Monday, July 20, 2009

Talking With Steven Staryk

I feel very fortunate to be able to share the transcript of an extended conversation I had with the great Canadian violinist Steven Staryk. After (or before, or even during) this conversation, be sure to go to Steven Staryk's web page, where you can hear extended excerpts from his recordings, and watch video recordings of some of his performances.

EF: Do you think that it is possible to maintain a kind of musical innocence while still doing everything you need to do to make a solo career? Is there a way to preserve innocence and honesty in this very non-innocent and highly dishonest musical world?

SS: If one is fortunate to have a smooth-sailing life, one is likely to wallow in the success--it’s another great day, and everything is going your way; however, if one is struggling with the day-to-day mundane problems, or worse, one is very likely to stay “Earth bound.” It depends when the sweet smell of success arrives. If it’s too late, it will be jaded.

Much is a matter of basic character. If you’re a realist, and have lived long enough to witness the inequities of life, the “pie in the sky” is fiction, and the success, just temporary. You continue doing what you did, whether by choice or necessity.

EF: I suppose everyone has to do things like take care of bills and brushing your teeth.

SS: Or taking out the garbage. I saw a wonderful cartoon of Johann Sebastian Bach and Frau Bach. He’s busy at the organ, the kids are all over the place, and she’s standing at the door with a bucket yelling, “Johann, the garbage!”

EF: And maybe the garbage had some of the things he wrote that he didn’t like.

SS: Could be.

EF: I find a real disconnect between the way people perceive of musical life and the way musical life actually works. Some people think it is romantic and very dramatic.

SS: Some people play that part very well, and fit into it very well. It’s what I call the “artiste,” who does nothing else, and always has an “entourage” around. You know, like Beecham used to have, with everybody running around and making sure they are happy about everything. And then the others who come in and do whatever is supposed to be done and don’t have this “up on the clouds” attitude. The ones that interest me are the ones that are well grounded.

EF: As a musician you spend your time with a composer’s best work. Like Mozart, really getting rid of all the wrong notes, the lies, and the affectation. It is really music that, once completed, embodies purity of thought. And then this purity of thought gets thrust into this arena of artifice. There’s a real disconnect there.

SS: The most amazing thing is when you have a group coming off the stage after what you felt was an exceptional performance, and your colleague thinks it was just another night. He doesn’t know what you’re talking about. I have found this happens even in large groups, like an orchestra: divided in so many ways. Some will think it's wonderful, and some not. I suppose it is very subjective and has to do with how few wrong notes each individual played.

EF: How do you keep the "why" of music and the "how" of music in perspective? In obsessing over the "how," it is easy to forget the "why."

SS: The “why,” I would say, is primarily emotional, subjective, and genetic. For example, in the fiddle lands of the gypsies, it is second nature to vent all of the expressions of sadness, tragedy, happiness, and joy. But equally the “why” is economic, playing in order to put food on the table. The “how” is primarily by osmosis, and not Auer, Flesch, or Galamian. Hearing and seeing constantly, copying by acute hearing, and feeling and repeating while developing the tactile sense to the highest degree. I choose the music of the “Tzigane,” as this is natural raw material, as is jazz and music from other ethnic cultures.

I would say much is similar in approach to western classical music, with the intellectual ingredient added. I believe that one should intellectualize as much as possible without becoming paralyzed or professorial about it; reading as much as possible about the subject, and researching to an understanding level. One does not have to read The Musical Symbol by Gordon Epperson, but I applaud anyone who does. I also believe providing one has the technique, one should gamble. But the gambling needs to be very calculated. The “why” for the classical fiddler, in my opinion, is the need to just play; bending the rules, and exploring, but, in the more traditional style and not the more personal style.

EF: What are your thoughts about keeping the “why” of music in balance with a healthy musical ego?

SS: The need to play is for self-satisfaction: to relieve oneself of the pent-up emotions within. Music is personal and as such, is most rewarding in a controlled manner. This naturally includes the ego, but in an idealistic sense. The satisfaction in surprising yourself with the beauty of sound, or impressive facility is like stroking the ego. Needless to say, if the beauty of sound and impressive facility continue, the ego will expect rewards. This is only normal, however, at this point matters get rather vague. I like to quote Igor Stravinsky, who was critical of the excesses of performers in his own time in the Poetics of Music.
“These are just so many practices dear to superficial minds forever avid for, and satisfied with, an immediate and facile success that flatters the vanity of the person who obtains it and perverts the taste of those who applaud it. How many remunerative careers have been launched by such practices! . . . Exceptions, you may say. bad interpreters should not make us forget the good ones. I agree--nothing, however, that the bad ones are in the majority and virtuosos who serve music faithfully and loyally are much rarer than those who, in order to get settled in the comfortable berth of a career, make music serve them.”
EF: I know that your first ensemble playing was in a traditional Ukrainian orchestra in Toronto, but when and how did you start playing "real” gypsy music?

