, it's about being able to aurally go up to the music and engage it actively, openly, maybe even foolishly. The more that classical music borrows from popular music, the more the artistic content is skewed in a pop direction: towards sensation and away from contemplation, and more crucially, towards expectation and away from exploration. The most important music is the music we don't yet know that we want. Structuring the presentation along popular lines makes it that much more unlikely that we'll ever find it.
This is an excerpt from a post at Matthew Guerrieri's Soho the Dog blog that comments on the current discussion going on at the Arts Journal about the future of classical music and its audience.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Post Ugly Music?

Here's a new collection posted at Sequenza21 of music by a slew of fine composers with the very clever title 13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg. I wonder why the people at Sequenza21 are calling the kind of music that people are now writing "post-ugly music?" There must be a better phrase. Why do we have to label periods anyway? During the first three quarters of the 20th century, before "minimilism" became the new musical genre of high-profile note, there were a whole lot of people writing music that was (and still is) quite beautiful. It just wasn't "hip" to like it.

Tags: , ,

Philippe Hirshhorn

This clip of Philippe Hirshhorn from Werner deserves its own post.

Tags: , , ,

Thursday, March 08, 2007

More about Berl Senofsky

Werner Stroobants put these segments from The Winners on Youtube. Here Berl talks about meeting Rachmaninoff,

and here he talks about the business of music and listens for the very first time to a recording he made when he was a teenager.

Noel Lester sent me what he wrote about Berl Senofsky for the liner notes of a forthcoming recording:

Berl Senofsky—An Appreciation

When I first arrived at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in 1969 as a very green piano major, I could never have imagined how profoundly Berl Senofsky would influence my life and career. I never expected that a violinist would become my touchstone for musical excellence, even though my high school piano teacher had already spoken of him in reverential tones.

During my first couple of years at Peabody, I was around Mr. Senofsky a good bit and heard him play a number of times, but my first musical interaction came later, when my future wife, RoseAnn Markow, who was studying with Berl at the time, and I were put in a chamber music group together. I learned very quickly that one needed to come to the sessions very well prepared and to be ready to have every musical notion tossed aside, reexamined, and, if lucky, put back together again. But I also glimpsed a vision of what intense and profound music-making could be and I was and continue to be hungry for that kind of experience.

Berl Senofsky was a musician and a man of uncompromising standards. Though he was warm and had a quick wit, he did not suffer fools gladly (especially musical fools) and in his playing and teaching, he strove to reveal the meaning and truth of everything he and his students played. His studio was a mecca for the most gifted students at Peabody—not only violinists, but also pianists, cellists, violists, clarinetists, and anyone else who wanted to become a musician.

The sheer physical presence of Berl Senofsky could be intimidating; he had the build of a football player and a searing, steely gaze that could stop even the boldest person in his tracks. But when he picked up his violin to play, one was immediately transported to another realm--one which only he seemed to inhabit. Whether it was one of his many recitals at Peabody, a concerto performance, or a chamber music concert with colleagues such as cellists Lawrence Lesser or Stephen Kates, pianist Ellen Mack, or violist Karen Tuttle, Senofsky showed us a rare and beautiful vision of music as revealed by only the most gifted of interpreters. His audiences were transported, if only for a few breathtaking minutes, to Mt. Olympus itself.

These concerto performances reveal Senofsky’s playing at its very best. Brilliant, both technically and interpretatively, he is aided and abetted by two of the great conductors and orchestras of the 20th century. Listening to these concertos reveals why those of us who knew him and his playing well have been spoiled forever after and continue to measure other performances by his standard. Quite simply put, the time-stopping magic of a great Senofsky performance is a gift rarely received in this life.

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!"

Berl Senofsky Remembered

Shortly after Berl Senofsky died in 2002 I conducted some interviews with some of his former violin students as material for a magazine article. It was very hard to find, at that time, a "home" for these interviews, so I am posting them here.

Here is an interview with Sandra Goldberg, who is the Assistant Concertmaster in the Zurich Chamber Orchestra. She studied with Berl from 1971-1975 at the Peabody Conservatory of Music.

1. What was your first impression of Berl Senofsky?

He was large, intimidating, and important, a fantastic violinist with an incredible sound.

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

Always play with imagination and good taste, always project to the back of the hall.

3. What is your most poignant memory?

I have a lot of memories of Berl. When preparing for my recital, he taught me up to the last minute, together with Ellen Mack, until they were both arguing about if I should do a repeat the same way as the first time I had played it, or do it a different way. I don't remember what they decided, but I think I ended up playing it differently.

One day during a summer in Woodstock Connecticut, where he taught our violin class, he and Ellen took us on an excursion to Boston. We went to a Chinese restaurant where dish after dish was brought out until we were so stuffed we could no longer move. He had Incredible generosity and a love of the fine things in life.

