Three Violin Greats Discuss Their Art and Craft

Jeff Kaliss on July 29, 2017
Arnaud Sussmann (left) and Aaron Boyd (right) with Jeff Kaliss | Credit: Carlin Ma

In their program notes for their 15th annual Music@Menlo Chamber Music Festival and Institute, husband-and-wife artistic directors David Finckel and Wu Han announced this year’s theme, which examines “the unfolding of music through the lens of an instrument whose makers, players, and composers shaped the evolution of music itself: the violin.”

On the idyllic campus of the Menlo School in Atherton, for three weeks, the history and artistry of the violin are being showcased through concerts, expert-led “encounter lectures,” conversations, and master classes. These offerings are open to the public as well as to the 40 young musicians involved in the Institute’s mission of study and performance by students of all the instruments of the violin family, as well as the piano. This year’s program, set forth in an unusually erudite and informative, 107-page booklet (concise program notes are available online), provides a uniquely organized showcase of the diversity of the violin and its players, with seven major concerts proceeding chronologically through four centuries, from “The Path to Bach” through to “The National Flavors” of contemporary music. (See our reviews of “The Classical Style” and “German Virtuosity” from the series.)

Aaron Boyd and Soovin Kim | Credit: Carlin Ma

Virtuosity abounds in the faculty (as in the selected students), and SFCV was fortunate to be able to sit down for a morning roundtable with three of the participating performing and recording violinists, all of who have also taught at universities and conservatories. Arnaud Sussmann trained at the Conservatoire de Paris in his native France and has appeared widely in recital and with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Soovin Kim, who studied at the Curtis Institute and won the Paganini Competition in Genoa at age 20, is first violinist of the Johannes String Quartet and the founder and artistic director of the Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival in Burlington, Vermont. Aaron Boyd, a graduate of Juilliard, has performed many new music commissions and is founder of the Zukofsky Quartet and a violinist with the Escher String Quartet. Here’s an abbreviated version of our talk.

Aaron Boyd, Arnaud Sussman, Soovin Kim, Adam Barnett-Hart (violins), Hsin-Yun Huang (viola), Dmitri Atapine (cello) Scott Pingel (bass), Wu Han (harpsichord) at Music@Menlo | Credit: Carlin Ma

Tuesday was my first evening at Music@Menlo, and I got to hear Arnaud and Soovin perform in the “Classical Style” concert. But you’re all returning visitors, aren’t you?

Aaron Boyd (AB): This is my third summer.

Soovin Kim (SK): This is my second summer, officially. But I’ve been lurking, because of my wife, Gloria Chien, who’s director of the Chamber Music Institute here.

Arnaud Sussmann (AS): I’ve been told it’s my eleventh summer — in a row.

What do you come back to here that you don’t get elsewhere.

AB: The unique aspect of Menlo is the intensity of the experience, I work harder here than at other festivals. But it’s also the leadership of David and Wu Han: they bring artists here and give them the freedom to do what they do best. You’re confronting artists at their peak potential.

What are you working harder at?

AS: We all have to perform, but some of us will also do Café Conversations, and lectures. And we record every concert, including the rehearsals [for the Music@Menlo LIVE series available in CD and digital formats]. It’s an all-around education not only for the audiences, but for us musicians as well.

And you have plenty of time to talk among yourselves.

Soovin Kim | Credit: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

SK: About violin stuff: chin rests, strings, fingerings, etudes, things to practice, on and on, back in the dressing room, that’s what happens. We were talking about thumb positions the other day, and that’s not something I’m doing all the time at other festivals. One thing that’s great about Menlo — without which I would not come — is the quality of the colleagues. I was just saying to one of my students in the Institute: "Look at Aaron [Boyd] and how he’s holding the violin; he doesn’t use a shoulder rest but he holds the violin up."

AS: There’s so much alone work we do ... Any chance I have to talk with violinists about the nerdy stuff I think about on my own helps tremendously.

AB: I spend about 93 per cent of my professional activity in a string quartet [the Escher], so there’s a fatigue with that, in that after five years I have a good idea what their position is on certain musical and technical ideas. I come to a place like this, and it’s a recharge.

In the Beethoven String Quintet on Tuesday, Soovin, you were paired with a violinist, Adam Barnett-Hart, who was subbing and whom you may not have played with before. Do you have to adjust yourself in that circumstance?

SK: One doesn’t have to. Some colleagues will adjust more than others.

AB: Which means that some colleagues adjust less than others! [They all laugh.]

SK: Yes, that is what I mean. Some personalities are like a big boulder.

What sort of differences do you come up against, rehearsing or performing the same work with different people, at Menlo?

AB: Tempo is one thing that comes up very often, and has to be reconciled.

