This interview was done April 2017 at Cuckson’s apartment and transcribed by Kevin Sun.
Ethan Iverson: You come from a musical family.
Miranda Cuckson: I do. It’s just the three of us. I’m an only child, and my parents are musicians. My dad, Robert Cuckson, is a composer and a pianist and teaches at Mannes School of Music, he’s been there for many years. He teaches composition and theory and various graduate electives. Also for many years he has been teaching at the Curtis Institute one day a week, where he does mostly counterpoint and keyboard studies. My mother is also a pianist. That’s how they met, they were studying with the same teacher in London, Ilona Kabos. My mother later studied at Peabody and Juilliard.
EI: When did you start showing an interest in being a musician yourself?
MC: Very early on. I loved playing from the start but I didn’t practice that much until I was in pre-college at Juilliard, which was when I was nine. I kind of fell into playing the violin, because my older cousin grew out of this fiddle and I got it as a hand me down. I didn’t have a moment when I was like, “Oh, please get me a violin,” but I found myself with it and I really took to it.
EI: Was there an early concert or moment when you felt like, this is it, this is what I’m doing?
MC: Perhaps when I was about 11, I played the Mendelssohn concerto with the Little Orchestra Society at Avery Fisher Hall. That year I also played at Merkin Hall featured with some other talented kids, we all had fun and it was so exciting.
EI: I like the Mendelssohn, but my relationship to a piece like that must be so different to someone who played it at 11 and heard it over and over since. How has your feeling about the piece changed over the years?
MC: There’s an inevitable aspect of either playing it or hearing it so much…and teaching it, too. Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky concerto…I get more tired of hearing Tchaikovsky somehow. The pieces retain their greatness, but there are times when you don’t feel like hearing another one. Sometimes there’s a weird fluke and everyone’s playing a certain piece and you don’t know why that is.. say everyone’s playing Sibelius.
Still, the Mendelssohn is a beautiful piece, it really is. The way it progresses dramatically from beginning to end is just so great. It’s a perfect length, not a wasted moment or gesture.
One performance I was impressed by in recent years was by Joshua Bell. He has a pretty finite repertoire but still plays, I don’t know, a lot of concerts a year. I saw the opening night of the New York Phil a few years ago on television at the gym. He has probably played the Mendelssohn thousands of times, but he came on and played it so well and beautifully. It was just so impressive. He’s played it so many times and brought that intensity to it.
EI: For many of us, we’ve heard the core rep almost too many times, but for other people they are hearing it for the first time. That’s one of the problems with the canon.
MC: Right. There are always new people discovering these things, which is great, of course. You want that music to be available, live, for all these people who just walked in to a classical concert, and for these young kids. Yet many of us also get to complaining about orchestral programming: are they going to do new music? Can we hear some other things? There is a lot they could be doing, but there are also certain – I don’t know what you can call it – pillars of human achievement, like the Beethoven symphonies. When I hear about ancient sites and artworks in the Middle East being destroyed, I don’t take our great musical heritage for granted either. But it is challenging to balance the old and new and unfamiliar.
EI: Most violin virtuosos have relationships with some heavy teachers. Tell us about your teachers. Do you regard your parents as teachers?
MC: Yes, for sure. I learned a lot from them in all kinds of ways. We often talk about music because that’s what we love.
EI: It sounds like a dream come true to have parents who can talk about music!
MC: It’s always interesting for me to talk to people who come from that other dynamic, of not having musicians in their family. But I do know a lot of people from musical families also.
I’ve learned a lot from my parents. Since I was a kid they both introduced me to a lot of music, with good taste and perspectives. My dad is apparently a very beloved teacher. I’ve never sat in on a class of his, which I would love to do sometime, but I’m always meeting students or former students of his, and they say great things. He’s very thorough about all of the nuts and bolts theory, he’s very good at explaining things in a way that people can really grasp, but then he’s always like, “Ok, now you know all that, now take it with a grain of salt.”
I find composers are always very opinionated about music, but in recent years my father and I have gotten into some interesting dialogues about some of the music I perform.
