By Cristina Schreil
“Hello sugarplum.” It’s an odd thing to hear a room of people utter in unison. Then again, this crowd was unique. A black-and-white photo of late violin teacher Dorothy DeLay—the frequent speaker of this warm greeting—glowed on a large screen at Le Poisson Rouge, an intimate space in downtown Manhattan. Many who packed its tables this early April evening had studied with DeLay or had known her well. All were there to pay tribute to her enduring influence on the violin world.If teachers plant seeds of knowledge, DeLay’s legacy is a veritable sequoia grove. (Or at the very least, a sugarplum orchard.) The breadth of her impact materialized to staggering effect throughout the evening of vibrant performances, wherein students of the famed Juilliard pedagogue shared stories and performed her favorite violin works. For those unfamiliar with DeLay, you might recall seeing her name while skimming the biographies of today’s most revered violinists—Itzhak Perlman, Sarah Chang, Midori, Anne Akiko Meyers, Gil Shaham, Nigel Kennedy, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, and Philippe Quint all number among her students. Those she instructed also went onto found such ensembles as the Cleveland, Takács, Tokyo, Vermeer, Ying, and Juilliard string quartets.
Articles, biographies, and student anecdotes often rhapsodize over DeLay’s affable, motherly personality, as she would lavish pet names upon pupils, chat for hours in her favorite Chinese restaurant, and mentor students far beyond graduation. She was known to be more flexible compared to other Juilliard instructors. Perhaps most famously, DeLay seemed as much an emotional scientist as she was a violin instructor. Anecdotes present her as a diagnostician who rooted her teaching methods in first assessing the student and encouraging growth through firm, oft-voiced statements that they will succeed. Printed programs had the DeLay saying, “Children become what they are told they are.”
“Articles, biographies and student anecdotes often rhapsodized over DeLay’s affable, motherly personality, as she would lavish pet names upon pupils, chat for hours in her favorite Chinese restaurant, and mentor students far beyond graduation.”
DeLay died in 2002. Just a week after the 15th anniversary of her death, the gathering at Le Poisson Rouge saluted a happier milestone: DeLay would have turned 100 on March 31. Event organizer, violinist Philippe Quint, said the idea for a centennial tribute brewed for years. “I found her to be just this extraordinary individual that impacted so many lives,” said Quint. “In the world of fast-moving history, [this event] is to remember someone who left a mark.” He noted her methods are still taught all over the world, largely by her former students. He’d reached out to two colleagues in particular, violinist Chee-Yun and New York City Ballet Orchestra concertmaster Kurt Nikkanen, for help. As a result, the evening ended up being much more than a tribute concert, but a multimedia event.
Some of DeLay’s most famous protégés offered video greetings in between performances, helping to paint a technicolor picture of her personality and methods. The videos—featuring Midori, Philadelphia Orchestra concertmaster David Kim, Cho-Liang Lin, and Perlman, who now presides over DeLay’s Juilliard studio—also illustrated a common circumstance of gifted young musicians. Upon arriving in America at young ages and knowing little-to-zero English, some found themselves lost. Perlman recalled meeting this woman who knew no Hebrew. “She welcomed me like I was part of the family,” said Taiwan-born Lin, who began studying with her at age 15. DeLay, “warm” and “kind,” cut through the haze like a mother comforting an anxious soul.
Plenty of quirks surfaced, too. Later onstage, Chee-Yun shared that DeLay would drive her home after late-evening lessons—at lightning-quick speed. Her children shared that their mother loved a good dirty joke. Perhaps what drew the most laughs was when Perlman, filming from the sacred ground of their Juilliard studio, demonstrated why he’s as talented a time-capsule guardian as a virtuoso. Narrating, he swiveled the camera to show a cluster of DeLay’s dolls, gifts from students. Most impressive, however, was a single can of vegetable juice—her diet elixir to balance a penchant for “all kinds of food,” especially Chinese take-out, Perlman explained. It was sitting undisturbed in the studio’s mini fridge. It’s been there for years, as he just couldn’t toss it. Perlman mused about the microbial colonies stewing within.
This is not to say that DeLay’s ebullient demeanor led to a laissez-faire teaching style. In broader circles her rigorous practice regimen and high expectations were nothing short of legendary. She used a meticulous five-hour practice program, comprised of hour-long devotions to various technical and repertory staples. In his video greeting, Kim focused on one harrowing time when DeLay screamed at him for arriving unprepared.
While known to break down mammoth goals into approachable steps, she especially honed in on a student’s level of phrasing, intonation, and overall sound production. Nikkanen emphasized how any out-of-the-ordinary musical choice, especially in a standard concerto, had to have a justified reason atop loads of research. There was no being original for originality’s sake. This required the same intense preparation used to build legal cases, he said.
Born in Medicine Lodge, Kansas, DeLay began violin studies at age four. She later attended Oberlin Conservatory, Michigan State, and Juilliard before finding teaching posts at the Aspen Music Festival and School, the University of Cincinnati, Sarah Lawrence, the New England Conservatory, and the Meadowmount School of Music.
At Juilliard, she became teaching assistant to Ivan Galamian, and her eventual trademark style contrasted with his less elastic approach. Amid the clout of Iranian-born Galamian and equally extolled Hungarian-born teacher Leopold Auer, DeLay rose as one of the first prominent American-born violin teachers.
Pleasingly, the performances of her favorite violin music—by Sarasate, Maurer, and Moszkowski—offered more insights into her musical tastes. “We studied a lot of serious works all the time, but she also loved the lighthearted repertoire for violin,” said Quint.
The program displayed an arsenal of colors and techniques, foregrounding the full, glossy sound DeLay’s students are known to generate. In Sarasate’s delightful Navarra for Two Violins, Op. 33, Quint and Chee-Yun played with stellar synchronicity, especially through its fun contrasts and embrace of Spanish vernacular. They ripped through piquant, bird-song-like, high-pitched trills and bracing double-stops with fistfuls of energy and dancing bounces of the bow.
A special treat, wherein each performer seemed to have a blast onstage, was the Maurer Concertante for Four Violins, Op. 55—DeLay’s “absolute favorite,” according to Quint. Young violinists Paul Huang and Randall Mitsuo Goosby, representing the next generation of students, kept up with impressive alacrity and spirited technical skill. The space’s din of clanking forks and barware faded against all four violinists’ hugely joyous, burnished sound. Communicating well, they balanced their turbocharged spirit with the work’s gorgeous thematic material.
As a special encore, all of the violinists performed a special, robust arrangement of Carlos Gardel’s Por una Cabeza. Their happy, expansive energy seemed to channel another DeLay saying: “People learn best when they’re having fun.”