May 28-June 3, 2000
by Tim Janof (Finholt)
The last page of the Elgar Cello Concerto was the sound track to my waking life for about a week after World Cello Congress III in Baltimore. Unfortunately, having over-played my du Pre recording of this piece years ago, her interpretation echoed within me instead of Frans Helmerson's, who performed the concerto at the Congress. The inspiration that results from these congresses is as enjoyable as the events themselves.
My trip certainly started off right. US Air's "welcome" video featured a cellist! The video showed her cello travelling up the conveyor belt into the luggage compartment oh so carefully, and then it was given back to her by a cheerful US Air employee. This was a coincidence, right?
The opening ceremony on Sunday evening began with a slide show of past and present cellists of the last century, accompanied by various cello recordings. For some reason, Rostropovich was the only one who was shown in a brief video, a somewhat off-putting gesture, despite Slava's amazing contributions to the cello. As I watched the images go by, I couldn't help but reflect on how hard each of these great cellists -- from Casals to Fournier to Yo-Yo -- worked to create beauty in whichever way they considered it. For these great cellists, music was or is important, period.
The ceremony then continued with the usual speeches by university administrators. I always listen to these speeches with a certain amount of anxiety, not only because I dread the inevitable words of mutual admiration, but because I brace myself for the disappointment I will feel when I detect a slight mispronunciation, revealing that the speaker knows little about the cello or classical music. Fortunately, the speeches were short.
A US Senator, Paul Sarbanes, was one of the speakers and didn't disappoint. He was a college friend of Pablo Eisenberg, son of Maurice and named after Casals. He did seem like a genuine music-lover and like a genuine politician when he paused mid-speech to give a photographer his best polished smile. Politicians....
Janos Starker said a few words about the congress and how its purpose is to "further the cause of classical music and the cello, and to deepen the love and friendship amongst cellists." He also encouraged us "to have a heck of a good time." He must've been feeling the love in the air that night.
Bernard Greenhouse followed Starker with a brief but heartfelt (were those tears?) reflection on how the hall was filled with his friends and colleagues from the last 75 years. This direct connection to his heart must partly explain why he is such a heartfelt musician. My admiration of Greenhouse only grew throughout the Congress.
Monday morning began with a talk by Evan Drachman, Piatigorsky's grandson, about how the Piatigorsky Foundation sends professional musicians, including himself, to rural communities in order to share classical music with those who don't have ready access to it. He and his colleagues play in retirement communities, schools, libraries, and basically anywhere people gather. Rather than worrying that only 2% of the population listen to classical music, he is excited that 98% are just waiting to be converted! He also joked about the quality of the pianos that are found in his travels, referring to them as "P.S.O.'s" (piano shaped objects).
He then shared his tips on how to relate to an audience that knows little if anything about classical music. First, one must determine the knowledge level of the audience. He does this by sharing his bio with the audience and by watching for nods of recognition as he progresses from more obscure details, like that he studied at Peabody, to higher odds factoids, like that his grandfather performed with Jascha Heifetz. Despite the fact that his audiences are often as still as oil paintings during this getting-acquainted session, he cautioned that one must never talk down to an audience. He also recommends than one tell the audience something about the pieces they are going to hear (not relying upon program notes) without any musical jargon, perhaps talking about the composer as well as how long the piece is, since they are generally used to 3-minute songs, and how many sections (movements) it has.
After Drachman's talk, the dilemmas began. As is the case in all Congresses, one is forced to choose between simultaneous events. Rather than attend a discussion about how to start a local cello society, I chose to listen to a talk by Roel Dieltiens on Baroque performance practice. It seemed that the crowd collectively noted that he used a surprising amount of vibrato, and then squirmed when he followed this up with a talk on how vibrato is meant to be used sparingly, and then only as an ornament. Tough crowd!