My first main violin teacher was Shirley Givens in precollege. She’s taught in various colleges and she’s also really well known for teaching kids. She published these kids’ books called “Adventures in Violinland.” When I was studying with her, they were not books yet, they were just xeroxed handouts. She’s really inventive and imaginative- she gets kids to think about everything, even technical things like bow hold or shifting, in terms of characters and stories. She’s a very good visual artist too, she makes all these drawings that go along with her teaching method and they are really charming and quirky.
Shirley studied with Ivan Galamian, who was one of the well-known pedagogues, who also taught Dorothy DeLay. They both came from that pedagogical background.
EI: This is a certain tradition, right?
MC: Galamian was Russian, or Armenian, I guess, and he taught a certain school of playing, in his own way. He taught Pinchas Zukerman and Perlman. It became a Russian-Israeli sort of style.
I studied with Shirley through middle school, and then I went to Dorothy DeLay, who had many star students. There was talk of managers and concert outfits and record deals, but as a teacher, she was truly remarkable. She was there to give you all the tools to express yourself. I had a lot of lessons with her at her house in Nyack on Sundays, and at school during the week. She was remarkable at looking at all of the mechanics of the technique and focusing on exactly what was going on. Violin technique is complicated.
EI: What are some of the elements of violin technique?
MC: The left hand and right hand do very different things. With the left hand you have to control intonation, obviously, which you do by placement of pitches using muscle memory of distances. Shifting positions is part of that and the sounds you make when you’re shifting. And there’s the different kinds of vibrato, and left hand articulation, meaning the actual dropping of your finger, lifting of your finger.
EI: I know from jazz bass that an extraordinary amount of the sound comes from the left hand, even though it looks like sound’s just coming from the right hand. I suspect it must be true on violin as well.
MC: Yes, it’s true. The thing with the violin is, because all the distances are so much smaller, it’s not as obvious as on a bass or cello, but it is definitely affecting the sound a lot. Actually I have sometimes wished I could get more of those bass-like effects from the violin.
With the right hand, you use the pressure of your bow to create friction and what’s called the sounding point, where you place your bow between your bridge and your fingerboard. There are hundreds of different kinds of bow strokes that you can make, on the string or bouncing or brushing off the string, various kinds of attacks…not to mention aiming for a great legato, and a great bow change so that you don’t hear when you change the direction of the bow.
Ms. DeLay used an actual chart, she xeroxed it and filled out a copy for you at each lesson. It was incredibly methodical, she would mark off these categories of things and whether you could do them well enough at your lesson, or when she felt you’d sufficiently mastered or polished that aspect.
EI: It sounds very rigorous.
MC: It was a great way of thinking about all these different elements and becoming really aware of what I was doing and what the possibilities are. I’ve found that since I’ve gotten involved with new music, I’m applying that kind of thinking to all these modern ideas from composers. If you play with your bow this far from the bridge, for instance a couple of millimeters this direction, what kind of pressure do you need to produce this sound?
She didn’t seem very interested new music when I studied with her, but I think now she would actually be quite fascinated by it because she would get really interested figuring how these things work.
I left school after my undergrad and had a bit of a break at that time. I had studied some chamber music with Felix Galimir in school. He didn’t teach violin at Juilliard, just chamber music. I studied privately with him after that. It was a great immersion in music for its own sake. I mean, he was that kind of musician. He was one of these people who just lived for that. It was the thing that mattered to him the most, whether he had concerts to play or not. I went through all kinds of repertoire with him, concertos and solo Bach and classical repertoire like the Beethoven and Mozart sonatas. And he started nudging me toward some 20th-century, less-known stuff. Back in Vienna he and his sisters had been playing the newest music, by Schoenberg and Berg and Ravel. He was the one who really urged me to look at some recent twentieth-century pieces.
EI: OK, so you hadn’t done too much of that so far.
MC: No, a little bit, a piece here and there.
EI: Somehow I got the impression because of your dad you grew up listening to Elliott Carter’s String Quartets, but that’s not really true?
MC: No. I think on the one hand, having my dad in the house, I always had this sense of music being created now, you know. He was always writing something. But he’s a fairly traditional composer, he writes very lyrically and contrapuntally, and when he was young and coming up, his music was not fashionable.
