Alban's Blog

Prokofiev and Masterclass in Houston

Exhausted and flattened by a somewhat more tiring than usual Prokofiev-Sinfonia-Concertante I am sitting in my dressing room while Hannu Lintu is conducting the second half, Sibelius Symphony No.2 with the Houston Symphony. Oh yes, I would have loved to play this great piece, even asked for sitting in the section for the second half, but then suddenly I felt such fatigue after my performance that I am glad that it didn’t work out (they didn’t have an extra part for me). In Strasbourg I played this symphony after a Dvorak Concerto, but the Prokofiev requires even more energy.Quite a conincidence though that Sibelius 2 is the first work for orchestra both Hannu and me played as children, he as a 12-year-old cellist in a youth orchestra, me being 15. We forget so many things, but something meaningful like the first ever experience in an orchestra you can never forget. I would have turned out a different human being if it wasn’t for my participation in this German Youth Orchestra, sharing the passion for music with youngsters from all over (back then) West-Germany. Looking back I realize without regret how old I have become – 25 years is a long time, a quarter of a century, and time has accelerated since then that I believe I don’t even have a chance enjoying a real mid-life crisis since I come to realize that two thirds of my life have passed already.

Oh no, I don’t expect to die with 60, but the first twenty years passed soooo slowly, that I suspect the 40 years after won’t feel much longer – and this means the middle of my life was at about 30 and I missed my chance for a legitimate midlife crisis. On the other hand, it’s never too late for a nice crisis 🙂

Do I miss being young? Not at all, life is much better like that, not at least because I don’t have to practise as much anymore. And this is not because I am a better cellist now, but I have learned to be much more efficient (and stingy with my time). While I used to practice scales, arpeggios, double-stops, etudes and bow exercises for about 2 hours every day, I have managed to boil it down to about 15 to 20 minute daily. I dare say that in this short period of time I probably get more done than in the 2 hours before; the focus, the concentration and experience not do anything unnecessary brought me to a point where every minute, every second counts.

Before a concert I arrive at the hall just in time to go slowly through the entire concerto I have to do that evening which normally proves enough even if I didn’t play the piece for a while. It refreshes the short-term memory, calms down the nerves and brings me fresh ideas so that I can feel freer during the concert itself. We had a concert here two nights ago, after which I wasn’t really happy with myself – I felt a bit too confident before the concert after a really good dress-rehearsal which led to me feeling somewhat disconnected during the performance. How did I avoid this tonight? I completely threw aboard any caution, didn’t take care to conserve energy for the end (had to pay for it during the long and real hard second movement) and played as if there was no tommorrow, a bit as if I was still 20.

Why am I so hung up on age today? Strange. Maybe it has to do that I was teaching a masterclass at Rice University last night, and there were these kids in their 20ies, very talented, ready to go a long way, open-minded with lots of spirit and I felt reminded of myself in these situations a couple of decades ago. Last week I replaced another cellist for a Haydn C Major with the Festival Strings Lucerne, and we rehearsed at the Conservatoire in Lucerne where I participated 22 years ago at a masterclass of Arto Noras. I remember so well how it felt back then, how insecure I was and how I dreaded this situation of being taken apart in front of a bunch of other cellists that today, when I am “the master” of the class, I do everything in my power to focus entirely on the student, make him or her forget this awkward situation and hope that I manage to make one little point which will help them to later on become a better musician or cellist.

The two masterclasses I attended as a teenager helped me tremendously in my development and I would love to provide the same, even though I always feel so inadequate, especially yesterday when the level of playing was so high that all I could do was give some minor points. But it was great fun (at least for me!) – and afterwards gorgeous Italian food with my friend Larry Rachleff who runs the conducting program there at Rice and the excellent cello teacher Norm Fisher. Oops, concert is over, Hannu did a really touching Sibelius 2 (orchestra sounded brilliant through the speakers of my dressing room) – off to some fine food with the CEO…


  • Ellen

    Hello, Alban–
    After reading your March 20 post, I’m wondering whether what you say about your greater efficiency in practicing and playing is the same for most disciplines, if not all. Although I’m no professional, I’ve taken dance classes for most of my life (ballet as a child, modern later on) and have found that, although I’m now older, much of dancing has become easier for me because I’m no longer “wasting” movement; I’ve learned to move more efficiently. My best friend (since seventh grade–almost 42 years ago!) used to dance for George Balanchine, and I remember how she often stood out from many other dancers because of the precision and clarity of her movement, which, although she was always a fine dancer, improved over time. It looked effortless. Maybe it’s much the same with the plastic arts; I’ll have to talk with some of my artist friends to see whether it’s true for them as well.


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