Beethoven for the Bucket List

My musical life since moving to CA has been a little “all over the place.” So far I’ve taken this year to sample different orchestras and different instruments. Do I want to play violin, viola, or both? Which orchestra has the best fit for me with respect to rehearsal venue, concert venue, conductor, repertoire, and community?

One great thing about the SF Bay Area is that there are so many groups to choose from. The local public radio station, KQED, just did a story about it: Silicon Valley Really is Having More Fun Playing in Community Orchestras. They interviewed several people I know from having played in the Nova Vista Symphony last fall. But I didn’t actually play Tchaik 5 in the concert they’re writing about there. Instead, this concert cycle, I am playing Beethoven’s 7th with the South Bay Philharmonic, which was also given a brief mention in the article.

The South Bay Philharmonic is more informal than Nova Vista, with a number of adult starters and re-starters in its ranks. It evolved from the former Hewlett-Packard orchestra. I first found out about the group from its concertmaster, fellow violinist.commer Gene Huang, whom I knew from participating in the Rockin’ Fiddle Challenge a few years ago. He’s performing a movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto on this concert.

This made a good story for when I had to stand up and introduce myself at the first rehearsal. (No, is not a dating site . . .) And anyway, I’m playing viola for this concert. For the first couple of rehearsals, I fell victim to “violin moments,” an annoying phenomenon in which you forget which instrument you’re playing and which clef you’re reading. Usually, for me, that means I play whatever is written a third too high because I’ve forgotten what note it is and have fallen back on playing fingerings rather than notes. I’ve managed to get through that now and am at the stage where I can keep up and get through the music from beginning to end with few-to-no obvious mistakes, wrong notes, missed dynamics, flying page turns, or flubbed entrances. There are always things to work on with respect to tone, musicality, and ensemble, though.

When I was making the initial decision of what concert to play, I made it largely based on repertoire. I wanted to hear Gene play the Mendelssohn. And something about coming out here and starting over, and hitting a milestone birthday in December, made me realize again that life is not infinitely long. I’ve played most, but not all of the Beethoven symphonies. I have read through but not performed 1, 2 and 9. I have performed 3 three times, 5 once, 6 once, and now 7. Will I get a chance to do 4 and 8?

I knew this piece to listen to, of course, before this concert. Everybody does. But there is something different about knowing it well enough to perform it in concert. For some pieces, this getting-to-know-you process can start out as a bit of a chore. You sit down with the score in hand, earbuds in ears, press the virtual play button and the music starts. Maybe you get lost. Maybe your mind wanders and you have to bring it back to the score in front of you. This piece, for whatever reason, is different. I get to skip the awkward introductory period and get right to the good part. I listen to it in the car, and while I’m making dinner. Before long I know where the horn part comes in, and can sing it. It becomes my “get psyched” music to listen to before I teach class, as I drive 45 minutes north on Highway 280, watching the sun rise. I feel this way about all the Beethoven symphonies. And the Emperor piano concerto. I don’t play the piano, but when I was 17 I set up my alarm clock to play the fanfare section from that concerto to get myself out of bed in the morning. (This was actually complicated with a cassette player, well before iPhones/Pods/Pads existed).

I think this is the absolute most fun place to be when approaching a concert. I love sitting here in the viola section, surrounded by sound, able to easily look straight up at the conductor (hi George), seconds to my right, cellos to my left. The 4th movement can apparently be kind of boring for some of the woodwinds–or I learned that at least some people think so–because there is no traditional melody there. I suppose that’s true, but I never thought about it that way before. To me it reminds me of a play, a community show in the best sense of the word, in which everyone has a part to play and everyone is doing something different from everyone else. It’s all a little crazy, the phrase “everything but the kitchen sink” comes to mind, but it all comes together, and it works. This piece goes beyond melody, beyond the need for it–written by an almost-deaf man, almost beyond the need for hearing itself. As Richard Wagner wrote:

“All tumult, all yearning and storming of the heart, become here the blissful insolence of joy, which carries us away with bacchanalian power through the roomy space of nature, through all the streams and seas of life, shouting in glad self-consciousness as we sound throughout the universe the daring strains of this human sphere-dance. The Symphony is the Apotheosis of the Dance itself: it is Dance in its highest aspect, the loftiest deed of bodily motion, incorporated into an ideal mold of tone.”


5 thoughts on “Beethoven for the Bucket List”

  1. I wish I could be there for your concert! I love Beethoven and the 7th is one of my favorites. I can’t imagine having that music inside your head and putting it down on paper, but not being able to clearly hear it performed.

    I hope the concert goes well, and that you remember you’re playing the viola! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Geez… I wonder if Bran had trouble going back and forth between the trumpet and the French horn. I’m so glad you’re having fun. I can hear from your words how stimulating this all is.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fascinating, you indeed have many choices, and some people have so few, Seattle may not be as rich in choices as San Francisco, Still — there are choices to be made. “Violin moments!” I have those, especially when having to play on the C string. Will be thinking about you during the March 4 concert.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Actually the C string is the one place I usually don’t have violin moments, because you can’t play those notes at all on the violin, and my ear just says no. I miss the F# accidental on the C-string a fair amount though, especially when sight-reading in G major.


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