Category Archives: Violin

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.

Well, for my first ~9 years, that wasn’t quite true. And maybe more to the point, my subconscious was telling me something: I wasn’t ready to give up being a violinist yet. I learned some solo pieces on the viola, and even a concerto movement. But when I first tried to play the viola in an orchestra, I lasted for one rehearsal before I went scurrying back to the violin section. And chamber music? Nope. I played violin there too.

Another couple of years and a move to California later, though, things have changed. And I think that finally, I have come into my own as a violist. I have many people to thank for this: private teachers past and present, conductors who believed in me, and friends who were willing to let me play the viola in their chamber groups. But in order not to embarrass anyone, I will distill it down to two musicians who are both well known and both dead: Richard Strauss and Franz Schubert.

Version 2Last December I joined the Nova Vista Symphony for their Holiday Magic concert, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I had been missing holiday music as an essential part of the season. And after the concert as we were standing around at the reception eating peppermint bark, the Music Director asked me, “are you going to play the next concert? We’re going to play Till.”

“What’s Till?” I asked.

“Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. It’s a tone poem by Richard Strauss.”

“Oh cool!” I said, naievely. I mean, I like Strauss. Beautiful Blue Danube Strauss and Also Sprach Zarathustra Strauss. But who or what is Till Eulenspeigel?

dpag_2011_till_eulenspiegel
Picture: http://paulthomasonwriter.com/

Till Eulenspiegel is a prankster character from German folklore. He has been around in different guises since the Middle Ages, always upsetting the apple cart in one picaresque way or another. According to our conductor, this piece is the first to set laughter to music. There is a 7-note phrase that begins sounding like “ha-ha-ha” and this phrase is repeated throughout the work in different contexts by every section of the orchestra. Read these excellent program notes by Paul Thomason to learn more.

But like the eponymous stories, this piece is not just a fluffy musical joke. It has a dark side, and in the case of me and my viola, the dark side was the fiendish technical difficulty of the piece. Wandering in and out of treble clef, with unconventional harmonies, accidentals, and rhythm and tempo changes galore, this was the most difficult thing I had ever played on the viola. The horn solo at the beginning is much more famous, and famously challenging, than anything in the viola part. Every section had its share, and we were struggling. It wasn’t clear to me, especially at the beginning of the rehearsal cycle, just who was being pranked here. The orchestra? Or maybe the audience who was going to have to listen to us play this?

TillEulenspiegelViolaPartFingered
This wouldn’t actually be so hard if I had an E-string . . .

Community orchestras have a long rehearsal cycle for a reason, and I’ve been in enough of them now to know that usually, towards the end of that cycle, a minor miracle can occur, and things start to fall into place. That happened. I figured out how to finger the most difficult section. The conductor chose a good tempo and I stopped worrying about it going too fast. I watched this recording with the synchronized score multiple times to figure out where my part fit in with the rest of the notes I was hearing.

At the same time I was also playing Schubert with another orchestra and doing some chamber music reading on weekends with friends. And here I was sitting principal viola. Freaking out was not an option.

In fact, the controlled chaos and jarring harmonizations of “Till” were given a stark counterpoint in the second movement of Schubert’s cello quintet, which I performed a week later. I had performed the first movement in the fall with the South Bay Philharmonic’s chamber group, and for the next concert we moved on to the next movement. Both elegiac and peaceful, this movement has been called “a hymn which floats above the mortal sphere.” With no conductor to complain to (or about), it was solely the responsibility of the five of us for how it came out. And with a successful performance of the first movement under our belts, we approached this movement with more confidence and less rehearsal time. Gene Huang, the first violinist, also played the Mendelssohn violin concerto on the same program, a feat that I’m still a little in awe of.

I’m writing this blog a couple of months after the fact, with a different Schubert chamber piece in my head and under my fingers, anticipating another concert this evening. And as I write, I’m listening to our recording of the quintet. While I would not trade my violin experiences for anything, I couldn’t be happier that I learned to play the viola, because it gave me the opportunity to play this music.

Read more about my musical adventures on my violinist.com blog.

Holocaust Education: The Missing Piece

On the last Friday of the month, I am participating in the We Are the World Blogfest (#WATWB), in which we share a hopeful or peaceful story about humanity.

