AYO National Music Camp 2017
By Anneliese McGee-Collett
Week 1: Soloist and Artist-in-Residence
Saturday 14 January, 4pm
DVOŘÁK Silent Woods
Saturday 14 January, 7.30pm
TCHAIKOVSKY Variations on a Rococo Theme
‘Music about silence – can you imagine music without rests?’ asks Li-Wei Qin. ‘If there are no rests, there’s no music. A human being has breathing points. These breathing points are your rests. If you give a singer a manuscript with no rests, it is impossible for them to sing it. They can’t breathe. It’s about the space between the notes.’
When National Music Camp’s Artist in Residence Li-Wei Qin plays Dvořák’s Silent Woods, he conjures quite literal images of a forest. As a performer with a wide-ranging international career, Qin finds consistency in his own role as story-teller. Dvořák’s depiction of the vast mountain range and forest of Sumava is an irresistible invitation for him to find narrative in the rhythms, harmonies and structure of the work.
‘The orchestra has a very stable pulse throughout. But the cello has a syncopated rhythm, changing notes on the off-beat. To me, that demonstrates that you’re in the forest. When you walk through the forest, your steps are not coinciding with the trees around you. You can see the light coming through the gaps of the trees at all different angles. Between all of these gaps, there are always things to be heard and seen.
‘There are horizontal and vertical lines in the forest. There’s wood, trees, bark. These things are represented through different rhythms and different harmonies. The harmonies may change on the beat, but more often in the cello line, this occurs on the off-beat. This represents the natural world. In the real world, nothing is too structured.’
It is often said that Dvořák wrote very little for the cello, with some even suggesting it was because he didn’t really like the instrument. Qin sees it differently.
‘Dvořák was one of the first composers who succeeded in composing romantic symphonic works for the cello. Composers before him found it difficult.’
When Dvořák’s close friend and contemporary, Johannes Brahms, heard Dvořák’s cello concerto performed for the first time, says Qin, he lamented, ‘It’s a pity I didn’t know one could write so well for the cello.’
‘The register of the instrument is very difficult to write for,’ Qin explains. ‘It’s easy to be drowned out by the different sounds of the orchestra. For a violin and orchestra, one doesn’t need to think about balance so much. But for the cello, you have to be very careful. Dvořák was the first one who really succeeded in that.
‘Beethoven never wrote a cello concerto. Brahms never wrote a cello concerto. Mozart never wrote a cello concerto. So it’s not a phenomenon that Dvořák didn’t write much for the cello. It’s a phenomenon that Dvořák had already written something for the cello.’
Dvořák’s work has more straightforward provenance than Tchaikovsky’s popular Variations on a Rococo Theme.
‘I want to prefer Tchaikovsky’s original, but I simply don’t,’ admits Qin. It is not widely known or broadcast how much influence and compositional input the piece’s dedicatee, cellist and friend Wilhem Fitzenhagen, had in the creation of this work. Not only did he contribute melodic material, but he also rearranged Tchaikovsky’s original sequence of variations, and even removed a variation.
Qin makes a potato crisp analogy: ‘You have original, regular salt crisps all your life. Then you try the salt and vinegar crisps, and they’re quite nice. But if you want to go back to the most original, and if you want to really taste the potato crisps in their natural form, then probably original salt is the best flavour.
‘From an academic point of view, I believe one should always look to the original version, because that is what Tchaikovsky wrote. But from a performance and audience point of view the Fitzenhagen version still wins. The order of the variations highlights the merits and the characters of the different variations well.’ At the end of the day, Qin concedes, a preference for one version or the other is ‘a very personal thing’.
Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations is the closest the composer came to writing a concerto for the cello. Variation form can become repetitive, but Tchaikovsky’s use of it here is, Qin says, exceptional. ‘It’s based on 18th century Rococo style. But if you listen to it carefully, it manoeuvres itself very gradually to a style that is basically “Tchaikovsky” by the end. If you want to demonstrate many different styles, or a transition through different styles, variations are great. If you want to demonstrate the spectrum and the range of instruments, variations are also great.’
Qin’s favourite variation is the fourth.
‘It’s quite difficult, so I hate it too. It’s like Haydn. You’re ice-skating; you’re dancing on ice. But at least it’s Haydn so you don’t have to do big movements. It can be very delicate and still, dancing small steps on the icy surface. The Rococo Variations on the other hand require very big movements on the icy surface, but naked as well. So it’s great and very exciting for the audience, but it’s bloody difficult!’
Having performed the Rococo Variations since his mid-teens, more recently averaging some ten renditions per year, it’s fair to say he’s performed the work countless times. However, when asked how he feels rehearsing and performing this work now with the Alexander Orchestra of National Music Camp, Qin becomes reflective.
‘This is an opportunity for the “not so positive things” in the real world of music to be done away with. This is good. This is perfect. To be able to work with young musicians. Professionally, we usually get three rehearsals. But here at camp, we get a whole week. Here, we’re just very simply and purely looking at how to make better music. And that is the ideal world of music.’
Anneliese McGee-Collett was a participant of the Words About Music program at AYO National Music Camp 2017