Bellingham music master classes give glimpse behind performances

Joshua Roman, well-known cellist and a Bellingham favorite, will perform his own composition, “Riding Light,” and other solo works for cello during a Friday, April 24, recital at the Performing Arts Center on the Western Washington University campus.

While Roman’s 7:30 p.m. program, which includes compositions by Henri Dutilleux, Alberto Ginastera and J.S. Bach, promises to be exciting, it is notably preceded by a master class that is also worth attending.

A master class is a sophisticated form of a music lesson given to advanced music students in front of an audience. They are enlightening and fun for general audiences. Here is how they work:

Usually, within a two-hour block of time, each of three or four students — chosen by local teachers — performs a different work for a master musician (concert artist or renowned teacher). The performance given by the student is recital-ready. In other words, we can all delight in the wonderful performances by the young musicians.

After each piece the master class teacher takes over and works with the student. They discuss the music, the interpretation and specifics on technique, as you might expect. But they also address posture, the way the student addresses the audience, and other recital practices and etiquette. Remember, while these students may be accomplished in technical aspects, they are new to the stage and to performance.

Each master class teacher is different and focuses on what they perceive as the most important aspect of the performance by the student. In some cases this can be very detailed — fingering for example — or it can be very broad — discussing, for example, the work performed in historical context or the work’s position within the composer’s oeuvre. As the students absorb the brief lessons, their improvement can be dramatic.

What the audience is able to see and hear is an up-close glimpse of a remarkable teacher and/or concert performer — an opportunity most of us rarely have. Through this process we see how they may approach a composition, the importance of technique, and — most illuminating — the interpretation of the work itself.

Although we may not play the instrument and some of the discussions with the students may be very technical, we — the audience — come away with a greater appreciation of the instrument, what students must learn, and how an artist approaches learning and interpreting music.

During the two hours, we are able to get closer to these master musicians than when we hear them on stage performing. Indeed, sometimes they involve the audience by entertaining questions, for these are intimate affairs, private lessons for the student, and quiet conversations about the performance of music that we have a chance to overhear. Attend if you have time. They are worth the effort, they are free, and they are fun.

The Bellingham Festival of Music, in cooperation with Western Washington University, the Bellingham Music Club, and the Whatcom Symphony, sponsors a number of master classes taught by renowned concert artists for local students throughout the year. These master classes are free to the students and open to the public free of charge.

Robert D. Lynch is chairman of the board of the Bellingham Festival of Music.