So I wasn’t really hearing that newer stuff at home, it was really through Felix and then Bobby Mann that I started to hear and play that music.
EI: Did you ever compose yourself?
MC: No, very little. It could turn out I’m wrong about this if I try, but I feel like composing would be a really arduous process for me. But people have asked me about that because I am familiar with a lot of contemporary repertoire, so I have a lot of experience and musical ideas to draw from. Sometimes I think about it.
Anyway, I played for Felix over a period of about 10 years until he died. I went back to school mainly to study with Robert Mann. I had this sense that he was somebody who’d have interesting things to say to me, and I called him and he said, “Well, I only teach in school, so if you want to play for me, you have to come to school.” At that time I figured I didn’t have a masters yet. I re-auditioned at Juilliard, which was a funny experience, seeing all those violin teachers again sitting at the table.
EI: They made you re-audition? Really?
MC: Sure, everyone has to audition. Ms. Delay was there when I was re-auditioning, but I wasn’t going to study with her at that point, so it was awkward but it was really fine.
I feel lucky because the progression of teachers I had was just what I needed. Shirley Givens was just great, both for fundamentals and also making it very fun. Dorothy Delay was a technically oriented teacher. One of her big topics was projection, and I had been kind of a smaller-scale player as a kid, so that was very healthy and practical for me to develop. Felix was a wonderful, inspirational, very moving artist. Robert Mann was a super-busy performer for over 50 years, somebody with a very strong point of view.
He didn’t talk about technique much at all. Maybe he’d want to share with you some great fingering he was very proud of having come up with, so he had to tell you, you know? But otherwise it was all about music. In Beethoven, he would go on long monologues about the urtext or what he thought about this or that metronome marking. He has a very inspiring sense of the flexibility and flux in the music. It could be moving forward or back in any moment, you know, those little powerful details of rhythm or rhythmic feel, just creating that drama. A lot of it came from his own hands-on experiences as a performer. He would say that, “Look, I’ve played on stages thousands of times — this works.”
I had a great rapport with him. He is 96 now and he’s a tough character. He can be very loving and joyful but he can also be tough. But I found that he wasn’t really that dictatorial, he wouldn’t say “The music has to go this way,” or “you must play it this way.” He was just very convinced about his own point of view, and if you were not being effective enough about your own, you might as well do it his way. But he was very curious about ideas and possibilities.
EI: And he was interested in new music, too.
MC: Very much, yeah. He did hundreds of premieres. Carter was one of the main composers he collaborated with, also Babbitt, and a lot of the Americans from the mid-century, and the Juilliard Quartet early on really championed Schoenberg in this country. New music was a huge part of Bobby Mann’s mission. And he composed.
EI: Oh, I actually didn’t know that.
MC: I played some pieces of his. Everything was in hand-written manuscript, very messy. But then, even his home-made parts of other composers’ music were crazy and messy. His Bartok Solo Sonata was super marked up, taped together, and wild. But yeah, he wrote quite a bit.
EI: Do you like his music?
MC: Yeah! It’s very bold, kind of big gestures, but also cantabile sometimes. There are a few more experimental things like knocking on your instrument or stamping your foot or putting a block inside the piano. I guess more experimental for that time.
EI: How did the key turn in the lock for you about new music?
MC: H’mm. Well, I started throwing myself into every new music-related thing while I was at Juilliard. And with Robert Mann, I learned the Carter concerto, which hardly anyone plays, and the Dutilleux concerto and the Carter Duo. He’s the one who started talking to me about Ralph Shapey. And then I connected with some people around town who wanted me to play and I starting doing some gigs, and I suddenly found myself working with composers all the time and it was just extremely interesting to me.
EI: Thank you for the album of Ross Lee Finney. That was a surprise. How did you learn about Finney?
MC: I came across a piece of his in the New York Public Library, the Fantasy in Two Movements, that he wrote for Yehudi Menuhin. I liked the look of it so I took it out and I played it at home. Around that time I was starting thinking about a doctoral thesis, so I looked into more of his pieces. His life and his story are interesting, it really spoke to me at that time. He was from that Copland generation, actually his story parallels Copland a lot, the progression of style from Americana to serialism. He had a midwestern background, he was from a small town, a very middle-American guy that goes off to study with Boulanger and then with Alban Berg. When he came back to the States he ended up at the University of Michigan, rather than getting an East Coast job where he would have been more connected to the main classical scene. But he did start an electronics studio in Michigan and all these people like Bolcom and George Crumb went there to study with him.
