Practice day 33/100. With metronome, tuner, and mask. This situation was feeling very metaphorical today. I am tired of the pandemic, tired of wearing a mask, tired of playing unaccompanied Bach alone in my room. And, I was feeling especially resentful of not being able to take all the liberty with the tempo that I wanted.
My teacher wanted me to play with the metronome, and so I did, its inexorable irritating beat making a mockery of the “dance” this piece is supposed to be.
In the privacy of my own mind I wonder, what if my head and heart want to do something that the composer didn’t intend? How do I make the music my own, under these constraints? How do I make my own degenerate era count as much as the nostalgic days of Bach? How do I make my own voice heard through the mask?
As I took my teacher’s advice anyway, something started to unclench. And I started to lose myself in a good way.
I wear a mask to protect myself and others, I wear a mask because it’s for the common good. The metronome, and the tempo control it affords, is good for me too.
This isn’t a performance, but it is a connection—to my teacher across the electrons, to Bach across the centuries, to my viola pals and practice buddies and orchestra mates and students. We’ll get through this together, and reach a time when the masks come off and the metronome is quiet. And we will be changed.
Facebook has taken a lot of flack recently, for good reason, but one thing it is good at is bringing back the ghosts of Christmas past: “We hope you enjoy looking back and sharing your memories on Facebook, from the most recent to those long ago.” Each morning brings a bittersweet memory of something missing: the pageants, the choruses, the holiday concerts.
Last year, I am reminded, I played the Star Wars finale of the Nova Vista Symphony’s John Williams tribute with a glowing light-saber bow. But this year, in the Christmas present, as we approach the one-year anniversary of the time when everything changed, there’s a shadow over the proceedings, even on Facebook. Those revelers in the Leia hats, Yoda ears, and Jedi robes have no inkling what is coming.
I have been busy this year with teaching and with teaching online. While I find zooming as exhausting as the next person, I am happy to be rid of the daily car commute and to be able to eat lunch with family. The orderliness of online classrooms and learning management systems has its charms. Most of my high-school-age students say, about online learning, some variation of “it’s not what we expected or wanted, but we can handle it.” A few even prefer the ability to set their own schedules and work at their own pace. The reasons I want to get back to in-person school have to do with forming relationships, and with the hands-on, experiential activities that make learning stick, like Biology labs. And music.
Music has been hit harder than other activities, especially the kind of music I like best, which involves playing with others. I have learned two unaccompanied Bach preludes from memory so far during the pandemic, but solo playing isn’t my true love (or my strength, technically) and never has been. I’ve been fortunate to be able to participate in some amazing virtual ensembles, from the International L O V E Project–which had a professional conductor, sound editor, and roster of 1000 musicians from around the world, amateurs and pros both—to TACO’s Christmas Sing-along, which I’m going to describe in more detail below.
TACO stands for the “Terrible Adult Chamber Orchestra,” although only two of those words are really accurate (I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide which ones). The name was inspired by the Really Terrible Orchestra who play for fun and humor in Edinburgh, Scotland. TACO is conceived as a drop-in reading group that meets once a month. Its purpose is similar to the RTO in that its main point is enjoying playing together. But it doesn’t have a goal of practicing to get better. Instead its target is a broad range of people who don’t have time to rehearse weekly but who still want to play: adult starters, re-starters, older musicians with physical limitations, professionals and parents who are too busy with work or family to practice regularly. The group would have been celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, and its mailing list has grown to over 700, with 65-70 musicians coming to its monthly drop-in sessions pre-pandemic.
TACO’s founder and conductor, Cathy Humphers Smith, runs the group through the Los Altos Recreation Department, which sponsors them financially as a non-profit and guarantees them regular, reliable meeting space and publicity. I talked to Cathy–over zoom of course–about how the Christmas Sing-along project came to be.
Karen: Where did the idea come from to do this project?
Cathy: When the pandemic first hit, we wanted to do a group video project like those you’ve been seeing for other local orchestras, and I decided on Viva la Vidaby Coldplay. That song is straightforward and doesn’t have any major tempo or key changes so I thought it was something we could do as a group with all volunteers. We have a sister organization in LA, called TACO Los Angeles, and we collaborated with them. We got a great response to our call, about 25 musicians from Silicon Valley and 10 from LA, and then one of our LA folks in the animation industry was able to do our editing for us. It was successful and people loved doing it.
