Sunday, February 27, 2011

Vivian Fung: Composing Collaborations - between Gamelan and New Music Chamber Ensembles

“I find the most inspiration while travelling” says composer Vivian Fung, whose first commission for the New York Chamber Society was performed under the baton of Gerard Schwarz in 1995.
She was 19 years old at the time. Her interests in music are influenced by her wide ranging travels and exude cross cultural pollination.
Fluent in Cantonese as well as English, Fung unites both worlds of her Asian heritage and the Western influences of her schooling and surroundings, comfortably within her personality. “My background is Chinese but I grew up in Edmonton, Canada, and my training is Western throughout,” Fung explains to me over lunch on the Upper West Side, at ‘Nick&Tony’ near Lincoln Center. Exclaiming to be a big “foodie,” the delicately built young composer examines the menu, settling for an exotic sounding version of a hamburger. She is decisive and matter of fact, yet agreeable and comfortable with defying categorizations. When it comes to music her take is especially definite:”There is no line for me, marking classical music from non-classical.”
After earning her doctorate in composition from Juilliard in 2002, the energetic young musician started teaching music theory as part of the faculty of Julliard’s Literature and Materials of Music department.
An inspirational trip to Bali in the summer of 2004 brought about some exploration of South East Asian Gamelan music and led her to curate the innovative ‘World Music Series,’ at Juilliard. This venture allowed her to channel some of the exciting and foreign artistic influences into her ‘other life’ in academia and to introduce the students to different cultural elements, broadening their musical horizons.

“I would invite top notch artists, talk about their culture and background and just introduce the students to different influences.” she remembers, contagiously excited. She explains how this came about: “I had just come back from Bali, and had studied with one of the foremost Balinese Gamelan groups named Cudamani, which happened to go on tour in the US that spring of 2005, and so I invited them to give a lecture-recital at Juilliard.”
It is easy to see how Fung’s innovative project won her enthusiastic followers throughout the Juilliard student body. Personal interaction is existentially important for Fung:”Since composing for me is a very collaborative process, with the performing musician(s)and I am interested in a true involvement, it is important that there is a passionate approach towards my work, about my music. It helps, of course, to have a personal relationship as well. When the performer is enthusiastic, learns the piece by heart and gives the performance full attention and effort, the result is something greater than the piece itself. ”
Naturally, the personal factor always comes into play; and especially so with most of the promising collaborative circles of new “music scenes,” with the often overlapping interaction of performers, composers, conductors and educators. Based mostly in America’s Metropolitan areas, these groups of musicians also seem to provide more and more often their own audience base. Remarkably though, a perpetual artistic individualism prevails through even the most collaborative efforts. It seems as there has never been a more exciting conglomerate of mixed stylistic, highly original and creative voices around.

Inspiration - Bali

Fung exclaims: “My work as a composer is so personal; I am always open for influences that inform my choices. Of course the Asian undercurrent is always going to be there, this is always going to be part of who I am. But ultimately it’s all about one’s personal journey. Of course I am aware who my colleagues and friends are, and we do have a community. I love also interacting with the audience, talking about my piece and experiencing a connection. It is important to me, that the audience is diversified. I do not believe in elitism. I am very involved in the Chicago Fulcrum Point New Music Project, a chamber ensemble found in 1998 by acclaimed musician, conductor and music educator Stephen Burns. They will present the world premiere of my “Yunnan Folk Songs” on March 22nd, 2011, as part of their concert “Speaking in Tongues. In the Chicago area, Fung was also composer –in- residence for the Music in the loft series in 2005/6.
Gamelan Performance

