Violin virtuoso Charles Castleman pays Linfield a kingly visit

The 77-year-old performer and teacher leads free chamber concerts this week at the McMinnville college

If you haven’t heard of the Castleman Quartet, don’t feel bad. This summer violin-development program has been going nearly half a century, but until recently, it was confined to the East Coast, where violinist Charles Castleman first presided over it as a graduate student in Philadelphia. Given that Castleman has been making connections in the classical music world for seven decades, it’s not surprising that he knew a piano teacher at Linfield College. A couple of years ago, they brought the program to McMinnville, and it returns for its third season this week, featuring several days of recitals on campus with violin students from around the country.

Charles Castleman works with a student during the Castleman Quartet Program at Linfield College. Photo courtesy: Linfield College

The 77-year-old Castleman is something of a rock star in the violin world. His parents were not musicians, but played classical recordings at home, and Castleman’s introduction to the violin came when he was little more than 2. His mother took him backstage at the Boston Pops, where he met conductor Arthur Fiedler, who would lead the orchestra for half a century. Fiedler was impressed with the young Castleman’s musical knowledge, but observed that he didn’t yet have the size or coordination to play an instrument.

“He suggested that when I was 3 or 4, I should start,” Castleman recalled when I sat down with him last week. “He said, ‘You should play the violin, and you should play the piano at the same time so you don’t just hear horizontally.’ So he was a mentor for quite some time. I played a solo for him, when I was 5 or 6, with the Pops.”

His first teacher was Emanuel Ondricek, and he later studied with Ivan Galamian, David Oistrakh (who had “an enormous impact on my bow arm,” he told an interviewer in 2005) and Henryk Szeryng (who had significant “impact on my choice of fingerings and choice of bowings in performance,” Castleman said in that same interview). Castleman is, according to his website, “perhaps the world’s most active performer and pedagogue on the violin.”

Castleman, who rides a bicycle as much as possible (“We always get him a bike,” his assistant explained a few minutes before he came riding up in shorts and a T-shirt.), teaches at the Eastman School of Music and the University of Miami. He’s played with the orchestras of Philadelphia, Boston, Brisbane, Chicago, Hong Kong, Moscow, Mexico City, New York, San Francisco, Seoul and Shanghai. He’s also taught master classes at more than 50 American universities.

Prior to meeting Castleman, I watched a rapid-fire interview with him on the Violin Channel, where I learned that he does not like to be idle. He was gracious enough to give me 45 minutes after lunch before he headed into rehearsal, and what follows is a transcript of the conversation, edited for both length and clarity.

You were in some remarkable concerts when you were very young. Are there any that you recall particularly?

I remember the TV stuff. I played all the big TV shows when I was a child. But one that was particularly fun, when I was 10, was with Frank Sinatra and Jack Benny playing violin. That’s on YouTube. And another when I was 14, the Dorsey brothers had a show called Stage Show where I played Flight of the Bumblebee with June Taylor Dancers dancing around me like bumblebees. That’s also there. I was on Lawrence Welk, a whole lot of them.

Was there a moment when you knew this was what you wanted to do with your life, or did it just end up that way?

I never really thought very much of any other profession. On the other hand, I went to Harvard when I was 16. I was never limited to music in terms of what I was doing. But that always made it even more likely that I was going to be a musician, because everything else, people would have eventually accused me of being a dilettante. At a certain point, (other subjects) weren’t as important to me as playing.

You’ve heard the saying, “Those who can do, do, and those who can’t teach.” You obviously can do both.

I’ve always enjoyed both. They’re entirely different satisfactions. When you’re playing, you’re expressing yourself, your own ideas, your own values, and who has that in their job? Very few people. If you draw or write, sure. But regular professions, you’re doing what someone else tells you. And then teaching, the fun of teaching for me is interacting with the people. It’s entirely different.

Is there anything you’ve learned about playing the violin from teaching it? Does that ever happen?

All the time. Because you’re solving problems for people. In a way, it’s easier, because you can see it outside of yourself with someone else. And then you think, “Oh, that would work if I tried that, too.” It happens all the time. I wouldn’t even know where to start. It’s a regular occurrence.
Charles Castleman performs with pianist Claudia Hoca.