So, after the success of Viva la Vida, the pandemic was still going on, and people were asking, when are we going to do another group project?
Karen: High school students got involved this time, and it’s being shown on public access TV. How did that all come about?
Cathy: I got a phone call from the Los Altos Recreation Department Senior Services. Normally they provide all kinds of activities and classes for seniors at the senior center, but they were worried about isolation during the holidays because of the pandemic.
So they produced programming on cable TV for seniors isolated in the community, from 10am-noon every day through December. They are showing Viva La Vida on this channel, and they asked us to put together a Christmas concert. They also asked the Peninsula Symphony to contribute some of their chamber music. After that, I started thinking about this audience. What pieces could I choose and how to introduce them?
Karen: So you chose the music?
Cathy: Yes. I had it all ready. It was simple, well-known carols. But then I realized, Oh no! It’s 10 videos! Each video on its own is short and simple like Viva la Vida, but now there are 10 of them. I didn’t know how to get them all put together.
Karen: Could you ask the same person who did Viva la Vida?
Cathy: I asked him, but he didn’t have time. The Freestyle Academy at Mountain View High School is local, and the students are in it because they are interested in video and animation, so I sent an email out to [their teacher] Leo Florendo. He offered it as extra credit, and there were several students interested. But they had to do it on top of their regular school work, and in some cases their college applications, and only 4 ended up being able to participate. They are all musicians themselves and 2 of them are seniors in film. I had a zoom meeting with all of them to meet them and explain how we were going to keep track of the videos. They received an honorarium, and it was a huge amount of work!
Karen: What about recruiting musicians?
Cathy: I initially had 60 TACO musicians interested too, but in the end there were only 30 who could submit videos and I had to get some ringers. I had some older musicians as well and they couldn’t have participated unless I helped them with the recording. For example, I recorded one video on my back deck. Behind the musician’s green sweater you can see it getting dark in my backyard in the later takes. I pulled an all-nighter to figure out the best takes for some of these recordings.
Karen: I’ve done these kinds of videos before so I knew how to record myself with my phone, but there were some new wrinkles with these recordings for TACO, like saying “pop” before starting.
Cathy: I had to get the conducting videos out already in mid-October and then there was a deadline with the high school of early November to get all the data loaded into google folders by song.
Once we had all the videos, the students started going through the data and creating a rough draft of the mixing. Keeping track of all of the data was complicated, and so was aligning the videos. You can’t just line it up at the “pop” at the beginning and be done, you have to line it up at other points as well. Then once they had a good mix of the music, they added the visuals. They used several different programs to do all of that, including Premier Pro. They had 2-3 weeks to get that all done. They ended up working through Thanksgiving weekend.
They could fix the intonation, and they did some of that when absolutely necessary. But we agreed that they would not make this totally perfect, so that it would maintain the charm of TACO.
Karen: You did a really nice job making it charming, with your introductions to each piece.
Cathy: I was already exhausted from pulling that all-nighter and then Leo reminded me I needed to do the intros. I had let my hair go grey during the pandemic, so I was feeling old and tired, and my challenge was how to be upbeat and cheerful and find the right tone. But my husband created a clapboard for each take, and we got it done!
Karen: I really enjoyed participating in this! I’ve been playing viola almost exclusively for the past year or so, and I was happy for the opportunity to get my violin out and play it too during some of the numbers.
Cathy: You weren’t the only one who did multiple parts. One of the other violinists played first violin, second violin, and even third violin when there was a part for it. He couldn’t have done that in person. The virtual format opens up new opportunities. People feel like they are doing something purposeful and fun even though they do miss playing together.
Karen: What is some other feedback you’ve gotten on the project?
Cathy: I’ve received tons of great feedback. People have been saying it’s very singable. It’s just a fun sing-along for anybody. One of our bassoon players moved to Oregon and she was still able to participate from there. She has family in England, and she sent the video to them also. The 30-minute sing-along got over 1000 views on YouTube in 2 weeks. It was a wonderful collaboration with the high school too: not just an academic exercise, but something with real-world applications. For an amateur group performance, I’m very proud of it.
Karen: What is on deck for TACO in 2021?
