On Thursday 12 January and Saturday 14 January, violinist James Ehnes took the Orchestra Hall stage to play the Brahms concerto with the Minnesota Orchestra. I was at both performances, but unfortunately I can’t review either.
Well, I could, theoretically. But you’d have no reason to trust anything I say because my pro-Ehnes bias has a long history. A month after my thirteenth birthday, I heard a performance of his Tchaikovsky concerto broadcast live on public radio. I taped the concert (taped, as in taping using cassette tapes – do the kids nowadays even know what those are?), and thank God I did, because my life would have been a very different thing if I hadn’t. The first half of the concert consisted of a Shostakovich symphony that flew completely over my head. But the second half was Tchaikovsky. And it was unforgettable. It spoke to me in a way that nothing had before and nothing will again. I don’t know why; I wish I did. I’ve listened to it literally thousands of times over the last decade, and I can’t know any more if it really is as earth-shattering as I felt it to be when I was thirteen. It took on a life of its own.
I listened to that recording constantly as a teenager. I listened to it before and after school. I bought a Dover miniature score and read it during class. I listened to it before I announced to my teacher that, despite only knowing first position and a little bit of third, I wanted to be a professional violinist. (Let’s skim over how unrealistic that goal ultimately was, and just focus on the good intentions, okay?) I listened to it when I was lonely and crying and afraid. I listened to it when I was seventeen and convinced I was dying and my doctors told me nothing was wrong to me. I listened to it when I recovered. I listened to it when I injured my wrist and it seemed likely I’d never play violin again. I listened to it after my counselor suggested that maybe it would be a good idea if I gave up music. I listened to it when I was a student at the 2006 Green Lake Festival Chamber Music Workshop in Ripon, Wisconsin; I monopolized the listening room with it after everyone else had stopped practicing and gone back to the dorm for the night. I became obsessed with this recording and the violin, and I waited for the day when I would tire of them.
I’m still waiting.
At the risk of sounding over-dramatic, I honestly believe that without that recording, something awful would have happened to me. I would have continued on the drifting path of study I’d been on, only bringing out the violin every week or two, then month or two. Until finally one day it would have been a year or more since I’d played last, and I’d have opened the closet door and looked at the unused fiddle and told myself, “you know, I should sell that...”
The mere thought of this alternate universe brings on a panic attack. Because it was so close to materializing.
The classical music world is competitive and cutthroat. We’re the less crazy, less attractive versions of the characters in Black Swan. We lock ourselves into practice rooms for weeks at a time. We spend our lives preparing for careers that we almost certainly will never have. We’re constantly asking ourselves, are we good enough?, and casting paranoid glances over our shoulders and realizing we aren’t. And yet despite all the pressure and the politics, a weirdly high percentage of the artists I’ve met are incredibly kind and humble, and are people worthy of looking up to, not just musically, but personally. I don’t know why this is, but it’s true. I’ve had the amazing opportunity to meet Ehnes and chat with him a bit after various concerts over the last nine years. And despite his abilities and achievements, James Ehnes is among the kindest and humblest of them all.
So you know what? Ehnes didn’t even need to do a single thing besides walk onstage before I started misting up. On top of that, the performance was sentimental in another way, since his first appearance with a major American orchestra was actually with the Minnesota Orchestra in 1992 after winning the WAMSO competition. It was all a bit like the closing scene of a sappy Hallmark movie in which the boy-next-door protagonist, after decades of hard work, finally makes good and comes home.
I’ll try faking objectivity and try to pick out a highlight or two to describe, although this is difficult since everything he played was a highlight. For the Thursday morning performance, I was in the front row. Saturday night, I was in the first tier, third row from the back. That night I could tell it was taking a little bit longer for the sound to reach me – alas, even James Ehnes cannot defy laws of acoustical physics – but other than that, given the distance it was traveling, the sound on Saturday sounded remarkably similar to the sound on Thursday. That 1715 Strad was throwing its voice like nobody’s business. And there was such a range of dynamics, with every note, pianissimo or fortissimo, discernible from the very back of the hall. It was literally jaw-dropping. One violin is not supposed to be able to pierce through the texture of an entire symphony orchestra, especially not when playing pianissimo! But it did. Listeners who aren’t sure if it’s possible or not...rest assured, it is. It was so disorienting in such a wonderful way.
Another thing that I appreciated – especially after the puzzling Friday night Serkin performance – was the fact that Vänskä and Ehnes seemed to have relatively complementary views of the concerto. Either that, or Ehnes is capable of seamlessly blending in with an opposing approach without ever compromising his own artistic vision. Either option seems plausible.
The more restrained Thursday morning crowd didn’t applaud long enough to draw out an encore, but on Saturday night, the audience simply would not let him go. He came back onstage with Paganini 24 (“Brahms wrote nothing for solo violin,” he said from the stage, “but he did write a set of piano variations on this tune...”). He then proceeded to play Paganini 24 in a way no human being should be able to. This level of technical and musical achievement is supposed to only be attainable on disc, over the course of multiple sessions, with the help of state-of-the-art recording equipment and a crafty, cynical editor. But maybe with Ehnes it’s wise to expect the impossible. During the triple stops of the eighth variation I could have sworn there were two violinists, one suspended on the left side of the hall and the other on the right, their sounds colliding together onstage. I’ve never heard anything like it. I probably never will again.
The audience still wasn’t satiated. So he returned again with Paganini 16. (“This? Has nothing to do with Brahms,” he said by way of introduction.)
Words fail me.
You know, I’m sure Brahms third symphony afterward was fantastic, but for me, nothing was going to measure up to the electricity of seeing Brahms concerto followed by two Caprices performed by one of the great violinists of the age who singlehandedly inspired me to keep going with the violin at a time when I was dangerously close to quitting. Sorry, Minnesota Orchestra; you know I love you! I think you’ve got to start scheduling your super-duper drop-dead amazing soloists after intermission so I’m not listening to your no doubt lovely symphonic performances completely shell-shocked.
