SarasateThe Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908) was a great virtuoso performer and a prolific composer of the morceau de genre, or character piece. Born in Pamplona Spain, he began to study the violin with his bandmaster father at age 5 and made such progress that age 17 he won the Premier Prix at the Paris Conservatoire and began touring internationally. His violin playing featured an easy virtuosity with a pure sound quality, and he was likely at his best in the Spanish-flavored music that, perhaps largely thanks to him, came into vogue in the second half of the 19th century: among this is Bizet’s opera Carmen, Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole and Saint-Saen’s Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, the latter two composed for him.  He was among the first violinists to be recorded (around 1904); the playwright and music critic George Bernard Shaw declared that though there were many composers of music for the violin, there were but few composers of violin music, and that Sarasate’s abilities “left criticism gasping miles behind him.”  Although we might think of him as a Romantic, in reality Sarasate was a composer of world music by bringing the Spanish and Gypsy cultures into the classical violin literature and beyond.

I am preparing to perform, on January 4, 2015 with the San José Chamber Orchestra, three works by Pablo de Sarasate that I have arranged for solo violin and string orchestra: his Caprice Basque, Romanza Andaluza and Zigeunerweisen.  It feels very fitting. San José was founded on November 29, 1777, as El Pueblo de San José de Guadalupe, and was the first civilian town in the Spanish colony of Nueva California, serving to support Spanish military installations San Francisco and Monterey.  It was also the first state capitol of California.

Sarasate’s music places great demands on both the left and right hand techniques of a violinist that include runs and arpeggios across four octaves at breakneck speed, double and triple stops, passages in harmonics, spiccato, staccato and the ability to make many composed passages sound improvised.  He and I have been on pretty good terms for a long time – at least from my point of view.  I first played these pieces before I was in my mid-teens and they continue to grow on me, along with a lot of other music either composed by or associated with him. Several years ago I proposed this trio of works as an arrangement for The American String Project, a conductorless string orchestra based in Seattle, and was gratified that not only did they play these in concert (later released on MSR Classics) but also had me lead.

When given a choice of repertoire to propose for this upcoming concert celebrating the New Year, his music seemed like a no-brainer, even though I had to re-arrange the Caprice Basque and Romanza Andaluza (originally for violin and piano) and revise the Zigeunerweisen to remove and rewrite the winds and horn parts.

Caprice Basque was dedicated to the composer, conductor and pianist Otto Goldschmidt, a pupil of Mendelssohn, and is influenced by the typically dotted rhythm of the ‘zortzico’, a Basque dance in 5/8 meter. Extremely bravura in manner, its second section features a series of variations using different techniques that include playing a melody while plucking out the accompaniment and a variation entirely in harmonics.

Romanza Andaluza (from his Spanish Dances, Opus 22) is at first easygoing, as the violin spins out a cantabile (singing) line over a Spanish rhythm; however, this gives way to an intensely emotional mood that is interspersed with a sentimental reflection, finally resolving in a gentle manner.  Of the three works, this is the one I have altered the most in that I have created an orchestral countermelody in the middle section.

Zigeunerweisen (“Gypsy Airs”) is – no doubt – the best known of these works, and perhaps of all the music that Sarasate composed. The violin part is fully written out but is meant to sound improvised in sections and to be played soulfully and freely, in the manner of the gypsy virtuoso.

Although an abbreviated version of Sarasate playing Zigeunerweisen is available on YouTube, I have – thanks to the marvels of the internet – discovered a recording of the amazing Hungarian violinist Béla Babai (1914-1997), who emigrated to the US and led a gypsy band in a Chicago restaurant, where my mother heard him (while she was a student at the American Conservatory) and was enthralled by his expressiveness and easy virtuosity. He  moved to New York where, many years later, I heard him and was inspired by his astonishing playing – and I will be thinking of him also as I play in San José.

On January 4, 2015 at 7 pm, Stephanie will appear as guest soloist with the San José Chamber Orchestra conducted by Barbara Day Turner. Advance tickets are available and include a post-concert reception. The concert will take place at the Petit Trianon Theatre, 72 N. 5th Street in  San José, CA.

Dear Governor,

As a concert violinist and the wife of the former musical instrument conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I am appealing to you to reconsider the draconian bill banning the trade of all kinds of ivory in the state of New Jersey.

ivoryHistorically, many musical instruments contain ivory parts, although those made in the United States in the past forty years or so have not used elephant ivory but, rather, cow bone or mammoth ivory, both of which were legal. However, violin bows from the 18th and 19th centuries and important keyboard instruments – such as pianos, harpsichords and organs – will have ivory fittings.  The bill as proposed could easily lead to either the needless disfiguration of these art objects or even their destruction.

