Author’s Notice: The article below is the original manuscript, as submitted to the magazine The Strad, who published it in their July 2001 issue. They eliminated paragraphs that did not concern string playing, for obvious reasons. Publication on this web-site would not be possible without the invaluable assistance of my webmaster, violinist Connie Sunday. I would also point out that these pages have a direct link to the Fundación Isaac Albéniz, the financial headquarters of this music school.
Opposites meet, sometimes surprisingly so. This is the case of the "Escuela Superior de Música Reina Sofía" founded ten years ago by Paloma O’Shea (see photo, above). In a country where the formation of string players is dismal, to say the least, (80% of the strings in Spain’s orchestras come from abroad) a music school was created and started operating, and can now boast proudly to be one of the best, if not the best school in Europe or even world-wide.
The genesis of this establishment is simple and straightforward: Appalled by those poor results in her country, Mrs. O’Shea investigated, by travelling around Europe and America, what kind of model an efficient school should adopt to act as counterpoint to the situation in Spain. She was finally convinced that this would have to be an independent, autonomous entity, which to all practical purposes means, that it should become a private, non-governmental establishment. Married to one of the most influential bankers of the country, she felt that private enterprise would support such an idea, and she proved to be right. All the students at Reina Sofia receive scholarships, be it a quarter, half, three-quarter or full scholarships. A foundation was created, the "Fundación Isaac Albéniz," to provide a solid financial frame. Nobody pays the complete fees, because admission to the school implies that a scholarship has been granted. If a student does not fulfil expectations, a renewal of the scholarship will be denied, which automatically means that the next school year somebody else will occupy the vacancy. The selection of the students is entirely in the hands of the individual teachers, whose criterion is accepted. No jury, no debate! These selections take place in March of every year, for the next school-year beginning in September.
Right from the start, emphasis was put on string education, and on quality rather than quantity. The aim was to prove that young Spaniards, suitably trained, could compete with students from elsewhere, and that is why more or less half the student body is of Spanish origin (with a few Latin Americans thrown in), whereas the rest comes mostly from Eastern countries, with a few from the EU to complete the group. In this tenth year of operations, there will be 80 students, of which 52 will study strings, 12 pianists, 8 singers and 8 wind instruments (Latter is new, and will cover oboe & horn only, for a starter, to be amplified to flute, clarinet and bassoon in coming years).
At the outset, the Curtis Institute and similar schools were taken as a model, but in the meantime the "Reina Sofia" has evolved into something quite unique in the world. Visitors from all over are so impressed, that there is already an initiative to imitate the model in the USA, somewhere in California. The school has university level – exceptions are made for particularly gifted youngsters – and there are projects towards an official link to some university in the future. The academic year lasts 35 weeks, in the instrumental area, and 28 weeks in the theoretical subjects. Foreigners take Spanish lessons, and everybody has to study English and German. Lessons of Music Theory, History of Art, & Aesthetics are provided, as well as body/mind related techniques such as Yoga and Alexander. Each year there are several master-classes by prominent visitors. During 1999/2000, these visitors included, amongst others, pianist Fou Ts’ong, violinists Maxim Vengerov and Robert Masters, violist Paul Neubauer, cellists Bernard Greenhouse and Janos Starker and bassist David Walter. For chamber music Walter Levin, and for orchestra Tamas Vasary, offered advice. This year, violinist Vadim Repin, violist Sergeui Kalinine, cellist Ronald Leonard, and bassist Günter Klaus are expected, and piano celebrities Leon Fleischer, Rosalyn Türeck, horn player Barry Tuckwell, baritone Tom Krause, and composer Luciano Berio have promised their assistance. (May I just add that Spanish conservatories provide neither Yoga/Alexander nor master classes.) Furthermore practically all students form chamber-groups, with or without piano, and there has been a string orchestra. This is at present being reorganised into a chamber-orchestra, which will go on tour, four times every season, for 7-8 days under the direction of its permanent conductor, Antoni Ros Marbá, as well as prominent guest conductors.
I had opportunity to assist to two master-classes: One given by cellist Ronald Leonard, who went through Nº3 of the Fantasiestücke op 73 by Schumann with a very gifted young Polish student, who was capable of applying the phrasing suggestions in this technically demanding piece. Istvan Cserjan, from Vienna, gave the other, where a young soprano and a young tenor went through a duetto of an Italian opera.
