“Clarity, not schmutz!”

Jan 24, 2012

"I want to hear clarity, not schmutz!" 

This phrase is indelibly set in my memory and immediately comes to mind whenever I play the great string sextet Verklarte Nacht (Transfigured Night) by Arnold Schoenberg. It is the centerpiece of Accordo's first concert this season, and is a piece I personally have known for over 20 years and played many times since I was a student at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

My regular coach for chamber music was the Austrian violinist Felix Galimir, a four foot 10 inch dynamo, full of energy, fire, a sharp sense of humor, a passion for teaching, and a skill for bringing structure and audible clarity to a thorny piece of chamber music. After all, he and his quartet (the Felix Galimir Quartet, made up of him and his three sisters!), did work with some of the great and innovative composers of his day, namely Ravel and the entire Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern). He had a natural (i.e., not bookish or intellectual) feel and gift to relate this somewhat perplexing, technically challenging music to 18 year old kids who didn't know the first thing about voicing, the terms 'Ausdrucksvoll' and  'Steigernd,' or why Schoenberg wrote such an insane second violin part for that matter.

I remember listening to Transfigured Night as a young teenager, with a recording from what I believe was the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. The conductor of my high school chamber orchestra in Santa Monica, Heiichiro Ohyama (also Principal Violist of the LA Phil under Giulini at the time) was on the recording. I listened to that cassette tape over and over, fascinated by the density, beauty, complexity, passion, and, of course, the great playing, wondering when and how I was ever going to get to play this piece, let alone be able to.

When I got to Curtis and began having weekly coaching with Felix on Beethoven and Bartok quartets, Schoenberg was at the top of my list to learn. I believe it was my second year that I corralled a great group led by the wonderful Austrian violinist Benjamin Schmid (also a fantastic jazz violinist!) to learn this with Felix. We rehearsed and rehearsed in preparation for our first coaching, working through every nook and cranny of the 26 minute score, trying to best determine the correct tempos and rubati, six different opinions constantly sounding out, struggling for sure, but basically having a great time. I will always have a clear memory of that coaching. Galimir was literally stomping up and down, shouting here and there, imploring-sometimes screaming over our playing. He was all fire and brimstone, his whole body inside every phrase of this masterpiece, obsessed almost, in some kind of a trance!

He had an immense knowledge of each little detail of the piece, for instance, how a printed dynamic needed to let the Hauptstimme (main theme) be subservient to the Nebenstimme (secondary theme), how each section of the piece corresponded to a section of the ultra Romantic poem by Richard Dehmel, and how the quality of our sound as a group should reflect these emotions. In retrospect, that first coaching must have been unbearable for him to hear! I will always associate this piece with Felix and with those chamber music skills that have to do with knowing when and where to get out of the way to let a colleague come through, or simply to be a color, or to lead with a compelling voice. His plea to have 'clarity, not schmutz,' was his aesthetic need to have each individual voice be heard clearly within the group, in an intelligent but organic proportion, and always, always, with energy and passion and the appropriate style for that composer. Seems like common sense, but pretty hard to learn when playing the fiddle is enough of a daunting task for a young teenager! 

As the years went on, coachings were never quite as energetic as that one as Felix got closer to his 80's and was battered by the losses of dear friends and colleagues like the great pianist Rudolf Serkin. But several years later I heard him perform as an octogenarian at the Marlboro Festival in Vermont about a year after his dear wife had died suddenly, seemingly crushing his spirit forever. He played the first violin part of the Schoenberg with a group mostly 60 years younger, playing with all of the same energy and fire that he displayed in that coaching so long ago. 

Accordo plays Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht on Monday, Feb 6 at 7:30 pm at Christ Church Lutheran in Minneapolis, along with Strauss' Capriccio and Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence.


~Guest post from Accordo member Steven Copes

(Photo credit: Pete Checchia)

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