The National Cello Congress started out a little shaky this year because some key participants didn't show, including Rostropovich and Laszlo Varga, both due to health issues. The congress had been conceived around the idea of celebrating Rostropovich's contributions to the cello, so there were many events planned in which he was to participate. What a nightmare it must have been for Taki and Sally Atsumi, who had started conversations with Rostropovich five years ago about coming to this event.
Not everybody was upset by Rostropovich's absence, however. Some we're happy to finally participate in a congress in which their contributions aren't overshadowed by the mere presence of a cello mega-star. For them, it was nice to be noticed.
For me, the congress suffered from the lack of world class players and world class playing. Think of all the great cellists that could have been there: Janos Starker, Lynn Harrell, Carter Brey, Wendy Warner, Zuill Bailey, David Hardy, and Yo-Yo Ma, to a name a few. There was a distinct lack of "buzz" from the participants, you know, the sudden wide-eyed, slack-jawed hush in conversation as Cellist X walks by, though I felt it when I first saw Ron Leonard (former principal cellist of the LA Philharmonic). In spite of this, the congress had an incredible amount to offer, since some of the United States' most outstanding pedagogues were present.
As with every congress, I had to choose among simultaneous events, so this report should in no way be considered complete. I also missed the last day, which apparently included a wonderful orchestral excerpts class taught by Ron Leonard. Our own Nicholas Anderson also performed on the final day. For more details, please see my notes on a separate webpage.
The first event of the congress was a master class with Hans Jorgen Jensen, which was supposed to be taught by Rostropovich. Jensen diffused the disappointment of those who hadn't yet heard that Rostropovich wasn't coming with a short talk about how influential Rostropovich had been in his own life; Slava's recording of the Haydn C Major Concerto had inspired him to become a professional cellist. And then he went on with the class.
Jensen's own student, Wei Yu, played the Prelude, Allemande, and Courante from the Bach Sixth Suite beautifully, both technically and musically. This was my first clue that Jensen might be a great teacher. Jensen spent a lot of time at the piano discussing the importance of understanding the harmonic motion of a piece. He quoted pianist Alfred Brendel's statement, "Intuition should be based on knowledge, not intuition," to support his ideas. I was unsure about his asking his student to take even more time with the series of chords near the end of the Prelude, however, since the piece sort of ground to a halt before the end of the movement was reached. And then Jensen asked his student to "float" more in the Allemande, while loudly snapping his fingers on each sixteenth note, which wasn't quite conducive to floating. Though Jensen seemed a little scattered, perhaps due to nerves, he must be doing something right to have a student play that well.
Jensen really got my attention with the next cellist, a 13-year-old boy, who played the last movement of the Haydn C Major Concerto. Jensen had lots of wonderful tricks up his sleeve for this student, who needed some help with vibrato. Jensen said he has noticed that, when somebody has a good vibrato, the teacher can move the vibrating hand relatively easily, while the teacher can't move the hand at all when a student has a bad vibrato (due to tension). To help the student sing better through his cello, he suggested that student practice same-finger scales up and down each string (i.e. 1-1-1-1...) while trying to create an equally beautiful vibrato on each note. Jensen then requested a tennis ball from the audience (somebody actually had one), and placed it on the fingerboard at the mid-point with his palm on the ball, making sure that his fingers were relaxed, and then proceeded to demonstrate a beautiful vibrato by rolling the ball back and forth in his palm. He played a scale up and down the fingerboard with the tennis ball, creating a beautiful vibrato the entire time. This seems like a great trick for teaching a student the correct motion for vibrato, more arm than wrist motion. It takes some practice to master the motion, but it sure looks like a time-saver.
He had some good bowing advice as well. He asked the student to play closer to the bridge when playing higher up the fingerboard, and to use more weight when playing on the lower strings. He also suggested that the student think "down" when doing an upbow on the a string, and "up" when doing a downbow; this psychological trick helps one to sustain the sound better.
