The Violin Channel recently sat down with British cellist Colin Carr, jury member of the 2020 Lillian and Maurice Barbash J.S Bach String Competition.
Colin, can you tell us about the Barbash Competition?
It is an annual competition devoted entirely to Bach, and open to string players worldwide. This year the competition will be held online due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but if the world ever returns to something resembling normal, it will be held (as it was last year) at Stony Brook University.
In your experience, how is this competition unique?
It’s unusual in that the participants are only required to play one sonata, suite, or partita of Bach. It’s such a simple format: two movements for the first round, and the whole piece for the final. But isn’t that telling enough? The competitors may play on modern or baroque instruments and bows, on instruments with four, five, or six strings, tuned in fifths, fourths, or a combination. As competitions go, this is perhaps the most humane I have come across!
Last year it was notable how much both jury and competitors enjoyed the whole experience. Susan and her family have given a lot of thought as to how to allow people the space and freedom to perform at their highest level. I was so impressed by the family’s attention to every detail.
There were many comments about how different it felt from other competitions; it sounded like people talking about home cooked food!
With the competition being open to all string instruments, how do you as a jury member go about the adjudication process?
I like the fact that the participants are playing different instruments and the jury is also composed of such diverse players. It is so much more interesting than a cello competition where in the first round 100 people are playing the same piece, and in the final maybe there’s a choice of three pieces and the finalists still end up playing the same piece! The question will inevitably be asked “how do you compare apples and oranges", but music is music, and an interesting voice will always be recognised.
I was concerned last year that the jury of a Bach competition might be so divided that consensus would never be reached, but the unanimity after the final round was both surprising and gratifying. I think we were able to put aside our personal, experiential preferences and listen objectively to each performance on its own merit. We don’t want our criteria for judgement to lead us to reward the player who sounds most like we do.
It’s like teaching; there is a temptation to be resisted, that is to assert ones own performance preferences onto a student. But we know this never really works. There is room in the bowl for apples, oranges, pears, and pomegranates.
What qualities are you looking for in the laureates?
Of course they need to be masters of their instrument, but it was clear last year that the jury would not settle for that alone. Character, personality, a compelling engagement with the music, and as I said earlier, a voice that is able to communicate Bach’s language with vision and imagination. We are looking for a performance that is deeply personal, committed, thoughtful, and full of life. In short, irresistible!
What should young musicians be most conscious of when performing Solo Bach?
If there were only one thing it would be easy. I can tell you what I try to be aware of when I play Bach. Aside from those qualities listed above (character, vision, imagination), the essential element for me is harmonic awareness. In Bach everything hangs on harmony, but harmony has its twin tower, equally important, and that is rhythmic strength.
The ability to keep a strong pulse whilst at the same time having the flexibility to give phrases their natural direction. It’s an art to play an entire page of 8th notes without boring yourself or your listeners.
Also needed is an innate sense of dance-like elegance and grace. These things require wisdom and understanding, and create at least the possibility of spontaneity, freedom to improvise, to go with the moment. I want to escape from “same old”, whether that means churning out the same performance as yesterday or the day before, or somehow sounding like everybody else.
However, falling into the trap of trying to sound different just for the sake of it can easily come across as fake and insincere. So we have to think about what to think about, and we can over think, and probably musical performance is best when the listener is not aware of the performer “thinking”.
How important do you feel historical instruments and practices are when presenting baroque works?
We have to feel indebted to the scholarship of historical performance and the wisdom it has brought to us. I would go so far as to say that a performance of Bach today that has not been informed by this kind of study is likely to betray some lack of understanding of Bach’s language.
I don’t mean to say Bach’s music must be played on Baroque instruments. That’s a question of personal taste. I do love to hear this music played on old instruments. The purity of sound and its innate warmth are winning qualities.
But the music transcends the instrument that it’s played on, and its strength and beauty, combined with a compelling performance, are far more important than whether it’s played on gut or steel. There has been a lot said on this subject, maybe too much.
If somebody speaks English with a foreign accent, that isn’t in itself an indication of lesser understanding. However, if somebody plays Bach with the most extreme dynamics, hyper-intensity, constant and unconsidered vibrato, all long notes sustained, and voluptuous glissandi, the chances are they have not studied the language deeply, and its expression suffers accordingly.
I think when we listen to Bach played on Baroque instruments, and hear the purity and simplicity of sound, we realise that we can be over-complicated in our search for meaning. And from a purely sonic perspective we need to remember that resonance is more useful than volume.
With this year’s Final round moving online, what should the candidates be extra aware of?
We should think of it as being akin to playing in an unusual acoustic, different and difficult, like playing outdoors, or in a huge cathedral with a 7 second echo. Make the best of it, that’s all we can do. Maybe we think too much before competitions and auditions about what the jury might want to hear from us. It’s possible to try too hard to be what we think others want us to be and we forget who we actually are.
But sincerity is so important; the jury wants people to be themselves and they want to like it. The only thing the candidates need is to have the best technology available for their recording. I hope that we will be able to level that particular playing field. I don’t think being online should require a musician to change their performance.