AS: Going back to David and Wu Han, part of their genius is to pick the people they know will be good colleagues, and will adjust some of their beliefs. That’s the whole point of chamber music, to find common ground. I’ll give you a perfect example: our Bach Double, that we played [on July 15], where I filled in at the last minute and didn’t really have time to practice. I highly respect Aaron’s [Boyd] musicianship, but I would say his vision of the piece would be a tiny bit more old-fashioned, than if I played it with someone else, [to Boyd:] maybe slightly longer strokes, a couple of eighth notes you would sustain more than I would. But I said, “What the hell?” We didn’t even have to discuss it, and maybe next time I play it, I may do it differently.

To what degree do differences derive from your teachers?

AB: I might have had some of the least typical ones, in that one of my strongest influences was the cellist Harvey Shapiro, for two years. It changed my life!


Harvey Shapiro with cello and cigar

AB: First of all, he taught me to smoke cigars and to drink whiskey. And for one year, I didn’t make it past the second measure of the Brahms G Major Sonata. [He hums those measures, then interrupts himself:] “You asshole!” [Sussmann and Kim laugh.] Rostropovich — not me — said he was the greatest cello teacher in the world, but I think he was also one of the greatest violin teachers. Because what he did was open my ears to myself. But also, Sally Thomas, who was a pupil of Ivan Galamian, completely reorganized my violin playing.

SK: I didn’t stay with one teacher for very long. By the time I was 23, I had spent about five years with a student of Josef Gingold, who was one of Ivan Galamian’s assistants. You talk about the French school, the Russian school, there are certain traits about them that are amazing, and I lament that they’re being lost as the world is being homogenized. But on the other hand, selfishly for me, it was so wonderful to be exposed to all of this. My teachers all look at me and go, “How did you turn out like this?”, because I’m not really any of them. That’s what the American school of violin playing has become: a blend of, hopefully, all the best qualities from around the world.

AS: I grew up in France, so there’s a part of that French school there. But I can name Boris Garlitsky, who was my teacher in France, but from the Russian school, from the [Yuri] Yankelevich lineage, and I owe him everything. Then I moved to the U.S., to study with Itzhak Perlman for six years, and he is from the Galamian and Dorothy DeLay lineage. As corny as it sounds, everybody that you play with can be a teacher. Part of playing chamber music is, you have to be like a sponge, trying to grab as much information as possible. [Music@Menlo’s co-founder and cellist] David Finckel has been a huge teacher, seeing how meticulously he practices and prepares his parts for concerts.

Your generation, bridging the 20th & 21st centuries, has had more access, partly through new media and technology, to a multitude of the historical styles that are being examined in the Music@Menlo programs. Has this made you evolve past your teachers?

Aaron Boyd | Credit: Sophie Zhai

AB: With the exception of Paul Zukofsky, who just died, all of my teachers were born between 1911 and 1919, so in some respects they were closer to the eras of Beethoven and Schubert than I am now. So the whole historically informed practice came late in their lives, and most of them had no use for it whatsoever. It also did not speak to me, in my youth, but it’s out there, and violinists are doing more and more things. The repertoire is bigger than ever, and the stylistic expectations are greater than ever. They’re expected to play Baroque music in a somewhat appropriate style by the time they’re in college.

AS: My Russian teacher, Boris Garlitsky, always had a Baroque bow in his case. I play the way I was taught, but with Bach and Beethoven I try to not have as romantic a tone or vibrato, maybe lighter strokes and slightly faster tempi.

A couple of you have been slated for special programs on Paganini [Kim] and Kreisler [Boyd]. What sort of impact have specific violin virtuosi had on your own playing?

AB: Every day, in profound ways.

SK: I was so focused on my presentation, I wasn’t thinking about the ramifications, but afterwards, one by one, everybody said, “I gotta practice!” It went on at dinner, with Wu Han and [Curtis CEO and violist] Roberto Diaz, the whole night was about our childhoods practicing scales. And in discussion with the kids this morning, Wu Han wanted to talk about foundation. And it was all because of this man, Paganini! His presence is still there! Heifetz used to be oppressive for me, but now it’s more inspiring. I brought up [basketball titan] LeBron James last night: the only thing left for him is the shadow of Michael Jordan.

AB: It’s not any of the three of us trying to sound like any of these artists, it’s rather the standard they set, to which you compare yourself.

AS: Well, I woke up this morning, and the first thing I did was play two or three Paganini Caprices ...

AB: I can vouch for that, because we’re housemates! [Laughter]

AS: It’s like flossing, you might not do it every day, but you should. I remember when I was at Juilliard, going through a year or two of hatred for Heifetz, because I was thinking about performance practice, where you remove the performer and try to play the composer first and foremost, which is a wonderful ideal. In the case of Heifetz, I think he was even higher than the composers, in a sense. So now it’s respect for him.

