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. :)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

thank you. God bless.

6/02/2008 1:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


6/02/2008 1:31 AM  
Blogger David said...

You are welcome Manuela, thanks for visiting.

6/02/2008 2:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have attended two grand concerts of traditional orchestras in the past month and I've just loved everything about them. Live performances are fantastic! nothing compares to them. My only goal in life left is to attend a Roger Waters concert before either of us leaves the world ;-)

6/03/2008 4:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How's everything Dave? doing fine?

6/03/2008 4:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do agree with Dr. o2 about Roger's concert!! and I just have to add one :D Radiohead's! I think if I die without attending these guys concert Its just like I have not been born :D besides great post, I always enjoy reading your post ( but I don't usually leave comments:D ). Good luck!

6/03/2008 2:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

sorry, typo! *your posts :D

6/03/2008 2:31 PM  
Blogger David said...

Hi Omid, I'm glad you had the chance to attend some live orchestra performances. :) You are right, nothing compares! Roger Waters seems to be a favorite among Iranians. I really didn't know much about him until another friend got me to listen to some of his songs a couple years ago. He is really good!

How am I? That is a really long story! Maybe that is why I blog about things I do, instead of how I am. ;) In general, I am doing pretty well. I don't write many posts because I spend most of my internet time writing emails to friends, visiting blogs, or my newest interest which is a discussion board dedicated to Highlander movies. Actually, at that board, most of the discussion is about everything besides the Highlander movies. I have been hanging out there for about eight months now. Its fun. :) Maybe I will write a blog about it.

Take care my friend and try to blog more often, ok? ;)

6/04/2008 5:05 AM  
Blogger David said...

Hello Kiddo, thanks for visiting and for your nice comment. I like some Radiohead too. :) Its been a long time since I went to a rock concert. I think I would really enjoy hearing Coldplay live. Good luck to you too!

6/04/2008 5:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I finally managed to visit your blog... you know what? i loved your post! it is so amusing and it brought manay ideas to my mind... the first one is about self taught people, and a question i always wondered about, which is if someone has an amazing talent on a piano for example and was born in place where there are no pianos... would he/ she ever know? would they feel that there is a part that is unsatisified, would they be a lost opportunity?

The red Violin is a very intense movie, i have seen it not too long ago... it made me wonder if love in that intensity still exist? or was it the fassion of the era.. you will tell me when you see it.

I found your story about the absent minded violinist very amuzing... I can draw parallels there, i am very absent minded, although i don't have any excuse as he does... at least he is a genious.

One last thought... it is amazing to me, how the conductor could hear the difference! i mean, how can he hear all the different music sounds when he is totally focusing and infront of all these people... conductors MUST be geniuses!

Thanks for the post and please write more often

6/18/2008 1:23 AM  
Blogger A. Damluji said...

Red Violin: an accomplished Film.
i rarely label movies as film, as the majority of them coming out are simply movies. that however, is a film.

hope you'll like it!

Violin: always was interested in it, never had the chance to pick it up..

ditto on the great man Quint is, was able to recollect himself, fix his instrument, and resume it all as if nothing happened! oh and i read about that NY cabbie story as well! wow!
stories like these make me believe in humanity again!

thank you for this great post! really: if it were short, it wouldn't have done the subject matter justice nor peaked my interest to lookup all the people mentioned in it!

thank you!

6/19/2008 6:06 AM  
Blogger David said...

Hi Mariam,

I'm really glad you liked the post. :) You ask an interesting question. Some people seem to be born with a talent for music. I think there must be something genetic that is related to musical ability, as musical talent seems to run in families. If a child who might take up piano never sees one, I think the child will probably find some other way to make music. I guess it would depend on the culture the child is born into. As far as I know, all human cultures make music in some form or another. It might be as simple as singing, or it might involve drums, or simple flutes. Anyway, I don't think that a musical child would feel lost or that something was missing, as long as they were able to express music in some way.

I finally saw The Red Violin yesterday. As you said it was certainly intense! There were several expressions of intense love in the movie. There was the love of the instrument maker for his wife and their unborn son. Then there was the love of the English composer/violinist for his mistress. Or, how about the love of the Chinese music teacher who risked his life to save all the violins. Yes, I think that some people still feel love that intensely. However, I thought that some of the ways love was expressed in the movie was quite morbid. I think that in the time of the instrument maker, it was thought that blood held special powers that determined personality traits. As the story is told, it would seem that blood and the soul were very closely linked. The fortune teller was not able to distinguish between the violin maker's wife and the violin itself. It was certainly a very unusual and memorable movie!

About the difference in sound from the violin, it was actually quite obvious to me sitting about 30 feet from Philippe Quint. The conductor was standing right next to him.

With regard to conductors, I agree with you, they are all very bright and talented musicians. To a certain extent, a conductor must know how to play all the instruments. At least, the conductor must know the range of sounds possible from the instruments. The guy who was conducting this performance had a very long resume!

Oh, an interesting side note is that the conductor's daughter was also performing that night. She is a very accomplished violinist in her own right. There was one young female violinist that I saw in the orchestra. All the others were much older, so it must have been her. She was quite taken by Philippe. I saw the way she was looking at him. :)

6/20/2008 4:11 AM  
Blogger David said...

You are welcome Anarki, I'm glad you enjoyed the post. :)

The movie was indeed a film! About the only thing that I didn't really like about it was the ending. I was not pleased that Samuel L. Jackson's character was so selfish that he needed to steal the violin and hid it away all to himself. Such a wonderful instrument should be played for the enjoyment of many audiences.

I am no expert on musical instrument's, but I thought that Philippe's Strad had a really sweet sound. It looked quite ordinary from where I was sitting, but then I started thinking about the history of the instrument. It is nearly 300 years old! To have survived all these years, it must have been lovingly cared for. I'll bet that violin has some exciting stories associated with it too! If only it could talk to us. I wonder how many times it was nearly lost, as it was briefly in the cab? I'll bet that honest cabbie was stunned when he heard what he briefly held in his hands! ;)

6/20/2008 4:25 AM  
Blogger Dr.Human said...

Hi david :
Very nice post .I get very nice informations about the music and symphony ,but aculally I don't have interest in it !!

thanks for this post

Visit my blog ,I have new post there !!


7/09/2008 12:31 PM  
Blogger Rainer said...

Hi dude,

I am doing research on the interchanges between Western to Middle-Eastern, and Middle-Eastern to Western blogosphere. Not entirely sure yet what this will yield though. PhD student bla... My question is: do you have a Middle Eastern background? Like, where you born anywhere in the Middle East?


8/18/2008 4:57 AM  
Blogger David said...

Rainer, I was born in the U.S. Part of my ancestry is of ancient Middle Eastern origin, while other ancestors that I know of once lived in England and France. When I was in college, I became friends with people from various Middle Eastern countries. My friends included Iranians, Iraqis, Egyptians, Jordanians, and students from the U.A.E. I also befriended students from Japan, Korea, Malaysia, as well as, various South and Central American, European, and African countries. I had a deep interest in cultural anthropology, so I very much enjoyed learning about different cultures from my friends. My attitude and interests are very different from most Americans that I have known, so it would probably not be wise to draw any conclusions from my experiences.

My blog is not really the place for a discussion such as this. If you have further questions post them in a comment along with your email address and I'll get back to you.

8/18/2008 3:30 PM  

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