“Where’s the melody?” asked Nathaniel Rosen (“Nick” to anyone old or familiar enough not to call him “Mr. Rosen”), the 60-year-old cellist who, after studying with Gregor Piatigorsky for over a decade and becoming principal cellist of the Pittsburgh Symphony, won the Naumburg and Tchaikovsky competitions in the late 1970s and has had an international career ever since. Cellist James Waldo, a very accomplished Mannes College graduate student, and pianist Elena Aksenoya had just performed the exposition and development of the Mendelssohn Sonata in D Major in a master class hosted by the Violoncello Society of New York at the elegant Kosciuszko Foundation townhouse on 65th Street, just east of Fifth Avenue.
And so began an animated session in which Nick, with passion, humor, and regular-guy directness, engaged five young musicians in exploring the possibilities of more fully bringing to life the music they were performing. “Jab when you have the accompaniment, and bring out your left hook when you have the melody,” he exhorted James, using an apt metaphor for accents, particularly since Nick was sporting a bandage on the palm of his left hand (due to recent minor surgery as he later told the audience).
Balance between cello and piano in sonatas is always tricky, especially since the piano has grown substantially in size and power since the classical and romantic repertoire was composed, while we’re playing essentially the same cello, only slightly souped up with a higher bridge, the end pin, and steel and alloy strings. Nick got both young artists listening to each other more closely, got the piano softer most of the time, and suddenly there was a genuine quality of interaction in their playing. What had been fine playing with good ensemble was now a give-and-take dance, or, given Nick’s pugilistic metaphor and the energy of the piece, two boxers going back and forth.
Nick worked as much with Elena, the pianist, as with James. He coached her to play the opening hymn-like rolled-chord chorale of the slow movement with more shape, playing the melody along with her on his cello, showing her where to roll a chord more slowly for more emphasis, sometimes conducting. James got ready to play the first cello entrance rather early. “Piatigorsky used to say that when a string player player puts the bow up that far in advance it’s as if a soprano stood with her mouth wide open a measure before she starts to sing.” He had him wait. “No, wait more!” Nick interrupted. “Now, give your sermon.”
“It’s always great when you attend a master class and see the students smiling,” Jeff Solow, the Violoncello Society’s president, commented to me at the reception. He’s right. Giving a master class is an art unto itself; the agenda of the teacher becomes clear early on. With some, it’s to put the students down and make themselves look good. Others give a brief lesson, half mumbling, that the audience can’t hear, as if they wish the audience weren’t there at all. Rostropovich’s classes, as my former teacher Bernard Greenhouse put it once, were “great theater.”
Nick spoke almost always to the musicians, occasionally to the audience, demonstrating frequently without turning the class into a listen-to-me-and-how-much-better-than-I-am-than-you affair. He made direct, to-the-point comments, and offered many metaphors. “You have to make the audience feel what you feel,” he told one of the students. (The implication was clear that you have to actually feel something. How?) “There are many ways to do it. I always tell myself a story.”
The proceedings were often leavened with slightly self-deprecating humor. “I better watch the music for this one,” he told us before Yves Dharamraj played the first three movements of the Britten Suite No. 2. “I’m not going to say I don’t know this piece.”
“But I don’t know this piece!” (laughter)
Yves, who I last heard play in the early 1990s when he was a young boy studying at the Interlochen Arts Camp with Pamela Frame, is developing a significant career while he finishes his Juilliard doctorate, and gave a stunningly assured, elegant, thoughtful, and musical performance of the Britten. “You can’t talk about this piece without talking about Rostropovich,” Nick said, “so let’s talk about Slava.” A great actor, Rostropovich was someone Britten could count on to give a dramatic performance. Nick explored ways Yves could make his own performance of the opening Declamato both more dramatic and more rhythmic. “What’s the tempo?” he asked, wanting to feel the the underlying beat more strongly in both this movement and the Scherzo.
It’s an adventure to watch a master class when the teacher is coaching a piece or he or she doesn’t play. Not everyone will do it, but when a major artist is willing, it is fascinating to see how his or her approach is brought to bear, what is noticed, what is emphasized. (Interestingly, I heard Janos Starker coach a student on another Britten Suite this summer, which he said he didn’t know.) What did Nick talk about? Drama. Rhythmic integrity. Practical ideas for bow distribution. Regardless of whether Yves would ever want to be as extroverted a performer as Nick, he clearly enjoyed this interaction in which Nick pushed him to make music more passionately while simultaneously challenging him to play more strictly. (Casals’s motto, “Freedom and order!” comes to mind.)
Rounding out the evening was Matthew Park, a highly gifted sophomore at the Manhattan School of Music, who gave a passionate account of the last movement (and later a portion of the slow movement) of the Rachmaninoff Sonata with the fine pianist Alexandra Beliakovich. Beautiful playing. Nick worked with them to bring more shape, and better balance, to their performance. At one point he told Alexandra to play the right-hand melody in the solo opening of the slow movement as if it was a singer ignoring the accompanist, and to let the rest of the notes be “just accompaniment.”
Suddenly the playing shifted and the line sang out in a new way. It’s to experience transforming moments like this that we go to masterclasses.
And, at a Nick Rosen class, for lines like this, as he excitedly dealt with the big b-flat to e-flat descending fifth at the climax of the slow movement: “I would sooner DIE than play this up bow! If I did that on stage I would stop and and tell the audience, ‘I’m sorry, we have to start this movement over!’”
It is good to see students smiling in a master class.