Violinist.com members may keep personal journals on the website. Violinist.com's editor selects the best entries for the column below. Links to all other recent blog posts may be found in the column on the right.
By Ben Chan
April 18, 2015 18:03
My student who has been working on the Wieniawski D minor concerto 1st movement is getting ready to perform it at a solo festival called "NYSSMA" in a few weeks.
One of the hardest parts for him right now is the last page octave runs with string crossings. So I created a YouTube video to help him practice and addressed it to everyone hoping to help someone else out there!
I'll be the first to admit that my octaves aren't perfect, but I do think the techniques I discuss in this video are applicable to everyone regardless of where you're at skill-wise.
- Tilt the bow as little as possible when moving between the two strings.
- Move closer to the lower middle part of the bow to access more natural bow weight/gravity to produce a nice sound without having to work too hard
- Use your 3rd finger up against your 4th finger to help push it up. Keep your 1st and 4th finger forming an octave (hand frame).
- Practice RELAXED. If you practice relaxed all of the time, when performance time comes you can continue to relax and things should continue to work! It has done wonders for my own playing - good-bye to the vast majority of my stage fright!
-- Ben ChanTweet
By The Weekend Vote
April 17, 2015 09:57
We human beings tend to be inspired by other human beings that we hold in high regard -- as long as we don't go down the wrong road and get jealous!
Inspiration is something we need -- it keeps us in that practice room, holds us to a higher standard, makes us strive. Sometimes that's a superstar whose playing is an example of near-impossibly high standards -- Heifetz, Joshua Bell, Hilary Hahn come to mind. It can also be someone closer and more personal in our lives: a teacher, a fellow student or a colleague.
When I was a child, my first "role model" was probably the late Eugene Fodor, who at the time was quite a superstar, having more or less won the Tchaikovsky Competition. I could not stop listening to his recordings, and I was mesmerized by his playing in real life. He was a native of Denver, where I grew up. I wanted to play the way he could play!
But I've not always been inspired by superstars. When I was in college, I felt more inspired by my fellow students, and not simply because they played well. I remember one student, not even a violin student but a piano student, who had the most amazing practice ethic. Every day, several times, without fail. Such discipline! This was a person who knew how to say, "No, I have to practice." I wanted to be that kind of practicer. To have this role model, this steady example of someone with such iron discipline, was a great motivation to me at the time.
I've also been inspired by teachers. When I was at Indiana University, even though my teacher was not Josef Gingold, I felt inspired by both his wisdom (which I saw at master classes) and his example as a generous human being who had a successful life in music. Sometimes teachers seem to know so much and have such a rich connection with the world of classical music (or other kinds of music) -- this can also fuel our fire.
Out in the "real world" I have been inspired by colleagues, particularly the ones who continue to try new things. One colleague self-produced a beautiful recording -- over one weekend! Wow! Others have found such interesting ways to live their lives in music -- touring with pops groups, starting a chamber series, etc.
Sometimes I can be inspired simply by someone who has kept up their chops -- the professor Stanley Ritchie, for example, plays all the Bach Sonatas and Partitas better than most humans ever will, and he's in his 80s! I'm also inspired when I go to international competitions and see young people who have worked so hard and who have brought their standards to such a high level at a young age.
If you examine your sources of inspiration these days, who is the greatest role model for you at the moment? Please submit your vote and also tell us about who inspires you, and why!
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By Laurie Niles
April 14, 2015 17:15
In an effort to promote the coverage of live violin performance, Violinist.com each week presents links to reviews of notable concerts and recitals around the world.
Joshua Bell performed the Tchaikovsky with the San Francisco Symphony.
Photo by Phil Knott
Leonidas Kavakos performed Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Sarah Chang performed the Bruch with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
Janine Jansen performed the Tchaikovsky with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.
Please support music in your community by attending a concert or recital whenever you can!
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By Karen Allendoerfer
April 14, 2015 09:29
I was never in a talent show as a child. I’d heard about them, and even attended a handful, but overall I had a rather negative impression of talent shows. What I believed was that either the performances weren’t very good (if you were in the audience), or the experience was anxiety-provoking (if you were one of the performers). Why would anyone want to do that?
Then, as an adult, I joined the church I attend now in Watertown Massachusetts. Every year there is a talent show. It takes place around the time of the Annual Meeting, at the end of the fiscal year, in the sanctuary. What we call the sanctuary now was the social hall when the church complex was first built, but the churchier-looking building was torn down in the 1970s, leaving only the current smaller building. It’s a nice stage, warm and pleasant, and the acoustics are good. We sometimes rent out the space for professional concerts. Looking back, it’s remarkable how much of my adult musical life has played out on that stage.
