The first viola student who prepared to present at Jonathan Vinocour’s Master Class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music began with the viola variation from Alberto Ginastera’s Opus 23 “Variaciones concertantes.” As the title suggests, this is a composition in which the individual variations are solos for different instruments in the orchestra. Thus, on the surface, the music involves a rather elaborate abstract approach to one of the oldest musical forms.
The viola solo is technically demanding from its first multiple-stop notes. While there are moments of lyricism, the overall emphasis seems to explore a variety of capacities for virtuosity, a bit in the spirit (but not the substance) of Eugène Ysaÿe’s solo violin sonatas. As a coach, however, Vinocour was more concerned with what this student would do with the music after she had established a command of that virtuosity.
He suggested that she try thinking of the music as if it were unfolding a narrative. He posed as an example (but not a definitive one) a scenario of inquiry and response, perhaps along the lines of Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question.” The remainder of his time with this music concerned identifying narrative elements and addressing how they could be disclosed through performance techniques.
This struck me as a perfectly valid approach to making sense of a highly challenging piece of music. Narrative holds a particular kinship with music, since it is the only literary form that can only exist through the unfolding of events in time. As anyone familiar with literature knows, that unfolding need not take place in strict temporal order; but a story is just not a story without a time dimension.
Many (myself included) often invoke the metaphor of a journey when talking about the time dimension of a composition, its performance, or the experience of listening. The journey is, of course, one of the oldest forms of narrative, going all the way back to Homeric epic. Vinocour did not use that metaphor last night. One might say that he approached this single variation as if it were a vignette or anecdote. On the other hand that metaphor might serve the conductor responsible for preparing a performance of the full set of variations. This would amount to following the strategy that András Schiff took in preparing program notes for last month’s performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 988 (“Goldberg”) variations.
The student also prepared the fifth (Vivace) variation from Johannes Brahms’ Opus 56a orchestral version of Johannes Brahms variations on Joseph Haydn’s setting of the “Chorale St. Antoni.” This was not a solo. Rather, most of the viola part involved an inner voice, only occasionally picking up the melodic motif of this particular variation.
In this case Vinocour shifted his attention from telling a story to establishing character. Many writers of fiction will claim that you cannot tell a story until you understand the characters involved in that story. There are even Hollywood scriptwriters who begin by creating fleshed-out personalities for their characters before making any decisions about the events in which they will be involved.
For most conductors the fifth variation is the shortest in the Opus 56a set. Wilhelm Furtwängler’s recording with the Wiener Philharmoniker clocks in at 53 seconds. For many listeners it goes by like lightning, barely the time required to tell a knock-knock joke, let alone a story. Character type, however, can be established almost instantaneously. Thus, Vinocour’s approach to coaching involved allowing the student to identify the character type and then pointing out how, even at its rapid-fire pace, the music still allows for gestural cues that will establish that character type.
For someone, like myself, who is as interested in reading as in music, Vinocour’s literary approach to coaching this student last night was a stimulating and memorable one.