Monthly Archives: May 2007

Shafran on Itunes

Danill Shafran was one of the greatest cellists of the 20th century. Not nearly as well known outside the USSR as his contemporary Mstislav Rostropovich, many cellists consider him to have been Slava’s equal or even superior in terms of cello playing. He wasn’t the sort of multifaceted genius as Rostropovich, who was a virtuoso pianist, had a photographic memory, and enthusiastically conducted orchestras.

I met Shafran twice. Where Rostropovich was warm and outgoing, hugging everyone it sight, Shafran was more neurotic, fearful, and careful. I hear (or project) the same difference in their playing. Shafran’s recording are amazing in their technical command, but often strike me as hyper-intense and quirky-and-even-bizzzare at times, especialy in the use of vibrato. Rostropovich’s sound, especially on recordings is lush and enveloping. Shafran’s comes at you like a laser beam.

What prompts these musings is last night’s discovery of a recording of Shafran playing the Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante, Op. 125, on Itunes (it’s listed as the “Concerto in E minor, Op. 125″ the piece is a reworking of that earlier piece). $3.95 to download, and it is extraordinary. Awe-inspiring to this cellist. The live performance is fast-paced and driving, enormously different from Rostropovich’s studio recording with Malcom Sargent, which I also purchased. The two recordings, each by someone who worked closely with Prokofiev, are as different as night and day.

If you’re a cellist, you’ve surely heard many Rostropovich recordings. Download this Shafran Prokoviev–you’ll be in for a treat.

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In the top 50 (well, 53)

Scott Spiegelberg has made a list of the “top” 50 classical music blogs, as determined by numbers of links to each blog. This one made the list, in a three-way tie for 50th.

Now I see my AC Douglas and my old Tanglewood friend Roger Bourland made a different calculation in which this blog doesn’t make the list. Humpf! I’ll go with Scott. :)

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Even Curtis is Looking to Move Ahead

The need to reimagine and update the training of classical musicians is becoming so self-evident that most conservative of conservatories, the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia (where all the tuition is free, all the faculty are distinguished, and all the students are indeed above average) is moving towards including instruction in historically-informed performance and more emphasis on contemporary music.

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Rostropovich the composer’s champion

I just wrote a comment on Scott Spiegelberg’s Rostropovich post, in which he makes some very interesting comments about Rostropovich’s recordings of various Bach Suite movements.

My own favorite recording of “Slava” is that of the Lutoslawski Cello Concerto and the Dutillieux “Tout un monde lointain.” As I noted in my comment on Scott’s blog, both are pieces that would not have existed without Rostropovich, and the performances are extraordinary.

No one in the entire history of the cello has been a bigger force for expanding the repertoire. Rostropovich’s embrace of all musical styles was an important factor. The most important cellist before him, Pablo Casals, hated atonal music and didn’t play it. In his early career, Casals promoted the work of some of his romantic contemporaries, including the now forgotten Emanuel Moor, of whom Casals was a true champion. In his post-WW II life, Casals’s repertoire as both cellist and conductor extended from Bach to Brahms. And once he settled in Puerto Rico and the Casals Festival was established, his Eurocentric perspective led to a virtually total dismissiveness towards Puerto Rican music, creating wounds in that culture which have yet to fully heal.

Gregor Piatigorsky was not as big a name as Casals, but he was a wealthy man, and he could perhaps have done more to commission new works. Piatigorsky did not sell out halls in the way that Casals and later Rostropovich did, and like Casals he was a Romantic who, while more open to atonal music, was not a great champion of it.

Rostropovich, though, had a universalist taste and had the clout to get the many pieces he commissioned and premiered performed and recorded. He probably quadrupled or qunitupled the cello repertoire. And that, 100 or 200 years from now, will turn out to have been his greatest legacy.

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When is it OK to shake your booty?

A minor but interesting controversy in Edmonton. My stance has always been be yourself. If you need to move to make your best music, move. If you are in the audience and don’t like to watch, shut your eyes. (Thanks to Bob at Cello Chat for pointing this out.)

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Slava and Me, Part I

The first time I met Mstislav Rostropovich, the great cellist and conductor who died last week, was in March or April of 1985. Studying at SUNY Stony Brook, I had traveled down to Washington, D.C., to audition for the National Symphony; Rostropovich was its music director.

