Tag Archives: Baroque bow

World Enough and Time: My Telemann Performance

It’s a bright, cool California day heralding the coming of summer, and I am free until the evening. I slept well overnight, in spite of reading bad news about someone I knew a lifetime ago. I earned my certificate for completing the 100-day practice challenge last week. Regretful emails trickle in: car trouble, a grandson’s recital, an urgent sample to be analyzed, an unexpectedly long appointment. But my red sparkly Bolero jacket arrived from Jet unexpectedly early. And it fits!

YosemiteVDC
The New World: Yosemite Valley

Once, before a different performance, I dreamed of breaking my bow, borrowing a replacement, and running endlessly over hills and valleys that opened up in between me and the concert venue as the bow morphed into an archery weapon in my hand. But all these current ups and downs . . . I just watch them from a comfortable distance. The new black dress materialized; the professional make-up job did not. The peach cobbler I baked for the reception didn’t turn out well; the persimmon cookies did.

Either way, it’s time to go.

Foothill Presbyterian Church
Foothill Presbyterian Church

“Here we go!” That’s what our fearless leader and conductor of the South Bay Philharmonic uses as the subject heading on his concert week emails. At Foothill Presbyterian Church, the concert venue, they’re just setting up, getting ready to take tickets, and my musician’s pass is buried somewhere in my gig bag. “I’m not sure where it is,” I say apologetically. “But that’s me!” I’m on the sign. I take a moment to post it on social media.

Entrance sign
Here we go!

I have a list of snippets to warm up, including shifts, string crossings, and the openings to the first and third movements. That list is today’s stick for the elephant trunk brain to hold onto. I made the list after the dress rehearsal, which wasn’t my best effort. I take my instrument out and stand on the stage where I’m planning to stand for the performance, look out, and play a few things from that list. I remember the low ceiling, pews, and decent acoustics from when I was here rehearsing with the harpsichord. Nothing has changed. It’s still mostly empty.

Portraitwithviola
In black, before the quintet

The first half of the concert will bring people on stage step-wise: a trio, followed by a quintet, followed by a septet, followed by my concerto with string orchestra. (The second half will be the full orchestra playing Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9). While this ascending sequence of prime numbers of musicians appeals to the nerd in many of us, it is also good for me personally: it gives me something warm up with, namely Dvořák’s “American” viola quintet, Op. 97, a thematic match to a concert featuring both the viola and Dvořák.

This still means a quick change for me though: play the quintet and then rush off somewhere to put on my red soloist jacket and get used to my Baroque bow again while the septet is playing. But where to rush off to? There is an AA meeting in the usual warmup room, so I cross an interior courtyard to put my stuff in a corner of the social hall and decide to eat the banana I tucked into my gig bag. The septet arrives while I’m eating the banana and starts warming up too. I can’t hear myself at all and I really need to practice the openings of the 1st and 3rd movements of Telemann. I haven’t done that yet, here.

Back out into the courtyard, the Beethoven septet fades into quiet. People are arriving now in earnest, but they’re mostly staying over in the main sanctuary. A few are hurrying towards the social hall to put away their cases. I set my electronic tuner on the bench around one of the courtyard trees and play the opening measure several times. I take my hand off the instrument, put it back on, and play a B again. I watch the tuner; the intonation is fine. I don’t know what was happening during dress rehearsal and I don’t really want to know. Whatever it was that was making me come in out of tune, the problem seems to be fixed now. I fixed it.

The wind blows and rustles my hair, the skirt of my dress, and the leaves of the tree where I am practicing. The sun is starting to go down, lengthening the shadows of the hurrying musicians. I am vaguely aware that someone, a friend, is taking pictures. I just keep playing the first movement. This is the last time I am going to be playing Telemann before the concert. It is the end of the beginning, and the light is turning to gold.

