Young, Gifted, and Playing Strads…or, It Doesn’t Get Any Better than This!
Editor’s note: This enthusiastic article was written some time ago, when the W.M.P. Concert Hall was at the height of its activity. Sadly it is only a memory now. Emmanuel Gradoux-Matt found it necessary to close his business, and a new owner of the building has decided to gut the premises. The elegant little hall, when I last saw it, was a chaotic demolition site. I believe it is important for you, our readers, to know about this brave enterprise, which was a valuable asset to Manhattan and to its neighborhood, the area around 28th Street and Madison Avenue, a part of the city rather sparse in cultural amenities, in spite of the wonderful Little Church Around the Corner.
If you’re convinced you’ve visited every major live-performance venue for the best in classical music in New York City, well, music-lovers, have I got good news. I’m happy to announce another cardinal direction to add to your compass rose (besides Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and the 92nd Street Y), start heading South. Yes, South! Serious chamber lovers, violin aficionados, and Maverick Festival-ers can now put Workshop for Music Performance (W.M.P.) Concert Hall on your radar for exquisite classical music. It’s a hidden gem on a short not-so-hidden block on East 28th (between Madison and Park) across from the CBS News building. If you’re in the neighborhood at 12:30 on a Monday, drop in to a wonderful concert series called “Strad for Lunch”.
Workshop for Music Performance is the mastermind idea of Emmanuel Gradoux-Matt, master violinmaker and manager. Starting last September (advertising on a makeshift sidewalk board) and continuing for the past several months, the most amazing young performing artists of our day, already well-heeled in their careers, give a violin concert playing a Stradivarius violin. Of course, any violinist would jump at the chance to play on a Strad. But I’ve noticed they are as honored to play the instrument as we the audience are to listen to their glorious music. Usually they are recommended graduates of the local music schools such as Julliard, Mannes and Indiana University, by their teachers (Maestro Albert Markov, for example), or are simply regular clients who bring their instruments to Mr. Gradoux-Matt’s workshop for repair. These days a musician cannot afford to own a Strad outright; the cost is prohibitive. Strads are sometimes loaned out for a particular concert which may lead to a sale. But now corporate sponsorship or a private individual must be involved in the ownership of these works of art. Indeed, that is what they are——fine works of art. So it’s extraordinary to be able to hear an actual Strad have life breathed into it every week by wonderful violinists for our enjoyment and to the satisfaction of the artist. The Smithsonian Institution sponsors a similar series. Perhaps if J. Kenneth Moore, Curator in Charge of the Department of Musical Instruments at the Metropolitan Museum, would visit a Strad for Lunch concert once, the kernel would be planted to begin such a program at the Met. They have no less than 3 Strads (dating 1693, 1694, and 1717, the Golden period), a violin by Amati (ca. 1560) and Joachim Tielke (ca. 1685), among other works of musical art. If Mr. Gradoux-Matt gave the thumbs-up after a quick inspection and young virtuoso(s) engaged to play, more people would come to understand why these works of art are kept behind glass. Even better, it would bring music-lovers to the museum.) At Strad for Lunch, there’s a new performer every week. Paolo Alberghini, the Sales Manager and Music Director of the series is in charge of booking the artists, managing to locate just the right Monday a violinist and pianist (or a trio or quartet) can squeeze a concert hour into his or her whirlwind international schedule. I’ve been avidly attending “Strad for Lunch” for weeks, and am stunned by how many excellent musicians there are in our midst! (“Where do you get all these great violinists?” “Go outside and throw a stick, you’ll hit one!” a staff member joked.) But that’s not quite true about these artists.
When you enter the hall, not only do you realize you’re in a sound-proof acoustically-tested chamber, but the decorations transport you to the 19th century, a time when live music and playing for one another was a part of everyday life among musicians and music-loving friends. In muted tones with a huge crystal chandelier and crystal wall sconces, the audience is supplied with Georgian-style chairs and some winged-back armchairs. With one wall flanked with enormous gilt mirrors resting on wainscoting, the twinkling room spans about the length and width of a one-bedroom apartment. The amazing climate-controlled environment (quite pleasant in July) makes one feel like we’re in a fancy smart room or a very private toney auction gallery. A small stage sits at the far end, draped with a luxurious blue curtain, setting off the shiny black Bösendorfer. This piano at 7’4” sounds amazing and beautifully complements every performance. A couple of incandescent lamps and an antique music stand complete the ensemble. The furniture lends a quiet dignity to the presentation. But frankly, if the exalted décor elevates you to a higher level, it all falls away once the first note of beautiful music begins.