Many of the greatest paintings, going back to the Renaissance, contain the pigment “ivory black,” which was made by charring ivory.  Will collectors of these paintings, who wish to sell them, be forced to scrape away ivory black areas in order to comply with this law? Will art museums’ holdings – such as those in New Jersey  – be devalued through this total ban?

Although the ban is on trade or “possession with intent to sell,” the temporary confiscation at JFK airport earlier this month of bows used by the Budapest Orchestra (even though the players were in compliance with current regulations) indicates that, above all, it is the perceived possession of the material for “commercial” use that is the prevailing force at hand.  The players were clearly not here to sell their bows, and yet they were treated as if they were criminals and not artists.  Some were forced to borrow bows for their concerts at Lincoln Center. (It is not easy for a customs official – or even a conservation scientist – to distinguish ivory from bone or even plastic without conducting sophisticated tests.)

With this mindset, the string players of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, for example, may be unable to use their best bows – or obliged, at the least, to remove the tiny ivory facing at the tip. Pianos, harpsichords and organs made with ivory keys will be unsellable without first vandalizing the instrument. (Many historic woodwind instruments are also made of ivory.)

ivoryInternationally traveling musicians – including those with the proper documentation as currently required elsewhere in the US – will not use Newark Airport, and they will likely avoid performing in the state.  Guest soloists will not wish to risk their instruments by performing in Newark with the NJSO – or elsewhere in New Jersey.

All of these will not save a single elephant, unfortunately.  The answer lies in greater punitive damages for the poachers, for those who are currently fabricating objects from ivory, and for customers of new objects made from ivory.  Although China is a notorious consumer of ivory, poaching there came to a virtual standstill when four poachers were executed in 1995.

By no means do musicians and art museums support the ivory trade, but these innocent objects should not be punished or devalued.  Therefore, I propose that the ivory ban contain exemptions for musical instruments and art objects that were made prior to the CITES ban of 1989.

Thank you very much for your attention and consideration.

Stephanie Chase

(If you wish to contact Governor Christie about this matter, here is a link)

Often, if I awaken in the middle of the night, I will turn on the television and hunt around for a movie; finding that many of them have something of a sedating result and put me right back to sleep.  The other night, however, I came across “Monster,” which is based on the true story of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, who was convicted of killing seven men and put to death by lethal injection in 2002.  It definitely did not have the soporific effect that I was seeking.


Chalize Theron as Aileen Wuornos

Born to a 16-year-old mother – who had already divorced her father – Wuornos was soon abandoned by her mother and went with her brother to live with their maternal grandparents.  By age eleven she was trading her body for cigarettes and drugs, and at 13 she gave birth to a baby, placed for adoption, that she claimed was the product of a rape.  She also claimed that her grandfather sexually abused her.  Following her grandmother’s death, at 15 she was thrown out on the street and began supporting herself through prostitution.  Hers was a very difficult life – and it would take an amazing actress to portray her faithfully.

That actress is clearly Charlize Theron. Now in her late 30’s, she grew up in South Africa as an only child and spoke English as a second language.  She, too, has known enormous tragedy: when she was 15 she witnessed her mother kill her father in self-defense, after he had fired a shotgun into their home and threatened to kill them both.  Although she is still scarred from this event, she has stated that “it’s a part of me, but it doesn’t rule my life.”

Charlize went on to study ballet and then relocated to Italy to do some modeling as a teenager before coming to the US to study with the Joffrey Ballet.  An injury to her knee ended her hopes of having a professional career as a dancer and she went to Hollywood with the intention of getting work in the movie industry.  In true Hollywood fashion, she was “discovered” after an agent witnessed her in a shouting match with an uncooperative bank teller.  She went on to get feature roles in films – some notable, some not – but what I first noticed her in was The Devil’s Advocate (1997).  The difficult transformation of her character from a good-time Georgia girl to the depressed, spooked wife of young defense attorney – who ultimately commits suicide – is compelling to watch, and her acting puts Keanu Reeves (and Al Pacino) to shame.

