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Brahms: Violin Sonata no. 3 - 1st and 2nd movements

Interpretation Class
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Luicong Pamela Feng (violin), Hanwen Shi (piano)

“If somebody offers you an opportunity to do something you’ve never imagined doing in your entire life, do it.”

— Benjamin Zander

Video Transcript

Ben Zander: Pamela, beautiful. Did you hear the conversation I had in the last session about the Schubert?

Pamela: Yeah.

Ben Zander: Yes, could you see something for yourself in that conversation? Both of you actually, the breadth of the message that you are giving? You play it very beautifully. I have two things to say, as I did to them, one is existential, and the other is musical. The existential thing, is that it is a piece on a grand scale with a very big, warm, intense voice. Do you know how much Brahms weighed, in the time when he wrote this?

Pamela: I don’t know.

Ben Zander: About 280 pounds, he was huge. Not as a young man, but he was a big man, and everything about him was grand, and full. The other thing that I’ve often thought about with this piece is, why did he write it in 3/8? Why did he choose eighth notes?

Pamela: Because he loves hemiolas.

Ben Zander: Yes, hemiolas, and also, he loved the fact that it wouldn’t be felt in three, but it would be felt in one. If it were in 3/4 adagio, it would be very extended. But because it’s in eighth notes, could you just do your Oh, I’m so sorry, I don’t know this machine, I shouldn’t touch it. Just do that, your opening.

Beautiful. Now for me, that’s a pianissimo in Brahms, it’s not full enough. Think of those chords. Imagine a string quartet with double bass, just playing there. Just try that. Yeah, and can you think of this as a Oh, I’m sorry. That’s the problem with this, we have real music here. I’m old-fashioned. Okay, here we go, warm sound.

That’s an end, right? That’s the end of the four-bar phrase, and then he begins new. Good, we’re getting her ready, but getting ready for the sound, for her. Ready? Once again. Now, warm, crescendo.

Finish, great. Now let’s add this warm-sounding Can you come a little closer? You’re awfully far away. Just so you come a little closer to him, yeah. Let’s take the other stand away, we don’t need that. Right, here we go. You know, I love when I used to play cello recitals, I would get as close as I could to the pianos, so that I could play the top of the piano, if I needed to! Really, because otherwise you’re out here.

Let me make a suggestion, you don’t have to follow it. Come here. Yes, look at that. Suddenly you’re partners, and you’ve got Brahms’ 280 pounds sitting next to you. Here we go. Are you ready, here? One and Beautiful, Pamela. Let me just say another thing about Brahms. I never met him, but I have a feeling that he wouldn’t make so many diminuendos, particularly when he writes espressivo. Look, all his music is espressivo, but when he writes espressivo, he really means continue through the whole line, without dropping.

Pamela: Okay.

Ben Zander: Once again, and we’re getting a lot of 270 pounds here. Three, and Good. Now, we’ve got the Brahms sound, rich and full. Can I suggest one thing? I’m not a pianist, but I have a feeling that we can get more Can we just play the opening together?

Rich, full, in the string sound. Then you’ve got a whole string section here, matching the sound. Beautiful playing, now we’re getting it. Would you try one more time from the beginning? Very warm, Phil.

Do you see what I mean about being one in a bar? Isn’t that an amazing That’s actually a sarabande.

In fact, if the truth were known it’s one in two bars, it is huge. I mean, that makes such a difference. Then here, if you cannot get stuck, but think of it in one, this will become very free. Should we try from here, for instance? Can you find that? That’s 15-14-13?

When you get to this, do you know that the sarabande was a dance that came from Spain, and in its origin, it was a dance that was banned, because it was considered improper, because it had so much passion, Spanish passion! So, should we try from there? This is 15-14-13. Can you imagine, you were leading a string quartet, and want to make them all feel one in a bar, right?

Now, this is poco forte, not piano, right? Poco forte for Brahms is forte, but not too much forte. This is the richest sound that Brahms knew how to make. He had twos, and he had threes. In Brahms, whenever there are twos, think threes, and whenever there are threes, think twos, and you’ve got Brahms’ sound. So just do the triplets here.

There we go, and now do the twos. Good, now do it all together in forte, and legatissimo, too. You’re not the accompanies, you’re Brahms, all 270 pounds of you, big.

Where’s the diminuendo? You have to do it, not she, not until here. Fortissimo, the biggest of all! Bravo, that was great. Maybe put on a little weight! I don’t mean that personally, you understand, you’re doing beautifully. The richness of sound, the warmth, the intensity that this music needs, is the most that exists. The Brahmsian sound. And this one in aby, is so crucial

Is the death of this music. It’s feeling of motion. Should we try one more time, from here? When you get to this, this is the climb, this is poco forte, and this is forte. And Brahms very rarely writes fortissimo, it’s not common. Nothing here, right? This is the high point. Keep it forte, all the way through. Here we go, one more time. Do you want you to do this chord? No, just start there.

Pamela, how much did you pay for your violin? How much is it worth? Do you know? Let’s say $40,000, okay? Just out of the blue. I want you to sell it for $200,000 to somebody in this audience, okay? There’s a lot of very rich people here, they may want to do it.

Good, I just wanted to say something to you. I’m very glad I have this opportunity. I heard you the other day playing, and I was, as always, everybody is blown away by your playing, but I noticed something that is not serving you well, which is that you are doing a lot of things with your face which doesn’t have to do with the music. Nobody’s going to up their contribution to the violin because of your face, only because of the sound. I love your energy, I love your expressiveness but put it into the instrument. Ready?

