A few years ago, I had the idea of starting a chamber music society that would include professional and amateur players. Like many of my spontaneous ideas, it remained a vague notion to be realized at a later date when the opportunity arose: in other words, never. This is of course not a new concept. Until a few decades ago, there were certain private salons throughout Europe and on the East Coast of the USA where world-class artists would sit down to sight-read chamber music with well-educated amateurs on their days off.
These days we live largely in a society of exclusion and division in almost every sense. In Germany, where I’ve lived for the last nearly seventeen years, generations are growing farther apart and spending less time with each other. Scholastic paths are decided at the tender age of ten, when children part ways and are herded toward their diverse fates of white-collar and blue-collar work. To study classical music, you go to a conservatory, where you are generally encapsulated from the rest of the world and even from other students who are studying different subjects. I won’t even go into how absurdly specialized that education can be. The point is, we spend too little time interacting (live, not online) with people who could give us fresh perspectives.
I’m on the train right now, coming back from a week of teaching and playing at a festival for music lovers of all ages and abilities called Danish Strings. It was founded in the 1970s by a Danish violinist I wish I could have met, a man named Anker Buch who passed away just a few months ago. Born in Denmark, he studied with Ivan Galamian at Juilliard in a class that included Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman. According to Lars Bjørnkjær, concertmaster of the Royal Danish Orchestra, people found Buch a strange bird when he returned to Denmark; they were suspicious and probably envious of his foreign education, a rarity in those days. After a a debut in New York City’s Town Hall and appearances on the Jonny Carson Show, he chose the path less traveled. Beyond his musical pedigree, Buch was also a talented comedian; he studied with circus clowns and gave Victor Borge-like comedic performances, playing the fiddle behind his back and telling jokes. The great Galamian reportedly advised Buch to go back to Denmark and start a festival to promote the art of great string playing. Lars and the two other current music directors of Danish Strings, violinist Flemming Patrick Andersen and pianist Leif Greibe, grew up attending his masterclasses. Lars followed in his mentor’s footsteps and went to Juilliard to study with Dorothy DeLay. In fact, it turns out that he and I were at Juilliard at the same time, although I was still in the Pre-College Division back then.
Buch must have been the visionary type who could bring out the best in everyone, no matter how egregious the differences in their levels of proficiency. His idea of a string festival was to invite and involve anyone and everyone who loved music and could play a stringed instrument. He got children, music students, and amateurs to play in the same string orchestra and share his enthusiasm. Lars tells me Buch was by no means an anti-elitist – he himself was a highly virtuosic player and encouraged his more serious students to strive for the highest standards – he simply believed that everyone should have the opportunity to commune and celebrate music-making.
This tradition continues today at Danish Strings, which takes place once a year on the campus of a countryside boarding school a few hours’ drive from Copenhagen in Jutland. Lars, Leif, and Flemming invite regular teachers and special guests each year to give masterclasses, play concerts, and teach individual lessons for a week. Some of their guest teachers in previous years have included Aaron Rosand, Gil Shaham, and Ralph Kirshbaum. Yet no matter how illustrious the faculty, the concept remains the same: children of all ages making music together.
The atmosphere at a typical classical music masterclass can be daunting and sometimes even approach the tension levels of an international competition. After all, a masterclass is the bastard child of a concert and a private lesson; it is both and neither. The ‘master’ should demonstrate his wisdom and artistry to the audience while helping the student, who should perform like a master while remaining humble enough to accept and implement criticism on the spot before an audience. As you might imagine, this is not always a satisfying experience for all involved.
A talented young music student at Danish Strings told me: “every time I’ve played in a masterclass here, some amateur musicians have come up to me and told me, ‘you played so beautifully, thank you,’ even when I thought I played badly and my teacher would have been mad.” He seemed perplexed that there were people out there who could appreciate his imperfect efforts. Some other music students made the astonished observation that a group of Norwegian amateur musicians was apparently staying up half the night every night playing chamber music in their shared house and using up their summer vacations to be at the festival.
If I had to name one teacher from this year’s Danish Strings festival who most embodies the ideals of respect and love for music at every level, it would be the cellist Gert von Bülow. From the first moment of his first masterclass there, I understood (despite my minimal grasp of Danish) that this was an artist for whom the concept of a masterclass was as natural as a native language. There are teachers who teach by demonstration, those who teach by coercion, by correction, by coaxing. Gert von Bülow is one who teaches by inclusion, the way I imagine the founder of the festival may have done. He is the kind of teacher who makes the student realize that the real search is not for answers but for the right questions, the kind of teacher who involves the student and the audience equally, entertaining and informing by way of his contagious thirst for knowledge and love of music. Luckily for me, von Bülow is also fluent in German, having been a professor at the Musikhochschule in Rostock for many years, and we had a long and enriching follow-up conversation about the Bach Cello Suites and the mysteries surrounding them.
The students who came to me this past week for lessons included a schoolteacher from Greenland, a Norwegian city planner, a Danish engineer, a Danish lawyer, some children just beginning to play, and several conservatory students from Denmark and Sweden. One elderly man told me he had been suffering from poor health and his son had urged him to return to the festival for the first time in a few years and take his two grandchildren with him, who play the violin and cello. They all sat side by side in chamber orchestras throughout the week and played a concert together last night, on the final evening of the course.
There may not be an ultimate lesson to be learned from all this; there may be no succinct moral of the story. On the other hand, great composers throughout the centuries have taught aspiring professionals and amateur pupils alike, so why shouldn’t we continue that tradition?