I next attended a contemporary music recital. Tanya Carey, who teaches at DePaul University and Meadowmount, played the difficult Elliot Carter Sonata (1948) admirably, though I missed a certain emotional involvement in the performance. Bonnie Hampton played three short pieces for solo cello, two of which were dedicated to her late husband, pianist Nathan Schwartz. The third piece, written by Robert Mann, former first violinist of Juilliard String Quartet, required the cellist to play chords on a piano before playing each phrase. Then Tanya Remenikova, a former student of Rostropovich and professor at the University of Minnesota, played a piece dedicated to her by Judith Zaimont. Remenikova played with the classic Russian power, her straight endpin out so far that her cello was at a 45 degree angle.
Next came a presentation of the California Cello Club. Now that Bonnie Hampton is leaving San Francisco to join the faculty at Juilliard, Jean Michel Fonteneau, former student of Dimitry Markevitch and professor of cello at the San Francisco Conservatory, seemed to be taking the torch of leadership for the Bay Area cello community. Cello ensemble pieces by the late Colin Hampton were played, who co-founded the club with Margaret Rowell in 1950. According to the video shown about the history of the California Cello Club, Bernard Greenhouse, after a visit with the California Cello Club, was so inspired his experience that he went back to New York and started the New York Violoncello Society.
Then an excerpt of a video was shown of the late Margaret Rowell, one of the great teachers of the past. Some of her statements were so full of meaning and implications that I wished I had a chance to watch the movie over and over again in order to glean more of her wisdom. Some of things she said included, "Our ultimate goal should be simplicity … Perfection is obtained when there is no longer anything to take away… We achieve this through beautiful tone, lively rhythm, clear intonation, and musical understanding…." She then commented on how great cellists like Rostropovich seem to play in one position. With these great players, there is no difference between the lower and upper positions; a teacher's challenge is to try to figure out how to convey this feeling to a student. She made a contrast between the human foot and hand; the foot has all of its reflexes built in at birth, while the hand has to be taught how to work through the brain. "We are not playing with our hands, but through our hands." Regarding where power originates from, she said something like, "Our power travels from our back to our arms to our fingertips…." I wish that video were readily available to the cello world.
An excerpt of a video was shown of the Berkeley master classes with Pablo Casals, an event presented by the California Cello Club in the 1960's. Einar Holm, now leader of the Ithaca Cello Institute, was shown playing Bach for the great master, but all eyes and ears were on Casals and his marvelous demonstrations. The last video shown was of a 13-year-old boy playing the Barber Concerto amazingly well earlier this year. Fonteneau closed out this section of the presentation by saying, "If it's easy for a kid to play the Barber Concerto, what does this tell you about how we hold ourselves back?"
After the videos, Fonteneau talked about his own ideas on cello playing. He said that we need to "love our own search for better musical understanding … The boundaries of cello playing are expanding as cellists play more and more types of repertoire … We develop our technique as we develop our approach to music…." He talked about the importance of being in good physical condition and of good posture, which "allows freedom of movement in the upper body, including the head, shoulders, and arms…." He recommended sitting near the edge of the chair so that freedom of motion is maximized, which brings the feet and legs into play. He stressed the importance of freedom in the arms, and recommended what he called the "monkey posture," in which the arms can fall freely to the side. He then played a piece that requires speaking while playing, which helps to increase an "awareness of tensions" that can manifest themselves in the vocal chords. He also stressed the importance of patient practice, which helps one to hear things more clearly and objectively, and therefore saves time. This requires that one get into a mindset that allows a deeper level of awareness.
Next came a panel discussion between Orlando Cole, Phyllis Young, David Litrell (ASTA President), and Eleonore Schoenfeld. Each person gave a little talk before a more open forum discussion began. Cole talked a lot about the bow arm and how musicality is created primarily with the bow. He believes that pressure should be applied just before the bow stroke begins and that it should be released just as the bow begins to move; if there is a little scratch at the beginning of the stroke, the pressure has not been released soon enough. Cole also recommended the following progression of etude books: Dotzauer I and II, Gruetzmacher I, De'ak II, Popper Preparatory Exercises, Popper High School, Piatti Caprices, Gruetzmacher II, and Paganini Caprices.
