Last night in the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, violinist David Kim, Concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, gave a String Master Class. Unlike the usual format of a few performances of single movements or relatively short works, this session involved four violinists and three violists, all performing excerpts. Kim explained to the audience that this would be a class in preparing for auditions. He then set the context by explaining, in vivid detail, the nature of the auditioning process, at the end of which he dramatically expostulated, “This is not music!”
In the immortal words of Stringer Bell, “True dat!” Kim’s punch line was actually a corollary to the proposition that auditioning is a filtering process, meaning that “auditioning technique” is all about getting through the filter. Here, however, a paradox arises. As Kim described the process from the judges’ point of view, everything comes down to getting noticed for some distinctively positive attribute. Thus, as I observed him coach the first student through the opening violin solo passage in Johannes Brahms’ Opus 77 concerto in D major, I realized that he was homing in on establishing a strong foundation of musicality to establish that attribute.
Listening to that student and recalling the many performances and recordings of this concerto I had experienced, I realized that, where those measures are concerned, this is no easy matter. Following traditional style, the violin does not enter until measure 90, after the orchestra has established the foundation of thematic material. However, the soloist does not present the first statement of the opening theme until measure 136. During those intervening 46 measures, the violin part consists of arpeggios, runs, multiple-stop bowing, and no end of other technical hoops through which the soloist must leap. All thematic material is highly motivic and resides entirely in the orchestra.
Think about an auditioning violinist standing before the screen that hides the judges getting ready to play those 46 measures. If (s)he is lucky, (s)he will have had some time to consult with the pianist. If (s)he is shrewd, (s)he can use that time to work out how (s)he will establish her role as “embellisher-in-chief.” Nevertheless, in the context of Kim’s perspective on auditioning, it is fair to ask, “Where is the musicality in those 46 measures?” Do they amount to anything more than virtuoso fireworks?
In working with his student, Kim approached this as a mind-game problem, rather than just a problem of technical proficiency. As I have observed in the past, even the most abstract assemblages of notes on a score page can be rendered with musicality. The point is that the musicality lies in the act of performance, rather than in the “text” being performed. Kim thus provided the student with several mental exercises aimed at establishing such an act of performance, all predicated on the premise that all the technical details have already been nailed. All that remains is to make it sound like music, so to speak.
I forgot to check my watch; but, unless I am mistaken, this single student session took a little more than a quarter of an hour. This included Kim listening to the entire passage before saying anything. This was one of the most tightly-packed coaching sessions I have observed. I hope that it benefitted the student, because, for my part, I do not think I shall ever listen to the opening movement of Opus 77 in the same way again.