EI: I always heard Ross Lee Finney’s name, but it wasn’t until your album that I actually listened to some of it. I really liked it, and then I did my own sort of Finney research on the piano side. The Quasi Una Fantasia from the 60’s is a really strong piece, pianists should give it an airing at least once in a while.
One thing I like about that generation is that they were so traditionally trained: the bones underneath the modernism are really good bones, you know what I mean?
MC: Oh yeah. For sure. It’s really lovely, thoroughly crafted music.
EI: Perhaps even more important are your two discs of Ralph Shapey. Did you meet him?
MC: I just missed meeting him. I just missed Martino also. I do know Shapey’s widow now quite well, Elsa, who’s lovely, a great lady. I guess Ralph was known as being a foul-mouthed and cantankerous character.
EI: Someone said he was the Charles Bukowski of modern music.
MC: Elsa told me he was a really short guy and when he grew up in Philly he’d been bullied as a kid, and his way of dealing with it was to get aggressive, belligerent and tough with people. But she also said that when he was at home, when he was just happy with family around, he was sweet.
EI: I love how he repeats his harmonies. Compared to some modern composers, there’s something like a storyteller about him. Whereas with so many, the scroll just keeps going and going with new information, Shapey actually will sit on things and return to them and again. Your ears turn up, and those chords become friends.
MC: He was interested in recognizable ideas that listeners would latch onto. He thought that strong motivic ideas was what made Beethoven and Haydn and Mozart so great. He was emulating that.
I’ve really enjoyed getting to know his pieces. There are different periods he went through. In the middle of his life, his music was unmetered and the ideas keep recurring in a sort of mobile way, they have a kind of collage effect. And then his later pieces are quite static harmonically, so rather than melody or development, it’s more this layered texture that’s rotating around in this shimmering and massive harmony. It’s an ecstatic kind of feeling, sort of like Messiaen. Really beautiful …
EI: Do you feel satisfied with the Shapey records?
MC: I haven’t listened to them for a while, I felt good about them at the time. I’d like to play some of his pieces more. A couple of them have never been performed.
Things do change. I’m very happy with my most recent record, Invisible Colors, for example, but I just listened to the Wolpe and I thought “Oh, I’d like to do this again!” It’s totally fine the way it is, but also it was recorded a year ago now, and I’m still thinking about the music… Even the way I played that little Wolpe piece the other day on my concert, it was very different from on the album.
EI: I told Ursula Oppens, “Ursula, you must be able to sight-read this stuff,” but she said, “No, I just have to work really hard, in fact, I’m not a very good sight reader.” I was surprised that somebody who’s recorded and performed so much fresh repertoire doesn’t play it down pretty much right away. What’s your process?
MC: Well, I would say I’m not a really good sight-reader either.
EI: This can’t be true.
MC: I’m fast at absorbing stuff. I’ve improved at sight-reading but it’s not really about the initial reading, it’s the quick learning right after that, for me.
EI: Do you have perfect pitch?
MC: No. I have very well-developed relative pitch.
EI: What about microtones? I love your disc Melting the Darkness, that was one of the freshest things I’d heard in a while. But the thought of working on microtones really sets me back in my chair.
MC: It’s a whole other dimension and you can keep going further with it. “OK, now I get quarter tones, now let’s deal with eighth tones and twelfth tones.” It’s been fascinating.
EI: Do you use an electronic tuner?
MC: Not usually but I have in certain contexts. Sometimes in ensemble situations. It’s more about getting people harmonically aligned so that we can be sure that we’re hearing in relation to each other. It can be helpful, but I rarely use it for working on solo repertoire. You need to hear it yourself and it’s also so much about the fingerboard. It’s physical: kinesthetic memory. You do enough of it and you start to hear it. I played in the Argento Ensemble for 8 years, and the first thing they asked me to play was a commercial recording of Tristan Murail’s chamber music, and I had never played quarter-tone music before. It was suddenly like, figure it out, you know? But that group was immersed in his music, Murail was supervising the whole thing himself and some of his students were involved in it, so it was a great way to get involved and learn from one of the sources, about spectral music. When you start doing a lot of it, your ears start to really adjust and hear gradations you were not aware of before.
