Archive for the ‘Chamber Music’ Category

My First Beethoven Quartet by Bailey Firszt

If you study with Ivo, he’ll tell you at least once (but probably about ten times) that playing the Beethoven quartets was what he lived for as a quartet violist. After hearing him praise these quartets for the last four and a half years, I knew I had to see for myself what all the fuss was about. My quartet-mates and I decided to study Beethoven’s opus 74 quartet, nicknamed the “Harp.” From the very beginning of the piece, Beethoven draws the listener in with the most organic music imaginable:


The beginning is especially scary, because the quartet has to strive for a perfectly blended, sotto voce sound, but not be too scared to start playing! Another challenge that we encountered in this opening was bringing out the rhetoric in the musical lines. Beethoven writes two statements of the same motive but resolves them with different harmonies underneath the first violin part. How do we make the first iteration sound like a question, but without giving away the mystery or darkness of the second? The entire Adagio is like a speech, filled with dramatic pauses and questions left hanging in the air. I love that it doesn’t gain any momentum until the very last measure, when Beethoven finally writes a crescendo, and the piece can really start!


 At last!

The second movement, Adagio ma non troppo, is really just a set of variations on a beautiful melody. My favorite “variation” starts in measure 87, the most intimate music of the movement. The viola part is made up of several measures of slurred thirty-second notes, which have to be completely smooth without sacrificing expression.


After very tastefully lengthening the beginning of every single beat (oops), I eventually settled on playing it basically straight while vibrating the important notes.

In the third movement, Presto, you have to be careful not to blink, or the music might pass you by. I really had to concentrate when we performed this movement, otherwise I would forget to come in! We found it beneficial to drill large sections several times to make sure it never fell apart. Since the movement goes by so quickly, it’s important to play it enough that you can take a step back and see the bigger musical picture as you’re performing, rather than simply trying to keep up with the tempo.


 Are we in 2? Or 3? What’s going on?

The end of the agitated Presto transforms into a lovely Allegretto con Variazioni.




This movement is especially tricky, because it’s in 2/4, but beat 2 sounds like the downbeat rather than the pickup. We struggled with whether to bring out this ambiguity or to just play it emphasizing the “wrong” beat. I don’t think we ever reached a consensus . . . nor did we ever figure out why in the world Beethoven did that! One of the movement’s variations is a viola solo made up of flowing, winding triplets. The biggest challenge I had to overcome with that variation was phrasing the melody without making it sound “seasick,” as one of my quartet-mates lovingly called it. (That, and my fear of the spotlight!)


The movement’s coda is a thrilling sixteenth-note passage that ends, instead of forte as you expect, with two piano chords. After leading us through four joyous movements, Beethoven ends the piece with a clever joke. I think I heard my dad laugh out loud at the end of our performance!


My first encounter with a Beethoven quartet was both thrilling and unsatisfying. One semester and one performance were not enough for this brilliant piece of music, but hopefully I’ll continue to play Beethoven’s quartets for the rest of my life.

Balancing the Viola in a String Quartet

by Camden Shaw

Shmuel Ashkenasi, first violinist of the Vermeer Quartet, said to my quartet once in a coaching: “There are only four causes of balance problems in a quartet: ignorance of the score, ego, register, and quality of instrument.” At the time, I remember thinking how unremarkable the list was: each problem was understandable, and I didn’t really find any of them to be a revelation. But then, over time, I got to thinking: if these causes of balance issues are so obvious, why are so few ensembles well balanced? If we all understand the basic causes of imbalance, how is it that 99% of ensembles don’t allow the listener to hear everything of importance? And why is the violist either way too quiet or way too loud?!?

After studying my group and my own playing, I have to say that I was disillusioned on many levels. The first thing I learned was that of the four causes, ego is by far the most prevalent in ALL of us and trumps every other balance issue: regardless of knowledge of the score, for instance, if someone WANTS to sound impressive or to revel in their own sound, they can quickly drown out what we need to hear. I don’t exclude myself from this problem—in fact, after paying attention, I realized that when I find myself playing too loudly, most often it’s because I like hearing myself; I don’t want to sound thin or stingy.  Also, if I’m honest, I love it when after a concert people say they loved my sound, or compliment me on my instrument; and while this is shallow of me, I know that problem is not unique to me. I’ve witnessed it with all four members of my quartet and in almost every ensemble I’ve ever heard: when one is playing in a chamber setting, it is easy to feel lost in the mix, and we all want to feel noticed and appreciated.