In interpreting music, my goal is to figure out how the music wants to be played rather than subjecting it to my whims.  This process is helped by having a variety of stylistic techniques and by knowing something about the composer and his or her “sound world” – and it often helps to know what circumstances the composer was in at the time of the music’s composition.  This is probably why, for instance, I find Robert Schumann’s music, with the exception of his piano quartet and quintet, very difficult to interpret.

Charlize Theron

Charlize Theron

It is also why I have enormous admiration for Charlize’s work in “Monster.”  As Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film,

“What Charlize Theron achieves in Patty Jenkins’ ‘Monster’ isn’t a performance but an embodiment. With courage, art and charity, she empathizes with Aileen Wuornos, a damaged woman who committed seven murders. She does not excuse the murders. She simply asks that we witness the woman’s final desperate attempt to be a better person than her fate intended.”

In viewing it again the other night, I was struck not only by her physical transformation but also the endless nuances of her acting, from her vocalization of Wuornos to the smallest gesture of her hand.  Without seeking pity, she delivers the pathos and humanity of her character, hidden in her history.  As Ebert also noted,

“Aileen’s body language is frightening and fascinating. She doesn’t know how to occupy her body. Watch Theron as she goes through a repertory of little arm straightenings and body adjustments and head tosses and hair touchings, as she nervously tries to shake out her nervousness and look at ease. Observe her smoking technique; she handles her cigarettes with the self-conscious bravado of a 13-year-old trying to impress a kid. And note that there is only one moment in the movie where she seems relaxed and at peace with herself; you will know the scene, and it will explain itself. This is one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema.”

From her total inhabitation of Wuornos’ persona, it is obvious to me that this was not a character that one could leave at the end of the day, and the entire process (which undoubtedly took many months) had to be emotionally grueling.  Yet Charlize is clearly a strong and resourceful person who knows herself very well – and it may this trait that enables her to achieve her remarkable depth of interpretation.

She is also admirable in other ways, stating that she has no plans to marry unless all couples are legally free to do so – yet she is capable of bantering away, using some rather naughty language, on late night television with Chelsea Handler.

In a time when so many actors and actresses are unable to hold a scene for more than a few seconds, when subtlety is one of the last characteristics found in popular culture (witness the reprehensible Kardashians), I hope that Charlize will continue to astonish her audiences with great roles.  Even more, I hope that she continues to lead her life just as she wishes.


The phrase “music of the spheres” refers to the intertwined relationship between the structures of music and those of the physical world, and a conscious awareness of mystical or spiritual qualities being transmitted through composed sound.

Logo for the Music of the Spheres SocietyAll music consists of a form of dualism, an aural yin and yang in which consonance is inextricably linked with its complementary force of dissonance; one does not meaningfully exist without the other. Dissonance provokes a form of tension – an unsettled relation in the notes of music – and is relieved by the consonance of resolution. We hear this whether we are listening to Bach, Mozart, Bartók or Applebaum, although the balance is often shifted towards dissonance in post-20th century music, perhaps in reflection of societal conflicts.

Pythagoras is credited with having discovered the physical relationship, expressible as ratios, between mass and sound. He is also credited with having invented the monochord, essentially a stretched gut string on a soundboard with moveable bridges, for testing harmonic properties and their rapport with numerical ratios. (We will hear a monochord in Edward Applebaum’s Dirt Music, which may be the first instance ever of its use in composed music; more recent instruments with basic similarities to the monochord would include the Japanese koto and the Chinese ch’in.)

The octave ratio of 1:2  means that a mass, such as a string of any material, will produce a frequency an octave above the pitch of its full length when it is reduced by one half. For example, the open ‘A’ string of the violin sounds that pitch at about 440 vibrations per second. When the string is “stopped” by the violinist’s finger so that only half of its original length is vibrating, it sounds an ‘A’ that is an octave higher and vibrating twice as quickly. Simply stated, to play this musical interval, one part of the string length out of two parts total (the ratio 1:2) is set into vibration. The ratio for the fifth is 2:3 (two parts out of three are vibrating) and that of the fourth is 3:4.

