Finding a voice

Violinist Liza Ferschtman on how young musicians can break away from the sound of their heroes

Finding a voice
Liza Ferschtman (Credit: Jonathan Zizzo)

They Shall Have Music is a 1939 movie about a young New York gang member who’s inspired to transform his life and attend music school after hearing Jascha Heifetz play. The plot has many exciting twists and turns but all ends well with Heifetz performing the finale of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with the orchestra of the music school. I must have been around eight or nine when my musician parents showed me the film and I was transfixed by Heifetz’s incredible playing and Mendelssohn’s light and humorous music. 

So began a lifelong relationship with the Mendelssohn concerto, and one - as relationships go - with ups and downs. I listened endlessly to my cassette tape and later CD recordings of Menuhin, Oistrakh, Francescatti playing the famous concerto before to my excitement finally being able to learn it myself, aged 14.  I went on to make my Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra debut with the work and have played it many times in the past 20 years. But however much I loved the concerto, for a long time I didn't feel that it loved me back equally. Something seemed to be keeping me from getting to its core and finding a really personal interpretation.

As a young music student, one listens to a multitude of recordings of the great violin concerto repertoire - Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Sibelius - to feed your love for the music itself, but also for the instrumentalists performing it. It is inevitable that a young performer is highly influenced by all these interpretations. When you are young, you want nothing more than to emulate these great players, who make such a beautiful sound. On top of this, you have your teachers guiding your endeavors by feeding you another interpretation. It is not unusual for a teacher to give you bowings, fingerings and of course musical guidance. Without doubt this is all valuable and important, but very often there is not enough emphasis on stimulating a young student to think for himself, making choices built on some form of research into the piece, the score, the composer.

It is therefore unsurprising that when learning a piece in your most formative years, as most professional violinists do - and especially a piece from the very well-known repertoire - your interpretation is weighed down by all the great interpretations of the past and your teachers’ opinions. And that ‘burden’ can keep your own voice and interpretation masked for a very long time. Maintaining a fresh outlook, putting aside all other interpretations when studying a piece can be an impossible task, not to mention the pressure of knowing that the audience too is so familiar with these works.

A great way to experience how music making can feel without that burden is playing modern or lesser-known pieces. The freedom and liberty of creation that one enjoys in those moments needs to be transported to the staple repertoire - not only for the performer’s sake but as an essential way of keeping those works alive and relevant for modern audiences. Otherwise we are just reproducing, over and over again.

How do we discover new freedom of creation in the core repertoire?  For me this can only happen by returning to the source - the composer and the (musical) ‘text’ he has given us. But to read and interpret this text properly, one needs to be able to speak the language of the composer. As anyone learning a foreign language knows, studying from a book is not enough. You need to get out there and start having (musical) conversations – playing as many chamber music works by the composer as you can, listening to all the symphonies and studying anything where you can find his ‘signature’. Secondly, learning about the periods in which the composers lived can provide much-needed context. And of course listening to great performers can be inspirational, but one needs to look at how they arrived at their interpretations, not just copy the conclusions. The more you know, the more fluent you become and the more freedom you acquire. A great work will never cease to surprise you and the discoveries of its secrets can be endless!

So even if you have learned to love the masterpieces through the greatest interpretations and the most revered musicians like I did with Heifetz and Mendelssohn, every time you return to a work try to start afresh, adding to that childlike eagerness the acquired wisdom of adulthood.

Liza Ferschtman’s Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and String Octet album is out now on Challenge Classics. For more information click here.

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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