Category Archives: Music

Musical Monday: Florence Price’s String Quartet in G

sbp2019-05posterIt’s spring, and the season for concerts. One of the orchestras that I joined when I moved to California, the South Bay Philharmonic (SBP), turned 10 years old this spring. Formerly known as the Hewlett-Packard Symphony, it is now an independent group, with a few members remaining from the old HP days. (I don’t work for HP, so I’m happy about the transition).

One of my favorite things about playing in the SBP is the opportunity to play chamber music at a high level. With SBP chamber music, I’ve explored classics of the repertoire including the Dvorak “American” viola Quintet and Schubert’s famous Cello Quintet and “Death and the Maiden” Quartet. For this concert, we tried something new, a movement from the Florence Price String Quartet in G.

florence-finalFlorence Price is not as well-known as Dvorak or Schubert. She was an African-American composer who lived in the first half of the 20th century. She passed away suddenly in 1953 and in the confusion surrounding her death, many of her manuscripts were lost, only to be rediscovered in 2009 in an abandoned house that had once been Price’s summer home.

I traveled to Sacramento in March to hear Er-Gene Kahng play Price’s violin concerto #2. I also talked with Kahng about the Price string quartets, and obtained the sheet music for the String Quartet in G. This recording is of the Second Movement, the Andante Moderato. Like the Dvorak quintet, it has two contrasting sections, in this case a lyrical opening and a jazzy middle. Like the concerto, it is sunnier than I expected, and the lyrical section evokes the beauty of the South.

 

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Music Monday: Dedicated

IMG_2455The Mundane Monday blog challenge has run its course, and I am grateful to Trablogger and Dr K Ottaway for running it the past few years. Thank you for your dedication! It has been fun and lent a modicum of discipline to my blogging efforts.

Rather than taking over this challenge myself, though, I’ve decided to make a new one called Music Monday. I blog about music a lot anyway, and it’s a natural fit. There are no real rules, just try to take a music theme and run with it. Post a YouTube video if you would like! I will summarize and link back to them next week.

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Cello from the Lobkowicz Palace

Many of us violinists, violists, and cellists have played quartets from Beethoven’s Op. 18. These quartets are “early Beethoven,” composed in Vienna while the string quartet as an art form was relatively fresh, and in the classical spirit of Haydn and Mozart. They are more technically accessible than the “late” Op. 130s, which overwhelmed even some of the best musicians of Beethoven’s time.

I inherited the set of sheet music to Op.18, all 6 quartets, years ago from a player in my old orchestra in Massachusetts. Yellowing and with bent corners, these venerable parts always seemed appropriate to my learning this venerable old music. And then there was the curious phrase written across the top.

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I’ve been learning German for most of my life but I still didn’t recognize a lot of these words at first. A “Fürst” is not a title that translates easily,  and Lobkowitz sounds vaguely like “lobster”  (or like Wolowitz, as in Howard). I got distracted by those things and by the fact that “gewidmet” was an completely unfamiliar verb too, rather than just figuring it out from the context like a normal person. So, who was Prince Lobkowitz, anyway, and why should we care? I found out on a recent visit to Prague.

The 7th Prince Lobkowicz (1772-1816) was Joseph František Maximilian, the Duke of Raudnitz (now Roudnice nad Labem in Czechia).

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Joseph František Maximilian, the 7th Prince Lobkowitz. Source: Wikipedia

This Prince Lobkowicz (also spelled Lobkowitz) was well known for his love of music. He was an accomplished violinist, cellist, and bass singer. He also hired musicians for a private orchestra and put on performances at his family’s Palais Lobkowitz in Vienna. A relative said of him that he was “kindhearted as a child and the most foolish music enthusiast. He played music from dusk to dawn and spent a fortune on musicians. Innumerable musicians gathered in his house, whom he treated regally.”

He and Beethoven met as young men and were peers and perhaps even friends. The Prince paid Beethoven a stipend and encouraged him to compose as he saw fit, rather than commissioning specific pieces, as most patrons of the era did. Under Lobkowicz’s patronage, Beethoven composed all of the Op. 18 string quartets. 

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First performance edition of the Op. 18 string quartets 1-6, from Lobkowicz Palace, Prague

Even more importantly for western classical music, Beethoven also composed several symphonies under Lobkowicz’s patronage. Beethoven famously planned to dedicate his Symphony  No. 3, the Eroica, to his hero Napoleon. When Napoleon declared himself Emperor, however, Beethoven became disillusioned and angry, and instead dedicated the symphony to Lobkowicz. The Eroica premiered in the Lobkowicz family palace in 1804, played by their private orchestra and conducted by Beethoven, before its public premiere in 1805.

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First performance edition of the “Eroica”

Beethoven’s symphonies 4,5, and 6 were also composed and premiered under Lobkowicz’s patronage. The first performance editions of these pieces too are exhibited in the Lobkowicz Palace museum, which opened to the public in 2007 after the 1989 revolution allowed the return of the Lobkowicz family property (for the second time).

I dragged my traveling companions to this museum in order to see these artifacts; my friends aren’t musicians and wouldn’t have gone without my suggestion. I may have mentioned a few times that the Eroica is my favorite symphony. I’ve played it 3 times, the first going all the way back to my senior year of high school in the Greater Buffalo Youth Orchestra. But even so, I was unprepared for the emotional reaction; the pages blurred and I blinked back tears.

