Germany, Austria and the UK with a Viola

Justin Julian, 2018 Music Scholar

As Justin’s trip was so exciting we have compiled the highlights for your enjoyment. If you would like to read Justin’s full report you can do so here.

Berlin

After 30 hours flying and barely two hours of sleep, I arrived in leafy, warm and welcoming Berlin. After checking into my apartment and having a gloriously long shower, I went out for a walk amongst the heritage Soviet architecture. I visited a 5-storey vintage clothing store nearby and browsed their amazing selection. Around 6pm, I went for a walk down Simon-Dach-Straße, famous for its pubs and shops. I was amazed at how many people were out in the sun enjoying food and beer on a Monday night!

I started the next day with a few hours’ practice, and went to get lunch at an amazing shop nearby that doubles as a bagel cafe and English language bookshop. After a little more practice, I caught the train to visit Hochschule für Musik “Hanns Eisler” for my lesson with Simone Jandl. I started with Bach, and we focused on bringing out the natural shape through carefully planned rhythmic freedom and emphatic phrasing. In the first movement of the Walton Concerto, she helped me find a more fluid, less clarity-focused left-hand technique to bring out warmth and expression. In both works, she encouraged me to ‘zoom out’ and focus more on the bigger picture as an important final step before performing. After the lesson, I headed down the corridor to watch the legendary Tabea Zimmermann teach her students.

She was so warm, humorous and open, and expected a lot of her students but so nice about it. There was none of the exclusivity and aloofness you might expect from the absolute highest echelon of musician. With both of the students whose lessons I saw, she diagnosed technical flaws and set studies and exercises to fix them, as well as focusing in depth on musicality and sound. Next I went upstairs to one of the small concert halls, where students of Simone Jandl and Julia Gartemann were performing solo and with piano in an end of semester concert. The standard was very high, with some exceptional students in both Bachelors and Masters degrees.

Simone invited me to dinner and drinks at the house of one of her students afterwards with all the performers, all lovely people. What a welcome to Berlin!


 

With my two busiest days in Berlin completed, I could now relax a bit more (or practice a bit more). I went to bow maker and dealer Matthias Wohlleber to try about 10 viola bows. I took one home to use for my practice the rest of the day. In the evening I made my way to the Konzerthaus Berlin to watch a trio recital featuring the eminent French viola soloist Antoine Tamestit, with soprano Christiane Karg and pianist Malcolm Martineau. It was an intimate setting, in the small hall at the Konzerthaus, and the repertoire followed the theme of intimacy closely. The performance began with delicate, dissonant Kancheli and luscious French-influenced Loeffler, then two songs by Hugo Wolf, foreshadowing in style the Schubert of the second half. After interval I was particularly moved by Tamestit’s Arpeggione Sonata, which he played with polished expression and thought throughout. The trio played a Brahms song as an encore after rapturous applause. As Tamestit was one of Tabea Zimmermann’s early students, I could appreciate his playing with new insight after the past two days. A good example is her attention to the start, middle and end of every note in terms of bow speed. I could see this detailed shaping with the bow in his playing, and hear the extra layer of expression it created!

Later I made my way to the outer west of Berlin to visit an abandoned spy station in Teufelsberg. It was a 30-minute walk through the forest to get there, involving a hike to the top of a hill where I could see all of the city. The spy station itself was fascinating, a decaying facade covered in graffiti with people drinking beer, playing music and dancing in typical Berlin fashion. I spent about two hours exploring the buildings and surrounding forest, and met some Australians living in Berlin. Afterwards I took the long forest walk to Waldbühne where the Berlin Philharmonic were performing. On my way, I gave directions in German to some lost concert-goers, a big confidence boost for my almost non-existent speaking skills. After arriving, I waited in full sun in the Roman-style arena for over an hour for the concert to start, feeling like the heat would be a bit more bearable if I had some company. The concert started with music from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé Suite, played with much bravado and warmth in spite of the dry open-air acoustic. In Ravel’s Shéhérazade, they showed a beautiful palette of colours and huge dynamic range to match the lovely sound of soprano soloist Marianne Crebassa. After a short interval, the concert finished with a moving performance of six selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet. They played with such fervor that I experienced an uncharacteristic physical reaction, goosebumps!


