Interview with Joseph Silverstein

This exclusive interview with violinist Joseph Silverstein took place in July 2015 right after his visit to the Meadowmount School of Music, where he taught a number of masterclasses and rehearsed & performed a chamber music concert with the students.
Joseph Silverstein graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music in 1950. Having studied with Josef Gingold, Efrem Zimbalist, and Veda Reynolds, Mr. Silverstein has held positions with the orchestras of Houston, Philadelphia, and Denver before joining the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1955 as its youngest player. As a member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Mr. Silverstein performs frequently in New York and has appeared as a soloist and conductor with more than one hundred orchestras in the United States, Japan, Israel, and throughout Europe. He has also served as a faculty member at Curtis since 2000.
Joseph Silverstein Rehearsal

Francesca Bass during rehearsal at Meadowmount summer of 2015

Hans Jensen: I am delighted to be able to do this interview with you. First of all I have personally learned a tremendous amount from having watched your master classes and attended a number of your solo and chamber music concerts over the years, going all the way back to the Congress of Strings at MSU and at Columbia University in the early eighties.

Hans Jensen: For a number of years you have been coming here to the Meadowmount School of Music, sharing your knowledge and wisdom with the students through not only master classes, but also in playing an entire chamber music concert together with some of them. It is very touching to see how you are able to create many of these beautiful concerts with the young string students here.

Joseph Silverstein: Yeah, I can tell you that having the opportunity to play this wonderful music with these kids gives me energy.

Joseph Silverstein: It also makes me so much younger. [Laughs]

Hans Jensen: Yes, but the energy flow back and forth seems to first come from the music.

Hans Jensen: Immediately after the concert in July, when we were walking to your car, I commented about you having the students use all the original bowings. You were saying that was “old-fashioned.” However I’m not sure that’s old-fashioned… I think perhaps I misunderstood what you meant?

Joseph Silverstein: We now have much better editions of the Brahms and the Schubert. For so many years we only had Peters editions which were edited by string players in Germany in the late 19th / early 20th century who really didn’t care that much about what the composers did with phrasing.

Hans Jensen: That’s right.

Joseph Silverstein: They were more interested in convenience. And now we have very nice editions which show us how the composer wanted the music to be phrased. It’s very helpful to have such nice editions that we can now go back to what the composer originally intended.

Hans Jensen: Yes but when you first started playing in orchestra they didn’t have these Bärenreiter editions. Later, as a conductor, did you have to change any of your approaches to pieces you were already familiar with?

Joseph Silverstein: Yes, as a conductor it really was so helpful for me to have the Bärenreiter editions of the Mozart symphonies and the Robbins Landon editions of the Haydn symphonies because most of what we had before were the old Breitkopf editions which had many articulations and bowings that did not communicate the intentions of the composer.

Hans Jensen: Yes I understand.

Hans Jensen: As the concertmaster in Boston did you have to change bowings a lot with each new conductor?

Joseph Silverstein: Well, as concertmaster, I was usually working with conductors who were not string players.

Hans Jensen: I see

Joseph Silverstein: So these conductors gave me the responsibility to mark the bowings and I marked the bowings in my part, and then the library would give my part to the principal second, viola, and cello and they would try to make bowings in their parts that matched with mine. If they didn’t work well for them they would tell me, and then we would have these bowing discussions and come to a unified opinion. The most important thing for us was to try to have a consistent style of playing music from the classical period, so when we got the good editions of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, it became possible for us to develop a nice approach to this style.

Hans Jensen: Yes that makes a lot of sense.

Hans Jensen: The other day when we were having lunch here at Meadowmount you told me that your first teacher was your father. How old were you then when you first started?

Joseph Silverstein: I was three years old.

Hans Jensen: Three!? Really?

Joseph Silverstein: Yes; three when I started with my first violin.

Hans Jensen: Do you have any special memories from when you grew up as a violinist, or are there too many it’s hard to pick one out?

Joseph Silverstein:My father was a very kind, gentle and gifted teacher. I was not forced to practice many hours, so the violin was always a source of joy to me. I grew up with the recordings of Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Kreisler, so I’ve had a great love of the violin from the time that I was a child.

Hans Jensen: Yes, that was the golden age.

Joseph Silverstein: I’ve been playing now for 80 years and I still love playing the violin.

Hans Jensen: That’s shows through, and it’s wonderful how you can share that with the students. Some of your important teachers were Zimbalist, Primrose and Mischa Mischakoff. Do you have any memories from those different teachers, specific things that each person taught you which are still important to you?

