Shared Mastery

Your studio teacher at NEC is an artist who embodies a rich musical tradition—classical, jazz, or outside of Western concert music. In your weekly private lesson, they provide one-on-one training in every detail of music making. Your teacher will challenge you to master your art through rigorous practice and performance. And your teacher will encourage you to take risks as you explore your individuality and learn to create a mature, convincing performance that is unique to you.

In these pages, we take a look at some of NEC's faculty and go beyond the resume to hear how they share their own life's accumulation of skills and ideas with their students.

Faculty Profile: Dimitri Murrath

Awarded a 2014 Avery Fisher Career Grant, winner of the 2008 Primrose International Competition, member of Boston Chamber Music Society’s permanent ensemble, and an alumnus of New England Conservatory’s prestigious Artist Diploma program, Dimitri Murrath took up the viola with what in hindsight seems surprising reluctance. Today, a member of NEC’s viola faculty, he was a teenage violinist at the Yehudi Menuhin School when he made his first acquaintance with the instrument.

The Boston Chamber Music Society has set the local Brahms standard for 30 years. Last Saturday at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium pianist Mihae Lee, violinist Yura Lee, violist Dimitri Murrath, and cellist Ronald Thomas gave a performance of the C minor piano quartet that was incendiary. It sounded unimprovable. From the opening bare octaves and signature descending “oh, woe” sighs (appropriated from Beethoven’s “ Hammerklavier” sonata) onward, the playing, individual and ensemble and in all other respects, transfixed the small audience. M. Lee was powerful at the keyboard, as some are not.. Y. Lee played with the sweetest precision. Murrath is simply a beautiful violist, and if he can be said to stand out, don’t take that the wrong way. Thomas anchored all as he has for years, but with unusual delicacy and little digging.—David Moran, Boston Musical-Intelligencer

“We were all made to play viola, without exceptions,” says Murrath who was born in Belgium. At some point, he took part in a performance of the Dvorak “American” String Quartet, and “it did not go well at first. I said to my violin professor, ‘I hate this instrument and never want to play it again.’”  But his teacher, “a Russian lady named Natalia Boyarsky,” told him, “ ‘Not so fast, go get your viola and show me what you are doing,’” and gave him a half- hour viola lesson.  “It got better,” he said. “I thought, I can live with this, maybe…”“Little by little, opportunities to perform concerts on viola came about” and Murrath “started to enjoy it, for its dark and singing sound.”

Moving on to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama to study with David Takeno, Murrath decided that maybe he should play more viola or even switch to it permanently, but was still doubting if this was a good move. When consulting with his teacher, it was David Takeno who made the final push. “As he heard I was thinking of concentrating fully on viola, he was so happy, he could not contain his excitement. That persuaded me, and ever since, I have never looked back,” he said.

By the time he came to the US to attend the summer Steans Institute at the Ravinia Festival, he was already a busy London freelance player, performing with such ensembles as the Philharmonia Orchestra. But, after taking a few revelatory lessons with Kim Kashkashian that summer, and deciding he wanted to work with her at NEC, he applied for the Artist Diploma program. “Kim suggested that I apply for that program, because it would give me more flexibility to travel and continue performing in Europe.”

I had never before experienced that level of teaching on the viola. She was pushing me to sing through the viola, to open up and communicate the content of the music to the audiences. — Dimitri Murrath on studying with Kim Kashkashian

Murrath joined the NEC faculty almost simultaneously upon graduation.  Shortly after winning the Primrose Competition, a vacancy opened and he came onboard.

“The focal point of my teaching is to help my students find themselves,” he says. Still a relatively young musician himself, he is acutely aware of the importance of students finding their own voices, deciding what the focus of their careers will be. The time spent in school is the best opportunity to try out many things, he says: “solo, chamber, orchestral playing, teaching, improvising, and even doing your own musical entrepreneurship. And eventually, most violists do a mix of a few of these things. But as you gain experience in all these different areas, you also have to find out what it is you love doing.

I love my students. They work so hard. And they grow in such fascinating ways. It is enriching to notice their other talents as well. For example, one of my Chinese students used to train as a ping pong player back in China.—Dimitri Murrath

“When I was a 19-year old subbing for the Philharmonia, I realized quickly that it wasn’t for me.  I had a thirst to express my own voice. And it was hard physically. The traveling schedule and intensity of that lifestyle in London was all too much. Of course, I was more comfortable when I was working.  When I stopped, I had to adjust my lifestyle, to make ends meet,” he recalls wryly.

He started practicing “like crazy,” because he wanted learn the repertoire to give recitals more often and make some tapes to send to festivals and competitions. “That’s how I started climbing up the ladder, step by step, with one opportunity leading to another,” he said.

It is good for violists to have a diverse set of skills. Preparing for orchestra auditions is important, and therefore one should know their excerpts. But most orchestras also seek complete musicians. For example, I encourage my students to perform contemporary music. In some cases, music of our time speaks more naturally to the young students. It can unleash their expressivity.—Dimitri Murrath

Having put down roots in the US, Murrath returns to Europe twice a year or so to perform and visit family. But he feels that he “probably couldn’t do in Europe what he has been able to accomplish here—the combination of busy concertizing plus teaching—thanks to the freedom and opportunity available. He points to the limited number of viola teaching positions in Belgium, as well as the lack of recognition of the viola as a solo instrument there.

But the speechlike character of the melodies — in its original version “Cypresses” is a song cycle — came through clearly, as in the question-and-answer pattern of “You Ask Why I Sing.” In this more intimate setting, the warm and noble tone of Mr. Murrath’s viola glowed fiercely — for me the highlight of the concert. –Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, New York Times

Watching Murrath teach, he’s a whirl of activity. As a young violist and her pianist play Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro Op. 70, with its contrasting movements reflecting the composer’ s artistic alter egos, Eusebius (lyrical) and Florestan (tumultuous), the teacher listens intently. But then on the subsequent run-throughs, he is seldom still. With his bow tip, he guides the path of the student’s bow so it remains parallel to the bridge. He exchanges his bow for hers. He demonstrates passages. He adjusts the student’s right shoulder and elbow. He offers advice on how to project the tone better. And he supplies a nugget of wisdom that every student should engrave in their memory:

“When doing rubato, after you take time, you must also give it back.”

Listen to a performance by Murrath, recorded when he received the 2014 Avery Fisher Career Grant.