Pythagoras and his followers believed that a universal philosophy could be founded in numbers. They differentiated three types of music: the music of instruments, the music of the human body and soul, and the music of the spheres, which was the music of the cosmos. Geometric shapes and even orbiting motions could be linked to this philosophy – indeed, Pythagoras could arguably be the first proponent of “string theory” as a tool to understanding the universe – and the important symbol of the tetractys contains the numbers of the perfect musical intervals of an octave, a fifth and a fourth:


According to Pliny, Pythagoras devised a literal “music of the spheres” by using musical intervals to describe the distances between the moon and the known planets.  In his Timaeus, Plato took up the idea of a universal philosophy thorough numbers and their musical associations and devised a series that he termed the World Soul: 1, 2, 3, 9, 8, and 27. By using these as musical ratios (1:2, 2:3, 3:9, etc.) he created a series of musical notes that gave a default mathematical ratio for the half-step. By mathematical derivation, one can arrive at theoretical proportions for the non-Pythagorean intervals of seconds, thirds, sixths and sevenths. These intervals are inherently subjective and context-sensitive, however, and have led to epic battles over “desirable” tuning temperaments, in part due to the fact that fixed-pitch instruments like pianos have one pitch to represent at least two distinct notes.

One of these battles was between the lutenist and pedagogue Vincenzo Galilei and his teacher, Gioseffo Zarlino. A member of a neo-Platonic academy, where the ancient associations of music, science and philosophy were again united, Galilei’s use of practical experimentation in his scientific studies of tuning temperaments and their physical properties was influential on his son Galileo, whose own didactic techniques and observations from nature led to revolutionary discoveries in physics.

The great Johannes Kepler followed these leads in developing his laws of planetary motion, describing the relationships of planets and their orbits through numbers and ratios and using them to create geometric figures of two and three dimensions.  He also employed musical references and even desired to create a “symphony of the cosmos,” stating that “the movements of the heavens are nothing except a certain everlasting polyphony.”  Sir Isaac Newton was likewise inspired by the cosmic music of the ancients, as set forth in Proposition VIII of his Principia.

The notion of the “music of the spheres” continues today through studies of cosmic background radiation and “string theory,” among many other applications, and composers have often been directly or indirectly inspired by its concepts:  Density 21.5 by Varèse combines an ancient instrument type with a radical view of the ratios of music and an inspiration from the earth itself: the gravitational weight of platinum, the metal used to build the flute that first played this work. Mozart’s frequent musical allusions to Masonic symbolism continue this notion, and Lou Harrison used the sounds of our world’s music – through time and space – to create memorably beautiful and compelling sounds in new combinations. Beethoven’s “music of the spheres” derives from a Romantic appreciation of the oneness of nature with the interior music of the soul, and Edward Applebaum’s Dirt Music was inspired by a love story (by Tim Winton) and the jazz idiom, with a nod to the architectural proportions of a Stradivarius violin transformed into music. Josef Strauss was also moved to write the “Music of the Spheres” Waltz, which links many lovely dances after a celestial introduction.

(Notes by Stephanie Chase from a chamber music program presented by the Music of the Spheres Society at Merkin Concert Hall in New York, October 2005.)

I have just returned from a chamber music concert at the Tempe Center for the Arts in Arizona, where it was my great pleasure to collaborate with the fabulously elegant pianist Doris Stevenson and the terrific cellist (and artistic director of the Sonoran Chamber Music series) Thomas Landschoot, in music by Beethoven and Ravel.

Following the concert I spent an extra day visiting with old friends and we decided to check out the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, which bills itself as the “most extraordinary museum you will ever hear” and opened in May of 2010.

The building itself is very attractive and the entrance desk uses corporate terminology – museumgoers are “guests” and staff are “team members” – which is not surprising in view of the fact that the former CEO of one of America’s superstores, Target, is the visionary (and, one suspects, much of the budget) behind this creation.  The museum’s goal is to present the musical instruments of all of the world’s cultures, and among its advisors are people like J. Kenneth Moore, Margaret Downey Banks and Darcy Kuronen, all of whom are or have been curators of major American musical instrument collections.

After a promising start in the cafe, the collection itself was something of a let-down, with inartful displays and a rather appalling number of instruments that were made in the late 20th century forward – with many post-2008, which were clearly commissioned by the museum itself.  That these instruments are new is not the problem, but the perception that they were made with the priority of filling empty galleries is; when this is the priority then things like authenticity and quality of craftsmanship are likely less important, and the chances of their having been actually played (and vetted) by musicians are marginal.  Labels do not give any information beyond the most basic – place and period made, and sometimes the name of the maker – without informing the reader of materials used or any historic context.  Screens placed throughout feature very brief video and audio bites of some of the instruments in use; sometimes the performers and works are identified and often they are not.

