Archive for September, 2009

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center opened its 40th anniversary season with a gala program entitled “A Viennese Evening”. Sold out weeks in advance, it was concert that included superb performances, including a world premiere, and featured a large cast of artists both familiar and new to CMS audiences. With a dinner for patrons before, and a lavish post-concert dessert in the new Alice Tully Hall lobby, it was a landmark evening for the Society, beginning its first full season back home at Lincoln Center.

in David’s words…

In search of the most festive of themes for the Society’s 40th anniversary season opener, Wu Han and I looked to the coming season for inspiration. We had not to look much further than the entire Beethoven quartet cycle, being presented in the spring, to dream of an evening rooted in the incredible culture of Vienna, which gave birth to arguably the greatest music ever composed.

Evenings of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert are commonly found, but programming a concert that samples a wide range of Vienna’s great traditions and incorporates composers of different eras is a distinct challenge. Considering works that we had not programmed, but that were sure to please, we selected the sets of Johann Strauss waltzes arranged by Schoenberg and Webern for small ensemble, as well as another novelty, the final movement of Mahler’s 4th Symphony, arranged for chamber ensemble by composer Erwin Stein, who was a member of Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances in Vienna, and a student of Schoenberg from 1906-1910.

Making a spectacular return appearance to the New York concert stage, in the Strauss, was none other than violinist Pamela Frank, who has been sidelined with an injury for years. It was enormously heart-warming to see her once again in front of the public, playing with the passion and integrity that had endeared her to audiences worldwide. She will be welcome to appear at CMS in the future whenever she chooses.

Arnaud Sussmann adjusts tie for Kurt Muroki

Arnaud Sussmann adjusts tie for Kurt Muroki

Before the Strauss, David Shifrin, Andre-Michel Schub and I warmed up the crowd with Beethoven’s early trio for piano, clarinet and cello, and Andre and Anne-Marie McDermott followed the Beethoven with a performance of Schubert’s seldom-heard work for four-hand piano, Lebenssturme.

But the evening truly belonged to our guest soprano, the incomparable Dawn Upshaw, as she sang a new work commissioned by us from composer David Bruce entitled The North Wind Was a Woman. With highly-skilled instrumental writing to support Dawn’s magical singing of poetry by a variety of poets (including the composer), the piece was one of the most smashing successes for a new work I have seen in a long time. A prolonged ovation brought musicians and composer to the stage time and again before the intermission.

Following the Strauss waltz sets, Dawn returned with the large ensemble to end the evening on the most serene note, with a sublime performance of the Mahler. The text is from the famous German anthology of poetry Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and is entitled “Das Himmlischer Leben” or “The Heavenly Life”. It was conclusion of a truly heavenly concert, of which I was very proud to have been a part of.

performance photos by Tristan Cook


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ArtistLed’s critically-acclaimed recording of Schubert’s piano trios led to a national tour this season, which began Sunday at the legendary South Mountain Concerts series in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Joined by Emerson Quartet violinist Philip Setzer, Wu Han and David performed for a sold-out house of listeners eager to hear Schubert’s masterpieces in the hands of some of their favorite artists.

in David’s words…

One of America’s most special places to hear music is the Concert Hall of South Mountain Concerts, located atop a beautiful wooded mountain just south of Pittsfield, Massachusetts in the Berkshire Hills. Founded in 1918 by the legendary American patroness of music, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, the hall was built especially for chamber music, seating 440, and is now on the National Register of Historic Buildings. The hall’s construction – a simple box shape with wooden surfaces, a gentle slope to the stage, and a high ceiling – provides some of the best acoustics for chamber music that can be found anywhere.

Simplicity is the keyword at South Mountain. The backstage rooms are rustic but provide every amenity that is needed.

The box office is a wooden farm table that can be moved under the porch in case of rain.