As I am wont to do with a lot of meetings and almost anything having to do with budgets, I skipped the meeting and the talent show too several times running, even as I became a more involved church member.
And then I started playing the violin and viola again after a long break from playing anything. The music director at the time was supportive and accompanied me on some simple pieces during worship services. I remember in particular playing “Fantasia on Greensleeves” as my first public violin performance in many years. But it wasn’t until later when I was investigating new pieces on the viola that I finally felt inspired to try the talent show. I played a solo viola piece that I’d transcribed from the original cello version, a Ciacona by Colombi. Reading my blog about the performance from back then is a little painful—rushing, bad intonation, blown shifts. At least the video seems to have (mercifully) disappeared. And the next year, following a tradition of performing obscure viola music that no one had heard of before, I played the first movement of a viola concerto by Karl Stamitz’ younger brother, Anton.
In those early years of playing, I felt like I really didn’t have anything to lose. The pieces were short, so, even if they were painful, it would be over soon. I got far luckier than I deserved in the piano accompanist department. And I pretty much announced to everyone who would listen, “I didn’t play for a long time so I’m new at this and what’s more, I’m playing the viola now, which I’m a total beginner on!” Contrary to popular belief, I find that low expectations can be a good thing.
But now, more years into my violin/viola journey, that introduction doesn’t hold much power anymore. I’m feeling an urge to experiment, to try something more challenging, to make a musical statement above and beyond the worthy but limited notion that yes, even adult students following their dreams in midlife have something to say.
Last year for the talent show I played a fiddle piece, Ashokan Farewell by Jay Ungar. This performance was a reprise of the same piece that I had done before for a summer lay-led worship service, and my friend Nick was assigned to be the pianist for that service. So, in the pianist department, I again got far luckier than I deserved. During the service, we played the piece as a Farewell, in honor of friends who are no longer with us.
So over this past year, Nick and I have been messing around a bit with different possibilities. We’ve tried Ave Maria (played at Christmas), Schindler’s List (still looking for the right mood), and now Negro Spiritual Melody by Dvorak as arranged by Kreisler. That and The Pyramid Song by Radiohead. That should be an interesting combination.
I’ve totally changed my mind about talent shows. Whether I attend the meeting or not, the talent show has become something to look forward to every year.
Author's note: I've enjoyed blogging at violinist.com on violin, viola, and other music-related topics, and I will continue to do so. For non-violin content (geocaching . . . neuroscience . . . parenting . . . science fiction . . . life in general!), please visit my blog at klallendoerfer.wordpress.com.
By Laurie Niles
April 13, 2015 05:00
Is it possible to have beautiful tone and play out of tune?
Not on the violin, viola, cello or bass. And the physical proof lies not just in our ears, but in the science of acoustics.
Though string players tend not to have formal education on the subject, the science of acoustics lies at the heart of what we do and how we do it.
"When you are playing the violin, viola, cello or bass, you're playing a complex standing wave," Burton said. "We have the ability to be very discriminant, when it comes to intonation."
Playing with good tone involves producing sound waves that resonate with the instrument and its strings -- it involves precision of pitch and just the right amount of force and motion with the bow.
What exactly happens, when a string player bows a string? In terms of physics: when the string is still, it is in equilibrium. The force of friction from the bow disrupts that equilibrium and makes the string move. Watching a down-bow in super-slow-motion: the bow moves the string a tiny bit to the right, then the "restoring forces" of the string make it break free of the bow and snap back to the left. These happens over and over, as the bow moves across the string, constantly grabbing and releasing it along the way.
The string resists the force of the bow; it wants to be in equilibrium. If you were to simply pluck a string once, it would vibrate but then return to equilibrium. The bow, by contrast, sets up a continuously oscillating system, whereby the string is "plucked" hundreds of tiny times and kept in vibration by applying that friction continuously from the bow.
The length of the string determines the pitch at which it vibrates. When we put down a finger to make a note, this in effect shortens the string to change the pitch.
The vibration from one string can set into motion other vibrations, and this is called "resonance." It happens on our instruments when, say, you play the note "G" -- third finger on the D string. When played perfectly in tune, the vibration of that "G" will also set the "G" string vibrating. In fact, it could also set anything in the room that is tuned to a G -- a string inside a piano, a string on the mandolin on the wall -- vibrating. If you hit a tuning fork, and another tuning fork set to the same pitch is sitting across the room, it will likely vibrate in sympathy, or "resonate."
"Anything tuned to that pitch should vibrate," Barton said.