Living in the 21st century United States, we tend to take a dim view of royalty. We fought a revolution to throw out a king and have been happy to be rid of him for almost two-and-a-half centuries. But I would still like to take a moment here to praise Prince Lobkowicz. Under the constraints of the political system of his time, he was a forward thinking and generous ruler. He identified in Ludwig van Beethoven a talented person, supported him, and trusted him with the independence to create greatness.

We will never know how many other talents, bright and shining as Beethoven’s, may have languished and shriveled because they never got the support they needed to thrive, were never heard in a room of their own. Like Judith Shakespeare, they lie buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop.

Eroica Hall (Source: Secret Vienna, The story of the Palais Lobkowitz)

As much as everyone wants to be Beethoven in this story, most of us are more like Lobkowicz–if we’re lucky. Most of us are not royalty, musical, political, or otherwise. But all players who make a serious and sincere attempt to learn this music are performing the same essential, sacred duty: bringing the music to life.

My performance, with the South Bay Philharmonic Chamber Players, of Op. 18 No. 4, Mvt. 1

Music and Memory in Ireland

I’m posting this blog in honor of the Mountain View High School Chamber Orchestra, which has been touring Ireland for the past week with violinist Chloe Trevor.  My 15-yo son plays the cello in this group. My school spring break and his don’t coincide, so I couldn’t chaperone. I’m a little disappointed, but this may be for the best. My son is at the age now where he is needing his own space, personally and musically.

And, I have been to Ireland too. Twice. The first time the kids were pretty little and we took our au pair along. We visited the Cliffs of Moher on a very windy day, and the visit, while gorgeous, wasn’t entirely stress-free.

I was just starting to play the violin again after a long break, and I bought a nice book of Irish fiddle music to learn, complete with CD. I’ve shared this video before. It was recorded in 2010 at the Belmont Farmers’ Market, by my son who was 7 at the time. I think the intonation is decent, but stylistically I am not really playing fiddle style, but more classical, which is how I was trained.

Fiddling was a nice way to play with my kids when they were younger, and I continue to love this type of music. This video was taken before my son had started playing the cello, and he wasn’t yet able to play with us. He looks pretty bored back there!

The doors I want to show are on some bars in Dublin, the Temple Bar Pub in particular. Bright red, and decorated with nice fiddle icons, this area is a great place to find live music. I visited there on my second trip to Ireland, in the summer of 2018.

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The Temple Bar area is located on the south bank of the River Liffey in Dublin. It is a major cultural center and tourist attraction. Temple Bar Pub isn’t the only establishment.

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You also find buskers playing as you walk the streets. They aren’t all playing traditional Irish music; these were playing the theme from “Game of Thrones.”

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Here is the Mountain View High School Chamber Orchestra playing “Irish Junkyard Jam” by Brian Balmages at one of their three concerts. (And there is my son, now all grown up, leading the cello section!)

Their tour included a visit to Bunratty Castle, shown here when the kids were little, and most recently, a picture of the castle taken by my now-15-year-old son.

I asked my son, when I picked him up at the airport, if he remembered the earlier trip. Not at all, he said wryly. Whereas to me these visits are almost all mixed up together, with few boundaries. In spite of years of violin and viola practice and child raising in between, I was pretty much the same person who visited Ireland then and now; and he is not.

 

Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favorite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in on the fun by creating your own Thursday Doors post each week and then sharing your link in the comments at Norm’s blog

Mundane Monday: Opening up the Instrument

I haven’t blogged much recently because I’ve been so busy at work. And I notice that the longer the time off, the harder it is to get going again. It’s almost like those stories about people who lose their voices and become mute. The longer the silence, the harder it is to break. And then when you do try to say something, try to open your mouth and speak, to vibrate those vocal cords again, it comes out like a creaky croak. Ribbit!

My viola has been sounding this way. The viola is lower in pitch than the violin, so it doesn’t emit the characteristic screechy-dying-cat sound that immediately comes to mind when you think of bad violin. Bad viola is more subtle. The instrument gets hoarse and scratchy, the strings decline incrementally, imperceptibly until you are, one day, scrubbing away, working hard, and thinking “ugh, this piece is so difficult to get to sound good. I don’t like it. This composer is terrible.” Or worse, “I really suck at playing the viola.”

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Well, there is hope.  Strings don’t last forever, and the last time I changed mine was over a year ago. I still have the same strings on my viola that I used to play the Telemann viola concerto last year. That puts it in some perspective. I order a new brand of string, called Obligatos, on the recommendation of a friend. I’ve never tried them before but at this point they can’t hurt.

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Changing your own strings is something I learned how to do relatively late in life, but now it’s pretty easy. I change them one at a time and keep the bridge of the instrument straight and perpendicular to its surface. And for tone, they sound wonderful. The instrument opens up and rings out like a bell. It is easy to get a tone with a normal bow stroke. I should have done this sooner! The main reason I didn’t is that the curse of new strings is keeping them in tune. They stretch and pull and don’t settle in right away. My “Pitch” app keeps reminding me of this. It informs me that I was only in tune 82% of the time today. Naturally I blame it on the strings.

But after a few days of settling in, it will be fine. The instrument has opened back up.