Schoenfeld gave a talk on the art of practicing. "Be aware of what you practice, because what you practice is what you learn." She sees her job as being to teach her students the wisdom to recognize their own needs, which means teaching them to hear their own weaknesses and then how to address them. Don't keep playing entire phrases over and over again, isolate the problem areas into small segments. She advocated students taking two lessons per week instead of one; the energy of the lesson usually wears off after a few days, which wastes the latter half of the week. She also discussed the nature of talent. For her, desire and character are the greatest talent of all. She also discussed Joachim's perspective on what it takes to succeed in music: 1/3 talent, 1/3 character (i.e. discipline, perfectionism, etc.), and 1/3 health.
David Litrell, President of the American String Teacher's Association (ASTA) and cellist, demonstrated a neat little practice tool, a piece of paper with small windows cut out. The idea behind this is that, when it is placed over a page of music, it forces students to focus on small passages, instead of allowing them to play the entire page over and over. A teacher would create different cutouts for each page.
Phyllis Young, author of classic pedagogy books such as Playing the String Game, discussed her ideas while in her usual engaging persona, which is a peculiar combination of kindergarten teacher and coy Southern belle. She began her talk by asking the audience to pick up an imaginary "fat Texas Hamburger" with the left hand, which results in a wonderful position for the left hand, and then an imaginary dinner mint with the right hand, which results in a nice hand/finger position for the bow hand. She looks to everyday life experiences to help her students understand the concepts on more of an intuitive level, i.e. "raise your wristwatch" works better than simply telling a student to "raise your wrist." She believes that every person has something unique and beautiful to say, and that a teacher's job is to set it free, not to create it. Each student has "untold beauties behind the door," and teachers must have a lots of "keys on their teaching key chains," hopefully with the right key to free their students when they encounter the various problems that come up. For example, a teacher's job is to try to help a student find the bow hold that best brings her/her feelings out. She believes that teachers are givers, and quoted Winston Churchill as saying, "We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give." She concluded her talk with the following idea, "People who use their hands are laborers. People who use their hands and minds are craftsmen. People who use their hands, mind, and hearts are artists."
After Phyllis Young's talk, David Litrell brought up the issue of dealing with parents. He recommended Mimi Butler's book, Complete Guide to Running a Music Studio. He believes that a parent's job is to be loving, kind, and supportive of their kids. Eleonore Schoenfeld chimed with her belief that parents should always encourage their kids, and never criticize their playing; criticism should be left to the teacher. Orlando Cole noted (in a non-PC manner) that in the old days so-called "Jewish mommas" were the scary stage-parent types, now it's the "Korean mommas" that are the hardest on their kids. I guess when you're 90-something years old, you can say that sort of thing and get away with it.
The question of the value competitions came up as well. Schoenfeld feels that competitions shouldn't be entered purely for the thrill of competing. Competitions are great tools for certain kids who need encouragement to fix that last 5-10% of problems, and competitions provide the necessary focus for that kind of work. As an aside, she pointed out that the Dvorak Concerto is not something one learns once and puts way, it takes a lifetime of study.
The evening continued with a frustratingly short presentation by Terry King of some classic film clips of Feuermann, Piatigorsky, and Leonard Rose. Feuermann played the Dvorak Rondo with seeming ease. Piatigorsky played his own arrangement of the Weber Adagio and Rondo, dispatching his legendary downbow staccato to the shrieking delight of the crowd. Rose played Rococo Variations with perfect elegance and flair, using much less of a paintbrush motion in his bow hand than many of his former students now teach.
Hans Jorgen Jensen again stood in for a Rostropovich master class on Saturday. One student played the Bach c minor Prelude. Jensen said that the Bach Suites are our bible, and mentioned how Casals played Bach on piano each morning in order to sanctify the day. He said that Bach's music provides the ultimate training of mind, hand, and soul. He told the student to learn to release more with each note, an idea he got from Casals. He also said to increase dynamics when the line goes up and to decrease when it goes down, generally speaking.
