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.
This week I am going to chamber music camp with my 16-yo son, a cellist, and a pre-formed group of friends as a quartet. This “camp” is not really a camp. It’s in a church, not the woods, and it is run by my teacher and her colleagues. Nobody stays overnight. We view that as a feature rather than a bug, but not everyone would. And I am at least temporarily returned to my roots as a violinist. No viola this week!
Another thing that is different about this camp is that it mixes adults and kids. This is convenient for me because I can go with my son. My quartet-mates are all retired, so I am not the oldest person there, but I am in the top half. For the introductions, the teacher asked what school we all went to as one of the line items. Unlike the other adults, I actually had a school, since I’ll be teaching at one next year. Surprisingly there was even a student from my school in the group. She plays a wind instrument, so I didn’t work with her directly, and didn’t remember her well, but she did remember me helping out the music teacher a couple of times last year.
And I’m working on the first movement of the Florence Price string quartet in G. I played the 2nd movement earlier this year and wanted to tackle the first also. There are only 2 movements in this quartet. The first is even less often played than the second, and there are only a couple of YouTube recordings available. Our coach is learning the music along with us!
The coaching sessions went by very quickly. I wasn’t ready to be done yet, and could have gone on for at least another couple of hours! I think the recordings that are available go too fast. We won’t be able to achieve those tempos in a week, and I don’t think I’d even want to. I need time to hear the unique harmonies.
And this post is a bit of an experiment too. Can I actually write something concise and not take an inordinate amount of time doing it, when I should be practicing? Yes, yes I can . . .
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’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.
The whole group at the Cliffs of Moher
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.
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.
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.”
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.
ThursdayDoors 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 ThursdayDoors post each week and then sharing your link in the comments at Norm’s blog.
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.
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!
Karen 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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.