Category Archives: viola

The Names in the Music

instrumentquintet.jpg

I used to blog regularly, especially when I first re-started playing the violin and viola. It was a way to motivate myself and be accountable: the more I practiced, the more I had to write about. And the more I wrote, the more I could work through and get support for issues that were holding me back. Then in 2015 I moved across the country for family reasons. I knew I was going to miss my musical life in Massachusetts. I didn’t realize how much.

At first it seemed like in California I jumped right in, landed on my feet, hit the ground running, etc. I didn’t even have to audition for the community orchestra I’d picked out, and I started rehearsing two of my favorite orchestra pieces of all time–Eroica and William Tell–for a nice concert, with puppies. But still, when I got the email announcing the first rehearsals of the season for my old orchestra, the Arlington Philharmonic, I stared at the computer, blurry eyed, unable to hold back tears.

SandyIt wasn’t just orchestra I missed–Walter, the conductor and visionary educator who believed in me enough to make me concertmaster; Phyllis, the former long-term concertmistress who left me her music collection and played in the first violin section almost up until she passed away at age 96; Marianne, my best friend, founding member of the Mystic String Quartet (named for her street), and stand-partner-in-crime for concerts indoor and out;  Dewey, the gentleman with the wicked sense of humor who said it was an honor to turn my pages; Chandreyee, the violinist who organized the orchestra’s first outdoor concert and wrote a grant to fund it; Ben, the violist/trombonist who was my first stand partner until my dreadful alto clef reading scared me back to violin for a while; or Sandy, the unflappable principal cellist, the rock who kept the orchestra together; or many others–I missed the intimacy of getting together and playing music with friends.

There had actually been a string of losses leading up to my departure: Walter retired, Phyllis passed away, Dewey stopped playing. Marianne moved out of the house on Mystic St. Then I moved too, and Chandreyee’s kids got my son’s old Star Wars toys in a shoebox. It was a little overwhelming. Other than time, the best way for me to cope with these losses came from something, or perhaps someone, that I didn’t expect: a new friend invited me to play Schubert.

Have Mozart Will TravelYears previously, right around the time Sandy, Marianne, Ben and I started playing as the Mystic String Quartet, Sandy had dropped by my house with a basket full of chamber music. She had inherited it from another cellist who passed away, and she was offering me the duplicates. I had also recently inherited a box of violin music from Phyllis, and while I was honored to have it, my shelves (not to mention storage closets) were full. So I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with all those parts. They were in varying conditions, too, some pristine, some yellowed and torn. And they were marked with the name of their late owner, a man I had never met: Leonard Kaplan. I used some of it for our Mystic performances, particularly the Mozart which was in reasonably good shape. Then I boxed it up and shipped it to California with 547 other boxes.

I was playing Beethoven’s 7th in a different community orchestra, the South Bay Philharmonic, turning pages for the principal viola and trying again to get used to alto clef when Schubert re-surfaced. The SBP concertmaster, Gene Huang, whom I knew from violinist.com, invited me to sub for the regular violist in his chamber group playing the Schubert Cello Quintet in C.

SchubertParts

I had never heard of, let alone heard, this piece before. I was kind of vague on the whole quintet concept: I remembered having played a viola quintet once. Well, the violin part. Which I wouldn’t be doing this time. I looked through the collection that Sandy brought me, and there, virtually in mint condition, it was: Quintet D956 with 2 violins, 1 viola, and 2 cellos. I took the music, went to that rehearsal, subbed a couple more times, and after the summer I became the regular violist with the chamber group.

SchubertQuintetPlayers

In some of those early rehearsals I felt like I was just holding on. Even though Gene said no pressure, and meant it, my alto clef reading still failed me at intervals and there were times I had to watch the violinists’ feet tapping to keep the pulse. But we performed the first movement on the fall concert program, and then moved on to the second movement for the winter. Each performance got better as we got used to working with each other. I also became a better violist myself as I worked on other orchestral and chamber parts, and the violin moments began to fade.

