A LIVS Interview With Glenn Dicterow

A NY Phil Concertmaster Glenn DicterowConversation with the Concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic

Conducted by Gregg Deering and Charles Rufino - 2007

Gregg Deering (CD): You are the violin soloist in Brahms Double Concerto in the Philharmonic’s Brahms Festival, Brahms the Romantic, and you are also participating in a discussion and concert, with Emanuel Ax, centering on Brahms’ third violin sonata at the Metropolitan Museum. Though I’d love to ask you about the “behind the scenes” questions about the Philharmonic, but I feel I should start with Brahms…..

Glenn Dicterow (GD): We are doing a lot of Brahms, almost the entire Brahms orchestral book, almost everything he ever wrote. As a soloist I’m doing the Brahms Double Concerto (for Violin and Cello, opus 102). The last time I did the Concerto was with Masur, in his last year (2002). We are doing it on tour in Europe as well. We decided to spread out the Brahms concerts so we would not have to cram all the work into a small amount of time. This would not work with the rest of the orchestra’s plans, including our travel plans and Maazel’s schedule.

CD: Let’s start with your Metropolitan Museum concert, why did you choose the third sonata?

GD: It’s the one that I’ve lived with the longest, it’s the one, I think, most violinists are attracted to; partly because it has a tremendously effective last movement, it’s very virtuosic.

It’s the most outgoing of the three, obviously the first sonata is gorgeous, probably my favorite of the sonatas, maybe the best piece of music of the three. But it’s like the third symphony, it evaporates into the ether, into space. It’s very hard to make that work, particularly if it’s the only piece in a program, Number two, has the same type of ending, it’s also good, but for me it’s not the conclusion to an evening. It doesn’t leave you with a feeling of excitement, it’s contemplative. The pauses are breaths, they should not be too extended. Masur was one who never really believed in rests in Brahms being over extended, they should be like quick breaths. You could think of it not as a stagnant rest but a pregnant pause. As if you were a brass player or a wind player and taking a breath.

The third sonata is the most virtuosic for everyone. It’s intense, the beginning is amazing. So many artists approach it in a very, very muscular and not surreal manner… I’ve now learned to steep back in an approach in this way…

CD: Can you elaborate on the surreal approach, I think that’s a great way to describe the beginning of the first movement…

GD: I feel the very beginning, has a feeling of mysticism, it is not coming from this world and your contact with the string should float. There is no beginning, it should just appear out of space, then all of a sudden you here this sound. Very often I’ll begin, float, so you don’t hear it right away, as if there is no beginning.

The sonata takes a while to develop. Until he breaks onto that incredible double forte he writes everything in the sotto voce — underneath, as an undercurrent, noting should be out there. You have play, as if you’re playing a mute. The way I do it is to float on top of the strings, so ones not hit the in the face, it’s a gorgeous theme and it should be all about subtlety.

CD: I hate describing music to musicians, but with in that beginning there is actually a lot going on….

GD: Yes, there is always activity, but you don’t want to over-do the dynamics. The dynamic indications are very subtle, he has very strange markings at the beginning of the sonata.

(showing us the score)

Brahms writes the stress, it looks to me like it’s on the last eight, of the third bar and fourth bar. What does he really mean, does he mean to extend that piece longer than it is? Obviously an accent is not what he wanted, it’s not written that way. The dilemma is what to do with that, because you have a moving eight underneath, you cannot stretch out the phrase here.

So what I do is to try and change the color, and try to intensify the vibrato a little bit at this point. But it’s always a dilemma to know exactly how much time to take, given the line of the piano, and it should not be disturbed too much.

CD: There is the interplay, but right after this there is a rest…

GD: Absolutely. the whole section has them, they’re breaths. The pauses are breaths, they should not be too extended. Masur was one who never really believed in rests in Brahms being over extended, they should be like quick breaths. You could think of it not as a stagnant rest but a pregnant pause. As if you were a brass player or a wind player and taking a breath.

CD: In one of the interview you said that he composes for the violin like a pianist.

GD: Yes, especially in the fiddle concerto, I feel that he has a concept of the violin as having a larger than life sound. He must have had quite a champion in Joachim. From what I can tell from the recordings that are still around, he had was a big style fiddle player, very heavy; not “heavy” in a good way, a massive sound. You can tell from those recordings that his sound is very thick, more Germanic than French.

Brahms has these triads that he wants sustained (at the very beginning of the Concerto) he writes whole chord through, well, what kind of bow can you do that with? It’s just shear weight and power to be able to do that.

In Beethoven, the writing is much more transparent. Brahms violin concerto is the first concerto that’s been written for the violin to sound so massive, orchestral. The Double Concerto, as well, has that same weight.

