The favourite ex-lecturer always has a way with words, and never fails to make me think or look at things at a different angle. Our meeting earlier was no different. Over a leisurely stroll and a light dinner, we spoke on a few topics. She asked, “How does one measure a good work or person?” Apparently it all boils down to 3 Es – Excellence, engagement, and ethics. This concept was recently laid out by the Americans, as a GoodWork Project, to recognize individuals or groups which exemplify good work – work that is excellent in quality, socially responsible, and meaningful to its practitioners. Taking this one step further, she shared about the humility in Vivaldi’s character (and translated a letter by Vivaldi in Italian?!!!), among other traits, that distinguished him from the other composers.
The other reason we had met was for a videoconference lecture, the first of its kind in the history of NAFA, which was to be held later that evening. Time and space is a funny thing, isn’t it? I wondered before, why didn’t God create the world with just one time zone to avoid all the confusion? Delivering this lecture/masterclass was Professor Barbara Barry of Lynn University in the USA. Our lecture started at 8pm on the 12th of April, and there she was, giving the lecture at 8am in the US. Extremely early for her and pretty late for us, but that seemed like the most comfortable time for both parties.
Professor Barry holds five degrees in music, three of which are in theory and analysis. The aim of the lecture was to explore how Classical music performances can be navigated from an analytical perspective, and how critical analysis can empower musicians to communicate the intention of the composer. The chosen composer was W.A. Mozart, and the repertoire discussed was performed by students in the BMus programme.
After the stage was set, Jeremy Wong gave a beautiful rendition of the first movement of the K466 D minor piano concerto, accompanied by third year student Zhou Yun. Professor Barry then launched into an explanation of how only two out of twenty-seven of Mozart’s piano concertos were written in minor keys and how the key of D minor characterizes drama, citing examples from his Requiem, Don Giovanni, string quartet K421, and the Queen of the Night’s first aria from Die Zauberflöte.
More than once, she emphasized the fact that her aim was to analyse the works “from the outside in”. She mentioned that Mozart was trying to play off the dramatic character of the concerto by putting the very first solo entry alone, after the accompaniment set the dramatic scene. Describing it as “having a sense of urgency and inward energy”, she suggests that the piano entry should be played a little more vulnerably, rather than with a matter-of-fact attitude which Jeremy had started off with. “You have to differentiate between moving towards a key and being in a key”, she quips, explaining how important the bass line is in giving the listeners a sense of harmonic direction, taking the listener to the dominant. With her keen analytical mind, she also explained how the trills in passagework section (used for the soloist to show off) had double functions, to end off and also start a new section.
With time running out, it was Liew Jie Ying’s turn with the first movement of the C minor sonata K457. Her playing was impressive as well, delivering the running passages evenly with clarity of tone and a firm touch. Professor Barry zoomed right in onto the last two bars, specifically the last two chords. “You’ve got to make the listener feel like they’re holding their breath”, she said, insisting that Mozart put them there as a dramatic afterthought, so they are not to be played with a ritardando to maintain the mental concentration and suspense.
Moving on to the opening, she likened it to the opening of the Jupiter symphony, dramatic, followed by a lyrical and almost painful answer. Here, she took quite some time to drive a point across – the importance of silence (rests) in the music. “Don’t smudge into the silence, because after the silence comes in new and different material.”
Ending off this segment, she left with the words, “A large part of playing a piece well has to do with the understanding of the style, not only the technical expertise. You have to recreate the character of the piece, and project the music like an actor projects his voice on stage!”
The final piece of the evening was the Fantasy and Fugue in C, K394. It was no mean feat to memorize a fugue, which Dong Zilu did with much difficulty. She left too large a gap between the movements, losing the connection between the fantasy and the fugue. Professor Barry suggested thinking about the last note of the first movement and the first note of the next movement to keep the connectivity, which worked quite well. She also explained a little about the history, how Mozart drew inspiration from the style of J.S. Bach, and how the prelude was to be a free and introductory piece , contrasted with the strict and mathematical fugue. “Get an idea of how the composer thinks, and go ahead and ask yourself. What’s Mozart going do after this?”
Her parting words summed up the lesson for the entire evening concisely – “Don’t only focus on improving your technique, but become informed musicians”. Thus ended the first ever “live” collaboration successfully, looking forward to more happy collaborations in future! The internet really makes the world much smaller, doesn’t it?