Jensen recommended bowing in a figure eight motion when doing long bows, which he got from Leonard Rose. He said that there is no perfect sitting position since the spine prefers motion; he suggested changing the sitting position often during practice sessions. He also recommended using the feet and legs when playing. Regarding tension, he said that when one presses, the rest of the body doesn't exist. The entire body should be kept in play by eliminating points of tension.
There was a Piatigorsky tribute concert in the afternoon with cellists Louis Lowenstein, Jeffrey Solow, and Terry King, all former students of Piatigorsky. Lowenstein played the same Boccherini C Major Sonata that Stephen Kates referred to in his ICS interview; Lowenstein had transcribed it from a recording when he was young. He also played the Foss Capriccio. Jeffrey Solow and Terry King each played several short works that were arranged or written by Piatigorsky. All three finished the concert with an arrangement of the Haydn Divertimento for three cellos. Solow said that the Divertimento originated from a piece for baryton, but that Piatigorsky had filled in melodic material as necessary. Of the three cellists, Terry King had the best day. The other two had a hard time finding notes in the high registers.
The main event in the afternoon was a blind comparison of the sound quality of cellos made by past masters versus today's makers. Jeffrey Solow was blindfolded and placed behind a screen. He was then handed something like sixteen cellos and asked to play the same thing on each one. In addition to scales, he played the opening of Schelomo, unfortunately playing the same wrong note all but the first time.
The cellos were run through twice. The first time through they were numbered. The second time they were scrambled and identified by letters so that nobody knew for sure which cello was which. The audience was asked to rank each cello in each run-through. [During a short break between the two run-throughs, there was a thunderous bird-like call made just outside the hall, perhaps imitating a condor (?), by what I suspect to be a wacky cello attendee who had had enough. If I heard it correctly, it sounded like "braaaaaaaaap!" Cellists ... jeesh....] I never heard the official results of the voting, but I was told by the moderator of the event that the cellos were ranked completely differently by the audience in each run-through. So what does this mean? Beats me.
Sunday started off with an entertaining and eye-opening panel discussion about Rostropovich. The forum consisted of Olga Rostropovich (his daughter), Vagram Saradjian, and Tanya Remenikova, the latter two being former students of Rostropovich. I believe Olga had been sent by her father to represent him when he decided not to come to the Congress, reportedly because he was recovering from a flu. According to a letter that was read at the Congress, Slava's doctor didn't think it was a good idea for him to make the long flight across the Atlantic, not to mention that he would have had to fly back immediately to London, where he had a concert a few days after the Congress ended. Olga lives in the New York area, so she was able to come on relatively short notice.
Vagram Saradjian is originally from Armenia and now teaches at the University of Houston. I listened to him noodle around on a marvelous Testore in a dealer's booth in the exhibitor's area and I was most impressed with his playing. He played with tremendous power, passion, and accuracy. I thought to myself, "Why haven't I heard of this guy before? What a cellist!" I heard a bit of him playing the Shostakovich Sonata in an afternoon concert, and, though a bit percussive at times, he really seemed to own the piece. Unfortunately, he chose to do an encore afterwards, which suffered from shaky intonation. I hope to learn more about Saradjian.
I already mentioned Tanya Remenikova before. She was the one who played in the Contemporary Music recital on Friday, and teaches at the University of Minnesota.
So now for some tidbits about Rostropovich:
The performers in afternoon concert were the 2003 ASTA (American String Teacher's Association) cello prizewinners. Amazingly, all, yes, all of them are students of Hans Jorgen Jensen. How does he do it? Technically speaking, these kids played as well if not better than most of the adults who played at the congress, hence the need for a cello star at this congress. Victor Sotel played the Hungarian Rhapsody brilliantly, though I thought he could have toned down his two-finger vibrato at times. Elizabeth Chung played the first movement of the Shostakovich Concerto, looking down at her hands the whole time. Anne Burden played the Francoeur Sonata with great sensitivity and feeling, though I did't like it when she played the entire repeat in one movement with a lifeless piano dynamic. Mikiko Fujiwara seemed a little tight in the Dvorak Concerto (who wouldn't be?), but she soldiered her way through admirably. James Czyzewski played the Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante (Symphony-Concerto) with great passion, though I think he needed to sing a little more at times. John Lewis wowed the crowd with the Valentini Sonata and the Bottermund-Paganini Variations; he handled the virtuosic Paganini with seeming ease and flair. It seems that Jensen's students have been doing their scales religiously.