EI: On the violin, microtones can sound quite vocal .
MC: Right, there are those composers who are using microtones just for inflections and colors, like in folk singing, which is a really beautiful way of using it. Then for some it’s about the overtone series etc., it’s the basis of their whole system of choosing notes.
EI: It’s such a selfless act to be an interpreter of these hard scores. You have to just sit there and just take it from some of those composers.
MC: Well, yeah… Ever since I was like a small kid I’ve always liked concentrating on a thing, you just want to figure this out and get good at it. I enjoy that. At this point, the satisfying thing is I’ve absorbed so much music in playing these various styles that there are a lot of things I don’t have to think about so much. I can get more to expression. So I don’t feel so overwhelmed or imposed on by composers’ instructions or requirements.
Like the Ferneyhough pieces on my new disc: if I’d tried to do them five or eight years ago, I would have been more bogged down in all the information, and not have been able to feel spontaneous with it.
EI: For some of those composers like Ferneyhough — for the piano, anyway — I know it’s so difficult that there’s not an expectation that someone could actually play it accurately.
EI: Is that true of the violin music as well?
MC: Basically. Ferneyhough has talked about the aspect of making performers struggle. Now there are composers who see that as part of their aesthetic, both the performance aspect of the physical acrobatics or exertion or whatever, plus expressing that kind of effort that goes into it.
EI: The first person who I talked to about this was Marilyn Nonken. She really kind of blew my mind she showed me a Ferneyhough score and said, “Well, you actually can’t play it all.” I guess I could see how that would be freeing, too: If in, say, Carter, you can actually play it, then that’s a finite thing. In Ferneyhough, you can’t play it, so there’s something a little bit more open-ended or collaborative.
MC: A performer has to find a way or come up with their own solution. He’s notorious partly for his rhythmic complexity… I feel it as a kind of layering of activity and way of pacing phrases but I don’t get bogged down in it mathematically. So I don’t know about accuracy per se with that. But in terms of notes and articulations, dynamics etc., I worked a lot on those two Ferneyhough violin pieces and I’m pretty much playing what’s there, you could follow on the score. My first performance of Intermedio I played with the score projected onto the wall – it was the presenter’s idea – so, not that I was completely on that time but it was a fun challenge and upped the ante for me.
EI: Bragging about playing all the notes in Ferneyhough! How dare you, Miranda?[laughter]
MC: Well, I do like his notes! It seems worthwhile hearing. And there’s still a lot of effort involved. I’d say the one who’s truly unplayable, where you have to invent, is Xenakis. Often it’s a concept of lines moving or events happening and the essential thing is to go for the effect. Because those things can’t actually occur on your instrument at the same time. But his stuff is about energy and the interactions of things. You just make it happen in performance, somehow, but there are things that are absolutely impossible. And yeah, it’s a very freeing and fun and collaborative kind of relationship with the composer.
EI: Maybe there’s something accessible to a general audience about Xenakis because of this excessive demand.
MC: Yeah. It is super over the top. Even though his composing processes were thought out, it’s so visceral what he’s creating, the sounds and the swooping in and out and the accumulation of energy or the dissipation of it. I think anyone responds to that, just feeling like you’re in a car or a roller coaster or something like that.
EI: I was thinking that opening piece Xenakis piece “Mikka S” on Melting the Darkness has something about the blues about it, too. I don’t know if that’s the most ludicrous statement, but…
MC: It has that sort of wailing deep expression. And the tensions that he gets between these intervals, with something feeling like it’s sort of out of place, and then going to resolve, but then it suddenly goes off somewhere else.
EI: Let’s follow that thread about emotional connection. I respond emotionally to a lot of this music, but that’s not true of many people. The masters of 20th-century high modernism were seemingly confident that their day would come. But I don’t know if that happened, it seems like it still only ever reaches specialists.