But consider this: the "complex standing wave" that is a string produces many frequencies, not just that "G." The "G" is called the "fundamental frequency," and that's primarily what we hear. But because of all those vibrations, many other notes are present, and these are called "overtones," or the "harmonic series." The overtones are not quite as audible, but they can be magnified if they resonate well with another string or with the wood of the instrument (or even that pitchfork across the room).
Each note has its own set of overtones, and the overtones for any note follow a pattern, based on physics. The overtones of a vibrating string are 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, etc., of the string's "fundamental" wavelength. For us musicians, those fractions represent notes that are certain intervals above that "fundamental" note. They always follow a pattern (look at this chart from bottom to top):
So in this case, the G would be called the "fundamental" wavelength, and the overtones are portions of that wavelength and would produce the additional frequencies at higher octaves: G, D, G, B, D, F, G and it goes on.
What's remarkable, and what I did not know, is that you can see this phenomenon! With our instruments right under our chins and with the vibrations so high and small, we don't have as much opportunity to watch, but on a cello, the demonstration is a real revelation. So for the cello, let's talk about the note "C." Here is the "harmonic series," or the overtones, that are produced by the note "C", this time written as music:
"When I play a 'C,' those harmonics are present in the sound," Burton said. We mostly hear the fundamental (the C), but we also hear a lot of other vibrations: The "C" that is an octave above, the "G" a fifth above that, the next "C" a perfect fourth up, an "E" a third above that, and this continues for some 16 fractions of wavelengths and beyond. Those overtones can be magnified if they resonate with another string.
Barton showed that when he bows the "C" string on the cello, the overtones cause the "G" string to resonate, because G is an overtone (the "third partial") of C. Looking up close, one can see the "C" string vibrate, and also, one sees that the "G" vibrates. Interestingly, it vibrates in a way that looks a lot like the third example up on the wave chart: at two points of amplitude. Since I was sitting at the front of the class, I got to go up close and look at the string, vibrating in those two places. Physics in motion, check it out!
So not only can you make another string vibrate sympathetically with a specific note, but any of that note's overtones can also set a string vibrating.
This science demonstration has some implications for what we call "good tone" on our stringed instruments. Basically, "we're trying to create resonance on our instruments," Burton said. The best players make their instruments resonate as much as possible. And science shows us that our instruments resonate when we create pitch in a way that gets the overtones to ring.
"Resonance happens in two directions," Burton said. "If I play a fundamental, the notes that are predisposed to vibrate at that frequency will vibrate." On a cello, playing the note "D" on the C-string will cause both the D and A strings to vibrate, because those notes are overtones (the second and third partials) of that D.
It also happens in reverse: if you play a note that is an overtone, you can make the fundamental resonate. For example on the violin, a well-played "D" on the A-string might cause the G-string to resonate because that "D" is an overtone of "G."
Of course, this does not happen with every note on the instrument.
"All notes are good on cello, but some notes are gooder than others!" Burton joked. Not every pitch will have a harmonic series that relates to the instrument's strings.
Burton pointed out some really cool stuff on the cello, like: If you play a high G, then the G string will vibrate in four equal lengths, something you can feel better than you can see. Also, the vibrations on the G string have two points of amplitude, when you play the "G" that is one octave higher. You can also finger a note to make the string vibrate in sympathy with another note on another string.
Though these phenomenon are integral to the violin as well, they aren't as easy to demonstrate because "the shorter the string, the greater the tension, and the harder it is to see," Burton said.
Suffice it to say this: "intonation and tone are synonymous," Burton said. When you play a note that is even slightly out-of-tune, "it's dead, it has no ring," he said. An out-of-tune pitch will not set any of those resonances in motion. If one plays pitches, with no awareness or feeling for resonance, it's very hard to find the voice of the instrument. "The more I can drill the sound of this cello, associated with the resonance of these notes, the more I can teach pitch."
By The Weekend Vote
April 9, 2015 23:33
It's recital season, and I'm finding that for some of my students, that means just one more of many performances. For others who have fewer performing opportunities, it's more of a big deal.
Let's face it, music is a "performing art," and playing for people is part of what we are training to do, when we learn to play an instrument. But it's not always the most comfortable part of the equation.
One thing is for sure: performing improves with practice, just as scales improve with practice, accuracy improves with practice, etc. The more you say "yes" to opportunities to perform in public, the better you'll get at it. And I daresay, it usually gets a bit easier.
"Performing in public" can take many forms: playing in orchestra concerts, playing in a recital, playing a chamber music concert, playing for church, playing in a show, playing in a band, and even busking is a form of performing in public.
