Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Violinist, Jaap Schröder at Juilliard

It would seem that, finally, there are cracks in the wall "protecting" Juilliard students from learning about historical instruments and the performance practice of our canonical composers. Last night as part of Jane Gottlieb's doctoral lectures series, Jaap Schröder spoke for just over an hour in Juilliard's Morse Hall describing his nearly half-century exploration of period instruments and historical performance styles.

Those of us who admire Jaap and have followed his career, were familiar with his themes, but I think his ideas may have been quite revolutionary to the Juilliard students. Jaap, however, is utterly persuasive, his curiosity, enthusiasm, and dedication winning instant converts.

He began with a discussion of bows, gut strings, and violins set up for Baroque music, explaining that the historically correct instruments will teach you how to play them. They will show you what they need and what the music needs. Producing a fore-shortened Baroque bow, he wondered whether we would thought it possible to play the Bach solo sonatas with it. "It's what they used, back then, and I have learned to do it," he answered. "Think of the opening chord of the G-Minor Sonata. You must use a very slow bow and start the arpeggio on the beat. It makes an intense sound, not what we now think of as intense, but a Baroque intensity." His demonstration left no question.

Clarity of sound, natural instrumental resonance, pure intonation, and a rhetoric that fits the text (the printed score) led Jaap through a lifetime of exploration, from the Baroque through Pre-Classical, Classical, and now 19th-Century Music. With his new Icelandic String Quartet, his sights are set on Brahms, and especially the Bruckner Quintet.

He played recorded examples from his extensive discography during the second half of his talk. At one point, Jaap played a Schubert recording by a very famous modern string quartet to show contrasting stylistic approaches to the same piece. He was respectful of the work of these modern players, but in the context of performances we'd been listening to, their performance sounded distorted with vibrato, muddy in texture, and utterly the wrong sound for the music. It was as if they wore stage make-up to a dinner party. When Jaap played his own recording of the same work, the music spoke clearly, with intimate power and persuasion.

The Juilliard students' questions demonstrated how removed this kind of thinking is from their current training. "Is it OK to play the harpsichord in early Haydn?" Yes, it is. "Can we improvise and ornament in Mozart?" Yes, you may. "I notice in your recording of the Schubert 'Trout' quintet, there are not the usual balance problems between piano and strings. Is that because of the instruments you use?" In fact, using the correct instruments allows the music to speak in its most natural way. This last questioner had a follow-up question. Since there were no historical keyboards at Juilliard, how could a pianist learn to listen well enough to correct balance problems when playing on modern instruments, he wondered. "I think all pianists should regularly perform with singers," was Jaap's answer, "Listen to the text, learn to express the meaning of the words, learn to breath. I think that would be most helpful to you."

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