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For Dr. KO’s Mundane Monday #206 Opening.

 

 

Not Irish

I’m not Irish. Not even a little. When I was a kid I would forget to wear green on this day and get pinched on the playground, a custom I’m still not really fond of.

But as a musician I am getting more fond of St. Patrick’s Day as an opportunity to play fun music.

Playing at the Belmont Farmers’ Market

We were in Ireland last summer as part of our trip. One of the places we visited in Dublin was Christchurch Cathedral.

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The cathedral’s choir had its first performance of Handel’s Messiah in April of 1742. There is an electrical box on the grounds painted in Handel’s honor.

Messiah

The oldest geocache in Europe is also in Ireland. It was placed on June 3, 2000. Here I am, finding it:

OldestGeocacheinEurope

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! (Please don’t pinch anyone . . .)

Bringing the Past to Life: A Conversation with violinist Er-Gene Kahng

PSAConcertKahngBack in 2009, not long after I joined the Philharmonic Society of Arlington, that group celebrated its 75th anniversary season. The winner of that year’s Young Artists’ Competition was violinist Er-Gene Kahng, who performed the Mendelssohn concerto. I made a rare appearance as a violist in that concert, my last before I went back to the first violins for good.

Almost ten years later and 3000 miles to the west, I remembered and met Er-Gene again at her performance of the Florence Price Violin Concerto No. 2 with the Camellia Symphony in Sacramento. Florence Price’s two violin concertos were recently rediscovered amidst other forgotten manuscripts by Price in an abandoned house that was once her summer home. Kahng, a Professor at the University of Arkansas, has edited and recorded these concertos in order to bring the work to a wider audience.

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I caught up with Er-Gene after the concert and we made arrangements to chat via Skype, as she was leaving the next day–to go to London!

KarenandErGeneKaren with Er-Gene after the concert in the fabulously renovated art deco CK McClatchy High School Auditorium

Karen: I wanted to talk with you about Florence Price, but I also wanted to talk about your development as a musician. You mentioned that you are from California. What brought you to Arkansas?

Er-Gene: As I was finishing up my doctoral degree at Northwestern, I started applying for jobs. University of Arkansas listed a vacancy for a violin professor. I applied, interviewed and got the job! Sorry the story is not more interesting! 🙂 Growing up in southern California, I didn’t know anything about Arkansas, and had never even visited!

Karen: I also went to grad school, to get a PhD in Neuroscience. I’m only belatedly realizing that academia is a path for violinists too. Did you have plans to become an academic?

Er-Gene: No, I did not really have plans to be in academia. And I didn’t know–still don’t–if it is a common path for violinists. I was very idealistic and only knew that I liked the structured environment of school and wanted the chance to learn more and dedicate time to my artistic self-development.

I would even go further to say that for me growing up, the understanding was that people went into academia if they could not “make it” as a practicing artist. It was the “those who can’t play, teach” concept.

Karen: I noticed something similar, even though I didn’t go on professionally in music. When you are a child learning violin you are exposed from the beginning to performers who were all child prodigies and major soloists from an early age, and you get the impression that that is the only path.

Er-Gene: I feel like even the concept of a doctoral degree in music was relatively new’when I was going to school. It may have existed for decades before, but the idea was that a Masters’ degree should be enough, and that if you actually needed “all that time” to learn your craft, it was evidence of a lack of talent. It’s interesting how this narrative of “genius”, “prodigy”, and “talent” is so prevalent in our industry.

Karen: So did you go to a regular public school? Many violinists homeschool or do school online so that they can spend more time practicing!

Er-Gene: I’m very proud that I went to a public school. My school still exists today: the LA Center for Enriched Studies. It is a humanities magnet and I still keep in touch with some of my teachers. I remember my third grade elementary school teacher had us memorize Robert Frost poems by setting them to music. He composed at the piano, which was housed in our classroom. I didn’t realize how incredible this was until much later.

Karen: That sounds very cool! I teach at a relatively new STEM-oriented private school. I’m always interested in hearing about what works to make a healthy school community.

Er-Gene: I took my music classes at Colburn, back when it was still near USC, not downtown as it is now. I took music theory, chamber music, orchestra, piano and violin lessons there. From there, I have seen some stars born. I remember seeing and hearing Leila Josefowicz, and I was completely amazed, as I am still.

Karen: I’ve seen her on YouTube. Yes, she is pretty amazing!

Er-Gene: Being surrounded by such young artists growing up, I wasn’t sure I had a place in the music world. I definitely loved violin, but the master teachers enforced a strict 3-4-hour practice schedule, which, at the time, I couldn’t handle. I still don’t really have an explanation for it, only that I was very interested in academics and wanted to divide my time equally. I wanted to take the time to study and read, as well as practice.

Karen: I can totally relate to that. I always had a lot of other things I wanted to do besides practicing.

Er-Gene: I had very supportive parents and many teachers who never “pushed” in the sense of being stern time keepers. I think they observed my interests and allowed me the independence to use my time the way I wished.

I do sometimes think about “what would have been” if I had gone to a conservatory. I think I would be a much stronger violinist today. But I’m also grateful that somehow, so far, I’ve been allowed to progress at my own pace.

