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This article by Elaine Struass was prepared for the December 15,
2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Brandenburg Concertos: Served Fresh, with Joy
Violinist Ida Kavafian tucks a telephone interview into the half-hour
break within her teaching schedule at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute.
Cell phone in hand, she briefly talks with the parent of a student,
decides she’s hungry, leaves the building, crosses Locust Street for
food, acquires a raisin bagel and a chai tea, chats as she eats, then
heads back to arrive only minutes late for the next lesson.
Down-to-earth, she is forthright and open. Does she reveal her age,
when the subject comes up? Of course! "I’m 52," she says. "I don’t
mind saying my age. First of all, it’s the truth. And my students are
always sweet enough to say I don’t look my age."
A member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the resident
band of instrumentalists that reconfigures itself to cover the wide
swathe of one-person-to-a-part compositions, Kavafian plays with the
same energy with which she multi-tasks through her teaching days. When
the Chamber Music Society performs Johann Sebastian Bach’s six
Brandenburg Concertos in Richardson Auditorium on Monday, December 20,
Kavafian sits out only one of the pieces with violin parts. McCarter
Theatre sponsors the event, following a non-continuous Brandenburg
holiday tradition that began in 1986, stopped in 1991, and resumed
last year with the participation of the Chamber Music Society.
The performers on December 20 are Ida Kavafian, her older sister Ani
Kavafian, and Joseph Silverstein, violins; Daniel Phillips,
violin/viola; Paul Neubauer and Richard O’Neill, violas; Mark Kosower,
Clancy Newman, and Fred Sherrry, cellos; Edgar Meyer, double bass;
Tara Helen O’Connor and Ransom Wilson, flutes; Randall Ellis, Mark
Hill, and Stephen Taylor, oboes; Frank Morelli, bassoon; William
Purvis and Stewart Rose, horns; David Shifrin, E-flat clarinet; and
John Gibbons, harpsichord. The Chamber Music Society’s 1996 Delos CD
(DE3185) includes many of the artists.
Bach put together the instrumental works that became known as the
Brandenburg Concertos while he was employed by Prince Leopold of
Anhalt-Coethen, whose court included 18 exceptional musicians. When
the prince married a woman with little interest in music, Bach sent
the pieces to Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg in 1721,
perhaps in the hope that the Margrave would make him a job offer.
Christian Ludwig’s court musicians may have lacked the musical skills
needed to perform the pieces, and Bach’s scores remained unplayed. Not
listed among the prince’s valuables at the time of his death, the
pieces nevertheless survived in the Brandenburg archives. Philipp
Spitta, Bach’s biographer, gave them the name "Brandenburg Concertos"
150 years later.
Classified as "Concerti Grossi," the six compositions embody the
typical baroque question and answer format with individual solo
instruments or solo groups responding to larger orchestral forces. A
"continuo" of harpsichord and bass instruments provides the harmonic
Bach re-used material he had previously written to piece the
Brandenburgs together. The earliest material dates from 1708; the
latest, from 1720.
The six pieces vary in instrumentation, in key, and in duration. The
shortest, Number Three, takes slightly more than 10 minutes. The
longest, Numbers One and Five, are almost twice as long. Numbers Three
and Six exclude wind instruments; Number Six omits violins. Number
Five, with its elaborate solo harpsichord part, is considered to be
the first keyboard concerto in modern western music.
This year’s performance of Number Two is unusual in substituting a
solo clarinet for Bach’s solo trumpet whose part lies in the
stratosphere of its range. The move is anachronistic; the clarinet was
still in its infancy at the time of Bach’s death in 1750. The E-flat
clarinet that David Shifrin plays is pitched higher than the
commonly-used B-flat clarinet.
Kavafian reacts to the use of clarinet instead of trumpet by saying,
"I don’t mind. The trumpet part is very difficult. It’s hard to make
it sound good. Some purists will think (that using a clarinet) is
blasphemy, but it sounds great."
The Brandenburgs are frequently performed, and I wonder how a musician
keeps playing them fresh. "They’re such fun," Kavafian says. "It
doesn’t matter how many times you play them. They’re great music."
Does she have a favorite? "I like Number Six," Kavafian says. That’s
the one that features the lower strings and leaves out violins.
"Probably Number Three is my favorite of the ones I’m playing in. It’s
the perkiest, except for some joyous movements of Number One. I go
through times when I prefer different ones, but in recent years, it’s
been Number Six."
