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Sunday, April 10, 2016

Chasing Beethoven

From the Vault Dept.: Yesterday’s post reprinted my 1989 interview with composer Vincent Plush, who had enlightening and envy-provoking things to say about the state of music in his home country of Australia. He was in the Capital Region for a performance of his tone-poem Pacifica by the Albay Symphony; he recently noted that that was the last time he’s been in this area. Also on that ASO program was Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, performed by Stephanie Chase, who grew up in the same Connecticut town as I did. The old-home-week portion of my interview with her, written for the Schenectady Gazette, didn’t get into the piece, but it was fun to catch up with her.


ALTHOUGH STEPHANIE CHASE performs Beethoven's mighty Violin Concerto with the Albany Symphony Orchestra this Friday and Saturday, it was near the bottom of the list of choices.

Stephanie Chase
Not that she has any objection to playing it: as she explains it, she and ASO music director Geoffrey Simon were talking about a very different facet of the repertory when her appearance with the orchestra was first mentioned.

“In our first discussions,” she said, “he said, ‘I understand you like playing contemporary works.’ I said I did and we thought of a few concertos: Berg, Stravinsky, Panufnik, and a couple of others. Then he called again and for one reason or another each of the pieces we’d talked about wouldn’t do. Somebody with the orchestra didn’t like it; whatever. So he asked me to look at other pieces.”

Conductor and violinist already had established a good rapport when Chase appeared with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1986 with Simon on the podium. They have recorded together once and are planning another that features three big pieces for violin and orchestra: the concerto by Glazounov, Bernstein’s “Serenade” and Ravel’s “Tzigane.”

Meanwhile, the hunt for an Albany concerto continued. “It started to get more and more esoteric. I’d hear of a piece and get a tape; I’d like it, he wouldn’t. Okay. We’d find something we both liked: the management said no. And it was getting nearer and nearer to deadline. Plus, they weren’t going to hire me unless they knew what piece I intended to play.

“On my part, I didn’t want to dig up some new piece and learn it just to play it once. So we were right down to the wire when Geoffrey called and said, ‘Look. How’d you like to play the Beethoven?’”

Which is about as standard-repertory as you can get, but Chase has made a career out of performing it and the other fiddle warhorses with orchestras throughout the world. “I certainly didn’t mind the idea! The piece is a challenge in every way. It’s really a Classical-era work in that it’s spare with a structure that has to support the piece. You can’t play it like a Romantic work, layering a lot of rubato on it. Beethoven’s writing is pure and has to be played in a pure way. Vibrato, phrasing – everything has to be gentle.”

She’s inclined to burst out laughing in the midst of the stories she likes to tell. She’s just as inclined to offer a shrewd analysis of whatever subject is being discussed. Interpretation of the Beethoven Concerto was one of them: “Just this morning I was listening to the Fritz Kreisler recording of it,” she says, “admiring the warmth of his sound. He was very sincere in his playing, and it tells you a lot about Kreisler the person.”

Which leads to an editorial: “In the last 20 years or so there has been less of an individual style of playing among violinists. Their sound is the same and that even extends to the interpretations. Now, I object to adding extraneous things, but I believe a player’s personality should come through.”

A prodigy who won prizes on Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour when she was seven, Chase blew away all the would-be Heifetzes in my home town at the age of 14 when she played the Mendelssohn concerto with the local orchestra.

She made the tough transition from child wonder to mature artist with the help of one of the masters of this century, Arthur Grumiaux. “I began studying with him when I was 17, and that really changed my career. I was at loose ends at the time. I knew I needed to change teachers, and I thought it would be a good idea to work with a performing artist, someone who could make demands on me artistically.”

Grumiaux agreed to teach her if she made a commitment to stay a year. “Which was a big commitment for me to make. I had to give up playing concerts for a year or two.

“It was frustrating. I was being told to approach things in a completely different manner than I was using. But Grumiaux was a great teacher in the sense that he wasn’t a great teacher. He wasn’t a pedagogue instructing by rote, but rather an artist who could sense a problem and challenge me to solve it. He’d say, for example, that my arm was tense or my bow hold didn’t look right, and force me to analyze and work out the problems.”

She speaks with the experience of a teacher. She has been on the faculty of M.I.T. and is still part of the Boston Conservatory. “This was a huge contrast to what I’d grown up with, all these teachers of the Galamian school who just hand out bowings and fingerings for each new piece and expect you to follow in their trail.

“For me the change happened at just the right time. I’ve seen a lot of students develop good performing careers in their late ‘teens, and they go on the road and give up studying without learning a way to solve the problems that you discover as you mature.”

The Albany Symphony concerts also feature a work by Australian composer Vincent Plush, part of the orchestra’s salute to that country’s bicentennial. Pacifica is a musical tour of Australia and Latin America, emphasizing Plush’s pursuit of an Australian musical identity without what he sees as unnecessary homage to Europe.

The Symphony No. 2 by Leo Sowerby is also on the program.The performances take place Friday at the Troy Music Hall and Saturday at Albany’s Palace Theatre; both concerts are at 8 p.m. Tickets are available at the respective box offices and through Community Box Office outlets.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 19 January 1989

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