Professional musicians often perform in public several times a week, all year long. On the other hand, a beginning student who has not yet joined an orchestra or found another outlet for performing may only play a few times a year. Teachers, also, may not perform as often because they spend so many hours teaching.
How often do you perform in public? What are your most frequent performing opportunities? Do you find it easy or difficult to perform in public?
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By Laurie Niles
April 8, 2015 20:17
Congratulations to violinist Frank Huang, who was named concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic on Wednesday, replacing Glenn Dicterow, who retired last year after 34 years with the orchestra.
Huang, 36, has been concertmaster of the Houston Symphony since 2010 and said he plans to come back to Houston for part of next season, as his schedule as allows. Huang also is on the faculty of Shepherd School of Music at Rice University and the University of Houston.
A native of Beijing, Huang moved to Houston at age 7 and shortly after began violin lessons with his mother. Huang studied with Donald Weilerstein at the Cleveland Institute, where he earned his Bachelor of Music, and with Robert Mann at The Juilliard School. He won first prize in the 2003 Naumberg and the 2000 Hannover competitions.
Huang's audition involved played guest concertmaster in three New York Phil programs earlier this season.
It's apparently a very busy week for Huang, whose marriage to violinist Sarah Ludwig is planned for this Friday, said the New York Times. The Times also reported that Ludwig plans to keep her position as a violinist with the Houston Grand Opera.
* * *
Enjoy this 2002 recording of Frank Huang playing Franz Waxman, Carmen Fantasie:
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The Week in Reviews, Op. 77: Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Christian Tetzlaff, Lisa Batiashvili in concertBy Laurie Niles
April 7, 2015 21:37
In an effort to promote the coverage of live violin performance, Violinist.com each week presents links to reviews of notable concerts and recitals around the world.
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg performed the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.
Christian Tetzlaff performed the Beethoven with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Lisa Batiashvili performed works by Schubert and Beethoven in recital with pianist Paul Lewis.
Please support music in your community by attending a concert or recital whenever you can!Tweet
By Laurie Niles
April 7, 2015 13:29
What a year it's been for Hilary Hahn -- in February she won a Grammy for her recording of commissioned encores, In 27 Pieces, and in March she announced on Facebook that she and her husband are expecting their first baby mid-summer. Now she has released a recording of two classic violin concertos, Mozart's Concerto No. 5 in A major and Vieuxtemps' Concerto No. 4 in D minor, with The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and conductor Paavo Järvi.
It's a recording that represents another important year in her life: when she was 10 years old, in 1990.
"The year in which I learned both these pieces was really pivotal for me," Hilary said, speaking over the phone from Baltimore last week. During that year, she left her childhood teacher, Klara Berkovich, to study at the Curtis Institute with Jascha Brodsky. "This is where I began that path to being a professional violinist."
Photo by Michael Patrick O'Leary, Deutsche Grammophone
She learned the Romantic, virtuosic Vieuxtemps concerto with Berkovich, and she remembers it as an exciting milestone.
Here was a piece that was well-known, that professional violinists recorded and played in concert. "It's such a classic violin work and it's so gorgeous. It's written so well for the violin, and it's a pleasure to play. The orchestra part is really colorful, too, so when you're playing it live with orchestra, it's just so vivid," Hilary said. "As I learned the piece, I grew very familiar with Heifetz' recording of the Vieuxtemps, which is phenomenal. I felt so excited to be playing a piece that Heifetz recorded. It occurred to me: Wow, this repertoire is the big league!"
Hilary had begun working with Berkovich when she was five, after meeting her at a summer music camp. Berkovich had recently emigrated from Russia, where she had taught for 25 years at the Special School for the Musically Gifted in St. Petersburg. For the next five years, Hilary took two lessons a week from her, for a total of about 500 hours.
"I remember, at that age, little things -- like how she would consider everything she said, before she said it," Hilary said. "She was not rash about anything; she knew exactly what she wanted to communicate. She would pause and put her fingers on her temples to think, and close her eyes. Then she would come out with a sentence that was concise and exactly what she wanted to communicate. Those sentences would stick."
Berkovich had a philosophy: that you never stop learning. Even when playing something already familiar, "you try to look at each piece that you're playing as if you've never seen it before," Hilary said. "She also taught me how to analyze music, how to understand the musical structure, how to break it down into big sections that made musical sense and then smaller sections within those big sections that would be phrases."
Berkovich also taught Hilary to think beyond music. "She encouraged me to think of each piece as a story instead of just the music," she said. "I remember thinking, what kind of story do I put to this? It was a good challenge because it made me go across genres to think about music. She also encouraged me to go to museums, to look at the art work. She had a collection of art cards from the Hermitage Museum, and she would show them to me. At the time, I didn't entirely understand the connection, but she planted in my head that there was a connection. Now when I go to art museums, I see exactly what she was planting in my mind. Other art has parallels, and sometimes you can't really say what they are, but you just kind of take them in, you have an artistic sensibility."