SS: I started by being really, really infatuated by the music itself. My step-father was Yugoslav, so I had contacts with Macedonian, Greek, and Yugoslav musicians. I played mandolin and violin. Much of the Hungarian, Romanian, and Balkan music is Gypsy music. You'd find rhythms and all kinds of harmonies that you never heard before.

EF: Do you remember the physical act of learning this music? Kato Havas writes about gypsy musicians learning without actual teaching: simply by playing. Was this your experience?

SS: My experience was learning by osmosis, by listening and copying, hearing it as much as possible, and, of course, it is in your blood--genetic. But then I had plenty of Ševčík behind me! Suzuki gypsies, it's all in the family, or related family; or from the same tribe. I don't believe, unfortunately, that this music is as universal as classical Western European music (not to mention Michael Jackson). There was a period when Zamfir playing the pan pipes was catching on, but it was a short period: the pipes just faded away.

When I was older, attempting to follow the gypsies here and in Europe, I found that there were not so many around, but I did manage to run into some in New York and in Toronto, and I collected some priceless recordings. They don’t explain, they feel. It’s a totally subjective thing.

EF: You were kind of a pioneer at this. Now it is rather common for young Western fiddlers to play around with alternative styles of music.

SS: Alternative, cross-over, pop-over, whatever--I would call it primordial style. I have not yet heard anyone who is well known in classical fiddling have an effective take on gypsy playing. The people I have known to be successful with it are not known--colleagues of mine, and such.

I remember Menuhin playing with Grappelli, but it had nothing to do with Grappelli and Jazz: it was Menuhin and Menuhin. He sort of looked as if he had changed something, and he had changed nothing. Perhaps he changed a fingering, or put in an extra slide, but I guess I missed it if it mattered at all!

EF: There is a difference in approach to sound in the western tradition. The aim of western playing is always to make a beautiful sound, and in traditional playing there are other things more important than sound.

SS: Or the sound is used to create all kinds of feelings. Beauty is not always the primary thing.

EF: Or the quality of the fiddle. Some of these guys were playing on boxes.

SS: Or Del Gesus . . . with the varnish removed.

EF: Stolen from somebody, somewhere.

SS: Actually, the violin known as the Sacconi-Steinhardt, was probably a gypsy fiddle. It was found somewhere, and all the varnish had been removed, which then, of course, blew all the arguments for the secret of great violin sound being in the varnish. All that was left was the underlay--the filler. And then Sacconi (that’s why it was called the “Sacconi”) re-varnished it, and it was sold to Arnold Steinhardt. But the fiddle sounded incredible: dark, typical of a Del Gesu, and the varnish did not take any of the sound away. I played it for years with great pleasure.

EF: Did you ever read The Violin Hunter? The book about the guy who found old Italian fiddles everywhere--in farm houses and barns?

SS: Is that the book that talks about the Muntz? Where Stradavarius wrote on the label that he made the instrument at the age of 93 without assistance from his sons?

EF: Yes, I think so.

SS: I owned that Strad for a number of years, and it was an absolutely beautiful instrument. You wouldn’t believe it was a Strad because it looked so brand new. Nobody wanted to play it because it hadn’t been broken in, and that was the problem with it.

One of the people who played it, somewhat, was Jacob Krachmalnik when he was concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony, as it belonged to a doctor in San Francisco. Jake's comment to me at the time was, "It feels like the back fell off." When I let it be known to the violin dealers that I was, once again, looking for an instrument, it just, by coincidence, came up, and I got that fiddle. We battled for about a year, and the Muntz fiddle finally became much more flexible--probably the greatest fiddle, in every respect, that I’ve ever played. But it had this one personality flaw that you just couldn’t change.

EF: What was that?

SS: It was a little bit like Francescatti’s, but more neutral. It wasn’t at all nasal--it was very beautiful in that respect because it was not dark, and wasn’t really bright; well it was more bright than dark. I played that instrument for about three years, and people in New York, like Jacques Francais, who knew the fiddle were just amazed. Eventually Jacques made a deal with me, and I let him have the Muntz. It was when I moved out of America, so I had to do it for tax reasons. The Muntz is now in Japan.

