In the coming months, we will be featuring interviews with musicians of various backgrounds. If you are a musician and would like to be featured in our series, please contact us at elijah.ho[at]hotmail.com. A full list of interviews can be found here.
Jennifer Stumm is the current International Chair of Viola Studies at the Royal College of Music in London. An alumna of the Curtis Institute and the Juilliard School, she was the First Prize winner of the 2005 William Primrose International Viola competition. The Washington Post wrote, "There is an opal-like beauty in the viola playing of Jennifer Stumm...this young, Atlanta-raised musician also has a wonderful way of finding color in a phrase and injecting phosphorescent energy through rhythm,". Below is a transcript of our end of summer conversation with violist Jennifer Stumm.
EH: Are you from a musical family ?
Stumm: My parents have a great appreciation for music but they never would have imagined that their daughter would someday be a professional viola player. I grew up singing in church choirs and enjoyed music very much, but I only began studying the viola at the age of eight. I never played the violin. I just loved the viola for its unique voice. It wasn’t until I was fifteen or so that I began looking at music more seriously, and it was around this time that I heard about about the Curtis Institute and Karen Tuttle.
EH: Karen Tuttle was an incredible musician. What kind of impact did she have on your development ? Did she share stories of her playing under Toscanini ?
Stumm: She really was a great woman, a renegade. You know, she left home at sixteen and made money playing in Hollywood studio orchestra. She met William Turner, who said, “If you come to Curtis, I’ll teach you”. She became his teaching assistant at twenty-one and never left.
In terms of viola technique, she really was a pioneer and her teachings were quite different from traditional violin technique. Karen considered how the body naturally moves, how we breathe, and how these impact the use of the bow in the production of sound in a most natural way. She was a major force and many great viola players have come from her. I was lucky to be one of her last students and so much of what I know comes from her.
I have some of the old bootleg radio recordings of her when she was playing for Toscanini and the NBC orchestra, and I’ve really never heard a viola sound with such humanity. It’s as if she’s really speaking with her instrument.
Stories ? She was a stunningly beautiful woman, and even in her eighties, when I came to her, she was still a very attractive woman. I asked her if Toscanini, like most men, would fall at her feet when he saw her. She winked and told me, “Yeah, he was ferocious, but I’d bat my eyelashes and just play the concertos, and he would appreciate it,” (laughs).
EH: With respect to technique, what are your thoughts on the right-hand and the creation of a beautiful tone on the viola ?
Stumm: I give masterclasses and often find myself teaching students a way of speaking with the bow. Tone is what comes first, and it is the most important thing, regardless of your instrument. If a singer can’t control the vowels and the breathing, the singing suffers. A viola player really needs a lot of finger and hand dexterity – we need a slower, more tactile approach in order to resonate – and a big part is training the ears to listen for a certain sound as well. Learning to have an incredibly flexible, virtuosic ability with the bow takes a lot of dedication. With the right-hand, it’s all about artistry, what to say, how to phrase, etc. There are a million ways to do it, but it really is the most interesting part of our craft.
EH: In your experience, what are some of the common pitfalls that young players struggle with when it comes to the production of tone ?
Stumm: Without a doubt, I think it’s a lack of flexibility in the hands, inattention to the fingers and parts of the arm that are for different lengths of notes. I had some wonderful teachers explain these things at a young age, and they showed that you can do so much more in music when you have a flexible hand.
EH: For young musicians and parents who are considering between instruments, how would you explain the beauty and the appeal of your instrument ?
Stumm: If you consider the average range of the human voice, the viola actually encompasses the largest portion of it. Without a doubt, the violin is a more virtuosic instrument and the cello is more heroic-sounding, but the viola is so human, so incredibly variable in terms of what kind of voice you want from the instrument. If you choose the viola, you’re probably a character actor at heart, and this is what attracted me to it. It’s almost like a person. There isn’t a word that can properly describe any one person, but the impact is unique and real.
EH: Who are some of the great musicians of the twentieth century you’ve admired, people whose artistry has shaped your own ? I’d love to get your thoughts on William Primrose as well.
