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 . . .
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
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.
I started a new full-time job last week. I’ve been too busy with it to blog about it in detail–too busy to blog at all, in fact. But I wanted to get started again with this week’s Thursday Doors.
Behind the school where I work, there is an astroturf “lawn” and a basketball court. There are also some picnic tables for the students to eat lunch. And a door.
Students painted this mural, with names of famous cultural figures, next to the back door last year. I like how they included two genders and several nationalities. I spend a lot of time looking at this mural when I’m supervising student lunch.
I have showed a school, with murals, in Thursday Doors before. That school was a more typical California public school, with a lot of separate buildings.
My new school is different. It is located in a former office building in San Jose. Architecturally it is unusual for a school too, with a lot of windows but not much in the way of athletic facilities. These students are more interested in science than sports anyway.
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.
In spite of the days getting shorter, it’s still warm and sunny out. It just doesn’t feel like time for a concert yet. But it is.
This was my first concert in California, with the Nova Vista Symphony. The West Valley College Theater is not Symphony Hall, but it is a nice theater, with good acoustics and an air of excitement. It’s also not the church I’ve been used to playing in for the past 8 years. Gathering in the theater were the orchestra members, veterans, an honor guard, a chorus, and service dogs from Canine Companions, who are in training to help wounded vets.
I’ve been very impressed with how well thought-out this season is, the orchestra’s 50th. The whole season has a theme (Season of Heroes), and each concert itself has a sub-theme. This concert’s was a tribute to those who have served in the armed forces. Our conductor, Anthony Quartuccio, gave a pre-concert talk about the music, and then Mr. Tuttle introduced the service dogs from Canine Companions, the co-sponsor for the concert.
Everyone knows two of the pieces on the program, Rossini’s William Tell Overture and Beethoven’s Eroica, and I’ve written about my experiences with those pieces before, so I’d like to say a little bit here about the other major piece we played, “Symphony for the Sons of Nam” by James Kimo Williams. Williams is a Vietnam Veteran, and a graduate of the Berklee College of Music. He wrote the piece about his own experiences in Vietnam. It is intended to have 4 chapters, but only 2 have been completed.
The two chapters are written in a wide variety of styles: ominous, elegiac, martial, triumphant. It begins with a snare drum and a rousing fanfare-like melody in the brass. One section, depicting the jungle, is marked to be played “ominously” and it doesn’t disappoint. The sheet music itself looks plenty ominous already. A steady drumbeat of 16th notes starts low in the cellos and spreads to the violins and woodwinds, the pattern rising in pitch until it hits a high A and slides back down in a siren-like portamento. A beautiful violin solo memorializes fallen soldiers.
You can listen to it here (not us playing), accompanying Williams’ own photos from his time in Vietnam:
In the past several years I have been pleasantly surprised by how listenable and relevant the contemporary orchestral music is that our conductors choose. It’s probably past time to get over my lingering hesitations against it. I was glad to have been introduced to this piece at this concert. I thought it worked especially well to have the juxtaposition of a contemporary work on the same program with something so well known and loved as the Eroica. I’m guessing there were some in the audience who enjoyed the Williams even more than the Beethoven.
My feelings playing the Beethoven were complicated. It’s one of my favorite symphonies, possibly the favorite, although its melodies are not necessarily as beautiful as those of the 9th, or the 6th, or the 7th. It’s a cliche, but I still marvel at how I can leave everything behind, fly 3000 miles, and walk into a room full of strangers whom I’ve never seen before, and in a few short weeks, still do something as complex as play the Eroica with them. Are we all–the Greater Buffalo Youth orchestra, the Belmont Music Festival orchestra, the Nova Vista Symphony–and all the orchestras back to the private orchestra of Prince Lobkowitz, at the castle Eisenberg where the Eroica first premiered — still all somehow playing together through the ages, linked by this universal language of music?
The problem is, when you start thinking about things like that in the middle of the concert, you can lose your place in the music. (Or at least I can). The need for concentration really never lets up. I am curious what other people, including professionals, think about when they’re playing. Just the nuts and bolts of putting the music together? Or is it more?
My family came to the concert too, and afterwards, while we were enjoying the nice reception with Halloween cookies, peppermint bark, coffee, and other goodies, and more visiting with the puppies, we noticed this tree. So climbable, but not while wearing long black.