Snape Maltings, Britten-Pears Young Artist Program

It was surprisingly easy to get out of bed at 4:15am to make my 7am flight, because the sun was already up! After arriving, I dragged my suitcase onto several packed trains and buses in order to visit two London violin shops to try bows. I borrowed three to test longer term. I made it to Kings Cross with plenty of time before the coach to Aldeburgh, and spent it getting to know some of the fellow Britten-Pears participants. The journey took three and a half hours, slowed down by the bad traffic out of London. I enjoyed watching the English countryside out the window during the latter half of the journey. After arriving, meeting the program staff and getting settled in, we all went to the fish and chip shop and then sat on the beach to attempt to get through some very carb-heavy food. It was a lovely group of people, hailing from as far as Brazil and as near as London. I expected a good sleep after dragging my suitcase all day up and down London Underground stairs. All the rooms were named after Benjamin Britten opera characters (mine was Herring, after Albert Herring).

Snape Maltings turned out to be a huge arts precinct set in a re-purposed Victorian factory with very picturesque countryside views. We learned that Oliver Knussen, one the composers whose music we were performing, ran the course for over 20 years and passed away last year. Many of the tutors and staff were still really affected by it. In the morning we ran through two of the most challenging pieces on the program, Knussen’s Coursing and Harrison Birtwistle’s Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum with the full ensemble. The first slow run through was messy as expected, but it started to pull together very quickly! After lunch in the Concert Hall Café, we met our tutor, cellist Zoë Martlew, for a strings-only rehearsal. She coached us with great exuberance on Earle Brown’s String Quartet and the Knussen, trying to capture the very detailed articulations and dynamics. The Quartet is a graphic score; gestural drawings and notations on A3 sized pages, along with detailed instructions on how to read it. Very innovative for 1965! Zoë worked through section by section, discussing with us how to interpret the musical ideas and resolve any ambiguities. It was already very clear that this course was more about the process of learning, preparing and understanding music rather than necessarily the results.

Lots of singing melodies and speaking rhythms were incorporated into the rehearsal process. It helped us to internalize the music in a way that playing doesn’t.

On our third sectional, we made it to the end of the Brown Quartet, working with a stopwatch to check we were taking the required amount of time for each section, and working without it to find a natural pace and be responsive, communicative and intuitive. Lichtbogen by Saariaho, without the live electronics specified in the score, was still a fantastic exercise in extended techniques and sound. The sound-world of the piece is very different to anything else, all high frequencies, rustles and whispers. Zoë demonstrated some of the extreme techniques required, explaining the composer’s intentions and how best to capture them. I realised that there was a much broader range of sounds possible on my instrument than I thought!

The day before the concert…

I squeezed in some much-needed practice on Knussen this morning, which made it much more manageable in rehearsal. We ran through the whole piece at the end, and it went surprisingly well! It’s amazing how what felt like hours of music flew past in 5 minutes. Some more imagery from Jessica helped; we were to play ‘like the colony of garden gnomes that people placed at the bottom of a lake in the UK’s Lake District’. After a somewhat stressful rehearsal of both Birtwistle pieces in which we all felt just a bit underprepared, we worked on the composers’ pieces. These were now in their final version and felt very polished. Despite being exhausted by the end of the rehearsal, I felt that (with a little more practise) tomorrow’s concert would go well! Tutors and course participants all had dinner together at the Lighthouse restaurant in Aldeburgh. It was great food and even better company! We had become quite closely-knit, and I felt that like on music camps back home, many of these friendships would last a lifetime.

 

The Concert

The final day was here already! We jumped in the deep end with a run of the entire program in concert order. Knussen was just too technically challenging to manage first thing in the morning, and was a bit rough around the edges, to say the least. After a stressful rehearsal Jessica and the staff gave lovely thank you speeches, even though we should have been thanking them! At 4pm we performed the full program after a late lunch. It was quite a long concert – starting with a brass fanfare written the night before by composition tutor Mark Anthony Turnage. After that we performed Coursing, which was a bit of a rough ride to begin with but by the end sounded great. Next was an operatic scene also by Knussen, and chamber works for voice and violin by Kurtag, and voice and clarinet by Carter. We performed three of the finished student compositions before interval, which sounded good despite not much rehearsal time! After catching our breath, we played Birtwistle’s Songs from the Holy Forest and Earle Brown’s Quartet, introduced by a lovely speech from Zoë. Both went very well, which was a huge relief! We finished the concert with the other half of the composer pieces and Birtwistle’s Carmen. There were only about fifty in the audience, mostly BPYAP staff and tutors, but everyone was incredibly enthusiastic and attentive during the whole concert. It’s very rare to have complete silence in a concert hall immediately before and after performing a piece. There was wine waiting for us upstairs, and we gave thank you cards to the staff and tutors. It was a lovely night celebrating what we had collectively achieved and learned during the past ten days.


