There's gain, no pain, in watching master classes


HOROWITZ once said that the short journey from the wings to the piano bench is the loneliest walk in the world. But it's one thing to step out on a stage to perform difficult music for an audience of strangers. It's quite another to step out on that same stage to take a music lesson from some world-famous virtuoso while an audience looks on.

I was reminded of the distinction last week when pianist Richard Goode, in town to play a Mozart concerto with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, rounded off his stay here by offering a master class at the Peabody Institute.

For audiences, master classes are a wonderful opportunity to hear polished performances and learn something about what goes into making them that way. For the young artists who put their skills on the line, however, having one's efforts painstakingly and publicly dissected by an acknowledged master must produce a nearly indescribable mixture of awe, inspiration and humility.

The young pianists chosen to participate in the event were all gifted musicians. They had diligently prepared pieces by Chopin, Schubert, etc., for Mr. Goode to critique, and they performed them with assurance. Afterward, Mr. Goode offered encouragement, advice and gentle criticism, often illustrating his points at the keyboard. The results were a continual revelation for students and audience alike.

Over the years I have observed any number of master classes. Unlike the onstage participants, audience members don't have to endure the emotional strain of performing. They can concentrate instead on the musical ideas of the master without bothering about pesky technical details like finger placement and pedaling. With the greatest teachers, the problem of instrumental technique hardly even figures; it is completely secondary to the musical insights imparted.

For example, a couple of years ago I attended a series of master classes given by guitarist Manuel Barrueco, a Peabody faculty member who is one of a handful of heirs to Segovia's mantle. The things Mr. Barrueco talked about (and illustrated through his playing) had almost nothing to do with the details of how to play the guitar and everything to do with finding the music "behind the notes" -- how to bring out the shape of a musical phrase, or meld a complicated figuration into a single, singing line. It was a lesson in musical imagination and taste whose principles could be applied to almost any instrument or musical style.

The master classes given by legendary Peabody pianist Leon Fleisher are essays in pure song. Mr. Fleisher's musical imagination is so powerful he probably could hold an audience spellbound merely by playing finger exercises. His master classes offer a fascinating insight into the kind of thought that goes into his dazzling keyboard effects, reminding one that music must be "made" in the mind of the performer before it can be communicated to an audience through the medium of his or her instrument.

The most famous master classes in recent times undoubtedly were those given by opera diva Maria Callas at the Juilliard School in New York in 1971. By then Callas had been in self-imposed exile from the stage for nearly a decade. When the classes began, she said she hoped to pass on through her teaching some of the knowledge she had gained from long years of studying and performing the masterpieces of the operatic canon.

The series ran to some two dozen classes, from Mozart to Strauss, over the course of about six months, all of which were recorded. Recently, the EMI label reissued about three hours' worth of material from those historic sessions on compact disc.

The recordings reveal Callas as a deeply introspective, passionately committed artist whose entire approach derived from her uncompromising belief that the performer's highest duty lay in realizing the composer's intentions.

The portrait of Callas that emerges from the recordings belies the prickly public image that cast a shadow over much of her career. At the height of her fame in the 1950s, she was known even to non-opera fans as a difficult and demanding prima donna, given to fits of jealous temper and insufferable arrogance in the face of real or imagined slights, while remaining incapable of recognizing her own limitations of technique and interpretation.

By contrast, the recordings portray Callas as the consummate professional, neither lavish with praise nor quick to condemn but, rather, dedicated to the long, hard journey of self-discovery every artist who aspires to greatness must make.

She was not a particularly articulate person, and she was well aware of her limitations as a lecturer. Often, when words failed her, she simply sang the passage under discussion, full voice and with the same intensity of feeling and expression as if she were onstage.

Yet one is struck by the unfeigned humility with which these hypnotic performances are offered; they describe the artist as true servant to the music rather than as master of the flashy effect.

In 1971, the public could attend Callas' New York master classes for the princely sum of $5. It was the best bargain in the music business that year.

Most master classes in Baltimore today are free; to get in, all you have to do is show up. For music lovers on a budget or for those who merely seek an interesting alternative to the usual concert fare, the many master classes given in Baltimore each year are an immense, untapped resource. Best of all, you don't even have to practice before going to your lesson.

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