This fall, as we continued to work our way through the Quintet movements, we decided to perform the whole piece, all 4 movements, as part of a standalone chamber concert that also included a quartet and a trio. This was a more ambitious undertaking than anything I had done before in chamber music. This quintet is over 50 minutes long–symphony length–even if you omit the long first movement repeat. And unlike most symphonies, within those 50+ minutes there is no opportunity to lose focus, space out, or rest. Not even for the viola. Maybe especially not for the viola, who is both outnumbered by, and provides a bridge between, the two violins and the two cellos. Even page turns are challenging. After the first time we rehearsed it the whole way through without stopping we all just kind of sat there, stunned, looking at at each other and moaning “We’re so tired!”

Of all the movements, the 2nd movement may have been the most challenging, for a few reasons: first, we had a different 2nd violinist the first time we performed it, so Min, our violin 2 for this concert, had to learn this movement from scratch too. And second, its middle section in which the violin I and cello I play a beautiful melody over the angsty triplets and syncopations of the other 3 voices, is just really difficult to keep together. The rhythm sometimes deliberately sets 3 beats against 4; the cello 2 has to bravely hold his own against the violin 1/cello 1 melody line and the violin 2/viola groove; and on top of all the rhythmic challenges the whole thing has four flats. Just to keep it interesting . . .

2ndMovementAskew

I remembered that on one occasion last year, I sight-read the violin I part of this quintet with an informal chamber music reading group. I also remembered that, at the time, doing that had helped me especially with the 2nd movement. So I tried again. I owned all 5 parts courtesy of Mr. Kaplan, and so I got out the violin 1 part, recorded it with the metronome, and played viola along with myself. It was better the next week but I was still struggling.

I finally asked my teacher, who had loaned me her score of the piece. “Listen downwards,” she said. “Listen to the cello.” I thought I had been doing that. I have a number of sections–melodies, countermelodies, and accompaniments–that I play along with Harris, cello 1, and I was getting used to looking over at him. He, like Sandy, is the orchestra’s principal cello, steady and reliable, always there to be counted on to keep the group together. “No, not him!” my teacher reminded me. “Cello 2! He has the pulse here.” She was right. My bass clef reading skills are even more rudimentary than my alto clef reading, but I managed to record myself playing about 10 measures of the cello 2 part up an octave, with a metronome, and practiced playing along with that. After a few of those sessions somehow it went into my brain through a back channel, and from then on it clicked much better. Instead of trying to ignore what Alex was playing, as I had before, I embraced it, focused on it, and allowed his part to guide me.

At our later rehearsals, we often discussed who we were playing with at different times, whom we should watch, who should lead what section. I still probably watched Gene (violin 1) the most, but this piece gives something to everyone. Alex (cello 2) and I start the slow, grand trio section of the 3rd movement together. Min (violin 2) and I groove together in the 2nd movement and give it its Sturm und Drang. We accelerate together into the da capo section of the third movement. Harris (cello 1) and I have some beautiful melodies and counter-melodies together in the 1st and 3rd movements, and sometimes his part soars above mine. Besides watching him for all the starts and finishes, Gene and I have some fast 8th notes together towards the end of the 4th movement.

Honestly, all this togetherness and eye contact takes a little getting used to, especially for introverts. I tend to bury myself too much in the music anyway, especially when performing. And I fret that I make funny faces: Do I look like a deer in the headlights? Do I have food on my chin? Do I have 3 chins? Do I have resting bi**h face?

A few months ago, while playing Ashokan Farewell as a warmup, I stumbled across some names from the past that I had written in my music. “Look at Sandy,” the music admonished me, with some little eyeglasses drawn above the “Sandy.” Later one of the other players piped up, “who is Chandreyee?” “Oh, she’s the second violinist I played this with at the Farmers’ Market back in Boston this one time . . .” “It says to watch Chandreyee here in my part!” “Yeah, watch violin 2. That would be good.” “Okay.” I remember this conversation as I am marking up my Kaplan/Schubert part.

