Sunday, September 25, 2011

Questions for Violinist and Pedagogue, Endre Gránát

Endre Gránát, former Assistant Concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra, Concertmaster of the Goteborg Symphony, Laureate of the Queen Elisabeth International Competition and recipient of the Ysaye Medal, was the premier concertmaster who enabled me to work as a violinist in the Hollywood Film Industry during the 80's, when I was a twenty-something- year-old. It was tough (as in competitive) those days; I had only studied the classical music repertoire and was admittedly wet behind the ears for commercial gigs. Nobody else was willing to hire me for studio sessions; a newcomer might be a risk, but Endre took a chance, believed in my playing, and put me down on his coveted list of first violins.

After viewing this brilliant clip of Endre Gránát performing the Ysaÿe Ballade, I had an impulse to contact him. It's been, perhaps, almost thirty years. Sensing the winds of change in our business, with less and less jobs available, I wondered if Endre had advice for young musicians today, or thoughts about the the shifting work scene. Endre Gránát has been professor of violin at the Royal Conservatory in Goteborg, Sweden, Cleveland Institute of Music, University of Illinois, California State University, Northridge, and the University of Southern California. His most recent project and passion, however, has been the editing of concerti by Wieniawski and Mendelssohn with the inclusion of analytical studies and exercises by Otakar Ševčík.

Endre, what's your take on the business? What is the outlook for classical music? 
We need to acknowledge the trend. I'll offer you a parallel. Bookstores. Every bookstore is in trouble, yet people are reading more than ever. Businesses need to come up with new formulas. This is a fact. If audiences don't buy your product, you change the product. Take Los Angeles Philharmonic, for example. There was a time you couldn't fill the hall; you'd look around and find rows and rows of empty seats. And now? The place (Disney Hall) is packed. The orchestra can feature an all Webern concert; doesn't matter, everything sells out; LAPO has a new home and a star on the podium.

What about graduating music students with enormous loans to pay off. How can one secure a job in this economy?
First of all, nobody has a birthright to obtain a job. The main criteria for a musician nowadays might be to fit in; to blend. Of course, it helps to be reliable. In other words, show up and shut up.

That sounds familiar. Contractors used to tell us: You're being paid for your time, not your talent. As you look back over many years in the profession, has the playing style changed?
Enormously. If you selected any one of the great violinists from about 1904 through 1965, and had any one of them audition for a position in an orchestra, they'd be laughed off the stage today. They've been replaced by what I call the New York Squeezers. It's a different sound and style. Totally.

I know what you mean. That's depressing. Why would anyone wish to pursue music as a career?
You don't choose music; music chooses you.

Do years of music study pay back?
In my opinion, music belongs to the things that everyone should study, in school, for instance, you might learn tennis or football. Why not the violin? It adds a dimension to life. Without music, one is impoverished. For instance, watch non-professionals play, and you'll see they're in Heaven. My goodness, what can beat playing chamber music with your buddies and enjoying a bottle of wine?

You've got a point there.
Are you writing my obituary?

No, Endre. Not yet. Can you tell me how the recording scene in Hollywood has changed?
When you worked in the studios, Hollywood musicians could keep their fingers in classical music by playing for regional or community orchestras: Glendale, Santa Monica, Pasadena, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, etc. Concerts and dress rehearsals would take place on weekends, and studio musicians recorded on weekdays. Any studio work scheduled for weekends used to pay over scale; that's no longer the case.  Sessions nowadays are booked anytime, day or night, Saturday or Sunday, with the result being that one sits by the phone, chews their nails, and is enslaved by the business. But I'm in the enviable position of being my own boss. I accept only the work that appeals to me.

from left: Endre Gránát, Vilem Sokol, Stephen Shipps
I'm eager to get a hold of your editions of the violin concertos of Mendelssohn and Wieniawski that include the analytical studies by the famous pedagogue, Otakar Ševčík. Tell me about this project.
It's been a goal of mine for a long while. The Ševčík annotations for this repertoire have been unavailable for 75 years. I was trained in my native Hungary by this approach; I know each exercise by heart. Believe me, Ševčík was anal to the thirty second note, writing down nuances for the player, as he had first hand knowledge from the composers themselves. But remember, this manner of transmitting knowledge was prior to recording technology, or the technology was so poor that the analysis was an essential tool. For 19 pages of manuscript you have 97 pages of exercises. But Ševčík taught his students how to learn and how to practice. I was fortunate to have met with Ševčík's pupil, Vilem Sokol, a few years ago in Seattle. I'll tell you what happened. I phoned the Sokol home and was received by his daughter. She said that Vilem would be available for only one hour at lunchtime, given his age and the condition of his health. So, Steve  Shipps (who is also editing for this project) and I went to meet Vilem. We expected that after an hour or so, he'd be exhausted, and our meeting would be over. But that wasn't the case. Vilem had a drink with his meal, then another, and another. The Ševčík stories were endlessly entertaining! Before we knew it, the afternoon had long past, and it was around seven o'clock, time for dinner. We stayed and had another round of drinks with another meal.