Some of the best displays – in terms of a didactic, educational experience – are by the museum’s sponsors, whose logos are prominently displayed near the entry.  One can see a dissected Steinway piano, a Martin guitar workshop, and soon to come is the D’Addario string manufacturer’s display.

If you want to see one of Elvis’ suits or drums used by Andy Summers (of the Police) or artifacts used by dozens of other pop or country musicians, many of whom were unknown to me, then this is the place – although some people might find the inclusion of the Jonas Brothers a bit mystifying.  Each has his (and I don’t recall a single woman displayed, although Dolly Parton must be in there somewhere) little section of wall with a musical instrument propped up, a couple of other artifacts, and a brief video of the perfomer in action.

Of course I paid attention to the violins on display, and one of the heartwarming aspects is that, like the harp and bagpipe, the violin has a strong presence in a large number of cultures, often in both folk and art music, although clearly less in the African and Australian continents than in Europe, Asia and the Americas.  I was not necessarily expecting to see any especially fine violins on display, but I was surprised by the curatorial carelessness.  There is no evident definition of “violin” versus “fiddle,” no hint that perhaps the violin is the more artful form (although classical violinists and dealers will sometimes call them “fiddles,” but this is deliberately casual), or that the kinds of wood used, skills involved and acoustical treatment is different in a violin made by the Mirecourt school and that found in, say, Peru.  Among the “Argentinian” instruments on display is a violin made in Saxony, with no explanation of why it would be found in Argentina (presumably brought there by an immigrant?)

What surprised me the most was to find probably the best-made violin in the collection, from the Mirecourt school, in a Cajun/Zydeco display, where it is called a “fiddle” and displayed next to a pair of spoons.  Violins made by the Mirecourt school could rightfully be called mass-produced, but they were made by skilled craftmen using good-quality materials and excellent models, such as instruments by Antonio Stradivari, which are still among the finest ever created.

A violin made in 1717 by Antonio Stradivari

Most of today’s violinmakers are copyists and not originators; it is galling when they claim that their instruments are “as good or better” than the best by Stradivari or the Guarneri family, as without these master craftsmen we would have few fine violins.  This process of copying is like taking a great painting by Rembrandt and turning it into a “paint-by-numbers” version.  The result may be pleasing and even “artful,” but it is still an imitation and not the same level of brilliance and creativity, by far.  (Imagine if I decided to play just like Jascha Heifetz and studied all of his recordings and replicated his bowings, fingerings and interpretation.  I might sound quite good – but would still be merely an imitator owing it all to his originality, just like those “Elvises” in Las Vegas.)

There are a few interesting and good examples of the evidently-reviled “Western” instruments, including a glass harmonica, some orchestrions (precursers to the jukebox), and a recording piano for making piano rolls.  I also had fun trying to play the “Meditation” from the opera Thais on a theremin in the Experience Gallery, surrounded by children (and some adults) banging away on percussion instruments.  A harpsichord in the “American” gallery appears, from the label copy, to have been made by the American maker John Challis (with whom my husband apprenticed) – but is actually an instrument, perhaps centuries old, that he revised in 1966 and probably of European origin.  It is displayed adjacent to an exhibit on “Canadian Fiddle Traditions.”

The “Israel” section consists of perhaps five items that include an oud made in Egypt (why?) and a couple of shofars, with a seconds-long video clip of Pinchas Zukerman playing Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Israel Philharmonic.  Go figure.  It also seems that the professionals at the Musical Instrument Museum think that Klezmer music is an entirely American musical idiom, without origins and continuing traditions in Eastern Europe.

After encountering scores of instruments made in 2008 and more recently, it was a relief to encounter a full gamelan with some slight wear indicating that it actually has been used by musicians.

The instrument conservator(s) are a main attraction as well; like the chimpanzees in the zoo they are behind a glass partition for the public to gawk at, surrounded by more video screens and instructional signs about insects that like to eat musical instruments.

Arizonans are proud of their new museum – rightfully to a certain extent – but its deficiencies are disturbing to me and I returned home last night wanting to know more about the people and ideas behind this venture.  A quotation from European curator Christina Linsenmeyer seems to say it all:

We don’t feel we need a Stradivarius (violin). If someone offered it, we’d be happy, of course, But I’d have no problem showing a Strad alongside a mirliton (kazoo), with the wax paper and string. Both are the same type of tool; one is not better than the other, and the fact is, kids will probably get more out of the mirliton than the Strad.

A mirliton (kazoo) made from animal bone.