“Maybe you should just write ‘Violin 1,'” I tell Min. I launch into an abbreviated version of one of my boring “when I was back in Boston . . . ” stories and end with “Sandy isn’t here.” Because my friends are nice people, they laugh sympathetically, but when I go home I think about it some more.

Easily my favourite piece is his last chamber work, the String Quintet in C major, featuring two cellos . . . I grew up playing the piece with family and friends . . . Later, while I was a student, we would often put on marathon chamber music evenings that would last all night, with the ensembles growing in size. These were some of the most fun evenings of my life. For me the Quintet will always represent youth, friendship and the warmth of the shared experience.
–Marin Alsop, conductor, quoted in “Schubert: Ferocious, tender, sublime“; The Guardian, 19 March 2012.

I said that I had stopped writing people’s names in my music, only their instrument parts, because names were too “confusing.” I realized, on reflection, that that’s silly and a little sad. Some day, in the not-too-distant future, this will all be in the past too. And I actually *like* seeing people’s names in the music. In an important way, the people you play with are the music. So I went back to writing names in my part. This has been a special experience and if I’m ever fortunate enough to play this piece again, I’ll want to see, and remember.

TrioNames

Mvt. 1:

Mvt 2:

Mvt 3:

Mvt 4:

For a long time, my blogging strategy has served me well. I’ve been playing continuously now for 11 years (almost as long as the first time I played, as a child and teen) and have no plans to stop. But my source of motivation and the relationship I developed between music and writing have undergone a sea change. Now I seem to have more of an inverse relationship between music and writing: the more I play, the less I write. And the deeper I go into new musical territory, the more complex the concepts and the harder they are to express in another medium. One by one, words fall away, leaving only the music.

Winter concert 20171030

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Afghan Girls Orchestra, for #WATWB

WATWIC-Bright-TuqBlkIt’s time for this month’s We are the World Blogfest (#WATWB)! In a world where news and social media are awash with negativity, we aim to turn the focus on to small but significant stories that renew our faith in humanity.

My article for this month is about Zohra, an all-female orchestra from Afghanistan. Named for a Persian music goddess, the orchestra toured the world earlier in the year, starting at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The musicians are all very young, most not out of their teens. And many of them are the first in their families, or even in their entire provinces, to play an instrument.

I was touched especially by the story of the 18-year-old conductor, who played the viola when she was an instrumentalist. Her uncle was initially against her playing in the orchestra, but he eventually grew to be proud of her.

“I’m happy that at least I changed my family,” she said, adding, her fellow musicians, too, “are going to change their families and when their families are going to change, you can have a society which is changed.”

Sign up to join us and be visited on the last weekend of the month when you post your article.  Click here to enter your link on this Linky Tools list! This month’s #WATWB co-hosts are: Simon FalkRoshan RadhakrishnanInderpreet Uppal, Sylvia Stein, and Damyanti Biswas. Please stop by and say hello!

Merry Pranks: Becoming a Violist

Although I’ve been playing the viola for quite a while, and have previously blogged about it, there are stages to becoming a violist. I picked up the instrument as an adult after a long break from music, thinking that I might have an smoother re-entry into the stringed-instrument-playing world as a violist than a violinist.  Continue reading Merry Pranks: Becoming a Violist

Mundane Monday: The Moldau

Orchestra rehearsals are starting up again in a little over a week. For this concert cycle, I will be playing two pieces I’ve played before, on violin: Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, and Smetana’s Ma Vlast, or The Moldau. But this time I’ll be playing them on the viola.

Continue reading Mundane Monday: The Moldau

For Schubert

When I was in high school orchestra, we played and performed the first movement of Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony. Like other orchestral pieces I played in high school, I remember it (or at least, I remember the 2nd violin part) decently well, many years and two long breaks from the violin later.

