Saturday, December 17, 2016

Talking to violinist Shunske Sato about performance, repertoire and teaching

Photo: Yat Ho Tsang 

On December 8th 2016, I talked to violinist and violist Shunske Sato at his home in The Hague. Born
in Tokyo in 1984, he moved to the USA at age 4, then winning the Young Artists Prize in 1997 and making his New York recital debut in 2000. Recently returned from performing with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, Shunske appears widely in Europe and the USA as soloist or concertmaster, also performing chamber music. He currently serves as concertmaster of Concerto Köln and the Netherlands Bach Society. In 2013, he was invited to join the faculty of the Amsterdam Conservatory, where he teaches violin in the context of historical performance practice. His most recent recording (October, 2016) is of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” with Concerto Köln for the Berlin Classics label.

PH: Shunske Sato, having lived in different countries, you seem to be a citizen of the world.

Shunske Sato: Something like that. This is the fifth country I have lived in. A lot of moving around and new languages. From quite a young age I have really loved linguistics and language. And now, living in the Netherlands, the country with the highest English language proficiency rate, I dove straight into learning Dutch. Knowing German has helped.

PH: Are you from a musical family?

SS: I guess I could say that. My mother is a pianist. She teaches piano. Her mother, my grandmother, never really played an instrument, but she listens to quite a lot of music, enjoys it and was plunking at the upright piano at home at the young-old age of 80-something! So, there is definitely a musical strain in the family, but no performers, apart from myself.

PH: Would you like to talk about how it all began and your early musical training?

SS: Yes. Because my mother was a musician, there was music regularly in the house – her own playing and records. It was a musical environment. It seems I was drawn to the timbre of the violin and my mother noticed this. She also noticed that there were a lot of children around our Tokyo neighbourhood at that time walking around with their mothers and violin cases and she asked one of the mothers about this, thinking there must be a music school nearby. There was and it was a Suzuki method school. So, my mother took me there and, apparently, for a solid 45 minutes (I still remember this; it must have made an incredibly powerful impression on me. I was two at the time!) I was observing a room full of young children playing Suzuki-style and completely enraptured. The teacher noticed this two-year-old sitting in the corner and found it unusual for such a small child to be so incredibly focused like this and suggested I try the lessons. And then I had some very good teachers, including the first two in Japan. Years later, I came across a book of exercises of one of them and they are very good…very good material. Altogether, I have been lucky with all the teachers I have had and still remember the many, many good things I learned from each one of them. I have been very lucky.

PH: When was your first performance?

SS: Oh gosh…I believe it was at the age of three at a Suzuki concert, and there is even a video to prove it. I had knee-high socks with  little dogs imprinted on the top. Being much encouraged, little class concerts were a very regular part of my musical upbringing.

PH: In the USA, did you go to a music school?

SS: Yes, I did, but it was as a supplement to my regular school in Philadelphia, where I grew up. It was called Temple Prep School. Children went there once or twice a week after regular school. After school the kids came and had orchestra, where we  played our Grieg “Holberg Suites” etc. And what I think is incredibly good, I had chamber music lessons. So, I was playing my Haydn Trios and Beethoven Trios at the age of six or seven. Even in a childlike manner, I think that opens one up to the world of playing together with other people and to working towards listening to others. That was very important. I had some very good teachers, with whom I kept in touch for a very long time. In Philadelphia about three years ago, I visited one of them, now in her 90s and still cheerful.

PH: And after Temple Prep?

SS: At the age of 11, I started going to Juilliard Pre-College on Saturdays and continued there till age 18; it was very informative and significant. There, I  studied with Dorothy DeLay. On completing Juilliard Pre-College, students can proceed to the Juilliard School (college level), but I did not do that.

PH: So where did you take higher studies?

SS: I was living in Philadelphia and applying to different schools. I sent an application to Juilliard; oh, and down the street from me there was the Curtis Institute of Music, so I applied there, too. Was accepted to both, I believe, but, after seven years at Juilliard, opted for Curtis. I did one year at Curtis, but, already before that, I was starting to become interested in the goings-on in Europe, in a lot of the European musicians, having heard their concerts and CDs. (My outstanding Juilliard teacher Ms. DeLay, musically-thinking and analytical, always strong at filling in background information, had a funny little thing about Classical and Baroque music in Europe. She would say: “Sugar plum, when you go and give a recital in Europe, avoid the classics because they play them differently over there and you won’t be met with good feedback if you play them there”. Well, of course, when somebody tells you not to do something, you want to do it, to find out.)

There was one teacher – Gérard Poulet - with whom I had done summer courses two years prior to that, who invited me to come and study in Paris with him. I went to Paris, planning a year there and to return to where I had left off in the States, but that did not happen. I stayed in Europe; after the two years’ study with Poulet I stayed on in Paris for a couple more years.

PH: When did you develop your taste for Baroque music?

SS: It is hard to say. In the USA, I did have the odd Christopher Hogwood recordings lying around in the house. I did take notice and quite liked them, too, but didn’t think of pursuing Baroque music. However, I think the sound and idea that that all of this music could be done differently was planted then and there.