Karen: How do you think your academic training and orientation influenced your interactions with Florence Price’s music? Do you think that you felt more ready or willing to take on the project because you have a doctorate? What is the degree called in music? Is it still a PhD? I mean, this project is a dream PhD thesis. You discover this awesome music and bring it back to life!

Er-Gene: My degree is called a “DM, ” a Doctor of Music. I think my program at Northwestern was a good fit because again, it allowed for a lot of independence and space for me to explore and play with ideas. But it didn’t literally prepare me for work like the Florence Price concerto–although obviously it also did!

I don’t think that most higher ed programs are able to be, or want to be that prescriptive. So much of academia is trying to play catch up to the pace of real life. Many jobs that we train our students for may not exist by the time they graduate.

Karen: That’s an excellent point! There has been a sea change in what PhDs do with their degrees in many fields. I have a PhD in neuroscience and I am not doing the job I trained for either. Do you have your own graduate students that you teach now?

Er-Gene: Yes! We don’t offer a DM, so the highest degree is a Masters. I have my own students and I’m also Director of Graduate Advising. This is my favorite part of the administrative side of my job: the chance to talk to our students about their passions, their hopes and their concerns about creating a path in music. It’s so exciting to see them going off to their dream doctoral programs!

Karen: What else do the graduates of your program do?

Er-Gene: Music education is our most popular major, so many of our graduates go on to secondary school teaching within the state of Arkansas. Some have gone to neighboring states like Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri. Others choose to freelance and/or set up their own private studios.

Karen: One tends to hear about music programs in schools being cut, especially in states with less money. I hope that is good news for AK overall, that there are jobs for music teachers!

Er-Gene: Working at a state university means that I am able to have friends who are involved in the work of new ideas . . . the work of thinking, speaking, teaching and writing. For interpretive / performing artists, we also have the experience of realizing our interpretations and performances! I’m sure that being in this environment helped me feel the familiarity of doing primary research, even if I had never done it before, even in my doctoral work.

Karen: That is really great! I think that is the ideal of how universities are supposed to work. How did you first learn about Florence Price, and how long did it take before you felt ready to perform the Price concertos and record them?

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Kahng playing the Price concerto No. 2 with the Camellia Symphony

Er-Gene: I first learned about Price at the University of Arkansas’ own symposium about her in 2015. With respect to the recordings, I didn’t really have the luxury of choosing the timeline. Our contract set a date with the Janacek Philharmonic, who were available in the summer when I had time myself, but who only had a 3-day window to record. There was no choice but to agree to their timeline! Nevertheless, I had about 9 months before that to prepare.

Karen: Where would you place Price in the tradition of violin concertos? Does her music remind you of any other composer?

Er-Gene: This is actually a tricky question, because I believe the paradigm with which we have judged, excluded and included certain composers would not traditionally include Price. We can’t properly judge Price’s concertos against this tradition.

Karen: That’s fair enough. I don’t have a lot invested in that paradigm. I haven’t studied many violin concertos, myself, other than Bach and Mozart. And at this point I’m primarily a violist.

Er-Gene: It would be easy to say that Price deserves a place . . . up there with the Beethoven Violin Concerto! But even if I felt that way, it’s not as simple as persuading people to see the “greatness” of Price against the narrative of greatness they have inherited and been taught since childhood.

On the other hand, to say that Price (or any other historically underrepresented composer) is not the same as composers traditionally included in the canon is not equivalent to saying she is not great. Rather, I think to say so simply acknowledges that the canon has been very exclusive and narrow.

And that brings into question the way in which we raise our young musicians. We teach them a great deal about how to think and judge greatness. History is so much of the stories we tell our children. And sometimes–often times?–our children never question those stories that they hear from their parents and teachers.

Karen: Interesting. I felt that a lot of what I learned about determining greatness didn’t have much substance. It was mostly about hero worship and about talent, as you mentioned earlier. I love what you are saying here, that we need to be more thoughtful about that.

Er-Gene: This is not to say that Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, etc. are not great masters. They are. But we need to be more conscientious about the stories we preserve, and informed about the important figures we overlook (even when it is unintentional, which I believe it is, most of the time). This brings to the fore our responsibility as citizens, parents, teachers. We have to face our own blind spots, stay curious and cultivate critical independent thinking in our young musicians.

Karen: Yes! I think that for many musicians their introduction to the repertoire comes when they are students. They learn concertos in a very formative time, when they are children or teens, and that shapes their whole outlook on concertos and on which ones should be included.

Er-Gene: Because so much of violin training at earlier ages has to address basic sound production and technique, it focuses on the absorption and successful performance of these 50 or so “great” pieces that we as a community have agreed deserve to be learned. And as you know, just making a pleasant sound on the violin can be all consuming! Where in all of that do we have time to bring up these critical questions? I’m not sure, but we must make it a value and a priority in our lessons.

Karen: I came to the concert with a friend, Jasmine Reese, who is a violinist interested in learning concertos, and she thought the Price concerto you played was within her technical abilities, or at least that it could be if she worked on it. If that is the case for other students, then I think the Price concertos will come to be more widely known.

Er-Gene: I believe the mission is about expanding and redefining the canon, not denigrating “dead, white European males” or pushing Florence Price to hold an equal place in the old canon. We need to address the points of accessibility and visibility. Publishers will help with accessibility, while performances and programming will address both.

