Friday, May 3rd, 2019

Marcio Carneiro cello master class

Unirio, Rio de Janeiro


Concerts are the end product of years of practice, talent and musical insight. Master classes are the showcase for the work in progress. For the amateur musician, master classes are the opportunity to understand not only the technical details that make a performance sparkle, but the musical insights that make it dazzle. To me, master classes are as fascinating as concerts and recitals, or maybe even more. They are analogous to an aspiring watchmaker’s study of the intricacies of timepieces, or a driver’s urge to understand the mechanical details of an automobile, or a budding chef’s desire to absorb the secret ingredients of a master chef’s creations.

There are, of course, master classes and Master Classes. The quality of a master class stems from several components. The most important, I believe, are the teacher’s capacity to analyze the student’s playing and to pinpoint the issues to address, and the teacher’s ability to get his ideas across. It seems obvious, but the diversity of approaches and success is actually quite amazing. There are many styles of master classes. One can, maybe a trifle superficially, divide them into categories. You have the lenient and undemanding approach, not very effective. You have the forbidding and exacting approach, not very productive either. You have the muttering and incomprehensible approach, which is what it is, incomprehensible. You have the verbose and convoluted approach, equally incomprehensible. There is the swift and to the point approach, a little frustrating. There is the unbearably slow and muddling approach, which ends up being soporific, and one could go on and on reciting the different possible combinations. So let us describe the paradigm, which we could call the perfect master class. In it, the teacher is attentive and analytical, never critical. He or she is articulate and capable of putting the analysis into clear language, with the occasional touch of humor, knowledge, examples and  anecdote. Needless to say, the teacher must have a perfect command of technique and repertoire, and preferably have a solid cultural (not only musical) background. He or she must also allow for individual interpretative preferences and maybe discuss them with the student, but never judge them. What can and should be keenly judged are intonation, intonation and intonation, left hand and bow technique. The latter is by far the most difficult, in my humble opinion. As I have learned over the years, you can have an impeccable and extremely precise left hand, with good intonation, but if your bowing is sloppy, all is lost. The bow creates the sound, the interpretation, the effects, the dynamics, the legato and staccato. In a way, it relies on the left hand to give it freedom. The left hand hammers, the right hand glides. As on a golf club, the grip on the bow should be like holding a bird, just tight enough so that it doesn’t fly away, but gentle enough not to kill it.

I have attended many, many master classes, good and bad. I will not mention the bad ones, it would be pointless. But I will mention the ones I liked best, and I urge you, if ever you are near the place where one of these masters is about to speak, to run, not walk!

One of the best master classes I have ever attended was not a cello master class. It was a piano master class which I have described in another article. The superb teacher was Leon Fleisher. I attended a piano master class of his, and a few years later a chamber music master class. They were both thrilling. Fleisher is a philosopher and a psychologist and his profound culture and wisdom lead him to express his ideas convincingly rather than forcefully.

He has a beautiful, flowing delivery and he is simply mesmerizing. The result is that the students immediately pick up his suggestions and apply them with seemingly little effort.

Another splendid teacher is Yo Yo Ma. In his extremely gentle yet firm manner, he gets his message across far more effectively than the “dragons” or the “milksops”. He knows what to single out and how to correct it. He does this with a smile and a courteous manner, never abrupt or judgemental. Although he is more “instrument-minded” than Fleisher, he does cover a wide range of subjects, especially his beloved “crossover” experimentation.

And others, like Gary Hoffman and Lynn Harrell (actually, there are not so many. The snotty and dogmatic kind is far more numerous) are also considerate and earnest, much to the students benefit.

Last Friday I was fortunate enough to be able to add another example to  my rather short list of masterful master classes. The teacher was Marcio Carneiro, a marvelous Brazilian cellist and renowned teacher. He taught in Germany and in Switzerland for many years and says that he is now retired, but luckily continues teaching master classes. The classes took place at  Unirio, one of the public universities in Rio de Janeiro, which has a strong music department, despite short funding and myopia from the mayor’s office. The students were mostly promising young cellists from the school’s graduate program, and some who are doing post-graduate work. The pieces played by the students were all staples and went from the prelude to Bach’s suite no. 3, to Beethoven’s second sonata and to Dvorák’s concerto. Unfortunately, recording is forbidden and I cannot remember all the individual comments and advice. But I retained a few important principles which will guide my practicing until Maestro Carneiro’s next visit to Rio.

The main one is that a cellist, and any musician or even artist for that matter, has to be two people in order to achieve whatever it is that he wants. The first person is the craftsman who carefully hones and polishes his skills, working slowly and demandingly on intonation, left hand and bowing technique. Once this work is digested, the artist may step in and fine-tune the result, shaping it into the interpretation he wishes to give.  Neither process can be skipped and the order is obvious.The other recommendations stem from this basic principle. The young girl who played the Beethoven sonata was gently scolded for her careless intonation. The two who played the Bach prelude, or at least the first one, had little technical problems, if any, but had to refine their interpretation, and forget the notes (metaphorically, of course!) so as to transform a skillfully performed exercise into music. The Dvorák was the occasion of addressing the issue of technique serving or hindering interpretation. And so on.

Throughout his lessons, the teacher illustrated the point he was making on the cello, delivering a superb tone (which is not easy to produce on different borrowed instruments of variable quality) and absolutely incredible bow work, demonstrating that the seemingly impossible is actually possible.

So how can one summarize the makings of a masterful master class? The most important features, I think, are what player and listener come away with. For the player, it is pride and assurance in his or her playing and constructive humility as to what needs to be corrected. For the listener, it is a deeper understanding of the mechanisms of playing the particular instrument being taught and a greater knowledge of its repertoire. As I said in the beginning, some master classes are more fascinating than concerts. And some concerts are master classes in the sense that they confirm and put together that which the teacher carefully takes apart.