MC: I think the language is one that takes some more time and focus from listeners so they can start to enjoy it in a more immediate way. And nowadays there’s such an abundance of styles of music, even within classical, that some people just gravitate toward those that are more immediately listenable to them – they’re more tonal or more pulse-based or whatever. But there are people who want to try listening to other things. I think overall the listening has evolved and also in general, players are playing the music better.
EI: If you listen to some of the earlier Schoenberg recordings, they’re so bad.
MC: Yeah..Now there are a lot of people who play his music beautifully and with a kind of ease. And again it’s that thing of having collectively absorbed the language. I suppose there are still people who don’t like Schoenberg, but I think Schoenberg has become more central, partly because people are just playing it better and more expressively. I recently heard a great performance of “Jacob’s Ladder,” this tremendous oratorio, and there was a great crowd. There are now young quartets who are playing Carter quartets amazingly well.
EI: This is such a great point you make about how it’s performed. One thing I responded to about your playing right away was the ease of the message. You have a coolness under fire that’s very compelling.
Carter is there, he’s going to stay around, but let’s talk about somebody like Donald Martino. He’s somebody who’s incredibly significant.
MC: He is, but nobody plays him.
EI: At one point he felt like part of the center of what was happening and I don’t think that’s true anymore.
MC: He was very much a part of it, he was played a lot and he taught all over the place, but he’s barely programmed these days. But a wonderful composer.
EI: Ok, this is what I want: I want to hear your emotional connection to Martino.
MC: I hear a lot of things in his music, the flow and the momentum and a kind of exuberance. He also had an evolution… the early “Fantasy-Variations” is more similar to what Babbitt was doing, with little distinct gestures, but even there I find that they’re very romantic little gestures, and they have a huge registral range and it’s very dramatic. I hear all the Italian opera that he was into and that he also loved Liszt and Schumann. He was a jazz clarinetist, and something about the legato swirly-ness of his lines maybe comes from that. There’s a kind of fluidity that is really beautiful to me, dear to me. The slow movements are soulful and singing with this kind of dark, romantic quality. They lie on the instrument very comfortably in terms of making a nice cantabile kind of sound. I always hear a tremendous warmth, he’s very Italian-American to me. Apparently he loved to cook, I hear that in his music, too.
EI: He’s a composer that puts a dynamic and an articulation on essentially every note. Do you ever feel it’s too much or do you feel it’s appropriate?
MC: Well, some of it might not be necessary. His later pieces became more streamlined. Like several of those on my album. The “Fantasy Variations” has tons of markings. It’s interesting to see so specifically what he was imagining hearing. Generally what he wrote makes expressive sense to me, so I don’t find it too saturated with markings. Sometimes with Babbitt it is a bit much, but even there it all seems pretty reasonable to me.
EI: With most of the pieces you recorded, I don’t need to ask you for further reflections because you’ve written such thoughtful and helpful liner notes already. Have you always been a writer, too?
MC: Well, I always liked to write. I remember being six or seven and being asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and I said, “A violinist or a writer.” But I didn’t even think much about writing about music until my grad degrees and I was deciding whether or not to do a doctorate. Until then, I thought of music as mainly a non-verbally expressed thing. But writing about it turned out to be something I felt comfortable and inspired doing. I’ve definitely come to appreciate great musicologists more.
EI: You’ve started to be more active as a commissioner, too, right? I enjoyed the Wang Lu piece last week.
MC: I have been wanting to do more of that. I’ve done a lot of second or third performances of pieces, pieces that were already written. That’s great to do, too.
EI: I’m sure my readers want to know something about the people more associated with jazz who you’ve commissioned from, what’s that all about? Is it for a specific project?
MC: No, though maybe it could be at some point. It just comes from becoming friends with these people. Also I’ve been listening to more jazz in recent years and it’s intriguing to me, the idea of collaborating. Partly I’ve just found the spirit of the music really uplifting and fun, traditional jazz or the more current styles. Just like German or French or Russian music all have different qualities that make you feel a certain way… Also I’m interested in the context of all the American music I’ve been studying, from the last century or so. And also the way the networking works in jazz has just appealed to me, the directness and personal rapport of the musicians working together in different combinations. It’s analogous to the new music scene I’ve known and there’s some overlap.
