The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Master classes teach students and the public but should stress musicality over virtuosity

November 30, 2010
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

I hate playing in public.

And I hate being criticized, especially in public.

So participating in a master class would be my idea of Hell on Earth – or, at least, Hell in a concert hall.

Luckily, not everyone shares those feelings or fears.

That means that much of the public can benefit from the free master classes often held at the University of Wisconsin School of Music.

That’s where (usually in Morphy Recital Hall (below), various local presenters including the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Union Theater and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, share the talent of soloists with students and the public.

And so it is that in recent years I, an avid amateur pianist, have heard pianists Murray Perahia, Leon Fleisher, Olga Kern and Stephen Hough. All proved valuable.

On Nov. 19 I went to a master class held by pianist Randall Hodgkinson (below in a photo by Susan Cook), who was in town from Boston (he teaches at Wellesley College and the New England Conservatory of Music) to perform with the Gramercy Trio on the UW’s Guest Artists Series, free concerts that frequently also feature master classes in strings, voice, winds and brass.

You can learn a lot from master classes – how to practice, how to play, how to perform, how to listen, how to make sense of a piece of music.

So let me up front express my gratitude not only to Hodgkinson, but also to the UW graduate students who agreed to participate.

Pianist Sung Ho Yang (below) stepped in at the last minute for an ailing Jiyoung Noh. Noh was supposed to play Liszt’s “St. Francis of Paolo Walking on the Waves,” but Yang instead played Liszt’s fiendishly difficult and showy “Reminiscences of Don Juan,” which is also known as the “Don Juan Fantasy.”

Then came pianist Yoo-Ri Hong (below), who played the Andante and Prestissimo volando movements from Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 4, Op. 30.

Finally came a quintet (below) — violinists Roy Meyer and Laura Mericle, violist Andrew Vollmer (not pictured), cellist Alison Rowe and pianist Robert Logan — playing the opening movement of Brahms’ fabulously beautiful Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34.

For two hours, Hodgkinson proved a tactful, insightful and congenial teacher who respected the students even as he made suggestions.

With the Liszt piece, he showed how to turn virtuosity into music, and suggested how slower playing can give the impression of faster playing, and how phases need to be shaped especially in a glitzy piece so dependent on technique and boatloads of notes as the Liszt fantasy. Listeners, he stressed, have to hear details to appreciate the physical feat of the performance. And they should be charmed, not overwhelmed.

With Scriabin, Hodgkinson (below) stressed allowing the audience to hear the novelty of Scriabin’s harmonies and the importance of rhythmic drive over melodic tunes. That means also paying attention to the acoustics of the hall or performance space. He also stressed conflicting counterpoint and the idea that making music is another way of making sense, not just sound. You must allow the listener to feel the off beats and hear the rests.

With the Brahms quintet, he rightly stressed ensemble balance, tempi and dynamics in creating and projecting expressivity. He wanted each player to know when to pull back and when to go out front. “Make each note count” he advised adding that the harmonics of each part are not the same and should not be played as the same.

He was convincing and even though only the Brahms is a favorite piece of mine, I took away lessons from all the players and the pieces, mostly about shaping a phrase and the idea that each note should come from somewhere and go to somewhere, that continuity matters above all else.

But I also found myself wondering: Why don’t some master class students play smaller, less ambitious or less difficult works? My guess is that they and the audience would benefit a great deal from plumbing the depths of a “little” Brahms intermezzo or a Chopin mazurka or a Schubert impromptu or a Bach prelude and fugue rather than some big virtuoso piece.

Doing that might also allow undergraduate piano students to take part and allow amateurs to explore the repertoire they play.

Of course, too often the whole master class set-up lends itself to a kind of show-off aesthetic in which the temptation is to boast of one’s skill by proving one’s virtuosity over musicality.

But education is the primary point and purpose, and the focus should indeed be on musicality, not on trying to impress either the teacher or the audience.

But however it is done, I am deeply grateful to the UW School of Music and to the various arts presenters for offering these free open master classes; to the performers who conduct them; and, most of all, the to brave and talented students I respect for putting themselves on the line in public. Thank you.

Do you go to master classes?

Do you participate in them?

What do you think of them?

How could they be improved?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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