David Geringas' master class reinforced my tremendous respect for him. If I were to study with a teacher in Europe, he would be at the top of my list, despite his occasional sarcasm. He clearly has spent a lot of time thinking about the music he plays, which was demonstrated by his ability to quote tempo markings from memory, to give historical references, and to make analogies to other aspects of life. Particularly striking was his discussion of the Shostakovich Sonata, where the music at one point may be depicting the sound of KGB footsteps in an apartment building late at night. He also tortured a student in the last movement of the Haydn C Major Concerto, forcing the student to play slowly so that the musical elements could be brought out. I found this somewhat ironic, given that Geringas played this movement lightning fast at the last Manchester Festival, and I recall wondering if the music suffered because of his tempo. Despite this minor incongruity, David Geringas has a depth that seems endless.
Terry King, a former student of Piatigorsky and an avid film collector, showed rare footage of Horace Britt (the first cellist to ever be filmed), Piatigorsky, Feuermann, and Bolognini. Britt elegantly played pieces by Massenet and Popper. Piatigorsky played a mind-bogglingly clean Weber Adagio and Allegro and a heartfelt Walton Concerto. Feuermann played the Dvorak Rondo and Popper's Spinning Song with incredible ease and refinement. Bolognini, considered by no less than Pablo Casals to be one of the greatest cellists of his day, played some amazing riffs in full costume of a Lawrence Welkian gypsy band. Terry King plans to sell copies of some of his rare film clips in the near future. I can't wait to get my hands on them!
Terry King also told me a moving story about the then elderly Paul Tortelier at a previous cello congress. Tortelier was discussing his imagery for Bach's G Major Prelude -- a mother and her child. Apparently the skepticism in the hall was so apparent that even Tortelier couldn't help but feel it. He suddenly stopped talking and stared directly into the crowd, "You all must think that I am crazy. … [long pause] … Well, you must accept me for who I am…[long pause]…." The stunned audience members magically opened their minds.
The big concert of the evening featured Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi in Haydn C Major Concerto, Janos Starker and Alexandra Preucil (his grandaughter) in Saint-Saens' Le Poet et la Muse, Gary Hoffman in his brother Joel's concerto, "Self-Portrait with Gebirtig," and Starker in the Dvorak Concerto. The Haydn was played in a style that one usually associates with the Dvorak Concerto, but I am always impressed with Tsutsumi's total commitment in his performances; he gives the music everything he's got and then some. Hoffman is a wonderful cellist and sounded transcendent on the "Rose" Amati, despite playing a fun piece that is more akin to klezmer music than to Schelomo in compositional sophistication (the cello is perfect for this type of music, so the piece was well-received by the audience). Starker, a heroic last minute stand-in for the ailing Boris Pergamenschikov, played the Dvorak in a relatively low-key manner (compared to his last Seattle performance), but he certainly wasn't helped by the chamber orchestra sized accompaniment.
Tuesday began with more master classes. I attended Bernard Greenhouse's master class, though I was also aching to see Gary Hoffman's as well. Greenhouse is a phenomenal musician and his demonstrations were so heavenly that I prayed that the student would melt away so that Greenhouse could just play; I can't get his playing of the second theme in the Dvorak's first movement out of my mind! He said in the class, "I like to hear rounded phrases with beautiful arches," and he certainly plays with this principle in his head and heart. The world needs more musicians like Greenhouse.
Zara Nelsova gave a hilarious talk in a session called "The Art of Stage Deportment." Judging from the title, one might expect an uppity talk from Ms. Manners. But with her generosity of spirit and warm sense of humor, the talk was full of good-natured ribbings and caricatures of performing do's and don'ts, like not tapping one's feet, keeping one's shoes polished and clothes pressed, not wincing when a mistake is made, tuning quietly, keeping one's endpin sharp, and so on. The audience was also regaled by stories of her own clothing disasters, like the time the front of her gown gradually ripped from her neck to her belly-button during the course of a concerto, or the time her necklace detached and slowly sank lower and lower down her shirt; she pulled it out between movements and gave it to the concertmaster She then closed her talk by saying, "Love what you do. After all, that's what we're here for." Amen.