Bass, cello bass, now piano. Now, here it comes. Not too soft. Long way to go. Two, off one, two.

Yeah, those are full quarter notes. I’m going to say something to you, which you can ponder the rest of your life. All romantic music is one in a bar, right? Can you think about that? If you can get that into your bloodstream, so that you never play in three or in four, but always in one, it’s the secret. Then you have so much freedom.

You can take all the time in the world, there. That’s a full quarter note at the end, isn’t that right? Gives you a look at the bigness of that, that’s Brahms playing. Play that, show what Brahms would do, all 270 pounds of him, here. He was enormous, he filled this whole space. You see, it’s very tempting to get too soft here, because you’ve got a long way to go to learn, isn’t that right?

Should we try that one more time? Just cry with all your Hungarian heart, you’re Hungarian, of course. You know, that Brahms was obsessed with Hungarian music. He loved the gypsies, and he loved that whole wild world. I’m glad you took your hair down already, in advance, so I didn’t need to. We’re going to try from the lead up, here. Two bars before the gypsies.

Can I ask you, please, keep him to keep forte, all the way, don’t get down. Do it one more time, and this can be a big, big crescendo.

Beautiful. Pamela, come here. I want you to listen to the sound of that applause, because there are different kinds of applause. There’s a polite applause, well done, young lady, you play very well. Then there’s applause of, wow, that was really good! Then, there’s the applause which says, thank you. Come here.

I wish pianists could get that they’re more important than the people they play for! I really wish you would get there, because without you, she’s nothing, right? Unless she’s playing alone. So, the applause I just heard, was not just, “Well done, young people, you play very well.” It wasn’t even, “Wow, that was really good.” It was, “Thank you.” It was the same thank you that Schubert got, when the singer said, “Thank you, for the art of music.” I heard that I may be wrong, let’s hear it again, and listen very carefully to see which kind of applause it is, let’s see.

Exactly, it’s the applause of warmth. It’s the applause of love, and huge gratitude. Because when you get into the string like that, I made the joke about selling the violin, that was a joke, but there wasn’t anybody who resisted your violin, just then. It was such a beautiful sound, and so rich, and your piano playing suddenly became, I wouldn’t say 270 pounds, but up in the 200 fifties, you understand what it is.

You see, this is another example, because being from a particular country, or a particular culture, or being a particular shape, you couldn’t look less like Brahms, but that doesn’t matter. You can play Brahms exactly the way he felt it, but you have to broaden who you are being at the piano. With that fullness, and I was pulling your shoulders, I can’t do that with young women nowadays because they all think I’m molesting them, “No!”. The world lives in the body, that’s how we convey music, is through our bodies. Now, look, we have a little bit of time. Would you maybe do the second movement? The third movement? Or what would you like? Do you have a little bit of time? What would you like to play?

Pamela: The first movement.

Ben Zander: First movement?

Phil: First movement.

Ben Zander: Okay, we can’t do the whole thing because it’s too big, but just start it. Just for a few minutes, because we have the bark, but it would be nice.

Let’s stop, because that’s the end of the exposition and gives us a little bit to work on. Some of the same things apply, that we talked about before the grand Just play the left hand of the opening. Good, do it one more time, imagine cellos and basses, a whole section, very legato, and sorta voce, but with fullness of the piano sound, cellos and basses. Good, and the right hand writing, the strings can’t do this, this is a pure piano gesture.

Just do the two, together. Good, now let’s add the violin on that. And Brahms is often contrary, in what he writes. He writes sorta voce, which means soft, and he writes ma espressivo, so make sure it’s intense enough, and full enough. Now, notice, where that crescendo is, right at the end.

Also, I’m wondering it comes from the A, just try that. Can I say one other thing? In Brahms, the eighth note is always significant, so these should never be thrown away, always full length. Now, it’s coming very beautiful. You’re still doing the crescendo too early, keep that steady. Do it one more time, I love that down bow. Three, and

Beautiful, good. Two things here, this line is a continuous one. The other things, things are often built in threes, and the third is the biggest. If you can build the first time, the second time, and then the third time is the most expensive. Let’s just do the second theme one more time, see if we can make that happen.

Even from your one, espressivo. It’s much richer already, it’s beautiful. Or do it from there. The sforzando should be warm, a sforzando of warmth, not aggression, right? Should we try? And then the second time, and now the third time.

Good. Then we have to stop, but that’s a great beginning of the exposition, bravo, both. Now I said this to our first thing, and I’ll say it to you. Don’t get stuck in the box of who you are, and what’s available right now. There’s no easy way of knowing how to get out of that box, and what to do. But if somebody offers you an opportunity to do something you’ve never imagined doing in your entire life, do it. It’s so easy to go on the path that has been set by you, and by countless other people before you.

You go to school, you get good grades, you make contacts, you go to graduate school. It’s a continuous thing, and sometimes a terrible shock, a loss, a death, some terrible break, fall in love and have the woman leave you, something profound, right? You know, I was conducting the Mahler Ninth, in South America, in Dudamel’s orchestra, in Venezuela. And just before the concert, I had told them that my teacher had said, Cassado, the great teacher, “You cannot play great music until your heart has been broken.”

I told the orchestra that, and so the first horn came to me just before the concert, he said, “I’ve got some great news.” I said, “What?” He said, “My fiance has just left me,” He said, “I’m going to play the pants off that beast, tonight!”

All right. Constantly broadening who you are, what’s available, what you’ve experienced. But you bring a lot to the party, both of you, terrific. I’m really glad that you came, thank you. And put on some weight!

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