It wasn’t an epic fail. But it certainly wasn’t a performance to be proud of. And yet, I am.
Last Saturday I placed third in the grey-hair category of the Utah State Fiddle Contest. Third place was also, coincidently, last place. But I still won $80, enough for beer with friends that night. Sometimes it pays just to show up.
Here’s what happened: First tune was Red-Haired Boy. I kept getting lost, as in who’s-fingers-are-these-anyway?, and had to restart several phrases, negating any sense of musical flow. Second tune was Saturday Waltz. I hit several wrong notes, but did keep going without interrupting the tempo. Third tune was Pig Ankle Rag. This one felt good and had no mistakes, or at least none that I recall. It was basically in tune, with a solid beat, consistent tempo, and had flow.
Going into the performance, all three tunes were as good as Pig Ankle Rag, and I was feeling confident. But facing that audience of 30, something happened. My left-hand fingers and right-arm shoulder froze. I felt it happen, and it took me by surprise. At least I was aware and fought to get my body to relax. And it worked. By the last song I was actually playing. This is the part that I was proud of: that I eventually found a groove, despite all the distraction.
It was amazingly hard to stand up in front of a crowd of strangers and play. Knowing that the first note has to be right-on with everything flowing from that point of sound, I remain astounded that it can be done. Performing music seems an impossible task. Yet musicians do it. Time after time. Regardless of circumstances. My respect grows with every attempt I make. They do what I cannot.Tweet
Thierry Fischer, our new Music Director and Conductor of Utah Symphony, was scheduled as a key speaker at the 3rd International Philosophy Conference. His title, Noise and Noises: Being Surrounded by Noise Affects Our Perception and Creativity, sounded intriguing, so I went. Philosophy is a heady subject pretty much beyond my intellectual grasp. However, there was this moment. It came as Fischer was illustrating a point:
Let’s take the opening of Mozart’s Symphony #40, he said. These two bars, you know them, right? They sound like this: And he sang them. Yes, I did recognize them. You would, too.
But they can also sound like this: And he sang them. Or like this: And he sang them. Or like this: . . . and within a minute he ran through a dozen distinct interpretations of this phrase. I was astounded at the variation. By modifying dynamics, emphasis, tempi, and whatever other variables a conductor has at his disposal, Maestro Fischer imagined a sweep of unique, musical phrases. Then, he explained, his job was to choose which had the meaning he wanted to convey and why, and figure out how to wrangle his motley crew (my words, not his!) of 87 into saying just that.
Light bulbs started blinking upstairs. Oh my gosh – THIS is what a conductor does. Mozart’s symphony is over 800 measures long, and that is excluding repeats. All of that has to be brought to life in someone’s imagination. Color and voice sorted out. Shape and direction applied. Meanings deliberated. Choices made. Then the act of physically and verbally conveying this substance to a second party (the orchestra) who will play it out to a third (the audience), has to be constructed. And there is limited time. And the stakes are high. And money is short. And the musicians will be musicians, on a good day or bad. This is work, and somebody has to do it.
So the next time you attend a symphony concert and the players are stellar and just grooving together and you think “Do they really need that guy up there flapping his arms?,” Think Again.
Ear magnet: That sound that draws you in. Captures your breath. Makes you move. Embraces your soul. I heard this at Utah Symphony. It was a solo instrument: ethereal and substantial; I could not tell which: wind or sail? I heard it several times, in several concerts, searching the 90-member stage for its source. Finally: Viola, Brant.
Principal Viola for Utah Symphony, Brant Bayless plays the viola solos wandering through the orchestral repertoire, and if you go on the right night, you’ll hear him play. There is something about his sound. Others hear it, too. Like his instrument, Brant is big, but not too big, and genial in his luminescence, and I wanted to know from whence his sound radiated. So I invited him over to offer some clues. “Bring me your best bow arm exercises,” I asked him, “The ones you relied on to develop your sound. Can you draw it out of me?” I plied him with homemade chili & cornbread.
