Master classes sharpen students at Sarasota Music Festival

Master classes sharpen students at Sarasota Music Festival
Susan Rife, Sarasota Herald-Tribune 6/20/2013

After two and a half weeks of intensive classes, rehearsals, recitals and concerts, the 60 student participants at the Sarasota Music Festival might be forgiven for being a bit tired.

But Thursday morning, half a dozen violin students waited patiently for their turn at a 30-minute session with Noah Bendix-Balgley, who not too many years ago was, like them, a student at the festival.

Now he’s concertmaster at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and, this year, new to the music festival faculty.

“This is especially incredible because he’s an alumnus and one of the top concertmasters in the country and has been in my shoes just a couple of years ago,” said Luke Witchger, a Juilliard student who worked through “The Hero’s Companion” by Richard Strauss during his master class session with Bendix-Balgley.

The composition, a movement within the tone poem “A Hero’s Life,” tells a particular story about Strauss’s wife, who was notoriously capricious in her moods.

The piece is as variable as Pauline de Ahna’s emotions, which were, said Bendix-Balgley, quoting Strauss, “at every minute different from how she had been a moment before.”

Working with Witchger, Bendix-Balgley encouraged him to “really spice it up.” When the same musical phrase repeats itself four times, “play around, do a different bowing…Surprise me, do something different with every little turn.”

The teacher’s insights into the background of “The Hero’s Companion” proved helpful to Witchger.

“I didn’t know all these extreme characters I could go to,” he said.

Much of Bendix-Balgley’s advice to the students focused on two areas: finding the emotion in a piece, and staying in perfect rhythm while playing. Using his foot to tap or fingers to snap, he marked off the tempo for Caeli Smith, another Juilliard student, as she played Bach’s Partita in E Major.

“Can you make the punctuation a little bit cleaner,” he asked, “just a little bit of a break before you’re in the next phrase, a musical comma.”

In a break between students, Bendix-Balgley said he was “thrilled” to have festival director Robert Levin invite him to be part of this year’s faculty.

“It’s interesting. Teaching is something that’s relatively new to me,” he said. He was a student at the festival from 2003-2005 and went on to perform throughout North America with the Miro String Quartet and in Europe with the Athlos String Quartet from 2008 to 2011 before joining the Pittsburgh Symphony at age 27.

His teaching philosophy at the festival is “to start from the viewpoint of the music, what will make it most compelling.”

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