From the inception of the concert series the programming was intelligent and varied, and featured some of the most distinguished performers of the times. Mrs. Coolidge was extremely dedicated to new music, and commissioned many works from leading composers of the day that were premiered at South Mountain, by Ernest Bloch, Anton Webern, Frank Bridge, Roy Harris, Bohuslav Martinu, Arnold Schoenberg, and Ottorino Respighi, to name a few. Mrs. Coolidge, a resident of Pittsfield, also established two resident ensembles, the Berkshire Quartet and the Elschuco Trio, which performed numerous series of concerts in mini-festivals at the hall. Other artists who have performed there include Leonard Bernstein, Gary Graffman, Lilian Kallir, Leontyne Price, Peter and Rudolf Serkin, Alexander Schneider, and countless string quartets.

Over the years, most of the world’s distinguished ensembles have been regular performers at South Mountain. The large collection of backstage photographs, inscribed to the hall, testifies to the diversity and depth of the programming.
Illustrating South Mountain’s commitment to ensembles of quality is the collection in its gallery of photographs of almost every configuration of the Beaux Arts Trio, which retired last season after 53 years. In the photos below you will see violinists Isidore Cohen, Ida Kavafian, Young-Uck Kim and Daniel Hope, as well as cellists Bernard Greenhouse, Peter Wiley, and Antonio Meneses.

After the concert, the artists gather with the public and are served refreshments in the tranquil wooded setting behind the hall.

Today the series is run with enthusiasm and integrity by Lou Steigler, who has led the organization since 1987. I am honored to be a frequent performer at South Mountain, an organization which I hold in deep admiration and affection.

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This stroke, so bold, rhythmic and incisive, is part of any violinst’s technique. Cellists are seldom taught this very useful bow stroke which is so appropriate for many kinds of music.

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After a concert in the new Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, the Emerson Quartet departed New York for a tour of major European festivals. Beginning with two concerts in at the Salzburg Festival, the quartet performed Dvorak in Prague, Bach and Mendelssohn in Leipzig, Schubert in Schwarzenberg, Beethoven in Edinburgh and Saariaho in Luzern.

above: the Getreidegasse
in David’s words…

August 24-25: Salzburg
The Salzburg Festival was founded in 1877 and has been guided by powerful artistic figures, from composer Richard Strauss to dramatist Hugo von Hofmannsthal to conductors Arturo Toscanini and Herbert von Karajan. The festival underwent a wrenching transition during the ten years from 1991-2001 under the leadership of Gérard Mortier, who brought avant-garde productions and new music to the highly conservative environment. The post-Mortier period has restored the confidence of traditional listeners, but the festival has endured withering criticism from outspoken commentators such as Norman Lebrecht, who trashed the festival from top to bottom in an entire chapter of his book “When the Music Stops”.

From my perspective, any festival that can present high-quality performances and survive in today’s economy deserves enormous credit. And what we experienced in Salzburg – two sold-out houses with a public who listened to Haydn and the late quartets of Shostakovich with equal concentration and enthusiasm – could not have been more rewarding. There are those who say that Mortier opened the door for newer music and more open-mindedness here, and they may well be correct. The festival, amazingly, presented and filmed all 22 of Mozart’s operas during the 250th anniversary of his birth in 2006. The Salzburg Festival is now led by the surprisingly youthful pianist Markus Hinterhäuser, who will be succeeded by the Austrian director of the Zurich Opera Alexander Pereira in October.

Our two concerts took place in Salzburg’s Mozarteum, one of the great, gilded chamber music halls of the world, and the main venue of the Mozarteum Hochschule which was founded in 1841. In addition our now-familiar Salzburg public, we were honored to receive a visit after our first concert from the great pianist Maurizio Pollini, who was in attendance.

The Salzburg audience is perhaps the best-dressed in the world. Before the concerts they socialize on the Mozarteum’s beautiful grounds, visible from our dressing rooms. I have to admit that, as a performer, it feels good to see people who have fixed themselves up before coming to my concerts. They may be showing off their nice clothes, but the message of respect for the artists, and for the institution of the concert itself, is undeniable.

After ten days in sweltering Seoul, and three days in oppressively humid New York, the crisp mountain air and incomparable scenery of Salzburg was an enormous relief. The nearby Untersberg peak, near Berchtesgaden, beckoned us with its famous view of Salzburg.

August 26-27: Prague

Dvorak’s statue, Prague castle in the background

The incomparable city of Prague, the epicenter of Bohemian culture, economy and politics for over one thousand years, was the quartet’s next tour stop. Performing Dvorak in his home city was an unforgettable experience, as was touring Prague’s historic streets and sights, and making new acquaintances.