I understand the desire of a museum to be politically correct and not presume that the white anglo-saxon culture is superior to others in music or any other art form.  But when the everything-is-equal mentality is combined with an indifference to detail, what could be an excellent educational opportunity is squandered.

I also understand the desire to appeal to children, but Dr. Seuss is not Shakespeare and a kazoo and its music is not the cultural equivalent of a great violin and its repertoire.

I am currently in a two-week long residency at a young artist’s program in the Midwest, coaching twelve students in a variety of sonatas for violin and piano by Mozart.  The participants are between the ages of ten and about seventeen, and I worked with quite a few of them last summer.  Each has been assigned a sonata and, out of the lot, only a couple have duplicate assignments so I am hearing ten different sonatas.

It has been something of a revelation. Although I have played a number of these works over the years, hearing them in such close proximity reminds me of Mozart’s absolute genius, on a multitude of levels.

In some of the Sonatas the violin and piano are equally prominent, in others the violin plays more of an accompanimental role, often playing the equivalent of a bassoon part if the work were orchestrated. The variety of moods (or affects) of these works is remarkable; the first movement of the Sonata (KV 293b) in E-flat Major has a grand nobility followed by a Rondo that is incredibly warm and intimately songful.  One of my favorite aspects of this particular Sonata occurs shortly after its opening, which features a crescendo that is extremely reminiscent – along with the key signature – of the Sinfonia Concertante composed in 1779. Sure enough, we see that this work was composed in Mannheim in February of the previous year, a time when the local orchestra was renowned for its “crescendo.”

Another work from that same period is the Sonata in A Major, KV 293a, which brings back an amazing memory from when I was eighteen and moved to Belgium to study with Arthur Grumiaux.  My studies with him began at a two-week summer master class program in Namur, so I had just arrived in a foreign country and was away from everything that was familiar.  This move had also led to quite a rift – not only with my previous violin teacher but also my mother – so I really felt alone, there was no financial support, and I had to count every franc in order to stave off financial trouble as long as possible. My private lessons were going to cost the then-equivalent of about $150 each (maybe $350 in current dollars?), so I had to scrimp severely. The whole stituation led me to feel quite anxious.

I was sitting in the darkened recital hall where the master class took place, along with perhaps six other students, when it came time for Janet Haugland to play. She had already been working with the Maitre for an extended period and was going to play this sonata. Grumiaux said something to the pianist for the class, who then left the stage, and sat down at the piano to play. His delight in playing this work was palpable – and he was a truly marvelous pianist. The beautiful music and his pianism left me feeling amazed, nearly giddy, and probably a bit jealous as I didn’t know yet how he was going to respond to me.

The second movement of this sonata is a lovely Theme and Variations with a tempo of Andante grazioso. Even its begining is extremely special, as Mozart indicates an upbeat trill but specifies a starting appogiatura that is the same pitch as the principal note of the trill – something that an interpretor probably wouldn’t do otherwise – and the effect is magical. The rest of the movement is no less special, with each variation providing its own affect (including one in A minor that reminds me of a villain tiptoeing around in a comical way!)

I am also coaching the Sonata in G Major, KV 293a, whose heartfelt simplicity demands the utmost purity in phrasing and expression as there is little that is overtly “virtuosic” in the writing.

Two students are studying the Sonata in E Minor, KV 304. Of all of his violin sonatas, this is perhaps the most difficult to bring off in public performance as it reflects the sadness, nostalgia, and anger that Mozart felt shortly following his mother’s death in 1778. The second movement is a wistful Minuet that is characterized by amazingly delicate but profound shifts of mood, none more so than the relatively brief section in E Major in which he indicates, for both players, an expressive portato sound.  Out of all of his compositions, Mozart apparently used this key signature only one other time and his use of minor keys throughout these Sonatas is sparing.

Because the Sonatas were composed while the fortepiano’s sustaining pedal was still being perfected, Mozart generally wrote dynamics that are terraced – in the manner of music for harpsichord – although there are some indications of crescendi, decrescendi and even the occasional “mezzoforte.”  One of the Sonatas is almost devoid of dynamic indicators. I have been encouraging the students to be consistently aware of the level of rhythmic activity in both their parts and that of the piano, as that is one of the best ways to figure out a dynamic scheme that is appropriate to the music and gesture; i.e., if the music is brilliant, then the dynamic level is higher.