Baden-Baden

I slept in, and skipped breakfast to spend the morning practicing. At the end of my street, I discovered a stunning view of Baden-Baden and its mountainous surroundings. I felt a bit like I had woken up in Switzerland. Heading down to the town centre, I couldn’t find somewhere for lunch that took card, and couldn’t find an ATM, then got lost trying to find my way into the Kurhaus for my audition. Luckily, I ran into another lost viola student who spoke German fluently and helped me find the way in. We both went upstairs and signed up to audition. I went into the audition only to discover there was still one candidate before me, after misunderstanding a German conversation with a staff member. When it was actually my turn, I played some Walton Concerto with the in-house pianist. We hadn’t rehearsed, and I was stressed and hungry, so it was a bit of a disaster. I was very relieved that I had sent a video and been accepted as a participant in advance. Afterwards, Hartmut welcomed all fifteen violists into the hall to organise lesson times for the next day. He was teaching 9-5 on a Sunday with only one break!

 

I played Ligeti Sonata for Hartmut, and he told me that he’s never performed it, but many of his ideas for teaching it come from Garth Knox, who worked on it with Ligeti himself. In the first movement, Hartmut helped me create a more transparent sound world, and make each phrase more of a gesture than individual notes. He also worked on the connections between bow changes, or ‘point zero’ in a pendulum swing as he called it. In the second movement, he helped me differentiate more clearly between dynamic levels, and give each note a rounder shape, so that it had the ‘swing’ demanded. The third movement also requires ‘swing’; in this case Hartmut showed me how lightly emphasising the first beat of each bar brought out the irregular rhythmic patterns. He also helped me to handle four-note chords in a way that didn’t disturb the rhythm, and deal with some intonation issues. I left the lesson feeling like I had found a more authentic way of playing the Ligeti Sonata.


Salzburg

At Mannheim where I changed trains, I ran into an Australian cellist who I played with in a youth orchestra years ago, and very soon, four Australian musicians had gathered together. We had all been through Sydney Conservatorium at different times. Surprisingly everything went incredibly smoothly with travel – I even arrived in Salzburg on time. My sublet student apartment turned out to be a very central room with a beautiful view of the Kapuzinerberg mountain.

Jean Sulem worked in incredible detail on the contradictions between Ligeti’s dynamics and his expression markings and how to capture both. With Jean I worked through the first two movements of Ligeti in incredible detail. We went through each phrase of the first, talking about sound, phrasing, vibrato and articulation. Jean had a very different concept of the movement to Hartmut, seeking a focused and dark sound rather than airy and light. He also spotted a wrong note printed in the music! He described how the second movement was written to be first performed by Garth Knox, who finds everything easy; so even though it’s incredibly difficult, it has to sound relaxed. He also helped me find a sound and articulation that amplified its jazz influence.

 

A special treat…

At 11am I had a treat waiting for me, Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Großes Festspielhaus. This was a very high-profile concert with a formal dress code. Normally I don’t like to wear a suit to concerts (unless I have to because I’m performing) but I made an exception for the occasion. The orchestra performed Mahler’s Ninth with Herbert Blomstedt conducting, an incredibly moving 90 minutes. They have such a distinct sound, especially the string sections, and hearing them perform was a surreal experience where words fail. The orchestra made light work of this incredibly difficult symphony, and I could hear so much of the overall architecture because the individual parts didn’t seem to be difficult for them. It was sublime and devastating, and I shed a tear or two!


London, Sight-seeing 

I got up relatively early and went for a walk past the Monument to the Great Fire, over London Bridge with a nice view of the Tower Bridge, and along the Thames on my way to the Tate Modern. This I explored for about two hours before going to the Borough Markets for a delicious lunch. I then headed to South Kensington to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum. The collection here was a bit overwhelming – sculpture, art and design from all over the world, spanning of 2000 years – so I only got through half of it. I met up with one of the pianists from the Britten-Pears Program for dinner at a student bar right next to Albert Hall. I lost track of time and only just made it to the BBC Proms concert that evening. Albert Hall was beautiful, and both the orchestra and soloists were fantastic. The first half was Britten’s Piano Concerto, then the remainder of the concert was taken up my Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Unfortunately, I was seated next to a very noisy and distracted tour group of about 40 children, and couldn’t focus my attention completely on the concert. I still enjoyed it nonetheless!

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