From the vivid and nutty to the genuine and humble – Piatigorsky Masterclasses with Nathaniel Rosen, Miklos Perenyi

From Dr. Lars Hoefs on day 4 (03/12/2012) at the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival, Los Angeles

Like a flock of migrating turtles, the 22 guest artists from 12 countries and their 45 masterclass students from 16 countries, all with cellos on their backs, journeyed south from the Colburn School downtown Los Angeles to the University of Southern California for Day 4 of this unprecedented, unforgettable, unmissable smorgasbord of classes and concerts, innovation and tradition, eccentricity and humility, all neatly sandwiched under the magnanimous umbrella of LA’s great adopted cello personality, Gregor Piatigorsky.

The morning class at USC’s Newman Hall was taught by Nathaniel Rosen, Tchaikovsky Competition gold medalist and former student of Piatigorsky. The students were accompanied by pianist Ayke Agus, author of “Heifetz, As I Knew Him.” The performers were Nick Bollinger, student of Andrew Shulman at USC, playing Debussy’s Sonata; Allan Steele, student of Ronald Leonard at Colburn, in the last movement of Beethoven’s A Major Sonata; and Han Bin Yoon, a student of Ralph Kirshbaum at USC, playing the first movement of Haydn C Major. Rosen’s class could best be described as, well, nutty. He was a total clown, and the look on young Bollinger’s face, for the duration, was one of complete incomprehension. But there was much to glean from Rosen’s oddball antics. The class was delayed from starting a good 10 minutes, during which Rosen improvised a hybrid standup/cello pedagogy routine. He talked about tuning, recommending we ask two questions when tuning the cello: 1. Would it be better if it were higher? 2. Would it be better if it were lower? It got a good laugh from Thomas Demenga sitting behind me. Working on the Debussy with Bollinger, Rosen repeated what Piatigorsky said of the Debussy – that you have to be two people: one who stays up all night drinking absinthe, writing poetry and moaning, and one who wants to put every dot and 8th-note in the correct place. Rosen stressed how this Sonata was really music of the future, that there was nothing like it before Debussy. In the 2nd movement, where it is marked “ironique,” Rosen confessed that he doesn’t know how to play the character with his instrument, so he does it with his face, by sneering. He encouraged Bollinger to make things as vivid as possible, and pointed to a place in the 2nd movement which should sound like a French drug addict, and from the arm motions, I gather he meant someone injecting heroine? Rosen also showed how Piatigorsky, when repeated the high flautando F-E-D-C# bit, played it as false harmonics the second time. Working on the Beethoven with Steele, Rosen was impressed with a fingering he had never thought of, so he gave Steele a quarter, something Piatigorsky always did with his students.

After lunch we all returned to Newman Hall for a masterclass with Miklos Perenyi, with Robert Thies at the piano. What a remarkable class. Perenyi barely spoke – he told no stories, dropped no names, espoused no philosophies. What he did do was give a lesson in genuine music-making. While the talented students played well, Perenyi quickly demonstrated what they lacked: faithfully observing the details in the score, holding strict tempos, constructing clear and unbroken phrases. The first participant was the Argentinean Marcelo Montes, a student of Troels Svane at the Musikhochschule Hanns Eisler in Berlin, performing Dutilleux’s unaccompanied 3 Strophes sur le nom de Sacher. Montes impressed with his fearlessness and virtuosity, but Perenyi’s playing soon exposed the lack of accuracy in Montes’ performance. With his gentle smiling face, Perenyi politely insisted on playing exactly as written, showing how through observing the details and tempo, the music takes form. Montes often played so quietly that the notes were inaudible – Perenyi wanted to hear every note, demonstrating, then gently saying, “It’s so nice.” Next was the last movement of Kodaly’s Solo Sonata played by Matthew Allen, a student of Melissa Kraut at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Allen played with technical mastery, so Perenyi worked on musical concerns in this work by his compatriot. Seeing him teach this movement was a revelation. Transporting us to a Sunday afternoon of folk dancing in rural Hungary, Perenyi made the folk influence come to life, dancing along in his own subtle, reverent, humble, and immensely charming way. The last student to perform was Sayaka Selina, student of Thomas Demenga at the Hochschule fur Musik in Basel, playing the first movement of the Schumann Concerto. Selina played beautifully, but Perenyi demonstrated again how playing exactly what the composer writes, and indeed understanding the intent and expression, results in an elegant, noble, elevated interpretation. I was struck by the realization, while Perenyi demonstrated, that this is Schumann! I have heard the Concerto so many times, but never like this, which seemed to come straight from the deep wellspring of Schumann’s creative genius.

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