Monthly Archives: March 2010

In which Steven Isserlis Takes the Subway to His Zankel Hall Concert

As told to Steven Hough.

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Life without the sound of silence

There were two comments, each well written and making good points, on my Go Ahead and Clap Between Movements post.  Elaine Fine points out, quite rightly, that applause can be distracting to the performer’s concentration, and that it changes the effect of a subsequent movement.  She gives the example of applause between the first two movements of the Beethoven Seventh Symphony.

Consider my wording: the applause that happens after a first movement also happens before a second movement. Applause between those movements nullifies the impact of the first chord of the second movement. You may as well start with the theme!

But the end of the first movement seems quite obviously to have been written, among other things, to elicit applause.  Beethoven, based on everything I know, would have expected it.  And that wonderful opening chord of the second movement would still have an impact if it comes after the applause dies down, even, perhaps especially, if it interrupts and cuts off the last bit of applause.  This of course would mean that we accept a new-to-us paradigm in which the performance is an audience-inclusive social experience in which audience response is welcome.  It’s not out of the question that given the conventions of his time, Beethoven intended that chord to silence lingering applause, rather than emerge from silence.

I certainly cannot prove that Beethoven would not have preferred the currently-traditional silence-between-movements culture of professional symphony concerts.  I imagine that he would have gladly thrown out any piano he ever played in favor of a nine-foot Steinway.

Underlying both of Elaine’s points, with which I personally sympathize, and the larger opposition to applause between movements, is, I believe, the idea that silence between movements is part of the work. Performers who are used to that silence, and experience it as part of what is supposed to happen, as part of what is, are going to be discomfited, just as many audience members are offended.

It will be interesting to see how our musical culture evolves.  As Alex Ross has documented so well, the “musical assumption” that silence between movements is part of the work is a fairly recent development.  It will be interesting to see how classical-music culture evolves;  silence between all movements may well be an idea whose time has come and gone.

Having experimented a bit with inviting applause between movements, I can say that applause after a quiet end of a slow movement can be jarring.  Janis wrote,

I was happy to see this article as well — the “ohgodshouldiclap?” anxiety is annoying to audiences, and even to me when I’m sitting there and I know the etiquette. If it’s a slower, quieter work, most people will subdue their applause anyhow — it’s just the fear of looking uncouth that makes people make mistakes. Short of throwing things, I’ve never seen a rock audience applaud “incorrectly.”

At my fall DePauw recital where I invited the audience to clap between movements but told them they didn’t have to, applause after the first movement of the Brahms F Major Sonata felt fine and natural.  After the second movement, it felt a bit forced, as if some felt they had to applaud and perhaps others were enjoying the opportunity to break a rule.  By the time we did the Kabalevsky First Concerto (with piano, which I think is fine on professional recitals, especially since so few of us get to perform concertos with orchestras), there was a natural silence after the slow movement which I appreciated.

Last week, I heard Stephen Hough do an electrifying performance of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto with the Indianapolis Symphony.  Absolutely sensational, and there was enthusiastic applause after the first movement in which I has happy to join.  There was a slight disdainful look from a man a few seats down!  But what could be more natural than applauding after the rousing finish to that movement.  If I remember correctly, there was no applause after the second movement. (I had thought about initiating applause after the first movement of the Beethoven Second Symphony, but didn’t quite have the leadership energy to do so.)

This can work.  But not for everyone, not everywhere.



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Life can be about more than who has a better vibrato

Anne Midgette has a fascinating piece on Yo-Yo Ma in tomorrow’s Washington Post (available now online).  The few times I’ve met Yo-Yo, he’s been warm and personable to absolutely everyone around.  I remember someone telling me back in the 1970s that there was this absolutely amazing teenaged cellist they’d met at Marlboro, that he was an incredibly nice and funny guy, and that if he decided he wanted to go into music he’d be a big star.  Well, obviously Yo-Yo decided to go into music.

Years ago I had a pre-blogging software blog called “Following the Inner Voice.” I wrote about 70 essays, which have unfortunately been lost–the site no longer exists and the hard drive where I saved the essays is damaged.  One was about my experiences with Yo-Yo, and the theme of it was that Yo-Yo lives in a world of wonderful people.  He finds, he looks for, what’s wonderful and great in others.  So many of us look for what’s wrong with others–and ourselves.  There’s something deeply spiritual, deeply alive, deeply loving about that.

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t hold people accountable or never gets angry or never fires someone or never criticizes someone or is never a jerk (I assume).  He’s human, after all.  In the mix of all his human qualities, imagination and love and passion and empowerment and giving and commitment to a larger purpose all seem to come out on top, and in a natural way.

