Posts filed under:  Young musicians

The Breath of Life, Through Lynn Harrell’s Cello

Cellist extraordinaire Lynn Harrell teaching Samuel Walter in a memorable masterclass at Haverford College

Cellist Lynn Harrell plays with such ease, it’s as if the bow he holds in his right hand is a natural extension of his body.  I’ve seen only two or three other artists play with this same degree of relaxed command. In a concert and masterclass he gave last fall at Haverford College, he revealed his secrets to that physical ease, and to his approach to music.

One of the keys to his playing stems from a sense of timing tied to breath. In his playing of J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite no. 3 in C, he achieved a mixture of sonic plushness and suspense, in phrasing that was completely unpredictable, yet utterly inevitable. Listening to him play Bach is like being in conversation with a person you’ve just fallen in love with, and they’re about to tell you something fascinating and brand-new. After hearing Lynn Harrell’s Bach, I’ve decided that Bach should always be played with that kind of freedom. In the Debussy Cello Sonata that followed, in which he was admirably joined by the impressive and sensitive pianist Pauline Yang, he achieved a huge array of color and a sense of un-boxed-in release that left his audience enchanted.

Over dinner after the concert, he attributed his sense of breath and timing to his father, the great baritone Mack Harrell, who died when Lynn was only 15, but from whom he still draws inspiration. During a masterclass Lynn gave immediately afterward, he reiterated the importance of breathing, of singing, when playing an instrument, so:

“I knew that man once,” he sang, to demonstrate a phrase from the Brahms Sextet in B-flat Major, for a student group. “I KNEW that man once,” he said, emphasizing a different part of the sentence — and then, with a sense of resolution: “He was a lovely man.”

Equally important to timing is knowing how to handle sound production.

Forte does not mean loud,” he said. “It means strong. It has nothing to do with volume, but more with a feeling of effort. In fact, piano and forte dynamics are quite close together in volume, but different in texture.

Piano is soft in texture, like the fur muff that Mimi’s friend Musetta brings to her in the final act of La Bohème. ‘O, piano, piano,’ Mimi sings.

Mezzo-piano is a little more muscular. Forte-piano, fp, means a normal volume of communication. Poco forte is Brahms’ invention, and the abbreviation, pf, means full-bodied and singing. When you see pp, pianissimo, don’t play less loud necessarily, play more voluptuously and use more bow.”

“Because of the thickness of the parts in Brahms’ early writing, you have to bring out some voices and back off in others. For instance, when the second viola plays off-beats in the first movement, compact the rosin granules in the bow, play a little more detached and accentuated. It should sound like a burr or a thorn in your side, against the sweet and charming melody.

“And where there is an important melody to be heard, even if it’s marked ‘p‘, the listener needs to hear it — go to it, be a bull in a China shop.

Lynn complimented student Samuel Walter in his performance of the first movement of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, but had plenty to offer; first, “sculpt out the strings” to give the opening statement more bite and definition, but in the lyrical second theme, “release the pressure, as if you are cuddling or petting a kitten. In virtuoso passages, be pointed rhythmically, and use an intense and faster vibrato, with feeling.

“The climax of the concerto comes on the big diminished chord — but then, be like Alfred Hitchock — don’t let ‘em go, don’t let ‘em go — then wait for a BIG silence, which makes the orchestra respond more ferociously.”

In considering Samuel’s precise nature, Lynn suggested, “Don’t be cool, calm and collected. Don’t ritardando too evenly. Have a huge variety of vibrato speeds. Be a bass singer. Then be a soprano. A singer has to manipulate his or her vocal cords for ever single note.”

In the Kodály Duo that Samuel and fellow student Dora von Trentini (violin) played, Lynn suggested, “Make it more ferocious. Feel the rhythm like a dancer, and draw back for your punch.”

Lynn gave general practice suggestions: to achieve stamina for extended big passages, “Be in that ff realm when you practice. Practice again and again and again. Change your bow grip to accommodate different tones you want. Think about thumb placement, and how far your forearm is from the hair of the bow. Sometimes more relaxed fingers on the bow is not the way to go — for instance, when you want precision in Bach.”

The secret to his playing with utter physical ease? He relaxes the upper arm, forearm, and uses the muscles of his back as if he’s playing tug-of-war. “It’s tricky sometimes because there are not as many nerve endings in the large muscle groups. It makes a difference where the energy is coming from. Have the ideal of strength, with freedom from any constriction.”

