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Review in the Minnesota Star Tribune – July 16, 2021

“Kutik made a convincing argument that Mendelssohn’s D-minor Concerto deserves to be heard more often. He took a work prone to histrionics in some hands and made it a captivatingly subtle musical journey. While there were some big, bold lines in the stormy first movement, there was disarming gentleness in the Andante. And Kutik displayed exhilarating athleticism in the fast passages of the Roma-flavored finale.”

Playing With Heart, Not By Heart

Several years ago, I was performing the Prokofiev G minor Violin Concerto with an orchestra in the USA. For this performance, I decided to use the score. After one of the rehearsals, a member of the orchestra approached me and told me that they loved my playing. And then they said, “get rid of the music, you don’t need it.”

Whether or not to “play by heart” riles up fellow musicians like few things do. A majority of performers are adamant that all solo works must only be performed by memory as per tradition. Others, such as Gidon Kremer and Patricia Kopatchinskaja, play everything exclusively with the music on stage. And others, such as this New York Times article points out, mix it up (i.e. Emanuel Ax playing Bach with music, while Schoenberg by memory).

Personally, I’ve found there are works I prefer to play by memory, and others for which I prefer to use a score. Coming to this realization took years of often frustrating experimentation. There are performances I regret, not because I wasn’t prepared, but because I was playing by memory simply “to adhere to tradition,” ignoring my brain’s persistent requests that it felt more comfortable with the score on stage. More importantly, it took me a number of years to finally realize that I was frequently devoting a lot of my practice time to simply memorizing rather than truly learning.

Why do we go to concerts? For me, I want to be moved and inspired, to have fun, to learn, to be awed. Whether or not the performer is playing by memory has no impact on my perception of the performance. I just want to hear an awesome concert.

It seems to me that Classical musicians have spent far too much time in our training obsessing (in an often unhealthy way) about “playing by heart.” Every competition I’ve entered strictly mandates the memorization of solo repertoire. Conservatories often require memorization of the material to pass juries, promotionals, and to qualify for internal competitions. Most of my teachers (whom I adore, for the record), never considered a piece learned unless you were able to play it by memory, in strict accordance with tradition.

Memorizing solo repertoire was the creation of Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann in the early to mid 19th century. It was a revolutionary way to add to the mystique of the solo performing pianist in the era of romanticism; the mysterious figure on stage who seems to receive guidance from the heavens. It worked. Audiences loved the theatricality, and henceforth, every solo artist felt compelled to memorize everything. Ironically, prior to Clara and Franz, you simply could not go out and play the Mozart or Beethoven Concerti by memory. It would be the height of disrespect to the composer and their new work.

This topic has been covered in great depth. And thankfully, the emerging (albeit slow) consensus is that memorization is entirely unimportant to the quality and impact of a performance.

Over the past years, I’ve also started thinking about memorization from a different perspective. We’ve learned so much about the human brain in the years since Clara and Franz. As the organist Jonathan Dimmock points out in his essay on memorization,”we can see 16 possible patterns that constitute the way our brains assimilate knowledge. Each person has only one of these, for life! Of these, the ability to memorize facts, or memorize music, ranges from second nature to nearly impossible.”

Put another way, there are a whole lot of brains out there for whom memorization is not an option. In fact, the latest educational research suggests that to demoralize someone because their brain doesn’t function in this way inhibits creativity and confidence. This does not mean however that these artists can’t be brilliant. To the contrary, perhaps your specific brain needs the visual reassurance of notes on a page in order for another part, the creative muscle, to create magic.

All this leads me to a fairly alarming realization: It is not unreasonable to assume that the conservatories, competitions, and organizations dedicated to producing the next crop of artists are only tapping into a tiny percentage of the talent in existence. What if this 150-year old plus memorization requirement (created perhaps out of boredom, in all honesty) has prevented us from hearing and getting to know Yo-Yo Ma 2.0 or perhaps genius we can’t even comprehend today?