True to Fung’s academic interest, the “Yunnan Folk Songs” is a project, based on vast research by Professor Zhang Xingrong of the Yunnan Art Institute, China. Since the early 80’s he has established an immense ethno-musicological collection of folksongs preserving cultural edifices of 25 minority nationalities in Southwest China, recording and transmitting their distinct languages and musical outputs.
Says Fung: “I can go in-between a lot of things, can be an observer of different traditions, without having to stick to any particular way. How you relate to the world and other people comes from an imagination from within. The same goes for musical composition. My musical reference to certain cultural influences is always characterized or filtered by my inspiration of certain aspects of it.”
With the Yunnan Folk song- cycle for example, Fung felt an immediate urge to explore the strong emotional impact of the raw and earthy voices, expressing an uninhibited emotional quality delivered by means of intense contrapuntal textures.
This seventeen-minute cycle of seven songs for mezzo-soprano, baritone and chamber ensemble is a still in process artisticinvestigation that she would like to explore even further and maybe develop, at some point, into an operatic work.
To find enough time for her increasing emergence as a composer, Fung made the decision to leave Julliard’s teaching position in 2009. “A leap of faith,” as she admits.
“I really enjoyed teaching as well, but I just could not be able to branch out, in the way I wanted to, having such limited time,” says the married Fung who is also considering time issues, concerning the debate of starting a family.
For the time being, she relishes the highly personal involvement with the artists she creates her works for: “My relationship with performers is becoming more and more important to how I shape a new commission, as well as the potential longevity of my work.”

Vivian Fung

Fung tells about her friendship with pianist Jenny Lin , a well recognized young performer, who is known for her fine musical skills in both classical repertoire as well as a new music pianist: “In 2005, Jenny approached me to write a new work for her on prepared piano, which became Glimpses, premiered by her at the ISCM Miami Festival in 2006.
This work has been performed numerous times, by Jenny and has since been picked up by such pianists as Margaret Leng Tan, Vicky Chow, and Bryan Wagorn, who will perform it at the America Society, New York, April 26th. 2011, celebrating the composer as the rising star of Canadian music that she is. Part of this celebration will also be the Canadian Afiara String Quartet , currently the graduate resident string quartet at The Juilliard School in New York, where they serve as teaching assistants to the Juilliard String Quartet.
“I think that it was thanks to the care, Jenny and I applied working on finding the right notation and nuances that helped get the work “out there,” says Fung. “Already then, Jenny recognized the potential in Glimpse’s first movement, “Kotekan” to be built up into a larger, more complex work. This idea led to my piano concerto “Dreamscapes” for Jenny that was commissioned by Andrew Cyr for the Metropolis Ensemble and was premiered at LePoisson Rouge in November of 2009. So…if you listen to the Piano Concerto, there is a quotation of “Kotekan” about 4 minutes into the concerto and that material is greatly expanded upon.”
Violinist Kristin Lee attended Fung’s class at Juilliard, and was fascinated from the get go. A mutual collaboration with the violinist, whom Fung describes as gutsy, virtuosic and lyrical at the same time, started when Fung got invited to one of her performances.
“I invited Andrew [Cyr] to join me and we both were blown away by her performance. Andrew invited Kristin to join the Metropolis Ensemble, where she also became the concertmaster for the performance of my Piano Concerto in 2009. She loved it, enough so, that she sent me an email after a rehearsal and asked me to write a violin concerto for her…The relationship I have fostered with Kristin resulted also in her accompanying me to Bali, this past summer of 2010, while I was touring with Gamelan Dharmaswana, in residence here at the New York Indonesian Consulate…the trip made our musical friendship grow deeper…The cadenza was a collaborative effort, it will be a tour de force,” says Fung, as she invites me to preview the performance of mentioned cadenza, at its inaugural benefit performance at Riverpark, with the Metropolis Ensemble on March 8th, 2011. The world premiere of the violin concerto in its entirety is planned for sometime in the fall of 2011.
“I am also an active community member, fostering additional relationships with rising composers and performers through workshops and outreach programs. In my role of the New York Foundation for the Arts music fellow for 2010-11 I have been involved as a mentor in their Immigrant Artist Mentorship program, where I share my artistic experiences and resources, helping a young composer in her early career to achieve her goals.”
And she has indeed already plenty of valid resources and experiences to share.
Fung’s very next important date is the Canadian premiere of her String Quartet No 2. , taking place in Edmonton, her Canadian hometown.
Presented by the Edmonton Chamber Society and featuring the Shanghai String Quartet on March 5th. 2011, the work was a commission by the Shanghai String Quartet in 2009 in celebration of their 25th Season. Another piece for String Quartet, Pizzicato, composed already in 2001 and recorded with the Ying Quartet and released by Telarc in 2008, will be featured by the Escher Quartet as part of Chamber Society of Lincoln Center’s Opening Night, Fireworks -Concert at Alice Tully Hall, on September 26th, 2011.
Expect nothing less than Fireworks!
For more Information about the composer Vivian Fung, see her website:

Friday, February 18, 2011

Setting Pianistic Standards: The Arthur Rubinstein Society And International Piano Competition

Arthur Rubinstein

"You don’t have to be a pianist, but you do have to be a musician that we know and respect, to be invited as a juror of the competition,” comments Idith Zvi, as she invites me into her small office, which has a grand piano and is filled with portraits of Arthur Rubinstein.
As the society’s artistic director, she (with only the help of a small staff) manages all efforts that make the Arthur Rubinstein Society and International Piano Competition in Tel Aviv, Israel, the renowned arena it has become for young pianists. For young pianists who like a challenge that is, since word is out that this competition is one of the difficult ones.

According to the brochure, founding director Jan Jacob Bistritzky’s aim was to “link the artistic legacy of Arthur Rubinstein with the cultural life of Israel."

Bistritzky, who emigrated from Poland in 1971, brought his professional expertise with him. In Warsaw, he had already directed the world-famous Frederyk Chopin Institute and the Chopin Piano Competition. This is also where he met legendary pianist Arthur Rubinstein, whom he brought on board to reside over the competition held in Israel every three years. Rubinstein held the position of Jury chairman in its inaugural year, 1974, and again in 1977.

J.Bistritzky; A.Rubinstein

From the beginning, the jury was chosen to boast international appeal as well as to encompass the highest artistic expectations. Members from the highest ranks of performing artists and educators accepted the invitation, making the competition a red carpet event of the classical music world. Maybe it was the Italian virtuoso Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli who, as member of the 1974 jury, helped decide the vote for Emanuel Ax, as the first prize winner of the very first competition. Perhaps it was the Israeli born Yoheved Kaplinsky, current chair of the piano faculty at Juilliard that helped swing the vote for Kirill Gerstein, at the competition’s tenth round in 2001.

The principle of the competition is straightforward: 13 Jurors have a simple vote, during each stage of the competition, naming the candidates who will go into the next round. In the first stage, all accepted competitors play a 40-50-minute recital with an audience.

The Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition -Jury of 2008
Photo: The Jury of 2008 left to right:Dang Thai Son; Peter Cosse; Claude Frank; Yoheved Kaplinsky; Robert Levin; Piort Paleczny; Nikolai Petrov; Menahem Pressler; Uri Segal; Tamas Vasary; Jonathan Zak; Arie Vardi.

The jury decides which 16 competitors will go to the next round. In round one and two, the performer can choose the repertoire, as long as it includes a classical work and a romantic work, as well as a given selection of Israeli works. At the second stage, the jury chooses the 6 finalists, which will be ranked at the third stage. The repertoire includes one chamber music quintet of a given list, as well as two piano concerti, again one a classical period work and the other a romantic or Twentieth century- specified work. The six winners will receive 1. Prize of $25,000, 2. Prize of $15,000, 3. Prize of $10,000 and Prizes of $3000 each. The Competition Gold, Silver and Bronze Medals, given for first, second and third place, are designed by Pablo Picasso and bear the competition’s inspiration, Arthur Rubinstein’s portrait. They are also engraved with Picasso´s facsimile signature as well as the emblem of the State of Israel, minted by the Israeli Government.

1.,2.,and 3. Price Medals. P.Picasso

Luminaries of the piano world, like Martha Argerich and Leon Fleisher, have appeared on the list of honorable jurors, as have Lev Naumov and Karl Heinz Kämmerling, to name just a few. Prominent Israeli pianist, composer and educator Prof. Arie Vardi has been part of the jury many times from 1977 onwards and currently serves as the society’s music advisor and chairman of the jury. It was Arie Vardie, who sought after Idith Zvi’s many talents for the society. As a pianist, educated in Israel and the United States, Zvi had reinvented herself often, shifting careers from performing artist, Broadcast producer and Festival founder, to coming full circle as the society’s artistic director. Her life has always centered around music, and her energetic impact has changed Israel’s cultural landscape in the process.