Ego, however, is something that affects all four instruments roughly the same, in the sense that it has more to do with humanity than it does with instruments. So, why is it that of all four instruments, the viola seems the hardest to balance? (Although you violists are, in general, a modest and wonderful bunch!) I would say that 80% of groups don’t have enough viola sound in the mix, and 10% have too much. Is that the fault of the violists?  Not usually, and never exclusively! Assuming all four members in a quartet have instruments of approximately equal power, the viola still has the greatest natural disadvantage: register. The viola is not only in the middle of the sonic spectrum most of the time, but it’s the LOWER middle. (Goodness. That gets about as much attention as fat-free vanilla ice cream. That’s being a nerd at math camp. That’s being the “boring guy” in your accounting firm.) Compounding this problem is that the viola’s f-holes, even if the violist sits on the outside of the group, are pointed backward and not out to the audience; still, with a certain amount of “turning out” now and again, it is, in my opinion, better than sitting in the back with the second violin, because in that setting the f-holes are pointed to the side, which hardly helps, and the two most easily heard instruments are on the outside of the group.

These are all issues we know—the violist is in a tough register, the violist’s f-holes are pointed back, the violist is now in a bad mood. But again, I wonder, why is it that we all know these problems and yet don’t fix them? Here’s the fun part: the solution! First, we need to address the fact that if you’re not being heard in a passage where you’re the primary voice, it does not matter what register you’re in. It doesn’t matter how crappy your viola is! You need to be heard. If you can’t be heard, can you play more without departing from the desired character? Probably. Most of us play too shyly for a big hall. But if you’re being forced outside the character of the line, stick up for yourself and make sure your colleagues realize you’re the primary voice. Study the score so that you’re also sure when you’re the primary voice, and don’t be distracted by fancy writing (e.g., the first variation in Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet, movement 2: the melody is in the second violin, NOT the first violin. The first violin has only decoration and is not primary material, and yet in 99% of performances the audience is completely fixated on the first violin instead of how the decoration enhances the second violin’s tune.)

Assuming that everyone in your ensemble always knows who is primary (never assume that by the way), there is a very important tool to help multiple parts be heard: playing with very different types of sound. Not necessarily different volumes, mind you: only qualities. “Color” of sound, although all too cliché, is a valid way to bring attention to a line without sacrificing volume from the others. In my quartet, Milena is such a wonderful balancer because she can change her quality of sound so quickly; if she has to come out of the texture even for a two-note motif, she’ll do so in a way that gives her sonic profile without seeming brash or just “loud.”

This brings me to the idea of having a “quartet sound.” Having a quartet sound is not only about blend, as so many people think; of course, one must be able to blend with one’s neighbor. But just as much as it is about blending, ensemble sound is about structure.  Constructing a quartet sound is much like constructing a building—but unlike a building, a quartet sound is almost never the same texture all the way up. By this I mean that it is very rare for all four players to be playing with the same proximity to the bridge, and therefore the same “density.” Instead, a quartet sound is sometimes like a brick sitting on top of an exercise ball—sometimes a feather on an anvil—sometimes like a peach, all fleshy and sweet on the edges but with real density in the middle. What this means is that the cellist, for instance, doesn’t always play with the most “core,” as some suppose. The cellist can support from beneath without being the densest sound in the group; and if we really understand the difference between volume and density, the melody could technically be the quietest thing in the group in volume but have such density that it’s indisputably primary to the listener.

