Corrections or additions?

This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the October 18,

2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Bach’s Violin Challenge

Performing Johann Sebastian Bach’s six pieces for

solo violin calls for not only musical achievement, but for magical

sleight of hand — for smoke and mirrors. While the violin is in

its element unwinding a single melodic line, the scope of these pieces

is orchestral. Like an ensemble, the performer of Bach’s solo violin

works must, at times, produce harmonies, giving the illusion of


instruments playing simultaneously. At other moments the artist must

produce the sense of multiple melodies occupying the sonic space


contrapuntally passing and wrapping around each other.

Using as a road map a score written almost three centuries ago, the

performer must consider present-day ears. For audiences used to


with more horsepower than the violins Bach knew and used, to today’s

bows that shape phrases differently, the performer must make almost

300 years of music history disappear.

Fortunately, the solo violin pieces of Bach, like his solo works for

cello, keyboard, or solo flute, make life easy for the illusionist.

The timeless appeal of the six sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied

violin reaches out to lovers of syncopation and dissonance, to those

seeking serenity, to those who are awed by grandeur, and to fans of

dance. Violinist Mark Kaplan plays the lot on Wednesday and Thursday,

October 25 and 26, at 8 p.m. in Princeton’s Richardson Auditorium.

Next month Princeton listeners can hear Bach’s entire set of solo

violin pieces transcribed for lute and performed by Hopkinson Smith

on Tuesday, November 14, and Thursday, November 26, at Taplin


in Fine Hall. Taplin, which seats 200, should be a congenial


for the soft-spoken instrument. The Smith concert is the final event

in Princeton’s commemoration of the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death.

The first took place on Sunday, October 15, when the Richardson


Players performed Bach’s "Musical Offering."

"The solo violin works are universally recognized as great


Kaplan says in a telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles,

where he is professor of violin and head of UCLA’s string division.

"Violinists routinely study them. Mostly, they get a kind of lip

service. There’s not much chance to hear them outside of


They’re especially worth hearing on two successive evenings. Each

piece illuminates the others. The total is greater than the sum of

the parts. When you work on them all together, you learn something

from one that helps with the others."

"They’re very difficult works," he continues. "You


learn the things that make them difficult at first. You have to


the ways in which you play the pieces because the music is


Some of it — the fugues — is blatantly contrapuntal. You often

have to bring out the bass lines, only a note here or there. Or there

are running 16th notes but two melodies at once, which is not


in the score. You have to make sense of it. Once you play [the Bach

solo repertoire] for a while, you become aware of other challenges

beyond the surface challenges. They have to do with taking control

of the pacing of the whole piece to have fun with it."

"The way you play these pieces is different from the usual


Kaplan says. "You use different muscles. If you don’t play Bach

for a while and come back to it, your hands feel tired."

The act of performing alone in a concert hall is also different from

the violinist’s usual pattern. "Violinists are not accustomed

to playing on stage alone," Kaplan says. "They’re not like

pianists, where harmony is easy. It’s a challenge to get up and figure

out how you’re going to be personally responsible for all the sound

in the hall."

By Kaplan’s happy view, any order of program makes an effective


of the solo violin pieces. "The overall unity of the program comes

by itself," he says. "It’s inherent in the way the pieces

are written. In `The Well Tempered Clavichord,’ Bach set out to


the limits of what the harpsichord could do. He’s doing a similar

thing for the violin in the solo works. He was interested in the


of completeness. That comes across when you do all these pieces, no

matter in what order you do them."

For the Bach solo works Kaplan has no brief for an


instrument, although he plays a 1685 violin of Antonio Stradivari.

"My violin has been modernized," he says. "Before I


the solo Bach pieces, I spent a year using a baroque bow for my own

benefit; the bow is important for articulations. For my personal taste

I find the baroque violin less interesting than a modern instrument.

I don’t like its sound; it’s monochromatic. It makes an attractive

sound with the gut strings and the looser tension. But it’s a


sound and you can’t get rid of it. There’s more range of tonal color

in a modern instrument. That’s what I like for these works."

Still, for Kaplan, old violins have their place. "I like the


instrument for less substantial works, or for pieces that are clearly

defined by the sound, for instance a Locatelli piece. That kind of

piece sounds boring and overblown on a modern instrument; on an


instrument it sounds like a breath of fresh air." He distinguishes

between making music and playing an instrument. "The deeper pieces

need a modern violin. They go beyond the instrument. That’s why they

invite transcriptions."

"The violin works translate well for the keyboard," Kaplan

says. "The solo violin pieces work very well for the lute. I’ve

heard the entire D Minor Partita on marimba and it worked very well.

This is very versatile music. It depends on what you can put into


Born in 1954, Kaplan grew up in Syracuse, New York, a middle child.

His sister Sandra is now a New York-based pianist. Sister Tammy is

the acquisitions editor for a Boston textbook publisher.

