By Lenny Cavallaro
Groveland, MA, USA
Stephanie Chase (violin),
Sara Davis Buechner (piano)
Friml - "Spanish Serenade"
This month, we resume the interview with Stephanie Chase. The violinist discusses old Italian instruments (including her own and Paganini's), her experiences as a conductor, composer, and arranger, the challenges of music pedagogy, her love of chamber music, and how she gave the North American premiere of an obscure Paganini sonata that was not published until 2009.
STAY THIRSTY: Like Paganini, you seem to favor a Guarnerius, yet you have also made a study of Stradivari violins. As a performer, what are your feelings about these two great instrument-makers?
STEPHANIE CHASE: My violin was made by Petrus Guarnerius in 1742. He was the brother of Giuseppe, known as "del Gesù" because of the inscriptions of IHS and the inclusion of a cross on his paper labels inside the instruments. Luckily, I play this violin somewhat by default – it had been my mother's instrument – but I am inclined to favor the Guarneri sound over the Stradivari, as it tends to be a bit darker on the bass end, with a lot of opportunities for color. Petrus – or Peter – left Cremona in favor of Venice, which was probably a very smart move. Stradivari was apparently active alongside his sons until his death in 1737, and in addition to Giuseppe Guarneri, there were a number of other violinmakers in Cremona with virtually no local market to support them. Peter's violins are a bit old-fashioned for the era in that they have higher arching across the belly, and he developed a lovely shape for the sound holes that resembles a cresting wave.
(credit: Stewart Pollens)
Incidentally, I played on Paganini's violin, the "Cannon," when it was in New York in 1994 for an exhibition of 25 violins made by Guarneri del Gesù. I had only about five minutes to get acquainted with it, but it was amazing to witness the sound and response opening up. In those days it had a neck that was closer to Baroque style than modern in its thickness around third position, along with encrusted rosin on the top of the instrument and, apparently, even dirt and sweat from Paganini's neck. In 2004 a number of alterations were made, evidently in an attempt to restore it to a version of its original state, and I suspect that at least some of Paganini's DNA is no longer embedded in the instrument.
It is distressing to know that over the course of centuries, many of the world's great violins have been permanently altered through thinning the back plates by removing wood, in some misguided attempt to "improve" their sound. Of the numerous Guarneri violins I tried out at the Metropolitan Museum during the exhibition, those with the best sound and response were those that had not been altered and retained the original thicknesses. These included Paganini's and Heifetz's instruments.
My study of Stradivari violins stems from a controversy over the "Messiah" violin that is housed in the Ashmolean Museum. My husband, Stewart Pollens, found several factors that led him to believe that it is not the same 1716 violin described by Count Cozio in his records – for which "blasphemy" he was roundly attacked by the violin dealers of the world. My research is nearly concluded and comes out of simple questions: what are the optimizing factors in a violin's design, and how do these relate to the proportions of music, simple acoustical knowledge, and regional units of measure? In 1992, Stewart – who is world-renowned for his expertise in important violins and historic pianos – published a book featuring life-size photos of the forms Stradivari used for making his violins. Over the years I have found that these contain a wealth of information, even though they look like planks of wood with a few scribe lines. I have filled several notebooks documenting the trial-and-error process of figuring out the answers to these questions. Eventually – and sooner than later, I hope – this will result in a book.
STAY THIRSTY: Let us hope so! We also know that Paganini conducted on numerous occasions, including at the premiere of Rossini's Matilde di Shabran, and he later led the orchestra at Parma. You have also enjoyed considerable success at the podium, sometimes wearing two hats, those of conductor and soloist, at the same time. How comfortable have you felt in the twin roles, and how do you feel about conducting?
STEPHANIE CHASE: Although my first love is playing the violin – as a conductor, I make no sound directly, which is quite a contrast! – I do enjoy conducting for both the interpretive end and the technical challenges and rewards. My teacher is Patricia Handy, who was a student of the great Leon Barzin, who himself analyzed and used Toscanini's technique. Violinists usually deal with music in a very linear fashion, whereas conductors need to be aware of and listen to many lines of music at once. Sometimes it is not always the melodic line that needs attention, but the underlying rhythmic and harmonic structures. A conductor needs to know how and when to compel upwards of one hundred people into a unified action, or when to leave them essentially alone and merely guide them.
A common mistake of many conductors is to wave both arms in unison, which is confusing to the eye; rather, the right arm should be the music's rhythm and phrasing, and the left the expression, as in showing dynamics and some cues; when one is active the other retreats. It takes a lot of coordination and practice – and one's facial expressions must be under control, also. A good conductor also rehearses effectively and does not waste the time of the orchestra musicians, who resent a leader who talks too much or does not problem-solve efficiently. Two works I have especially enjoyed conducting are Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony and Beethoven's Seventh Symphony – there is a visceral element to these works that is amazing!
STAY THIRSTY: This, naturally, leads us to the question of your collaborations with other conductors. With which ones have you had the most enjoyable experiences?
