Q&A with Saul Bitran

Strings faculty member Saul Bitran, a noted violinist and member of Cuarteto Latinoamericano, talks about his passion for chamber music, his teaching philosophy, and his fondness for bossa nova.

Noted violinist and member of Cuarteto Latinoamericano, Saul Bitran talks about his passion for chamber music, his teaching philosophy, and his fondness for bossa nova.

What has been the most pivotal moment in your relationship with music?

I would say it was when I was 12 years old, when I saw the Aeolian Quartet perform Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, op. 132 in Santiago, Chile. That performance left a lasting impression on me and defined my passion for chamber music.

How important is chamber music and ensemble playing versus performing solo, in your opinion?

I have devoted all of my life to performing chamber music; this has led me to feel that almost all music is chamber music. For example, I cannot conceive playing the first phrase of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto in D Minor, op. 47 without an active ear towards the orchestra and the undulating eight notes from the violins (A and F). When the solo violin enters with that transparent G, and it is placed and balanced correctly with the orchestra, it pierces your soul. I have heard many performers disregard this context  and play that entrance as a “solo” part, which causes the moment to lose its magic. Likewise, I find it very difficult to understand the creative mind behind Mozart’s violin concertos without having played his (and Haydn’s) string quartets.

How much has “Western” classical music influenced new music in Latin America, especially with works that have been written for the quartet? Have you noticed any elements or trends that are uniquely Latin American?

Latin American classical music is simply a humble offshoot of the Western tradition of concert music. I and my quartet, Cuarteto Latinoamericano, always approach it as we do any standard repertoire; that is, with utmost respect for sound quality, intonation, counterpoint, and expressive phrasing. That being said, the adoption of a locally influenced language by many Latin American composers allows this European tradition to adopt a distinct flavor. Generally speaking, it expresses itself in the lively and complex rhythmic textures derived from Latin American and Afro-Caribbean musical traditions.

What do you view as more important: passion or practice?

I believe passion has to be practiced.

Outside of the music you perform, what kind of music do you enjoy listening to?

Brazilian pop music—bossa nova in particular. Bossa nova melts my heart and informs my playing of [Brazilian composer Heitor] Villa-Lobos. But also Cuban music, especially nueva trova, Israeli soul music from the 1970s, and Balkan women’s songs. I also love the Beatles and some classic rock.

Describe your teaching philosophy.

I love teaching! Sometimes, when I teach I learn just as much or more than my students. Among other things, I believe that any challenge which arises from playing the violin, as insurmountable as it may seem, can be dissected, analyzed, and potentially solved with a cool head. I use a basic vocabulary of technical and musical concepts with my students, from which we can find solutions to a problem. Our natural fighting instinct can cause us to use too much strength and tension on such a small instrument like the violin, especially when faced with a challenge. A great deal of progress can be made with a clear goal, minimal tension, and focused energy.

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