A Bit of Provenance
String players and aficionados of rare stringed instruments may know of Mr. Gradoux-Matt’s shop by its earlier incarnations. Originally run by luthier Jacques Français and restorer René Morel, “Jacques Français Rare Violins”, located for years on West 54th Street not far from Carnegie Hall, was the most renowned shop in the U.S. for rare violins, if not the world. In 1989, Emmanuel Gradoux-Matt began his apprenticeship with M. Morel and, surpassing the others in the workshop, was invited to join the business. In 1995 M. Français retired, sold his share to Morel, and “Morel and Gradoux-Matt Rare Violins” was born. When M. Morel semi-retired in March 2008, Mr. Gradoux-Matt took the reins himself and moved downtown to its present location, continuing its traditional services (evaluation, appraisal, restoration, and sales) yet expanding its scope to include performances of classical and contemporary programs played on Strads in its elegant new performance hall.
What fascinates me about W.M.P. is the emphasis on the instrument. Mr. Gradoux-Matt himself introduces the performers, often in his white smock. But he will not leave the stage until he gives a short description of the Stradivarius with an historical footnote about the year it was made, the quality of its sound, or its place in the oeuvre. Being an habitué of the series, I am constantly impressed by how he describes the same instrument each week as if it were for the first time. Lately, the most frequently played Strad is the “Dardennes”, dated 1692, which was near the end of Stradivari’s apprenticeship (known as the Amatisée period, after the master Nicolo Amati) and just before branching out on his own to create a new model which evolved into his signature brand. When a quartet comes to play, another Strad is available from 1694 with slightly different measurements and a different timbre. Since it is spoken for, like a privately owned painting by Watteau or Manet, I must forgo further discussion for the sake of discretion. When quartets and trios play, and they do, a cello built by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, in the 19th century makes a cameo appearance. This cello resides firmly in the family of Strads, according to Mr. Gradoux-Matt, by the fact that Vuillaume was the first violinmaker and dealer to champion the artistry of Stradivarius and, in doing so, developed the valued market we know today for these instruments. Obsessed with what makes the great sound of a Strad, he researched the traditions of its creation, owned many of them, and made facsimiles or “bench copies” to rediscover the art behind the sound. So manic to make one as brilliantly sonorous as a Strad, Vuillaume tried to read his mind down to the last detail, even as far as the recipe for the varnish he used. In addition, he trained master violinmakers, bought and sold ones built by Stradivarius and, in general, made the music audience aware of the value of a Strad. If it weren’t for him, today’s market would not exist. Of the roughly twelve hundred violins made during his lifetime, five hundred fifty Strads survive. The Amatisée period was his apprenticeship until 1690, when Stradivarius broke away from Amati’s model, creating his own. His genius was in the proportions, which he changed while maintaining the harmonies of construction. The years 1705-1725 are known as his Golden period and these are the violins most sought after.