PH: So, when did you start getting involved in Baroque music?

SS: It was during those years in Paris. Paris and Europe, as a whole, offered the environment. There I discovered Baroque music and Baroque performance practice, which had been completely absent, at least, to my immediate environment in the US before then. It added fascination to be able to explore the violin in a completely different and new way. And it was so common in Europe. You could go to a concert of Rameau and Telemann and Bach and Beethoven on period instruments, which is still hard to do in the US. Then I drifted, drifted, drifted and decided to do some proper study, as it were, at a music school to really immerse myself in that and found a lovely teacher, an American teacher – Mary Utiger - in Munich.  The funny thing was that, 30 years before I did, she had also studied with Dorothy DeLay at Juilliard. By that time, I had decided that, as far as my studies were concerned, I really wanted to focus on Baroque violin.

PH: So, no more modern violin?

SS:  I was also playing modern violin at that time and still do. Every now and then, I get asked to do a Brahms concerto or whatever and still love doing all of that repertoire. I haven’t bid farewell to any of it. In fact, I have been able to revisit a lot of it – Brahms, for example – viewing it from a historic perspective, like discovering what kind of pianos or string techniques were used. 19th century Brahms was probably very different: you very quickly find out that it’s quite different to the modern 21st century, as a matter of fact. It has been very interesting to be able to see all of this repertoire from a completely different perspective.

PH: When did you start playing the viola?

SS: I’m surprised you mentioned it I love playing viola but don’t do it so much. I started playing the viola at 14 or 15…it was out of curiosity.  I bought one of those very cheap instruments, probably with water-and-bulletproof varnish, I scraped away and saw my way through it. I still do not play it as often as I would like.

PH: Do you have a Baroque viola?

SS: No, I still have the cheap, very red viola I bought then. I don’t have the incentive to acquire one as am known much more as a violinist.

PH: Do you see yourself mostly as a Baroque musician at present?

SS: Well, I’m not sure about me. Certainly, a for lot of people, yes. I think people would associate me with the Baroque violin, just from the sheer amount of work I have in that direction. For me it is actually quite remarkable to see how little the violin per se has changed in comparison to, say, the harpsichord versus the modern Steinway. Moving from the harpsichord to the modern piano is a much more difficult adaption, even from the fortepiano to an Érard piano. In that way, I think, as a string player, you actually have the advantage of taking more-or-less the same instrument and playing it in so many different ways. As I said before, I love doing Brahms and Schumann and much later repertoire. In fact, in February I am doing a 20th century program – Stravinsky, Khachaturian and Milhaud and on “historical instruments”! We found a nice Steinway from the beginning of the 20th century in an incredible workshop where they have three or four of these early Steinways. One of them, apparently, is a piano on which Vladimir Horowitz gave a concert.  Quite a remarkable collection. Anyway, there will be the Steinway, my violin with gut strings and steel and the clarinettist has also found a clarinet from this time. I think you can just extend this in so many ways. I enjoy a lot of kinds of music and like to have a broad repertoire.

PH: I read you played Paganini on gut strings. Is that authentic?

SS: Yes, yes. I did that in Australia, as a matter of fact.   Authentic? Yes, absolutely. Gut strings were in use on the violin till 1930 or ’40, but even longer for ‘cellists and double bass players. Violinists were the first to use steel strings. So, basically all the repertoire we now associate with Classical music, right up to Debussy and Ravel and Bartok was intended to be played on gut strings.

PH: Would you like to talk about your teaching?

SS: Yes…my teaching. I love it. I’m learning just as much as the students – even more. I knew that I liked it very much, even before I started teaching at the Amsterdam Conservatory. If anything, I think I have always been a very self-reflecting musician. I have never been a person to “just do something” – a difficult passage – and not know why or how. And then there is realizing that all of those students coming through the door bring with them their life. You see them for an hour and a half every week or two weeks and you give them this homework or that – a task to complete for next time – but a lot of them work at a shop five days a week, for example, in order to make ends meet…or to teach, and this little snippet of time is, in a way, so superficial! I realize that you can teach them about the violin and what to do when you encounter a diminished chord, how to ornament, and all of these things, but, in the end, what I try to do is to get that person to give his maximum, and what that means for every person is different. Some people…honestly…are not soloist material or they are more suited to group playing or even I would say, some people are much better geared towards teaching or research. I have one student who is incredibly good at research, brings along pieces I have never seen or heard of and knows so much about things. He is not the strongest player, but he really has a head and heart for music in a completely different way; I am not going to expect him to play a Bach fugue, but I can develop him in so many other ways. I really have to say I have a very good class of motivated students (young adults), and I think I am getting better. One of the things my teacher Dorothy DeLay said was when asked why she was such a good teacher was: “I do a lot of it every day”.

PH: Shunske, what is your current project? What is on your mind musically at the moment?

