Archive for January, 2010

On the day prior to the duo’s performance of the Beethoven sonata cycle in Alice Tully Hall, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presented a first-time double master class in the Rose Studio, in which five cello-piano duos played the sonatas in chronological order for David and Wu Han. This was the first master class given by the Society’s artistic directors in the annual series, which presents Society artists and guest artists as master teachers in public classes.

in David’s words…

Virtually at the same moment we committed to performing the Beethoven sonatas for CMS, we also suggested the idea of a double master class to the Society’s education department. We had previously taught the five sonatas in three classes at the Aspen Festival, during the summer in which we recorded them in Harris Concert Hall, and it was a thrilling and memorable experience for us, one that we had dreamed of repeating. This opportunity – amidst the Beethoven season at CMS during which all the quartets would be performed, plus all the violin and cello sonatas – seemed highly appropriate, and sure enough, the reservations for seats in the room soon filled to capacity.

Hannah Sloane, cello; Marnie Hauschildt, piano

We heard five well-prepared, eager and cooperative duos over the space of almost five hours. We always admire, from the outset, the courage these young people have to possess to submit themselves to God-knowS-what in front of an audience. But it is a chance for young musicians, in the hands of considerate and well-meaning teachers, to benefit from the experience musicians like us have had studying, practicing and performing works like the Beethoven sonatas over many years. In addition, it is an opportunity to share stories and experiences with students and audience that can make a difference forever in one’s perspectives on music and on performing (see “Master Class Master Class” in the blog for a more in-depth analysis of the master class teaching format).

Very interestingly, each sonata presented different challenges for the performers that we did our best to analyze and offer solutions for. The opportunity Beethoven offers for drama, especially in the improvisatory introduction in the first sonata, requires physical as well as musical discipline in order to hold the audience’s attention, especially during silences. We worked with the duo to help them create a sense that they were actually improvising, that ideas were occurring to them in the moment, something that’s very hard to do when, as a well-prepared performer, you already know what’s coming.

Carl Baron, cello; Suki Guerrier, piano

We spoke a lot about the setting in which the two early sonatas were premiered, what the audience probably expected, and the impression we believe Beethoven was trying to make. The second sonata, in g minor, is much more challenging than the first in every way, and once again, we discussed the increased possibilities for dramatic impact. Wu Han worked with the pianist on the legato of the introduction’s mysterious, descending dotted-rhythm scales, while I was concerned with the cellist’s ability to sustain the long lines. The second stormy movement presents challenges for balance, the cello easily lost amidst the piano’s many triplets. And the finale, often played in four rather than in two as Beethoven intended, received an infusion of about ten additional points on the metronome, and these gifted young players really brought the movement to life in a display of technical fireworks.

Seohyun Hong, cello; ByungHee Yoo, piano

The final sonata of the morning session was the great A major sonata, Op. 69, and we spent some time speaking about how Beethoven’s style had changed. Wu Han read from her famous list of Beethoven works from this period, a list that she carries inside her own music to the sonatas. Rhythmic accuracy in the Scherzo is tricky, as the entire movement is phrased across the bar line, and in a very quick tempo. The technical difficulty for the cello increases drastically here, and the responsibility is now much more equally balanced between the instruments. The A major sonata requires not only great instrumental finesse but also a depth of feeling and maturity not found in the previous sonatas. Sustaining lines, passing ideas back and forth, and completing each others’ melodies are instrumental and ensemble skills required in depth for this piece.

Dmitri Atapine, cello; Hyeyeon Park, piano

After a lunch break we moved into Beethoven’s late style sonatas of 1815, and a completely changed musical world. The first of the two, in C major, is composed in the shape of and to a certain extent the style of a baroque trio sonata. The tranquil first part is composed in three lines, one for the cello with left and right hands of the piano carrying equally important contrapuntal lines. Finding the right color for the cello part, and pairing it sonically with either the piano’s upper or lower line, is a tricky task, since it’s hard to hear what’s really coming out when you’re playing on stage. We took the music apart so that the intricacies could be easily heard, which was very enlightening. The movement also presents challenges in terms of tempo and articulation, which have to handled with the greatest delicacy and discrimination. The ensuing Allegro, with its tightly compressed structure, dotted rhythms, lack of transitions and down-time, is the emotional polar opposite of the opening, and makes heavy demands on the performers’ and listeners’ concentrations. The next movement is a written-out improvisation for the two instruments, with moments of dreamlike bliss and terrifying darkness emerging spontaneously. The heavenly return of the first movement needed more magic, and we actually wound up asking our performers to play the preceding section less beautifully in order to hold something special in reserve. And the finale, also like a fast baroque movement (we compared it to a movement from Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos) demands a steady tempo, square rhythms, and perfect control to pull it off.