Idith Zvi
As a talented piano student, Zvi finished the conservatory at age 11. Before entering into the obligatory Israeli Army service, she had studied first with Naima Rosh, a pupil of Ilona Vincze and then was transferred to Ilona Vincze herself. Working at the army radio station, Zvi excitedly found a whole new outlet, allowing her to creatively engage with music, without having to sit and practice the piano in solitude.

But she did receive her Artist Diploma at the Tel Aviv Academy of Music and, when accompanying a student -cellist at a Masterclass, given by Leonard Rose , together with violinist Isaac Stern and pianist Eugene Istomin, Rose convinced her to continue her music studies in the United States. She auditioned for Jerome Loventhal, longstanding member at the Juilliard faculty and a performer, who at the time was performing with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in Tel Aviv. He accepted her as a private student, in New York. Enrolled as a communication major at the Philadelphia based Temple University, she commuted to her piano lessons in New York every week.
That summer of 1968, she attended the Marlboro Festival. A summer she will always remember as a highpoint within her forming years as a musician. Zvi shares her fond memories of the livelong friendships she forged, especially with Richard Goode, who recommended her to move to New York full-time. She followed his advice and continued her postgraduate studies at the Mannes College with Claude Frank. “Shy and insecure, I arrived in New York not knowing what to expect and found myself at the centre of the New York classical music scene,” Zvi remembers.

Pianists Samuel Sanders and Murray Perahia, and violinist Alexander Schneider were amongst her circle of friends. She toured with violinist Yuval Waldman. And then, her father passed away in Israel and she returned home. An only child, she felt her place was here, close to her mother, and she started to make a living as a piano teacher. As a replacement for a radio producer, she launched her second career, radio producer for IBA, the Broadcasting Authority of Israel, working at the classical music station on National Radio.

Connecting her passion for classical music with her talents as a broadcast producer, writer, and editor, Edith Zvi initiated live broadcasts of concert performances. The annual Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s celebrations became public radio celebrations, and Zvi’s broadcast of the Rubinstein competition of 1977 added the necessary publicity to the coveted event of the classical piano world, putting the public eye efficiently on Israel´s important role on the map of international competitions.

Zvi´s broadcasts reflected on the IPO´s festive celebrations and the International competition, making these events popular and bringing more listeners to the radio programs as well.

The enormous success of an Independence Day Broadcast, with hundreds of children performing music in the lobby of the Tel Aviv Art Museum, inspired Zvi to create her own Chamber Music Festival, the first one in Israel at the time. Even though the lively and entrepreneurial powerhouse postponed the project for many years, she founded the Upper Galilei chamber music days in Kibbiuz K’far Blum in 1985, and stayed on as its artistic director for 10 years.

Live projects of the festival’s radio production became a large cooperation “Kol ha musica ha camerit” between the Office of Education and the Upper Galilei regional council and public radio. Zvi describes it as a huge responsibility: “I was running a one woman show. I was producer, director, and performer and even though it was a very satisfying work, it was time to move on.”

From 1995-2000, she served as Director of the Israel Chamber Orchestra which had established its home at the Tel Aviv Museum. The group of 35 musicians had just parted with its musical director, Shlomo Mintz, and was in a dire financial state. Ultimately Zvi had to recognize that she was not really “dealing with music but with budgets.” That same year, in 2000, she made her move back to radio, and joined the Rubinstein Society as their deputy director. And, then without really changing its job description, the position turned into artistic director in 2003.

[The Picture shows the staff: (from left to right: Rivka Chernia(financial administrator) Orly Venturero (office manager), Shuly Haberman(producer) and Idith Zvi (artistic director)]

Making the competition vivacious and successful is a lot of work. We start after a competition comes to an end; we draw our conclusions of what worked and what didn’t and start preparing the next one. Planning dates requires a lot of coordination with the orchestra. In this case, it’s mainly the Israeli Philharmonic and the Hall. We are producing live performances with ticket sales, which provides an artistic relevant frame for the performer. Even though it is a competition, which is always challenging in so many ways, there is also the true concert experience, with a real audience present. The jurors have to be invited and chosen. We do like to have a good mix of returning jurors as well as new ones,” describes Zvi.