Prague, like Vienna and Salzburg, is intensely proud of its vital musical life and heritage, and promotes classical music with unbridled enthusiasm. A small shop in the city center not only sells hard-to-find CD’s of unusual Czech music and performers, but serves as a directory for performances in the city’s many concert halls and churches, making it easy for the public to find music. One can also purchase tickets in this shop – would that New York had such a facility for classical music!

The quartet performed for the annual festival called Dvorak’s Prague, in the august Rudolfinium, one of the great concert halls of Europe that was opened in 1885. In 1886, Antonin Dvorak conducted the first concert of the Czech Philharmonic on this stage. The hall is named in honor of the Archduke Rudolf, an eccentric, liberal arts patron, who met a mysterious and sordid end, easily read about via the Internet.

Our visit to the Prague Castle proved every bit as exciting as the concert itself. The Prague Castle complex includes the Lobkowicz (Lobkowitz in German) palace, home of one of the most distinguished noble families in Austrian and Czech history which dates back to the 14th century. Musicians recognize the name of the seventh prince Lobkowicz, Joseph Franz Maximilian, as the patron of Beethoven, among many others, and over the centuries the family amassed an enormous collection of art, antiques and other treasures, and musical instruments and manuscripts.

At the beginning of the Second World War, the Nazis confiscated all of the family’s possessions and properties. Returned to the family in 1945, they were again stolen by the Soviets in 1948, and it was not until the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989 (when the Berlin wall came down) that restitution acts were passed that allowed the family to reclaim its possessions. The Lobkowicz family moved back to Prague from Massachusetts in the early 90’s to begin the massive process of putting the family’s heritage in place. The Lobkowicz palace is now a stunning museum which was finally opened in 2007, and holds only a portion of the family’s possessions.

As we moved through the exhibition, we were stunned to see William Lobkowicz, the current heir to the estate and its manager. Unable to resist introducing ourselves, we were given the warmest welcome by the descendent of the patron who had given Beethoven the stipend that allowed him to create without concern for anything but art. Led by the museum’s knowledgeable director of visitor services David Krol, we toured the rest of the exhibition, which included the original performance parts of Beethoven’s Opus 18 String Quartets (with Beethoven’s corrections), the Fifth Symphony, and Mozart’s orchestration of Handel’s Messiah. We look very much forward to returning and to continuing our exciting new friendships. Visit the Lobkowicz Palace web site at www.lobkowicz.cz/palace/index.html

August 28: Bad Reichenhall

The concert venue, the Alte Koenigliche Kurhaus

The quartet’s next stop was an important milestone in one of our most important personal and artistic relationships. Klaus Lauer, who presented the quartet regularly at his hotel, the Roemerbad, in the German town of Badenweiler, has taken up a new position as programming director at the AlpenKLASSIK festival in the spa town of Bad Reichenhall, just outside of Salzburg.

Klaus Lauer is one of the most respected presenters of classical music in the world. During his time as owner and director of the hotel, he organized more than four hundred concerts, and befriended performers and especially composers from all over the world. The Emerson Quartet’s concerts for Klaus Lauer now number nearly forty, including the complete Beethoven quartets three times. Klaus has commissioned numerous works, including a string quartet for us by Wolfgang Rihm which was premiered at the hotel. Last season, Wu Han and I brought him and a set of his unique programs (modeled after an authentic Badenweiler “Musiktage”) to the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

Klaus Lauer has brought his same fascinating, uncompromising programming for two seasons to the six-year-old AlpenKLASSIK festival. The large hall was full for a challenging program that included early and late quartets of Mendelssohn divided by seven movements from Bach’s Art of the Fugue. It seemed very familiar, having heard only a month ago Music@Menlo’s opening program which coupled Mendelssohn with the music of Bach, his earliest and most important influence. The program also foreshadowed our coming experience in Leipzig (read below).

As usual, late at night after dinner, Klaus sat with us to discuss future projects. We all wish him great success and happiness in this new venture and look forward to working with him wherever he is presenting music.

