Yesterday, in writing about Mack McCray’s Monday night piano recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), I discussed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s rhetorical use of full-stop silence in his K. 540 adagio movement in B minor. Last night at the SFCM Chamber Music Master Class taught by violist Kim Kashkashian, that rhetorical device was both more abundant and more strikingly profound. This time the music was a more leisurely Andante, from K. 590, the last string quartet in Ludwig Ritter von Köchel’s catalog and the last of a set of three dedicated to King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia.
It was clear that Kashkashian treasured every one of the silences in this movement (and there are quite a few). As a result, much of her coaching involved convincing the students of their musical value and cultivating their awareness of that value. I was particularly struck by two aspects of that coaching.
The first involved exercises through which the four members of the quartet would be collectively aware of the common pulse behind the expressive rhythms from which those silences emerged. She had the students perform the opening measures pizzicato, using the pulse to repeat those notes that would otherwise have been sustained. This amounted to an ear-training exercise in hearing the pulse. It left an impact on me as I listened to the remainder of this session, so I hope it registered equally effectively with the student performers.
The other approach was one I have seen in much of Kashkashian’s coaching, which is her use of the whole body. If, as I suggested last month after a Master Class given by violinist William Fitzpatrick, muscle memory plays a key role in the performance of music, then Kashkashian recognizes that, for string players, that memory is not confined to the muscles in the fingers and arms. Thus, when she talked about movement, particularly along the vertical axis (but the lateral and sagittal axes are equally important), this was not also a matter of raising or lowering the bow but also one of more general engagement with gravity (through which all movement must inevitably be defined). She also talked about collective movements, such as having all four quartet players lean in towards the music stands to reinforce the definition of rhythm emerging from the pulse. Through such methods the silences could then be defined in “choreographic” terms supplementing the acoustic phenomena.
Both of these techniques seemed directed towards cultivating the ability to recognize silences as a presence, rather than an absence; and it is through that sense of presence that Mozart’s silences assume their true profundity.