The music industry is undergoing a reset, and it seems to me there hasn’t been a better time to break tradition than now. If your brain dictates it, drop this tradition and truly focus on playing with heart, not by heart. As a performer, decide what this means to you – memorization or sheet music be damned. 

 

A Tribute to Herbert Burtis

When I was applying for college during my senior year in high school, I received a notification about a new foundation just launched to help high school musicians in their pursuit of a career in classical music, called the Ferris-Burtis Music Foundation. I applied and was invited for an audition at the home of Herbert Burtis and his then still partner of 55 years, John Ferris. I played for 20 minutes in Herb and John’s Living room before a large audition committee they had put together. By the time I arrived back home, I received a call saying I was the first recipient of a grant from the Ferris-Burtis Foundation.

This past week, Herbert Burtis passed away at the age of 90. Herb was a wonderful pianist, teacher, activist, and a very good friend of mine. Although primarily a keyboardist, through his many years of accompanying vocalists, he became a well known vocal coach, teaching singers who would flock to him from all over the world, including the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson with whom he worked for 20 years.

Throughout the next four years of my undergraduate studies, the Ferris-Burtis Foundation helped to pay my tuition. At the end of each academic year, I would show up to Herb and John’s home for a “check in” solo recital–their living room packed to the brim with friends and family. Herb and John were nothing but encouraging, kind, and supportive. I recall these yearly recitals for them so fondly. I would see the same faces year after year, almost like a family. These check in recitals inspired me to continually improve and come back with even more to say next year artistically

Unknown to me, John and Herb were at the same time actively fighting in court and engaging in advocacy to advance the cause of gay marriage. They finally got married in 2006 in Massachusetts after knowing each other for 55 years. Following John’s death in 2008, Herb joined a legal effort to challenge his inability to receive survivor benefits because the federal government did not recognize his marriage to John. Here is a wonderful piece about this on NPR’s Morning Edition.

In the years after John’s passing, as my concert career started picking up, Herb became ever more committed to helping me in my pursuits. His foundation supported a number of important album projects and created performance opportunities for me over the years. Equally of value, Herb made introductions on my behalf to friends and contacts of his whom he thought I should get to know. He also had a blog and frequently posted his own glowing reviews of my latest concerts, even as I kept telling him he was clearly biased.

Unbeknownst to the average listener, there are a whole host of patrons, supporters, and friends of artists who make our careers possible. These people are dedicated and generous, in a way that moves beyond the financial. They show up at rehearsals, are the first to open newsletters, and offer up faith in our next projects.

Beyond helping artists personally, people like Herb have a vision of a bright future for art in our society. They are investing in tomorrow’s artists and tomorrow’s audiences, eager for both to prosper. During this past year, when the arts sector got crushed by the pandemic, arts supporters have been selflessly dedicated to helping make our professions (and careers) possible again. Herb’s generosity over the years was beyond anything I can properly convey in words. Underlying his support was incredible modesty and a simple desire to be as helpful as possible to artists like me in this incredibly challenging field.

A number of years ago, I played a small concert for the residents at a retirement center near my home. The weather was awful, there was a fairly significant snow storm in the area – the kind of night where you don’t want to stray too far from your couch, television, and a glass of wine. Herb heard about this little concert through the grapevine and showed up, snowstorm be damned, driving nearly 40 minutes on the back rural roads of the Berkshires to hear me. I recall telling Herb I couldn’t believe he showed up and imploring him to drive back very carefully. Later that night, I wanted to make sure Herb had made it back home safely. Before sending him an email to check in, it occurred to me to first check his blog. Sure enough, he was home, there was already a new post up; I got a glowing review for my performance that evening.

 

Lessons From a Visit to Auschwitz

Several years back, I was invited by international March of the Living to perform at their annual Holocaust memorial ceremony at Auschwitz-Birkenau. MOTL is an incredible educational program that brings thousands of students from around the world to Poland, to explore and see first-hand the remnants of the Nazi Holocaust. The program culminates in a “march of the living” of 20,000 people from around the world, all marching through the well-known gate and onto the field at Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

The day of the Yom Hashoah ceremony I arrived early for a rehearsal and soundcheck. With some time to spare, I walked out onto the still-empty field by myself. The first thing that struck me was the enormity of the place. It’s hard to see the end or the beginning. You can walk and walk and still feel like you aren’t getting anywhere.

