On 11th April 2013 I was fortunate enough to attend my first masterclass run by world renowned violinist Maxim Vengerov, in conjunction with Oxford Philomusica. We gathered at the iconic (Grade 1 listed) Sheldonian Theatre, designed in 1664 by Sir Christpoher Wren.
I huddled excitedly into my wooden pew along with my fellow spectators, vying for a glimpse of one of my living musical heroes. Vengerov did not disappoint.
Looking back now at my sketchy notes, the first thing that jumps out at me is his declaration that the violin should replicate the human voice; and he elicited much laughter from the audience by bursting into an impromptu song. He was warm, confident, knowledgeable (as you would expect), and he genuinely seemed to care about the students from Oxford University who were performing for his expert feedback. His insights into the music were unparalleled. He told the first student, who played Mozart’s Adagio in E Major, ‘Know where you are going in relation to the phrasing – have a goal.’
What impressed me was that he was able to impart a lot of relevant advice to the violinists in the short time he had to evaluate them. He was able to spot almost immediately where they needed improvement. To me they all seemed brilliant, and they were, but with Vengerov’s help they could become world class.
The second player tackled the Brahms Violin Sonata No. 1 in G Major. He seemed to feel that she was too controlling, and he told her simply to, ‘Let go.’ He then proceeded to show her how to balance her bow, using the forefinger for control and the little finger to balance it. All the time his manner was relaxed yet utterly erudite and eloquent.
He compared violin technique to breathing: ‘The left hand is the heartbeat and the right hand is the lung.’
There were other technical gems about increasing finger pressure, bow speed and vibrato to achieve a crescendo, and he coached on the art of smooth changes in bowing style and speed.
The third violinist was shown where she was missing out notes in the furious tempo of the Grieg sonata, and he told her to lift her fingers off the string completely to improve accuracy, and to accent the first note of a group. He compared her rendition to a train passing through a station without stopping.
He had us all captivated with his unique blend of joviality and humour, mixed with just the right amount of constructive and affable critique. His joy in coaching was evident. His own playing of each of their pieces to demonstrate his points transcended the music. To add to the experience the acoustics were fantastic, and even though it was a grey day light was streaming in through the high windows. I only wish I had been able to sit closer to the action. In short: he is an amazing ambassador for the violin and classical music.
He was totally charming and stayed behind afterwards to sign autographs and meet his numerous fans (of which I was one). Hence the slightly deranged coat-hanger smile! I comfort myself thinking he must meet gushing and overawed amateur violinists quite often and forgive them their nervous blabbering.
The day was capped off with a visit to the Ashmolean Museum and sighting of my very first Stradivarius violin, the best preserved of them all – The Messiah.
List of Stradivarius Violins & their provenance
One of my favourite Vengerov performances, Waxman’s passionate Carmen Fantasy:
To round off my point here he is in the documentary ‘Playing By Heart’