Reflections of a music student

Good morning, Newburyport!

Some of you may know that I took a gap year after graduating from high school in 2022. I spent that year shaping my own education, farming with my mother and becoming a certified Permaculture Designer, serving as a TA for a new university, working my way through Brothers Karamazov, and more...but I sorely missed music. To compensate, I embarked on the Bach project and in July 2023 attended a Canadian festival where I met my current teacher, Jennifer Stumm. She invited me to come study with her formally at the Music and Arts Private University of Vienna, which is where I hail to you from now.

The viola section after an orchestra concert in the Musikverein, home of the Vienna Philharmonic; my teacher, Jennifer, adjusting my bow hold

For New Years 2021, I wrote about how my quartet learned Beethoven Op. 132 string quartet. In New Years 2023, I composed the aforementioned guide, “How to Bach”. Though admittedly I'm a bit late, for New Years 2024 I’m going to share with you how my performance of the Bartok Viola Concerto, my current piece of study, has changed.

Watch as my musicianship and hair grow in parallel

As a music student, learning to critique my work is integral to my development. I have picked three examples of growth in my playing from my first presentation of the movement in early August to the most recent just a few weeks ago.

Example 1: Opening

When I began working on the movement, I wanted the opening to make the audience uneasy. I used this image from Blade Runner 2049 as inspiration and attempted to recreate the atmosphere by playing with a dense, slow sound.

But, that picture isn't entirely "accurate:" Bartok wrote this concerto in 1945 as he was dying in New York City, far away from his home in Hungary. The opening folk tune isn’t a call to the mysterious; it’s a distant memory of home. Now, I imagine an elderly Hungarian woman simply singing to herself while, perhaps, baking strudel.

Example 2: Development ("rising action")

In my performance from August, I get louder throughout measure 72, intending it to be an introduction to the subsequent run. Not only does that simply disregard the instructions in the part (marked as p, "quiet," until the crescendo in measure 73), but it's an incorrect presentation of the harmony. In measure 72, the harmony goes from anxious to open – for music nerds, a minor 3rd (F-Ab) to a Major 3rd (F-A). That tells me that it is not a time to press forward in the music but instead to take a breath before turning the corner on my way to the last measure. Now when I play this passage, I let the notes ring and settle before starting the run.

Example 3: Cadenza

I used to approached the transition into measure 140 (see below) simply as a continuation of the old harmony. Today, I dramatically step back in that moment to feel the tenderness and allow time for the air to change.


Here's why: cadenzas are meant to be "summaries" of the piece in which they're written, exaggerating and recalling various themes played thus far. In this cadenza, Bartok explores the relationship between the notes A and D#/Eb, the first and third notes of the entire piece.

The cadenza begins anchored to the note A with references to D#/Eb. But, for a brief period at measure 140, we are instead centered around C#. In this moment, the musician must let this new harmony breathe.

Below you will find my full performance of the first movement of the Bartok, recorded in a February school recital. There is never a "finished" product, and as my study of this piece continues, I anticipate countless more renditions. I hope you enjoy!

Alessandra

Bartok Viola Concerto: I. Moderato - Alessandra Yang
My latest performance of the
first movement of Bartok Viola Concerto

P.S. In my last post, I remarked that my performance of the Bach probably wouldn’t be my final interpretation. Click here for a performance of the same movement from February 7, 2024 – over a year later.

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