The string faculty is indeed impressive: Violin classes are given by Zakhar Bron (see photo) and José Luis García Asensio, Viola by Gérard Caussé, Cello by Natalia Shakhovskaya (who just succeeded Frans Helmerson after a five year stint), and Double Bass by the veteran Ludwig Streicher, with the help of Rainer Zepperitz, who has taken over, for all practical purposes. (Although not related to strings, it is worthwhile mentioning that Piano is taught under Dimitri Bashkirov, Oboe under Hans Jörg Schellenberger and Horn under Radovan Vlatkovic. The singing class, started a few years ago by Tenor Alfredo Kraus, was taken over after his death by world-famous mezzo-soprano Teresa Berganza.) Each student gets five one-hour lessons per month by their respective professors and twice that much with the resident assistant teachers, carefully chosen professionals who are available to students all the time. All the teachers were unanimously praising their working conditions. They all doubted that there was, at this time, any place in the world where they would find similar facilities. To round all this off, there is a profusion of professional pianists to accompany the students, who can rehearse with them all the time found necessary. . The heads of the chamber music classes are Antonello Farulli (strings only – see photo) and Marta Gulyas (groups with piano).
The students also get lectures on their future life as artists, by cultural managers and impresarios, and they assist to Philosophy & Literature classes, all in the hands of outstanding personalities. They also have access to lectures on Composition.
One aspect characterises the Reina Sofia school: There are no diplomas. This would indeed lead towards some kind of mutual obligation, whereas everybody involved agrees that the mere fact to be accepted as a student, or a renewal of scholarship, is sufficient proof that good work was achieved. To round off each of the three trimesters (autumn, winter, spring) student concerts are organised, to which the general public has access. Sometimes CD recordings are made of these concerts, which are later used as Christmas Gifts by the sponsors who financed the scholarships, thus constituting a direct link between the student body and society at large.
Besides, the school runs a concert-agency that organises events all over the country, 240 per year, with solo recitals, or chamber-groups formed by students. There are also standing agreements with a couple of Latin-American Symphony Orchestras to provide them with soloists.
The three seasonal concerts in Madrid are a kind of examination: I have been going regularly to hear the students and one can clearly appreciate their advance over the years. Just before writing this article, I saw all the string students playing their December recital, and I have never before seen so many young, talented players together, at one time, all trying to give their best. Quality of the highest calibre, instrumental prowess to almost unbelievable heights: The audience was taken from one astonishing feat to the next. In the narrow, rectangular recital hall, put at the disposal of the school by a well-known Madrid museum, the back is reserved to the students and their friends. Of course that is where the most vociferous applause comes from, with "bravo" shouts and screams, now and then, underlining a particularly virtuoso performance. People just back from the USA told me that at the present time even Julliard or Curtis would be hard put to equal a comparable group of talented youngsters. Maybe many years ago, something resembling this could be heard at the Moscow conservatory, but no longer. Only at important international competitions could one expect to gather a similarly gifted crowd of young string players. At his students’ concert, 80 year old Ludwig Streicher, as dapper as always, told me that he was impressed: The facilities, the system of selection, the whole set-up, he insisted, make this a unique institution, worthy of imitation.
Here is a typical program of one of these events, chosen at random, played by heart by 6 violinists:
Bach Sonata D minor Siciliana, Largo & Allegro
Beethoven Romanza in G makor op 40
Schumann Sonata in A minor (Complete)
Prokofief Concert Nº2 op 63 Allegro Moderato
Vieuxtemps Concert Nº5 op 67 (Complete)
Sibelius Concert op47 Allegro Moderato
One feature of the student concerts was noteworthy: Double bass had the most numerous audience, followed by cello. Viola and violin concerts were less well attended. This shows that in Spain, the violin and viola are still considered elitist, whereas the bass is popular, because it is needed in Spanish folklore, and the cello is also better known since the days of Casals. Accordingly, the percentage of students of Spanish nationality at Reina Sofia is
higher for bass and cello than for violin or viola.
Life is not at all easy for the students of the school. The daily workload, including 4-5 hours of practice on their own, is around 12 hours, and is designed for each student individually by the faculty. For example, younger students, who still have to study and sit for examinations of their bachelor degrees, get another treatment than older ones. By talking to several students I realised that each one had a different timetable, tailored to their particular needs. By chance I learned about a Russian speaking student who had difficulties to adapt because of language barriers, and how he would get extra attention to overcome the situation.
The average stay at the school is 4 years, which means that each year only 2 - 4 places per instrument become available. The list of students who wish to enter is usually around ten times this quota, hence the demanding selection of future candidates. There are usually 8 students assigned to each of the faculty members, but this figure is sometimes resulting too short and some additional candidates are taken on, if their quality warrants this. We thus arrive at the total of 52 string students distributed amongst the 5 teachers cited above.