The second time I performed this symphony, I was an adult blogger on violinist.com. It was a whirlwind-quick festival over Christmas vacation, with a young, creative—heroic—conductor as the inspiration. I dusted off the old memories and was surprised and pleased at how well it all came back.
The third time I performed this symphony . . . well, I haven’t gotten there yet. We have 3 more rehearsals, which, if you think about it, isn’t that many. Yet, I still feel like I’m the muddy middle of things. I’m doing okay with respect to getting basic rhythm, intonation, and dynamics, and with re-awakening the muscle memory, but I’m still . . . struggling.
Back in my old orchestra, I was the concertmaster. I didn’t always mention that; in fact I usually just talked about “the orchestra I play in . . . “ unless it was a situation where I thought it would help me, or the orchestra, such as when I was dealing with publicity or finding a concert venue for orchestra-associated chamber groups. Then, I was the concertmaster, I was in charge, I was the one to deal with. I had the support of the conductor. I practiced my music, I tried my best to standardize the bowings, I served on the Board of Directors. I stood in front of the group and asked for the tuning A to start the concert. None of this stopped me from feeling like an impostor sometimes. Since I had never been to music school, since I had quit the violin twice, and since it was a non-audition volunteer group, I hadn’t earned the position the way most people do. I believe I did earn it over time, as a steady, conscientious presence who believed in and came to love the orchestra like a family. But I didn’t wear the mantle lightly, and sometimes I felt a little guilty enjoying it. After all those teenage years spent kicking around the back of county, state, and youth orchestras, and of turning the concertmaster’s pages in high school, a dream that I hadn’t even realized I’d been nurturing, came true in middle age.
And now it’s over.
During my time as concertmaster, I thought I was appropriately deferential to the conductor, and appropriately considerate of suggestions from the rest of the section (and other sections). I was small-c-conservative and mostly stuck to the printed bowings and took passages “as it comes” unless I had a good reason to do otherwise. Once I figured out a bowing I stuck with it and played it the same way from rehearsal to rehearsal, again, unless I had a good reason to do otherwise, and then the change was announced. My leadership style, if I could be said to have one at all, was not in-your-face, not heroic. I didn’t have strong musical opinions because I really didn’t think I had the right to have them.
Well, apparently, I was wrong about that and probably other things too. There’s nothing like the back of a first violin section to bring out the opinionatedness in all of us. For example, I have to admit, sheepishly, that I do not follow someone else’s bowings very well. For 7 years I’ve been used to doing what I want and expecting everyone else to follow me. And when I look up, I expect to see the conductor’s smiling face, not someone else’s bow going the opposite direction from mine. I find myself grumbling silently—up bow? There? WTF, are you kidding me? Oh, yeah, ok, that’s fine. Oops. I’ve been making liberal use of my pencil—and its eraser—in rehearsal.
In Eroica, though, my opinionatedness seems to focus on something different: interpretation. I remember now that I did have a policy as concertmaster that was not universally loved. I always told my section to play chords divisi, the notes divided up between two players on a stand, unless it was explicitly marked “non-div” or unless the conductor said otherwise. This started as a carryover from high school and youth orchestra days, but I still agree with it in principle. I think that symphonic chords, at least when played by a non-professional orchestra, sound better when played divisi: cleaner, better in tune, more together, and less crunchy, because players each only have 1-2 notes to worry about, but all notes are heard in the audience. Playing chords divisi also works to prevent a phenomenon that I personally dislike (and here is my opinionatedness again rearing its ugly head): violinist showoffy-ness. But in the current performance, not only are we supposed to play all the chords non-divisi, but he’s having us do a lot of down-bow retakes, another technique that I prefer to use sparingly.
I want to stop grumbling, even silently. I’m new here and I know it’s not my place to grumble. But I still don’t like the heaviness that these techniques bring to the piece. The concertmaster says it’s what Beethoven would have wanted, a reason I fully respect, if true. But is it true? How can we know?
This last project, in particular, drives the point home that everyone has an opinion, they’re all different, and maybe that’s actually part of the fun. So this is mine. Yes, the Eroica ushered in a new symphonic era. It was unique, and revolutionary. It threw off shackles, and Prometheus became unbound. But it didn’t completely lose touch with its classical roots, either. Underneath the unexpected chord changes and rich orchestrations, there is still a framework that connects it with Mozart, Haydn, and those who came before. There is still room for lightness, even delicacy, in the Eroica. There are always going to be the myths, and there is always going to be someone who comes along and points out that it is really more complicated. Than that.