This month, New York Philharmonic audiences will be treated to performances by four acclaimed virtuoso violinists: Joshua Bell, Philharmonic Concertmaster Glenn Dicterow, Sarah Chang, and Anne-Sophie Mutter. Recently, another violin virtuoso, Mark O'Connor, caught up with three of them to chat, fiddler-to-fiddler, about what the term "virtuoso" means today.
Mark O'Connor: The famous violinists of past centuries wrote their own music, created their own techniques, opened up the stylistic boundaries of their instrument, and could improvise at the drop of a hat. Do these same talents play a role today?
Glenn Dicterow: In the training today, you are not encouraged to write your own material and your own cadenzas. We get our compositional classes once we get to the conservatory, but in old Europe they were getting that at a much earlier stage. As an educator myself, I think the more we encourage it, the more it will happen. The education has to get turned back.
Joshua Bell: My teacher, Josef Gingold, instilled in me respect for those old guys. In fact his own teacher, Ysaÿe, a great virtuoso from the 19th century, had his students write their own cadenzas. My teacher always talked about it, and I wanted to please him so when I was very young I came in one day with my own cadenza for the Brahms. Once I had done that I realized it was probably the most creative thing I had done. Whether someone likes mine as much as Kreisler's is not really the point; the point is that it is something different. I hope we are going back to that.
O'Connor: Everyone seems to agree that technology and the modern way of life have made quite an impact on classical music-making. Can you relate to that?
Sarah Chang: I was playing and traveling like crazy; doing so much and I was perpetually tired all the time. I was learning repertoire every single week. In contrast, Maestro [Isaac] Stern told me that back in his younger days, even when he was absolutely at his busiest, he would take time. He went to Europe and would stay there for a month or two. And he would go by ship.
Things have changed. It's a fast-paced world. I hardly write a postal letter anymore; everything is done by e-mail and everybody wants answers now. So, therefore, music-making, the lifestyle and the whole persona of the young virtuoso, has changed as well.
O'Connor: It is said that when listening to recordings made by the great masters in the early part of the 20th century one could tell in a matter of seconds which of them was playing; this extends to jazz greats too, such as Stephane Grappelli.
Dicterow: They came along at a time where there was a lot more individuality in style. I don't know if it will ever come around again. You could drop the needle and within five seconds you would know it was Grappelli's sound.
Bell: They seemed to all have their own individual style. It's harder to tell these days the difference between some of the virtuoso violinists. There is a flair that some of them, like [Zino] Francescatti and [Nathan] Milstein, played with that in some ways was more impressive.
O'Connor: Has the classical music scene over-used the term "virtuoso?"
Dicterow: Absolutely! Personally I would rather be known as a musician who speaks with expression rather than wows with technique.
Chang: I am kind of weary of labels. Since the time I was eight I have always had the label "virtuoso" or "prodigy" or "wunderkind" attached to every single article or review. It's all very nice and incredibly flattering, but you realize pretty soon that what you want for your life and with your career is to be regarded as a wonderful, honest musician.
Mark O'Connor is a Grammy Award winner and a self-described "violinist, composer, fiddler." His most recent recording is a double CD, Mark O'Connor Thirty-Year Retrospective, that celebrates his career as a professional player.