Memories - Otto Derolez

Otto Derolez, Concertmaster Brussels Philharmonic

My earliest memories of Philippe Hirshhorn go back to the mid-eighties, when I was doing a Master after Master, (then called Extended Year after graduating with a Diplome Supérieur), at the Brussels Royal Music Conservatory.

First of all, Hirshhorn’s exhilirating performance of Paganini #1 at the Final of the 1967 Queen Elisabeth Competition, has been vibrating in and around Belgium’s music life for decades, and  in fact, it still is. The general impression he made at such a young age, with such mastery, control and charisma, was quite unique. When, then, about 20 years later, the news came that Hirshhorn would come and teach at the Brussels Conservatory, it was clear that his classes would be more than packed with gifted and ambitious violinists.

As my teachers were mainly Hungarian-Belgian School descendants (Professor André Gertler, himself pupil of Hubaÿ, and that one pupil of Vieuxtemps), there I was in the hands of this great Russian virtuoso, Philippe Hirshhorn. It was a thrill! As I had actually already finished my studies in Brussels in 1986, these extra years with him were marvellous, since Mr. Hirshhorn mainly wanted me to extend my repertoire. So, we did numerous concertos, sonatas, concert pieces, with a light accent on 19th and 20th century repertoire. I’ll never forget studying the Prokofiev Sonatas with him. That was really his music!

Basically, he approved my approach to violin playing pretty much, as far as technique was concerned. But the way to express music, making colors and timbres, timing, phrasing and so on, that was a whole new world. I remember him being obsessed with bow speed! From the very beginning on, I had learned with my previous teachers, to use slow bows, with a lot of weight, concentrating on looking for a constant maximum focus in the string. Which, by the way, I still consider a very important asset in violin playing in general. But Hirshhorn taught me to play with lighter bow pressure, varying bow speed all the time, much more depending on what kind of phrase I was playing. For many weeks, he forced me to emphasize on this, and truly, it opened my mind, my fantasy, and especially : it changed my perception of the fact that sound could only be “healthy” if it was concepted with a lot of weight. It widened my colour palet exponentially.

I also remember him talking a lot about physionomy. Being physically relaxed, was one of the major conditions to perform well. He always said: “Violin playing is difficult enough, one shouldn’t make it any more difficult by stressing or contracting muscles, especially those you don’t need.” As I had previously learned to stand always completely still when playing, he found it necessary to make sure I was fully relaxed with my body. Some lessons, when I was playing the complete Tchaikovsky Concerto walking non stop through his classroom, are now funny memories. In those days it was funny and at the same time crucial!

I wouldn’t state that Hirshhorn’s teaching was typically Russian or oldfashioned…. On the contrary, he was a very different man with every different kind of student. His psychological strengths were phenomenal, he had the ability to convince students to view matters in different ways, undo blockings, build their self-confidence. He could listen to students in such a thorough way, he tried to understand them 100%, before he eventually would change things. He never imposed interpretations, no, he’d give ideas, tips and hints. He made pupils look into themselves and see what their nature was, what their dreams in terms of expression were. I believe this is extremely valuable and very rare.

I am very fortunate to have had lessons with Hirshhorn, they are cherished and will never be forgotten.