The secret to his freedom of expression? His understanding that “music represents every emotion in life, even when we’re murderously angry.”

The secret to making everything sound unpredictable and new, as if you’re having a conversation with a person you’ve just fallen in love with? “In repeated performances of a piece, if I do a passage successfully, I have to let it go. I have to make it fresh each time, and original.”

Lynn Harrell, American original, does just that. And we listeners can’t help but fall in love.









How To Succeed in Classical Music — Three Women Show How: Part I: Kristin Lee



Violinist and generous young visionary, Kristin Lee

My friend Charlie recently asked the head of the Curtis Institute how he’s advising their incredibly gifted students about the job market for classical music, which, as everyone knows, is a thinning slice of a shrinking pie.

Roberto Diaz’ answer:  ”We tell our graduates they need to be entrepreneurial and creative. They need to take charge of their own careers.”

In the short span of 3 evenings, Tom and I have witnessed three women classical musicians who are doing just that. My series of posts about these remarkable evenings will begin with the youngest artist, whose work is magnanimous and daring in spirit.

Four years ago, I first heard Kristin Lee in several concerts for Astral Artists. She played virtuosic violin works from the concert repertoire with brilliance and heart, and a gutsy, rich sound. A little while later, I heard her play some rhythmically tricky contemporary recital music that was equally impressive for her precise and seamless collaborative work with two different pianists.

Later, we both appeared in a promotional film for Astral; I was a talking head, while Kristin was shown in several scenes, one in which she wears headphones in a recording booth, playing the crossover music for the film.

So I was curious to hear what she would do for LiveConnections at World Cafe, the performance space/bar/restaurant of WXPN at the University of Pennsylvania. Over the past two years, Kristin had raised the money to a.) commission five composers to write new work for her and b.) pay fellow musicians to premier these works with her onstage.

The bistro space in the basement of World Cafe is spacious, with a balcony and a main floor filled with long, communal tables. Waiters pad around bringing food and drink to patrons who wait in semi-darkness for the show to begin. The non-traditional, open atmosphere increased the audience’s anticipation for something new, and for who-knew-what?

Kristin put together a program (what she called a “Playlist”) that could not have been more global or colorful. It began with Patrick Castillo sitting beside her, speaking the words, “Last night I dreamed I was in Paris…” Kristin began to play over computer sound loops he’d created, that repeated along with his recorded and live speaking voice, in overlapping layers. This was followed by Kristin and percussionist John Hadfield accompanying Shobana Raghavan’s haunting, clear South Indian Carnatic singing.

Jason Vieaux*, renowned classical guitarist, joined Kristin in Vivan Fung’s “Twist,” in which they both mimicked the sounds of classical Chinese instruments.

Most unbelievable was the virtuosic steelpan work of Ian Rosenbaum, who played Andy Akiho’s “Deciduous” (we learned later in the Q and A that Ian, a percussionist, learned the piece AND the instrument in the past month.)

Most novel, hard-to-describe, and entertaining? Jakub Ciupinski, who “played” the theramin, not as an instrument for a horror movie soundtrack, but as an input device for the computer-generated sounds he’d created. Jakub’s flowing hair and hand motions, as he took visual cues from Kristin, displayed an arresting and energetic choreography.

Most beautiful moment? For me, this was a piece from the traditional repertoire. Kristin performed Camille Saint Saens’ “Fantaisie,” Opus 124, with Bridget Kibbey*, a harpist of astounding musicality and freedom, who can imbue a seemingly simple chord progression with urgency and meaning.

In keeping with the “breaking down barriers” nature of the evening, LiveConnections’ classical curator Mary Wheelock Javian led a Q and A with the audience. After answering a question from a concerned lady who wanted to know how much her promising 15 year-old nephew ought to be practicing (“he’s not going to want to hear this, but four to five hours a day,”) Kristin answered the question “Why this project?”

She talked about being trained in the classical tradition, which she loves. She talked about  being introduced to indie rock by an enthusiastic young relative. She talked about wanting to change the mindset that divides audiences into camps: contemporary music in one camp, traditional classical music in another. She wanted to bring divided audiences together.

“It’s all music, right?” she said. “And there’s nothing better than music.”

The joy and generosity she’s brought to this project shows that she’s succeeded.  I know we will see and hear many more cutting-edge collaborative projects from Kristin in years to come.


*Jason Vieaux and Bridget Kibbey are both Astral Artists alumni.