How do you balance the two? How do you decide to spend your time?

Right now, because I’m doing a lot of teaching, running this program and everything else that I’m doing, I’m not one of the people that one thinks of to hire. But if I call them, almost everybody says, “Yes, we’d love to have you.” What that means is that if I’m proactive, I can play exactly as much as I want. I’ll initiate what I feel I can handle. I don’t think I would enjoy just teaching if I didn’t have the chance to express myself. When you’re performing, you’re playing to a whole lot of people, and you’re aware that you have an effect, but you’re not really aware of how much of an effect it is. I suspect it’s less than you think. People go to a concert, and they love it, but how much of it do they remember a year later? I’m not sure.

I saw Joshua Bell a while back. I’d never seen a violinist play by himself, I took my mom to see him at the Elsinore in Salem. And what I will always remember is how physical it is. I had no idea — and I listen to classical music all the time — but I’d never seen what it takes for a violinist to do that.

Absolutely, absolutely. It’s an athletic event. It’s like a sport, almost.

I suppose your bike riding helps?

The bike riding probably helps for stamina, I’m not sure it has much else to do with it. But I think it’s probably the other way around. At the age that I’m at, I can probably do bike riding because I’m in good condition from playing the violin.

You were asked once who influenced you the most as a teacher, and you didn’t just name one, you named four or five. Is it unique for a violin student to have that many teachers?

No, I think a lot of people who have done well have had many mentors.

Is that better, to not rely on a single teacher?

It doesn’t have to be. It can be either way. I’m sure Joshua would name other mentors, but his principal teacher was Josef Gingold, who was also one of my teachers. His playing has always shown the influence of Mr. Gingold. He would probably name a lot of other people. In the same sense, I would say my principal violin teacher was probably more of an influence than anybody else that I’m naming, Ondricek. I was extremely lucky to have early training with somebody of that ilk. But as I’ve gone along, these other mentors — Mr. Gingold, among other people — have taught me things that only they could teach me. He was a student of Ysaye, and I am known as an expert on Ysaye. He didn’t teach me anything else, but he taught me Ysaye, and it turned out to be something I’m known for.

Tell me about the Castleman Quartet. Why did you start it?

I was in grad school, I was teaching at this little school in Philadelphia and they were interested in having a development program in the summer and they put the youngest faculty members in charge of building the summer program, and I was the strings person. They came up with this idea in April for a program in July — three months later. I had nine string quartets. I’d gone to Harvard, and at Harvard and lots of other schools like that you have very smart people who were going to be doctors or lawyers or something else, who would love to spend the summer doing chamber music. So there was a Harvard quartet, there was a Penn quartet, there was a Yale quartet.

How did it come to Linfield?

Albert Kim was a piano teacher here until last year. He was at Eastman when I was there, and I knew him at Harvard. We’d known each other long before. He’s now moved on to another job.

[At this point, I pulled out a book, Haruki Murakami’s “Absolutely On Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa.” In it, the famed Japanese conductor tells the story of Leonard Bernstein delivering a fascinating speech to an audience that had come to hear Canadian pianist Glenn Gould play Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 with the New York Philharmonic. I ran the anecdote by Castleman to get his take on it.]

Bernstein basically said, “You’re about to hear Mr. Gould play a very unorthodox performance, and I don’t really agree with it, but I think you should hear it anyway because he’s a serious artist who deserves to be heard, so I’ll go ahead and conduct it.” And he goes on to discuss this question of, in a concerto, who’s the boss?

Well, conductors are used to being bosses. Soloists are used to being bosses. I’ve played thousands of concerts with an orchestra, and every single time there arrives this tacit agreement to defer to each other. There shouldn’t be one boss. There are hundreds of stories about conductors who wouldn’t defer to soloists, and soloists who wouldn’t defer to conductors, but in general, that’s not what happens.

I’ll tell you a story. There was a symphony and there was a conductor. I was in my 20s, and I’d had friends who played under him who said he was impossible, just incredibly difficult and nasty. I got called to play a Brahms concerto with his orchestra. He met me at the airport, drove me back to his house, we had drinks, we had the most lovely time. He even gave me an idea for an attractive slide in a piece that I didn’t know about, and we just hit it off.

