Friday, February 25, 2011

Sharan Leventhal and the Kepler Quartet

Violinist Sharan Leventhal
When I was a youngster attending Ivan Galamian's string camp Meadowmount, I was initiated into the wonderful world of violinist Sharan Leventhal. She was a couple of years older than myself, and had a unique talent for sparking everyone's imaginative capabilities. I seem to recall that I could visit her room in Main House anytime during practice hours—an action that was strictly forbidden—and she would take me on a journey through the Bach A Minor Concerto, which all of the young violinists were expected to learn; she'd practice alongside of me. When Sharan played Bach's music, there was so much vitality that you could visualize the composer as a mischievous, fun-loving friend rather than a stuffy periwigged bust on the mantelpiece. There was a seductive quality to Sharan's practice technique. After an adventure with Bach, she'd segue right into "Turkey in the Straw" and cause me to double over with laughter. She'd then conclude our practice session with "Hot Canary".

I still consider Sharan Leventhal's room at Meadowmount to have been the gravitational center of the Main House activities. I'll never forget when I entered one day during off-limit practice hours, and found her engrossed in painting the white blank walls with a fantastic array of blues and greens for an ocean scene, complete with a marvelously voluptuous orange and yellow mermaid. "Sharan, won't you get in trouble for this? I mean, it's against the rules to paint the walls, and you're supposed to be practicing!" But she shrugged and proceeded to pencil sketch a giant starfish with surrounding exotic sea-life, and then resumed painting. Before long, the room was awash in color, like her imaginative violin playing.

Then, of course, there were the nightly seances, after curfew, that Sharan hosted in her room in secrecy. We must have spent countless hours trying to contact the spirit of actress Sharan Tate, murdered by the Charles Manson gang, and other dead souls. I tried to channel my grandmother that summer but to no avail. Sharan had a penchant for delving into other-worldly spheres, perhaps an early indicator of her keen interest and dedication to unconventional and non-traditional music, as well as the talent she has for breathing life into standard repertoire.

In a recent telephone call to her home outside of Boston, where she teaches at Boston Conservatory and Brandeis, I inquired about her latest musical endeavors. I heard the enthusiasm in her voice as she described her commitment to performing the works of living, breathing, vital composers. She has premiered the violin concertos of Bob Aldridge and Scott Wheeler, to name a few.

With her colleagues from the Boston Conservatory, second violinist Eric Segnetz, violist Brek Renzelman, and cellist Karl Lavine of the Kepler String Quartet, they have just released the second of a series of American composer Ben Johnston's quartets for New World Records. The Kepler Quartet was formed specifically for the preservation and presentation of this large body of work. "Making these recordings was an exploration along the lines of discovering the North Pole or being the first to climb Mt. Everest," she said.

The first composition presented on this new release is Quartet No. 5, based on an Appalachian gospel tune, "The Lonesome Valley". The extended just intonation in this work offered composer Ben Johnston an opportunity to present harmonic, melodic, and contrapuntal textures using a mutable tuning system. This type of tuning lends the music a strange quality, meant to evoke Psalm 23 in the Old Testament: the valley refers to the valley of the shadow of death. So haunting are the actual sounds, that I feel as if I'm  experiencing my own dissolution and death.

In the tenth Quartet, the work opens with a jazzy polyrhythmic style (the first violin and cello are out of synch with each other) while displaying a harmony that is tonal but extended in a playful way. In one dazzling passage, the first violin launches into a  riff that recalls the naturalness and ease of my favorite Jazz violinist, Stephane Grappeli. The shimmer vibrato and lush tone that Sharan infuses in her solo line emphasizes the characteristic bold colors of her playing.

The final quartet featured on this disc, "Nine Variations" is avant-grade, as Johnston composed the work in his early thirties and used the technique of serialism. There is no theme in this work. The nine movements alternate between slow and fast, calm and energetic. Although I'm not enamored of these  variations...yet...they do encourage the listener to hear music in a different way through silences, shrieks, and utterances.

I found my husband Ilkka's reaction to the disc most interesting. Blessed with perfect pitch and  synesthesia (the mixing up of senses) he hears pitches accompanied with visions of colors. I begged him to come down to the studio and listen to a few movements with me to find out which hues flashed through his mind. As he listened to the assortment of these non-traditional tones with the expanded pitch vocabulary encompassing 150 steps into an octave rather than 12, he suffered a bout of sensory overload and panic attack (similar to what he experiences in shopping malls), and, before I knew it, fled the studio!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Winter Conversations for Two Violins

I became acquainted with multi-talented composer Elaine Fine through her marvelous blog Musical Assumptions. It is a treat for me to begin my mornings by reading her posts which reflect her broad and diverse understanding of the fine arts. Although we grew up in the Boston area around the same era, our paths hadn't crossed as youngsters. I suppose that might be because my mother schlepped me back and forth to New York City for all-day classes at Juilliard Pre-College while Elaine participated in Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra activities.