To Be a Judge

I have mixed feelings about competitions. When asked to judge them, I usually decline. After all, a musical performance shouldn’t be an athletic event, with points to be won or lost, winner take all. Yo-Yo Ma, in Harvard Magazine, has declared, “Are you kidding? I lost every competition, except once when I was five. Today, I won’t even be a judge. I’m against them.”

That said, when the Tri-County Concert Association asked me to help judge their latest competition, I agreed, because I feel that Tri-County, through their long-standing concert series, does try to help serious young artists in a meaningful way. I asked to judge the “junior” or middle-school division as the timing of that category fit into my schedule, even though I assumed the repertoire would be less interesting than that played by the senior division the week before.

I arrived on a Saturday morning in April at the charming venue of Eastern University. The competition was held in the office of the chairman of the music department, in a stone mansion with windows that overlook ancient trees and manicured lawns. One by one the thirty or so contestants, all in grades 6 through 8, entered right on time (the competition is extremely well-organized,) sat at the old piano in the corner and performed their selected seven-minute piece from memory.

There indeed was an early Haydn sonata, and a few pieces which one would think of as “intermediate” repertoire, but most of what I heard could have easily belonged on a serious recital program in a professional concert hall: several Chopin Scherzi, Liszt Etudes, a middle Beethoven Sonata. At the end of a long day of judging, my co-judge Ken Borrmann and I agreed that four of the young pianists deserved honors, and that the top two were nearly tied. The two winners we chose performed Prokofiev’s Third Sonata and Liszt’s Tarantella from Venezia e Napoli, respectively.

Both winners demonstrated extremely clean playing of brilliant, highly demanding technical passages, tonal control through chord balance and dynamics, excellent sense of tempo and pacing, and overall conviction of performance – in short, these young musicians played with authority.

That is not to say that the two honorable mentions and a number of the other contestants did not also play beautifully and with conviction. Some of them may have even demonstrated a greater musical understanding or depth of expression than the chosen winners. It’s just that at that particular time, with a single piece on the line, the winners sounded most polished, and made the strongest statement.

I hope that just because they did not win first or second prize, none of the other pianists felt they were lesser musicians or were discouraged in any way. I hope that our positive critiques on their judging sheets were enough to dispel any feeling of disappointment at not winning.

Competitions are limited in their ability to rank talent, and are certainly limited in predicting the longevity of musical careers. As long as they are put in perspective by students (and by their parents!) they can be useful tools for polishing and performing a piece in a high-pressure situation. They should be viewed as a learning opportunity, not a final judgment.

During one of our breaks, I was chatting with my co-judge, and learned that Ken, besides being a professor of music, is also an expert rose grower. He told me to what great lengths he must go to produce champion specimens, and how carefully he must transport a prized blossom to a rosarian event. He has won top honors in regional rose shows, and at the national level as well, and has even gotten his young sons involved in helping him grow and present these horticultural winners.

As he told me with a quiet smile, “I’m competitive.”


Charming Young Beethoven

This week I’ll be giving a recital that’s a departure from my usual kind of program: I’ll be playing the work of a single composer (Beethoven,) from only one opus (an early one, Nr. 10,) and I’ll be talking a great deal about the music. The talking portion has involved quite a bit of research, and I want to share some of it with you, because it’s fascinating.

It’s hard not to view everything Beethoven did and wrote from the context of the monumental Ninth Symphony, the middle and late Sonatas and String Quartets, and from the viewpoint of his tragic deafness. But before Beethoven became “Beethoven,” he was just a young buck amid a horde of other talented young musicians competing for attention in Vienna. He’d moved there from his hometown of Bonn at the age of 22, ostensibly to study with Haydn and others, and with the intention of returning to Bonn where he had a close circle of friends and a good job waiting for him. But the opportunity, freedom, and creative stimulation he found in Vienna proved to be the right environment for him, and he never went home again.

One of the most important things Beethoven could find in Vienna that he couldn’t find at home was an abundance of wealthy people who were crazy about music, and for whom patronizing important young artists was a way of increasing their social status. Within a short time of his arrival, Beethoven became inundated with gifts of money, horses, clothes, and offers to live and dine, indefinitely, for free, in the mansions of the wealthy.

Later, he would chafe at the sense of obligation this patronage would impose on him, but the support of the nobility was significant, because it allowed Beethoven the freedom to compose, and it created lots of buzz around his name. His father had died of alcoholism and his mother of tuberculosis, and he had to provide for his younger siblings at the time. Accepting the patronage of the nobility allowed him not to have to take a fulltime teaching job, as Bach and Chopin had to do — a good thing too, because by all accounts, Beethoven abhorred teaching.