Stumm: Primrose had such an incredible impact on the possibilities of the viola. He had such star-power and was able to commission great works from composers. This really was the most important legacy that he could leave with us. Yes, he also had excellent technique – Tuttle often spoke of just how strong he was, how he could handle the viola like a bigger violin – and he was a gentleman-artist as well. As viola players go, the sound of Karen Tuttle has probably influenced me more. Hers was more personal, she took more risks, and probably made more mistakes in doing so.
But my greatest influences have been from singers. As string players, we all try to imitate the human voice. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson is probably my favorite singer after all. Of course, it’s so fascinating to me that she was also a violist, but hearing her for the first time was an incredible experience. My father also had some wonderful records of Kirsten Flagstad, and Fischer-Dieskau in Schubert as well.
On the one hand, it is so important to have these great recordings inspire you, but I’ve found that it’s also important to not listen too much to those who do what you do, who play what you play. Your ears will gravitate to them, and suddenly, you’ll wonder why your ideas and your sound are not your own.
EH: There seems to be an increasing uniformity of sound with respect to interpretations and technique. What are your thoughts on competitions and the artistry of our generation ?
Stumm: I probably wouldn’t be where I am today without competitions. It is very difficult for viola players to stand out as a soloist; our world is still a developing one. I was a bit older when I entered competitions, and it has definitely helped, in my opinion. I went in knowing who and what kind of musician I was and technique was not the end-goal. I learned how to fight nerves, how to be alone on a stage, and these were positive experiences for me. I used to be much more nervous before going on stage. You know, I almost see it as a muscle - it’s just something you have to develop and work on constantly. The stage now brings out parts of me that come out only when I’m on stage, and I love this.
EH: Over the years, what art forms have always captured your imagination or inspired your artistry ?
Stumm: I have a universal interest in the arts, but living in London, theater has become an everyday part of my life. I’m fascinated by the technical aspects of artistry: what is it that makes an artist great ? How much does inspiration play a role ? Being a great actor on a stage is quite similar to what we do as musician: we’re interpreting and not quite creating in the moment.
EH: What are your thoughts on the future of the art form ?
Stumm: Everybody is talking about this and I have some strong opinions about the model that we follow, the marketing, etc. You can say the same about the publishing industry. I believe we’ve been very slow to adapt, but what’s interesting is looking back in history, how the music always related to the other art forms. Classical music is always the last to change and I’m not sure exactly why this is – perhaps because it’s more abstract. Right now, we’re seeing the genre a bit behind and slower than the modern art world. People don’t have a problem with modern art, but it’s amazing how scared many presenters are of putting on anything new. Some still believe Shostakovich too modern!
I have a lot of hope. I don’t believe that classical music will die. Music evolves and there are entire populations of people who are so excited about the music. It’s just a natural evolution, like anything else in society. I’m concerned about the economics – especially for struggling musicians, some of whom I know – but the art form itself is doing just fine. There are so many students who would die for the chance to study at a great conservatory. As long as musicians are flexible about things, the future looks very promising to me.
EH: In your opinion, what is the purpose or value of performance art ?
Stumm: Almost anybody would agree that music is universally powerful. There is no culture where music doesn’t play some kind of emotional communicative role. Performance, however, is another story. Most people believe that live music is very powerful, but there are so many competing elements in life these days, and this seems to be the deterrent for experiencing live music. I personally believe that it’s a matter of making the opportunities more accessible; institutions should be part of the community so that people will see these options.
In London, there are so many different things people can do on any day of the week, but performance art, on a philosophical level, is something you take away for yourself. There is so much communication that happens at a live performance that you cannot receive through a pair of headphones. We have many traditional divisions and walls that are set up in classical music, but the average person on the street doesn’t care if you’re playing the violin, the viola, or any other instrument – as long as you’re communicating something of value.
EH: Jennifer, thank you so much for taking the time today.
Stumm: Thank you, Elijah. It was my pleasure!