Hilary with Klara Berkovich
Berkovich was an affectionate, grandmotherly figure, "but also tough, demanding," Hilary said. She also was sparing in her praise. "She would say, 'Here's what you need to work on for next week,' and as a kid, I responded to that well. I didn't respond to, 'That's great! But bring it back next week," because I thought, 'Why should I do it again, if it's great already?' But knowing exactly what I had to work on, having two lessons a week, and having these goals along the way, really helped me to improve a lot."
Also, Hilary really wanted to hear Berkovich say, "Good."
"If she said something was 'good,' then it was cause for celebration. I would keep trying for 'good.' When she said something was 'good,' I felt like I'd arrived," Hilary said. "If I could move on to another piece, I felt absolutely great, because I knew that she wouldn't do it dishonestly. If she thought I was ready for a new piece, then I was ready for a new piece. My dad would take me out after the lesson and get a soda or fries to celebrate."
Hilary's relationship with Berkovich is still important to her. "I still see her from time to time because she lives in Baltimore," Hilary said. "When I go home to visit my parents, I might stop by her house and say hi and have tea. So I still see her and her husband, and the studio is the same as when I studied there, down in the basement. She's very much still a presence in my life, and I think that's not something that everyone can say of their early teachers, just due to many different circumstances." In fact, the two of them even appeared recently on NPR together.
So why did Hilary switch teachers at age 10?
"I think I could have continued to study with her and still learn a ton more, but she felt it was important for me to have the experience of developing further with someone else," Hilary said. "I was sad to not study with her, but it was a very wise thing for a teacher to do, to realize the point at which a student would benefit from something else. And she never closed her door to me; she was always very happy to see me. If I wanted to play for her, I would just check with Mr. Brodsky, and he never had anything against it. She was always very deferential to him and didn't step on his toes. I never felt like I lost her as a teacher or as a role model."
To Hilary, getting into Curtis seemed like a long shot.
"Sylvia Rosenberg, who was teaching at the Peabody Conservatory at the time and whose master classes I was attending, said, well there's a wonderful teacher in Philadelphia named Jascha Brodsky, and I think he would be perfect for Hilary. He teaches at Curtis, so she should take their audition," Hilary said. "Mrs. Berkovich prepared me for that audition, and I'd just played my first full recital, shortly before it. So a lot happened really quickly: I found out I was accepted by Curtis and Mr. Brodsky chose to teach me -- it was a surprise. It wasn't something anyone around me or I myself expected."
"When I started at Curtis, it was eye-opening," she said. Suddenly, the idea of a career in music was no longer an abstract dream -- "at that point I was around a lot of people who, instead of imagining being on a career path to classical music, were actually on a career path. A lot of those kids were about to graduate and take jobs in classical music. At that time I didn't know if I'd be a soloist, a chamber musician or an orchestra player, but I could see that there were these options and that this could be very possible, if I just kept going with it."
The first concerto Hilary studied with Brodsky was Mozart's Concerto No. 5. "It probably wasn't the first piece by Mozart that I played, because I started with Suzuki and there are some Mozart adaptations in the Suzuki repertoire, but it was definitely the first larger work by Mozart for violin that I learned," Hilary said.
Hilary Hahn with Jascha Brodsky
The way violinists approach Mozart has evolved over the past 20 years, and Hilary's approach has evolved as well.
"Mr. Brodsky was born in 1907, and I learned a way of playing that was very classic in his generation and I think was a good basis for me," Hilary said. "Since then, I've changed my approach to tempi and also to the general flow of the music. But I think having that basis definitely shaped where I wound up with it."
"Playing Mozart involves such a delicate balance, and when you first start playing Mozart, you feel like you have to be delicate with it," Hilary said. "But in fact, it has its own refinement built in. I find that I have to be more energetic and courageous when I play it, as opposed to deferential. If I shy away from it, it just doesn't bring out this rebellious energy that I find so compelling in his writing, especially in that concerto."
"I do remember starting to learn that piece and being faced with these somewhat conflicting tendencies when playing Mozart, that I'd never anticipated when listening to it. It was really exciting, but it was also much more complex than I'd expected," Hilary said. "I remember trying to find that balance in, for example, the opening Adagio. I remember thinking, what do I do with this part, and how do I get into the next one, are they relative tempi, or are they separate? Just the classic things that you continue to think about."