Cathy: We may do something else virtual in the spring, we’ll see, when we get through the holidays. But as soon as we can, we will go back to monthly in-person meetings. We are all hoping we’ll be able to get back to making music together in 2021!
It is the last Friday of June, which means that it is time for the We Are the World Blogfest or #WATWB. This is the first #WATWB that I have participated in for almost a year and I am glad to see the blog hop is still going strong. Now more than ever we need stories of love and connection.
Professional musicians are one of the groups hardest hit by the pandemic. This article was written back in March, but 3 months later, not much has changed: Classical Musicians Say Coronavirus Cancellations are Financially Catastrophic. With live concerts still being cancelled for safety reasons, musicians have lost most of their paying gigs. Teaching is still happening, and a bright spot is the rising of online music ensembles.
The L O V E Project 2020 stands for “Liquid Open Viral Ensemble.” It is the world’s largest online symphony orchestra. I found out about it on Facebook about a month ago. Their goal is to have 1000 musicians playing Mozart’s Magic Flute Overture. As their website says,
[O]nce there was a quarantined violist from COVID-19! . . . The violist begins to wonder how music could go on in these conditions; and in these conditions he thinks of an idea to let the music start again while the whole world is waiting.
I especially love that it started with a quarantined violist. We violists do tend to think outside the box! It sounds a little like a viola joke gone right for a change. My own community orchestra has also been doing some of these types of videos, (as I blogged about in April) so I already knew how to make a video of myself playing the viola part while watching the conductor and listening to a track on earbuds.
It’s really hard to get such a video perfect, though, especially for a piece that is over 7 minutes long. After practicing several days, I did 4 or 5 takes, and they all ended up with different mistakes. I finally submitted one with 2 mistakes. The mistakes are in places where the viola part is in the background, either scrubbing away with repeated 16th notes to add some drive, or drowned out by the winds. It’ll add authenticity–live performances are rarely perfect anyway. And with 999 other musicians (139 other violists), I’m sure I’m not the only one.
When I submitted my music video I was also asked to make this invitation video. It felt a little cringey to record it at first, but I found I really enjoyed watching everyone else’s, which you can find on this YouTube Channel, so it was worth getting over that self-conscious feeling.
They have started putting the videos they have together, but they haven’t received all 1000 yet. There are already musicians from around the world: Italy, the UK, Germany, Belgium, Monaco, Serbia, Russia, Ukraine, China, Malaysia, Japan, Brazil, Venezuela, Canada, and all over the USA including here in Silicon Valley. They still need string players, especially violin IIs. So there is still time to send in your video!
There is something amazing about all of these musicians, young and old, amateur and professional, coming together to play this masterwork of Mozart’s.
“Music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life bringing peace, abolishing strife.” ― Kahlil Gibran
“We Are the World Blogfest,” posted around the last Friday of each month, seeks to promote positive news. There are many oases of love and light out there, stories that show compassion and the resilience of the human spirit. Sharing these stories increases our awareness of hope in our increasingly dark world.
It’s been a long time since I have blogged. This past year I have been teaching grades 6 and 7 Biology at a private STEM-oriented school in Silicon Valley. It’s my first year teaching full-time and often it feels like I have 2 jobs, not one, and hardly any time for orchestra, let alone blogging. I had started to feel like I was barely keeping my head above water, technique-wise, and I wondered, am I going to have to quit playing altogether again, at least for a while, to make this job work?
But now, my school, like all the others in Santa Clara county California, has been closed for almost 4 weeks, and we teachers and our students are slowly adjusting to distance learning, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom, Zoom Zoom.
I am privileged to still have a job and roof over my head. And I have a box of masks left over from the CA wildfires last year–not sure whether I can call that lucky, but I do have them. Introvert that I am, I may not be minding the current situation as much socially as some folks are. I need quite a bit of alone time, and I remember many long days of childhood spent at home with only books, dolls, and imaginary friends. In some ways, I’ve been doing this before it was cool. Or necessary. I even have a husband who shops and cooks, so I don’t have to!