At every concert, the talent is staggering. My own barometer for ecstatic moments——tingling of the spine——occurs weekly, the music is so beautiful! Designed for live performance, the series is aimed at young artists because performing on a Strad lends prestige to an artist’s career, according to Mr. Alberghini. The invitation is an acknowledgement of sorts. Bruno Peña, one of the first young virtuosos I heard last September 2008 is now concertizing across his home country of Spain, thanks to press coverage here at his “Strad for Lunch” concert. He performed a Brahms Sonata and a Sonata by Turina. There are so many talented musicians around, it makes one wonder about the promotional machine behind a Yo-Yo Ma or a Jonathan Bell. (Good management, probably.) There are other reasons to give a “Strad For Lunch” concert besides furthering one’s career. I heard an incredible Cesar Franck sonata, exquisitely played with gusto and precision by William Harvey whose concert was a benefit for his non-profit venture, “Cultures in Harmony” (www.culturesinharmony.org). This organization allows him to travel the globe to promote cultural exchange through music. He prefaced his concert with his story about making a difference: when, shortly after 9-11, playing music at the Park Avenue Armory to soothe those returning from Ground Zero, made him realize the power of music and its impact. Their appreciation changed his life-mission. Now he travels to such far-flung places as Cameroon, Iraq, Pakistan, The Philippines, and Tunisia to work in rural communities, broadening their musical experience and improving the image of the US one community at a time. Another performer, Sarah Geller, enchanted by the intimate surroundings, reconstructed the musical competition among the Schumann’s and Brahms of the violin romances (rarely performed together nowadays), composed for their virtuoso friend, Joseph Joachim, who was supposed to guess the composer by playing the music——hardly a stretch for dear close friends as they were. This was one of the most interesting of all the concerts so far. Elinor Frey, cellist, won me over with a contemporary composition by Kaija Saariaho called “Sept Papillons” (2000). Like the “Flight of the Bumblebee” by Rimsky-Korsakov, Saariaho’s music invoked the sounds of seven butterflies, pushing the boundaries of sound made on a cello to its limit——fantastic! It was difficult not to see imaginary butterflies fluttering around the Ms. Frey! The Grand Air Trio last November 2008 really enjoy playing music together and really live through the music. What a joy to watch and listen to them. They started with a Ravel Sonata for violin and cello. Then, playing the Brahms Piano Trio in B Major, Justyna Maj, pianist, made the Bösendorfer ring like a multitude of bells, and with the cello passages, one realized how much Brahms loved those two instruments. Or perhaps it was just their performance. Most performers choose their own repertoire with suggestions from Paolo Alberghini. The concerts are meant to entertain and, scheduled at midday, well, let’s just say some composers are not at the top of the list. I have noticed that some pieces, like Sarasate’s “Basque Caprice” and “Zigeunerweisen”, are reserved for last to ensure we remember the virtuoso. These are the show-off pieces. I first heard Pablo Rapado Jambrina do an extraordinary job with these works, effortlessly and flawlessly, and yet with total humility. It blew me away! These pieces are striking in their double-stops together with pizzicati on the fingering hand between stops. It’s incredible that they are at all playable, and the violinists deserve all the applause. But now word is out, and “Zigeunerweisen” has been repeated more than once. The Attacca Quartet played Haydn’s “Joke” quartet with exquisite precision and harmony last January. The joke was on us when they followed with Bartok’s Quartet No. 4——an unexpected choice that slipped through the cracks——which has no major chord resolutions anywhere, nor a breath of rest from all the dissonance in the movements. The most interesting part, however, was the third movement where the composer pushes the instruments to their limits to create alien sounds, similar to Saariaho’s “Sept Papillons” piece; they were making sounds, but none you’d expect to hear from stringed instruments. Someone in the know told me it was to render the folk melodies of Bartok’s homeland. (I’d like to investigate that further.) The final movement, played with such intensity and vigor, made me feel as if I was going to lose my mind until it suddenly stopped. This was one quartet that enjoyed playing together. Another time, the Madison Quartet focused on Spanish or Hispanic composers. The performers do not take the concerts lightly. They hold rehearsals a week before as time and schedules permit. They wear performance attire, so you know they mean business. But this is not to say it’s formal and standoff-ish. On the contrary, it is customary to greet the artists afterwards and give your congratulations. And even to shake their skillful hands! It’s that casual! But the rehearsal time actually becomes a fascinating critical moment for the artist, according to Mr. Alberghini. Interestingly, it is when the violinist learns how far the Strad can take him or her musically and how far he or she can go with it. The artist makes artistic decisions and technical adjustments to achieve a level of perfection required by the interpretation and yet still maintain control. He or she must rein in the urge to surpass one’s limits because one so easily can. It‘s like switching from a Ford to a Maserati; one can understand its potential, but must maintain composure so one doesn’t crash into a tree. Some artists make the adjustment quite easily and quickly. Lillian Ross, for instance, played a Stravinsky sonata I’d never heard before quite exquisitely. Not only did she appear to