In this recording, she felt she was able to find the ideal balance, in collaboration with Paavo Järvi and The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen.
"People play (Mozart) so stylistically different from each other; if you have a soloist playing it one way and an orchestra and conductor inclined another way, or if the orchestra and conductor are inclined a different direction from each other, it can be very hard to find your place in the interpretation as a soloist," Hilary said. "It's not a matter of just waltzing in and saying, 'Here's how we're going to play Mozart!' Everyone has to be able to believe it when they're playing it. I like playing Mozart with people from different backgrounds in the repertoire because I learn about different ways of playing it. But it's also great to play it with people who are similarly inclined, so we can dive into that particular style. That's what I had with Bremen and with Paavo."
And where is Hilary, on that continuum between historic and modern styles of violin playing?
"I like to play Mozart in a gutsier way. I have a very direct approach to tone production in Mozart, and I find that with my playing I have the most clarity when I'm direct, in this repertoire," Hilary said. "The music speaks for itself, regardless of what you do, but I think you can make it really flat, if you're not careful. It's very important to keep the dimension in it and the forward drive."
She also chose to perform the popular cadenzas by Joseph Joachim for this recording.
"There are so many great (cadenzas) out there," she said. "I sometimes write my own, but never for this concerto because (the Joachim cadenzas are) just such a part of that piece for me. In the history of violin playing, they're important. It's not that we all have to play them, but they're historic, and it's interesting to see how Joachim, who was such a close friend of Brahms, interpreted Mozart's music. It's a bridge between Mozart's time and our time; it shows how far back Mozart goes and how many people have played Mozart over the centuries."
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By Emily Hogstad
April 6, 2015 20:01
The last time I heard the Eroica symphony was in July 2012: the Minnesota Orchestra playing in Winona for the Minnesota Beethoven Festival. My mom wanted to bring me. Her daughter had no money. She had no money. But together we had some money, and so we went.
In those days, Erin Keefe was the new concertmaster. In fact, in the first half of the Eroica concert, she made her concerto debut with the Minnesota Orchestra in the Beethoven violin concerto. A man named Osmo Vänskä was conducting. That performance marked the beginning of a very promising musical relationship.
The Orchestra’s Eroica that day was thrilling. Every pitch was hit, every jarring accent pounded. But looking back, there was not much joy to it. There was fire, conviction, energy, passion – but not much joy. It was an Eroica that intimidated in its hard-edged perfection, like a diamond you’d admire breathlessly but be afraid to wear. And I have a recording off MPR of that July weekend’s concerts, so I’m not reconstructing this entirely by memory.
I remember talking briefly to one musician after the show and somehow intuitively understanding that he was very, very distracted. In fact, there was a distant look in all the players’ eyes that scared me. I remember fretting. I felt I had seen something very important without understanding why it was very important, and I drove home with Mom feeling blown away and very, very uneasy.
Turns out negotiations for the musicians’ new contract had begun that spring. They were going badly. To the best of my knowledge, that performance – in a middle school auditorium in Winona, Minnesota – was the last time that Osmo Vänskä conducted the Minnesota Orchestra before the sixteen month lockout broke everything apart.
My mother was never a violinist. (Although she played viola briefly in middle school. Her orchestra teacher had a prosthetic bow hand. She enjoyed telling this story. Especially to violists.) But she supported my musical studies without question, even when she probably should have questioned. Over the years those studies became ever more intense, ever more consuming, emotionally, physically, and financially. But as I grew, and as her identity was subsumed ever further into mine, and as mine was subsumed ever further into orchestral music, she became just as fascinated by the violin as I was.
There was a point not too long ago when she picked up the violin and played a really very lovely scale for me, despite never having played before. She had watched so many concerts and sat in on so many lessons that she had absorbed it by osmosis. She knew more about the violin than any non-violinist I’ve ever met.
We discovered the repertoire together, starting with the big flashy romantic warhorses and scouting our way out. She became obsessed with Ravel’s Sad Birds. She loved Judd Greenstein’s Acadia even more than I did. She listened to a particular Brahms intermezzo over and over again. We would lie down together and listen to the Fauré Requiem.
At one point in our exploration, we came across Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. Every summer we would take drives on the Mississippi River while listening to it. The soaring music became the backdrop to the eagles’ high and silent flight out the windshield.
Eventually she started musing: “Wouldn’t this be amazing to have played at a memorial service? Just this and nothing else?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Will you do that for me?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said.
I was content in the knowledge that this theoretical unconventional memorial service would happen around 2050, so I didn’t feel I needed to take the request particularly seriously. I just said sure, and our conversation would invariably drift into other channels, to other pieces and other performances.