On the forever difficult question of how is it possible to determine a “winner” when inherently “immeasurable” artistic qualities are to be measured regardless, Zvi counters: “The jurors do not debate with each other. They simply name their choices. The mix of jurors helps for a more objective outcome and to create fair conditions. Jurors are not allowed to enter their own current students into the competition. Of course every juror has a personal taste, when it comes to preferences of musical interpretation, but there is also something generally true about a certain level of quality in the competitors.”

She continues, “I personally do not have a vote. I just know out of my own experience, it can be a really challenging experience and the standard is constantly rising. With recording techniques being so extremely advanced, the performer has to raise the level of the live performance as well. And most of them are used to doing just that. Many competitors travel from one competition to the next. I personally would not be competitive enough, accepting failure, without falling apart. I admire their enormous drive and I know how hard it is. Sometimes I just want to hug them, when they are suffering self doubt and despair. But the least I can do is make them feel comfortable. We have lovely host families that accompany them from the moment they arrive in Israel and are at their service. They are accommodated throughout the three weeks of ongoing competition, in a hotel with pianos in each room and their flights are subsidized with 500 dollars.”

At the end it’s about the exposure, the concert experience possibility, the PR and of course the prize itself. The branding as the next “winner” may not make for a sure career breakthrough quite yet, but it certainly is a great entrée.

While the program of the competition is the same every year, and varies only in the Israeli composer section, the opening concert, performed by the winners of the previous competition varies each time and underlies the artistic director’s choices. For this year’s competition opening concert to be performed with the Israel Camerata, Jerusalem,on May 10th, 2011, Edith Zvi has selected my favorite, the Schumann Piano Concerto in A-minor, as well as the Mozart piano concerto 488 in A–major and the Shostakovich concerto for piano, trumpet and strings. The concert will be performed by the winners of the 2008, Roman Rabinovitch (Israel) and Chin Yun Hu (Taiwan), who both shared the second prize, and Khatia Buniatishvili (Georgia).

This year, pianist Yefim Bronfman confirmed that he would join his former teacher Arie Vardi as juror. Too bad that due to health reasons, Alfred Brendel , who was supposed to attend as a special guest of honor, had to cancel.
I attended last year’s competition and can recommend it for an exciting challenge even for a member of the audience. You just may hear the next Rubinstein perform.

This year´s competition will be held from May 10th - May 26th, 2011.

For more detailed information, go to

This article was first posted by the author at BlogCritics.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Pianist Marika Bournaki: on a Schumanesque quest--finding herself in the process