His mother, a piano teacher, founded a music school that grew to


hundred students and included dance and drama. She retired after a

heart attack. "She had a dream of a community music school where

people would pay according to their income," Kaplan says. "She

was a child of the Depression, and that was part of her socialist

upbringing." Kaplan’s father, a physicist, whom Kaplan calls


very good amateur violinist," provided him with childhood memories

of violin practice and chamber music.

Kaplan started violin lessons at five or six. "Once,

when I was seven, I was invited to sit down with the grownups and

play. I worked like crazy on an easy movement of a Haydn Quartet.

I was very nervous. But it was very wonderful."

By the time he was nine he was making fortnightly trips to New York

City to study with Dorothy DeLay. "That was before she was Dorothy

DeLay," Kaplan says. (About DeLay see U.S. 1, May 24, 2000.)


really taught me how to play the violin. Now the people who go to

her at nine already know the whole violin repertoire." Besides

studying violin during high school, Kaplan took college level physics

and mathematics courses. At 17 he went to New York, undecided between

music and science. "I was enrolled in Juilliard and I was taking

three graduate courses in physics at Columbia. It was a very intense

year." He is matter-of-fact about his decision for music and


with DeLay, offering no spurious insights. "People make these

decisions without a lot of logic," he says.

Kaplan began to play Bach when he was seven. "The Bach pieces

I learned as a child are in my blood," he says. "My father

used to practice them. It’s part of what drew me to the violin. It

was a European-based musical tradition. There was a sense that


special connected me to great composers and to a tradition. I teach

at U.C.L.A. and almost all my students started with one variant of

Suzuki or another. They learn the identical pieces. In terms of the

materials, Suzuki is wonderful pedagogically. It is well organized.

The understanding of the mechanics of violin playing that went into

it are extraordinary. But my students don’t understand that violin

playing is more than a succession of progressively difficult pieces.

They think that eventually you play the Beethoven violin concerto

and that’s Suzuki Book Number 235 — I’m being facetious. When

I grew up the materials were not so well-organized. Now, it’s like


As for mentors, Kaplan says, "two very different people were very

helpful: Itzhak Perlman and Mitch Miller." He met Perlman at about

the time he left Syracuse for New York. "I would play for him

regularly. He was a wonderful inspiration. I got to know Miller about

the same time. I met him when he was becoming a pops conductor. He

always made the pops concerts more serious than normal. Lots of people

who didn’t come to classical concerts would come to his concerts.

He was looking for someone to play the Mendelssohn Concerto on tour

for eight weeks. I did four of them."

Kaplan, who has performed throughout the world, answers a question

about audience reactions in different countries with a memory from

a tour with Miller. "There are lots of national differences,"

he says. Some places are very reserved, for instance Sweden. Even

if they love a concert Swedish audiences don’t scream.

"On my first tour with Mitch Miller we played in many small towns

throughout the United States. Once we were in Mississippi, playing

in shirtsleeves and the audience was in evening wear. They barely

clapped. We were working like crazy, but we never got any reaction

out of them. We felt terrible. At the reception afterward the woman

who had been running the concerts for 40 years said in a thick accent,

[here Kaplan uses an outrageous parody of a Southern accent] `The

audience lo-o-o-ved the concert.’ We were astounded. Then she said,

`When ah first came to town the audience was so rude. They were


and yellin’ and sayin’ Bravo. Now ah have them trained just


These days Kaplan’s appearances with orchestra account for the


of his performances. In addition, as a member of the Golub-Kaplan-Carr

piano trio, he participates on two annual tours. The number of his

solo recitals is very small, he says. "There’s not the tradition

of recitals that there was even 30 or 40 years ago," he says.

"There are few recital series outside the big cities. Partly it’s

because there’s more chamber music than formerly."

Kaplan doesn’t need a solo Bach performance to pull off incredible

feats. One of his hobbies is baking. "My favorite is anything

sweet — anything complicated," he says. "I like European

things with lots of layers."

His other hobby is riding a unicycle. He does it more for sport than

for transportation. "I wanted it for many years," he says.

"My parents gave me one, but it was too small. I got one about

eight years ago and taught myself to ride it."

Perhaps Kaplan was the man with unicycle I saw last weekend in New

York, near Lincoln Center. But, on second thought, it couldn’t have

been Kaplan. The man on Broadway was just walking his cycle along.

Kaplan would have been riding it, creating the illusion that it was

just as easy for him as handling Bach’s solo violin pieces.

— Elaine Strauss

Mark Kaplan, Princeton University Concerts,


Auditorium, 609-258-5000. Mark Kaplan, violinist, performs two


comprising J.S. Bach’s "Complete Works for Solo Violin." $19

to $29; students $2. Wednesday and Thursday, October 25 and 26,

8 p.m.

Previous Story Next Story

Corrections or additions?

This page is published by

— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.

Facebook Comments