I had taken a number of auditions before, and was getting used to both the cattle-call and lottery aspects of them. There’s nothing quite as unnatural as an orchestra audition. You go out and play snippets of music behind a screen, occasionally hearing an instruction or request from a disembodied voice somewhere out in the auditorium.

The backstage culture every orchestra for which I auditioned to that point had seemed less than happy. Polite, perhaps, but not particularly pleasant, and the way that the low-level members of each orchestra’s personnel staff dealt with those auditioning was impersonal.

At the NSO, it was different. The personnel manager and all the staff seemed, well, friendly. Even with all the nervous cellists around, it struck me as a pleasant atmosphere. I didn’t have a sense that I’d played particularly better in the first round than I had at any other audition, so I was relieved when I was informed that I had been passed on. To my delighted surprise, I was told that I’d received a high enough score that should there be a semi-final round, I was exempt, and would go straight to the finals.

The day of the finals came. I don’t remember how many of us there were—a very small handful, certainly, perhaps just two. There was an excellent pianist to play with, and ample time to rehearse. I was playing the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations for my concerto; the pianist explained that Rostropovich would listen to the theme and first two variations, then have me skip to the last two. (I was quite relieved that I had practiced the whole thing!)

And sure enough, that is what happened. After the second variation I heard that unique voice call out, “thank you . . . variations 7 and 8, please.” They went well, and then I played the various excerpts,. My audition was over. The pianist told me, and the assistant conductor, Andrew Litton, with whom I’d known when we were both students at Juilliard, concurred (either sincerely or politely, I’m not sure) that I had played the “best final variation” of anyone who had ever auditioned for the NSO with the Tchaikovsky.

After the deliberations came the news, delivered gently and kindly: I didn’t get the job. David Hardy, my former Peabody classmate and then the orchestra’s associate principal cellist, came out and shook my hand, and told me it had been a very difficult decision.

I took my cello down to the Kennedy Center parking lot and was getting ready to leave when the thought occurred to me that I had never met Rostropovich, long a hero, and that perhaps this could be my chance. The general vibe had been very nice, and Slava was well known for being a warm fellow. Maybe he’d be willing to at least shake my hand. So I went back up, and told one of the staff that Mr. Rostropovich had long been my hero, and I’d very much appreciate it if I could have the opportunity to meet him, just for a moment. A call was made, and within minutes I was sent to his office.

He came out and gave me a hug. “I congratulate you on being great cellist!” he exclaimed. (No one, except my mother, had ever said anything that unreservedly complimentary about my playing.) “Unfortunately for you, other guy was greater today!” (What a brilliant way to handle the situation, I now realize: he was boosting me up even as he let me know there would be no arguing the result.)

I laughed, and he asked me with whom I studied. I told him Bernard Greenhouse. “Oh, Bernie is wonderful, wonderful! His trio just make great success in Europe. Now, Eric, what piece you play in finals?” I told him the Tchaikovsky. And then he launched in to about a 10-minute, detail discussion of virtually every passage I had played. I kick myself now that I didn’t write it all down. What I remember clearly, though, is about the seventh variation. “Must have more imagination!” was the theme of his remarks.

“More imagination.” That was one of the keys of Rostropovich’s success as a teacher and, I’m sure, colleague and mentor. He didn’t tell me how to play. He didn’t tell me that this particular variation, of a piece he virtually owned in the collective minds of cellists everywhere, should go faster or slower or louder or softer or be more on the a string or on the d string or that I should sink in more with the bow or have a wider or narrower vibrato. No, the greatest-cellist-in-the-world gave me a hug, told me I was great, and exhorted me to make greater use of my imagination. In a sense, he was telling me to more fully be me.

And then he gave me another hug, some kisses, and sent me on my way.

It was more than a nice brush-off; I felt acknowledged, empowered, and inspired. It’s the only time I ever lost a competition or audition and left feeling I’d won.

Driving back, it seemed obvious to me then that it was Rostropovich’s warmth and friendliness that made the his staff so much warmer are positive than that of other orchestras I’d visited. How could one have him for a boss and not end up nicer as a result?

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