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I did a recital with a friend a couple of weeks ago, and afterwards I posted on Instagram something that is in line with what we have been discussing:

The shift into Db Major when the second theme first appears in Florence Price’s second violin concerto is tender, jarring and heart-breaking. Though its final statement is a resounding D Major, it feels like a Pyrrhic victory, despite my best efforts to convey celebration and triumph. Perhaps I give myself away in expressing skepticism at simple happy endings, even as the notes on the page could suggest otherwise. This is not only the vessel of emotional ambivalence Price’s concerto carries, but more largely the truth (of an unequal, unjust society) in which Price lived. I’d like to believe that with every deeply considered performance, we can take on the role of stepping up to the daunting task of moving toward a more just (musical) society. Here is to our collective efforts to program and interpret with intention and justice.

I keep trying to find ways to salvage the narrative, but then I think that it’s not my job to put a pretty package on the narrative. Many things are broken, and it is our job, first and foremost, to show the truth.

Karen: When I first heard the concerto, I found it touchingly sunny, and I was a bit surprised by that. With everything Price must have gone through, I expected something heavier and darker. I want to listen to it again in light of your comments!

Er-Gene: I encourage performers who may feel that their work is not as impactful as that of historians or librarians or publishers to acknowledge the raw power of their medium. It takes a village and no single element is most important. A performer is not just a simple “mouthpiece.” That view downgrades the power of direct transmission and the realization of abstract notes on a page that brings the essence of music to life!

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Kahng with Chris Castro, composer of “Sing High,” which premiered at the same concert

 

Double Bach

Since January 8th I’ve been reliving adolescence. Hopefully in a good way: I started a job as a Teaching Fellow, training to become a full-time Biology teacher.

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The view from my office window in the morning

Working for someone else 40 hours a week, every day M-F, has required some adjustment after 6 years of part-time work. And getting up before the sun has never been my favorite thing, neither as a teen nor as an adult. But there’s another way in which I’ve been revisiting my teenage self: with my violin, the most reliable time machine yet invented.

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The author as a middle school violinist

Last fall was a whirlwind of music. I played in 3 different orchestras, and I played some of the most difficult repertoire I have yet attempted. I played in San Francisco with professionals! I had solos! It was exhilarating . . . and it was also tiring. At the end I felt like I might be getting tendonitis, or some vague inflammatory condition resulting from overuse. And the larger, heavier viola might have been making things worse.

I took most of December off playing altogether, and as the New Year dawned, I considered whether I might want to take more time off, especially with the new job looming. But an old friend from violinist.com, Jasmine Reese, was returning to the Bay Area to play the Bach Concerto in D minor for two violins, the Bach Double, with the South Bay Philharmonic. And another friend, chamber music partner, and fellow violinist.commer, Gene Huang, was going to be playing the Bach with Jasmine, and the Bruch violin concerto as a solo. I really didn’t want to miss that concert!

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So I arranged to play the violin only for this concert. I had played the violin I part of all the repertoire before, so I thought maybe I’d have less work to do, and I could do what practicing was necessary on the smaller, lighter violin and preserve my hand and wrist.

Some of it, namely Beethoven #2, was quite recent, but the rest goes back. Way back. The Egmont Overture, for example: I first played that during my senior year of high school. I was sitting inside next to the concertmaster and turning pages. The way the sheet music is laid out, the last page-turn is a pregnant pause, a brief break in the tension before all heck breaks loose, horses come galloping in on the wave of a crescendo, and you climb up the ledger lines to the highest notes you have ever seen, and wail away up there as loud as you possibly can, while no one can hear you anyway because the brass is also wailing away as loud as they possibly can . . . and although at this point in my career I have now occasionally seen–and played–higher notes,  the excitement of playing Egmont is still like that for me. I love Egmont! If I listen to it on the way to work, it has the added bonus of waking me up, no matter how early or dark it is outside.

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Car dashboard

Listening to the Bruch and the Bach on my commute, on the other hand, is a little more complicated. One year in my youth orchestra, we accompanied a competition winner playing the Bruch, and that sparked a surge of interest among the violin section players. Have you played it? Have you? Are you ready for it? I had to say no. Unlike many violinists who like to play concertos, I have never studied the Bruch. Back then, I was not ready for it, and now I’m more into viola and chamber works. I did learn the opening bars and I played them while I was violin shopping, to cover all the strings and a decent portion of the violin’s range. But other than that, I have hardly listened to the Bruch since I was back in youth orchestra. Even now, among some violinists, I notice that the piece can take on the role of technical benchmark for comparisons and competitions. That aspect of playing the violin–the comparison and competition–is something I was more than happy to leave behind when I left school.

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Morning stars

On the car stereo in the morning as I prepare to leave, the opening measures of Bruch rise like the first rays of the sun. Then comes the G–just an open G, which on the violin can’t be anything else . . . how does Joshua Bell manage to make a simple open G so expressive? I wonder, and am curious and delighted. But as it goes on, I start to hear tension creep in. A cello pizzicato repeats over and over,  lub-dub, lub-dub, beating like a heart. It’s cool at the beginning but after a while, for me, it starts to evoke more Edgar Allen Poe than Valentine’s Day.

