Constructive Creativity

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Violin Virtuosity

On the evening of Saturday, May 10, I had the pleasure of attending a performance by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra. I enjoy classical symphonic music, but I am not very knowledgeable about the genre. For example, I could never hear a piece of symphony music and know who composed it. However, I have heard lots of this sort of music before, and I do very much enjoy the melodies and harmonies that the many instruments played together can create. I especially like to view live performances. I think it is very interesting and fun to watch the conductor waving his arms and the musicians responding. Also, it is fascinating to observe the physical mechanics of the performance: the violinists fingering the notes with one hand and sounding the strings with back and forth movements of the bow in the other hand; the horn players puffing their cheeks as they blow into their shiny brass instruments; the drummer pounding out a beat on his big bass drum; or the percussionist tapping a triangle to create a high clear note. It really makes the music so much more meaningful and amazing when you can actually see it being created! :)

In case you would like to know the names of the music played at the event, here are the three pieces: Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, Opus 56a composed by Johannes Brahms (apparently Brahms was inspired by a previous work by Haydn); Concerto No.1 in G Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 26 composed by Max Bruch; and Symphony No. 102 in B-Flat Major composed by Joseph Haydn. Not exactly snappy or catchy titles. ;)

Just out of curiosity, I read
a biography of Joseph Haydn and was very impressed! He was obviously born a musical genius. He rose from humble beginnings and had a few good teachers, but I got the impression he was mostly self educated. He was a prodigious composer for much of his long life, and his many works apparently laid some impressive foundations that later symphonic composers built upon. For any reader with an interest in musical history, I definitely recommend reading this biography. For everyone else, I would like to give you a brief synopsis here:

Joseph Haydn, who has been called "The Father of the Symphony", was born in Rohrau, a small Austrian village in 1732. His father was a wheelwright and his mother was a cook. Neither of his parents had any musical training, but his father taught himself to play the harp and both parents loved to sing. Joseph's parents, recognizing their son's musical talent, apprenticed him at the age of six to a relative in a nearby town who was a schoolmaster and a choirmaster. He soon learned to play both the harpsichord and the violin. Also, he also began to sing in the church choir. Singing was Haydn's earliest musical profession. At the age of eight, he auditioned for the choir of a Cathedral in Vienna and was accepted. There he worked as a chorister for the next nine years. He received no training as a composer, but the Cathedral was host to many performances of musical creations by some of Europe's leading composers. Haydn learned much by simple observation. By the age of 17, his voice had deepened and he was no longer able to sing the high notes that his job required, so he was dismissed from the choir. He then worked at various jobs, such as a music teacher, a street singer, and as an accompanist to an Italian composer who taught him the fundamentals of composition. He read books on composition to increase his skills, and shortly thereafter, he composed his first opera. He quickly established a reputation as a skilled composer and attracted the interest of various aristocrats who were happy to employ a man with his talents. For years, he had a succession of aristocratic patrons. Eventually, his compositions earned him a very comfortable living, allowing him to cease composing on demand for his patrons and devote his talents to creating some of the finely crafted symphonic works for which he is best known today. It is interesting that Beethoven was his student for a time. Also, Haydn and Mozart were good friends. They occasionally played together in string quartets and had a positive influence on each other's compositions.

Alright, lets get back to the concert. The Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra was accompanied, during the Max Bruch segment, by a very talented violinist named Philippe Quint. The program from the performance detailed his very impressive resume. He grew up in Russia, but emigrated to the U.S. to study at the famous Juilliard School of Music, where he earned a Bachelor's degree and also a Master's degree, which he completed in 1998. He has studied with many accomplished violinists and taken master classes from Isaac Stern and Itzhak Perlman, two of the giants of the violin world (Stern, who died in 2001, was also one of Perlman's teachers). He has traveled extensively, playing with many of the world's best symphonies. He performs on a violin crafted by Antonio Stradivari in 1723 which has been loaned to him by the Stradivari Society in Chicago. If you are interested, you can learn more about Philippe Quint (and even listen to some of his music!) from his personal website.