When I published my blog Frantic many of my characters, such as Sarah Scriven and Harry Ellis Dickson, had significant influence during Elaine's youth, as she is the daughter of Boston Symphony's former principal violist, Burton Fine. After reminiscing about our mutual experiences over the internet and by telephone, we struck up a delightful friendship. One day I told Elaine that although I physically reside in Seattle, my emotional ties in music are elsewhere. I shared with her the turmoil that became our reality in 2004 at the behest of a local conductor and his cronies. From that year forward, local colleagues became, in my eyes, betrayers, especially after I was forced into resignation from the ballet as concertmaster. Ilkka and I were no longer invited to partake in most musical events; we felt like characters in a "Twilight Zone" episode or Kafka novel, not knowing what, exactly, we had done to deserve such mistreatment. Regrettably, it's not unusual for the victim, rather than the tormenter, to blame him or herself, and I explained to Elaine that for years afterwards, I avoided social interaction all together.

Perhaps because Elaine witnessed factionalism in the professional orchestra through her father's prominent position, she empathized with what Ilkka and I had experienced. She reminded me to focus on music's true mission, as a means of ennobling and healing the human spirit. I have grown to accept and recognize that there is more out there, much more, than being a cog in the wheel, or an orchestra musician. Each one of us holds a key to enrich the lives of others.

Elaine Fine has composed a set of "conversations" for two violins specifically tailored for us. It is a delight to delve into fresh compositions. As I've mentioned before, to introduce new works is a bit like being a midwife in the birthing process; each composition reveals its own personality like a human being. The first work in the series recalls to my mind elements of Bartok's style; the second is a fusion of a Finnish folk-song and Yiddish melody.  I requested that Elaine not go easy on us technically; we love for ourselves and students to be challenged! In the third of the series, which is yet to be recorded, she weaves in the vitality of a Wieniawski Caprice with Chopin, and in the fifth, Elaine suggests the Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg stylistically. For some reason, the fourth conversation, a hauntingly beautiful dialogue which evokes Jewish neshama or soul, just moves me to tears. Here it is:

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Remembering Sidney Harth

To colleagues and students, his name might have been Sidney Heart. After learning of the death of violinist and conductor Sidney Harth, I recall with fondness his years as Music Director of the Northwest Chamber Orchestra during the late 80's and early 90's. Initially, I felt a certain amount of apprehension at his appointment; I was, after all, a relatively young concertmaster; it may have been somewhat intimidating to have had a preeminent violinist loom in front of me on the podium. Similar in physique to the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, Harth could pick up his violin and make everyone around him appear as inadequate students. But he never demeaned or belittled any one of his colleagues. What I sensed while working with Sidney over the years was a man of limitless understanding, a paternal figure willing, at any moment, to encourage and support a friend, student or colleague.

True to Sidney Harth's generous character, he offered me a solo opportunity every year with the chamber orchestra, though, I'm sure if he had wished, he could have performed the entire violin repertoire season after season. But I remember how he insisted that a concertmaster must enjoy first dibs at solo opportunities; at least Sidney had over the years in his capacity as leader of the Louisville Orchestra, Chicago Symphony under Fritz Reiner, Puerto Rico Music Festival with Pablo Casals, and Los Angeles Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta. And he wanted nothing more than for me to choose any piece I desired to perform. It was as fun for him to conduct the accompaniment as it was for me to play solo.

An unforgettable highlight in my career was the collaboration with Sidney in the double concertos of Bach and Vivaldi. On one such occasion, Sidney playing first violin, took the final movement of the Vivaldi hair-raisingly fast. The movement gathered furious momentum after the opening, and nearly derailed. We concluded the performance and headed backstage. I didn't feel comfortable critiquing the maestro but knew we had to settle the tempo before the repeat performance on the following day.
"Gee, it felt a bit f-f-fast," I found myself announcing, as my heart rate finally returned to normal.
He looked at me in earnest. "Tell me, Marge. Honey, did I rush a little?"
"A little?" I asked.
"At rehearsals too? Because I know that's my tendency—"
 I nodded.
"Now listen," Sidney said. "If ever do that again, you tell me! I need to be reminded, that's all."
I laughed.
"No, really. Don't wait till the concert. Just say, Sid, it's time to practice with the metronome—and you know, Marge, I'll do it!"