With a Beethoven symphony, I don’t imagine anybody having a problem getting into it. There’s an immediacy about Beethoven. He’s not pulling any punches, he’s playing a fortepiano and the bottom drops out, he’s in your face.

CD: That is also said of Brahms piano concerti.

GD: Exactly, that is what was I was thinking of when I talked about Brahms approaching the concerto like a pianist. Obviously Brahms was not a string player; because of his friendship with Joachim, even though some of the writing can be quite awkward, it’s still works on the violin.

Can you imagine how much harder it must have been before Joachim has his input? It must have been much harder before, Brahms is wring these double stops in tenths, all the time. One has to have a large hand to do that, I suppose he was writing equally hard things for pianists as well. Brahms was a very small man; when you see these photographs, the portraits you think he’s 6’8″. He was small but he must have had a tremendous reach.

CD: I am interested in Brahms intentions for the violin in the last sonata and the Double Concerto. The Double Concerto starts off intensely

GD: Yes, totally different, the Double Concerto makes an impact right away.

CD: Do you think there is a clear division between the larger than life Brahms and the chamber music Brahms?.

GD: Yes, there is a different sense of intimacy with the chamber works, but I know that you mean by the question. I’d say that the third breaks the mold on the symphonic side. I love the Third, it’s not a big audience pleaser, but it’s my favorite. They never program it to close a concert, conductors don’t want to leave the audience with the music floating away.

But the chamber music is more intimate, going beck the third violin sonata, the second movement of the third sonata is dark, deep and gorgeous. you have the violin soaring and the piano in the background. The third movement, seems playful, but it’s in a minor key, it too is dark. Then you have the last movement, also in minor, and all serious stuff. It’s just got so many events, it has both the intimate and the symphonic, and it breaks the mold as well.

Charles Rufino (CR): I was instantly electrified by Brahms, but in subsequent years I’ve heard a number of people tell me, including musicians, who told me it too years for them to like Brahms. Maybe it’s the gloomy, autumnal feeling. Do you have a take on this?

GD: I don’t know, I loved Brahms immediately. It took me time to love Wagner. I can see why it takes people time to warm up to Brahms. Even with symphonies he’s not giving you his personality immediately.

With a Beethoven symphony I don’t imagine anybody having a problem getting into it. There’s an immediacy about Beethoven. He’s not pulling any punches, he’s playing a fortepiano and the bottom drops out, he’s in your face.

CR: I’ve read that you have said that you can play Beethoven every night, but not so Brahms.

GD: With Beethoven there is freshness about it all the time, and if you’re not in a proper mood with Brahms I think it’s hard to make it work.

CR: Why do you think that difference is?

GD: I should probably never say this, but… I think you have to reach down, way beneath the surface, to get what Brahms is after. There is a great darkness, a darkness about his life, there is a darkness about his music. Something brooding, I always feel that. There is great spirit too, particularly with Hungarian works, which are wonderful and can be appreciated immediately. But with much of his other works there is so much internalizing, other issues. I would imagine that it relates to the unfulfilled parts of his life.
…do we choose violins for the quality of their sound, their gorgeousness, or warmth, if they are not heard? We are dealing with two issues, you want to be heard, and you want that sensuous feeling, you want that conception to a sound on the violin.

With Beethoven I just feel like he’s on another planet. He answers to a different authority. There is something else going on with Beethoven.

CD: I know you’re a Heifetz fan, and I only recently heard the Heifetz/Kappel recording of the third sonata. It’s a different, more “nuanced,” an interpretation than I am used to.

GD: It’s quite a wonderful recording, they weren’t afraid to make an individual statement, that’s the thing. Today I think that people are a little scared of over-interpreting, and making an individual statement. They are over analyzing, in the past violinists were not afraid to put their mark on it.

Earlier in the last century, great violinists had a distinct style — you could drop the needle on a record and you could tell in the first three notes if the performer was Heifetz, Francescatti, , Grumiaux or Milstein. There was a distinct voice, and I don’t think you have that any more.

Kreisler, for instance has two Brahms concerto recordings one quite early. Even given the limitations of the recording, his sound and musicianship is astounding.

I tell my students to go listen to these old guys, you’ll learn so much. So much can be gained, we are so lucky to have them. Now those guys, who did Heifetz listen to? He had to go to a performance. Maybe that’s why they had such individual style, they did not have ten recordings of the Brahms concerto. The temptation is to take a little of this, a little for Szerying, and little from Milstein.

CD: Heifetz, early on, is also playing for an audience that hasn’t learned everything from a recording, so when they are they’re expecting to hear things Heifetz’s way.

GD: That’s right, even if they know the work, it would not be a single performance they are used to.

CR: One other factor, it’s always been true that the big soloists are known for recordings of the big concertos. Now you have audiences that are used to recordings were the violin is….