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Mountain View High School, the school my kids attend(ed), before students arrive

Ironically, last year around this same time I blogged about a similar topic from a different angle: Anxiety, Biology, and Playing from the Heart. I had had to teach a heart dissection class for heart-lung day at a school, and it was making me anxious, much as the prospect of playing a solo concerto made me anxious. I eventually made my peace with the dissection and learned to enjoy it. I wonder, as I listen and drive past my son’s high school, if that will happen for me with the Bruch concerto too. Maybe I have been too busy, or too stuck in adolescent ways of thinking, to really hear the piece’s gentler, sweeter side. In any case, the tension dissipates when the second movement arrives along with the full sun.

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The Bach Double was the first major piece I ever learned with my childhood violin teacher, Philip Teibel, a violinist with the Buffalo Philharmonic. He passed away years ago, but his handwriting–his fingerings and bowings–are still vivid both in the music and in my memory. I’ve looked through this piece periodically since then. I played the 2nd movement in church for “Music Sunday” back in Boston in 2008. But the main person I have played it with the most before now, both parts and all 3 movements, was Mr. Teibel, and I still associate it most strongly with him.

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Bach Double, mvt 3. Schirmer edition, annotated by Mr. Teibel, my childhood violin teacher

Mr. Teibel was an older gentleman when I was his student, and he gave me a recording to listen to of the husband-wife team of Leonid Kogan and Elizaveta Gilels playing the violin I and violin II parts, respectively. I had to look up Gilels’ name for this blog. What Mr. Teibel actually said at the time was “Kogan and his wife.” She didn’t get a name. And it went without saying that the husband was violin I and the wife was violin II. I also remember him suggesting to me that I might be able to play the Bach Double with a “nice young man” someday. At the time, I discounted that suggestion immediately. I didn’t aspire to be some famous dude’s nameless second fiddle.

I needn’t have worried. The musical romance implicit in the suggestion never happened. My husband is not a musician, and one of my few regrets in music is that I rarely have gotten together with friends to just jam or play for fun with no goal or performance in mind. While I do that occasionally now, I never did it as a kid. Competition, not fun or connection, seemed to rule the day back then. Even in my unfinished novel, which has a teen violinist protagonist named Hallie, I wrote a scene in which Hallie and her friend Annie try to play the Bach double. The session ends in tears as Hallie comes to a realization that Annie has advanced so far beyond her technically that she feels they can no longer play with each other. In the story, Hallie and Annie are (as I was at the time) also, at least temporarily, losing their fight against the toxic inferiority complex of the second violinist.

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Playing the Bach double with Jasmine

My meeting with Jasmine is nothing like what Hallie and Annie experienced in fiction. I stop by after work; she is staying with friends close by. Her dog Fiji and her hosts’ dog run around joyfully as we are playing, and they occasionally accompany us. There are mistakes but we restart, or play through them. There is a lot of laughter.

What Mr. Teibel knew already then, but what took me 30 years and a 16-year hiatus from the violin to learn, is that one of the best things about this piece, and the memories it holds, is being able to play it with a good friend.

American Masterpieces

In my experience, American music is not a staple of the symphony orchestra repertoire. It’s February, and in my orchestra we are already well into our rehearsal cycle for the winter concert. It is going to be a “Three B’s” concert: Bach, Beethoven, and Bruch, three well-known and beloved non-American composers.

Screen Shot 2019-02-03 at 9.21.51 PMLast concert we did something different. The program included William Grant Still’s “Afro-American” symphony, written in 1930 and first performed in Rochester NY, and a movement from Dvorak’s “American” string quintet No. 3, Op. 97, written in Spillville IA in 1893. Neither of these pieces was known to me before I started preparing them for this concert, and I’m writing about them here to bring more attention to these American masterpieces.

The “Afro-American” symphony is the first symphony written by an African-American composer to be performed by a major orchestra. Even the sheet music was a little different, written in the composer’s own charming and quite legible handwriting:

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And insured for thousands of dollars:

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Still gave each movement a title: LongingSorrowHumor, and Aspiration, and he included with the symphony some short poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Once you figure out how to read the manuscript, the symphony is challenging, but not intimidatingly so. It uses jazz, blues, and gospel themes in a traditional, tonal, 4-movement structure. It also employs a banjo in the 3rd movement. I immediately said, as a shorthand, “oh, it sounds like Gershwin.”

It turns out plenty of other people think so too. Still and Gershwin knew each other and played music together. Although scholars don’t agree on this issue, it is possible that Gershwin borrowed the famous “I’ve got rhythm” motif from Still. The same motif can be heard clearly in the symphony’s 3rd movement.

The “American” quintet was written immediately after the more famous “American” quartet, during the summer of 1893 when Dvorak was living in Spillville IA. In fact, this piece isn’t always referred to as “American,” although there are a number of high-powered reviewers and references who use the term, for example this review from Gramophone, or this clip from the BBC.

Our group decided to do it for a more prosaic reason: after performing the Schubert cello quintet last year, we needed another quintet. And one of our cellists was learning to play the alto violin, which is tuned like a viola. So he took the viola 2 part. We played the first movement in the spring, and it served as the warm-up for me before my Telemann concerto performance.

The highlight of this movement for me was my viola solo about 2 minutes in. It is a plaintive melody, which I decided sounded better fingered high up on the D-string, rather than on the higher, shriller A-string. After I read that a group of Native Americans visited Spillville while Dvorak was composing this piece, I hear sadness in the melody along with its beauty. The drum-like viola 2 solo that opens the piece also brings Native music to mind.