But I’m not sorry, because the last one that I did finally end up with, the Barrere, was a really special fiddle because it had a back and sides which were from 1727, and a top that was from 1719. It was put together by Hill's years ago. That made quite a unique difference in being able to get even more colors in the sound. I was able to do things that I didn’t dream were possible.

EF: I have only played on one fiddle--it was made for me, and was one of the maker’s last fiddles. It has taken me so long to learn the ways of the instrument that I can’t imagine having that kind of relationship with another fiddle. It would be sort of like adultery. Have you ever felt that way?

SS: Yes. Where one has so much personality that it is almost unto itself. Even though it has flaws, you’re used to it, and you know how to deal with it.

EF: I have listened to you play nineteen fiddles on your recordings, and what I basically hear is you.

SS: And the recording thing, the sound engineers, the "dying" tapes, the hall, and "your humble servant, Primas Stefan." I know of only two violins that I could hear in a hall and almost tell who it was, and those two violins were the McMillan of 1721, the instrument that Spivakovsky played, and Franciscatti, with his 1727 Hart. Those two violins I’ll never forget. Like the Muntz, these instruments would cut through--no matter what kind of hall, or if the orchestra forgot it was only an accompaniment aside from the tuttis!. I don’t know if you agree with me, but sitting in a normal orchestra anywhere behind the first desks, it is very difficult to tell if the soloist is projecting.

We did quite a number of experiments with good Italian fiddles and good modern fiddles, and we found that the projection in the hall was better with the modern fiddles, but the closer you got to them, the quality lacked the "magic" and vice versa. The old Italian fiddles didn’t have the projection of the modern fiddles, but when you got close to them, there were magical things you heard, providing the player contributed to some of the magic.

Fiddles can take up all your time.

EF: I suppose the quality has to do with the Italian wood, and real knowledge.

SS: Yes. And the period, and the geography. It reminds me of the great Dutch period in painting, with all those paintings that were quite similar. With the violins there is a kind of similarity to this puzzle, even when you hop from Strad to Del Gesu to Bergonzi to Amati, in the same extended period and the same geography. Then there’s the odd one that’s got so much personality like the 1610 Bartholony Maggini, which is too dark--like a viola. I had to go out of my way to make it sound more like a violin; but it was so great--it was really quite impressive.

EF: Then there’s the vocal quality in Italy during the 17th century: a purity of sound. How do you get a purity of sound on the violin that will cut through by its purity rather than by force?

SS: You have to have the core. It relates directly to the temperament of the player. An intense individual will generally create an intense sound. A narrower vibrato is closer to a pure sound than a wide and wobbly one. My own experience has confirmed that intensity is created by intensity; equalized tensions. I think Thane Lewis describes it best in Fiddling with Life.
There is a cord-like tenacity to Staryk's tone, and a conception of line and phrasing in his musical thought, that forms a silvery, sustained spinning-out of sound. The current trend in modern-instrument playing runs counter to this Apollonian aesthetic, leaning toward thickness in the sound, drama in its portrayal, and a degree, more or less, of sentiment.
The music should always dictate the physical approaches of both arms, a simple age-old, totally misunderstood, naive, and bad example is the “relax, relax, don’t tense up, let go, let go” approach, which applies, I suppose to the sforzato fortissimos, fortissimo staccato, fortissimo tremolo, and similar examples that you might find in Bruckner’s symphonies, and other music that requires this type of musical tension. I would say the “relax-relax” rule would apply to perfume-salon vignettes, and similar music requiring triple pianissimo, which is also found in Bruckner’s symphonies. It all amounts to how much total music has been experienced by a particular player, and on what level.

A Beecham pianissimo has you bowing above the string. I used to call it “phantom fiddling.” A Solti fortissimo has you sawing through the fiddle. There is a lot of physical intensity required in concertos by Sibelius, Brahms, or Tchaikovsky, because it is difficult with the orchestration to really project--not on record, of course, but in a hall. It requires a lot of physical intensity, and a lot of physical pressure, both in the left hand and in the bow. Tension in and of itself is not the point. It is the demands of musical tension that can only be created by physical tension. It’s a question of minimal bow movement, and maximum pressure, as close to the bridge as possible without breaking the sound. It's much easier to demonstrate than to explain. Then, of course, we get to the bows themselves. A great bow will change the sound of a fiddle. Period. I’ve had that happen, and it is an incredible experience.

EF: And a good bow will make your left hand work better.

SS: Yes, in many ways. There’s that aura around the sound which vibrates more freely. A good bow will not crush the sound. That’s what I’ve noticed with Tourtes particularly. And a Tourte, in my experiences, whether it’s well-rosined, or whether it’s been rehaired years ago, does not produce any extraneous sound--you don’t hear the normal sound of the hair and the string: the contact. It just flows.