August 29-30: Leipzig

Bach’s statue outside the Thomaskirche

With the greatest anticipation, the Emerson Quartet departed Bad Reichenhall in the early morning hours for the long trip north to Leipzig. There was much in store for us in this fabled capital of German music.

The visit to Leipzig was a special high point for me, Wu Han and our daughter Lilian as we had all just been through the enormously exciting and successful Music@Menlo festival “Being Mendelssohn” in which the great composer’s work and life were celebrated in concerts, lectures and discussions for three weeks. The festival’s final notes were the resounding chord’s of Mendelssohn’s c minor trio, performed by me, Eugene Drucker and Menahem Pressler (see the Menlo blogs here and the festival web site for video reports) and we could not have been more excited to arrive in the town where Mendelssohn lived, worked and died at the untimely age of 38.

By the most fortunate coincidence, waiting to lead us on a tour of the Mendelssohn house and Bach’s church, the Thomaskirche, was none other than Mendelssohn biographer R. Larry Todd, whom we had recently met when he led a brilliant Encounter at this summer’s Music@Menlo festival. The entire quartet showed up, and we departed all of two blocks from our hotel to Mendelssohn’s house, where he took up residence in 1845.

The house is large and elegant, the original floors polished by thousands of footsteps, including those of Mendelssohn, his family, and house guests such as the Schumanns. One can see Mendelssohn’s study, his composition desk, music manuscripts, letters, paintings of Mendelssohn and by Mendelssohn, and much more. Mendelssohn died in this house in November 1847, felled by a series of debilitating strokes. He had never recovered from the death of his beloved sister Fanny five months earlier, and lived long enough to complete the tragic Opus 80 quartet that would play the next day.

At the end of the tour we had our second surprise meeting with Maurizio Pollini, who had performed Beethoven’s 4th concerto with the Gewandhaus orchestra the evening before.

After a few minutes walk we were inside the Thomaskirche, Bach’s church, listening to a choir and orchestra perform during a service. The church was crammed with people listening in complete silence. On the altar is Bach’s grave, marked by a tombstone in the floor.

Just in front of the church is the famous statue of Mendelssohn which had stood in front of the Gewandhaus but was torn down by the Nazis. It was recently restored to this location.

Just a few steps away from Mendelssohn’s statue is the memorial erected to Bach by Mendelssohn, who raised the money for it by playing an organ recital in the Thomaskirche in 1843. Concluding his program was an improvised fugue, and near the end of it Mendelssohn worked in the notes which spelled Bach’s name (the letter h being the old German spelling for B natural). Bach introduced the same note sequence in the final, unfinished fugue from his Art of the Fugue (which we had performed the night before) just before it breaks off.

Our visit to Leipzig concluded with a Sunday morning performance at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, home of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, which was founded in 1743. Mendelssohn was the orchestra’s fifth music director. The present Gewandhaus building is modern, as the original from 1885 was destroyed during World War II. We performed, fittingly, Mendelssohn’s Op. 12 and 80 quartets, and a fugue by Bach as an encore. (“Gewandhaus” means “Textile house”, as the original concert space was housed within a factory building in 1781).

Music@Menlo 2009 Visual Artist Theo Noll made the trip from his home in Nuremberg to hear the concert. We dined on fantastic German delicacies Leipzig’s famous Auerbachs Keller, which is depicted in Goethe’s Faust I as the first place Mephistopheles takes Faust on their journey. (Goethe used to eat here frequently in his student days).

As if we had not experienced our share of thrills in Leipzig, we managed to drive by the home where Robert and Clara Schumann lived from 1840 to 1844. It was in this large and gracious house that Schumann composed his piano quartet and quintet, as well as the three string quartets.

August 31-September 1: Schwarzenberg

The quartet’s next stop was the Schubertiade Festival in the unbelievably picturesque alpine town of Schwarzenberg, Austria. The Schubertiade presents an incredible four festivals every year, two in Schwarzenberg and two in nearby Hohenems, where, arguably, more chamber music is performed than at any in the world. The festival was founded in 1976 by the tenor Hermann Prey.