What endeared him to these patrons? At first, it was not black notes printed on white paper – that is, not his compositions. It was his playing, and especially his improvising. Here is a quote by Czerny about Beethoven’s playing:

“In rapidity of scale passages, trills, leaps, etc., no one equaled him. But Beethoven’s playing in adagios and legato, in the sustained style, made an almost magical impression on every hearer, and, so far as I know, has never been surpassed.”

That he used his own ingenious piano compositions to showcase his playing, and that he could improvise with an abundance of astonishing musical ideas which seemed to just pour from him, only increased his “wow” factor. By 1800, about five different publishing houses were bidding on the rights to publish his work.

A portrait of Beethoven by Christian Horneman, painted when the composer was 33, shows an intelligent young man with a stylish haircut, sideburns, and a rather open, engaging expression.

Of course, they had their own version of Photoshop at the time. It’s known that Beethoven had had smallpox, but no pocks appear on his face. And paintings and photos don’t tell all – already Beethoven was beginning to experience a loss of hearing in the higher frequencies and an abnormal ringing, rushing sound in his ears. Already he’d written his heartbreaking Heiligenstadt Testament. But I like to think that the portrait shows the kind of man Beethoven always strove to be – an optimist and a humanist. His guiding light was art, in the service of mankind.

As he wrote in 1817:

“Continue to translate yourself to the heaven of art; there is no more undisturbed, unmixed, purer happiness than may thus be attained.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Summer at the Mann

The moon rising above the Mann Music Center, Philadelphia

Growing up, my summer weekends were often spent listening to the Cleveland Orchestra at Blossom Music Center, their outdoor home. My friends and I would join a festive line of cars snaking down a wooded lane, directed by parking attendants with flares and brown vests, to the graveled parking lots. We’d arrive early and wait with the crowds until the cedar gates opened. People would spread out blankets and picnic dinners on the immense sloping lawn to the concert pavilion –- the aroma of pate, cold roast chicken, and Chardonnay would scent the air. Under the stars and in the deepening twilight, the music sounded especially sublime.

Here in Philly, our hometown orchestra is away for most of the summer, but we do have the Mann Center, in Fairmount Park, where they play concerts in June, and where another Pennsylvania orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony, made a rare guest appearance this season. I’d been riveted by radio broadcasts of the Pittsburgh Symphony of late, so I got tickets and dragged my husband and friends along.

The Mann Center does not allow civilized noshing of one’s own gourmet items on the lawn – rather, one has to buy food purchased on the premises, like at a ballgame. So my friend Susan found a restaurant nearby which looked promising, though the surrounding neighborhood is rough. The Cochon Noir, we discovered, is a new jazz club which features ribs and Southern accompaniments. The owner, an elegant man in a three-piece suit, personally demonstrated how the properly cooked St. Louis-style barbecued rib should be chewy enough that one must “tug” the meat off the bone.  Susan’s husband Ulf declared with some disappointment that, in his opinion, the ribs were tough. They were also mammoth. We put most of the ribs in a to-go container and made our way to the concert.

Which was sublime. The Pittsburgh Symphony, directed by guest conductor Arild Remmereit, performed an all-Beethoven program, beginning with the Egmont Overture and ending with the Third Symphony. There is an intensity and energy at the core of Pittsburgh’s sound which is electrifying. Aside from some problems in the French horns (perhaps due to outdoor humidity) the winds produced a full, textured choir with gorgeous intonation.

Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto featured teen pianist Teo Gheorghiu, a Swiss-Canadian of Romanian descent. Gheorghiu is an actor too, and played opposite Bruno Ganz in the movie Vitus, which is about, not surprisingly, a piano prodigy. Listening to him was like hearing a pianist of the old school with creamy tone, flawless phrasing and technique. His encore, Rachmaninoff’s transcription of Kreisler’s Liesbesleid, displayed an approach that was mature, without pretense, and beautiful.

At home the next day, we put the ribs in the slow cooker and let them bubble away for hours. They came out perfectly soft and edible, and at last, the food matched our satisfaction with the music.


Mona Lisa’s New Reason to Smile

The captivating art of Micah Chambers-Goldberg

When my daughters were little, we loved reading together. We read all sorts of books — about clueless Papa Bears, and skunks who learned to eat their dinners. Our favorite books were not just entertaining, but powerful works of art which Mom could appreciate, and didn’t mind reading over and over.