GD: …in their face…

CR: …yes, and you’re not having to work to hear the soloist, particularly if you were in a bad hall.

GD: … Which most of them are… Tell me, what halls were, except for Carnegie — which seats almost 3000, when they were playing these concertos, were playing in halls of maybe 1200, 1500 at most. The Musikverein in Vienna seats, I believe 1400. In Avery Fisher Hall they are expecting to hear the details in the Brahms violin concerto, or the double concerto, if they are in the third tier, in the back? That’s why as concert-master I’ve never played an orchestral solo in less than a double forte, even if no one else is playing you still have to move it a notch up. You cannot play what the composer asked for in large halls.

CR: Some of the best violinists in the country have studied with you, do you have some other pointers similar to what you just said for other violin players.

GD: I try to give my students all the inside information, how often are they going to be able to test it out for themselves? That’s what teachers are for; at least if the teacher is a performer, they may not have that information, or insight as to what it’s like performing in a large hall.

Which brings me to something else, do we choose violins for the quality of their sound, their gorgeousness, or warmth, if they are not heard? We are dealing with two issues, you want to be heard, and you want that sensuous feeling, you want that conception to a sound on the violin. Maybe that’s why people gravitate to (Guarneri) del Jesu, Stradivarius on a different type of level — they project and still they have that warmth.

Projection, we talk about that all the time. Are you playing for your family, or in the bathroom; if you play in a concert hall you have to project, you have to move the bow to project. If you just press the bow and think that compression will send your sound out, you have another thing coming, it’s not going to happen. You have to move the bow, physically you have to make the sound waves jump out of that box. To do that, you have absolutely launch the sound by moving the bow quickly. A lot of people don’t understand that, there, that’s the secret of projection. There’s a solo in Strauss’ Don Juan, and he doubles the solo with winds, but it’s marked solo — and I play it quadruple forte — and it’s marked piano.

CD: I’ve heard you play the violin solo in Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, beautifully I might add. There you are playing with the orchestra, did Strauss write the solo anticipating that it should be heard in the rafters?

GD: On the contrary, he didn’t. Strauss, again, was writing for a smaller concert hall, and with a smaller orchestra, I should add that I really don’t think that they played at the volume level the brass players play now. Their horns were engineered differently, they could not play as loud.

Ein Heldenleben, the first time I did it was with Zubin Mehta and it was televised live. Basically you’re swimming in this sea of sound, you’re engulfed in this sound and seven or eight minutes into the piece you see the word solo in the score. The hard part is becoming a soloist out of the ensemble.

My associate at that time was Charles Rex, we sit together on stage, and just before the piece began he leaned over and tapped the tip of his bow on the score, just where it said solo. Most people would just kick him, but I actually laughed. I think it made that first Heldenleben solo easier….

So we adjust to the environment — it’s Avery Fisher Hall, with the Philharmonic brass, you have to think big. Very often I adjust the volume upwards, if I’m by myself, it’s a different matter.

CD: I know that you have a big interest in the major composers of Hollywood.

GD: These composers are still under a shroud, as soon as they started to work for Hollywood.

I’ve played Rózsa’s violin concerto, I’m playing Korngold violin concert next year. I’ve played Waxman’s Carmen Fantasy, which was one of the first things I did when I was thirteen or fourteen. I studied it with Waxman, in the ’60s as a teenager. It’s a complicated piece.

My father, who the principal of the second violin section in the Los Angelus Philharmonic, would go to jobs in the orchestras at the studios and you should have heard these orchestras, particularly MGM and Universal. My father played for Bruno Walter during in his California recordings sessions. I was there for the Brahms recordings.

CR: I’d like to end with a few questions submitted by very young music students, How old were you when you started playing the violin

GD: Eight.

CR: How many hours did you practice when you were ten years old.

GD: 3 hours a day.

CR: Do you remember any moments in your early studies that were particularly discouraging.

GD: I remember in my first year trying to read music. It was not happening fast enough. I thought there was a challenge between reading the music and getting it to function on the violin. my second year was a lot different.

CR: Do you play any other instruments?

GD: the viola, and the piano a bit.

CR: Do you have a favorite composer.

GD: People ask me this all the time, and I can never narrow it down… Beethoven Brahms… then there are a lot of Twentieth Century composers I’d choose as well….

CR: You used to play Baseball when you were young, and you were a catcher, who do you like today?

GD: Posada, I like Posada. I’m a Yankee fan. He’s the brains of the team. My father told me it’s the worst position for a musician to play, there’s not a catcher that doesn’t have his fingers broken twenty five times.

CD: Thank you for you time, there is so much more to talk about, at another time, but I’m wondering for the Metropolitan Museum concert, is there any chance we can get you to the other two Brahms sonatas as an encore?


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