The concert facility is specially built for and owned by the festival, and is state-of-the-art in a simple, no-frills style. People come here every summer, like a pilgrimage, to hear the great works of Schubert re-interpreted by an ever-rotating cast of the world’s most celebrated performers.

The little town is surrounded by mountains and fields where concertgoers hike between performances, which are usually at 4pm and 8pm every day. It is an absolutely idyllic setting that I recommend to anyone interested in an alpine vacation coupled with great music.

A central performer for many years at this festival was the great German bass-baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. This summer, after an absence of four years, he returned to give a series of master classes. We were lucky to have caught the first of them, attended by a packed hall of listeners.

He taught six singers and their pianists in lieder repertoire in two-and-a-half hours. He was incredibly detailed and demanding, and wasted not a second of anyone’s time. His most frequent criticisms centered on a lack of communication of the meaning of the texts. Indeed, it was hard to believe that some of the young singers had ever heard of a recording of Fischer-Dieskau, so far removed were they from his level of expression and intensity. Fidelity to the score was also a big point, especially for the pianists, as well as simple sound production, use of pedal, and articulation. Correct German pronunciation was non-negotiable, and he would not allow the singers to slow down or arrive late in relation to the accompaniments. He constantly stressed the continuing line and long phrases (Weiter! Weiter! he would shout) and he even experienced a momentary tirade against the original instrument performance practice of not sustaining notes, complete with the naming of a conductor. With the best students, it was fascinating to hear them improve significantly, phrase by phrase, and with those less prepared to work with such a master, it was as frustrating for the audience as it must have been for the teacher.

At the Schubertiade, all the concerts are documented in photographs, audio recordings, and video by a single man, Joachim Schmid, who has worked for the festival ever since we have played there. Incredibly, by means of ingeniously-installed cameras and microphones in the hall, and the design of his own studio, he is able to fully-produce DVD’s and CD’s of the concerts, complete with CD booklets and photos from the concert, by the conclusion of the concert, and hand it to the artists as they leave. Just as amazing is the fact that these recordings are not for broadcast or for sale: they are produced as an investment in the festival’s own archive and as a courtesy to the artists. I know of nothing like it anywhere in the world.

Traveling to Edinburgh

Few people besides chamber and solo cellists know what it’s like to travel with a cello on an airplane. I always buy a seat for the cello; it has frequent flyer miles on several airlines, its own club cards, and a name: Cello Finckel.

On most airlines, a simple seat belt extension around the belly is enough to secure it, but for some strange reason, both British Air and Air Canada feel the cello is a potential hazard to other passengers unless tied up like Houdini preparing for an impossible escape. The nice gentleman pictured here managed to tie it up with only a few loops, but often the cello gets wrapped like a mummy, and it can take me a good ten minutes to untie it.

September 3-4: Edinburgh

By the time the quartet arrived in downtown Edinburgh, it was raining, and it didn’t stop until we got back to the airport to leave. But the charms, the history, the atmosphere, and the warmth of the Edinburgh public were all undiminished, and we experienced yet another thrill on this tour by participating in one of the world’s great festivals.

Now over sixty years old, the Edinburgh International Festival presents this season, from August 14 to September 6, an enormous array of performances, ranging from concerts to operas to film, dance, theater and experimental cross-genre productions. Ensembles, companies, and individual artists have come here from all over the world to perform, and the public streams in, day after day, out of the rain, to expand their horizons.

The entire festival, incredibly, is programmed and directed by one man, Jonathan Mills, who apparently attended our concert but whom we never met. Too bad, I would have loved to have found out how he does it. This year’s festival theme celebrated the Enlightenment, and Scotland’s contributions, and almost all of the diverse presentations were somehow connected to that idea. This was an enormous intellectual and organizational achievement which was mighty impressive, especially from the perspective of someone who is involved in thematic programming.

Our concert was in the Queen’s Hall, where we had performed once previously. Every seat was taken, including ones in balconies from which you cannot see the stage unless you stand up, and stand they did, rows and rows of listeners. The acoustics and atmosphere are superlative, and the concert was recorded both by the BBC and Osaka Television for broadcast in Japan.

