Rainer Crosett ’14, a resident of Pforzheimer House enrolled in the Harvard/New England Conservatory joint five-year AB/MM program concentrating in Philosophy, was awarded a Fellowship to attend the Kronberg Academy’s cello masterclass program in Germany. Crosett, a cellist, has been a member of the Brattle Street Chamber Players, Dunster House Opera Orchestra and Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra. He also served as principal cello of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra during its inaugural season and performed on the National Public Radio show “From the Top.” He intends to pursue a career in music. The following is his reflection on his time in Germany.
Getting started in Kronberg
I arrived on September 21 in the beautiful medieval town of Kronberg, Germany, which is situated about 20 miles outside of Frankfurt. Already I understand why Rostropovich nicknamed this place the “capital of cello.” Pictures of great cellists are everywhere, and, for the biennial cello masterclasses and concerts, more than 100 young cellists descended on the small town. We crowded into all of the few tiny restaurants in town with our bulky cello cases, and from the moment I started talking to fellow participants on the train platform in Frankfurt, I felt a very special collegial atmosphere at this festival. Cellists, after all, are known for having festivals devoted exclusively to our instrument, whereas many other types of musicians (such as violinists) aren’t.
This same day, I played a short audition today for Gary Hoffman, the extraordinary cellist with whom I would work here. The next several days were packed with masterclasses from 9:30 to 6:30 each day, followed by a concert in the evening by each of the four master teachers – Hoffman, David Geringas, Frans Helmerson, and Jerome Pernoo, in the stunningly beautiful Johanniskirche. During the day, I observed dozens of students in the classes and benefited from individual instruction on my own playing. I was thrilled to sit in on as many classes as possible, because there is so much to be learned from listening to different styles of playing and schools of teaching. Hoffman, for instance, was influenced in large part by the teaching of Janos Starker, whereas Geringas is known as Rostropovich’s favorite student. The variety of legacies of cello playing and teaching presented were unparalleled. I was itching for the classes to start so that I could soak up as much knowledge and inspiration as possible.
Lesson with Gary Hoffman
Kronberg exceeded my expectations in every way. Participating in the masterclasses each day was mentally and emotionally
exhausting because of the careful way I was listening and thinking about my playing, and of course, because of the rigor of the teaching. Each day we listened to many students play, and often we heard the same pieces both played and taught in many different ways. For example, I heard the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata played three times, and my expectations and “ideal” for the music became very specific. By listening carefully to the playing and teaching in a class, you start to formulate your own highest level for how you think the piece in question should be played, incorporating both technical and purely musical factors. This process that happens in a masterclass filled me with the burning desire to get back to my cello and try out various ways of achieving the qualities of sound and expression I hope to convey.
I also had a lesson with Gary Hoffman, the teacher whom I was most excited about working with at Kronberg. I played some of Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante for him, and we spent time discussing and working on an important and challenging debate in cello playing: how physically involved you should be while playing, aside from the movements in the arms and fingers that are necessary to make any sound at all. Hoffman noted that I tend to drop my head or introduce tension in my neck whenever the music becomes particularly challenging. He encouraged me to direct all that movement, energy and focus into my right arm, the bow arm, which he said is where the vast majority of our expression and musical power originates on the instrument. The left hand picks out the notes and has some possibilities for expression, through vibrato and quality of shifting, but the right arm, he said, can have a much greater impact. Think of weight in the string, bow changes, contact point, bow speed, bow angles, type of attack. The variations are endless.
This simple idea and shift of focus, which he expressed eloquently and in such a way that I’ll never forget it, made an immediate difference in my sound and range of expressive possibilities. It is a key take away from the masterclasses that I will think about for the rest of my life. Watching Hoffman’s concert one evening was also a testament to the power of this idea: His playing is wholly without excess physical flourish or other showy body motions, but it is no less expressive or meaningful for that. In fact, I think his playing is some of the most sincere, heartfelt and direct playing I have ever heard, probably because he wastes none of his energy thinking about how he might capture the audience’s attention with visual stimuli. Instead, he devotes all of his attention thinking about the way he engages the instrument in the service of the musical ideas he hopes to convey.