June 16, 2017
Music Festival students get motivation from the masters
Clive Greensmith leads a cello master class at the Sarasota Music Festival
Clive Greensmith leads a cello master class at the Sarasota Music Festival
Dan Wagner, Staff Photographer, Sarasota Herald-Tribune

The halls of the Beatrice Freedman Symphony Center are deserted, but from behind the closed doors of its practice rooms drift the sounds of a disassembled orchestra. Amble by Room 201 and you catch the vibrating trill of a flute. Linger outside Room 205 and hear the ululating wail of an oboe. The sonorous strings of a violin seep from Room 204, the bottomless blasts of a bass from David Cohen Hall. Though they take place behind the scenes, these “master classes” are the heart and soul of the Sarasota Music Festival, the nitty-gritty of what this annual summer gathering is all about -- sharing, listening, learning, growing. Every Monday through Thursday for three weeks, from 9 a.m. to noon, the 60 select student musicians at this year’s festival meet for these intimate sessions with faculty members whose careers have been built on the same instruments they play. To the layman, “master class” may connote a lecturer pontificating in front of group of reverent acolytes; that’s not the case here. These mini-private lessons -- with each student allotted a limited time to play a prepared piece and receive an individualized critique -- are personal, unpretentious and mutually engaging, with each teacher’s personality flavoring his or her approach. For a small fee, outsiders are allowed into this inner sanctum, but for the most part the “audience” is made up of fellow students, hoping to learn more when the pressure of playing is off. A morning spent popping in and out of these rooms provides a rare glimpse of how technique, artistry and passion are handed down, from one generation of stellar musicians to the next. Room 105: Cello Daniel Kaler, a 19-year-old baby-faced cellist from Wilmette, Illinois, is seated front and center, his instrument between his legs and his bow working overtime, long before faculty member Clive Greensmith enters the room. Looking more focused than apprehensive, he runs through the movements of Schubert’s “Arpeggione Sonata,” which he has been working on for nearly all of his sophomore year at the Cleveland Institute of Music. It’s one of the few bravura solo pieces for cellists. Minutes before 9 a.m., Greensmith -- a native of England, a longtime member of the Tokyo String Quartet and a SMF faculty member for the past decade -- enters the room and quietly takes a seat across from Kaler. Slender and wearing jeans and a checked shirt, were it not for the balding runway between his two lush thickets of hair, he might be mistaken for a student himself. Without introduction -- of himself, the work or the performer -- he gives the student and his piano accompanist a nod. Kaler’s face reflects every note. Eyebrows lifted on a high note; head shaking brusquely from side to side on sharp bowings; eyes widening at a gradual crescendo. Occasionally, he gasps, as if he’s almost forgotten to take a breath. When he finishes, there is a spray of applause from the observers seated in facing rows on hard plastic chairs. “Very good playing,” Greensmith nods. “Anything I could say would be a question just of taste and personal choices. But there are a couple things you could do to enhance what you’re already doing.” Without consulting a score, and sporadically demonstrating on his own instrument, Greensmith picks up one measure or another, asking for a change of bow direction here to create more intimacy, or less speed to build climax. In general, his gentle advice is couched in the suggestive: “Have you ever tried?” “What do you think?” “It’s not mandatory, but ... .” But at one point, he asks point blank: “Do you listen to much Schubert?” Kaler, looking slightly stricken, shakes his head no. “My advice would be to go and take a bath in Schubert,” says Greensmith. (Kaler admits later,“I think that was a great idea and I don’t do nearly enough of it.”) His goal in any master class, Greensmith says, is “to make the student more self aware, in a way that stays with them and can be used in the future, rather than being ephemeral.” Determining how to do that on the spot, with someone you may never have heard play before and may never hear again, while walking the line between critique and praise, can be an enormous challenge. “It might be that I never see some of these students again, so I want to make sure it’s valuable,” he says. “The thing is not to throw the kitchen sink at them. You want to make them challenged but uplifted, encouraged, but not pulling the wool over their eyes.” Greensmith says today’s students are “extremely eager and earnest, sincere and hardworking,” but also more aware than ever that “it’s a very crowded profession.” “The worry I have sometimes is that in one’s desire to play perfectly, technically brilliantly, that the true manifestation of an artist in other areas, such as individuality, musical sensitivity and the ability to play different composers with stylistic awareness can get lost. The danger is that we become instrumentalists first, rather than all-around musicians.” His advice was well-heeded. The next day Kaler says, “He gave me some ideas about how to better create my musical intentions, bring certain things out more and make more of a statement.” Room 207: Horn Dressed in white pants and a colorful, loose blouse, Julie Landsman, the principal horn player for the Metropolitan Opera for 22 years and an SMF faculty member since 1994, is right at home in Florida and in the classroom. While her visual focus -- through black-rimmed glass that are in stark contrast to her Harpo Marx crown of white curls -- is on the student at the front of the room, her comments are offered to everyone in the room. “Are you a horn player?” she asks an observer trying to slip unobtrusively into the room. To another: “Nice to have you back. Did you enjoy yesterday’s session?” With the students, she’s