have stepped out of a Poussin painting——a Grecian goddess in a glorious yellow gown——but once she started playing, after the first note, she magically merged with the Strad——they became one. Transfixed, we were held captive by her magic spell unfolding before us. (It was the exact same effect hearing Vadim Repin play Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto with Maestro Gergiev this past March at Lincoln Center.) All that was left was the music, as Mark Morris has said. It’s indescribable, and it’s something to be experienced in the moment—redemptive, invigorating, transcendental. But that returns me to the subtitle of this article: these magical moments happen weekly; it truly does not get better than this if you love the violin, string trios, quartets, and chamber music. Besides hearing new repertoire every week, each concert is an education unto itself. In one of the latest this year, a last-minute cancellation created a fortuitous situation. Joan Kwuon and Teddy Robie (piano) filled in with Sonata No. 5 in F major (“Spring”) by Beethoven, a George Enesco sonata, and to my joy, Prokofiev’s Sonata in D major (adapted from the flute sonata). With little or no time to rehearse, getting acquainted with the Strad was moot. However, she brought her Cremona with her on stage and we were asked to vote which one she would play for the last piece——the Prokofiev. Well, we ended up not voting because she instinctively gravitated to the Cremona. And thank god for that. According to Mr. Alberghini, the music director, Strads tend to have a brighter more brilliant sound than Cremonas which betray darker richer timbres. So ultimately the Cremona was much better suited for the lower registered Prokofiev sonata, and Mr. Robie plunked his fingers on the Bösendorfer hammer-like just the way Sergei Sergeyevich indicated. Ms. Kwuon and Mr. Robie distinguished themselves with this one. It was ecstasy for me to hear them perform it so well and so close by. Afterwards, she was quite nonchalant about it all: “it’s part of the repertoire.” This goes to show, you never know what you’re going to learn at “Strad for Lunch”. It’s always worthwhile. The bright sound quality was made obvious one Monday last year by Asmira Woodward-Page who played a Bach Partita in A Major with such accuracy, if you closed your eyes you could swear you were in the court of Louis XVI or a Hapsburg king listening to it for the first time. Each staccato note was played so evenly and identical one to another in accent and volume, it was remarkable! At once it was obvious this was music the composer wrote specifically for the Strad. Lately, there has been a spate of Russians at “Strad for Lunch”, bringing their singular talents for our enjoyment. Educated at the best conservatories in Russia and now living in and around New York, these musicians interpret the Russian repertoire unlike any others. We heard Galina Zhudanova (violin), Adrian Daurov (cellist), and Maxim Pakhomov (piano) play, among others, a Gavotte and Scherzo from Eight Duets by Rheinhold Glier and Rachmaninoff’s Elegiac Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano in G minor. The trio begins suddenly and dramatically with a hushed tremolo for the violin and cello, giving the piano full sway——quite a surprise for those who came specifically to hear the Strad. But it was fantastic! The lugubrious melodies were so moving and sad, I thought I heard someone sobbing in the audience. I almost came to tears, too. And Mr. Daurov, the cellist——never have I heard such emotion come from a rare type of cello like his; it had a strange tone, almost like a viola. But his sangfroid added to the ambiance: the emotion came through his fingers out the cello, with hardly any expression on his face. Ms. Zhdanova, too, who is equally at home in a rock’n’roll milieu, her face hidden behind a curtain of hair that dropped straight down from a perfect part, sublimated the musician for the music. The trio ended with a very sexy version of Astor Piazzola’s tango-inspired music, Four Seasons. Gabrielle Fink this past March gave us a medley of songs by various composers with her trio. In the midst of her concert, she thanked WMP for the opportunity to play and for the audience to continue to support efforts such as “Strad for Lunch”, even under the worst economic circumstances. Ms. Fink’s concert of short pieces inspired Esther Kim later that same month to play a medley of classical songs plus an arrangement of Gershwin-Heifetz’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So”. She brought down the house with that one as far as I’m concerned. That same day, a class of young musicians came to hear the concert. I noticed one young student get so excited by the music, his teacher put her hand on his neck to calm him down and stay quiet. If you let yourself go, the music is so great it can take you very far. For those who are still fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on your perspective) to be employed in this economy, the series provides a great start to the week and a welcome break from the workaday world. Though some find Mondays a hard day to escape the office, that’s just the point. Personally, Strad for Lunch has gotten me through some pretty rough patches during the dreary winter. Just knowing it’s there, the performers, and one of my favorite instruments all adds up to an instant winner for me. I highly recommend it. Concerts occur every Monday at 12:30 p.m. and run through July. After a brief hiatus in August, they will begin again in full force in September. But, please note! There’s no munching on potato chips or chomping on BLTs during the performance. The music provides enough nourishment; you won’t go lacking. Other series occur during the evening hours focusing on contemporary music and other classical music, if midday is too difficult. Check the website (www.wmpconcerthall.com) for times.