Continue reading For Schubert

Mundane Monday: Backstage

On Saturday night, I played the viola in a concert called Holiday Magic with the Nova Vista Symphony and the Vivace Youth Chorus of San Jose.  The performance, of holiday music both religious and secular was in a large domed church sanctuary.

The orchestra and choir assembled in the center, and behind us was a large cross and semi-transparent curtain blocking the view of the backstage area from the audience. Just before we went onstage, I took this picture, which looks a little like the snow we don’t get in the SF Bay area, and captured the mystery and wonder of the music we were about to experience.

Version 2

For the Mundane Monday challenge #87: find beauty in everyday mundane things and frame it beautifully and upload the photographs.

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?

Continue reading Beethoven for the Bucket List

Nova Vista

One of the things I miss most about my life in Belmont is the Philharmonic Society of Arlington. I was the creator and admin of the group’s Facebook page, so I can recite this by heart: “The Philharmonic Society of Arlington, Inc., established in 1933, consists of three performing groups, The Arlington Philharmonic Orchestra, The Arlington-Belmont Chorale, and The Arlington-Belmont Chamber Chorus.” Yes, you read that right: 1933, which makes it older than many professional symphony orchestras. The orchestra performed a mix of old favorites and premieres by local, living composers. We also provided playing opportunities for a diversity of musicians, from adult starters and re-starters, to professional music teachers, to up-and-coming Young Artists’ Competition winners.

I don’t feel up to recapping the last 8 years of my time there right here right now, but I blogged about a lot of it while it was happening, from the first rehearsal, to becoming concertmaster, to my first real solo with an orchestra in the Tchiakovsky “Mozartiana” suite, my stand partner who became a chamber music partner and one of my best friends, a fond farewell to a beloved senior conductor, and finally a new start with a fresh face on the podium.

I don’t think it really sank in until this morning, though–until I shed a few tears here at the computer–that that chapter of my life is over. Tonight, the Arlington Philharmonic Orchestra has the first rehearsal of its 82nd season, and it will be without me.

When I told people that I was moving, I got plenty of recommendations for orchestras–so many, in fact, that I wasn’t sure what to do with them all. I felt overwhelmed. Many of the recommendations centered on the conductor, which I understand, since the tone that the conductor sets is very important. Names I don’t know, don’t recognize . . . I can google them and find out how many awards they’ve won and where they’ve studied, I can see which orchestras have recorded CDs, who has the best reviews, and who has the most professional-looking website. I can see where they rehearse and how far that is from my house. But none of that was helping.

Way back when we were first talking about moving, I just looked on the web for orchestras that rehearsed in the general area of Mountain View and Sunnyvale. I found one called the Nova Vista Symphony. I liked the name immediately: I pictured standing on a mountain and looking out into one of the many valleys around here with their green (or brown) rolling hills. I also liked the fact that they played with a chorale sometimes and had a Young Artists’ Competition. They had the right number of concerts–not too many, not too few–and a mix of repertoire, both familiar and new, with different types of challenges. The website said they had auditions, and when I inquired I was told I should prepare 1 fast piece, 1 slow piece, and a 2-octave scale. I took this seriously and started preparing. I figured a 3-octave scale would be fine too.

Not sure which instrument I wanted to play, I thought about viola again. I brought my viola with me on the plane and shipped my violin, because I couldn’t carry on both instruments. I practiced the viola in the guest apartment we were staying in while we waited for our furniture to arrive so we could move into the house. I played the 3rd movement to the Anton Stamitz viola concerto in D, and recorded it for the Adult Starter and Restarter Facebook group. I wrote about my viola as a cherished object for a blogfest that I was trying out. I met up with a buddy from the Facebook group, and we tried to play some chamber music, as well as sight-read the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia and the Barber Adagio in his large fencing studio in Redwood City with You Tube accompaniment projected on the wall.