I headed towards a forest on the perpendicular side of the now infamous rail tracks which were used to bring in victims and prisoners. I walked for 5 minutes, then 5 more, and then 5 more. It did not feel like I was getting any closer to the trees. I turned around, aware of the time, and as I headed back towards my colleagues, I was overcome with emotion. I was standing exactly where thousands of people walked, every day, in fear. But unlike me, they could not turn around and go back. They had to keep going, many not knowing that they were taking their last steps.

What struck me more than this vast overbearing space was the silence. This silence at Auschwitz II-Birkenau is like no other I’ve ever experienced. It is deafening. It crushes the soul, the ears, the mind. It’s enough to make one lose hope, which I know by design was the entire point of a place dedicated to hatred and death.

Like so many people in the world this week, I sat in horror watching the violent mob attack on our US Capitol and Congress. As I scrolled through posts online I saw that certain individuals photographed in the building were well-known Holocasut deniers, one even wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” hoody, and one a shirt with “6MWE” printed on it (six million wasn’t enough). There were flags flown modeled after German Nazi war flags among other national symbols of hate–I shudder to think of the noose and Confederate flags bandied about that day.

It’s no secret that hate and anti-Semitism, the very reasons my family left Belarus in 1989, have been experiencing exponential growth across the world over the past years. But to see this sentiment so openly exhibited in the halls of this venerated building in our nation’s capital, is, for lack of a better word, unbearable.

There must be something awful in someone’s life, a reason, which drives them to so openly put on such a vile garment, to wave such destructive symbols. Perhaps simply ignorance? But this is no less devastating in and of itself. How does someone get to this point? One would hope that if these individuals visited these camps and saw first hand the consequences of unchecked hatred, if they experienced this crushing silence and space solely designed to extinguish hope, they would change their mind. One would hope

I am just a musician. I’m not a political leader, influencer, or pundit. There are many bright minds currently trying to make sense of the events of this past week. However, I do know one thing: We must wake up and call this out. We need to shine a bright light upon hate, as that is the only way to impede it’s growth. If we don’t collectively speak up right now, the silence will be as soul-crushing and deafening as it is to stand at Auschwitz itself. And unlike my little 15 minute walk, turning back will be impossible.

 

The Incongruity of Creativity and Marketplace

Everywhere you look these days, one publication or another has a ’30 under 30′ or a ‘ 20 under 20’  list of top regional entrepreneurs, artists, chefs, doctors, etc. In our ever-quickening race to maximize marketing potential and fast growth, I wouldn’t be surprised to soon see a ‘5 under 5’ in preschool block building and coloring.

I know it’s all just a catchy headline meant to highlight the accomplishments of some genuinely talented and astounding individuals. I also know that as a society we’ve always been amazed by wunderkinds, crazy talent, and get-rich-quickly, or get-a-ton-of-attention-quickly schemes (looking at you Leopold, father of Wolfgang A. Mozart). No one seems to have the time to wait around for an entrepreneur to build a better company, or an artist to paint a better picture.

Here’s the thing though: great creativity, by its very nature, is fueled alone by time, patience, and experience. Sure, there are insanely amazing 15-year old musicians and actors. But is that how we define creativity, or is that simply prodigious anomaly combined with the buds of creativity?

While practicing the other day, I solved a phrasing issue in the Bartok Solo Sonata that for the life of me I had not understood for years. In fact, this year alone, I’ve been discovering new approaches and ideas all over the place (See Begin Again and Repeat).

It struck me: true creativity can’t be rushed, it is equal parts time, curiosity, and dedication. It will take however long it takes, and your efforts to speed things along will likely be as productive as banging your head against a cement wall. What do Samuel L. Jackson, Julia Child, and Charles Darwin all have in common? (I’ll save you the google search effort. Their careers only really got going around the age of 50.)