Reviewing this concert to write the blog, I realize that so much is missing from this account. It’s very hard to write program notes; one is tempted to say “Just listen to the music!” But I hope that these lesser-known American masterpieces will find their way into more concert programs in the future!

“Little Women” Holiday Tea Party and Author Talk

 

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Yesterday I gave a talk about Little Women at the Mountain View Public Library. It was similar to my presentations about geocaching and Geocaching GPS a couple of years ago.

The librarian was also a fan of Little Women as a child, and she organized the tea party and made the lovely flyer. I set my childhood copy of the book, and my Madame Alexander Jo March doll (in red), there on the table. And I dressed up like a character from the book too: long brown skirt, high collar with a brooch, lace sweater, hair up. (What does it say about my wardrobe that I had all those pieces easily available in my closet?) This is what I talked about.

The 150th Anniversary

Little Women 150th Anniversary, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Volume I was published in September of 1868, and volume II, originally called Good Wives, was published in 1869. Nowadays they are usually combined into 1 volume and published that way. Louisa wrote the first part–402 pages–in less than 6 weeks. Good Wives especially was written at the request of her publisher and readers. They all wanted to know who the girls would marry. Louisa herself wasn’t particularly interested in this: she said it was better to be an elderly spinster and paddle your own canoe. And she purposely disappointed all the Jo and Laurie shippers and made Jo what she called a “funny match.”

Many modern women writers claim to have been inspired by Little Women and its unforgettable protagonist, Jo March. Among them are J.K. Rowling, Simone deBeauvoir, Nora Ephron, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jhumpa Lahiri, Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Zadie Smith, Gloria Steinem, and Ursula K LeGuin.  Singer-songwriter and punk rocker Patti Smith wrote

There are some moments within literature when a new character is born, one who sits at the summit with others, emblematic of an age, or steps ahead of it. There have been many high-spirited characters before Jo March, but none like her, who wrote, remained herself. Creating Jo at a time when women had not yet won the right to vote was an unflinching move. She was an activist by example. And standing apart to extend a sister’s hand, she has always been there to greet maverick girls like myself, with a toss of her cropped hair and a playful wink to say come along. To guide us, provide encouragement, lay her footprints on a path she beckons us to follow.

Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott was a writer, Unitarian, feminist, and abolitionist living in Concord Massachusetts. She hobnobbed with the Transcendentalists and had a crush on Ralph Waldo Emerson. She was was the first woman to register to vote in Concord, when women were given school, tax, and bond suffrage in 1879 in Massachusetts.

As many of us know, Little Women was largely autobiographical. Like Jo, Louisa wrote, published, and supported her family with what she called “blood and thunder tales”–gothic thrillers with names like “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” and “The Abbot’s Ghost or Maurice Treherne’s Temptation.” She wrote under the androgynous pseudonym AM Barnard.

But when asked by her publisher Thomas Niles to write a book for girls, she acquiesced, writing in her journal: “Marmee, Anna, and May all approve my plan. So I plod away, though I don’t enjoy this sort of thing.”

Bronson Alcott and Fruitlands

Louisa’s father, Bronson Alcott, was an idealist, philosopher, progressive educator, and man ahead of his time. He was not, however, a practical man, a farmer, or someone who knew how to put food on the table. When Louisa was 10, Bronson moved the family to Fruitlands, a utopian community based on Transcendentalist principles that he founded with Charles Lane in Harvard Massachusetts. This community had high ideals–for example, they eschewed cotton clothing, because cotton was picked by slaves, and they were abolitionists. But Fruitlands lasted only about 6 months. The men were more interested in talking about the Oversoul than bringing in the harvest, and the women and children couldn’t do all the work themselves. Louisa later wrote about her Fruitlands experience in the satirical short story, Transcendental Wild Oats.  Because of Bronson’s inability to make money, the Alcott family was often poor. Louisa’s writing career was a passion born of necessity. 

Orchard House

When the book was first published, it  was extensively pirated, and now it is in the public domain, but it is estimated that more than ten million copies were sold, not including abridged editions. It has been through 100+ editions and been translated into more than 50 languages. Her publisher persuaded Louisa to take a royalty rather than a flat fee, and as a result, the book and its sequels supported her and her relatives, plus some of her relatives’ relatives, for the rest of their lives.

Little Women and I

So what about me and Little Women?  I had a Jo doll, whose head and legs I had to reattach to bring her to the library. I was pretty into playing with dolls back then. I didn’t play mother and baby much though; I used dolls to act out stories. Little Women was one of those stories, and the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder were another. Some of my dolls had an elected government, with Chrissy, a tall leggy redhead whose hair grew when you pushed a button on her belly, at the top. It was like a girls’school or a women’s college: girls did everything.

I received the Illustrated Junior Library Edition of Little Women as a gift. I read and enjoyed the book as a tween, and my mother also read it to me. One of the things about this book that has stayed with me since childhood is the image on the cover: the family gathered around the piano singing. Even though I’m not much of a singer, I am a musician. I play the violin and viola. My daughter played a number of different instruments growing up and my son plays the cello. I’ve always felt that was the highest purpose in music, not performance or musical skill or putting in your 1000 hours, but to bring people together.