Marika Bournaki

It is easy enough to identify striking talent, even at a young age. For musically-talented performers, this often seems to set a process in motion that can lead to an unstoppable, out of control ride. Parental support and teachers’ ambitions frequently play into rising expectations and young performers are often left to fight for themselves, dealing with the stress of having to perform well at all times. Intensive training must conform to some of the highest and most competitive standards, but these are not often in sync with a teenage state of mind and can easily leave the budding artist feeling overwhelmed by an inescapable, spiraling wheel of critique and approval.
I wonder if this is how it sometimes appeared to the young, French-Canadian born Marika Bournaki, whom I met with her boyfriend, David Aladashvili, in November of 2008, at New York’s Juilliard School cafeteria. Marika generously shared with me her thoughts on the different stages and experiences of becoming the serious artist she set out to be. This has grown into a tender friendship over the past three years, where I have followed Marika, with a distinct appreciation of the interesting young woman and maturing artist she is becoming.David and Marika, both freshmen at the time, had met at the Juilliard Pre-College Division. David had left his home in Georgia, and Marika followed in her father’s footsteps, who, before creating a home in Montreal, had studied violin with Julliard’s pre-eminent Dorothee Delay.
Marika’s promising pianistic talent had always created a lot of attention around her, making her what she describes as “the Golden child” of her piano teacher in Montreal. This renown gave her confidence and pride in her ability to perform, as well as lots of opportunities to do just that. Laughingly she described this as turning her into a bit of a “drama queen.”
Because she had experienced pain at the instrument, she sought out, even at 12, the help of Israeli born pianist and professor for music at the Juilliard School, Yoheved Kaplinsky. Veda, as she is affectionately called by her students, studied with Ilona Vincze-Kraus at the Israel Academy of Music and then under Irwin Freundlich at Juilliard, earning her Bachelor, Master and Doctoral degrees. She had also studied with Brooklyn-based pianist and teacher Dorothy Taubman, whose claim to fame lay in discovering an analytical approach that facilitates the physically complex elements in a natural piano technique; thus helping many pianists to overcome painful injuries or limitations and gain greater freedom and precise articulation within their playing. Since 1997 Kaplinsky had been appointed head of the Juilliard Piano College Division and Artistic Director of its Pre-College Division.
Marika flew down from Montreal weekly, when she was 12, to the Pre-College Division, and at fourteen began attending the Professional Children School in New York, while still studying with Kaplinsky.
Marika felt extremely lucky to have been accepted by Mrs. Kaplinsky, “since her hands were all messed up.” Mrs. Kaplinsky told her that she would not be able to play at all, if she did not undergo extensive retraining. Marika also had an overwhelming feeling of doubt which created a dilemma for her. At that time she was looking less for glamorous performance opportunities, but rather for stability, depth and security.
With some modesty, she also had to accept the fact that she was not the only talented performer around, and that her status of “child prodigy” was becoming a relative term. She was one of many, in a tense competitive environment; all of them gifted and eager to fulfill their legacy.
While a little dose of self- doubt probably effectively wards off a potentially exaggerated sense of self, it is equally important for a performer to enjoy the act of performing and … to be able to trust his or her ability to do so most efficiently.
The process of retraining one’s piano technique is not an easy task and Marika always felt, that she was a “ very emotional player, and, swept away by the music” she was playing. She had a difficult time concentrating on what it was she was doing technically, while playing.
However, “Something had to be right,” she admits smiling, as we continue one of our conversations , “something must have settled in,” since she now feels enabled, quite fluid and comfortable most of the time.
This week, I had the privilege to sit in on one of Marika’s piano lessons with Kaplinsky at the Julliard College where Marika is now completing her studies. They worked together on the Mozart D-Minor Concerto, No. 20, K.466. The experienced teacher acknowledged Marika’s great talent, but advised her on how to correct her posture. By hovering over the keys closely and by holding her shoulders up, she was shortening the efficient reach of her arms, thereby hindering a free transposition of the weight of the whole arm into the keys. Kaplinsky also pointed out how Marika must watch her emotions while playing:”Try to determine if you are getting the right sound rather by what it sounds like, than what it feels like.” Marika tries again….”Ahh now that sounds much better. You should not feel tight at any time, or let the knuckles of the fingers collapse,” says Kaplinsky and lets Marika examine how the sound is affected by different ways when releasing her weight into the keys, at different speeds.
This year, Marika continues to get lessons from Kaplinsky, but another teacher, Matti Raekallio, has been added as a second teacher.
Marika has mixed feelings about that. While she enjoys a variety of input, she also worries about being exposed to confusing differences.
Of course we are only talking about nuances here. Marika sounds extremely proficient and most of the time creates very fresh, and at the same time, quite distinguished interpretations.
Her affecting cluelessness about her own pianistic prowess gives us some glimpses into a young artist’s soul-searching process. What possibly many young performers experience is still individually heartfelt and makes the sometimes glamorous seat at the piano a very lonely place to be, as well.
Of note, film director Bobbi Jo Krals is also following Marika’s development closely. Her achievements, like her “From the Top” featured NPR broadcast and Carnegie -Weill Recital Hall performance presented by the Glenn Gould Foundation, will appear in his feature documentary, “Making Marika.” Produced by Robbie Hart and to be released by “Adobe Productions International” in the near future, the documentary “will reveal the backdoor politics, alliances, marketing and sacrifice (financial and personal) required in the hope of making Marika into a star,” according to the media’s production website. This project, consiting of filmed material covering Marika's life during the past several years, should touch on some interesting discrepancies, to be encountered between academic training and actual survival within the music industry.
Since the filming began Marika has gained from a lot of personal experiences, allowing her to distance herself from the “Making Marika” process and, in turn, to be a bit more patient with her progress. In the meantime, Marika even had the chance to meet her idol, pianist Martha Argerich, while chosen to participate at the 2009 Verbier Festival. (see Photo)
Her personal growth is also reflected in her music making, as for example in the wonderful intimate Audio recording, titled: “Happy Birthday Mr. Schumann” featuring works by Robert Schumann, the Piano Concerto (Op.54), Abbegg Variations (Op.1), Widmung (Arr.Liszt) and Arabeske (Op.18), which will be used in the documentary. The accompanying DVD that shows her life performance of the Schuman Concerto, with the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra in St. Petersburg, also gives Marika her own and very personal voice in the liner notes. She says: ”In reflecting on Schumann’s life, it occurred to me that he must have struggled to secure his place within the musical hierarchy of his time…His struggle to deal with failure, combined with challenging personality and self-confidence issues makes his music immensely touching. His humanity is what ultimately inspires me to connect with his work.”
And to convey this, is what it’s all about, Marika.
Marika's website is:
(See my article on David’s Aladashvili’s debut at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