Then, for the first rehearsal, he drove me, and we’re having this wonderful time, and I’m going to my dressing room and he’s going to the stage, and you could just see the horns growing. (Castleman laughs) I could hear him screaming and behaving the way people said he behaved.

How was he with you then?

Lovely! We had no problems. His relationship with the soloists was unflaggingly nice, and his relationship with the orchestra was unflaggingly terrible.

The Castleman Quartet chamber music concert series, featuring young artists and an international faculty, continues through Saturday, Aug. 11, at Linfield. Performances are in the Delkin Recital Hall in the Vivian Bull Music Center at 7:30 p.m., and all concerts are free.

A shrewd interpretation of Shrew

I can’t recall a time when there’s been so much Shakespeare packed into such a short period in Yamhill County. So far this summer, we’ve had a Hamlet and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). George Fox University in Newberg has a family-friendly A Midsummer Night’s Dream set for October. We’ve got one more this month, and for the Beaverton-based Experience Theatre Project, this season’s production raised a prickly question: How do you stage The Taming of the Shrew — Shakespeare’s most plainly patriarchal play — during the #MeToo and #TimesUp era?

Hitting the right note with “The Taming of the Shrew” can be a struggle. Mickey Jordan and Jacquelle Davis step up to the challenge in Experience Theatre Project’s version of the play for the #MeToo era. Photo courtesy: Experience Theatre Project

Artistic Director Alisa Stewart said the company approached several directors to wrestle with the problem, but none knew what to do with it, until they round-tabled it with Sara Fay Goldman, a Portland theater artist. Her work basically reimagines the play’s prologue and epilogue so that the idea of a “play within a play” is more pronounced, thus making it easier to comment occasionally on the action. Stewart promises audiences will see Shakespeare’s original play (trimmed a bit for length) but this one has a new title: The Taming and the Shrew: A Kind of History.

It lands in Yamhill County for one weekend only, at Stoller Family Estate in Dayton. Showtime is 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 10, and 2 p.m. Aug. 11-12. The show runs about 2 hours and 20 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission. A complete playbill is available at the website.

August is Giggle Month

Remember the The Carol Burnett Show? During the show’s 11-year run on CBS in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Burnett caught lightning in a bottle with a dream ensemble that included the now legendary Harvey Korman and Tim Conway, Lyle Waggoner and Vicki Lawrence, along with various guests. They performed comedy sketches in front of a studio audience and were more often than not hysterical, particularly when Conway was in the zone, cracking up not only the audience but also his fellow actors.

That’s the vibe they’re going for in McMinnville this month with Gigglefest, with shows featuring short comedy sketches with local actors. Cassandra Schwanke and Ty Boice, who founded Post5 Theatre in Portland in 2011, are the co-creators, and they’re bringing in actors from around the country to host the shows. You can find them in Suites 8-9 upstairs over Union Block Coffee in downtown McMinnville, 403 N.E. Third St. Friday and Saturday shows start at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m.; Sundays at 8:30 p.m. only. Tickets are $12 online and $10 at the door. The show is sponsored by local arts patron Ronni Lacroute. And while it’s not particularly important or even relevant, I’d note that — because this is a small community and I’m an advocate of full disclosure — Cassandra and I were in a play together at Gallery Theater forever ago. It’s wonderful to see she’s still on the boards.

Art Harvest sneak preview

This is a couple of weeks away, but if you’re planning to hit Yamhill County’s Art Harvest Studio Tour in October, make a note: All the participating artists who will open their studios for the two-weekend event this fall will have samples of their work at the Parrish Gallery in the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg starting Aug. 14.

An opening reception will be from 5 to 8 p.m. Aug. 24. The point of the show, which runs through Oct. 20, is to better prepare the public to choose whom to visit during the self-guided tour, which runs Oct. 5-7 and 12-14 in artists’ studios all over Yamhill County. With more than 40 artists, it’s virtually impossible to spend quality time in every location, so this free show can help you plan your trip.

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