But one aspect of this quarantine that has bothered me and made me disappointed and sad even more than I expected was the complete loss of my musical outlets and opportunities. First it was my remaining chamber group: no, we can’t go to the organizer’s house this week. He and his partner are in the high-risk age group. Then it was the South Bay Philharmonic concert that got cancelled. In honor of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, we had planned to play Beethoven’s 4th, one of two Beethoven symphonies (#4 and 8) that I need for my bucket list. We had been through all the rehearsals but the dress, and then the news came: no gatherings of more than 250 people allowed.
Things moved quickly after that: I went home from school for a short March break and haven’t been back since. My son’s high school closed too; my Googler husband is working from home.
And here we are.
For some reason when I finally did pick up the viola to play again, I felt the need to go back to my viola roots, to the basics. When I first started playing the viola, switching from violin around 14 years ago, that meant Bach suites. I played the Courante from #1, which had been my favorite back then, and the Allemande. Then I found suite #2, with its D-minor prelude. It seemed darker and more serious than suite #1. That was when I really started feeling like I had gone over to the “dark side,” the viola, and there was no turning back.
Instead of putting my viola back in its case after that, I put it on a hanger in my spare bedroom/office. I started taking “Bach breaks” from online teaching or lesson planning. I would just run through something, work on a little bit here or there . . . and then something else occurred to me. My daughter stayed in Oregon, where she attends Willamette University, because she lives off-campus and dorm closures didn’t affect her. Her room, sitting empty, has a balcony, which is why she claimed that room when we moved here in 2015.
Later I set up my phone and livestreamed it on Facebook. I think I had a larger audience on Facebook than I did live on my small, quiet street, but that may have been for the best. If a real crowd had gathered I might not have had the courage to continue.
That balcony session led to some surprising and delightful responses. One was the reaction of my new friends and colleagues at school. I decided to go out on a limb and share it with my fellow teachers and my students in our online platform. They were very sweet–“that sounded awesome!” said one. The video got shared in our school newsletter too. And then there were the oranges. One of my neighbors left some oranges on our front porch from a tree in their yard, with a nice Thank You card for the “beautiful music while working in the garden.” I eat one orange every morning for breakfast, and I still don’t know who it is!
I’ve also had a Skype lesson with my viola teacher. We worked on Bach–the prelude from the 3rd suite now–and also on Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, which I think might be my next project. The lesson worked quite well and I think I’d like to continue this type of lesson with my teacher even when the quarantine is lifted. Not having to drive to Palo Alto and back saves me almost an hour, and might enable me to fit more lessons back into my regular schedule, even when school starts again.
And, I’ve played some fiddle tunes in what I’ll call “Zoom church.” It is the UU Fellowship of Sunnyvale’s answer to having to close down live services. Instead, we have Sunday services on Zoom, with everyone calling in from home. At this point I’m still not a pro with Zoom by any means (just ask my students) but any squeamishness I may have felt about being recorded on video is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.
But, what about orchestra? I still miss it terribly. When I moved to CA, orchestra was both my greatest loss for what I left behind in MA, and my best source of new friends and experiences in CA. But I’m no longer just finding my way in these orchestras. I’ve been here a long time. It surprises me and brings me up a little short that now, here, I’m at the point of grieving another musical loss rather than exploring something new and exciting.
I’ve seen many wonderful videos of orchestras playing together at a distance, some of them on violinist.com. George Yefchak, our conductor at the SBP, had the idea to do a video like this as well, using the Scherzo from Beethoven’s 4th that we were going to play in the concert. He had the vision and did a heroic collecting and editing job to make that vision a reality. I’m there in the third row on the left, wearing an alto clef T-shirt. Fellow violinist.commer Gene Huang, the SBP concertmaster, is up in the top left corner too.
It’s not the whole symphony, and my sympathies go out to Roger, our horn soloist, whose concerto had to be postponed. But I’m still going to count it for my bucket list. Only Symphony #8 to go!
I know this quarantine has been a disaster for many professional musicians who live from gig to gig. I appreciate every one of them who has been sharing their talents with the rest of us to inspire hope and help us get through this difficult time. This is also a time when some of those distinctions start to fall away–professional, amateur, rich, poor, famous, ordinary, even young and old–the virus, and the need for human contact and hope, don’t know these distinctions. We may be here a long time, and we can all share with each other, and need each other. The woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those who sang the best.
It’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 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.
The 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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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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
Symphony No. 4
Symphony No. 5
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Last 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:
And insured for thousands of dollars:
Still gave each movement a title: Longing, Sorrow, Humor, 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.”