If you read any of what I wrote during the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, and found any of what I wrote to be useful, please know that I would not have written anything without her support and encouragement. Whenever I would express my doubts to her that the lockout nightmare would end, she was invariably the one to convince me it would. She refused to believe that our Minnesota Orchestra would end in the way that, in December 2013, it looked like it was going to. At the time, her faith seemed naive, but she was vindicated in the end.
When the Minnesota Orchestra's season of resurrection was announced, we could not get over the idea of Erin Keefe and Osmo and the Orchestra doing The Lark Ascending...on Easter weekend. In a season of jaw-dropping concerts, we both agreed that this one performance would be the pinnacle, the single one we just had to go to. So on Black Friday we bought our Christmas presents for one another: tickets in the front row for that Saturday night.
Mom was injured at the time. She had shoveled a few weeks before and had strained something in her back. Except the pain was a little different from what she’d had before; it was in her stomach a bit, too. It was hard to tell what interior muscles were what. But obviously the shoveling injury would be healed by Easter. We talked about how this concert was something to look forward to. The thought of it pulled her through some truly exhausting pain.
In late January, after she was diagnosed with a rare cancer of unknown origin that was ravaging her abdomen, my mother was referred to the fabulous oncologist Dr. Keith Bible in Rochester. His devotion to his work and to healing is holy in its intensity. We got a business card with five phone numbers on it, and were told to call if anything changed. If one number didn’t get through to him, we were to call the next, and then the next, and so on. It was very important that I, as her caretaker, keep in close contact with him. The responsibility of it was stomach-turning.
At a certain point after the chemotherapy started, she began to get very confused. It became increasingly difficult for her to even take her medications. It would take a couple of hours of counseling for her to get six pills down.
“Take this one,” I said, sitting on the bed next to her and pointing to her open palm where I had set the pill.
“That one,” I said, and I pointed again.
“But there’s two,” she said, and the implication of what she’d just said made me nauseous.
“Something’s wrong,” my aunt finally said, and although I was having a hard time admitting it, she was right. So while my mom was sleeping my aunt and I went into the spare bedroom. She called Dr. Bible’s office, turned the phone to speaker, and set it on the bed between us. We were put on hold while Dr. Bible was paged. I took a deep shuddering breath, and after I let it out recognized The Lark Ascending was the hold music. A chill went through my body.
“This is what Mom wanted at her memorial service,” I blurted out, and my aunt and I looked at each other, and there was an uneasy silence.
Dr. Bible said to get her into emergency right away; he thought the obvious, that she might have a tumor in her brain. It made a sickening amount of sense. There were tumors everywhere else in her body, so why not there, too? She was so weak and disoriented it took several hours to get her dressed and from the bedroom into the car. It was one of the coldest nights of the year. The air outside was physically painful.
Once she had some fluids in her, she started joking. The edge of the disorientation disappeared. She could talk again. I sat on the plastic emergency room chair and watched her interact with the hospital staff. They asked her who the president was. She didn’t know. They asked her what year it was. “2008,” she said. They ordered a CT scan.
While we were waiting for the results, I thought desperately of something to engage her.
“When we called Dr. Bible, the hold music was The Lark Ascending,” I told her, not knowing what else to offer, or if she’d even understand what The Lark Ascending was. Earlier she’d forgotten Dr. Bible, so I wasn’t hopeful.
She immediately perked up. “It was?”
“Yes,” I said, “it was.”
“I love that piece,” she said.
And in the midst of all this terror, I started laughing, because I found it darkly darkly hilarious that despite all the confusion, she still was retaining knowledge of and passion for early twentieth century English music. God, I hope that’s the last thing that goes for me, too.
“I wish I had better news,” the doctor said after she came in the room to share the results of the scan.
Radiation and steroids helped reduce the swelling, and that helped the confusion. There was actually a period of time when she was back to her old self.
Then we had to take another trip to the emergency room, and there we found out she would be dying in a few days. Complications had developed and sepsis was inevitable. Surgery was pointless. Nothing more could be done. Suddenly a group of people was congregating around her bed. I broke down screaming as she lay there, so beautiful and content and radiant. As my panic grew, her serenity blossomed. That juxtaposition was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen. The chaplain appeared, and she said in her gentle chaplain voice, “Your mother’s calm may be upsetting to you now, but in time you will be grateful, and it will be a great gift to you.” I stared at them all, completely dumbstruck.
“Come here, honey,” Mom said, and she motioned to me, and suddenly I was clambering over the bedrail and clinging to her. She pet my hair, as she’d done since I was a very little girl. “Don’t leave me,” I screamed over and over.
