I attended a master class this morning. And, no, it was not Malcolm Gladwell or Neil Gaiman writing, or Helen Mirren on acting, or Gordon Ramsey on cooking, or Steve Martin on comedy, or Spike Lee on moviemaking.
Surely your Facebook has been swamped with famous people wanting to teach you the secrets of their craft, through MasterClass.com. (I’m waiting for a “master class” on how to make the perfect pitch for a master class. Because they’re all good …)
Here’s the thing about master classes: By numerous definitions, they are taught by acknowledged experts in specific fields to highly knowledgeable or talented people in the same field. In other words, the best of the best passing along hard-won knowledge to the very people who are nipping at their heels, so to speak.
MasterClass.com has the first part right. Their teachers are awesome, with instant recognition in their fields. Who can sign up for their courses?
Me. For one example. Maybe even you.
How does that make it a Master Class? I am a master of none but slightly knowledgeable in many fields. For example, I can breeze through the Monday and Tuesday New York Times crossword puzzles. Maybe Wednesday, if I have the time. The rest of the week? Forget it.
So, technically, a master class lifts the already elevated to the next level.
That is no mean trick, making the best and the brightest, even better and brighter.
But I saw a bit of that today. From the audience.
It really starts Friday night when the Dover Quartet gave a mercurial concert at the Angela Peralta Theater, here in San Miguel de Allende. The performance was part of the 41st season of the Festival de Musica de Camara.
The quartet dazzled the audience with an unexpectedly romantic and lyrical composition from Anton Webber, Beethoven’s career-defining String Quartet No. 2 (the one that blew Hayden off the Top 10 charts), and Dvorak’s stirring post-New World Quartet No. 14. All transitional, game-changing, pieces for the composers.
The Dover quad oozes charm, expressiveness, warmth, and fluidity. And not only their music. If you could see their faces as they perform you would melt from sheer unfiltered happiness. They are so expressive in their unspoken communications — nods, eyelid flutters, eyebrow lifts, head tilts — I started mentally writing cartoon captions for them:
Camden Shaw, cello: “Steady as she goes, darlings!”
Joel Link, violin: “Sweet transition, Milena “(Pajaro-van de Stadt, viola)
Bryan Lee, violin, to no one in particular: “Ah, bliss.”
And such forth and so on.
They like each other.
Saturday morning the four Dover musicians returned to that stage to conduct a public two-hour master class with the rising young stars of Chroma Quartet from Universidad Veracruzana.
And one hour after the master class, the Chroma Quartet was on the steps of the Casa de la Cultura, near Parque Juarez, delivering a free concert of stunning verve and passion as part of the Music Under the Trees program, produced by the Festival.
Jeeze, what a great couple of days.
The Chroma four certainly qualify as “highly knowledgeable or talented people in the same field.”
They have performed together since 2015 and recently finished a masters residency at the University of Victoria in Canada. Its members – Ilya Ivanov (violin / viola), Carlos Quijano (violin), Félix Alanis (violin / viola) and Manuel Cruz (violoncello) have taught their own share of master classes as well.
Now, where do they fit in the professional quartet hierarchy with the Dover Quartet? Now, I am not qualified to say but using the broadest definition of “nipping at their heels,” I’d say catch them if you can because that would give you lots of bragging rights at some future festival. “Yes, I heard Chroma when the ink on their master’s degrees was still wet.”
So this masters class was on stage at the Angela Peralta and the front door was open. (No need to be crass. Yes, it was free to come and see.) The Festival pairs up its weekly headliners with up-and-coming talent on Saturday mornings for the edification of all.
And believe me, it is edifying.
From what I could see, here is how the master class works: the students begin to perform a pre-selected piece — in this instance, Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, Opus 131 — and … well … they don’t get very far.
Behind each performer stands their counterpart from the Dover Quartet and each has authority to halt production, point out some discrepancy and share an insight or two before the piece resumes.
And, boy, did they have a lot to share.
