Tchaikovsky Lesson with Elmar Oliveira; Performing Chance of a Lifetime

August 3, 2015, 11:02 PM · On Friday, before I left home from my week at the Heifetz Institute at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va., I had the pleasure of watching Elmar Oliveira teach a lesson on the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto -- then later in the day, of seeing a wonderful concert with faculty members Oliveira, Mark Kaplan, Ilya Kaler, Larry Dutton, Robert Vernon, Ralph Kirshbaum, Matt Haimovitz and more.

At the lesson, Oliveira was working with a student named Strauss, who had recently performed the first movement of the Tchaikovsky concerto and was taking that critical after-look with Oliveira.

Strauss and Oliveira

Students get two lessons a week for six weeks at this Institute, with the teacher changing several times during that period, so they get various views on the pieces they are playing. Since his Tchaikovsky was already quite polished, they were doing some intricate work, with Oliveira talking about fine musical details and suggesting alternate fingerings to increase the ease of various passages. Here are some of those ideas:

They spent a while on the soloist's first two notes, which rebound from the piano or orchestra introduction. Right before the soloist enters, the orchestra passes around a series of (mostly) ascending note pairs, ultimately passing this pattern to the soloist, who plays:


In the orchestra passage leading up to the entrance, the second note always falls on the beat and is thus emphasized. So the second note should be emphasized when the soloist enters. Boiling down how to do this, Oliveira suggested slow bow and less vibrato on the A, then fast bow and more vibrato on the Bb.

Arriving at m. 30, the soloist often shifts, from a first finger to a three or four between these notes:


Oliveira talked about it being a "German" shift, sliding on the lower finger, the 1. Another idea: no shift at all! Just go to the D string in first position, that sounds fine.

He also explained that this motive, the 16th notes in the opening theme:

Tchaik-ex1B related to this motive later on:


Just being aware of it helps connect the music in both sections.

Something I hadn't thought of before: Oliveira says he thinks of the second triplet figure here as an echo of the first:


He also plays separate bows here, when the orchestration is thick, such as in m. 90, so as not to be covered by the orchestra.


Here is a helpful bowing for the runs up to triplets at m. 98, which also return in the second half:


And how about this for easier: for this arpeggio figure in the cadenza, why shift a lot of times with the first finger (as the first fingering below), like you're doing arpeggio exercises? You can simplify by using the second fingering shown: just staying in first position, shift up on the open E and then go to the high note.


And Oliveira described a very helpful way of thinking about the shake-glissando technique required for this:


"The thumb is pulling the hand, and the hand is resisting, so it is only moving a half-step at a time," Oliveira said.

In many of the very highest notes (and they are very high), Oliveira suggested using a third finger, not just because it is the longest finger, but because of the way it allows the hand to remain flatter, not so high, as required when using the fourth finger.

A lot of good advice!

* * *

In the evening was a "Celebrity Series" concert that combined the talents of Institute students with faculty members and Institute students (nice opportunity!)

First was a solo: Oliveira's gorgeous rendition of Rachmaninov's "Vocalise," replete with Old-World charm. Oliveira and violist Robert Vernon played several duets; then a Brahms quintet (first movement of Op. 111) featured faculty members Mark Kaplan (violin), Vernon and Matt Haimovitz (cello) and students Madison Vest (violin) and Dominick Douglas (viola.)

To be honest, I'd planned to leave at intermission, due to a raging cold only barely held back by a cocktail of over-the-counter remedies. But there was no intermission -- thank heavens! Or I'd have missed the highlight of the evening: a piece I'd never heard and those performing had never played before that week: Ernst von Dohnányi's Piano Quintet in C minor, Op. 1. The composer wrote it when he was 17, in the 1890s, and legend has it that an aging Johannes Brahms heard an early performance and told the young composer afterwards, “I could not have written it better myself."

Speaking of wishes, many of us in the audience wished that we could be Institute student Anna Tsukervanik, a violinist who was the only student in this ensemble, which included violinist Ilya Kaler, violist Larry Dutton, cellist Ralph Kirshbaum and pianist Yael Weiss. Before playing, she approached the microphone and said, "Tonight I get to play with not just one awesome musician, not two, not three, but four! Four awesome musicians! Thank you all for being here, for one of the happiest nights of my life."

Dohnanyi quintet
Ilya Kaler, Anna Tsukervanik, Yael Weiss, Ralph Kirshbaum and Larry Dutton. Photo by Evan Chapman for the Heifetz Institute.

It would seem the young Dohnányi did not write this piece for ease of playing. The cello part had Kirshbaum working non-stop; and Weiss was nailing the devilish piano part. Dutton, who can normally be found playing in the Emerson String Quartet, was attentive to all, and I have no doubt about his contribution in putting together this piece in less than a week. Tsukervanik kept pace just fine, and occasionally when she wasn't playing, I caught her admiring Kaler's playing, as he produced that gorgeous and sure tone (on a modern violin, btw, a Joseph Curtin). The piece was varied and full of surprises. The quirky fourth movement was a wonderful ride, part of it in 5, and another part a fugue in three (officially in six, but with the feeling of three - rare!). It had that thrilling feeling of a train that can just barely stay on the rails, the way it defies gravity; but these performers drove it reliably to the end, when every member of the audience stood immediately, no holdouts. I stopped counting curtain calls.

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August 4, 2015 at 01:38 PM · The Dohnányi Quintet really is an amazing piece. There is a group of local top-level professionals here in Blacksburg (including violinist David Ehrlich of erstwhile Audubon Quartet fame, and his wife, pianist Teresa Ehrlich) who have performed this piece locally two or three times in recent memory. I saw it in Blacksburg a couple of years ago, and I was blown away. When you hear and see the Dohnányi Quintet performed, you begin to understand why it is perhaps not played all that much, which I think has to do with the sheer demands placed on the pianist and also the composer's heavy emphasis on the piano part -- much more even than you find with Brahms. Dohnányi was a pianist and a pedagogue. He wrote a study book for piano (Essential Finger Exercises) that has at least the status that we would assign to, say, Schradieck.

August 8, 2015 at 05:12 PM · Don't limit your Dohnanyi exploration to the first piano quintet. The second one is perhaps even more spectacular. And the sextet for piano, string trio, clarinet and horn is also outstanding, if rarely heard. The string quartets (esp. the 3rd), the serenade (trio), the violin sonata, violin concertos, suite for orchestra, the list goes on and on...

August 8, 2015 at 10:33 PM · Ilya Kaler is such a riot...and of course, masterful player. Living near the Chautauqua Institute we often go over and watch the rehearsals. Kaler's wife plays in the resident orchestra. A few years back I noted a new 2nd violinist in the orchestra. Realizing it was Ilya I was obliged to greet and asked him why he was playing in the 2nd violin section, to which he replied, " Becoss der ees no Terd vi-lin zection" and offered a wry smile. We'd all learned of his amazing skill and warm-up routine where he buzzes thru the Paganini Caprices....just for drill....back when he taught at Eastman, and was frequent soloist in the area.

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