Pinchas Zukerman once complained to me in an interview about a growth of mediocrity, which he blamed partly on education. Of course, he long ago succeeded in establishing his persona as a performer. How do you build a persona?

Niccolò Paganini

AB: Some teachers have been successful at encouraging that, some have killed individual talents.

AS: I wonder if, because of the ability of anybody to put themselves out there nowadays, you hear mediocrity, just because you hear more people.

AB: In the late ’60s, Mischa Elman said he’d witnessed the mean [of violin playing] go up, but he felt that occurred at the expense of pulling the top down. Will it take a few decades for another uniquely gifted Paganini or Kreisler or Heifetz to appear again? That may happen, but Elman may have had a point.

AS: We do separate the violinist and the musician, but that can become very dangerous, because nowadays, people revere a lot of fantastic technicians who may lack the artistry. Part of that has been the recording industry, and our society, the demand for perfection. I think very few concerts should be recorded! The biggest thing we can do is to educate the younger generation.

What are the chief challenges to you in that?

AB: There’s a lot pulling at them from all sides. I’m 38, and when I was their age, we had one TV in the house, no computer, and no cell phones. So I played my violin, or I went outside and played with my friends. I don’t want to make technology an evil thing, because it can also give us riches. What I actually find hardest is to get them to go to concerts, and to want to make music when they don’t have to. I have a new job next year [at Southern Methodist University], and one thing I want to do is have readings at my own home, to bring back the idea that they can come over, have some wine (if they’re of age), and read Haydn quartets.

AS: It’s very difficult with technology, ’cause it’s a drug, and hard to separate yourself from. But I’m constantly telling myself how lucky we are to live in an age where we have access to so many beautiful recordings, and where you can talk to somebody across the world, like my teacher, so I can ask him some fingerings.

SK: I tend to be on the idealistic side: to play violin at a high level, there’s always going to be a place in humanity for it. I teach at the New England Conservatory, and I’ll see Harvard students who are constantly pulled back and forth between wanting to play the violin and wanting to study neuroscience. They talk about their time with the violin as being their study break, their calmest time of the day. But there’s a dilemma in that the standard has gotten so high, to get into the schools and beyond that to gain employment, to get into the major symphony orchestras, to have to execute in an audition, that there’s not enough time for exploration, everybody following their personal paths.

Is there still a place for competitions? The atmosphere at Menlo seems so much more benign.

Arnaud Sussmann

SK: Whether or not you call it a competition, there’s always competition.

AS: People always like to compare people. But I think it’s fair to say that competitions back in the ’50s and ’60s did a lot more for the winners than they do now. We all know Oistrakh and Kremer, but do you know the names of the recent Van Cliburn winners? Bartók said competitions are for horses, not humans. The best thing about competitions is what they do for the player: They make you practice and push to try to achieve.

SK: The prize money keeps you going, you survive, and those could be your bridge years, until you get enough employment. One of the first competitions I won in my teens, I bought a Sartory bow with the money. But you should be trying to play every lesson like you’re in a competition.

Has the historical breadth at Menlo been a treat for you?

AB: It’s rare to have a program moving in this chronological way. And we’re playing etudes that are very beautiful that no one ever hears, except for our teachers, so that’s a rare treat. But I think one of the pleasures of the violinist’s life is that we live through the centuries anyway.

SK: The early, early stuff has been a novelty. We don’t usually spend much time on Uccellini or Locatelli, and with Locatelli, you’re seeing more of the stuff we do later, in its infancy.

AS: There’s a certain technique to Bach, and to the solo works of Paganini, and Ysaÿe, which are both very challenging but with very different techniques. If you practice only the Ysaÿe, good luck with the Paganini, and vice versa. The technique demands for Locatelli are challenging but very different from what we’re doing this week with Beethoven and will be doing in the coming weeks with Franck and other composers. For all of us, it’s very interesting to see these different technique demands from different centuries. One thing I wish I could experience more is the setups from earlier times, because violin bridges were much flatter, the tension was lower, the music might have been slightly less challenging than the way it is nowadays on our modern setups. I think of that with Paganini, the slurs over three-note chords.

AB: We’re still learning about how they played. They were writing music back then that came from their own innate strengths and imagination. It fit with what they did, with how they thought, with their hands. The challenge for a violinist now is to mold himself or herself to that other violinist’s innate abilities. That makes us better violinists, because we have to stretch ourselves.

Soovin Kim, Arnaud Sussmann, and Aaron Boyd | Credit: Carlin Ma