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
"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
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,
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