Another factor in playing these works is that of articulation.  The demands placed on the violinist’s left hand are not simple in Mozart’s music, especially in purity of intonation and use of vibrato, but those placed on the bowing are much more sophisticated and require a large “vocabulary” of articulation, applied with great finesse. A series of notes that are under a legato line should contrast markedly with separate notes; in the Allegro movements the bow speed often should be the quickest at the very start of a note, in order to balance well with the pianist’s articulation and energy – otherwise the violinist can sound somewhat lazy and unrhythmic.

Unfortunately. even the Urtext editions by Henle and Barenreiter often overlook an important articulation: the stroke, which is sometimes called the carrot, wedge, or keil.  The editors of a number of “Urtext” works apparently have arrived at the mistaken belief that a stroke is really a staccato dot; however, one can see in autographs – such as those of Mozart’s Violin Concerti and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto – that there is a distinction in notation between the dot and stroke.

Having studied many contexts in which I know, reliably, that an articulation mark is indeed a stroke, I have come to the conclusion that a stroke indicates a note that has both melodic and rhythmic significance.  It may be in the part of a meter that normally would be lighter, such as an offbeat or the third beat in a three-based meter, and is the composer’s sign that the note carries an important role. Rarely should it be played with harshness, as is (unfortunately) often the case.  The same is true of the FP (fortepiano) marking, which indicates a sound that begins strongly and ends weakly and may modify a note or phrase of several beats rather than an abrupt accent at the start of a note.

One of the best pieces of advice I have seen regarding Mozart’s ornaments is found in Frederick Neumann’s book “Ornamentation and Improvisation in Mozart.” He gives many examples of suggested realizations of different kinds of grace notes, turns and trills, but ultimately tells the interpreter to use her ear.  If the principal note is enhanced and sounds more graceful, the execution is successful!

Mozart is also a master of the unexpected, whether in insistently (and, often, comically) repeating a part of a cadence or by having us play forte and moving on to new material when the ear is expecting an ending cadence in piano.  Often, both the violinists and pianists gloss over the cadence’s end-note and hurry into the unexpected part, and I remind them (and myself) that it is important to stay “in the moment” and complete the cadence as if there is no surprise coming up, in order not to give it away.

Finally, I try to impart the idea that silence is as meaningful as sound: whether it occurs as rests in the midst of a passge or at the end of the composition, the silence is always to be acknowledged.

One of the pianists and I briefly talked about the fact that some of the Sonatas have but two movements while others have three, and we agreed that Mozart knew when to stop; that he had already achieved perfection in the balance of two movements.  In the process of working with the students here, I feel that my own interpretations have been enhanced and look forward to my own future experiences with this music, the delights and insights of which remain timeless.

Originally posted on June 28, 2009.  Visit my website at www.stephaniechase.com.

(This post was originally published on September 12, 2009)

Yesterday marked the eighth anniversary of a horrific day in the United States and, I would imagine, well beyond our borders.  Memories and emotions from September 11, 2001 streamed back – shock, helplessness, great fear, and an enormous numbing grief for those killed a mere few miles from my home.

It began as a gloriously beautiful late summer day, with cloudless skies and a perfect temperature.  Gradually, like countless others in Manhattan, I became aware of the sound of sirens filling the air and southbound traffic at a standstill. Throughout the city and the nation, we watched the televised news coverage with growing horror. The moment an aircraft hit the second tower, adjacent to the burning hell of the first, we collectively realized that this was no accident. Throughout New York, local firehouses sent their companies out with sirens screaming.  In many cases, including the fire stations in my neighborhood, not a single firefighter returned alive.

Very oddly, I was virtually across the street from the World Trade Center the previous morning, Monday, on an errand.  On Wednesday the stench of death reached my neighborhood: an acrid combination of smoke, melted plastics, paper, furniture and other countless materials that had been part of the World Trade Center, and over 2700 incinerated humans. Life had changed, indelibly.  Both of my parents had recently passed away, my mother in February 2000 and my father in June 2001, but this deadening sorrow that I now felt well exceeded what I had experienced even at their deaths.

Ironically, invitations for performances came streaming in; partly because other artists were unable to travel.  Flights were nonexistent, trains were virtually not running, and all of the local rental car companies had run out of available cars.  A car service from Cape Cod was provided to take me up there – the same day I learned about the invitation – where I replaced Shlomo Mintz (who was stuck in Israel) as soloist in the Brahms Violin Concerto. I recall walking around Hyannis, still feeling stunned, and I cried as the orchestra played the “Star Spangled Banner” as I waited backstage to perform.  The Metropolitan Museum asked me to play several concerts of solo Bach in its Medieval Court, to help soothe patrons who were understandably feeling skittish about being in any public venue in Manhattan.