Ok, lets talk some about Philippe's performance. He played with a very energetic and dramatic style. He not only produced a truly beautiful sound from his instrument, his physical movements became an integral part of his performance. His movements suggested that he was not only playing the wonderful Stradivarius, he was dancing with it, as if it were a loving partner. His performing style conveyed so much emotion. He varied the speed and pitch of his sound in tune with the rhythm of his physical movements. He swayed back and forth, and at times lifted himself up and down on his toes. I have never before been witness to such a dramatic musician! He really has a special gift and talent for capturing the attention and stimulating an emotional response from his audience. After the Bruch Concerto concluded, the audience gave him a standing ovation. I was certainly not the last to leave my seat! Then, Philippe treated the audience to two wonderful encores. For these, the orchestra sat and watched him, becoming an extension of his audience. He introduced the first piece as "The Red Violin #5" (From the movie "The Red Violin", which I have not seen. I have asked my library to reserve one of its copies for me. I am looking forward to seeing it.). Philippe was especially energetic in his delivery of this piece. He was moving his bow so fast and hard that the fibers of the bow literally began to shred! He continued to the end in a fury of sound and flying bow fiber. :D Then he took a couple minutes break while we were all once again on our feet. When he walked back out, he had either repaired his bow, or more likely, substituted another, as there were no loose fibers to be seen. He announced the second piece, and I believe the name he used was "Burganini" (although, I have not been able to find this piece in my web searching). This piece was probably the most complicated bit of violin music that I have ever seen performed. He not only used the traditional back and forth movements of the bow on the strings, he literally hammered the bow onto the strings repeatedly! His fingering was also varied by plucking of the strings instead of just simple finger tip presses. His manual dexterity was just amazing! The orchestra seemed completely transported by his performance. They danced in their seats and tapped their shoes to his rhythms. The big smiles on their faces were mirrored by the faces of the audience. When the piece came to completion, both the audience and the orchestra erupted to their feet and thundered their applause. I felt like I had been witness to one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. I smiled so hard that my face was sore the next day! :D

One very unusual thing happened during the Bruch Concerto. Philippe was really going at his violin, his bow arm moving almost in a blur, when suddenly the shoulder rest that was clipped to the bottom of the instrument came flying off and landed on the floor in front of the conductor's platform. At that point, Philippe had a momentary break in his part of the Concerto, so he scrambled down and tried to pick up the loose piece. He managed to grab it, stood up and briefly fumbled trying to get it back on the violin. However, he ran out of time and had to start playing again. So, he dropped the part to the floor and played his next segment. The conductor immediately heard the difference in sound quality from the magnificent Strad and turned his head briefly to see what was the matter (I think the conductor had completely missed the flying part and its attempted recovery. ;) ). The sound changed from the violin's normal loud and clear resonance to a somewhat dull and muffled texture. I never realized how much a violin's sound relies on the ability of the wood body of the instrument to vibrate freely. With the wooden bottom of the violin pressed firmly against the chest of the musician, the quality of the sound is dramatically different! Fortunately, this solo segment was brief, perhaps only 20 seconds. Then Phillipe quickly bent over, grabbed the errant shoulder rest, and got it reattached to the violin before he began again. During the remaining parts of the Concerto, he checked the shoulder rest several times to make sure it was still firmly attached. I suspect that this minor gaffe really endeared the artist to the audience. He is a great violinist. Indeed, he may someday be the greatest, in my opinion. But, he is still very human. He can stumble just like the rest of us. :)

When I was looking up Phillipe Quint on the web to help with this post, I realized that I had already heard an amazing story about him not long before I saw him perform. A few weeks earlier, I heard a story on the national TV news about a violinist in New York city who forgot his four million dollar Stradivarius and left it on the seat of his taxi. The cabbie was an honest guy and he turned it in. The frantic violinist was so grateful to get his violin back that he treated all the New York City Airport cabbies to a free half hour concert. When I learned that this absent minded musician and Phillipe Quint were one and the same person, I just smiled and shook my head in wonder. :D

Since the subject of this post is a great violin performance, I would like to conclude with something extra and special along the same vein. Some years ago, during my graduate school days, I had the opportunity and privilege to attend a performance staring the legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman, who, as I previously mentioned, was one of Phillipe Quint's teachers. I wrote about the performance in a letter to a girl who was a very good friend to me at that time. Here is the portion of that letter relating to Perlman's performance (incidentally, Perlman actually owns and performs on one of the best surviving Stradivarius violins):

"This week, I went to hear the Tuscaloosa Symphony Orchestra with special guest soloist Itzhak Perlman the violinist. He is thought by many to be the greatest living violinist. I do not often have a desire to go and listen to orchestra music, but my mother bought us tickets to hear Perlman almost a year ago. The tickets sold out very quickly. I may be semi-skilled in waxing poetic, but I do not even begin to have the words to describe Perlman's artistry with his instrument. He is a master's master with the violin, as I am like a small child with the guitar. It gave me an intense feeling of pleasure to sit 30 or 40 feet away from him in the center of the audience and listen to him play and watch his precise bow arm movements and his fluid fingering. The expressions on his face, as he played, said to me that he was really feeling the music. So much pleasure was given to me and the other members of the audience by this man. This man, who as a child was crippled by polio. This man, who with metal braces on his legs, moved himself slowly onto the stage on his crutches to take his chair and be handed his violin. There is something very beautiful and poetic about someone who is able to overcome what to many would seem a great tragedy. When he finished playing, he smiled to the audience from his chair amidst the tumultuous applause. He handed his violin to the orchestra's concert mistress (first chair violin), reached for his crutches at his feet, and as he slowly arose, so did I and the rest of the audience in tribute to his talent and courage. Our standing ovation lasted for about five minutes. He returned to the stage three times to bow and smile broadly."

I hope you have enjoyed this little excursion into the world of classical music performance. It is something that I really like to experience from time to time. :)