Often after our Northwest Chamber Orchestra concerts, my mother would visit backstage to congratulate the artists. I got a little nervous as she insisted on meeting Sidney Harth in his dressing room. One never knew what my mother might say! She introduced herself to Sidney. He threw his arms around her, the  inimitable bear hug of his; it was the sort of hug that leaves you gasping for air. The next thing I knew the two of them were rattling away in Yiddish. "I get so much nakhes from your mother," he was to tell me many times over. "She's the dearest person, and her Yiddish is beautiful. And what's more—because I heartily countered every one of his assessments—she brought you into this world!"

During his formidable career, Sidney Harth won the Naumberg Award in 1949 and was the first American to take the Second Prize at the Wieniawski Competition in 1957. His guest appearances included engagements with symphony orchestras of New York, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Warsaw, and Brussels, under such conductors as Reiner, Ormandy, Leinsdorf, Barbirolli, Steinberg and Mehta. At the time of his death, Mr. Harth was director of orchestral studies at Duquesne University. He had been professor and chairman of the Carnegie Mellon University from 1963-73. He also served on the faculty of the Yale School of Music. For a wonderful glimpse into his pedagogy, I recommend the book: "The Way They Play" by Samuel Applebaum and Henry Roth. He is featured in Book Five of the series.

Photo of Sidney Harth from "The Way They Play"

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather

In the book, "The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin & Willa Cather" acclaimed author Lionel Rolfe (The Menuhins: A family Odyssey, Literary L.A. and Fat Man on the Left: Four Decades in the Underground) has delved into his fascinating family history to reveal the extraordinary story of the friendship between novelist Willa Cather, and his mother, piano prodigy Yaltah Menuhin (1920-2001), sister of legendary violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Rolfe's mother Yaltah was repeatedly discouraged from pursuing a musical career by her parents Moshe and Marutha who were Russian Jewish emigres to San Francisco where Moshe was superintendent of the city's Hebrew School. Yehudi was the eldest; Hephzibah, the middle daughter; and Yaltah, the youngest. They were all musical prodigies but Yehudi, the first born son, was the favored child. Hephzibah, not unlike Mozart's sister Nannerl, was allowed to perform as a pianist, but mainly as an accompanist to her brother. Yaltah, who might have been the most dedicated and talented of the three, was given little, if any, emotional support for her own musical aspirations.

Willa Cather or "Aunt Willa" provided the perfect counterbalance to Yaltah's mother, Marutha, who only allowed Yaltah and her sister Hephzibah to study piano as a means for attracting a husband. In Rolfe's intimate account of the Menuhin household, his grandmother Marutha, a "ruthless woman" displayed continued hostility and resentment toward Yaltah, reminding her youngest that her birth was unplanned—the result of a faulty diaphragm. As a youngster, while her sister Hephzibah accompanied Yehudi during concerts, Marutha reprimanded Yaltah for not being content cooking, scrubbing, and sewing for her brother and sister.

The relationship between novelist Willa Cather and the Menuhin household began in France, as the family was seeking a teacher for Yehudi. Cather was in Paris at the same time visiting mutual acquaintances. Yehudi was given an opportunity to play for the legendary violinist, Eugene Ysaÿe, by then an elderly man. Although Ysaÿe accepted Yehudi as a pupil, and recognized his immense talent, the Menuhin family chose instead to further little Yehudi's studies with Ysaÿe's pupil Louis Persinger in New York City. Besides, there was no way the family could remain in Europe on the eve of the Holocaust. Shortly after first meeting Willa Cather in 1930, the Menuhins made Manhattan their home base and enlisted Cather as a private tutor for the children. Her duties were to instruct them in Shakespeare and American Literature.

Willa Cather was one of the few people Marutha Menuhin entrusted with her children's home-schooling education. The connection was surprising given that Willa had previously written about musical prodigies as if they were circus freaks. But according to Edith Lewis, Willa's lifelong companion, the children "were not only the most gifted children Willa Cather had ever known, with that wonderful aura of imaginative charm, prescience, inspiration, that even the most gifted lose after they grow up; they were also extremely lovable, affectionate, and unspoiled; in some ways naive, in others sensitive and discerning far beyond their years." Willa was granted permission to take the children outdoors (Marutha preferred to keep them out of public view)—and when she did, it was often Central Park at six in the morning to discuss philosophy, art, religion and life. Willa was not only the children's mentor—especially Yaltah's—she was their playmate. Perhaps divining the tension between mother and youngest daughter, Aunt Willa would take Yaltah to see plays, attend operas, visit museums and art galleries.