Brant came over Friday between morning rehearsal and evening concert, after his 30-mile bike ride uphill (This is Utah, we have real mountains here.), and we spent a couple of hours working. He talked about straight bowing, the upper & lower arm triangles, and the square the arm passes through getting from one to the other. Pressure and weight. Even speed. Even distribution. As he talked, a vague irritation began to brew in me. This was not new information. I’d heard it all before, in various wordings, from pretty much every violist or violinist that I’ve worked with. It’s pretty standard stuff, apparently codified by Ivan Galamian in his 1960s book Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching. I wanted to know what made Brant’s sound Brant’s sound, and I wasn’t getting an answer. Piss me off! The best Brant could convey is that, yes, we all know and use this information, but there are so many variables: a person’s size, coordination, imagination, motivation, instrument, opportunities and on and on. Pretty much anyone can get the bio-mechanical principals advocated by Galamian and learn to play the instrument. But how can you predict who’s make-up will allow them to get good at it?
For Brant, it was Pinchas Zukerman at Manhattan School of Music who imparted essential technique and insisted that Brant take time to work on it. Yet, being the student that he was, it was only after he graduated and pointed his musical direction in life that Brant intentionally applied these tools to burnish his sound to match his imagination. More I could not learn in our interview. In many ways, Brant is a genuinely ordinary guy. He goes to work and pays his mortgage. He gets home in time to take over childcare so his wife can get to work. When he can, he fits in bike rides in the summer and skiing in the winter. But his sound! His sound speaks another sphere.
P!ty the poor violinist who loves the sound of viola, but is too small to ever play the instrument. The next best thing she can do is hang out with violists, a glorious lot.
Enter V!ola Day 2.0.
V!ola Day, a production of the Utah Viola Society (rocking the alto clef in the beehive state since 1896) and spearheaded by Fry String Quartet violist Brad Ottesen and Utah Symphony violist Julie Edwards, is a celebration of all music viola. Nothing is more delightful than spending a cool fall day in the genial warmth of this instrument and its players.
V!ola Day began with a master class with the esteemed English violist Roger Chase, followed by tea and conversation with the same. Followed by pizza lunch and a euphony hall (please wash greasy fingers before handling the v!olas), attendees were able to test-play dozens of violas. Additionally, Brant Bayless demonstrated violas by Scoggins, Moroz, and Prier, among several other noted Utah luthiers, allowing the audience to compare instruments from the hands of a maestro. University of Utah DMA candidate Leslie Richards presented her thesis on the use of scordatura in viola repertoire (sounds way different than notated, but works out beautifully). The Fry Street Quartet played old and new viola quintets (one, in premier, a wedding present for its cellist, in congratulations for marrying a violist). The final event, a recital featuring viola ensembles from university programs throughout Utah, ended with the Utah premiere of Scott Slapin’s trio “Capricious” introducing the three newest members of the Utah Symphony (mighty nine) viola section.
But wa!t. There’s more! Just in case V!ola Day was not enough (can one ever have enough viola?) Roger Chase returned the next evening to present the The Tertis Project, a celebration of 20th century English viola music.
In all, V!ola Day was a beautifully balanced program of performance, music old and new, and information. Attracting high school students through seasoned professionals, the event was still intimate, allowing for interaction among all attendees. We in Utah would enjoy having you join us next year. But in case we are too far away, a cursory Google search shows viola days celebrated in the US in Ohio, Indiana, Georgia, Minnesota, West Virginia, Tennessee, Maryland, Michigan, California, Florida, Iowa, Colorado, New York, Illinois, and New Hampshire; in the UK in London, Oxford, and Birmingham; and in Germany in Mannheim. Surely you can find a viola day near you. And if not, gather your viola friends and make one yourselves.
The music always unique, always beautiful, I’m hoping for a viola-trombone duet at V!ola Day 3.0.Tweet
Previous entries: October 2014
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Kate Little is from Salt Lake City, Utah. Biography
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