Yo-Yo Ma then hosted a "Private Cello Party" for kids (the rest of us had to watch via a remote TV link in the main auditorium), in which a dozen or so children played for him and then discussed issues like, "What do you do when you are playing in front of people and you get nervous?" Yo-Yo has a special way with kids that is so warm, so curious, and so open that one could not help but be charmed by him, though one had to get passed the image of the three or four TV news cameras that were in the room with him.
After this, Yo-Yo gave a master class. Again, with TV news cameras rolling and in front of the first capacity crowd of the congress, he succeeded in charming the audience. I must confess that I was not terribly impressed with his master class, though others were awed with his "philosophical" nature. When one compares his class with David Geringas', Bernard Greenhouse's, or Timothy Eddy's, I'm afraid that Yo-Yo simply doesn’t measure up, which may have something to do with his lack of teaching experience.
The evening concert provided the energy boost that the congress needed after a relatively lethargic beginning (despite all the events I just described). It was a dream-concert for cellists. Cecylia Barczyk (Towson University professor) performed Popper's Hungarian Rhapsody very powerfully, though it wasn't as virtuosic a version as the one Maria Kliegel played at Starker's 75th birthday celebration last year. Frans Helmerson played the Elgar Concerto in a most passionate and commanding manner (what a cellist!). Natalia Gutman performed Schelomo, doing a heroic job despite some terrible gaffs from the Baltimore Symphony; she must have been relieved when the piece came to an end. Arto Noras really sold a concerto by Finnish composer Joonas Kokkonen, which used artificial harmonics and ponticello most effectively; I hope this piece doesn't fade away! David Geringas performed the first Shostakovich Concerto in a perhaps overly gritty manner (to the point that some notes could not be heard through the scratches), maintaining his authoritative presence despite a horrible cell phone moment, which of course rang when he was in the midst of a magical moment. What a fantastic night!
One thing became abundantly clear in this concert. Yo-Yo is not the only cellist in the world. He is but one a several world class cellists. He is great in his own way, but so are the others. He has less publicized colleagues that are his equals (some would say his superiors), so buy CD's from other cellists too, please!
Wednesday morning began with a symposium on the influence of folk music on cello literature. Ning Tien Scialla presented cello music from China, including pieces arranged for her by her father. Daniel Kazez discussed music based upon Jewish themes. He started by trying to define what Jewish music is. Music by Jewish composers was not a sufficient criteria, since "Over the Rainbow," "Hoedown," and "West Side Story" were all written by Jewish composers, and they don't have that "Jewish sound." He eventually discussed music based upon Jewish themes with their characteristic minor keys, augmented 2nds, and microtones. Of course Bloch was high on the list, but, surprisingly, Bruch's Kol Nidrei was not, since he was not a Jew, as Bruch adamantly declared for the rest of his career. Apparently, it is often specifically requested that Bruch's music NOT be played in synagogues for this reason.
A joint master class with Janos Starker and Bernard Greenhouse followed. The class started out with Greenhouse stating that those who came to hear him and Starker argue would be disappointed, and indeed many were. Since the student studies with a former student of Starker's, Starker had little to say about her technique; he was surprisingly quiet throughout the class. He did bring up his notion that the word "and" is the most important word in music, since it helps one to phrase more clearly. While Greenhouse (bad cop) ripped the student apart musically ("Don't cheapen the melodies with over-emotional playing…. There should never be a straight line in music ... Every note must have something poetic to say.") Starker (good cop) occasionally chimed in with some helpful advice on how to technically realize Greenhouse's musical ideas. It didn't help the interest level of the class that the piece was the repetitive Herbert Concerto, which Starker humorously referred to as having "traumatic instead of dramatic content."
Next came a master class with Frans Helmerson (Tsutsumi's and Lesser's were at the same time too). Frans Helmerson first confused me with a lengthy discussion about how much vibrato one should use in Bach (as opposed to none or almost none), though he did encourage the student to try playing without vibrato and to use the bow more expressively, before reapplying vibrato of course. Things got much better after that, and he particularly struck me with: "You are studying to become a good student, instead of studying to become an artist." I also appreciated his saying, "One is always trying to balance one's respect for the composer with respect for oneself. Too much of one or the other is bad."