And yet today, just like we have for centuries, we jump at the latest, newest, fastest, shiniest career in the latest edition of 30 under 30. Put another way, we have all these delicious cakes in front of us, and yet we usually discard the whole thing before we ever get to the filling. We just pay for the icing. This is all good and understandable, but maybe we might gain inspiration from the 50 and 60 year olds finally getting their Ph.D.? Maybe Time should be publishing an ’80 under 80′ list? Maybe we need to invest in and encourage slow growth, not just what satisfies the needs of the marketplace?

As tough a year as this has been, on this front, the pandemic may have been an opportunity in disguise. We went into collective hibernation. In some industries the walls of the ‘marketplace’ no longer exist and need to be rebuilt. So, let’s go slow, be open, and pay attention. And, I have one additional suggestion: the next time you see a 30 under 30 list, appreciate the incredible and deserved accomplishments on that list, and then, find someone in the same industry who’s in the August of their careers. You might find that they’re actually just getting started.

Begin Again (And Repeat)

My friends know that I go through a nearly constant re-thinking and re-examining of the way I play the violin and approach music. I’ve always believed “beginning again” is an integral component in what makes art engaging and relevant. Like bad fish, there’s nothing less inspiring than stale music-making. My musical “heroes” all happen to have one thing in common: every time you hear them, they sound completely different.

When the pandemic gripped the world in March, and after an initial round of shock, I decided to try something different in my playing. I tore off my violin shoulder rest, a modern contraption that attaches to the back of the violin and helps to create a comfortable grip between the shoulder, violin, and head, and started to play. It was awkward at first. Using a shoulder rest was the way I had played for more than 25 years. By college, I always secretly felt that the shoulder rest wasn’t quite working for my body, but I did not want to take the time to begin again – the days/weeks of reworking everything – so I took the “plow straight through” approach, which for better or worse, I made work for me until March 2020.

I could write for hours about shoulder rest vs. no rest, one of the biggest and most contentious behind-the-scenes debates in the violin world. However, I can say with confidence, that after the initial round of awkwardness wore off, as the days turned to weeks, it turned out playing ‘au naturel’ is absolutely the right fit for my body. New mobility and an approach to sound that I so desperately sought for years, unfolded before my eyes with ease. As March turned to summer, I slowly rebuilt my playing from top to bottom and reveled in my newfound playing freedom.

Then, this past September, I had to have somewhat unexpected surgery which prevented me from playing the violin for four weeks. (Note to reader: I am fine and thankfully fully back to normal.) I had never taken more than two weeks off from the violin, let alone a whole month. Quite honestly, I sat out this mandatory absence dreading what I would return to find. Playing the violin is a very athletic action, and as with any sport, even a day away has an impact on the muscles. One always feels “raw” in the first days back to kinetic action after a period of rest. Think about going for a run for the first time in weeks or months…

However, surprise, surprise, it turned out that this absence was perhaps one of the best things that could have happened; a complete reset to my playing and approach to violin. Starting with 15 minutes of playing, and then 20 and 30, and etc. along with proper physical therapy, I jumped into the basics. I took out my scale books, Kreutzer, and Dont Etudes. (Violinists will know to refer to them as the “Don’t play these etudes” – subtle, I know.) This period of playing has been a revelation; there is a magic to going back to the basics, to beginning again from the beginning with years of knowledge and experience under one’s belt. As the weeks have passed, I’ve worked back up to a full day of playing, and just as with the removal of the shoulder rest, I have been overjoyed to find I have awesome new violin capabilities.

There’s so much I don’t know in this world (an understatement), but I can unequivocally say, seek out opportunities to begin again. These are far and few between but so worth it. Sometimes, such as with a once-in-a-generation pandemic or unexpected surgery, you are forced into beginning again. But more importantly, sometimes, you need to be courageous enough to press that reset button yourself.

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