Lynn Kabat, cello; Liza Stepanova, piano

The final sonata in D major is Beethoven’s culmination of the cello-piano genre. In it, especially in the daunting fugue which closes the cycle, he achieves full integration of the two instruments. The first movement, like the closing of the fourth sonata, needs even, baroque-style bow strokes in the running sixteenth notes, but the intervening material is much more schizophrenic than any baroque music. It’s as though Beethoven’s musical train of thought is constantly being interrupted, distracted, pulled in many directions. Totally inexplicable events take place, yet in the end, they all make sense in a way that only Beethoven’s music can. For the tragic slow movement, we loaned the performers our own mental picture of a funeral march, complete with heavy trodding, the sound of horses’ hoofs, and later, even goblins and ghosts. The middle section, which is in major, we believe was meant to recall better times, and contains probably the most profoundly beautiful music of the entire cycle. Our young performers took the final fugue at an astonishing clip. While they could really play all the notes, our audience voted for a slower tempo in which they could better digest all the information, and we closed the class with all marveling at Beethoven’s creation, composed in deafness, but with so much for us all to hear. Having really only scratched the surface of possibility with each sonata, we thanked our performers and the audience for being with us, and expressed again our gratitude to Beethoven, wherever he his, for having given us the gift of these sonatas to cherish forever.

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in Wu Han’s words…

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion as part of the 2010 APAP Conference, an annual convention hosted in New York City by the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. The APAP Conference is a major forum for networking and exchanging ideas with colleagues across the performing arts.

Friday’s discussion focused on strategies for expanding and engaging audiences; the panel included a number of distinguished colleagues from classical, jazz, and contemporary music, including Elena Park from the Metropolitan Opera; Sunil Iyengar, Research & Analysis Director of the National Endowment for the Arts; composer Julia Wolfe, one of the founding directors of Bang on a Can; jazz drummer Matt Wilson; and—a special treat for me—my old friend Rob Gibson, Executive & Artistic Director of the Savannah Music Festival; among others. Such a diverse group of panelists made for an array of interesting perspectives on the issues at hand. Topics included use of new technology to enhance audience experience and the importance of arts education.

Wu Han with Rob Gibson, Executive & Artistic Director of the Savannah Music Festival

On one level, the discussion, like many discussions about the contemporary arts climate, was frustrating. What becomes immediately clear in such conversations is the many difficulties facing the arts: funding challenges, competition with mainstream popular culture, misperceptions of classical music and other “marginalized” art forms among the wider public—these familiar refrains among arts presenters have become like tired clichés.

I also find many of the lines of thinking in addressing these problems very misguided. I fear that many strategies confuse engaging audiences with pandering and empowering audiences to remain unengaged. A lot of what I hear at these discussions and see around the industry amounts to sacrificing quality and service to the art for the sake of supposed outside-the-box thinking—as if Facebook and Twitter hold the key to reinstalling the performing arts as a vital component of the cultural landscape. This perspective completely misses the point. Anything that is not a direct effort to present classical music at the highest artistic standard is not a strategy, it is an obstacle

At the end of the day, there may be no ready solutions; it’s easy to come away disheartened. But the conclusion I choose to arrive at from Friday’s panel is a hopeful one. What I saw on Friday was a community of arts advocates who, despite differences of opinion on details, care deeply about what they do. Yes, we face many challenges, and there is a lot of work to be done. The conversation can become further bewildering when considering, as we had on Friday, numerous presenters who are primed to serve different audiences, and therefore fulfill different needs. But the passionate commitment to the arts that I am privileged to witness everyday tells me that today’s artists, advocates, and cultural leaders are up to the challenge.

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