Vilem Sokol was a luminary; one of the greatest musicians of all times. Sadly, he passed away last August at the age of 96. What a gift to know that we can share Vilem's musical expertise through you, Endre. 
And for me to know that I have taught others to learn—this is the most important thing—then I have succeeded.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Forbidden Childhood

One of my Frantic readers recommended the book, "Forbidden Childhood" to me by pianist Ruth Slenczyska. He had stumbled across my blog and recognized similarities to Slenczynska's memoir. As it turns out, my reader friend (pianist Andrew Gordon) and I shared concerts together as children growing up outside the Boston area. Oddly enough, I remember warming up backstage for a Jewish Music Forum event, my usual edgy teen-aged self; thirteen-year-old Andrew didn't say a word but just stared blankly while drumming his fingers on his lap. I imagine that I must have paced back and forth in my normal pre-concert jittery style, wiping my sweaty palms on my short skirt before entering the stage to perform an entire Jewish program. My mother had carefully selected the repertoire, excavating all the Jewish composers she could find, including William Kroll. To her, Mendelssohn qualified as a Jew even if his family had been converted and Kreisler also, so "Song Without Words" would have made the grade. "Was Wieniawski really Jewish?" I recall my mother asking while flipping relentlessly through "The Oxford Companion to Music". She discovered that Wieniawski's family, too, had converted to Catholicism. Finally, she settled on Joseph Achron's "Hebrew Melody"as a complement to Kroll's "Banjo and Fiddle". Besides, as young Andrew Gordon was to perform Achron's "Children's Suite" based on cantorial chant for the event, her daughter wasn't to be outdone.

I remember wondering how he—Andrew Gordon—exhibited such calm prior to performance. "I get nervous," I might have blurted while practicing backstage. I'm not sure whether I just kept the thought to myself or said it out loud. Alas—forty years—through the amazing internet, Andrew and I have found one another; our e-mail exchanges spill over with anecdotes from the past; words that were stifled in his youth fill the computer screen, including nuanced tales of a particular female teacher who wore too much make-up, sported mini skirts which emphasized her varicose veins, and coddled him like a baby. And it was this teacher who happened to share passages of Ruth Slenczynska's breath-taking memoir with Andrew.

In "Forbidden Childhood" American pianist Ruth Slenczyska (born 1925 in Sacramento) recounts how her father, Josef Slenczynska, a failed violinist took one look at her hands when she was just two hours old and burst into tears.
"Look at those sturdy wrists!" he said between sobs. "Notice the way her thumb is separate from the rest of her hand! Look at the tip of her fingers! I swear to you, Mamma, that's a musician!"

Josef Slenczynska demanded that his daughter practice nine hours daily from the age of four, firing one teacher after the next. Ruth Slenczynska studied with a whole galaxy of legendary pianists: Artur Schnabel, Alfred Cortot, Egon Petri, Josef Hofmann, Nadia Boulanger, and Sergei Rachmaninoff.  She made her Berlin debut at the age of six, and performed her full debut in Paris when only eleven years old. By age fifteen, after a shattering emotional crisis which points to her abusive father, she withdrew from the concert stage. Ruth reflects,"Some such turning point arrives in the life of every child prodigy: the day when allowances cease to be made on grounds of youth; the time for reappraisal; the need for readjusting to new values." Fortunately for the musical world, Ruth Slenczynska found her way back into teaching and performing; her wit, miraculously, in tact. Most Wunderkinder have been less fortunate.

From personal experience, those I've known appear haunted, or sometimes almost deranged, by the ghost of the never satisfied stage parent.  As an Interlochen alumni, I found this clip of There's Magic in Music (1941) positively enchanting. Much of the movie was filmed on location at National Music Camp. Towards the end of this scene, however, a cameo appearance by violin prodigy Heimo Haitto captivates my attention. In the film Haitto describes himself as a Finnish refugee. It dawns on me that Ilkka has mentioned Haitto's name several times over the years with a mixture of disbelief and compassion. It is documented that during the Russo-Finnish War, Heimo Haitto was sent away by his parents, along with his teacher, Boris Sirpo, to America. But it remains sketchy as to the abuses he suffered by an exploitative entourage. I click on this YouTube performance and my heart melts with the staggering beauty of Sibelius "Serenade" as played by Haitto and the Finnish Radio Orchestra. I scroll down and view a concert from later years. It's one thing to listen to a young boy full of promise, yet another to witness a broken down, aged fiddle player. There is a far away look in Haitto's eyes; as if a flame is about to extinguish. Heimo Haitto's personal struggle was a journey from a forbidden childhood to an almost forgotten life.