Joseph Silverstein: Well, certainly the memory of Mr. Primrose and how carefully he read the music: every detail of the composer’s information, dynamics, articulation, tempo, etc. He was just so careful in his devotion to trying to do exactly what he thought the composer had in mind. And, of course when I played with Mischa Mischakoff and his quartet, again, it was a man who had such integrity about the music itself. I sat with him in the orchestra in Chautauqua a couple of times during the summer and it was amazing because in the most difficult passages of the orchestra, you know, you would not be so conscientious to play every note because there was a lot of other people playing with you… you didn’t have to be so clever. However, he played every note… every note that was on the page, and he felt it was his responsibility. It was a great lesson for me because he played everything that was put in front of him with the same devotion that he would have played the Beethoven concerto with an orchestra.

Hans Jensen: Yes, I wish more younger musicians would show that kind of respect towards orchestra playing.

Hans Jensen: I remember some years ago asking you about the legendary D.C Dounis. There are so many fascinating stories about his teaching. I seem to remember that you took some lessons from him?

Joseph Silverstein: Yes, I had a couple of lessons with Dounis, which were very helpful to me. He showed me how to identify difficulties and work on them in a very practical manner. He helped me to develop my methods of practice very much.

Hans Jensen: What specific things would he help you with?

Joseph Silverstein: Well, when I played for him the first time, I missed something and he asked me why I missed it. I told him, “Well, I probably didn’t practice it enough.” And he replied:

No, you didn’t practice it correctly. What is the element in that passage which is difficult? Is it a shift? Is it a string crossing? Is it the speed or distribution of the bow? What is it that makes it difficult? Where is the difficulty? Let’s isolate the difficulty and take it out and practice it. You have to be like a good surgeon. When you identify a tumor you don’t just keep operating on the whole body; you just remove the tumor and analyze it to see: “Oh, what is this? Now I know what to do. Now I know what medication I have to use.”

Joseph Silverstein: It was an excellent method, and as a result I found that my playing/practicing became much more productive and less frustrating because I wasn’t wasting time on mindless repetition without progress.

Hans Jensen: Yes, that is so important.

Joseph Silverstein: When I first went to Dounis, my previous teachers has drilled into me the approach of, “If you play a passage enough times slowly, it will get better.” But, I found it often didn’t. He really opened my eyes to how ineffective and inefficient mindless repetition is. And so, after those couple of lessons I had with him, my practicing became much more productive.

Hans Jensen:: I hope the students reading this interview will take notice and follow that advise!

Hans Jensen: What are some of the important aspect of playing in an orchestra

Joseph Silverstein: Well, when you’re playing in orchestra, it can be a very entertaining and inspiring experience when you’re listening to the entirety of the music. After all, when you play a Beethoven symphony, it’s interesting to listen to and get to know the wind parts, as well as to admire and enjoy the playing of your colleagues. I played in orchestras for many years, and I always enjoyed it because even if the conductor wasn’t always interesting, I always loved the music. I always loved getting to know the music better during the course of the rehearsals.

Hans Jensen: Any advice for orchestral auditions?

Joseph Silverstein: I practice my scales every day, and I can tell you that people do not practice dynamics and rhythm enough at home. Those are two of the most obvious areas of grading in auditions for orchestra jobs because the people who are listening in many cases are wind players… and they’re not so interested in how you play the first two pages of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. They’re much more interested in your rhythm and your dynamics when you play orchestral passages. So I feel that when you practice a scale without a plan for rhythm and dynamics, you’re not really using that scale in a productive way.

Hans Jensen: That’s very valuable advice because a lot of time is wasted just going through a daily technique routine without changing anything. Students often keep doing the same thing over and over, and developing the appropriate dynamics and rhythm in scales is very important. I will incorporate that even more into my teaching.

Joseph Silverstein: Yes, because technically it’s hard! [Laughs]

Joseph Silverstein: The technique of playing the dynamics in a Beethoven string quartet is very challenging for the bow. To be able to play a good fortepiano or a good sforzando in piano… or to make a crescendo to a subito piano… these things are technically difficult, and we don’t practice them. Then when we arrive at playing a string quartet we don’t have the technique; we don’t have the tools to follow the composer’s intentions.

Hans Jensen: That’s true. That would be a great idea to put all these various dynamics actually into the scales.

Joseph Silverstein: That’s what I do. I put it in the scales.

Hans Jensen: I understand that you started out as a section player before becoming concertmaster? I often recommend to players with principal ambitions to first play in the section to get that experience so that they really are ready and have the knowledge needed when they become principal. Do you agree with that?

Joseph Silverstein: Well, I played in the second violin section when I first went to the Boston Symphony, and I learned a great deal sitting back there because many times it was hard to hear the rest of the orchestra. I had to work very hard to hear the rest of the orchestra. This helped me to get a much better conception of how the music really went together, and I learned much more about the music.

Hans Jensen: Playing so much music must also have helped to shape you as a conductor. You have probably learned the good and the bad from having worked with so many conductors over the years. Is there anything about the conductors you have worked with that stands out in your memory which you can share with us?