“I will never leave you,” she said.
“What do I do?”
“You’ll know what to do.”
“Where do I go?” She didn’t answer. A phrase came into my mind. “Do I go where I’m loved?”
“Yes. Go where you’re loved,” she agreed. And then: “We still have a few more days. Rest here.” And she patted her shoulder.
Nurses were hovering us, changing medications, asking about pain levels. They upped her morphine even more. They told us she would become sleepier and sleepier and would become more and more uncommunicative.
The minutes were ticking past perilously quickly and I didn’t know what else to say. Either there was too much to say or everything had already been said. Maybe both.
So I found myself talking about the most meaningful thing we had ever shared together, which was music. “The musicians will play Lark Ascending for you,” I blurted, blindly promising something I could in no way guarantee. “Osmo and Erin and everyone. They’ll play it for you.”
“Will they?” she asked, dreamily, and I think by that point the higher morphine dose was taking effect. She closed her eyes and drifted. “That would be wonderful.”
I don’t want to describe what exactly happened during the final days; doing so feels like describing the nitty-gritty of a birth. (Which her death was.) But it was hugely painful for everyone. She did not retain that preternatural calm for the entire few days, although thankfully she ended her life with it.
During one of the rough patches, I took out my phone and played The Lark Ascending for her. Maybe it was my imagination, but after the agitation, the corners of her lips twitched: a superhuman effort at a smile, I hope. So this was the last piece of music we shared, and maybe the last she ever heard.
After the piece finished, it was getting late. Family had arrived, congregated in a hushed vigil. I watched her sleeping. She wasn’t talking any more. “Good night,” I said, and I kissed her forehead. I realized I was consciously choosing my words. And then I stood up and put my coat and scarf on and put my phone away and left the hospital with my best friend.
In the hallway I verbalized my instinct. “I don’t know if I’m going to go back,” I said. My friend and I talked about this on the drive back to the house. I finally said, “I just feel like society would say, you aren’t a good daughter unless you stay with her until the very end.”
“F- society,” my best friend said.
And that was it; I knew I wouldn’t see my mother again. And I don’t regret that decision, and I never will. I needed to let go to let her go.
Thankfully we’d talked many times about funerals, long before she ever got sick. How neither of us wanted one. How unnecessary we think they are. How revulsive we found the idea of our bodies lying in wake, with friends and family crying over open coffins. There’s no there there.
So haha, funny story: it turns out the Minnesota Orchestra’s Easter performance of The Lark Ascending would be the closest thing to a funeral she’d ever have. I never asked, but the musicians knew enough about the sequence of events I’ve just written about, and so they dedicated their Friday night performance to her memory. I cried the night I found this out, both because I was so unspeakably moved by the gesture, and also because my first instinct was to share moving news with her, and I – couldn’t.
I went both Friday and Saturday nights. Friday I was perched in a balcony, like a bird in a tree.
This group of beloved musicians gave the greatest performance of the piece I have ever heard. I cannot describe it. It defies description. More than that, description cheapens the memory, because description will always fail. But suffice it to say, one could hear the raptness in the hall on top of the hush of the strings. And I’ve never heard anyone draw a bow the way that Erin did in the last few solo measures, as Osmo clasped his hands together and hung his head. I could see the musicians’ faces as they all put their instruments down and listened. The lark’s final notes were weak whispers that nonetheless were strong enough to project to the very corners of the hall.
Then – silence.
Such a long, long silence.
The applause began tentatively. The audience was stunned. There were gasps of air. I felt like everyone in that great cathedral of a hall touched a great mystery, and I don’t know what it was. I’ll probably chase after the mystery for the rest of my life. The pursuit sounds appealing.
After intermission, Erin was back onstage in concert black to kick some butt in the Eroica. She and her colleagues are bringing it on the road to Cuba next month for a historic concert in Havana. After being completely broken during the lockout...after dying and coming back to life...the Minnesota Orchestra is ready to take its place back on the international stage.
Also, as a side note, Erin’s fiance was on the podium. In fact, she and Osmo got married after their performances this weekend. A promising partnership indeed.
I hadn’t heard Beethoven 3 since that electric concert in Winona. Where the Winona Eroica had been intimidating in its exacting fury, the Minneapolis one had a much greater emotional range. It had a relaxed confidence to it, a swagger, a lyric quality, a playfulness, a relief, a spontaneity, a wisdom, that the earlier performance simply did not – could not – have. In it I heard an unbridled joy in resurrection and new beginnings. It was exactly what I needed to hear.
This is an edited version of an entry re-posted from my blog, Song of the Lark.Tweet
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