Golden Light

The quintet movement went well. At least I think so. I didn’t play it perfectly, and I didn’t play it badly. Dvořák wrote the Quintet while he was living in Spillville Iowa, immediately after the “American” Quartet, Op. 96. It is not played as often as the Quartet, and sometimes overshadowed. It almost didn’t happen at all when our 2nd violinist headed to the Middle East on a business trip, but we were able to engage a sub who learned the piece in 3 weeks and did a great job. Also, the viola 2 part was played by a cellist on an alto violin (more on alto violins another time, perhaps. But I’ll be sticking with the regular on-the-shoulder method of playing the viola for the foreseeable future!)

Back out to the social hall, put on the red jacket, visit the rest room and wash my sticky hands, take out and tighten my Baroque bow, check the tuning on my viola, and back across the courtyard again in heels. The septet is nearing the end, and I stand to one side of the stage with George, the conductor, as we prepare to go on.

PlayingTelemann

Here’s the complete video of the performance:

For an encore, I prepared a spiritual called “I’m Just a-goin’ over Jordan” from Solos for the Viola Player by Paul Doktor. It’s a relatively simple melody, repeated several times in different octaves and with different dynamics and tempos. It takes advantage of the lonely, bluesy sound the viola can make. I played it as a meditation in church a while ago. To “go over Jordan” can be like crossing the River Styx in another mythology, to a better life in the next world. Would Dvořák still recognize, in today’s America, the “New World” he wrote of in his symphony?

EncoreGoinOverJordan

***

I was asked, on Facebook, “what did it feel like to be on stage with an orchestra?” The first answer is “surprisingly unremarkable.” I wasn’t that nervous. The temperature was warm enough that my hands weren’t cold, and my bow didn’t shake. Mainly, I had a script to follow: 1. While the orchestra is playing and I’m not, look out into the audience and smile; 2. When the orchestra hits a predetermined passage, usually when it goes up in pitch and foreshadows the cadence, that means it’s time for the viola to come in soon, so I raise my instrument to my chin; 3. While I’m playing, focus my eyes on where my bow contacts the string; 4. When necessary, particularly when the orchestra comes in after the cadenzas, turn my head to look over at George and the cellos.

That was it. I followed the script, and it was almost like a tape, or a DVD, was playing in my head and through my hands. That was what it felt like to have world enough and time to prepare, to know a piece so well it that had become a part of me. Although I didn’t take risks or stray from the script in the moment, it was fun. And as I headed into the last repeat of the last section of the 4th movement, the thought came to me, “I might really get through this whole concerto without screwing up!” And I did.

WithFlowersandConductor.jpg

Playing Around With Telemann

cover-medium_large_fileI thought I had everything I needed to perform the Telemann viola concerto in May. I have a viola, I have a bow, I have the green-covered music. All the orchestra parts and a score can be downloaded from IMSLP.

But I keep finding new things to play around with.

1. A Baroque Bow. A couple of years ago, in response to the interest generated by this blog on violinist.com, I asked for and received a Baroque bow for Christmas. But after a few brief experiments, it never came out of the violin case. Was this just another one of those Christmas gifts that looks better under the tree?

It was a couple weeks into learning this concerto that it occurred to me to try the Baroque bow. In the article, Laurie Niles says that “it is much easier to play string crossings, certain gestures, double stops, voicing, etc. with a Baroque bow because of its unique shape and nimble nature.” The Telemann has all of these, and I when I did a one-after-another comparison between the modern and Baroque bow, I heard the tone improve with the Baroque. I was also able to easily perform a Baroque-shaped stroke, with the emphasis on the beginning of the note and a dying away at the end. Even though it’s technically a violin bow, I didn’t feel that I had a problem generating a robust, even sound. I didn’t even think the bow needed re-hairing.

2. Baroque tuning (A415). Ummm . . . no. Modern orchestras tune to the note A at a frequency of 440 Hz (A440), or even higher. But Baroque orchestras generally tuned a half-step lower than we do. In fact, when I was looking for recordings of the viola concerto, I found many that were performed with Baroque tuning, for example this one here:

This recording, by a group called the Juilliard415 ensemble, is a historically informed performance that uses Baroque instruments (not just bows) and pure gut strings. I enjoyed listening to this, especially the improvised ornaments added by the soloist, but I’ve made a conscious decision not to go all the way down this route. For one thing, I don’t own a Baroque viola. And, I’m not interested in giving up my chin rest.