First Fiddle: Glenn Dicterow, Concertmaster of NYC’s Ultimate Band, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra

“Guess who this trunk used to belong to?” asks Glenn Dicterow, concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, as he leads me through the backstage rooms and hallways of Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall; his home away from home, only a New York block away.
We are standing in front of a huge antique - or at least old fashioned –weathered-looking black trunk, impressively marked with travel stickers indicating its many different destinations.
“…..long history with the New York Phil…” he coaxes me into guessing the celebrity, whose travel companion the trunk had been before it was given to Dicterow, to hold the concertmaster’s possessions on his trips with the orchestra.
“Yes, you guessed right.” He turns back to me, “It’s finished with a red velvet interior and belonged to no other than – Leonard Bernstein.”
Since he joined the New York Philharmonic as concertmaster in 1980, Dicterow has played first fiddle under the preeminent Maestros who have served as the New York Philharmonic music directors’ guest conductors from around the world, and leading soloists.
Zubin Mehta, Kurt Masur, Lorin Maazel and now Alan Gilbert…. Here is a true collective of all singular personalities, with different temperaments and musical expectations. It can’t be an easy task to appease all of these charismatic leaders and keep one’s own integrity, leave alone one’s own sanity.
Yet, thanks to his remarkably generous spirit, it seems that Dicterow has managed to do just that, highly successfully.
On the faculty of the Juilliard School and as acting chairman of the innovative Manhattan School of Music ‘Orchestral Performance Program’, Dicterow also follows his other vocation: Music Education.
In addition, he performs regularly as a guest soloist and has a varied discography of chamber and solo recordings to show for it. In collaboration with his wife, violist Karen Dreyfus, who is equally involved in teaching, he co-founded the “Lyric Piano Quartet”, in residence at Queens College CUNY and together with Dreyfus and Cellist Inbal Segev; Dicterow formed the “Amerigo Trio” in 2009. (See also my article:

Amerigo Trio

As much as Dicterow cherishes his freedom to pursue all other facets of his life in music, it is the “Concertmaster” position that, as he says, “rounds off my musical life.”
The responsibility that goes along with the job description of concertmaster is immense and Dicterow sheds light on much of what it entails:
“As concertmaster, one is expected to perform all the violin solos of the symphonic literature. Besides that, one is the most essential conduit from the conductor, so to speak the first line of communication, to the entire orchestra and responsible for all the string’s bowings and musical phrasings. Usually I go over the score a few weeks before its performance, to check the bowings. The conductor, especially if he is the music director of the orchestra, usually entrusts the Concertmaster with the bowings that establish the string section’s articulation and phrasing. Changes are usually finalized in rehearsal…
“Sometimes – mostly with guest conductors- it happens that a conductor has a particular choice of bowings that may be regarded as unusual. That sometimes calls for drastic changes and has its challenges.”
Of course every conductor brings his own vision to the podium and Dicterow has some rare insights to share:
“Sometimes, establishing challenging bowings even becomes part of the particular signature of a conductor, as was the case with some of Lorin Maazel’s idiosyncratic bowing. A brilliant violinist himself, Maestro Maazel had a particular interest in achieving a certain pacing, through the physicality of using challenging bowing. It is thanks to challenges like these and the mastering of them, that the job never gets tiring,” says Dicterow reminiscently.