The evening cello orchestra concert was okay. The highlight was watching a tiny Suzuki kid on the podium with his 1/4 size cello, yawning, resting his chin on his cello, and making faces at a person in the front row. Note to self: never share the stage with cute, uninhibited children.
The morning started out with a master class with Orlando Cole, who was standing in for Laszlo Varga. The pieces played were the Brahms F Major and the Rachmaninoff Sonatas. Cole focused his comments on music, but had he been sitting where I was, he would have seen the horrifying doubled-back thumb in the bow hand of the cellist who played the Brahms F. It was if her thumb were made of rubber or something. I've never seen anything quite like it. (shudder...)
Cole picked on both pianists, perhaps more than he should have, given that this was a cello master class. His comments to them were along the lines of, "Can you hear the cello?" which was very gratifying for those of us who have struggled with heavy-handed pianists. For the cellists, he said things like, "Every note counts, even the little ones." He encouraged the cellist in the Rachmaninoff Sonata to play the opening theme on the a string as much as possible. And he emphasized that musicians should play a bit more exaggerated so that their ideas project into the audience, producing an effect similar to theatrical face paint, where up close the face paint looks artificial, but from the audience's perspective, it brings the face to life.
Hans Jorgen Jensen's class on the Galamian Scale System was revelatory. He had become aware of violinist Ivan Galamian's ideas when he studied with Leonard Rose, who also used Galamian's ideas in his own teaching. Several years ago, Jensen transcribed Galamian's system for cello, and I believe these books are still available. Get them.
He had his students demonstrate scales of all kinds. Thirds with both 4-1, 2-thumb, and 3-thumb fingerings were played, as well as fingered thirds (1-3, 2-4, 1-3, 2-4….). He believes that the 4-1 fingering is good for building up endurance, but he recommends that one release the stretch as soon as possible when using this fingering in order to prevent fatigue and injury.
When playing octaves, he recommends that one think of the upper note controlling the shift instead of the lower note. One striking moment was when he asked one of his students to play octaves, which of course were played pristinely. After the octaves were played, he asked the student to tune his cello! The student had played flawlessly even though he had secretly de-tuned his strings for this demonstration! The idea Jensen was trying to demonstrate is that you can play octaves perfectly in tune if you start them off right and have a feel for how the fingers need to move relative to each other. He had another student play fingered octaves (1-3, 2-4, 1-3, 2-4) and then demonstrate their use in a Paganini Caprice. Wow! He had another student play tenths, and do so in major and harmonic minor keys, and then apply them in the Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante (Symphony-Concerto). Mindful practice of scales is clearly one of the keys to success.
The next event I attended was a panel discussion on orchestra auditions with Ron Leonard (former principal cellist in the Los Angeles Philharmonic), Louis Lowenstein (cellist in the Pittsburgh Symphony) and Sam Cristler (conductor and former cellist in the Pittsburgh Symphony and Rochester Philharmonic). There were lots of great tips for those who are planning on following this career path. In fact, there were so many, I'm going to just list them and let you sort them out for yourselves:
Phyllis Young's lecture on vibrato was charming and enlightening as always. "Discovery turns frustration into fascination and work into play." She shared lots of imagery that should be in the arsenal of any teacher that is trying to help beginners. "Feel the magic glue that helps your fingertips stick to the string… brush your teeth … the eraser motion … make the arm feel like jello…." These ideas can be found in her book, Playing the String Game.
As you can see, a congress doesn't need a mega-star to have an abundance of great information. Though the congress lacked a certain spark with the absence of Rostropovich, or any other world class performer, it was still well worth the trip. As Esther Prince of the New York Violoncello Society told me, "Cello congresses are not about the stars. They are about celebrating the camaraderie of cellists, and meeting old and new cello friends."
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