The same is true of music. Like a great children’s book, a great children’s concert has the power to move everyone in the audience, whether young or old. One such concert, which I urge you to see the next time it comes around, is called “Who Stole the Mona Lisa?”

Produced by Astral Artists as part of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, the April 9 show at the Perelman Theater featured several of Astral’s young musicians dressed in their own cheerful caps, T-shirts, and jeans. The stellar musical team included violinist Kristin Lee, cellist Clancy Newman, bassoonist Natalia Rose Vrbsky, trumpeter Stanford Thompson, clarinetist Benito Meza, and pianist Alexandre Moutouzkine.

During Martinu’s deftly played La Revue de Cuisine, a troupe of young actors/dancers, portraying pieces of cutlery and an art thief, cavorted alongside the musicians. For Poulenc’s The Story of Babar, the engaging storyteller Charlotte Blake Alston read aloud Jean deBrunhoff’s classic tale to the sensitive accompaniment of Poulenc’s incidental piano music, played by Alexandre Moutouzkine.

Everyone familiar with the story knows that Babar’s mother is killed by a “wicked hunter” early on in the book. As Ms. Alston intoned, “In the great forest a little elephant is born,” a 3-year-old in the audience, anticipating the worst, called out, “Uh-oh. UH-OH.” Talk about audience participation!

A young audience member, inspired to dance after the performance. (Photo, courtesy Steve Cohen.)

But the stunning fireworks, the part that left kids entranced and adults in awe, came at the end of the program. This was the animated video production, shown on a huge screen above the stage, entitled “Who Stole the Mona Lisa?”

Conceived by Astral’s artistic director Julian Rodescu, and created by the visual artist Micah Chambers-Goldberg, this wordless animated film is set to Alexandre Moutouzkine’s transcription of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. The score was played live, with flawless timing and brilliance, by Moutouzkine himself. The film, a stylish fantasy reminiscent of Edward Gorey, contains moments of humor, whimsy, and wonder that are fresh and surprising. (The Cubist depiction of Picasso, with his nose to the left of his eyes, and one eye lower than the other, got plenty of laughs.) The story line loosely follows an actual historical incident, when the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre, but, as in all good stories, returned home again.

I can’t remember an instance when music so enhanced a piece of visual art, and vice versa.

I think Astral Artists is on to something new that is both engaging and meaningful. The kid in me can’t wait to see and hear what they come up with next.

Brahms and Healing

Justine Lamb-Budge and Kimberly Fisher

Justine Lamb-Budge and Kimberly Fisher

For young musicians, being accepted to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia is like winning a golden ticket; it’s a world-renowned school of music, and all study tuition-free. Two years ago I was thrilled to learn that one of my daughter Alysa’s nicest friends, Justine Lamb-Budge, had been accepted there at the ripe old age of seventeen.

When she was just fifteen, Justine gave a recital that would have felled many a professional performer -– I believe on that single program I heard her perform two full-length sonatas, some virtuoso showpieces, as well as a Mozart Concerto and a romantic one, all of which she played flawlessly from memory. Her teacher, Kimberly Fisher, had been working with her for countless hours a week in a manner reminiscent of the great teachers of the 19th century, who live and breathe their art every minute of the day.

Justine and Kim were rewarded for their hard work when Justine was accepted to the Curtis Institute, a major coup for any student and teacher. That same week, Justine’s older sister, just eighteen, tragically died.

After Zoe’s memorial service, I lost touch with Justine and her family. They had to move several times, and I wasn’t able to reach them. I heard through the grapevine that Justine was doing well, though, and was glad to receive a note sent out a few weeks ago by her mother Deborah, inviting friends to hear Justine perform the Brahms Violin Concerto on a student recital two weeks ago.

The Curtis Institute appears low-tech –- it is housed in a dark old Victorian mansion near Rittenhouse Square, and the concert space is quaint and charming. But there is nothing quaint about what pours from the stage. That night four student violinists were featured on the program; I heard a remarkable Bach Sonata played by Yiying Julia Li, the unusual Ysaye E Major Sonata played by Ji-Won Song, and a lovely Ravel Sonata performed by Maia Cabeza.

The entire second half of the program was carried by Justine. It was a joy for me to hear her in this historic space, surrounded by friends and loved ones and fans. She brought to her maiden performance of Brahms’ only Violin Concerto the sweetness and richness of tone she has always had, as well as the strength of will that it takes not only to play this piece but to persevere, despite the most daunting of circumstances.

I hope this will be but one triumph in a long and meaningful career.