Our program featured two Mendelssohn quartets; hence the connection to Scotland. Mendelssohn journeyed here in 1829 with a friend, urged to go by his parents as a means of broadening his cultural awareness. He arrived in Edinburgh on July 26, and sent the following impression home: “When God himself takes to scenery painting, it turns out strangely beautiful. Few of my memories of Switzerland can compare with this; everything here looks so stern and robust, half enveloped in haze or smoke or fog.” From Mendelssohn’s visit to Scotland came the famous Hebrides overture, the inspirational material for his “Scottish” symphony, and his first string quartet in E flat, Opus 12, which we performed on the concert along with his final quartet, Opus 80.

Because of the heavy rain, there were not a lot of photographic opportunities, but I can not resist sharing my photo of the upstairs coffee house, now a Chinese buffet, where J. K. Rowling conceived of and wrote much of Harry Potter series. Indeed, walking the streets in Edinburgh feels like living in one of the books.

September 5: Ascona

Nestled at the very northern tip of Italy’s Lago Maggiore is the picturesque town of Ascona, which is within Swiss territory but is primarily Italian-speaking. Ascona is the home of the Settimane Musicali di Ascona, an annual festival featuring orchestras, soloists and chamber recitals to which the Emerson Quartet has be re-invited for decades.

The concerts take place in an 11th century church, the Chiesa Collegio Papio, set in the middle of town. The church’s generous acoustics are only rivaled by the incredible Renaissance frescos behind the altar, and the fine collection of religious art that graces the rest of the sanctuary.

As usual, we were invited to a marvelous dinner by the organizer, Dino Invernizzi, and a number of his friends and festival volunteers. Such gracious hospitality is always welcomed, appreciated, and long remembered by the Emerson Quartet and any hard-working artists. We did work hard that night, performing two Mendelssohn Quartets, the Saariaho Quartet, and roughly half of Bach’s Art of the Fugue in a two and a half hour concert.

September 6: Lucerne

The day after Ascona we descended via the Gotthard pass, with its 17 kilometer tunnel, to the bustling, tourist-overrun town of Lucerne, so gorgeously beautiful that one cannot walk ten steps without getting in the way of someone’s picture-taking.

The Lucerne Festival is one of the largest and most amazing in the world. I counted 163 events taking place between August 12 and September 19, including 33 symphony concerts by three orchestras-in-residence: the Vienna Philharmonic, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Our friend Yefim Bronfman is a “Star in Residence” here, performing seven times, composer-in-residence Kaija Saariaho has 14 performances, and Jorg Widmann 13. There are lectures, a whole series of creative children’s concerts, films, the world’s most famous performers, almost anything you could ask for, perhaps with the exception of abundant chamber music.

Out of the festivals 163 events, only five are in the chamber music concerts series, and of them, three of them are played by the members of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, one by Yefim and Jorg Widmann, and one by us. We are indeed fortunate to be a part of this festival which seems to have, at least this season, excluded the rest of the world’s worthy ensembles, although the Debut series presented young Pavel Haas and Stradivari Quartets.

We performed in the Lukas Kirche, a small, hot church with good acoustics. Before the concert the well-dressed public enjoyed refreshments in the adjoining part. They were very appreciative of our concert, and I couldn’t help coming away hoping that someday chamber music might become a bigger part of the Lucerne Festival. Still, this festival deserves enormous credit for attracting and holding a large audience by means of very cutting-edge programming. There is an enormous amount of new music played here, in fascinating programs. The composers-in-residence receive ample exposure of their music. If I lived here I would be a subscriber. With musicians-in-residence like Pierre Boulez, how can one not open the mind to new sounds and new ways of listening?

Tour wrap-up

To have played in all these great cities was truly a pleasure. We met wonderful new friends, performed great music in cities where the composers actually lived, saw incredible historic and natural sites, ate wonderful food, and are returning home inspired and refreshed – at least I am.

When you see how people flock to classical music at these festivals it makes you wonder if, someday, all classical music presenting may move to the summer. There is a very different feeling in the air: most everyone attending is on some kind of holiday, having traveled in or at least allocated weeks of time to devote to listening. Peoples’ capacities for concentration, and their appetites for the new, seem heightened in these settings, where they are not squeezing in the arts amidst the bustle of their winter lives, but have given themselves to an art form, reinforcing their absorption capacities through exercise and relaxation.