Rolfe makes a strong case that Yaltah might have been the inspiration for the heroine of the novella "Lucy Gayheart". She was, after all, composing the story at the time when she regularly saw the Menuhin family. Cather was one of the first novelists to write about women who follow their own muse—women as artists rather than wives and mothers.

A musician's musician, Yaltah Menuhin was a regular on the concert stages, but her influence went far beyond that. When a young musician needed an endorsement for a Fulbright scholarship, her word was like gold. She recommended both violinist Eudice Shapiro and cellist Gabor Rejto for teaching positions in the music department of the University of Southern California. Yaltah Menuhin pioneered the works of Castelnuovo-Tedesco, George Antheil, Ernst Krenek and Walter Piston, among others. And for guidance and strength, Yaltah Menuhin returned to the lessons her mentor and friend Willa Cather had to impart, time and time again. "The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin & Willa Cather" has moved me to further explore their shared gifts. For starters, here's a beautiful recording of Yaltah Menuhin performing Beethoven's Waldstein.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Musical Bridge Egypt-Finland

As chaos sweeps through Egypt and ripples throughout the entire Middle East, I realize my knowledge of that region is limited. Being a Jew, I feel protective of Israel and fear for the nation's future. I follow the news as best I can with an eye toward Israel's safety but, as an outsider, I rarely know what to believe from the media.

Realizing that my dear friend and colleague, Finnish conductor and pianist Ralf Gothóni helped to create the "Musical Bridge Egypt-Finland" in 2004, and was scheduled for performances in Cairo this week but had to cancel due to the internal conflicts, I asked him for a more intimate perspective. I met Ralf Gothóni in 2001, when he marked his first guest appearance with Northwest Chamber Orchestra in Seattle as pianist and conductor. He was immediately appointed the position of Music Director after his highly acclaimed performances and maintained that post until the orchestra's unfortunate demise by corrupt, dictatorial, musical community leaders in 2006. Unlike so many self-serving artists, Ralf Gothóni's mission is one of relatedness through musical exploration. For me, Ralf imparted a level of transcendent musical awareness that I never before experienced. I find myself wondering selfishly if our paths crossed for that reason alone. His philosophy has stuck with me to the point that no matter what obstacles I face, personal or professional, I remember this underlying wisdom that he imparted:

What we are doing is trying to understand the logic of musical feelings, how the energy in music functions when there are more than just two or three people involved, what is the motivation for the piece, why the composer wrote it as he did. There are things everyone must find for themselves. It's not a matter of someone saying 'This is the way to do it'. We have a dialogue. It's different with every group, every person you make music with, because each brings his or her own perspective. Musicians are merely a medium for a musical truth. We should be like crystals through which the light is refracted in many different ways. But to do that, the crystal must be clear: it's very easy to make it dirty. That's the problem. How can we develop ourselves to be as clear as possible in this short life?

With the help of the Finnish Embassy in Cairo, and Savonlinna Music Academy (which Gothóni is Artistic Director), artists, scientists, politicians including the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Martti Ahtisaari, the idea of a musical collaboration between Egypt and Finland was born. Ralf's longterm goal for the Musical Bridge is that of bringing classical music to the students of Cairo in the form of "homeopathic pills"; especially in the way of chamber musical understanding of the structures, emotions and human connections. The people in Ralf's circle have expressed a desire for a free islamic country with European-like freedom, without fundamentalism, dictatorship but also without strong Western capitalism. He has never sensed any negativity toward the Israelis. This message alone offers me tremendous hope.

The Egyptian musicians are open with their minds and hearts. Music touches them deeply. In the two professional orchestras of Cairo, the instruments are of poor quality and the salaries are substandard. But Ralf assures me that the enthusiasm is very different from anything here, for life is difficult and nothing is taken for granted. Many of the students have continued their studies during the summer in Savonlinna, Finland and also in Germany.

Which brings me to acknowledge that I consider my work with Ralf Gothóni to have been the pinnacle of my performing career, for he instilled this philosophy which I hope to transmit to students:
Music is for us musicians a lifetime vocation. Our challenge, responsibility and mission is to practice ourselves to open the door of spiritual self-knowledge and to share it.