EI: I heard about Steve Lehman and Matt Mitchell, they’ve both written things for you or about to…
MC: Yeah, Matt is about to. Steve recently wrote me this solo piece that had been germinating for a while. He uses some rhythms and timbres modeled after a plucked African stringed instrument, the ngoni. The violin is microtonally detuned for it.
EI: Wang Lu told me you gave great advice in terms of making a few things more violinistic in her piece. Is that common, that composers want to get feedback when you work with something brand new?
MC: Yeah, pretty often. Sometimes they’re not sure if what they ask for will work or what it will actually sound like. I might offer alternative suggestions, saying you could do it this way or you could do it that way. Sometimes they just take your idea and run with it.
EI: Apparently the Brahms violin concerto was really affected by Joachim, correct?
MC: Yeah. Joachim apparently contributed a lot of ideas and suggestions, it was very collaborative, and he wrote that great cadenza. He also wrote some good pieces himself.
EI: Are there standard repertoire concertos or other standard repertoire in the violin world that you would really love to play?
MC: I’ve never performed the Beethoven Concerto with orchestra, that would be great to do.
EI: Do you like listening to earlier generation players? “Historical” performances?
MC: I do. Sometimes there’s something that seems wacky, it can be a little bizarre.
EI: Do you find that attractive or less attractive, those idiosyncrasies?
MC: Generally I like it. I generally like people expressing how they hear it. Some of them have an interesting approach to sound. After what people call the golden era of violin — Heifetz, Oistrakh, Mischa Elman, Milstein is part of that, too — where they all had this kind of round and very polished sort of sound, plus their facility on the instrument: this paved the way for the violinists after that like Perlman and Zukerman and players now. Before the Heifetz generation, there were virtuosos but there were more idiosyncrasies. Somebody like Kreisler.
EI: Adolf Busch?
MC: Yeah! There was a little more of these unexpected sorts of colors that come into it that eventually people felt were not desirable because they’re not in the service of this buttery kind of tone. These other kinds of little shadings and qualities that happen in the sound spontaneously are not appreciated as much.
To be clear, I actually love that style of violin playing, also bel canto singing. Those are a collective achievement and provide lots of beauty. I’d hate to see those skills vanish from the world and the next generations. It’s great the level of performance is so high. I grew up playing mainly Baroque to Romantic repertoire and I had wonderful experiences and responses. So it really pains me if someone has gotten the idea I’m against those values.. I’m just for expanding the possibility of greater range of sound and expressive meaning, beyond always using a sound as an end in itself.
Bobby Mann always talked about avoiding what he called a “wall-to-wall” sound. It drove him nuts. Felix said using vibrato anytime without expressive intention is like wearing lipstick to go hiking.
EI: Do you think if you played Beethoven or something else in the older canon at this point that your work with modern composers and modernist compositions could affect your interpretation in an interesting way?
MC: Yeah! That’s a major topic but basically I always would like to do more older music.
EI: Your record of the Ponce and Korngold concertos sort of stands out in your discography, at least the Korngold is a staple of the violin repertoire. How did that record come about?
MC: That was my first CD recording. The conductor Paul Freeman was working with Czech National Radio Orchestra and putting together various recording projects. The recording industry was different in those days but I think Eastern European orchestras still do quite a bit of recording. The studio was like a big cloud of cigarette smoke.
EI: Really? They were smoking in the recording section?
MC: Yes, cigarette smoking. Very nice people, but heavy smokers! [laughs]
Actually Paul Freeman’s suggested project was the Korngold and the Louis Gruenberg concerto, another piece that was premiered by Heifetz. It was going to be a modern recording of two Heifetz vehicles. Gruenberg was also a film composer, like Korngold. But I went and listened to the Gruenberg and I didn’t want to play it, it was too schmaltzy. I love ultra-romantic stuff, but I just didn’t like the Gruenberg. Actually I heard it on the radio the other day and it didn’t sound as annoying as it did to me back then.
Anyway I had picked up the music to that Ponce concerto at a garage sale or something, and I looked at it again and really liked it and I made a proposal: “I’d like to do this with you, but can we record Ponce instead of Gruenberg?” and they said yes. I went to Prague and had this nice experience.
