Master of her craft

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Published: 22nd June, 2018

When MRC CEO Euan Murdoch introduced Anne-Sophie Mutter on-stage as “music royalty” this was no mere publicist’s hyperbole. Mutter’s career began as a 13-year old wunderkindunder the mentorship of the twentieth century’s most celebrated conductor Herbert von Karajan, performing and recording with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Mutter has sustained a stellar career ever since, most notably in recent times engaging with contemporary composers to expand the violin repertoire. Moreover, she herself now mentors younger generation musicians through her Anne-Sophie Mutter Foundation.

And so it was to be here, as Mutter presented a masterclass with three gifted young Australian violinists who, perhaps by co-incidence, had all chosen to present Russian concertos before a large audience, peopled not only with violin aficionados, but with musicians of all persuasions and general music-lovers alike.

Masterclasses can indeed be tricky things. Terence McNally’s play, based upon Maria Callas’s 1972 Juilliard classes (and seen earlier this year in Melbourne at the Lawler Theatre with the formidable Amanda Muggleton in the role of the Greek soprano) bears witness to this. Anne-Sophie Mutter however is no diva. Casually-attired, (yet no less elegant for it), she was unfailingly empathetic, generous of spirit and humorous, often self-deprecatingly so. Importantly Mutter was ever-cognizant of the appreciative audience, always making it an engaging experience for them too, rather than, as often happens in open masterclasses, letting them be relegated to mere eavesdroppers into some manner of enigmatic private music lesson.

The evening opened with Murdoch interviewing Mutter who effortlessly expanded upon many of her pet ideas concerning music and music-making. She reflected upon the double-edged sword that is the modern-day live-streaming of concerts, the increased public visibility of performers, the need for record labels to develop and nurture young artists, upon her ‘grand-teacher’ Carl Flesch’s insistence that music-making is so much more than just making a beautiful sound, the importance of conveying musical structure, the need to practice one hour less and read one hour more (quoting Brahms) and the primacy and continual relevance of the live concert as being an extraordinary moment that should reflect extended study and preparation. She also openly acknowledged the artistry of pianist Daniil Trifonov – “a true poet” – because that she stressed is what we need in contemporary music-making, rather than mere note-spinning. This was a lengthy, warm-hearted and eloquent aperitif to the musical main course.

The class proper started with ANAM student Harry Ward presenting an assured and engaging account of Glazunov’s Violin Concerto. Here Mutter was clearly impressed with her young charge’s artistry and his sense of musical poetry. However in a concerto, a greater soloistic presence is needed and she urged Ward to seek a larger sound – more “bloom” as she said – especially if he was to soar above the heavy orchestration of this work. She encouraged more thought be given to the precise angle of the bow as well as greater variety of vibrato-speed, not only to enhance the music’s inner energy, but also to heighten significant key-changes.

Johnny van Gend offered the opening movement of Prokofiev’s Concerto No 1. Here Mutter also admired van Gend’s tone quality, but urged him to seek something different. “Playing ugly” is part of the aesthetic approach to playing much of both Shostakovich and Prokofiev she suggested, and playing closer to the bridge and with the lowest part of the bow, closer to the frog, would assist here. Senza vibratowould also be appropriate in this context. Mutter referred to the sarcasm and sense of despair that often pervade Prokofiev’s music and she urged van Gend to read Prokofiev’s “grim and depressing” autobiography, while also researching his other works such as the ballets and the symphonies.

Finally, Australian Youth Orchestra Concertmaster Annabelle Traves bravely, or perhaps sensibly depending on your viewpoint, presented the opening movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, a life-long companion of Mutter and one that she was to play with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra the following day! This time Mutter chose to address more technical issues stressing the importance of having absolute certainty over fingering choices and the strategic reasons – both technical, but more importantly musical – for choosing them. Again Mutter emphasized the importance of knowing how much vibrato to employ, as well as the when and why. Interestingly, she noted the necessity to have the capacity and preparedness to play the violin’s opening notes at any given dynamic (it is notated pianoin the score) depending on the acoustic of the hall, the playing of the orchestra, as well as the apparent receptivity of the audience. All sage advice.

It should be added that all three young violinists – Mutter generously and repeatedly referred to them as her “colleagues” – were more than ably assisted by the discreet and subtly-nuanced orchestral accompaniment provided by pianist Peter de Jager, himself an extraordinary musical talent.

This was a riveting masterclass with a true master that sustained interest from beginning to end. The format, which included a short Q and A at the end was ideal, and both the MRC and the MSO are to be applauded for putting on such a venture. Musicians of Mutter’s stature and longevity rarely visit our shores, and for her to so generously and so positively share her experience with both the young violinists and the captivated audience is something few there will forget quickly.

Glenn Riddle reviewed the Violin Masterclass with Anne-Sophie Mutter at Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, MRC, on June 21, 2018.