STEPHANIE CHASE: Although I have enjoyed playing with many conductors, I have to single out Herbert Blomstedt, with whom I played Bernstein's Serenade. He's very serious, calm, disciplined, and supportive, with an excellent technique and strong musicianship. I also like Marin Alsop and have played on many occasions with her. She, too, is a talented and dedicated musician who works very hard. In addition, I want to express my appreciation for a number of conductors who have engaged me several times with their orchestras over the years. In terms of having a good time onstage during a performance, I just performed Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy and Ravel's Tzigane three times with a young conductor, Martin Majkut, and we had a blast.
Krenek - Sonata No. 2*
STAY THIRSTY: Of course, orchestral soloists who perform concerti by Haydn, Mozart, and (often) Beethoven eventually reach those places in the score at which they are expected to perform a cadenza. Today, there are a number of these readily available, yet a few of us prefer to write our own. I believe your first such ventures were with your Mozart recording in the early 90's, and you have certainly written many more since. What is it like to write a cadenza?
STEPHANIE CHASE: As I recall, the first cadenza I ever wrote was for Mozart's Violin Concerto #4, when I was in my early 20's and well before I began to play Classical violin. I have also composed them for the Beethoven and the 1st, 3rd, and 5th concerti of Mozart, as well as for Haydn's Concerto in C Major. What I try to do is to compose something that is truly in the style of the work and that balances out the movement with some element of surprise. Often I take material from the orchestral part that the solo violin never plays otherwise, and sometimes I will turn it "upside down." For the lengthier of the Beethoven Concerto cadenzas, the late Bill Black – who was a dear friend and my recital partner for a number of years – recommended that I quickly modulate far away from the home key. So, in the first movement (which is in D Major), my cadenza starts in B-flat major, and I recap the second theme in f minor!
STAY THIRSTY: In addition to your cadenzas, you have also earned well-deserved kudos as an arranger – most notably for A Fantasy about Carmen (drawing on Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy, itself based on themes from Bizet's Carmen) and Spanish Suite (an arrangement of other music by Sarasate). Clearly, you must have enjoyed creating these pieces!
STEPHANIE CHASE: I feel validated in this work by the fact that the American String Project in Seattle has performed and recorded several of my string orchestra arrangements and that Itzhak Perlman has featured both A Fantasy about Carmen and Ziguenerweisen ("Gypsy Airs," also by Sarasate) with his Perlman Music Program orchestra on their concert tours. Having had no official training in this field, I make these music arrangements "by ear" rather than through music theory, and always take the melodic lines and spread them throughout the orchestra – even the double bass gets a solo – so I think they are fun for the orchestra to play. Usually, the inspiration just strikes me, and then I go through a very tedious process with the Finale (musical software) program, in which every note, dynamic, and articulation is entered through at least one keystroke. The advantage is that I can play it back through my computer and, once the notes are organized, move them around rather easily if need be. I recall how fastidious my father was in writing out his scores by hand and do not think I would have the talent or patience to do it his way.
STAY THIRSTY: History has taught us that many virtuosi have proven mediocre, if not outright poor instructors. Vladimir Horowitz comes to mind immediately, yet there have been other notable failures. Of course, some of the best performers have also proven wonderful teachers and chamber music coaches, and Stephanie Chase certainly seems to be among them. Tell us about your current position.
Stephanie Chase with Guarnerius
(credit: Stewart Pollens)
STEPHANIE CHASE: Thank you for this compliment. For several years, I have been teaching violin and chamber music classes at New York University's Steinhardt School, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average – oh sorry, that's Lake Wobegon. Seriously, I take my teaching commitments to heart, and feel that it is my role to teach the students to teach themselves. This requires, among many other skills, analyzing technical issues along with problem-solving, plus discipline and support.
For a performer, one of the great challenges is to learn a work, the process of which requires self-criticism and objectivity, and be able to bring it to a concert performance that is fully committed and as perfected as possible. We need to believe completely in what we are presenting to the audience, but the actual manner of playing in public is often very different than what happens in the practice room. Imagine speaking with someone in your living room and then saying the same words audibly to an audience of 2500, without amplification, forcing, or straining. Music performances have the same issues of diction – which we call articulation – and projection of character and energy. This semester I am also teaching a violin class, which is a forum for playing works-in-progress and addressing all issues – technical, interpretive, and business-related – that face violinists. In my sonata classes, I try to open up the ears of both the pianist and violinist regarding matters like balance, leadership, and articulation, in addition to specific interpretive issues in the music.
STAY THIRSTY: No wonder they speak so well of you! I should append that you not only coach chamber music, but have also been extensively involved with such ensembles for many years. You were a founding member of the Boston Chamber Music Society (1982), and more recently co-founded the Music of the Spheres Society, for which organization you serve as Artistic Director. What is it like to begin such a venture "from scratch"?