EI: When you learned the Korngold Concerto, did you listen to the Heifetz recording or do you not listen to it?
MC: Oh, I listened. I mean, I often listen to a piece right at the beginning of my process, just to hear what people do with it and get more a sense of the piece. I listened to Heifetz and a couple of others that are out there.
The Korngold concerto is a great piece. You can see why he was the toast of Vienna when he was a kid and Strauss thought he was remarkable. It’s beautifully orchestrated and has great tunes.
EI: I also listened to your Walter Piston concerto, which is a live recording.
MC: I was very excited to learn the piece for that concert, which was at Carnegie, the main stage. It was a wonderful opportunity and I hadn’t played Piston’s music before, so that was great. I didn’t look at the contract closely, so I didn’t know that the performance was being recorded, and for commercial release.
EI: That’s a shock.
MC: I had a marvelous time at the performance and got great feedback. I even got stopped on Broadway by someone I didn’t know, who raved about it, that was cool. But yeah, it was my first performance of the piece. There was a place things got a bit off from the orchestra, I had some adrenaline going, you know, and it is on this commercial recording.
EI: I think that’s a big drag that you didn’t know, that they just put it out. It’s a cool piece, it was a fun listen as well. For whatever it’s worth, I didn’t notice anything off.
MC: It is a terrific piece. That concerto has a very sunny kind of glow to it. I would really love to play it some more. The second Piston violin concerto is darker, it’s more brooding at times, but it sounds great on the instrument, too.
EI: What’s coming up?
MC: One major thing I’m excited about is that Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas is writing me a new violin concerto. I’m actually seeing him tomorrow to take a first look.
EI: Fantastic! Well, the piece of his on Melting the Darkness, “de terrae fine,” is beautiful.
MC: Yeah, it’s amazing. The concerto premiere is in early September in Tokyo. There are three co-commissioners, so the performances will be there and also Stuttgart about six months later, and then the Casa Musica in Porto in Portugal. Hopefully I’ll get to do it in the United States sometime.
I met Georg when he was having some of his first performances in New York. I played some of those premieres. When I had the release event of the Melting the Darkness album, with his violin piece on it, he came and after that, he just said, “I would like to write you a concerto.” And I just said, “Really? I would love that.” I’m very excited about it, it’s going to make my summer really busy, learning this thing. He’s a fantastic artist, I’m really looking forward.
EI: How many hours do you practice?
MC: It’s hard to say nowadays. When I was younger, four or five hours a day regularly, at the least. I think you need to do that to get to a certain point. I feel like my body does not like doing quite as much every day now. [laughs]
EI: All instruments are physical, but the violin is very tightly wound, a lot of stuff that has to happen in a small amount of space.
MC: Yes, and it’s so asymmetrical, compared to some other instruments. And I have a long neck, so that can get compressed. I do a lot of yoga. Also with new pieces, you have to learn the score, it’s part of the process anyway, so that’s also part of my time.
EI: Do you play piano?
MC: Occasionally, but not well. I don’t even have a keyboard here.
EI: I suppose in the modern world, composers send mp3s of the Finale or Sibelius reduction, right?
MC: Yeah. I will listen to some of those, the sounds have gotten better.
EI: Do you find that there’s some unrealistic expectation of what the music will sound like live versus what it sounds like out of a computer?
MC: I think it’s a danger for some composers, they’re hearing things coming from the computer and they think it’s going to sound just like that. Understanding the instruments and understanding performers are key skills for a composer. But composing directly onto the computer program rather than thinking about the instruments and the people, it’s the newer way, and sometimes a problem. There are so many composers now partly because they have this technology for writing music that makes it easier and faster, rather than creating a score line by line with paper and pencil.
EI: It’s true, when you had to write it all out by hand that was one way to cull the less talented away from the truly dedicated.
MC: I remember my dad and his onionskin paper and his calligraphy pen for doing all his copying. That used to be the way for all composers. His fingers would be black for weeks. He switched to the Sibelius program some years ago. I can see the convenience of having a computer extract parts from a score but even so there’s still a lot of proofreading composers need to do.
Miranda Cuckson webpage and discography.