I thought I had everything I needed to perform the Telemann viola concerto in May. I have a viola, I have a bow, I have the green-covered music. All the orchestra parts and a score can be downloaded from IMSLP.
But I keep finding new things to play around with.
1. A Baroque Bow. A couple of years ago, in response to the interest generated by this blog on violinist.com, I asked for and received a Baroque bow for Christmas. But after a few brief experiments, it never came out of the violin case. Was this just another one of those Christmas gifts that looks better under the tree?
It was a couple weeks into learning this concerto that it occurred to me to try the Baroque bow. In the article, Laurie Niles says that “it is much easier to play string crossings, certain gestures, double stops, voicing, etc. with a Baroque bow because of its unique shape and nimble nature.” The Telemann has all of these, and I when I did a one-after-another comparison between the modern and Baroque bow, I heard the tone improve with the Baroque. I was also able to easily perform a Baroque-shaped stroke, with the emphasis on the beginning of the note and a dying away at the end. Even though it’s technically a violin bow, I didn’t feel that I had a problem generating a robust, even sound. I didn’t even think the bow needed re-hairing.
2. Baroque tuning (A415). Ummm . . . no. Modern orchestras tune to the note A at a frequency of 440 Hz (A440), or even higher. But Baroque orchestras generally tuned a half-step lower than we do. In fact, when I was looking for recordings of the viola concerto, I found many that were performed with Baroque tuning, for example this one here:
This recording, by a group called the Juilliard415 ensemble, is a historically informed performance that uses Baroque instruments (not just bows) and pure gut strings. I enjoyed listening to this, especially the improvised ornaments added by the soloist, but I’ve made a conscious decision not to go all the way down this route. For one thing, I don’t own a Baroque viola. And, I’m not interested in giving up my chin rest.
I’ll also be playing in a moderately large church sanctuary with a larger orchestra than this one, and I’ll need to project. My modern viola with Evah Pirazzi strings can do this. Finally, the concert program also includes two Dvorak pieces, the “American” Quintet (in which I’ll be playing viola I) and the New World Symphony. These aren’t going to be in Baroque tuning. “Don’t do that to the orchestra!” pleaded the conductor. Okay, I won’t. But I did try tuning my viola down to A415 in practice and I thought it sounded mellower and the notes on the A-string didn’t stick out as much. Which leads me to:
3. Wound-gut A-string. I have new Evah Pirazzi Gold strings on my viola now, and I like them. Their core is made from a modern synthetic multifilament fibre, and they are rich and strong and project well. But the A, the highest viola string, sticks out in string crossings and is sometimes too loud or too strained or both. So I put a Passione wound gut A-string on my viola two days ago. It is not particularly mellow but it is sweeter and sounds less strained than the Evah Pirazzi Gold. I’m still letting it settle in, but I think I’m going to keep it.
4. Cadenzas, Tuttis, and Editions. The cadenzas I am performing were written by Milton Katims. They are in the International Edition. I like the way they sound and they are non-trivial in terms of difficulty. I will just note that it is really hard to find recordings of these cadenzas. Everyone has their own and everyone seems to have a different one. This set of recordings, which seem to have been made by a viola teacher for his students, are quite good in terms of the solo part and have the Milton Katims cadenzas, but they don’t have any accompaniment, so they’re not that useful for playing along.
There is also disagreement about whether and how the soloist plays along with the orchestra in the Tutti sections. For example, the concerto is in one of the Suzuki viola books, and that edition has the first movement’s ending Tutti written out for the soloist to play too. My edition doesn’t have that; it has rests for the soloist. But my version of the 2nd movement has the soloist playing its ending Tutti along with the violins, in their octave in 5th position. Whereas the Suzuki version has it written out an octave lower for the soloist.
I decided to play all the ending Tutti sections. It’s one thing to be standing waiting to come in while the orchestra opens the piece, but in general I’d rather be playing than standing there. And as for playing fast 16th notes and string crossings in 5th position, I can do it. Go big or go home. 😉
5. It’s all in the wrist (except when it’s not). I tend to like to bow from the wrist, and I have a good flexible wrist that helps me play fast and do bariolage (both of which I love to do, especially with the Baroque bow), but too much of that can get in the way of a nice, smooth, legato tone. In fact, using my wrist too much–with virtually every bow change–can lead to crunching. So, I am playing a bit more from the elbow and arm and trying to keep the tone more smooth and even.
6. Recording myself. I’m a member of several Facebook groups that focus on playing stringed instruments. More on this later, but one thing these groups have in common is recording yourself and sharing the videos in the group. I have shared a handful of videos on my blog in the past, but those have usually been performances, not “warts and all” practices, and truth be told, even though I recognize its value, recording myself has always made me nervous and uncomfortable. I hate watching myself on video; it’s like a constant cringefest.
But with these Facebook groups the process is getting to be a little easier. They are closed groups so the videos are only shared with people who signed up for this and are in the same boat themselves. One group has a rule of no critique or advice unless explicitly requested by the original poster. They all encourage posters to be positive and supportive of each other. So I’ve been doing it: recording myself almost every day and posting it to Facebook. I am getting caught up enough in the process of recording–of setting up the tripod to hold my phone, of working out the camera angles, of just deciding what section or concept I’m going to record and post today, of writing a little blurb about the video, of uploading and making sure it’s in the right group and not on my general feed (ack!)–that I don’t have time to be nervous anymore. I have work to do, and the nerves just have to go away and let me do it.
Rehearsals start with the orchestra next week. Ready or not.