The devastating times for the performing arts world during the pandemic have brought about many creative projects that make use of varied new virtual platforms born out of the crisis. Among these is the Dorothy DeLay Master Class Series, a free virtual series at Michigan State University (MSU) College of Music with featured episodes live-streamed on the Violin Channel.
Famed American violin teacher Dorothy DeLay, who died in 2002, is remembered as one of the most respected violin pedagogues of the 20th century. She furthered the careers of many prodigal talents including Itzhak Perlman, Sarah Chang, Gil Shaham and many others, several of whom will be featured in the master class series organized and presented by MSU faculty member Dmitri Berlinsky.
A student himself of the eminent mentor DeLay, Berlinsky is a violin professor and artist-teacher at MSU. He initiated the series to provide an alternative space to connect and engage musicians, performers, students, and music aficionados during this challenging state of isolation from cultural exchange.
In a highly professional yet personally engaging style, he emcees the series, creating captivating interaction with the series’ high-profile artists, who have, says Berlinsky, eagerly agreed to participate.
The master class format has always been the “TED Talk” of the music profession, connecting the talk with the craft, profiling the mentor as much as analyzing the student’s work through a critical lens. Much can be learned from the masters’ teaching style and artistic convictions, which truly span a wide spectrum, and are vividly presented in this master class series. Naming the series after DeLay, an MSU alumna herself, served to connect the many talents of a great generation of violinists who went through her famed studio at Juilliard. Among them was Berlinsky, who came from Russia in 1990 to work with DeLay at her personal invitation.
Launching the series this October was a master class given by violinist, educator, and humanitarian activist Midori, one of the legendary DeLay’s emanations into performance stardom. Midori has singlehandedly generated several nonprofit music organizations that connect music education and social advocacy in the U.S. and Asia. Aside from her international performance career, which spans over 35 years now, she is an active educator, teaching at Curtis School of Music.
Teaching online is somewhat difficult for Midori, as she explains: “I am not as well-equipped to deal with the current available technology as I thought I was. Besides delays in sound, it’s also difficult if you cannot see the [student’s] whole body on camera. Either they have to be close enough to carry the sound – but then you can only see partial positioning – or they are farther away [so you can] see the movements, [but] then you do not get good sound production.” This dilemma has limited successful online teaching for a while now. “However, it’s of course wonderful to make regular lessons available, even during travel, which is so important in this time now,” she says. “All my students moved back home to Asia during the lockdown. There is no other way now to teach.”
“DeLay nurtured so many incredible artists in her life, and knew literally everyone in the industry,” says Berlinsky. “It was her passion to connect her students, to give them the exposure they needed with professionals in that small industry, to further their careers. But she was also a great mentor, who knew how to foster her students’ grasp of the craft. Honoring her legacy is a great privilege. She was not a great performer and never showed any hands-on examples on the instrument. But she was so experienced and spent so much time with each student, patiently, intuitively finding what worked best for that student.”
Fascinating also are the many connections that continue between generations of DeLay’s students. The series became a welcome opportunity for a reunion between Berlinsky and some of its participants, many of them old friends of Berlinsky’s, like multi-Grammy nominee Philippe Quint, the distinguished artist in residence at the Peabody Conservatory; Vadim Guzman; and David Kim, concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra. In an earlier example of the connections brought about through DeLay’s influence, Midori had invited Berlinsky, when she was starting Midori and Friends, one of her scholastic music outreach nonprofits. “She is wonderful in so many ways,” Berlinsky says. “She has developed in such a broad sense, has developed such an awareness of what she does and why she does it, it was really amazing to reconnect.”
“There is room, time, and the need to have these wonderful artists share their expertise, giving guidance to students, but also share their motivation, what keeps them going and excites them…especially in the times right now,” he adds.
Musical talent, especially exceptional talent, is usually detected early on. Midori gave her debut concert at age 11 at the 1982 New York Philharmonic New Year’s Concert, invited by Zubin Mehta. Berlinsky, born into a family of musicians in St. Petersburg, was 16 when he was the youngest first-prize winner at the Genoa Paganini competition. It was winning Young Concert Artists (YCA), founded by Susan Wadsworth, that brought him to New York, where he was introduced to DeLay.