It does have its drawbacks: you wouldn’t want to use it to play Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, or a very modern work which requires tremendous pressure. I prefer to play music from the Baroque Period, Mozart, and Beethoven sonatas with a Tourte because all the slightest little inflections you want to make, the bow will do it. It is almost like “you think it--the bow does it.”

EF: I have just recently discovered the “sounding point” when playing double stops, which has been a revelation to me. Do you have any specific thoughts about playing double stops?

SS: One component to consider when playing double stops are the strings themselves. There are people who use a set of strings, which generally doesn’t give too much of a problem with pitch because all the strings are of the same “family.” When you start mixing strings--strings from different families, made of different materials it is different.

Tossy Spivakovsky left me all his A strings, which were made by Kaplan and have a steel core wrapped around in silver, not surprising for the unorthodox Spivakovsky. When you put that string on, you definitely have to find other strings that will match it, because it’s an incredible string. I went for it because of him, because of him, his sound--and the fiddle. Then he was going to sell the fiddle, and I had it for six weeks, but I couldn’t stand it. It’s amazing how personal these things are.

When the Soviet Russians first came across, most of them used steel strings, and so I decided there must be a reason, and I don't mean because they couldn't get any other. The top names had some choice. I tried gut strings earlier in my life, and found there are some great things about the gut string too; but the Kaplan silver A, which has been discontinued, just opened up a world for me in sound. And it worked on all fiddles.

Spivakovsky would buy them directly from Kaplan, and he would test each string by drawing the string between his forefinger and thumb to make sure there were no imperfections. Sometimes it doesn’t matter with these strings.

When he retired, he phoned, and my daughter answered saying she knew who he was, his response, "Is that so? Spell my name backwards!" And she did. He sent me his whole box of strings.

EF: What about all the new makes of strings available today?

SS: Basically one needs only to look at a Shar or another catalog to discover what is new. A few examples are Pirastro synoxa, Pirazzi, and Tonica (all gauges), the Dominant silver wound Ds, Thomastik's two types of Infeld, Tomastik's steel, all gauges of Zyex with silver-wound Ds (not steel), the 27 1/2 gauge (thick) Westminster E, and the 27 gauge (medium) Westminster, which has, in my opinion, not had any competition since my last playing in 2004.

It’s much better now. I was amazed at the quantity and quality of the new brands, and the improvement of the old standards. I used to play on a mix. I kept the Westminster E and the Kaplan A, and the fluctuations were the D and G strings. The correct tension is extremely important, and it varies from one fiddle to another.

EF: Speaking of release of tension, can you talk more about your criticism of the “relax, relax” school of thought?

SS: Well, people who have never performed in the business or the profession are the people talking about this “relax, relax” way of thinking. Once you are sitting in an orchestra, playing a Brucker symphony, where you are trying to suddenly play pianissimo while your arm is still shaking from playing fortissimo tremolo, you think differently. And that is more or less 90 percent of professional violinists. They either give all, or they fake. You can’t create musical tension without tension. It’s a very simple physical thing.

EF: A lot of people who have the technique to play Paganini and Wieniawsky Caprices play them like either showpieces or etudes (which they are in part). When you play Paganini and Wieniawsky Caprices they sound like beautiful musical miniatures.

SS: I would say, providing one understands this incredible total exploitation of the violin harmonically and technically, and assuming one has the technical equipment, a refined musical imagination is all that is required. I look at some of the Paganini Caprices as program music. Some were already nick-named, like the “Devil’s Laughter” (number 13), “La Chasse” (number 9), the “Love Duet (number 21), and “La Militaire” (number 14). I think of number 20 as a peasant dance with a doodle-sack in the distance. I just listen to these and envision the pictures that come up. Some versions have pictures, and some versions don’t have pictures.

Wieniawsky can be expressed for me in four words: Chopin for the violin. However, the Polish angels have more cupid arrows, whilst the Italian witches are more stinging.

EF: It seems necessary for violinists who aspire to have any kind of a solo career to enter competitions. While it certainly increases the technical level of playing and the technical preparation to reach the necessary technical level to make it through the first round of a competition, it seems to have taken a toll on the overall variety of violinist's voices. It seems that nearly everybody plays the same way: individuality can sometimes cause judges to react negatively. It is the same way in preliminary rounds for orchestral auditions: individuality is shunned. It is, however, something to be desired in the final round, but more often than not the people who play with any kind of individuality have already been eliminated.