In my quartet, we believe that the primary material should have first choice as to the quality of sound it desires, as well as the quantity; and we then frame that sound with sounds that either support it with similar quality or distinguish it with contrast. This type of balancing deals mostly with knowledge of the score, as little ego as possible, and a manipulation of density of sound. In my opinion, therefore, the 10% of violists who play too loudly, (against all odds!) are the ones that do not understand the difference between volume of sound and function of sound. They are worried about projecting and therefore play louder than the other members of the group in order to compensate for their disadvantages; but this is not a solution to the problem. What we need to do is tailor our quality of sound, as well as the quantity, to the ever-changing musical situation at hand.  So the next time you can’t hear yourself, or your colleague, go through Mr. Ashkenasi’s list honestly, and fix the problem with the qualities of sound being used! And don’t tell the violinists about their ego, it’ll only make them worse.

— A cellist and admirer of great violists

Playing Chamber Music with Wind Instruments

by Yvonne Smith

As violists, we are often accustomed to being an inner voice in a string quartet or a string trio. We eagerly embrace the string quartets of Brahms, Beethoven, or the other wonderful options . . . But what happens when we are asked to play chamber music with wind instruments?

In high school, I played in a clarinet-viola-piano trio named Skittle Alley, after Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio, K. 498, for our instrumentation. “Kegelstatt” translates to skittles, another name for bowling, which is apparently what Mozart was doing when he wrote the piece. The Skittle Alley Trio was one of the primary influential forces in my early chamber music instincts and career. Formed by my two close friends and me, the trio performed Mozart’s trio most often, but our repertoire also included Bruch’s Eight Pieces and Schumann’s Fairy Tales. We rehearsed several times a week and built an even stronger camaraderie over three years. Our hard work paid off; we were semi finalists in the Junior Division of the 2008 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition and performed extensively throughout Maryland. Throughout my undergraduate years at Rice, I would fly back to Baltimore even after my parents moved away to play concerts with Skittle Alley.

0320a Skittle Alley

Skittle Alley Trio: Matthew Dykeman, clarinet; Yvonne Smith, viola; Patrick Merrill, piano (Photo credit: Wasin Prasertlap)

While I have played in and enjoyed my time in several string quartets since then, Skittle Alley will always hold a special place in my heart. Since Skittle Alley, I have also played Loeffler’s Deux rapsodies, for oboe, viola, and piano, and currently I am enjoying my time in a trio with flute and harp as we perform the Matthias and Debussy trios.

There are several perks and differences in playing with winds instead of with string players:


2) The viola takes on the role of a soloist more often, as composers often treat it as an equal with the wind instrument. This means that instead of being the rhythmic motor or filling out chords as an inner voice of a string ensemble, the violist gets more melodic material.

3) The viola gets to blend with winds. Blending with winds is different than blending with strings, because the sound of a wind instrument is produced so differently than the sound of a string instrument. Instead of matching bow speeds or vibrato as you would in a string ensemble, violists have to emulate the sound of a wind player by imagining their line played by the wind instrument and adjusting accordingly. For example, if I have a soft melodic line that needs to imitate a flute, I imagine how they would use their breath and probably play closer to the fingerboard but with a good contact point in the angle of my bow. Composers of pieces with viola and a wind instrument love using unisons to bring out the colors that can be created with the blend of two very different instruments. In unison passages, one instrument’s color can be more prominent, creating an even deeper palette of colors in the sound.

0320b Debussy trio

Aaron Perdue, flute; Yvonne Smith, viola; Emily Klein, harp. After a performance of the Matthias trio (Photo credit: Phyllis Smith)

Tips for playing with winds

1) Cultivate a solid, beautiful tone always, even in sul tasto passages. The sound of wind instruments can almost always overpower our sound, so having a good contact point and resonant tone are of utmost importance. In doing so, keep an eye on your posture. Resist the urge to press the sound out of your viola.

2) Let yourself be a soloist. In a group with winds, we have an opportunity to be divas and exaggerate our musical ideas (within good taste, of course).  If, like me, your tendency in chamber music is to follow the lead of others, playing in a chamber music group with winds gives you an opportunity to invite your colleagues to follow your musical lead.

3) Be open to new ideas and don’t be afraid to discuss your thoughts. Some wind players might be looking for you to produce a kind of sound that is more easily discussed than actually accomplished. Instead of telling them that it can’t be done, expand your vision and find a way to make that special sound or articulate those notes in a certain way. You’ll surprise yourself, gain new ways to make sound, and be a great person to work with!