Greenberg guides music students to the stage
Amidst the parade of must-see soloists, star conductors and special crossover events that pop off the calendar, and the sublime meadow setting of the concerts, it is easy to overlook what gives the Aspen Music Festival its unique quality. But ask music director David Zinman or president Alan Fletcher, or any of their predecessors, and they will point to the 700-or-so music students who populate Aspen over the summer, and more specifically, how those students populate the Music Festival’s various orchestras, playing side by side with seasoned professionals.At the heart of that nexus between youthful energy and experienced polish is Herbert Greenberg. For going on a decade, the 57-year-old violinist has been concertmaster of the Aspen Festival Orchestra. The group, which gets the prime-time Sunday afternoon slot nine weeks each summer, playing monumental works (like Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, the “Tragic,” last week), and backing the world’s best soloists (like violinist Sarah Chang, on Sunday, Aug. 5), features a 5-to-1 ratio of students to pros. Greenberg, who heads the string department at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute, has 18 young violinists studying with him this summer in Aspen. This past week, he was joined by 17 of what he called “elite” students in a chamber music performance of Beethoven’s demanding Grosse Fuge.”I live it every day,” Greenberg said of Aspen’s signature inclusion of students in its top orchestras. “I’m very close to it. It’s not theoretical. I’m in the house with them every day.”
For Greenberg, the onstage link between the young players and their teachers makes concerts in Aspen not only unique, but also invigorating. “That interaction with the students – I feel younger, I feel fresher,” said Greenberg, whose onstage demeanor, visible from his prominent spot at the head of the violin section, confirms those claims. “When they play a piece, for many of them, it’s always a world premiere. They’ve never played a Brahms symphony. It’s special because there’s a freshness, sitting in the middle of this. You don’t get that anywhere else, not to this extent.”I feel inspiration. I get more out of them than they get out of me.”Still, the students get plenty out of the experience. Rehearsals for the Sunday afternoon concerts begin on Thursday, giving the kids – some as young as their early teens – four days to prepare for the performance. It provides an experience they won’t get in a practice studio or sitting in an audience.”They’re expected to play like professionals – the amount of concentration and dedication and focus going into the program,” said Greenberg. “There’s certain pressure on these kids. They have to perform. They’re not expected to be adjunct.””He really believes that the orchestra is there for the training of the students,” said Zinman. And Zinman credits Greenberg, his colleague for 13 years in Baltimore and 10 summers here, for adding a facet of pleasure to those demands. “He’s not telling the students how terrible it’s going to be out there in the world. He brings enthusiasm.”To Greenberg’s ears, any lack of expertise among the student body is more than made up for by the enthusiasm and novelty. “They’re often more inspiring than a professional orchestra,” he said. “There’s a feeling of music-making and spontaneity with the kids. It’s truly amazing, the level of concerts we get. If you close your eyes and didn’t know there were a bunch of little kids onstage, it would just be music.”
Greenberg’s own teacher, Josef Gingold, taught him this sort of humanist approach to music. At Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music in the ’60s, Gingold’s lessons were as much about life away from music as about bowing techniques and notes on the page.”Aside from being a great violin teacher, and a great believer in making music, making it a part of life, he was a great humanitarian,” said Greenberg. “Everything was inspiration.”Among the lessons Greenberg took was how to maintain a fresh perspective in a career that, on the one hand, aspires to artistic greatness, and on the other, involves numbing repetition. Gingold was concertmaster, under conductor George Szell, of the Cleveland Orchestra, and he helped make Cleveland one of the premier orchestras in the country. But Gingold walked away from the job at a reasonably young 51; his teaching position at Indiana lasted 30 years, until his death in 1995.Greenberg says he followed that model. After membership in the Minnesota Orchestra and a stint as associate concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony, he became concertmaster of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 1981 and served there till 2001 – a stretch that overlapped with David Zinman’s tenure in Baltimore. But a combined three decades as an orchestra members was his self-imposed limit. “I wanted to use 30 years as a benchmark,” he said. “Enough was enough. I wanted to do other things.”Those other things include appearances as a guest concertmaster, most frequently with the Bergen Symphony Orchestra in Norway. He is regularly featured in the chamber music dates throughout the Aspen Music Festival season, and performs Beethoven’s “Rasumovsky” quartet in a chamber music concert on Saturday, July 28, at Harris Hall.Greenberg loves the freedom he has at this time in his career. Leaving Baltimore at 51 – the same age Gingold was when he left Cleveland – has allowed him to have an artistic life he calls “fulfilling.” But he doesn’t mind that nine weeks each summer are devoted to Aspen. The work here is one of the things he wanted to free himself to do, not free himself from. And the principal reason is the students.”If we didn’t have the students, we’d be nothing,” said Greenberg, who teaches up to seven hours a day. “It’s the Aspen Music Festival and School – with a big underline under the ‘School.’ The kids are the essence of the spirit here. The Chicago Symphony, the New York Philharmonic – that has its place. But this is special.”
Among the model students to have come through the Aspen system is Robert McDuffie. The violinist attended the Aspen Music School in the ’70s and has gone on to prominence, appearing as soloist with most of the major orchestras in the world. Rome recently awarded him its Premio Simpatia recognition for his contributions to the city; McDuffie is the co-founder and artistic director of the Rome Chamber Music Festival.
Two things McDuffie has not forgotten during his rise are Aspen and the importance of teaching. He performs here regularly; on Wednesday, Aug. 1, he plays a recital of works by Beethoven and Bartók. Joining him are violist Lawrence Dutton and cellist Ralph Kirshbaum, with whom McDuffie founded a touring trio several years ago in Aspen.McDuffie’s commitment to teaching is manifested in the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings, which opens this year at Mercer College in McDuffie’s hometown of Mercer, Ga.Also this week: The Bizet opera “Carmen” comes to the Wheeler Opera House – and to Wagner Park in downtown Aspen. While the opera, conducted by Julius Rudel, has live performances Saturday through Monday, July 28-30, at the Wheeler, the Sunday, July 29 performance will be simulcast, for free, on a huge screen in the park. All are invited.The Aspen Chamber Symphony concert on Friday, Aug. 3, has had some changes. Mikko Franck, the scheduled conductor, has been forced to cancel due to health issues. Replacing him is Rossen Milanov, associate conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The scheduled Sibelius Symphony No. 3 is likewise being replaced, with Haydn’s Symphony No. 103. The concert will still feature the world premiere of Robert Beaser’s Folk Songs and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, the “Emperor,” with pianist Yevgeny Sudbin.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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Join us on this episode of The Drop-In as we make the most of the warm, sunny weather with top-to-bottom laps on Aspen Mountain.