Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A meeting with violinist Carol Lieberman (USA)

On March 9th 2014 I met with violinist Carol Lieberman (USA), in Jerusalem together with her husband, harpsichordist Mark Kroll. Ms. Lieberman was in Israel to perform, hold master classes and meet with colleagues, some of whom she had met in Israel in 1967, 47 years ago, when she was playing with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. One of America’s leading exponents of Baroque music, Carol Lieberman is equally acclaimed for her performance of 19th and 20th century violin repertoire. She frequently lectures on violin performance practice, including vibrato and bow technique and has given master classes in Poland, Israel, France and England, recently delivering a lecture-recital titled “Vibrato in the Franco-Belgian School from G.B.Viotti to E. Ysaye” in La Spezia, Italy.

PH: Carol Lieberman, would you like to talk about your early musical experiences?

CL: I do not come from a musical family, but my older brother was given a violin by my grandfather and he began studying it. I then immediately demanded a violin for myself, but was only four years old and was too young. So I waited until I was six and then began learning the violin.

PH: Where did you grow up?

CL: In the Bronx, New York. I went to the Manhattan School of Music (preparatory division), the High School of Art (now called LaGuardia High School), then to City College (New York) and finally to Yale University for my doctorate.

PH: Was City College the right place for music then?

CL: Absolutely! We had a lot of refugees who had come before World War II. They were all Jews who had come from Vienna or Hungary and they were fine musicians. So the music department was phenomenal. For example, I played my senior recital with Fritz Jahoda (who had been conductor of the Vienna Opera). I also worked with the great ‘cellist Otto Deri, violinist Felix Galimir and other great names, all music professors at City College.

PH: So your undergraduate studies were in modern violin.

CL: My studies were in modern violin, but I actually got my B.A. in history! When I came to Yale, I was playing all the great violin concertos of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Bartok, etc. And then I met Mark. I continued playing modern violin (and still do), but then began playing Baroque violin.

PH: How did you find the transition to Baroque violin?

CL: To the instrument, it was easy. The two different pitches (i.e. a=451.3 and 440) were no problem since I already had perfect pitch. Now I can play at any pitch. There are also different Baroque bows for each national style and period. The violin is different as well.

PH: Do you teach Baroque violin?

CL: Yes. For more than 20 years, I taught Baroque violin and chamber music at the Boston University School of Music, while also teaching at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester (Massachusetts, USA), a Jesuit school where I have taught for 27 years. I am a professor there and teach music history and theory, direct the Holy Cross Chamber Players and sometimes take private violin students.

PH: Are you a violist?

CL: Yes, I love playing the viola, too. In fact, I have just bought a beautiful new instrument, which fits me beautifully.

PH: Would you like to mention the instruments you play on, both modern and Baroque?

CL: Gladly. My favorite violin is older than my “Baroque” violin. It is a Ferdinand Gagliano (1746). I also have several bows, including some lovely ones by Tubbs and Vuillaume. My Baroque violin is an anonymous instrument, probably German from about 1780, which I found in its original condition, with layers of dust on it. Your readers might also be interested in knowing that there were definite marks on both sides of the tailpiece, proving that the violin was held under the chin at that time, and on either side!

PH: On what are you currently focusing in your performing?

CL: Right now, a lot of chamber music on modern violin. My next concert features the Mendelssohn Piano Trio in d minor and the string trio transcription of Bach’s Goldberg Variations with a pianist who will be playing the original variations. I also play a lot of contemporary repertoire for violin and harpsichord with Mark, such as Walter Piston’s Sonatina for Violin and Harpsichord, which we have recorded, and also works by Vittorio Rieti and Viktor Kalabis, the late Czech composer who was married to the great harpsichordist Zuzana Ruzickova, a Holocaust survivor still living in Prague.

PH: And Baroque violin?

CL: I perform Baroque music with Mark, of course, and our repertoire now spans the entire 17th and 18th centuries and well into the 19th century, with works of Beethoven, Schubert and Hummel. Our next concert is on July 17th at the Newport Music Festival (Rhode Island). We will play two Bach sonatas for violin and harpsichord and I will play the Bach Chaconne for solo violin.

PH: Do you find the concert-going public open to hearing modern works with which they are not familiar?

CL: Yes, at least in the major cities and also because we always pair these works with more familiar repertoire. Actually, I find audiences do enjoy the modern repertoire.

PH: What have you and Mark been recording recently?

CL: Our most recent recording is of Biber’s Sonate Solo of 1681, eight secular sonatas that are very different to Biber’s more famous so-called Mystery Sonatas. There is nothing “mysterious” about the 1681 sonatas; they are beautiful and very difficult. They feature a great deal of virtuosic violin writing. This is not surprising since Biber was a great violinist, one of the greatest of his time. Not many violinists play these difficult works.

PH: How do you explain that?

CL: If you are a “real” modern violinist and can play the Tchaikovsky-, the Sibelius- and Brahms- and Mendelssohn violin concertos, then you can play the great violin Baroque repertoire. Unfortunately, most Baroque violinists (including many who have come to me as students) have not had that training, the kind that prepares you for all the violin repertoire. Also, too much Baroque violin playing has become codified: everyone plays that same way, even though they do not know why they are playing that way. What young violinists have forgotten is that the only real musical model for instrumental music is the human voice. For example, someone who is playing totally without vibrato has not read the treatises of the time, where musicians describe how and where to play vibrato, often referred to as “tremolo” or in other terms. Vibrato was not invented in the 20th century.

PH: Where do you think we now stand in violin-playing regarding the authentic movement?

CL: I have to say that I am not fond of the word “authentic”. There were so many styles of Baroque playing – German, French, Italian – all were different, with different ways of performing, interpreting and ornamenting. I think many violinists have become stuck in one way of playing, believing that that is what “authentic” means and that they will not be hired for ensembles if they play differently and not according to the “accepted” style. Those Baroque violinists with limited skills will accept anything they are told and do not have the ability to be expressive, interpret and think for themselves. For example, there has been much emphasis on playing Baroque music short and fast. Where does legato playing come in? I would like to see a lot of different styles of playing. I like the way I play, but I would like to hear other people who play differently. Baroque musicians wrote treatises and they all said different things. How can you play French Baroque music without reading Couperin’s treatises? We hear much too much Baroque violin playing that all sounds the same.

PH: Professor Lieberman, what kind of music do you listen to for relaxation?

CL: To be totally honest, since I am involved in music seven days a week, teaching and playing, to relax I usually read novels or go to a movie or museum with Mark.

PH: Carol Lieberman, many thanks for giving of your time. It has been very interesting talking to you.

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