Principal clarinetist of the Pittsburgh Symphony Michael Rusinek gave a masterclass Thursday morning showcasing his expertise in orchestral excerpts and excellent skills in communicating ideas to students clearly. The first student performed the second movement of Beethoven 6. Rusinek’s main focus was dynamic contrast, likening the peak forte moments in this solo to an opera singer’s full voice, reaching dramatic fortes without ever breaking the tone. Solos within Beethoven symphonies require louder dynamics than the performer would usually play on their own to cut above the sound of the full orchestra. Rusinek also communicated a groundbreaking concept regarding decrescendos: as volume decreases, increase your intensity to prevent the phrase from dying too soon. In this case, each short note grouping at the beginning of the excerpt does not stand alone but is part of a larger phrase. Too much decrescendo within each motif kills the phrase.
Next, a very capable high school senior with excellent technique performed the first movement of Poulenc’s Sonata. The fast and quite awkwardly written passages were performed very well, but Rusinek encouraged the student to experiment and become comfortable with alternate fingerings. Students often only call upon their one standard set of fingerings, while many passages of this piece can be greatly simplified by using alternates (ex. 1/1 B-flat).
Lastly, a graduate student performed the lush and beloved solo from Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2. Rusinek advocated for a greater range of expression, playing pianos more softly to help dramatize the fortes. Rusinek spoke also of the difference between playing with meaning vs. playing with feeling. Anyone can play with affectation, but a true interpretation only comes with an understanding of the composer, the piece and the devices he uses to communicate. In this case, syncopation is an important means of heightening the drama by creating forward motion.
–Notes by Melissa Bowles Snavely
Melissa Bowles Snavely holds degrees in performance and music education from The Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins, Shenandoah Conservatory, and James Madison University. She currently teaches and performs in the Washington DC area.