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!
When I was in high school I had fantasies of being a concertmaster. My senior year I thought it might be a real possibility, and I was disappointed when, after the audition, I ended up “only” first stand inside, turning the pages. I was used to being a shy, quiet nerdy type who didn’t take up a lot of space. But, I had fantasies that the violin could take me out of all that.
Many years and another instrument later, a lot water has flowed under that bridge. I have been a concertmaster in a volunteer community orchestra, and it is a service position. Sometimes I felt overwhelmed by administrative demands, thinking, “they pay me as much as they pay everyone else: ZERO.” But overall, I loved it. I came to think of the orchestra as a second family. I thought and worried about them outside of rehearsal. And I cried when I moved away.
Having taken up the viola as my primary instrument here in California, my concertmaster days are behind me, at least for now. But last spring after my Telemann concerto performance, my stand partner for the Nova Vista Symphony asked me if I would be principal viola in that group for this concert because he had a conflict with his other orchestra. I looked at my calendar, saw that the weekend was free, and said, “sure, I’d be honored.” I think principal viola is the best seat in the orchestral house: surrounded by cellos, violins, woodwinds, right in front of the conductor, in medias res. The fantasy was back.
And starting with the Bloch Concerto Grosso No. 1, the job seemed seemed manageable. I’d played the second violin part to the 4th movement Fugue of this piece in high school, and I recognized it. And there were a few nice, short solos for the principal viola. I dove right in to practicing those, took them to my teacher, figured out fingerings.
Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire
It took less than one tutti rehearsal before I was in over my head. Enamored of the Bloch, I had given short shrift in practice to the other two much more challenging pieces on the program: Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. I felt like Mickey Mouse in the Fantasia version, helpless as everything got out of control and descended into chaos. At one point as the notes went by, my stand partner and I looked at each other and laughed nervously: “Where are we?” “I have no idea. You?” “Nope.” Goodbye to the fantasies of fun and glory, and hello to section leader as service position.
This concert was already going to break the difficulty record previously held by Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel, which this group played a year and a half ago. Then I got two emails about injuries to fellow violists, including my former stand partner. The Mickey Mouse feeling intensified. I listened to the Symphonic Dances and thought, it may be in 3, but who would waltz to that?
The 100-day practice challenge Facebook group that supported me through preparing for Telemann last spring was subjected to more than their share of my venting. I would watch other people post their practice videos of a nice fiddle tune, or a movement of the Bach Double, or a cello suite, or some cool ukulele riffs, and I’d be jealous. They sounded so nice, and here I was slogging my way through the impossible, alternating between trying to keep up with the metronome and with YouTube recordings set to 0.75 speed. (I’m only including a still picture here, no video, because, like Vegas, what happens in the group, stays in the group!)
My part-time teaching job became less part-time this year too, with two new schools and two new co-instructors. One night I came home from work and felt so brain-dead I doubt I would have taken the viola out of its case, had it not been for the Facebook group. I recorded some brain-dead Dukas, posted it, and went to bed.
Dear Mickey Mouse, I thought to myself. You brought this on by your tendency to bite off more than you can chew. What can you do about it?
Well, one choice would be cutting back. And I did that, sort of. I cut back on online debates and chores that I don’t enjoy. Another choice would be to do what I do for music that I love. I didn’t love the Symphonic Dances (yet), but what if I acted as if I did? What if this were Beethoven?
I started listening to it all the time, especially in the car while I was driving. I looked at the score while I listened (not while driving). I looked up Rachmaninoff’s wikipedia page. He had a fascinating life: escaped the Russian Revolution and ended up in Hollywood. This led me to think about his stories. The woodwind melody in the first movement is sublime. Later there’s some trippy drug music. If I listen closely, I hear the ongoing struggle. Rachmaninoff suffered from depression from time to time, and this was the last piece he ever wrote, a retrospective on his life and career.