The furniture, and the violin, finally arrived, and life kept accelerating. Our kids started school already on August 17. My daughter was asked to switch to viola in school orchestra and she has taken up the challenge. She needed a viola to practice at home, and so I loaned her mine. I also volunteered to be an assistant soccer coach to get my 12-yo son a spot on a team. Team practice schedules reduced the number of hours available for violin and viola, and conflicted with rehearsals of the South Bay Philharmonic, another group I had been considering, Through all of this, I heard no more about an audition, until last week. I got an email from the personnel manager of the Nova Vista Symphony saying that I had enough experience they didn’t need to audition me, and the first rehearsal was a week from then, i.e. last night. They included a list of the repertoire, which included both the William Tell Overture, and Eroica, two of my favorite pieces of all time.

I could interpret this in different ways–after all, not everyone wants to always be playing old favorites that they’ve played before–but in this time and place, it felt right. In this strange and wonderful and horrible season where everything is slippery, and is changing too fast, and I’m grieving one too many losses and goodbyes, it felt like coming home to see and hear and be part of these pieces again. I brought my violin and my little folding stand, and parked it there in the back of the firsts, shook the rust out of my fingers, and said hello to my old friends.

Sparking joy: a viola to cherish

This is my official post, about a single cherished object, for The Cherished Blogfest.

Family Portrait
Family Portrait

While I was decluttering in preparation for the move, people told me about “that book.” You know, the one on the best-seller list. Only keep things that “spark joy.” This process is supposed to be liberating, focusing your mind on what’s most important. Sounds great.

But then, there’s my violin: the violin that spent years in the back of various closets, from Princeton to Palo Alto to Pasadena. I was asked, more than once, “are you ever going to play that thing again? Why don’t you get rid of it?”

This was not an unreasonable question. I was in graduate school, getting my PhD in neuroscience. Perhaps more relevant, the violin did not spark joy. I’d had bad experiences in college—a failed audition for the university orchestra, followed by a flood of shame about both the failure and my emotional response to it. In my mind, I had not only failed, but had been so lacking in resilience, that I’d let it crush my spirit. Maybe decluttering the violin would have been the sane, humane, thing to do.

Instead, years later, I found myself living alone in my own apartment after breaking off an engagement. The violin re-emerged in the move and this time, it sparked something different: hope. I took it to a repair shop where it was restored to playing condition. I bought it a new, high-quality case. And I started taking lessons again. I found a group to play in that didn’t require auditions. And the joy was back. Not just like that. There may have been a spark somewhere, but it took serious effort to rekindle the joy. That joy lasted me through my postdoc up to the birth of my two children. But the violin went back into the closet when they were babies and toddlers.

When I started playing again most recently, I decided to try something new: the viola. A viola is a lot like a violin, but larger, tuned a fifth lower, and with a richer, darker sound. When I picked up a viola for the first time, it was both an old friend and a fresh start: no baggage, no failure and shame. Nothing to lose.

Playing the viola at the Farmers' Market
Playing the viola at the Farmers’ Market

Early on in my viola “career,” I had another unsuccessful audition for an orchestra. But this time I chalked it up to experience, and found another group to play in. I met people and formed a string quartet. I made new opportunities for myself. And then, through playing the viola, I was led back to the violin, now feeling comfortable on both instruments and able to switch back and forth between them as needed.

So, which do I cherish more? I’d rather not have to decide. If I hadn’t kept that violin, I probably would never have bothered again. I am grateful that I didn’t declutter it. But since I have to pick just one, I’ve chosen the viola. It helped me find my voice, and rekindle the joy for good.

Playing my viola in Boston's Symphony Hall, with the Onstage at Symphony program for adult amateurs
Playing my viola in Boston’s Symphony Hall, with the Onstage at Symphony program for adult amateurs