by Jeannette Fang
Thursday, July 24, 2014
When Boris Slutsky teaches, he gets this glint in his eye. Like he has some sort of secret, just for you, and he’s going to help you find it. That’s the fascinating thing about masterclasses. When you’re in a lesson with Slutsky, you don’t really notice his expression because you’re so immersed in the very pithy things he’s telling you. But when you’re watching him from your seat in the audience’s overlord distance, you notice his childlike glee when he’s teaching. He’s sort of like a fairy tale character; the wizard who holds the truths but doesn’t want to spoil the fun for you, because he takes too much pleasure in seeing you figure it out for yourself. You can see the joy in his face when he is able to help an intelligent student with music that he clearly cares deeply about.
The first to play on Tuesday’s masterclass was Hyoung Lok Choi, who played Chopin’s 4th ballade with great power and expressivity. Slutsky, like a cryptic uncles, starts with a question:
“What is the key of the opening?”
A seemingly simple question, but the hesitation allows Slutsky to reveal gleefully
“We don’t know!”
His point is that those tolling, rootless octaves have such an undefined wonder, which he urged Choi to convey through aiming for the longer line that may not be readily obvious. He talked about the personal nature of this ballade, and how one has “to know when to use half voice, not full.”
Elizabeth Crecca followed with the first movement of Haydn’s E-flat major, Hob.XVI:52. She had an attractive clarity of tone, and played with poise and an intelligent concept of the piece. Slutsky talked about how the style begged for bigger contrasts, and urged Elizabeth to think more orchestrally, especially in the opening French overture motif. He mentioned how Haydn often plays with time, and how one should not sit on the note but to feel how they are full of anticipation. Elizabeth was very attentive and responsive, and Slutsky's eyes twinkled at how quickly she picked up.
The next to play was Phoebe Wu, with Bach’s first partita, which she played with lovely sensitivity and an intuitive understanding of the style. And here, ever merry, Boris broke the masterclass predictability of talk-sit-play, and took Phoebe out of the piano bench.
“Let’s dance a sarabande”. And, hand outstretched, he proceeded to lead her through the steps to better demonstrate the gestures of the style. The warm friendship among the faculty is evident as he gestured toward Professor Skelton in the audience, joking with “And now let us bow to King Skelton” to an eruption of laughter.
About performing Bach, Slutsky emphasized how "it is difficult to say how it should be played because you can make it convincing in your own way in many different ways”, a sort of prelude to saying that such a conviction, such an inherent integrity, is essential for any performer. He also urged Phoebe to follow all of the voices, and to remember that organize all of the short sections into a larger phrase.
The last performer of the morning was Huizi Zhang, with Schumann’s 3rd sonata, the op.14 in f minor. She played with passion and earnest feeling, with an uninhibited temperament that was perfect for Schumann. Slutsky appreciated her energy, but urged her to have a more unified pulse. He talked about having the need to organize and simplify ideas so that the beauty of the form could be more apparent, and about the orchestral conception behind the sonata, which not only informed color, but the unity of sections.
It is rare to see such mirth and joy in a teacher of Boris Slutsky’s caliber and experience. To witness how he maintains a fresh love for music, to see how he is invigorated by young talent, is a testament to the inherent purity and goodness of music-making. His is an example proving that for those who feel deeply about art, it seems inevitable that their greatest desire is to help others attain that same happiness in participating in it to their highest level.