I told my teacher that my practicing of this piece reminded me of the movie “50 First Dates.” This movie stars Drew Barrymore as a woman with amnesia who must relearn her life and relationships every morning when she wakes up. I felt the same: every time I picked up “Rocky,” as I had come to affectionately refer to it, it was like I was seeing it for the first time all over again. “Well, how many pieces of his have you played before?” my teacher asked. “You don’t speak Rachmaninoff yet!” That helped me be patient. The most foreign part of it was in the right hand, not the left. The music was not square; it didn’t always land on a down bow for the strong beats. I learned to write in unexpected bowings so I wouldn’t second-guess myself when I landed on an accented up-bow. I kept at the metronome and the play alongs, as well as marking and isolating difficult passages. I counted down in the Facebook group to the last day.
Concert day came and I stayed home from church in order to focus and review some spots in all 3 pieces. It felt like cramming for an exam, something I’ve done successfully many times, but which I now think results in more anxiety than is ideal. My husband made lunch. I put on my good-luck Telemann dress.
West Valley College Theater
Assembling for the Concert
The air smelled of soot at the concert hall due to a wildfire in the East Bay. I said hi to my stand partners in crime in the viola section and we watched the pre-concert talk together. After all this, I felt pretty good about how the Bloch and Dukas went. My solos went off without a hitch. I never got lost. Even my performance in Rocky I was willing to give at least a B-minus. I missed notes here and there, but not in the exposed or important parts.
I had a small viola solo near the end of the Dukas. It is not technically difficult, but it is important, and it is just me, the only moving part. I am the Sorcerer returned, to set things back in balance after the apprentice’s chaos. And I had a bow of my own, after the bassoons.
It occurred to me that I’d been so focused on my own anxieties that I hadn’t given enough attention to all the great work going on around me: the cellos just a foot to my left, providing grounding, rhythm, and drive; the concertmaster, who played many solos beautifully and with whom I played a duet in octaves in the Bloch; the conductor who remained cool, composed, and accurate in spite of the too-bright lights making him and everyone else sweat; the viola section, who rose to the occasion with humor and grace, playing an exposed chorale section beautifully; the bassoons who brought the apprentice’s magic to life; the orchestra’s new President who is devoting considerable time and effort to the group; and the neighbors and friends and family who came, expected and un-, to be in the audience. I tried to take a minute to tell them all that they sounded great, to thank them.
I had the best time at the reception afterwards talking with everyone. It turns out I wasn’t the only one who was anxious about the ambitious program, and the feelings of relief and celebration were palpable. To paraphrase JFK, we did this concert not because it was easy, but because it was hard. And it served to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. It brought us a little closer to the moon and stars.
Thursday Doors was on vacation too, but it’s back now, with a fascinating post about artist Maud Lewis, and the 1-room cottage that she lived in and turned into a studio. As promised, my Thursday Doors are going to be about my recent trip to Germany and the British Isles.
The Berliner Dom, or Berlin Cathedral, had not been on my radar screen as a particularly joyful, beautiful, or even dramatic place. Lacking the romance of Notre Dame, the pagentry of Westminster Abbey, or the artistic genius of the Sistine Chapel, the Berliner Dom was just another fancy old building, dingy and always under construction. This photo, taken through a tour bus window, sums it up. Rows of leafless trees and a crane under a blackened dome complete the somber picture.
And I have to say, our recent visit didn’t completely dispel the aura of dark severity that surrounds this place for me. The sky was still cloudy and construction remains a fact of life in contemporary Berlin. But the Dom itself has become more open and welcoming.
The doors downstairs are quite diverse, some with glass:
Some with marble:
And the interior above the doors, which I never saw on my 1983 tour of East Berlin, is strikingly ornate and beautiful.
There are some rather boring wooden doors too, probably to offices:
And side-chapel doors, adorned with gold and light:
I thought it all got a bit more adventurous when we went upstairs to the dome itself. Here is where you could get lost looking for a way out.
Or where you might find a hunchback lurking around the corner.
Or some bees. Yes, this is really a thing! “Berlin is buzzing!” to call attention to the importance of pollinators.
There is also something very neat about being up near the roof statues that look so ethereal from below. It’s like being backstage before the show and seeing all the makeup being put on.
For example, this angel clearly needs a smaller viola. If she keeps playing like that she’s going to get tendonitis in her left arm, or worse!
I approached a security guard on the roof to take our picture. When I asked him in German, he lost his severe, dour look, and happily did us the favor.
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 and then sharing it, between Thursday morning and Saturday noon (North American Eastern Time), on the linky list at Norm 2.0’s blog.