Master Class with Joel Smirnoff; Recital Featuring Rachell Ellen Wong - Starling-DeLay 2023

May 24, 2023, 1:40 AM · NEW YORK - The first in-person Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies in four years began on Tuesday at The Juilliard School with an insightful master class by former Juilliard Quartet member Joel Smirnoff followed by an extraordinary recital by violinist Rachell Ellen Wong and colleagues.

The Symposium runs through Saturday, with additional master classes scheduled with Francesca dePasquale, Li Lin, Catherine Cho and Danielle Belen; a Q & A with Itzhak Perlman; workshops with Curtis Stewart, Jennifer Johnson, Dana Fonteneau, and Symposium Director Brian Lewis; and a recital featuring Randall Goosby.

Smirnoff, a violinist, pedagoque and conductor who played in the Juilliard Quartet for 23 years, started the master class with a few words about his former teacher, Dorothy DeLay, the Juilliard violin pedagogue for whom this symposium is named.

"Dorothy DeLay set a wonderful example for us," Smirnoff said. "First, she was always decked out and well-dressed! Her curiosity was boundless, and she was perceptive, bright and kind. Her teaching was extremely organized, and that helped us be organized."

During the master class, Smirnoff focused intently on the details of each student's performance, using his conducting skills to bring out both musical and technical details in their playing while also dropping so many wonderful pearls of wisdom about violin-playing - he had everyone scrambling to write them all down.

The first young artist to perform was Claire Arias-Kim, who played the first movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, accompanied with great energy by Pamela Viktoria Pyle.

"Your intonation was really harmonically-based," Smirnoff said, "and you have a natural lyricism to your playing."

The first thing Smirnoff wanted to address was how to have a commanding stage presence, with freedom to move about on stage.

Joel Smirnoff Claire Arias Kim
Joel Smirnoff and Claire Arias-Kim

"In a concerto," Smirnoff said, "you are the hero. So you have to be able to carry that in your comportment."

"When you walk onstage," he said, "visualize a circle around you that is about six feet wide - and you are allowed to walk around in that circle." Smirnoff also emphasized being able to shift one's weight from one foot to the other - "Shifting weight is a big deal," he said, "we want to be able to feel rhythm in our legs.

It's also important to breathe, and to focus on making what he called "vocal shapes." For a singer, vocal phrasing depends on supporting the breath to create notes.

Mastering the breath has everything to do with success in many complicated endeavors - basketball, when they score; with golf, when they hit the shot, and of course violin-playing.

For the violinist, this has to do with mastering the bow. Smirnoff mentioned Kreutzer Etude No. 1, the etude with all the long tones and counter-intuitive crescendos. The modern bow tends to lose volume on the down-bow, and that etude asks for a crescendo on the down-bow, going a bit against the modern bow's nature.

"The Kreutzer is kind of a consumer report about this bow," Smirnoff said. Then addressing Kim, "I encourage you, for the rest of your life, to do a crescendo on the down-bow." Why? Because, "to the audience, a flat sound doesn't sound sustained."

He also called for courage in the infamous octave passage near the piece's opening.

"It's a crescendo on the way up, with more sound for each one," he said. He coached her through playing the octaves, not relenting for a second: "Crescendo! More! Louder! Forte! More bow! Crescendo!"

Next Jaewon Wee gave a stunningly performance of J.S. Bach's second-movement "Fuga" from the Sonata No 2 in A Minor for solo violin - extremely tidy, with excellent intonation, voicing and well-executed chords.

"There are some very famous players who did not do as well as you" with this piece, Smirnoff said.

Joel Smirnoff and Jaewon Wee
Joel Smirnoff and Jaewon Wee.

One challenge of this fugue is that it is long, with Bach seeming to want to prove his supremacy in writing contrapuntal music for a non-contrapuntal instrument. It also has a free-wheeling, meandering structure that makes it harder to organize.

"What you can add to it is the sense of pushing and pulling the tempo," Smirnoff said. Allow it to move forward and sound more improvised. "I would like to hear a little more irrationality in this piece - it's a little too steady."

At the very beginning, Smirnoff wanted her to play with out the harder articulations at the beginning of notes that sound like consonants, instead using the softer vowel sounds.

"Start more innocently with the theme," he said, "let the sound develop, instead of forcing it.

As Smirnoff was giving Jaewon these small but fascinating details, aiming for an even higher level than her already-impressive performance, it occurred to me how special it is, a teacher who can give such an already-accomplished and talented student something new and interesting to engage their artistry.

He also dropped some off-hand comments that sounded to me like wisdom for the ages, for example: "These pieces by Bach ask us - can we get to the major key, can we get to the better part of life," he said. The thing that is so heartbreaking about the Chaconne (in the D minor Partita) is that "we get there, we finally feel it, and then it's taken away."

But then back to Jaewon's Fuga: "Don't get hung up of this, it's a sequence - you've got too much water going to the little flowers."

He also described "rubato," that it is not just about holding back, but it also has to then go forward. Steal from the rich and give to the poor, not just one or the other but both.