Our own Robert Battey ("Bob") served up magic with films of great cellists of the past and present. Casals played the Allemande and Courante of the G Major Suite with wonderful energy and fluidity. Piatigorsky astounded us with his downbow staccato in some Schubert Variations. Fournier, "a natural born singer and poet" played the second movement of the Dvorak Concerto. Leonard Rose, the epitome of dignity and carefully worked out consummate artistry, and Glenn Gould, wild genius, created magic in the last movement of the Beethoven A Major Sonata. Starker played with Cassado with incredible flair and energy in a Tokyo recital in the mid-1980's. And of course du Pre gave her all in the Elgar Concerto.
Then came a couple of movie surprises. Mischa Maisky gets the "composure under pressure" award for, in the cadenza in the second movement of the Dvorak, accidentally losing his bow, somehow catching it at its mid-point, and continuing to play while slowly inching his grip back to the frog WITHOUT MISSING A SINGLE NOTE! You have to see it to believe it, though seeing it doesn't make it any more believable.
Heinrich Schiff, in another film clip, played a rock-n-roll concerto by Friedrich Gulda, a composer previously known for his great interpretations of Mozart's piano works. Apparently, Gulda disappeared for many years only to re-emerge as a head-band wearing 60-year-old composer of rock concerti. Talk about a paradigm shift!
In the middle of Bob's excellent presentation, Dr. Helene Breazeale, the horribly stressed out Executive Director of the World Cello Congress, stormed in and struck fear in the hearts of those who were skipping the mass cello ensemble rehearsal to watch Bob's film clips. "Part of the condition for being chosen for the master classes is that you WILL play in the mass cello ensemble!" The cellist who played in Yo-Yo's class stood up and walked out with his head hanging and shoulders slumped. Another, with sheer terror in her eyes, stood up and yelled from the back of the hall, "But I told you I wasn't going to play!" Some people fold like a house of cards, I guess.
The ICS dinner was a true pleasure. We each introduced ourselves, both with our name and our chat board screen names. The amazing part was that I felt instantly close to so many people that I had only met on-line. There were members from as far away as Poland, England, and the Netherlands! It became clear that the internet is a wonderful tool for bringing people together and that the ICS is doing some good.
There was another big concerto concert that same evening. 27-year-old Wendy Warner dazzled us with the Barber Concerto (wow, is she an incredible cellist!). Han-Na Chang, who's only 17, gasped and grimaced through a lightning fast Saint-Saens Concerto. Interestingly, she did many things that Greenhouse objected to in his master class with this same piece, and I guess I've got to side with him. I find it hard to believe that both she and Gary Hoffman are winners of the Rostropovich competition. Gary was already a seasoned profound artist when he won, and she, well, isn't (yet). This has rekindled my doubts about the meaningfulness of competitions.
Yo-Yo did his best to sell a piece by Peter Lieberson, and then played Tchaikovsky's Andante Cantabile, at one point as a duet with a melodic cell phone that rang, not once, but twice. Much to my dismay, this concert had a packed house because of Yo-Yo, while the night before (with Barczyk, Helmerson, Gutman, Noras, and Geringas), the house was about 3/4 full.
Despite growing exhaustion, we all dragged ourselves out of bed on Thursday morning to hear a symposium on newly composed 20th Century Music for Cello. ICS Director, John Michel, premiered a piece by Maria Newman, which had only been completed the week before. John played with great confidence and passion, and the piece was very accessible, perhaps revealing her upbringing by her father, Alfred Newman, a film score composer. Elizabeth Morrow then played a piece by Geoffrey Gordon, and Wendy Warner performed excerpts from 24 preludes by Lera Auerbach, who was the pianist as well.