direct, but solicitous. When Ying Ho Joanna Huang, a Cleveland Institute of Music student from Taipei, visually shivers on the opening notes of an excerpt from Brahms, Landsman stops her and asks, “So how you feelin’? You’re cold? Is the shiver just the temperature? I’d like you to put a sweater on.” Unlike string musicians, the horn players perform only a few measures at a time and Landsman’s counsel is more general than individual. She uses whatever is at hand -- from a metronome app on her mobile phone to her own gleaming horn -- to get her point across. Though it’s clear what her preferences are, she is anything but didactic; she encourages experimentation and guides choices. As Huang, a Cleveland Institute of Music Student from Taipei, reels off a passage from Beethoven’s Sixth, seemingly without taking a breath, Landsman turns quizzically to the onlookers. “It’s amazing how little she breathes, isn’t it?” says the Julliard faculty member. To Huang she adds, “How do you do that?” Slightly embarrassed, the softspoken student replies, “Should I breathe more?” “I don’t know,” Landsman shrugs. “You wanna try? I don’t want to fix something that’s not broken, but it just surprises me every time.” Huang plays again, taking in air at the strategic points Landsman recommends. “It was better, wasn’t it?” she says. “More sound, more tone, more body. I want the core of the note, not just the outside shell of the sound.” When Valerie Ankeney, a recent graduate of the Eastman School of Music, starts off a little wobbly on the opening notes of “Das Reingold,” Landsman spends some time on “the setup.” “Where was your tongue? Om air ack ere?” she says, pressing her own tongue to the roof of her mouth. “Between your teeth?” She shakes her head. “Some people teach that. I’m really against it -- can you tell?” There’s never an edict, but all the minor adjustments add up to a major change in sound. “So many things work better for you with a good start,” Landsman says. “Does everyone understand what I mean? Your belly needs to be set and everything waiting, so all you have to do is move your tongue and you’re off. It’s like a race horse at the gate.” Room 204: Violin Ana Kavafian, a student here in the early ’70s and an SMF faculty member, on and off, since 1992, has a lively approach that keeps both students and observers entertained. Wearing a loose brown dress, her reading glasses perched halfway down her nose, she is a moving target. As a storm rages outside the room’s windows and the lights occasionally flicker, she wastes not a moment of the 20 minutes she is given for each violin student, scribbling penciled notes on a score, popping up off her chair to adjust a bow angle, singing in operatic spurts or witty asides. “I can tell them 20 things in 20 minutes, but my goal is to leave them with at least one very specific idea,” says the Turkish-born, Julliard-trained musician, a member of the Yale School of Music faculty for the past decade. “If the technique is getting in the way of them making music, I’ll start with that, but I would rather have them think about the music first, and get what the composer’s goal was, the musical intention.” Felicity James, a cheerful 21-year-old from Seattle who studies at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, steps confidently to the music stand and nods to her accompanist. James, who first came to the festival visit three years ago after making the age cutoff by five days, seems more excited than intimidated to perform Beethoven’s uncharacteristically peppy “A Major Sonata,” despite that she’s played the piece for less than a week and only once with this pianist. Her blonde ponytail swinging like a conductor’s baton, she seems to dance the movement; it’s hard to imagine her playing sitting down. Kavafian’s comments are frank, but softened with humor. “That sounded like Mozart -- sweet, nice,” she says. “I think that’s your personality, right? (To the observers) She’s sweet, right? You can tell. (Back to James) But you need to put a little more Beethoven back in. As fun as it is, it needs a backbone. You have to get a little more acerbic.” Kavafian details the historical context of the work, then shoots a few rapid-fire questions at James -- “When was this written? What else was he writing then? Who was his teacher?” When the student answers them all correctly, she smiles broadly, “Good!” James, who “of course, always,” sits in on the critiques of the students who play before and after she does -- “It’s like a master class without the pressure of having to play” -- says some teachers try to cram too many points into a master session, “which makes it feel more like mistakes.” Kavafian, on the other hand “has a friendly way of doing it and a very engaging way for the audience as well.” Afterward, James expresses appreciation for Kavafian’s advice. “And she was absolutely right,” she adds, “I do have a tendency to play too lightly. Beethoven was a serious guy and she was talking about how specific he was in all his markings.” Kavafian takes a different tack with each student. She urges Yu Chao Weng to lighten up on the strings and reduce the force of her stroke. (Shaking her hand as the session ends, she says to the audience, “Yes, she has a very strong grip!”) To Yoon Be Kim, a student from the New England Conservatory of Music, she says: “Right away you’re killing this! Don’t try to prove anything!” Then, when the dark skies outside respond with a flash of lightning and a crack of thunder, she shrieks, “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it!” Ultimately, Kavafian says she wants to leave the students with an idea of what else it will take to make their playing stand out beyond mere physical mastery. “There are so many great technical players these days,” she says, “that the only way to succeed is to have tremendous intent, character, color. Their hearts and their brains have to be completely engaged. That’s the only way to be thought of as something out of the ordinary.”

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