SS: Oh, gosh. Whatever is next! Actually, it has been interesting. Speaking of later Romantic music, 19th century repertoire – post-Beethoven - on historical instruments, you have a lot of Baroque ensembles, but those who focus on later repertoire…there aren’t so many. Actually, I have found a few “partners in crime” who know a lot about this period. We are trying to get a group off the ground. It will be very interesting to see how that goes.  We have sent out our first round of concert offers to concert halls throughout Holland. Reactions have been very positive, saying they like what we are onto and would like to have us for the next season. This is incredible: it must be a combination of a lot of factors as this is something that is not done much as yet. That is something I would love to expand. Just as the way we revolutionize the way we do Baroque music, we can go much, much further with other genres.

PH: Are you referring here to chamber music?

SS: Yes, yes. Absolutely.

PH: What do you find audiences want to hear at the moment?

SS: What do they want to hear? I think that depends. I can’t be a judge of that. It is such a synergy of different things, the synergy being between performer, listener and composer or whatever piece of music is being played.  And with the same three people in the same roles on Monday and then on Saturday, it is going to be different, even with pieces very well known to us.  I think it is exactly that which I try to really bring to life. The fact of the matter is that music is born and dies at the same moment, if you will. The moment the sound finishes it is gone and will never come back again. That is how I see it and, I think if you must go on that, unless you have a very jaded, skewed and strange audience (which you do have. Some audiences are in for a much more canonical approach, sticking to the “status quo” of the music. You have different audiences and can’t predict that sort of thing.) I think what does usually succeed is being genuine, being yourself – for better or worse. It’s just like when you talk to people, you know if they are being honest and genuine with you. I think if you are there 100 per cent the audience will be there 100 per cent too.

PH: Are you into new music?

SS: I have not been as such. There was a time that I did do more of that. New music is a bit in its own category. There are musicians who specifically dedicate themselves to it.  It’s a bit like what is happening with Baroque music: there is a certain circle that has been established to perform this kind of music. As to new music, I think I am not really exposed to it very much and so it is hard for me to say whether I would like it, as I haven’t yet done much of it. My personal experience of it has been mixed. I have sometimes come across new works that are brilliant, that I really like, and others not. The same thing goes for earlier music. There are some pieces of Beethoven or Mozart that are nice, but I don’t care to play them so much. It happens. So, I think it is mainly a question of exposure and simply of time, because, with what I have already now…it’s incredible; I’m already covering three centuries of music.

PH: Do you do any Japanese music?

SS: No. As a whole, and it is not just me…it is a very specialized area of music, even within Japan, actually. There you will much, much more easily find a classical or non-Japanese music concert than traditional music. Maybe that has a lot to do with the history of the country itself in the 19th century, when America and Europe came knocking on the door with cannons, guns and ships. The Japanese were, on the one hand very frightened and, on the other, fascinated by this new culture and, within a span of 20 to 30 years, they had completely turned their culture upside down and westernized it. And with that came also the ascent of western classical music and, at the same time, the decline of traditional things. Since then, it has become a bit marginalized. I don’t understand Japanese music at all: it follows rules that are completely different to what I know.

PH: Is this visit - end of December ’16 - going to be your first to Israel?

SS: Yes. My very first. I will be playing with two friends who live in The Hague (we quite often play here together) – Benny Aghassi (bassoon) and Hen Goldsobel (double bass) – and Israelis whom I have not yet met: Doret Florentin (recorder), Tali Goldberg (violin) and Yizhar Karshon (harpsichord). The concerts will take place in Jerusalem, Raanana, Haifa and Herzliya.

PH: Shunske, when it’s not music, what interests you?

SS: For sure I could say: cooking and architecture. What I like about both is the combination of science and creativity, and balance, too. Well, cooking simply because I like food – I just love food and am fascinated by how food is prepared and where it is sourced. However, by no means do I know terminology and things like that, for example, what part of the cow is called what, but that doesn’t deter me from enjoying it a lot. You can combine more-or-less the same ingredients in so many ways. In architecture, there is the construction – the science part of it – and then there is what you do with that. My fascination with architecture started early. In particular, I remember in Philadelphia, where I lived in a big apartment complex, they would send a monthly newsletter to all the residents and on the very back page there were advertisements for apartments for rent or for sale, including floor plans. I would take those floor plans and copy them to make variations on them – add a new room or make a three-bedroom apartment from a two-bedroom apartment. Where architecture is different is that in music or food, once it is gone it is gone, of course, remaining in the person’s memory and soul, but it’s not there.  The crucial difference is that in architecture when you build something it serves people every day in a very tangible way; small things impact, for example, the way you feel comfort at home, or discomfort. The wrong placement of a wall can really have a negative effect. The architect has to find solutions to problems that are optimal. Well, living in a country like Holland, you have old buildings all over the place and it is sometimes exciting, sometimes depressing, to go into a 17th century building. Sometimes whoever renovated it did a terrible job, with ugly tiles and laminate all over. Or not: somebody has really taken care and brought out the characteristics of the house, also making it very modern and comfortable. I think that food and architecture would have been very nice alternative professions for me.
PH: Shunske Sato, many thanks for your time. It has been most interesting talking to you and hearing about your career and thoughts on music.