At present, the school is installed in several chalets in the Madrid suburb Pozuelo de Alarcón, not quite 10 km from the centre of Spain's capital city, with one large villa serving as headquarters, from where the school is run. This is going to change within a few years when a large building in the historical town-centre of Madrid will be put at the disposal of the school by the municipality - a reasonable gesture considering that the non-productive conservatories enjoy a similar privilege.
The administrative and secretarial staff consists of 20 people, who work in the main building, except the librarians (responsible also for a well-endowed record collection) who naturally attend their customers on the spot. All the work is done by computer.
Nevertheless, and in spite of this considerable number of employees, one cannot help feeling that the organisation is somewhat chaotic. This did not surprise me: Keeping order amongst 100 very individualistic characters (teachers and students added) must be a pretty risky enterprise, to say the least. Envy being a typically Spanish sport, it immediately transcends in the music-circles of Madrid when something went wrong at the school. Some of the questions I asked during my interviews had this origin, only to find out that gossip had greatly exaggerated the issues. Thus the price for celebrity!
In the neighbourhood of the school’s main building, several villas house about half the student body, who also eat in the school’s canteen, a simple groundfloor in one of the houses, with six round tables accommodating 6-8 persons each. The tables are occupied according to the language spoken by the students. Food is simple but wholesome. Punctually at 14 hours lunch starts, and at 14.30 most students have left already, always in a rush to get their work done. At their table, the teachers linger on a little longer, exchanging impressions. In the adjacent streets you can at all times see students carrying their instrument, rushing from one villa to another to go to class, or to return home to practice.
As was to be expected, competition between the students is fierce. For them, it is a matter of survival to do well and get a scholar-ship renewed the next year. I spoke to several of them after their solo appearance in the winter-concerts in December and they all showed concern of not having been good enough. They learn very soon how competitive this field is, and get accustomed to live with this.
This striving for perfection may be one of the reasons why collegial work in the orchestra (see photo) is sometimes somewhat strained. The faculty is aware of this and no efforts are spared to train this "bunch of soloists" in their capacity of collaborating, by listening and adjusting to each other, so necessary for their future careers. That this does not always go down gracefully should not surprise, particularly around the time of the seasonal solo performance in public. Taking into account the relatively short life of the school, the record of prizewinners in prestigious international competitions, be it as soloists or chamber groups, is already noteworthy. Please read the list of prizewinners, by "clicking" h e r e.
It is a well-known fact that the Queen of Spain, Doña Sofia, after whom the school is named, is particularly fond of classical music. Her patronage of the school, her presence there at important events, is a clear sign of her approval of what is done here. I dare go a little further: In my opinion, this is an implied criticism – evidently, in her position she cannot speak out – of what is done in the conservatories of the country. A more subtle way to go about this embarrassing situation is yet to be found. If in the third millennium it is still acceptable to speak about crown jewels, this music school is most likely one of the most cherished ones by the Queen of Spain.
In the February 2002 issue of The Strad, the following paragraph was published, under NEWS & EVENTS:
"You can now study in Cyberspace with Vadim Repin and Maxim Vengerov thanks to Madrid’s Reina Sofia school, which is spending around ESP2.000m (Pounds 8m) on a project to put its masterclasses online. The Virtual School of Music will include up to 10.000 hours of footage showing masterclasses by faculty members and visiting artists. Access to the site (www.albeniz.com) is by subscription, and users can search databases by teacher and composer."
May I add that this ambitious program does not pretend to substitute personal tuition. We all know that this is impossible. The idea is to conserve valuable advice for schools, institutions, and scholars for the future, but at the same time put this material at the disposition of interested parties right now. The technology involved is quite new: The user can – as stated above - look for specific compositions taught by this or the other teacher, but one can also look for concepts.
For instance, if one wishes to have an insight on "phrasing," you can search the databank for all the instances where this subject is broached, and chose those that you wish. Besides, the "Fundación Isaac Albéniz," Madrid, who runs this project, was chosen as depository of documents of the past, such as the Artur Rubinstein archives, the Isaac Albéniz archives, and other historical documents, which thus can become available on Internet. This virtual school has already signed agreements with various important European institutions in musical education and formation of professional musicians, who will install the necessary software to receive wide band signals. Any institution or private persons are welcome to contact the "Fundación Isaac Albéniz" via e-mail, by contacting Mr. Alvaro Guibert at email@example.com in Madrid. If you wish to look at a preview of what this is all about, click here and once this website has opened up, chose the icon representing the "Escuela Virtual," the last of the icons displayed.