Backstage N.Y.Phil. Library

But just when one may think, why not let everyone work things out for themselves, free bowing for all, and other problems are revealed:
“You work it out, and sometimes you change. Free bowing is not unproblematic either. Besides the fact, that it does not look pretty if the string sections are not coordinated through simultaneous moves, bowing is essential- like breathing. The bow arm influences the color and it shapes the phrase. One of my colleagues, Joseph Silverstein, brought a rear mirror to rehearsals of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in order to control the orchestra’s essential discipline of bowing.”
The legendary Stokowski insisted on a free bowing technique with the Philadelphia Orchestra. And so does present Music Director, Alan Gilbert, for particular sections.
Under Gilbert, the configuration of the String section’s seating got altered from its former arrangement. The wider spread between the first and second violin sections, originally located right next to each other and now facing each other on juxtaposing ends of the fanned out positions, with violas and cellos located in between them, was inspired by European orchestral traditions. Dicterow explains:
“We are always in the process of trying to achieve the best possible result and usually everything has certain advantages. For instance, in this case, the separation creates a more antiphonal effect. The negative aspects are that certain strategic problems arise when similar material has to be played by sections, separated by a larger distance. It becomes audibly harder to establish exact timing and the violinists have to rely rather on the visual input of their leaders, than on when they used to hear more clearly, in the closer arranged setting before.”
Concert Stage before Rehearsal

Indeed audiences seem to be pleased with the results of New York’s premier band led by Maestro Alan Gilbert who, hired for a five - year term as Music Director and well into his second season now, will soon engage in efforts to concretize plans to renovate its home, Avery Fisher Hall.
According to Dicterow, the acoustics of the large concert hall that has no reflective wall or ceiling for optimal resonance right now are most enjoyable from their performers’ location – on stage.
Dicterow grew up within a family deeply rooted in musical tradition. He remembers lying under his mother’s concert grand, listening to the sound of music created by both of his parents. His extraordinary talent was evident early on and he made his solo debut, aged 11, in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (where his father, Harold Dicterow, served as principal of the second violin section for 52 years). He fondly remembers charismatic Maestro Zubin Mehta as a familiar face, visiting his parents. Later, Dicterow followed his father’s destination and served as concertmaster in Los Angeles, before following Mehta to the New York Philharmonic.
He describes the atmosphere within the orchestra as friendly and collegial, but during its concert season locally, too hectic to socialize.
It is during the typical two- week concert tours, that the orchestra experiences the social connection to the fullest. “On tour we are confined naturally to the same location and schedule, and even though it is usually a frenzied performance/ travel schedule, there is time for mutual dinners and some fun. We do feel like a big family and we do get along. With the New York Philharmonic, everybody is allowed to be an Individual but you are also part of a whole entity. That makes the New York Philharmonic sound so charismatic. A lot of the younger generation’s new talented instrumentalists originate from China and Korea and out of the 97 musician’s on the current roster of the Philharmonic, 48 are women, I believe.”
Dicterow went on to describe the mutual respect for each other as well as the high artistic level and each instrumentalist’s competence and effort. Everyone “plays their hearts out” and guest conductors often remark on “how fast we get it.”
In his Biographic notes, published on the New York Philharmonic’s website, he acknowledges that he basically had no chance to escape the, for him, practically predestined world of music:
“When you grow up as a symphony brat as I did, you cannot help but feel attracted to that way of life. It surrounded me. There was no way I was going to be a lawyer.”
And New Yorkers, band and audiences alike, are thanking him for that after every performance. When he returns to his private chamber, his dressing room on Avery Fisher Hall’s fourth floor, a bottle of Champagne awaits the seasoned concertmaster, celebrating his so fully-engaged way of “playing the fiddle.”