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Susan Bailey reading Little Women

When I started playing the violin and viola again after a long break, I started blogging at violinist.com.  I wrote about reading Little Women to my daughter, and my blog was noticed by Susan W Bailey, author of the blog Louisa May Alcott is my passion, who contacted me. I started reading and following her blog, and there I found out about the anthology, Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes, edited by Merry Gordon and Marnae Kelley at Pink Umbrella Books

As they explain in this interview, Gordon and Kelley believe that Little Women is a pivotal book for many women, one that they return to in different phases of life and learn something new each time. “I’m delighted to be part of it,” says Gordon of the anthology, “and to connect with a community of readers who are as passionate about the book as I am.” 

Finding the Googleplex Beautiful

I reworked the ideas from my violinist dot com blog and submitted them as an essay called “Finding the Palace Beautiful.” As part of the publicity for the anthology, the publisher asked the authors to send a picture of themselves reading Little Women next to a local landmark. I chose the Googleplex.

One hundred and fifty years later, is Little Women still relevant?

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Louisa May Alcott’s grave on Author’s Ridge at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord MA. Fans pay tribute by leaving pens at the site. Photo courtesy of Richard Ragan.

When I told my writers’ group that I would be doing this reading,  one guy said that he tried but he couldn’t get past the first chapter of Little Women. And some people claim, not without justification, that it’s not really a feminist novel. Everyone gets married off. Ambitions get smaller. Beth dies from her own self-sacrifice. And Jo marries Professor Bhaer, a man who deprecates her writing. Tween and teen girls these days read dramatic tales with kickass heroines like The Hunger Games and Divergent and The Hate U Give.  Is there still space for a book about four flawed sisters in which nothing much really happens?

For me the relevance of Little Women 150 years later is captured well in Joan Acocella’s New Yorker article of August 2018, called “How Little Women Got Big”.  Acocella argues that Jo had to marry Friedrich Bhaer, a poor immigrant Professor, because Jo, unlike her rich neighbor Laurie, thinks hard about things and fights (her) way through them in darkness.

Not surprisingly,  since like Jo I moved to New York and married a German, I’m “team Friedrich” not “team Laurie.” But even without that personal analogy, Jo’s marriage to Professor Bhaer isn’t just a funny match to me. It is a marriage of true minds and intellectual equals. Jo asks him to sing, “Kennst du das Land,” a favorite song that at first meant to him Germany, his country of birth, but later meant to both of them a purer, higher vision of home and love. The book’s ending is Louisa’s transcendentalist love letter and her philosophical masterpiece.

Mundane Monday: Cup

The theme of this week’s Mundane Monday Challenge is a cup or mug. I have way too many mugs. Like a lot of people, I have gotten and given them as gifts over the years.

In college I used to have a beautiful blue mug with a seashell on it. It was a gift from a friend; taller and thinner than your average mug, and graceful in shape, with gold leaf outlining the seashell. Later, during my biotech job, I had it at work for a while. I drank coffee out of it at the unenjoyable company meetings. Then one day I dropped it; it shattered beyond usefulness as a mug. The handle broke off and the bright white inside, under the royal blue coating was revealed.

When it fell I was kind of traumatized. This was my favorite mug, it had been a gift, and I was upset that the crash made a noise and attracted everyone’s attention. I used to run my thumb up and down the smooth handle while the lecture was going on, and the feeling was calming. Now the handle had become detached, and the edges were all jagged and rough. I was looking around on the floor to make sure I had all the pieces and pick them up, and a male coworker caught my eye and addressed me.

His eyes looked basically kind at first, and there he was asking me a question. What? He wanted to take the broken, jagged pieces from me. Why? My beautiful mug, ruined. Did he want to know its story? Did he want to tell me he was sorry for what happened? Could he help fix it, did he have glue? It looked like he wanted to help . . . but he wasn’t going to fix it . . . no, he was asking me if I wanted him to throw it away. This felt like an insult, an additional injury. No! I made a face and his eyes no longer looked kind.

The mug lived on for a while as a pen and pencil holder after I glued it back together with super glue. But it was never the same, no matter how many stories I told myself about the crack being how the light gets in. I kept seeing my coworker’s face and hearing his words in my mind: “Do you want me to throw that away?” He probably was trying to be kind. So why does he even now still seem like a nosy jerk to me? I didn’t move it to California with us. I didn’t want to think about him, or my weird, defensive reaction to his request, anymore.

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With my alto clef T-shirt and TACO mug in the practice room

The mug I’m drinking out of in the picture above is from “TACO,” the “Terrible Adult Chamber Orchestra.” It too was a gift, from last spring when I played the viola solo from Berlioz’ Harold in Italy with the group. This mini-performance was part of my preparation for the Telemann solo I had in May.

A couple weeks ago I had tea for the first time this fall. I opened up the rather overstuffed cabinet where the mugs live, and as I reached for one, I knocked this one and it tumbled. I knew even as I tried to catch it that it was no use. It shattered beyond its usefulness as a mug. No one saw it happen; I threw it away myself. I missed it–I wish I had managed to break one of the less interesting ones we have instead–but I didn’t feel like trying to glue it again. I have enough pencil holders. Instead I ordered a new one from the TACO website. These days everything is replaceable.