I’ll also be playing in a moderately large church sanctuary with a larger orchestra than this one, and I’ll need to project. My modern viola with Evah Pirazzi strings can do this. Finally, the concert program also includes two Dvorak pieces, the “American” Quintet (in which I’ll be playing viola I) and the New World Symphony. These aren’t going to be in Baroque tuning. “Don’t do that to the orchestra!” pleaded the conductor. Okay, I won’t. But I did try tuning my viola down to A415 in practice and I thought it sounded mellower and the notes on the A-string didn’t stick out as much. Which leads me to:

3. Wound-gut A-string. I have new Evah Pirazzi Gold strings on my viola now, and I like them. Their core is made from a modern synthetic multifilament fibre, and they are rich and strong and project well. But the A, the highest viola string, sticks out in string crossings and is sometimes too loud or too strained or both. So I put a Passione wound gut A-string on my viola two days ago. It is not particularly mellow but it is sweeter and sounds less strained than the Evah Pirazzi Gold. I’m still letting it settle in, but I think I’m going to keep it.

4. Cadenzas, Tuttis, and Editions. The cadenzas I am performing were written by Milton Katims. They are in the International Edition. I like the way they sound and they are non-trivial in terms of difficulty. I will just note that it is really hard to find recordings of these cadenzas. Everyone has their own and everyone seems to have a different one.  This set of recordings, which seem to have been made by a viola teacher for his students, are quite good in terms of the solo part and have the Milton Katims cadenzas, but they don’t have any accompaniment, so they’re not that useful for playing along.

There is also disagreement about whether and how the soloist plays along with the orchestra in the Tutti sections. For example, the concerto is in one of the Suzuki viola books, and that edition has the first movement’s ending Tutti written out for the soloist to play too. My edition doesn’t have that; it has rests for the soloist. But my version of the 2nd movement has the soloist playing its ending Tutti along with the violins, in their octave in 5th position. Whereas the Suzuki version has it written out an octave lower for the soloist.

I decided to play all the ending Tutti sections. It’s one thing to be standing waiting to come in while the orchestra opens the piece, but in general I’d rather be playing than standing there. And as for playing fast 16th notes and string crossings in 5th position, I can do it. Go big or go home. 😉

5. It’s all in the wrist (except when it’s not). I tend to like to bow from the wrist, and I have a good flexible wrist that helps me play fast and do bariolage (both of which I love to do, especially with the Baroque bow), but too much of that can get in the way of a nice, smooth, legato tone. In fact, using my wrist too much–with virtually every bow change–can lead to crunching. So, I am playing a bit more from the elbow and arm and trying to keep the tone more smooth and even.

6. Recording myself. I’m a member of several Facebook groups that focus on playing stringed instruments. More on this later, but one thing these groups have in common is recording yourself and sharing the videos in the group. I have shared a handful of videos on my blog in the past, but those have usually been performances, not “warts and all” practices, and truth be told, even though I recognize its value, recording myself has always made me nervous and uncomfortable. I hate watching myself on video; it’s like a constant cringefest.

But with these Facebook groups the process is getting to be a little easier. They are closed groups so the videos are only shared with people who signed up for this and are in the same boat themselves. One group has a rule of no critique or advice unless explicitly requested by the original poster. They all encourage posters to be positive and supportive of each other. So I’ve been doing it: recording myself almost every day and posting it to Facebook. I am getting caught up enough in the process of recording–of setting up the tripod to hold my phone, of working out the camera angles, of just deciding what section or concept I’m going to record and post today, of writing a little blurb about the video, of uploading and making sure it’s in the right group and not on my general feed (ack!)–that I don’t have time to be nervous anymore. I have work to do, and the nerves just have to go away and let me do it.

Rehearsals start with the orchestra next week. Ready or not.