STEPHANIE CHASE: As you might guess from its name, the Music of the Spheres Society is, at its minimum, an organization devoted to performances of chamber music. I enjoy the interactions with other musicians, especially in rehearsal, and I have a chance to program music that is unusual alongside the favorites that we musicians and our audiences love. We also explore the links between music, philosophy, and the sciences. The philosophical element can be as simple as asking the question, why was this piece composed? With the possible exception of some commissioned works, there is usually a compelling story to how a musical work comes into existence, often having to do with love and loss. The scientific element can come from technology – as in how the perfection of the damper mechanism in the piano, which roughly coincided with developments in the stringed instrument bow shortly before 1800, led to a more sustained sound and "Romantic" style of music. It also enabled the piano to take on the role of "orchestra" in a lot of music.
The real "Music of the Spheres" element comes in with my own interest in the physical properties of music. For example, the ratio of the octave is 1:2. If you halve a vibrating string length or air mass, the pitch is twice as high. If my A string vibrates at 440 cycles per second, then the A an octave higher vibrates at 880 cps (and one part out of two is in vibration), and so on. The ratio (or proportion) of the fifth (such as C - G) is 2:3, that of the fourth (G - C) is 3:4. Mathematically, you multiply these together to combine them, and a fifth plus a fourth equals an octave. There are strong nodes on strings at these intervals that produce natural harmonics. Similarly, if you want to split the octave into two, it is the equivalent of √2, which is an irrational number and sounds very dissonant (close to an augmented fourth or diminished fifth). As all good music combines dissonance and consonance, the emotional qualities that these elicit are also mathematical or – as I prefer to describe it – proportional. These ideas have been around for easily thousands of years, and it was the musicologist and lutenist Vincenzo Galilei who explored the physical properties of music and, in turn, influenced the practical experimentalism of his son, Galileo.
It requires a lot of time and effort to put our concerts together – and especially to promote and pay for them – but in addition to the artistic product, I really think there are nearly magical elements, such as the golden section of proportion, that remain worthy or investigation!
STAY THIRSTY: Fascinating; almost mystical! Well, permit me to conclude by returning one last time to Paganini, specifically his Sonata in A Major for Unaccompanied Violin, a work of some minor musical significance, but of greater anecdotal and historical interest, since it relates to one of his vices. Please tell us about your performance and the work itself.
STEPHANIE CHASE: I gave the apparent North American concert premiere of this obscure sonata last October at New York University, and this came about by happenstance: I was perusing some music at Frank Music Company in New York when owner Heidi Rogers brought it to my attention and told me it had just been published. After doing some research and contacting the two violinists who have played it in Europe, I determined that it had never been performed on this continent and decided to include it in my upcoming program.
Stephanie Chase (violin),
Sara Davis Buechner (piano)
Turina - "Sonata espagnola"**
This work was composed when Paganini was about seventeen years old. Legend has it that during a stay in Italy's Livorno region, the virtuoso had gambled away his Amati the night before a concert. M. Livron, a French businessman, lent him another violin for the performance, the instrument now known as the "Cannon," made in 1743 by Guarneri del Gesù. Livron was so impressed by Paganini's abilities that he immediately awarded him the violin. As a gesture of his appreciation, Paganini subsequently composed this sonata and presented it to his benefactor. However dubious such a story might seem, it appears in Paganini's 1828 autobiography and is confirmed by the dedication on the actual manuscript.
The sonata reveals Paganini's technical mastery as a teenager, through virtuoso passages that include myriad arpeggios, double stops, harmonics, and enormous leaps from one end of the violin to another. However, it also exposes his musical immaturity, in that each movement remains resolutely in A Major, and there is little harmonic development. For the middle movement, a lovely, simple, and unadorned tune, I added some secondary voices and embellishments. I'm afraid the piece requires some editorial revision, and it does not begin to approach the musical inventiveness of many of his Caprices, which Paganini began to compose at age 20 (in 1802) and completed in 1817. However, this work is certainly an interesting historical document and, despite the apparent haste behind its composition, is useful as an elaborate etude for working on technique.
STAY THIRSTY: ". . . some editorial revision"? How soon can you begin working on it, and will you publish it?
STEPHANIE CHASE: Actually, I performed it again several months later and reorganized some of the material, deleting some repetitious music in the first movement and changing the order of a few of the variations in the third movement, which is a kind of Polonaise, in order to provide greater contrast and a stronger finish. I also rewrote a few arpeggios here and there, again to create more variety.
In terms of publishing my new version, perhaps this can go onto my lengthy "Things to Do" list - which just got (very slightly) shorter with the conclusion of this interview!
STAY THIRSTY: What a wonderful tribute – from one extraordinary artist to another! We shall anxiously await publication of the Paganini-Chase sonata!
*Krenek - Allegretto grazioso from the Sonata No. 2 for violin solo, Opus 115 - Stephanie Chase, violin
**Turina - Lento-Tema y variaciones (from the "Sonata espagnola" for violin and piano). Stephanie Chase, violin; Sara Davis Buechner, piano