Having recently attended three days of master classes with Janos Starker, I opted to listen to Paul Katz' master class instead. Katz provided a nice mixture of technical advice ("Use arm weight at the frog ... Raise the elbow as you approach the tip ... Use the feet to help with power ... When the thumb is loose, the hand is loose."), including some ideas that Victor Sazer no doubt recognized, and many musical suggestions. He helped a student find the phrases in Bach's E-flat Suite and then discussed how to create musical interest when boredom is imminent, like in the first half of the Prelude ("Find points of tension and relaxation…. Clarify points of dramatic intensity and tenderness.") He asked a student in the Debussy Sonata to play more in a more Impressionistic style -- more electrical vibrato, different tone colors, dreamy, airy -- instead in too emotive a style. I found his openness to the students' own musical ideas very refreshing, even when they are half-baked.
Margaret Campbell, author of Great Cellists, ran through about 300 years of cellists in an hour (ugh). Apparently, cello history is filled with scholars, inebriates, and prizefighters. Particularly memorable was her account of Bolognini, who was quite known for his temper. He had gotten into an argument with a conductor prior to a concert and was fired on the spot. During the concert that evening, which was outdoors, Bolognini flew his plane back and forth over the orchestra, bringing the concert to a halt, and eventually landed his plane in a nearby parking lot. It took a dozen police officers to subdue him.
Zara Nelsova gave a master class afterwards. Tragically, her ability to distinguish pitch is diminishing, so one's attention was drawn to the fact that her cello was tuned a half-step sharp every time she demonstrated, rather than to her pearls of wisdom. She did encourage the students to think of unbroken lines, to give full value to chords, to use arm weight, and to play with a straight bow thumb, in order to maintain the continuity of sound as one plays towards the tip. She also quoted Casals as saying that "Whatever you do, it must be logical. Never do anything that is illogical."
On Friday morning, there was a symposium about buying or commissioning a cello and bow. Several celli were played for the audience using identical musical passages in order to provide a fair comparison, which is what you should do when cello shopping for yourself. When buying a bow, you should try all kinds of bowings (spiccato, richochet, legato, etc) so that you get a feel for as many properties of the bow as possible. If you a have bright sounding cello, you may want a softer, more flexible bow to tone it down. If you have a more mellow cello, a stiffer bow may help liven it up.
A panel discussion on cello in education followed with panel members Uzi Weizel (Israel), Laurence Lesser (USA), Arto Noras (Finland), Ko Iwasaki (Japan/USA), and Philippe Muller (France). Of all the countries, France seemed to have the most organized music educational system, with various levels of schools, and pre-defined training cycles. Finland has about 1000 music schools with the Sibelius Academy being the main professional school. Japans seems to be in a state of uncertainty right now, though they of course are benefiting from the wildly popular Suzuki method. Lesser, the moderator, did his best to try to keep the discussion focused on educational issues, but the pull of other topics proved too tempting. A discussion about how distinct national styles are disappearing, and how personality is taking a back-seat to safe, non-offensive playing, dominated the discussion. Recordings were in part blamed for this blending of interpretations.
I then attended my last event before having to get back to my life -- Timothy Eddy's master class. Eddy is a soft-spoken but masterful cellist. With the first student, he focused upon the notion that the Haydn C Major Concerto is about the interplay between melodic and rhythmic ideas, and that this contrast should be brought out. His main focus with the second student was her bow arm, trying to teach her to use released arm weight instead of pressing, and to pull the sound out of the string instead of forcing it. We must let go of our instinct to create passion and excitement through muscular intensity and trust that there is a simple, more direct way to achieve the same goal. Eddy is a teacher worth seeking out.
This report certainly doesn't record everything that happened at the congress (like recitals by Uzi Weizel, Timothy Eddy, David Hardy, and Mihaly Virizaly). For other views of the congress, please see our Cello Chat bulletin board for comments by other attendees. If you haven't attended a cello congress, you must do so. You will experience a spirit of sharing and camaraderie that is truly unique in the music world.
For more on the World Cello Congress III, click here: http://www.cello.org/wcc.htm
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