Anatomy Of A Master Class

In this era of energy consciousness, hybrids have become the buzzword of the automobile industry. But the concept is nothing new to the Music Academy of the West, where the master class has always served multiple purposes.

Long the backbone of the academy’s Summer Festival, master classes are hyphenate heaven at the summer institute, which attracts nearly 140 pre-professional musicians from around the world to the bucolic former Montecito estate known as Miraflores. Equal parts instruction, performance and, often, history lesson, the master class gives students a chance to learn and practice in front of a rapt audience, while those in attendance get a rare glimpse into how budding professional musicians hone their craft.

In Terrence McNally’s Tony Award-winning 1995 play “Master Class,” opera diva Maria Callas berates her students and uses the moment to revisit her tortured and glamorous life on and off the stage. Nothing so dramatic takes place at the Music Academy, but with nearly 200 master classes each season during the academy’s Summer Festival, each is an opportunity for smaller revelations and mini-transformations for participants and observers alike.

Students generally use master classes to practice and perfect pieces they are working on for performance later in the summer, either in the Concerto Competition, or at a Picnic Concert – or perhaps in the fall when they return to advance schooling or concert dates.

Each class usually features performances from three different students on a particular instrument, which is followed by critique and suggestions from the “master” or instructor, who often invites audience participation or at least explains his directions. The two-hour master classes are given daily, covering nearly every instrument in the orchestra over the course of the week.

“These kids are so good – they’re handpicked from around the world – that it’s really just a matter of fine-tuning and adjustments,” viola faculty member Donald McInnes says. “What I try to do is pick one or two aspects that are most important and clue the audience in to what I’m doing so they can see the changes in the playing.”

In McInnes’ master class today, the three students are each performing relatively obscure works, so the audience is a little thinner than usual for the 25-year veteran of the Music Academy, who also attended as a student back in the 1950s. The instructor sits quietly in the back of the room during the performances, then prowls the corridor in front of the stage, clutching his viola, as he discusses the playing.

Critiquing The Students

“You must concentrate all the time,” he implores student Mario Anton Andreu, who is having a few difficulties with a particularly tricky passage of the andante comodo movement of Walton’s concerto. “You can’t afford to give up the ghost. The stroke must be exciting. If you lose yourself, you lose the audience.”

McInnes, a silver fox in a yellow sport coat, hoists his viola to his chin and demonstrates: “You see,” he says, after he finishes. “It’s not the vibrato that matters here, but the burning quality between the bow and the strings. It has to sizzle.”

Andreu gives it another go, and this time McInnes smiles broadly.

“Ah….that’s much better,” he says. “Much more rapturous. Please, do work on this. The piece deserves it.”

Next up is Renata Van der Vyver, who, like Andreu, also studies with McInnes during the academic year at USC. She’s playing Bloch’s Suite for Viola and Orchestra, which McInnes tells us was written almost as a lark for the Berkshire competition, and took first prize for its autobiographical characterization of the immigrant experience in the early 20th century.

“That was beautiful, and such a treat to hear it in the place where I learned it myself,” he says when Van der Vyver finishes. “I have just one thing to add but it’s very important: I know that you like to feel safe when you play, but that can make the music sound reticent. The bow has to speak. It’s eighty-five percent of your playing. Go right to the edge – it’s so much more exciting.”

Van der Vyver plays the passage again, this time with more gusto, eliciting an enthusiastic “Yeah!” from McInnes. “All the aspects of the music make much more sense now,” he tells her. “It changes the color rather than the volume.”

He looks out at the audience. “Can you hear the difference? Isn’t it more full and vital?”

The crowd murmurs its assent.

Zach Dellinger, a three-year veteran of the Music Academy, closes out the class with the moderato movement form Bartok’s concerto, bringing a cry of “Excellent! Excellent!” from McInnes, before he launches into a soliloquy that touches on the habits of human beings, and how being creatures of comfort can run the risk of falling into a groove.

“There are two ways to produce sound on a viola: the weight into the strings and bow speed. This music calls for a balance,” he tells Dellinger, before demonstrating the difference on his own instrument.

While it might seem to the untrained ear that McInnes is hypercritical in his analysis, the students say they appreciate his directness.

“Music is so subjective, you need a teacher to give you an objective view of what works,” Van de Vyver explains after the class. “He really works on the finished project, the performance, which is so important. He doesn’t get bogged down in the details. When he’s technical, it’s right to the point.”

Dellinger is even more direct: “If you study with someone, you have to believe they’re right. Otherwise, you shouldn’t be studying with them. I listen to everything he says.”