Juilliard Pre-College student Bobby Boogyeom Park next played the first movement from Brahms' Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor - an intense piece that seemed quite intensely played by Park, with a lot of power and a wide and fast vibrato. So I was surprised when Smirnoff stated that he wanted to hear more power.

Joel Smirnoff and Bobby Boogyeom Park
Joel Smirnoff and Bobby Boogyeom Park

The power he was calling for was in the variety and shape of phrases, not in sheer sound. "You seem hesitant to hit the fiddle - you want to sing all the time," Smirnoff said.

Smirnoff felt that Park was stuck in one bow speed, and that more variety was in order.

Dorothy DeLay spoke of three bowspeeds:

  1. slow to fast
  2. fast to slow
  3. steady

Smirnoff did a demonstration of a "swell": he stood there and took one breath in, then one breath out.

In a breath, "there is actually a turnaround, a change of direction," he said. When Park put more bow speed into those swells, it did sound quite exciting.

And another one of those pearls of wisdom: "Everything is a song and dance, and we want our music to simulate that."

Next was Ellen Hayashi, who played two pieces: Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson's "Louisiana Blues Strut" and Paganini's Caprice No. 20.

In both pieces, Hayashi showed amazing ability to play double stops and all kinds of high-level techniques. But something about the rhythms wasn't working.

Smirnoff approached that issue by tending to the things that were preventing Hayashi from being able to tap into the pulse - in one case a slow one, an in the other, a fast.

Joel Smirnoff and Ellen Hayashi
Joel Smirnoff and Ellen Hayashi.

First they talked about the slow beginning of the Paganini 20, a simple melody over a D-string drone. "We're always hesitant to sing this melody because of the D string drone," he said. He had her play the melody without the drone, all by itself, encouraging her to "be patient with the eighth notes - "see if this can be eight bars without a breath." Once she had played the melody without the drone, it was much more steady when she added it back in.

When it came to the Perkinson piece, in which the rhythm is embedded in a huge wash of notes, "we want to make sure that is enough pulse so that we can feel syncopation," Smirnoff said. "You've got to enjoy the syncopation and you've got to feel the beat against it." He tuned into a technical issue that was keeping her from laying down that pulse: playing more on the string helped get steady the pulse and clarify the rhythmic details.

Last was Qianru Elaine He, who played the second and third movements from the Ravel Violin Sonata with pianist Evan Solomon. The second movement "Blues" was full of glissandi, and then the final "Perpetuum mobile" was incredibly fast and flashy.

Joel Smirnoff and Qianru Elaine He
Joel Smirnoff and Qianru Elaine He.

Smirnoff started by explaining that the beginning of Ravel's "Blues" movement was meant to simulate a jazz banjo, and he had her try playing it while holding the violin like a banjo and stopping the notes. He then pointed out that this piece was written in the 1920s and "jazz did not swing then - it sounded more like a marching band." For an example, he had Solomon play the beginning of Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" on the piano, and it does sound quite straight.

"I try to play this kind of square," he said. "I would try to keep more to the values of the notes - he is specific about how long he wants the notes to be." He also encouraged fast glissandi over more soupy-sounding ones, pointing out the need to set things up to bring out syncopations so that they actually do sound like syncopations.

For the breakneck last movement, Smirnoff said that "we are always looking for the illusion of velocity - not really velocity itself. We want it to sound fast."

He said it's important to "fill out the pulse," so that it sounds fast. Even Heifetz, the king of fast, sometimes told students they played too fast.

He seemed to tap into his conducting skills as he directed her in playing the last movement, using motions, guttural notes to make it happen, and she really responded. The blur of notes were finding shape and form - it was very gratifying to watch.

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In the evening, violinist Rachell Ellen Wong played an all-Baroque program - works by Biber, Bach, Tartini, Corelli and Matteis - with cellist Coleman Itzkoff and harpsichordist David Belkovski.

Rachell Ellen Wong
Violinist Rachell Ellen Wong, harpsichordist David Belkovski and cellist Coleman Itzkoff, in recital.

Wong played with a Baroque bow, gut strings and no chin rest or shoulder rest, and Itzkoff played with no endpin on his cello, instead cradling it in his legs.

What a show they gave! Most remarkable was their seeming ability to bend time at will. Everything sounded extremely improvisatory and non-metronomic, ebbing and flowing as does our breathing lungs and beating hearts when we run then rest, or become excited and then calm down. Sometimes the three musicians weren't exactly together, and yet they were always aligned. The pulse was constantly changing and yet the rhythm was completely clear.

It kind of gave new meaning to a "movement" in music.

A few notes about repertoire: Rachell played a solo version of the third movement of Tartini's "Devil's Trill" sonata - written by the composer after a dream about giving his violin to the Devil to play. "No one mentioned that the devil had accompaniment - I mean who would play with the devil? So I thought a solo version would be appropriate," she said. The group also played Corelli's "La Folia" - like you've never heard it. I wish all my Suzuki students could have heard the on-fire creativity! Very inspiring.

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