His wide range of activities, his commitment to causes, his dedication to making the world a better place through music, his promotion of culture, his breaking down of boundaries, all make him a great role model for young (and middle aged) musicians. Not someone to imitate.  But someone to be inspired by to be more one’s self, more involved, more giving.

Ma doesn’t find causes and attach himself to them; rather, he follows what he already does to its utmost extreme. Music is “powered by ideas,” he says. “And to understand that is huge, because then the ideas can galvanize people together, as opposed to . . . ‘I have a better vibrato than you.’ “


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Go ahead and clap between the movements!

Via Charles Noble, Alex Ross is at it again, promoting applause between movements.  (Short version, and link to PDF full text–well worth downloading.) I don’t know if Elaine Fine has read his latest or not, but she’s evidently fed up with the whole let’s-applaud-more idea.  If you don’t have Michelle Obama at your side to tell you when not to applaud, Elaine supplies a link to concert etiquette rules, many of which I agree with.  Generally speaking, though, I’m with Alex on applauding between movements, especially after big, bombastic first movements, and may get around to bloviating on the subject soon.


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Emily’s Book

Emily Wright has published her book on cello playing.  I love her blog, I’m sure I’ll love her when I eventually meet her in person, and I am expecting to love her book, too.  It’s downloading “wright” now.


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Balancing Acts

Emily Wright writes one of the most enjoyable and thought-provoking cello-related blogs I know.  Never one to pull punches, she recently made a strong case for a regular lesson routine.  Regular lesson times are a must in most situations, I agree, especially with beginning and intermediate students.  As Emily says is her practice, I only rearrange lesson times rarely–if I’m sick, if I have to be out of town, and occasionally because there’s some unusual event at DePauw that has to take precedence.  Last week, for example, the preliminary round of DePauw’s concerto competition (which I was judging) ate up what would have been a student’s usual lesson time and we moved it to later in the day.  I’ll admit I did the rearranging later that I would have liked;  I didn’t look at the competition schedule until the day before and discovered it was going longer than I had anticipated.

Emily had some great and very distinguished teachers who kept a very regular schedule in addition to busy performing careers and her lessons were, if I understand her post, rarely canceled or even rearranged.

My experience was quite different.  Three of my teachers–Bernard Greenhouse, Stephen Kates, and Leonard Rose, had busy national and international performing careers and didn’t set regular lesson times at all.  Well, Steve Kates might have had a schedule, but things got rearranged a lot because of his travels.  With Greenhouse, there’d be a sign-up sheet posted when we knew when he was coming, and with Rose I think a grad assistant assigned times.

Both Rose and Greenhouse had teaching assistants who taught very regular lessons, so in essence the student had two cooperating teachers.  With Rose, it was Channing Robbins, a full-fledged Juilliard faculty memeber, who gave the bulk of the lessons, at least while I was studying with them.  If Mr. Robbins was a good match for you, it worked out well.  If not . . . well, I transferred to Peabody to study with Steve Kates.  (I will say that everything about cello technique that Mr. Robbins taught me, at least everything I remember, I use to this day.  There were other issues that made us not a good match for each other, which I’ll write about some other time.)

Greenhouse’s assistant, while I studied with him, was me.  I taught all his undergraduate students on a regular weekly basis.  They also had their full allotment of lessons with Mr. G, albeit irregularly scheduled, so I was helping them prepare for their lessons with him, providing continuity, and another perspective.

This regular-schedule issue comes up periodically in college and university music units.  If you want teachers who are active performers, and want them to have a national or even international profile, they have to go off and play concerts and sometimes tour, and that wreaks havoc with the teaching schedule.  At the same time, regular lessons are important, and finding the right balance is tricky.  The institution needs to think it through carefully.

Probably because the lack of a regular lesson schedule was the norm for me, my own philosophy about this tends to be much more flexible than Emily’s (even though my practice is quite conservative, if only because I don’t have a national or international performing career).  It used to amaze me that students or administrators would be upset by teachers rearranging lessons;  my assumption was that this should be expected.  Obviously there are other models. It’s certainly a question that comes up in hiring applied music faculty.  Do they perform enough?  Do they perform too much to be available consistently?  It’s the Goldilocks formula;  not too few, not too many, but the “just right” number of concerts.  It varies from place to place.

And the point of this post? When picking a teacher, you need to know what your (or your child’s) needs are, what kind of schedule the teacher keeps, and what the focus of teacher’s professional life is.  At earlier stages of development, we need a teacher who is a teacher first and foremost and is, as Emily puts it, “available consistently.”  Later on, when technique is in place and we can work more independently, study with an active touring artist can be tremendously stimulating and informative.  Some students need a regular lesson (or two) a week;  others don’t.


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