"The most difficult piece technically is the solo part of Number
Four," she says. "As far as ensemble goes, Number One, with its large
instrumentation, including winds, is the hardest to work out. Each
Brandenburg presents a particular difficulty, and that keeps it
Ida Kavafian, like her sister Ani, was born in Istanbul to a violist
father and a violinist mother, who met when they were members of the
same orchestra. "We’re Armenian," Ida says, "and in 1952, when I was
born, Turkey was not the most hospitable place. My father wanted us to
grow up in America." He moved the family when Ida was three and Ani
was seven-and-a-half. A graduate of Istanbul’s Robert College, his
English was good and he lined up a job in the school system of Royal
Oak, Michigan. His wife was less fluent in English. "Ani and I always
teased her about her accent," Ida says. "We were typical kids."
"Being Armenian is very important to me," she says. "I’m fluent, even
though my vocabulary is limited and I’m a little rusty. Ani and I
speak Armenian to each other." The ancient Christianity of Armenia is
of minor importance for her. She explains: "Religion is not a big part
of my life. Being Armenian, the spiritual aspect is more important
than the religious."
When asked how this spirituality plays out in her life, she shoots
back: "Well, I voted for Kerry! I want to teach students the values I
was brought up with, not the things they need to get ahead."
"My father died at age 53 (in 1963)," Ida says, "and my mother hustled
to support the kids. She learned to drive, and to write checks. She
was the world’s greatest cook. I like to cook, but I had to learn
everything about cooking after I left school. I would ask how to make
this and how to make that, and she would say, ‘Go practice.’"
Ida’s first violin lessons capture the joy with which she approaches
music today. Ara Zerounian, her first teacher, who came to the house
to teach Ani, devised some playful activities for Ida. "One day he
took me aside and gave me a pitch and rhythm test," Ida says. "It
seemed like game. He decided that I had talent and brought me a little
violin. Still making it a game, he said `We’ll keep it a secret from
your parents,’ and taught me little song. I studied with him from age
six to age 12."
When Ida was 15, Zerounian married her widowed mother. Their marriage
lasted almost 30 years, until Ida’s mother died in 1996. Retired,
Zerounian lives in Michigan. "He loves reading about us and hearing us
play," Ida says. "We give him a lot of pride."
The Kavafian parents managed to bring up their daughters with minimal
rivalry, Ida says. "Ani is four-and-a-half years older. That’s a big
difference when you’re growing up. Ani had older friends, and played
with older people. We were never in the same school at the same time.
My parents didn’t encourage us to have a sister act. There was no
chance for rivalry."
Do people get the sisters mixed up? "Often," Ida says. "That’s why
it’s great to have sister who’s a great violinist. Otherwise, it could
At first hesitant to contrast their playing, Ida says, "We have
different approaches to music. Some people think I play with more
fire, and am more rough around the edges. Ani is more refined."
After a year in each of three different high schools in Michigan, Ida
moved to study at New York’s Juilliard School, and finished high
school at New York’s’ Professional Children’s’ School. She lived with
Ani, who was in her third year at Juilliard.
Ida started her Juilliard studies with the distinguished Ivan
Galamian. "It was not a good fit," she says. "Galamian wanted all of
his students to play the same way, with the same fingerings and
bowings. I wanted an approach that came more from the music, and less
from the violin. And I wanted to study with somebody who performed. I
switched to (Oscar) Schumsky. He was the biggest influence in my
She joined the Chamber Music Society in 1989, and left to play with
the Beaux Arts piano trio in 1993. She rejoined the Chamber Music
Society in 1996. "It was a great experience, but it was long enough
for me. I wanted to have a personal life, and pursue other things. And
I missed playing with the Chamber Music Society when I was gone."
She is a founding member of the fledgling "Opus One" piano quartet,
along with Peter Wiley, formerly of the Beaux Arts – "my favorite
cellist," she calls him, Chamber Music Society pianist Anne-Marie
McDermott, and Chamber Music Society violist Steven Tenenbom, her
husband. "We do about a dozen concerts a year, for fun. There’s not
enough time to do more."
Tenenbom and Kavafian raise and show Vizsla dogs through their Opus
One Kennels. The breed is a medium-sized Hungarian hunting dog, loyal,
intelligent, and playful.
For almost two decades Kavafian has been music director of New
Mexico’s Angel Fire Festival, an informal three-week summer chamber
music event. "I invite the Opus One people and other familiar chamber
music people," she says. "I like putting programs together. I like
bringing in young artists. I invite 10 Curtis students; that’s where I
teach. Steve heads the strings and piano program at Curtis. I discuss
it with him. We consider who’s doing well, and who fits well. There
are enough musicians who are great people. Both things are really
important. We have no room for prima donnas." But a double-tasking,
bagel-eating artist would fit in fine.
Center, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University, Monday, December
20, at 7:30 p.m. $39 to $45. 609-258-2787.
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