This month, I’m sharing this story, Holocaust Education: The Missing Piece, about the work of my new friend and sometime music partner, Dr. Margareta (Maya) Ackerman. I met her in the context of music at church. She sings, I play the violin, and we have performed together in services a couple of times. We’re getting together later today, in fact, to prepare for this Sunday’s service, called Faith and Hope after the Holocaust. We will be performing two Emily Dickinson poems set to music. Continue reading Holocaust Education: The Missing Piece

It’s All about Presence: A Conversation with Val Vigoda

I published this interview with rock violinist and singer/songwriter Val Vigoda 1 year ago. This past weekend her show, “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me,” opened Off-Broadway at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit ernestshackletonlovesme.com. In the interview, Val talks in detail about how the show was conceived and created. Read it on violinist.com, below.

A Thousand Finds

Valerie_Brendan_0136Val Vigoda is an electric violinist, singer/songwriter, and founder of the musical trio GrooveLily. She has toured the world with Cyndi Lauper, Joe Jackson and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Val has also co-written, with Brendan Milburn, songs for Disney’s Tinker Bell movies as well as the score for the stage musicals Striking 12, Sleeping Beauty Wakes, Toy Story: The Musical, and many others, including Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, starring Val as Kat, a contemporary composer and single mom who meets and falls in love with the time-traveling explorer.

Val and I went to Princeton University together. We traveled in different circles then: I played the violin for two years in the University Orchestra, she was exploring the potential of the instrument when combined with singing in a rock band. After graduation I followed Val’s career over the years, reconnecting through her kickstarter campaign for her one-woman show, “Just…

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Book Review: Violinist.com Interviews: Volume 1 by Laurie Niles

Violinist.com Interviews: Volume 1Violinist.com Interviews: Volume 1 by Laurie Niles

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book would make a wonderful gift for your violin teacher or orchestra stand partner. It’s like a box of fine chocolates: varied, rich, each one delicious in its own way. The author is a thoughtful interviewer who seems to be able to relate well to the famous violinists she talks to and to get them to open up to her about a myriad of topics. Her subjects are all violinists at the top of their game, and the author deserves kudos for choosing a diverse group of interviewees in terms of musical interests, age, gender, and background. Each interview is reasonably short, too, so it’s easy to dip in and out.

Continue reading Book Review: Violinist.com Interviews: Volume 1 by Laurie Niles

Mundane Monday: Avoid the page turn

I am going to be playing the violin in church with a soprano and a pianist next month. The piece is Bach/Gounod Ave Maria. The music may be sublime, but in the score, there are extra parts I don’t need, and the page turns are in really bad places. Continue reading Mundane Monday: Avoid the page turn

It’s All about Presence: A Conversation with Val Vigoda

Valerie_Brendan_0136

Val Vigoda is an electric violinist, singer/songwriter, and founder of the musical trio GrooveLily. She has toured the world with Cyndi Lauper, Joe Jackson and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Val has also co-written, with Brendan Milburn, songs for Disney’s Tinker Bell movies as well as the score for the stage musicals Striking 12, Sleeping Beauty Wakes, Toy Story: The Musical, and many others, including Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, starring Val as Kat, a contemporary composer and single mom who meets and falls in love with the time-traveling explorer.

Val and I went to Princeton University together. We traveled in different circles then: I played the violin for two years in the University Orchestra, she was exploring the potential of the instrument when combined with singing in a rock band. After graduation I followed Val’s career over the years, reconnecting through her kickstarter campaign for her one-woman show, “Just Getting Good.”

–>Continue Reading on violinist.com

 

O Fortuna

O Fortuna
velut luna
statu variabilis,
semper crescis
aut decrescis;
vita detestabilis
nunc obdurat
et tunc curat
ludo mentis aciem,
egestatem,
potestatem
dissolvit ut glaciem.

O Fortune,
like the moon
you are changeable,
ever waxing
and waning;
hateful life
first oppresses
and then soothes
as fancy takes it;
poverty
and power
it melts them like ice.

(Lyrics: wikipedia)

I knew intellectually when I moved to the SF Bay Area that replacing my beloved community orchestra would be impossible, but like my partner in hair, Goldilocks, I’ve been searching for a music situation that’s “just right.” Continue reading O Fortuna

Have Mozart Will Travel

My new string quartet has been looking for something to perform in a recital on May 15, for our violist’s teacher. We’ve only played together twice, at least twice with me on violin 1. The others know each other better and have been to music camp together and had coaching and everything. I’m holding my own, though. I can finally say that I too have chamber music experience.

Continue reading Have Mozart Will Travel