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Masterclasses Give Audiences a Glimpse Behind the Scenes


By Leila Javitch

One of the highlights of this year’s Norfolk Chamber Music Festival is the ongoing series of masterclasses that are free and open to the public on Wednesday evenings. These are an addition to the popular recitals by the music fellows, which take place Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings.

Ani Kavafian gives pointers to the Bicycle Trio. Photo by Bruce Frisch.

In a masterclass, one or two individual players or groups are coached by Norfolk Chamber Music faculty or by other musicians who come especially to coach a masterclass. The masterclasses began in 2015 and were originally for pianists only, most of whom were summer fellows. Because the audience response was so enthusiastic, the classes have been moved to Wednesday nights, in place of the long-standing music-in-context lecture series.
Although a pianist himself, Melvin Chen, who became director of the festival this year, decided to broaden the masterclass coaching to chamber musicians. These sessions, in which trios, quartets, and quintets receive coaching from professional musicians, are proving to be very popular as well.

Last month, Chen himself animatedly coached two quintets (two violins, viola, cello and piano), each playing a movement from two very different pieces. The first to play was the Marsalis Quintet, which played the slow movement of a piano quintet by Ernst von Dohnányi. They played the adagio well and with great feeling, but Chen urged them to reveal more of the movement’s musical structure, more “narrative” as he put it. He said they had conveyed convincingly the emotional tones of the piece but needed to show more clearly how the musical phrases worked together.

The Colburn Quintet played next, a movement from a piano quintet of César Franck. For this piece, Chen asked for more “mystery” and less clear articulation of every note. He urged the musicians to “feel the pain of the piece.”

On July 19, the violinist Ani Kavafian coached two groups of student musicians, a trio and a quintet. The quintet played the first movement of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, a piece they will play in concert with the renowned clarinetist David Shiffrin on Friday, August 11.

The Bicycle Trio played for Kavafian Alfred Schnittke’s Trio for Violin, Viola and Cello. Kavafian began her coaching by suggesting that since the work was a modern piece, the trio might begin with a more romantic tone that would contrast with the dissonance to come.

It is these tiny adjustments in phrasing, tempo, dynamics and emphasis that make the masterclasses so interesting to observe. The young musicians are capable of immediately executing the subtle suggestions made by their coach, and the audience sees and hears how a performance can change and evolve within a single session. This makes for a very exciting musical evening.

There are two more masterclasses in August. The violinist Wendy Sharp is coaching on August 2, and violinist Peter Oundjian on August 9. Sessions are at 7:30 in the Music Shed and are open to all. And if you can’t make it in person, the classes are streamed live on the festival’s website.

Photo, top, of Melvin Chen conducting a masterclass, by Iris Rogers.

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