SS: I do believe that initial rounds, either in solo competitions or orchestral auditions, require impeccable technical preparation. The right notes in the right place, at the right time, with the right dynamics, in an acceptable tempo. In an orchestral audition I would say with minimum individuality (they will all have some differences of sound, as this is inevitable in all individuals), but coloring the sound and inflections to suit the period and style of the music. We have to remember that they must fit into a section. Needless to say, eve this varies geographically in spite of our more universal mix.

When I sat on juries just before the end of the Cold War, it was East versus West. If the competition was in the East Bloc, and there was more of an Eastern Bloc jury (and vice versa), to break through this "tradition" a person had to be really exceptional, like Van Cliburn (at least at the competition!). As we all know, there were not too many years of tours that followed. I could write a book on this subject, but enough on competitions.

EF: It seems that the most popular violin concertos among young competitive violinists are the the Bartok and the Shostakovich. I suppose that it is healthy for young musicians to relate to music from a time period closer to their own, but how can you influence a Shostakovich-minded fiddle player to find interest in a slow movement of a Mozart concerto, which is far more difficult to play well, and far more revealing of a musician's "core"?

SS: I have seen that. I have been there. Developing musically in a total sense, with Bach, Shostakovich, Mozart, Beethoven, and Bartok is by far the greatest challenge. It is a matter of hearing the best Bartok performance, the best Shostakovich, and the best Mozart. And for this one should search at the source: perhaps technically it may not be the best, but the style and inflections may be much closer. When listening, for example, to goulash, borscht, or sauerkraut, you remove some of the overdone ingredients, and you purify it and distill until you get the core of the music without either idiosyncrasies or personalities intruding.

As I mentioned in Fiddling with Life, one can even express verbally the type of sound and approach desired. Mozart, for example, requires tight rhythm, but loose sound and attacks. It should not sound like Rossini. Beethoven would be described as lean, with great emphasis on dynamics. Bartok would require some of the goulosh, and in fact one can listen to the same authentic performances that Bartok and Kodaly recorded of the peasants of the area, and was available years ago on Folkways Records, Bartok Records, and Supraphone. I also have a tape from Hilversim of the premiere of the Bartok Concerto with Zoltan Szekely and the Concertgebow Orchestra with Mengelberg. Another example: the Hoedown by Copland; Boston Pops or Vienna Philharmonic?

The popularity of the Bartok and Shostakovich concertos among young violinists is, in my opinion, superficial. Pretense, unless we have heard them in an acceptable and beautiful Mozart. Yes, they have also suffered and instantly matured. In the vast majority of cases, its hiding behind the notes, of which there aren't that many in Mozart.

I had these feelings as well in my youth, and kept them to myself; knowing that I did not know, and having heard a lot more Mozart and Beethoven than Bartok and Shostakovich. I continued to listen to a lot of contemporary music, and in my orchestral periods went through a musical education with great conductors and orchestras.

I would advise any serious violinist to strive for a position in a good orchestra, and gradually work their way into a major group. This will be far more rewarding in every way than the solo competitions. All music cannot be seen through the f-holes of a violin.

There is no better musical experience than playing the passions of Bach, and, if lucky, the operas of Mozart (and there is nowhere to hide in Mozart). In an orchestra serious violinists will play the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, the Divertimenti, and if they are anxious enough or curious enough, they will even delve into the six quartets. The same would apply to Shostakovich, who not only wrote 15 symphonies, but 15 quartets. Very few people know that this man wrote 15 quartets, and the material is absolutely fantastic.

In Fiddling with Life I quote Nikolaus Harnencourt, who offers a concise solution.
The more musicians familiarize themselves with the specific style characteristics of historical periods, various nationalities in western music, the better they will recognize the profound inter-relationships between a given type of music, and its interpretation, both then and now.
And then there is a jingle I like to quote from Kipling:
I keep six honest serving men,
they taught me all I know.
Their names are what, why, and when,
and how and where and who.
I encourage active curiosity in all matters to supplement talent, aptitude, and industry. Practice inventively, and solve problems by creating exercises that approach the problems in a variety of ways; but with the music always dictating the physical motions of the arms and body. In conclusion, I am more interested in hearing the composition (as indicated in a score) than hearing the inventions of a performer where and when they are not required.


Lisa Hirsch said...

Thank you for this - I can't tell you how much I love it when he talks about the personalities of the different violins, which appeals deeply to my geekly self.

Unknown said...

Steven Staryk is truly the King of Concertmasters. For those violinists that haven’t had the opportunity to watch him perform live or have a lesson with him, the next best thing is to check out the orchestral parts for violin edited by Steven Staryk published by Ovation Press.