A couple of weeks later, a friend called me and asked if I would be willing to play some quiet music for the rescue and recovery workers as they took their breaks in St. Paul’s Chapel.  This chapel is an extraordinary place. Just a matter of yards away from the World Trade Center, its graveyard filled with debris from the collapsed towers yet the chapel itself was nearly undamaged.  George Washington had worshipped there and his pew has a special place on the sanctuary’s northern side.   I took the subway down with my violin – circuitously, because the direct line had suffered enormous damage and was closed – and walked over several blocks.  As I got closer, streets were cordoned off and crowds, including tourists, were milling about, and the horrible smell increased. The trading center on Wall Street was draped in an enormous American flag and the streets were remarkably cleaned up of the debris, although it was clear that something catastrophic had occurred. The iron gates outside the church itself were covered in tributes and drawings by children, like a shrine, and in order to reach it I had to cross a barrier manned by the National Guard and local police.  Because the church was being used as a sanctuary for the Ground Zero workers, it was off limits to the public.   Inside was an extraordinary array of items: work boots neatly lined up, foot salves, socks, face masks, throat lozenges, sandwiches, snacks, and bottled water. Sleeping rolls and neatly folded donated comforters lined a number of the pews, and here and there a worker was stretched out resting.  Several people were offering grief counseling to the recovery workers. (Although they were first called “rescue and recovery” workers, the term “rescue” had recently been removed as it became clear that there was no living souls left to rescue from the debris.)  There were cots near George Washington’s pew, which was being used as a foot treatment center.

Working on the pile of rubble that had been the World Trade Center was extremely debilitating in every way.  The debris burned for weeks afterwards and was hot even at the surface – hence the foot treatment center – and the air was laden with toxins even inside the sanctuary.  The emotional consequences of encountering the human bodies and body parts must have been nightmarish, but the remains were carefully dug out for months afterward and always removed from the site with great gentleness.   I was led to the front of the sanctuary, took out my violin, and began to play Bach.  The sound resonated through the church and I recall hoping that it wasn’t disturbing the individuals who were trying to rest.  I played the Adagio and Siciliana from the G minor sonata, the Sarabande from the D Minor partita, the Adagio from the C Major sonata, the Loure from the E Major partita. What felt best was the Andante from the A minor sonata; soothing, comforting, with an acknowledgement of tension in its middle section but ultimately ending in a calming and peaceful manner. Of all these beautiful movements, it was – and remains – the most consoling.   After about an hour the church’s music director played some music on the piano and I walked around the sanctuary, settling down for a few minutes in a pew. Taped to the backs of the pews were dozens of drawings and encouraging words written by schoolchildren. Many of them praised the workers and featured a patriotic theme but one that seared itself into my mind – where it will always remain – showed the two towers themselves under attack, with anthropomorphic faces showing terror and arms hugging each other.

I was asked to return the next day, which was my birthday, and there was no other place I wanted to be.  This time I was more careful about my selections, wanting to play music that was soothing and not revealing the grief that we all felt, but the day itself was even more challenging.  At first, workers came in for breaks from their labors, including several dogs wearing special heat-resistant boots on their paws.  Then the bodies of five firefighters were discovered in what had been a stairwell and I witnessed a number of visibly disturbed workers coming into the sanctuary, guided by a church volunteer, where they lit candles in front of where I played and were counseled.  As I left about an hour later, I walked back towards the subway and briefly turned to face west, where I saw the collapsed towers for the first time. It was an overwhelming sight. Seeing my response, an official came over to comfort me, asking if I wanted to speak with a counselor, which I appreciatively declined.

On November 1, 2001, the newly-formed Music of the Spheres Society gave its first concert. We donated all of the proceeds to two neighborhood firehouses that had suffered devastating losses, to be distributed among the families of the dead firefighters. It felt like the least we could do.   Recently, at a post-concert “meet the artists,” audience members were encouraged to ask us questions, one of which was simple but ineffable: What does it feel like to play this music? This is nearly unanswerable but I have resolved to try, through these postings.  All I can conclude with, now, is that I hope it never again feels like it did eight years ago.

Visit my website at www.stephaniechase.com.