Joseph Silverstein: The way I used to measure the conductors was by how well I played in the concert. There were some conductors that I came off the stage and I felt, “I played very well tonight,” and I knew that conductor had a good effect on my playing. When I started to conduct I tried to do some of the things that they did which I think helped me to play well.

Hans Jensen: I see.

Joseph Silverstein: For example, one conductor with whom I always felt after the concert that I’d played well was Eugene Ormandy. I think that was because Ormandy was a string player himself and he really conducted the strings extremely well. Whenever I played a concert with him, I came off the stage afterwards and I could always say to myself, “I enjoyed playing tonight because I felt I played my best.” There were some conductors who were very positive in that way.

Joseph Silverstein: Among the older conductors: Sir John Barbirolli was wonderful. He was a cellist and had a wonderful way of using the baton that made you feel as though your bow was very long. I loved playing with him. I also enjoyed playing with Stokowski, and I discovered that he was very helpful for our playing in the orchestra, we used to play very well with him.

Joseph Silverstein: Among the younger conductors: Claudio Abbado, Sir Colin Davis, and Daniel Barenboim were all terrific. Honestly, there are so many conductors that if I start to say names I’m certainly going to leave somebody out.

Hans Jensen: The other day at lunch you were talking about a new book by Stanley Ritchie and how you were impressed with a lot of the ideas in the book. I have read his book: Before the Chinrest was that the book you were referring to?

Joseph Silverstein: The Ritchie book? Yes, it’s very good!

Joseph Silverstein: We have to remember that authors talk about original instruments, and they talk about gut strings and the different types of bows that they use. However, they usually leave out the one of the most important developments for violin and viola: the chinrest.

Hans Jensen: Yes.

Joseph Silverstein: It made a big difference… HUGE difference… because all of a sudden it was possible to change position without being afraid you would drop the violin. I think that Spohr was the first one who used the chinrest a great deal. I can’t imagine Paganini playing some of these virtuosic things without a chinrest and playing with a gut E string. I mean, just how he was able to do that?

Hans Jensen: You have such an incredible breadth and depth of knowledge and are always looking to expand it with new concepts and ideas. That is something to really admire.

Hans Jensen: How do you compare string playing today with the string playing of the past?

Joseph Silverstein: You know, I think that the technical accomplishments of the younger generation are phenomenal, the physical command they have of their instrument. What bothers me sometimes is that I don’t think they are as interested in the beauty of tone and individual style as players were in the past.

Hans Jensen: Yes, I can see that.

Joseph Silverstein: When you listen to the recordings that I love so much of people like Heifetz, Kreisler, Szigeti, and other great artists, you can immediately identify their playing because of the individual quality of their tone. I don’t know that the young people today are as interested in that quality as we always were, and frankly I don’t think they listen to these recordings enough. I think they should listen more.

Hans Jensen: I agree. That’s amazing because now, especially with YouTube, anything is available from the past… even video movies. It’s fantastic!

Joseph Silverstein: Yes. They can hear everything yet often they don’t bother to hear it. They really should use their computers for something other than games! [Laughs]

Hans Jensen: I agree with that.

Joseph Silverstein: I enjoy and I listen to stuff on YouTube all the time. I love to hear it because to me it’s inspiring to hear great playing. So when I can hear people like Hilary Hahn and Frank Peter Zimmermann all the time, it’s great for me. I love it, and I wish that my students would listen more as I do.

Hans Jensen: So do you try to encourage your students at Curtis to listen more? Do they, or are they always always too busy?

Joseph Silverstein: Yes my students do listen a lot. I’m happy to say that because I suggest this to them and they do listen a great deal.

Hans Jensen: In your career, do you have a funny incident or a funny story in your past, from a concert or a rehearsal? [Laughs] I always like to hear about a humorous event.

Joseph Silverstein: Well, I think one of the funniest things was at one point when the intonation in the winds wasn’t very good and the conductor – I won’t say who it was – stopped and said to the first oboe, “Would you please give us an A?” And the oboe gave an A which was quite low, and he said to the oboe, “When you reach 438, sell.”

Hans Jensen: [Laughs] that’s a good one.

Joseph Silverstein: So that was one of the funnier moments.

Hans Jensen: Yes I can imagine that.

Joseph Silverstein: The oboe player was not amused.

Hans Jensen: No, I’m sure.

Joseph Silverstein: He was not happy with that because he was complaining that everybody was playing too high, but when the conductor said that the orchestra of course was laughing. I mean, we couldn’t stop laughing for a long time.

Joseph Silverstein: It was a very funny moment.

Hans Jensen: Thank you so much for doing this interview. Again, I want to thank you on behalf of all the students and faculty members at Meadowmount for all the wonderful time you have spent with us and the students over the many years.

Joseph Silverstein: I find that the atmosphere at Meadowmount is wonderful. The students are very supportive and kind to one another. I’m glad to have the opportunity to be there. It’s always a great pleasure for me.

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