“I did not speak any English at the time. My father came along, and my aunt was translating,” he says, describing the event that changed his life and career. “Dorothy was so warm, and she was so excited about my playing – I played Mozart for her. It was such an unusual experience for me.” Berlinsky vividly remembers his encounters with other students following DeLay’s invitation to attend Juilliard, many of them today’s leading artists and educators. He has invited some of them to participate in the current master class series.
Anne Akiko Meyers, for example, a renowned champion of the new classical repertoire, who has dramatically expanded the violin repertoire by commissioning and premiering works by living composers, is one of the guest artists at the series. It also includes violin icons Shlomo Mintz, Chee-Yun, and Masao Kawasaki.
During Berlinsky’s time at Juilliard, Kawasaki was DeLay’s assistant, and instructed the young protégé. “This was an opportunity for me to thank him personally for his great artistry and devotion towards teaching,” Berlinsky says. “He had done many wonderful things for me, and some of his brilliant suggestions concerning fingerings and bowing, which were always so precise, stayed with me for all these years. And Anne,” he says, “we have not seen each other for 20 years, but somehow, sharing this new experience brings us back in time, as if it was yesterday.
“It is so fascinating to observe these amazing performers when [they are] teaching. To hear their differing point of views. Playing an instrument has so many technical challenges, of course. But how one approaches music, which are the main aspects one emphasizes, that is really what is inspiring about the experience. Everyone brings something different to the table, to each performance, and to be able to share this collectively invaluable advice from world-class musicians with students and interested viewers around the world, is just an amazing opportunity,” he explains. “Master classes in general offer a fascinating addition to long-term development of a continuously present, personal teacher [experience]; it is a wonderful experience to have fresh eyes and ears in the moment. For the student it can be great tool, to see things from a different perspective.
“The best thing [about] doing this is the amazing feedback I received from all participants. It really gave me such a sense of fulfillment and coming full circle, between paying homage to my dear teacher, sharing the stage with colleagues and friends, and connecting this world to students around the world, it really has been a wonderful experience.” Building on this experience, Berlinsky is planning out the series’ next season, starting in 2021.
Video recordings of past sections recorded from the MSU College of Music, with guest artists chiming in from Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, will be available. Berlinsky also prepared some guidance in technical aspects of best practices for performing music online, with tutorials he designed for students, playing from their apartments. And judging by its inspiring 2020 examples, highlighting talent and examining the values of artistic expression in connection with mastery of the craft, the next season will be another promising proposition.
Rounding out this year’s series, Berlinsky will introduce some of his prospective students. “As a teacher one learns so much from one’s own students,” he says. “I try things along with them with my process, I share with them. We inspire each other to try things different ways and these collaborative moments are the best, creating true partnership. This is when I know they have reached that independence, ready to guide themselves. The earlier a student finds that inner part, how to be efficient, the faster they will develop their skills. It is up to the teacher to inspire that kind of search and ambition.
“Of course, the process takes a lot of patience and we always build on our own experiences [that] we had as students. But there is always that constant learning experience that accompanies each artist during the lifelong process of performance. I love to raise questions, also to the guest artists in the series. I find critical exploration an essential task in developing one’s technique and exploring expressive qualities. If we get too used to a status quo, the quality of performance will suffer.”
While Berlinsky grew up with music constantly around him, he has never neglected to acknowledge his incredibly special relationship with it. “My parents are musicians, I remember the sound of music around me, and my first memories are the smell of my father’s rosin. I was fortunate to be enveloped by such sentiment and feeling at home with music. I sometimes feel bad for talented students whose parents and teachers did not understand to instill that love and support in them.”
There is talk about expanding the series’ focus from the violin to other string instruments. But we will hear more about that after this season’s last performance, which will feature Berlinsky, the sometimes easily forgotten mentor himself, in the spotlight.
The master classes are available on the Violin Channel.