I couldn’t even keep up in my little notebook, and keeping up with talkers is what I did for nearly 40 years. “Use the dimension if you choose … there’s an innuendo happening here that like in the previous section … the audience expects a release here but Beethoven isn’t giving it to them … you need to fight against a natural tendency to speed up … you’re forcing the sound to get it a little louder …think about the length of it … one more time … when you have a long crescendo, think about what you want to do … each figure has its own shape … different types of crescendi within the same figure … dynamic surprises are easy to find … maybe you rushed it …volume and texture are really nice here …you’re so close, don’t over-tink it.”
The torrent of observations is so rapid that sometimes the musicians eschew language for sing-song mimicry of a key passage. “It is like this, da-de-de-deeee-de dah!”
Heads nod in assent. They get it. They’ve all been there.
As a member of the audience to this spectacle, my admiration grows immeasurably for the complexities that inhibit and inhabit of four musicians rolling that single jagged rock up the hill in unison.
The myriad details each musician must hold in his or her head while performing in some sort of unison with three other people is staggering. And Beethoven. He was the guy who famously responded “Not my problem” when musicians complained about the technical complexity of performing some of his compositions.
Then again, there is no way that the members of the Chroma Quartet could possibly absorb and internalize all of the data flowing in their direction at the speed of the superior knowledge of the Dover team.
We sat and watch the Chroma performance being deconstructed even as they tried to play through it.
And yet, it all comes around again as a whole and the elusive “fifth voice” begins to emerge, and rise, and hover just above the performers with a light all its own that spreads throughout the auditorium. It is the seemingly magical joining of four disparate instruments in such a bonded performance that it has a unique color, shape, phrasing, articulation, depth, resonance, and personality of its own.
It is the elusive essence that makes a quartet unique among the many many other quartets playing the same compositions.
I don’t know what the Chroma Quartet got from this session. It was two hours out of a lifetime.
Most likely what they got can’t be adequately articulated. But it is there. Inside them. I’m willing to bet that the next time they sit to play Beethoven, that fifth voice will begin to emerge.
The Chroma Quartet had a chance to apply all that an hour later in the open-air concert on the Planchas del Chorro, below the House of Culture. Unleashed from the “classroom” they plunged into a program that roared through time with pieces from Bach to Mozart, to Schubert to Paganini to modern times with Blas Galindo, Arturo Marquez, Eduardo Gamboa, and even a rearrangement of George Shearing’s jazz nugget “G & G.”
A perfect tour de force for an outside venue.
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Next Saturday, Aug. 17, at 10 a.m., the Gryphon Trio will present a master class with Trio Naab from Mexico City. It is free. Stop in, buckle up, and get ready for the ride of your musical life.
Also, Chroma Quartet will no doubt return to San Miguel in the future. Possibly after the release in September of their first CD, “Chromaswing,” in collaboration with renowned jazz pianist Edgar Dorantes. I wouldn’t miss that performance for the world.
The young Buddhist postulant sat cross-legged on the cold stone floor of the temple, the very model of repose. His hands were clasped in his lap. His eyes were cast downward, while his posture was erect.
In front of him sat the old bikkhus, a Buddhist monk of many years, who came to this monastery as a child. He was nose-to-nose with the postulant. His breath was smelly but he said not a word. Instead, he lit small firecrackers on the end of a string tied to a pole.
The postulant occasionally flinched but mostly he stayed deep in his meditation.
The old monk’s purpose was not to distract the young man from his daily meditation but to drive him deeper into it.
One day, when the young man was no longer young and no longer a postulant, he gained notoriety for sitting as still as a statue while a fierce battle for control of the monastery raged around him. Arrows flew in all directions, many with flames or gunpowder attached.
The monk was untouched and unaware of the events surrounding him.
I thought of this story this morning as I sat in the Angela Peralta Theater in San Miguel de Allende and watched members of the wonderful Dover Quartet conduct the two-hour master class with the rising young stars of Chroma Quartet from Universidad Veracruzana.
That is very much what the teachers were doing: Driving their pupils deeper and deeper into the Beethoven ethos until they are the masters of the realm.