I remember his master classes in the concert hall. He was always standing in the back of the hall listening, a cigar in his fingers. Years later my violin still smelled of his cigar.

I remember Hearing him demonstrate a passage and feeling as if I could never come close to that genius in his playing in a million years. It was both inspiring and depressing at the same time. His playing was always so beautiful and convincing.

4. What did Berl teach you about bow technique?

"Sustain, sustain, sustain," controlling bow changes, articulation, and colle.

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

Putting the fingers down so slowly that you could adjust the note before it
was played. He talked about vibrato with "tensil" strength, and had me do vibrato exercises and shifting exercises. He taught me how to make a
beautiful Heifetz shift by coordinating the bow change with the glissando.

6. What did he teach you about phrasing?

He taught me to sing, to "color" the sound, and to time a phrase so that the audience is in the palm of your hand. "Make the audience cry," he would say.

7. What did he teach you about sound production?

He would talk about feeling the resistance of the bow pulling in towards the bridge, sustaining the sound, and projecting to the back of the hall.
The first few weeks of lessons consisted of feeling the arm weight on open
strings, changing the bow at the frog slowly so that the sound was very
dirty. The result came later in a projecting sound, but during those few
weeks I felt sorry for my neighbors in the dormitory listening to my
scratching sound!

8. What did he teach you about musicianship?

"There is no such thing as a bad accompanist. You must learn to lead better
and to listen." He taught me to be a good chamber music player.

Monday, March 05, 2007

What's it all about?

A year or two ago I got a note from a friend in the New York area who goes to a lot of different kinds of cultural events. I suppose she would be a great example of the "typical" person who goes to a symphony concert as something novel to do for a night out. Anyway, she heard the Shostakovich Violin Concerto played by Vadim Repin, and she was so excited after hearing it that she wanted to know everything about the music. I happily replied, telling her everything I knew and loved about Shostakovich and the Violin Concerto, and her response was "but what do you know about Vadim Repin?"

I think that people who are not practicing musicians themselves tend to respond to how a musician plays a piece rather than stuff about the piece itself. Being a musician who wears many hats, I bounce back and forth. If someone plays a piece that I wrote, I tend to ignore the notes and rhythms of the music and focus on the interpretation and the playing. Still, I get a special thrill when someone finds something in a piece that I didn't even know was there, and then my attention is temporarily re-directed to the music itself. When I am listening to a performance of a piece I know very well by another composer, and there is something novel about the interpretation, my attention also goes right to the piece. When I'm hearing something I have never heard before, I almost always focus on the piece, and let the playing take the back seat.

When I play a solo concert I think mostly about shifting, intonation, sound, bow distribution, phrasing, ensemble, and I think about expressing myself, relegating the composer to the role of the person who provided the notes and rhythms, and did all the work to have them fall in the right places. When I play an orchestral concert I tend to pay more attention to the music than to my playing. It's all very confusing.

All in all I think that it is the performer's art that is the most important. I don't think that I'm alone among composers (living or dead) when I imagine how someone might play a phrase while I am writing it. The notes and rhythms are essential, but the musical gesture is what really matters. Someone can design the most beautiful dance costume, but if it is worn by a person who can't dance, it means nothing. Then again, if it is worn by a wonderful dancer, the costume becomes part of the whole experience of the dance.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Banjo Fever

I love the banjo. My son started playing it a few months ago, and I love hearing him play, but last night I heard the banjo in a way I never heard it played before. I played a pops concert with Buddy Wachter. He played a program with orchestra that included Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen, a medley from Fiddler on the Roof, and a medley from Oklahoma. On very little rehearsal he played a jazz set, an old time fiddle set, and a bunch of traditional early 20th century small group ragtime stuff with groups of musicians from the orchestra. My favorite part of the concert was when he played a solo rendition of Mancini's theme from Charade because I could really listen to him play. He played this too, but I couldn't watch him very well since I was busy with violistic afterbeats.

It was a real thrill to hear him because in addition to having technique to burn he is an extremely expressive musician. He also developed an immediate rapport with the musicians in the orchestra, which is unusual in my experience. Now, with the concert as a memory, I really enjoy reading the insights on friendship, music, and learning on his website.

Tags: , , ,

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Sephardic Suite

On Sunday our county's arts council sponsored a concert of some of my music played by local musicians. Shannon Hayden, an excellent 16-year-old cellist who lives in our area, played a performance of my Sephardic Suite for solo cello.

She did such a great job playing it that I thought I would share it here. Thank you Shannon!

March Wagner Madness

Could this actually be true? I found this link to an article by Charlotte Higgins in the Guardian at ( I love the idea of blogs being "places") On An Overgrown Path about Wagner's cross-dressing and love his of silk and satin underwear. Or maybe it is just an early April Fools joke. At any rate, it made my day.

Tags: , , ,