I look forward to returning to these festivals as often as possible, hopefully every year, not only with my quartet but with many other musical friends to partake in the exhilaration that is truly the European festival experience.

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Our son is a very serious and gifted cellist who will have to make the choice of conservatory in the next year. What schools and teachers do you think are the best, and how should he prepare for the auditions?

John B.

Dear John,

Your question is, of course, one that comes up all the time and confronts every aspiring young professional musician. If there were simple answers, it would not be such a complex challenge.

In our opinion, there is not one school or teacher that will satisfy all of anyone’s needs in music education. Music is a process of life-long learning that begins from even before a young person learns an instrument, and continues during their years after they have finished playing professionally. Musical and instrumental knowledge will be absorbed from many different sources. So the first advice we can give is to not put all the eggs in one conservatory basket.

That the school and teacher you choose for your son are at high levels is vital. But there are many questions to ask:

  1. Is your son highly motivated?
  2. Is he naturally competitive and aware of the world around him?
  3. Does your son have any specific challenges technically or musically?
  4. Are his love of music and determination to be a musician unquestionable?
  5. Is he well rounded, interested in many things?
    Does he have musical friends with whom he wants to continue relationships?
  6. Is your family connected in any way to the world of music?
  7. Are professional musicians already aware of your son’s gifts?
  8. Does your son have any musical role models from whom he’d like to learn?

Answering these questions on your own will lead you to the following possible conclusions:

  1. (Motivated?). If he is highly motivated he will practice and work hard on his own and does not need regular lessons. He could see someone every few weeks and do just fine. If he needs motivation, better look for a situation where the teacher is really in residence and can keep a regular schedule.
  2. (Competitive?) If your son is not the competitive type, better not to put him in a highly-pressured, competitive school, but rather look for a place where students learn at their own pace. If he is naturally competitive, make sure that where he goes does not over-emphasize the importance of beating out the next guy, but rather is focused on developing the whole musician in a natural way.
  3. (Challenges?) Lack of a specific component of musicianship can be a real hindrance as one enters professional life. If your son needs to develop anything in particular – stronger technique, deeper musicality, better stage presence, tougher nerves – then look for someone most qualified to develop those qualities.
  4. (Love of music?) It’s difficult, some say impossible, to recommend pursuing a career in music to anyone who does not love it so much that they can’t imagine doing anything else. On the other hand, plenty of deserving young musicians have still not experienced that pivotal moment – it can happen in a concert, a lesson, or even at home listening to a recording – that changes their lives and commits them to music forever. So if your son is in search of that moment, we can only recommend putting him in an environment filled with inspiration: a mesmerizing, passionate teacher, and great music and great playing all around him.
  5. (Well-rounded?). Professional musicians these days are better off, and enjoy life more, if they have received a comprehensive liberal arts education. So if your son is already a reader, speaks some other languages, is interested in history and the visual arts, etc., then he will take care of himself. If not, it might be good to look for a double-degree program or a conservatory that has partnership possibility with a university (like Julliard and Columbia).
  6. (Musical friends?) If your son already has good friends who are inspiring for him, perhaps send him off to a school with them. If not, look for a school with the most high-quality students for him to bond with and learn from. He will learn as much from them as from anyone else.
  7. (Connections?) If you have connections to the music world, use them. Have your son play for the best cellists and other musicians he can find. Hear their recommendations for schools and teachers. If you don’t have those connections, make them somehow, and encourage your son to do it on his own. It’s always flattering, no matter how many concerts you have to play, to have a young, eager musician come up and ask to play for you. It may be impossible for many to squeeze in hearing your son, but they will at least remember him as someone serious with the courage to ask for the best.
  8. (Role models?) This answer ties into the previous one. Your son should try to learn from the greatest musicians in the world, whether he does so in person or through the magic of recorded sound and video. He should never hesitate to ask to play for people and get their advice. If he has some cellist whom he admires above all others, then he should do everything within his power to study with that person.

We hope these suggestions are helpful, and we look forward to hearing your son play someday. We wish him the very best of luck to him with his music.


David and Wu Han

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