Anyway. I’m not quite sure what exactly this entry was. An Ehnes appreciation post? A glimpse into my wangsty Tchaikovsky-tinged teenhood? Me admitting I ended up having no objectivity whatsoever during Brahmspalooza? All of the above? Who knows!
There’s only one way I can think of to wrap this disjointed ramble up, and that’s by reiterating the fact that I’m so thankful not just for James Ehnes’s talent, but rather for the bigger fact that music has such a powerful ability to inspire. I’m just so d***ed grateful, for all of it. I think just about every musician hears a performance or two in their lives that stands out in their mind as life-changing. What were yours?
So Brahmspalooza ’012 ended on an unbelievable high note...literally.
As a postscript, happy birthday to James Ehnes, who turns 36 today. It hardly suffices, but thank you.
Brahmspalooza ’012 has disappeared in the rearview mirror. I’ve taken such a long detour through Violaland that, despite good intentions, I haven’t had the time to write about my brush with Brahms. But I do want to set down my thoughts about the four (count ‘em – four) concerts I attended before I forget so many details that I end up sounding like one of those critics who writes eighty percent of his review before stepping in the hall.
As it happened, Brahmspalooza was interrupted by a totally unexpected introduction to none other than Augustin Hadelich. A friend offered me a ticket to see him play the Ligeti violin concerto with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. It took approximately a tenth of a second to decide that this would be worth the cab fare from Minneapolis.
For those of you who think that Minnesotans are a bunch of laid-back Marge Gundersons, you might be surprised at the long history of fraternal dysfunction between the Twin Cities. In 1965 St. Paul decided to observe Daylight Saving Time with the rest of the nation, while Minneapolis opted to conform with Minnesota state law, leading – unbelivably – to a time when the two cities’ clocks were set an hour apart. And in an even creepier incident, in 1890 the New York Times reported that census workers were kidnapped so that there wouldn’t be a record of one city outgrowing the other. You can’t make this stuff up.
Thankfully, members of the Minnesota Orchestra (in Minneapolis) and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (you can guess where they’re based) haven’t resorted to kidnapping each other. (Although this might be an interesting plot twist to the next Gerald Elias novel...) I haven’t spent enough time in the Minnesota music scene to know if there’s any kind of rivalry, or if one is generally considered to be superior to the other. All I can say is that I’m very happy that Minneapolis-St. Paul is able to support two world-class orchestras. We suffer an embarrassment of riches.
As beautifully performed as they were, the opening and closing pieces on the program – The Marriage of Figaro overture and El Amor Brujo by de Falla – were totally and completely eclipsed by Hadelich in the Ligeti. It was my first time hearing both the violinist and the piece, and I can’t imagine a more beguiling introduction to either. Hadelich is astonishing. When he plays you hear his soul, full of heart and character and warmth. He also clearly has an insatiable intellect, and his sheer commitment to Ligeti was inspiring. I’m still on the fence about the piece itself. On one hand, I loved its virtuosity and eerie beauty. Hearing certain acoustical effects resonate live through the auditorium was an unbelievable, unforgettable experience. But I don’t know how well those effects would translate to disc; for me it was one of those pieces that only makes real sense live. I hope someday I get to see it again. I know I’ll see Hadelich again; I imagine that after that performance someone from the SPCO ambushed him at the stage door with a new contract. His tossed-off encore – the twenty-fourth caprice, obviously! – gave the impression of being completely effortless. But we violinists know the truth.
So, the inevitable question... Who’s better, the SPCO or the Minnesota Orchestra? Please don’t make me choose, especially after the SPCO breezed through the incredibly virtuosic orchestral writing of the Ligeti. They’re both worth buying tickets to. Let’s leave it at that.
Brahmspalooza ’012 resumed that evening with a performance by the Minnesota Orchestra back in Minneapolis. By supper-time I was getting awfully sore and tired (I was subsisting on a couple hours’ sleep, and I’d been sprinting around two downtowns attempting to catch cabs and escape the bite of the Arctic wind). No problem, I told myself, I’ll just pop a Tylenol. This was a huge mistake. For me Tylenol dulls not only the pain, but everything else: thoughts, impressions, emotions. When I’m doing nothing more than surfing the web and breathing, that’s fine. But when I’m trying to listen to one of the country’s, if not the world’s, greatest orchestras, I can’t afford to be cloudy. If I’m nearly falling asleep at a Minnesota Orchestra concert, that means either they’re in bad shape or I’m in bad shape. I’m going to assume that Friday night it was a case of the latter.
The program consisted of two pieces – Brahms first piano concerto starring Peter Serkin and Brahms first serenade for orchestra. Serkin made a surprise appearance before the concert started, wandering onstage and playing a few minutes before suddenly disappearing again. I’m not sure if I liked that he did this, and it’s bothering me why I’m not sure if I liked it. I don’t begrudge violinists a few moments to warm up; why should I object to a pianist doing the same thing? But it did take away a bit of the exciting pomp and circumstance of the great artist emerging with the conductor from the auditorium door, and I missed that. Maybe though the pomp and circumstance is overrated.
Sadly, Serkin’s performance fell largely flat for me. I hesitate to say the first movement was a mess, but...something very big and very integral was missing, and I can’t figure out what it was. Passion? Authenticity? An overarching conception? My sanity? Soloist and conductor struck me as often working at cross-purposes: I felt like Serkin wanted to explore the subtleties, the nooks and crannies, of every sumptuous phrase, while Vanska wanted to charge ahead and emphasize Brahms’s broad heroic lines. I can appreciate both approaches, but meshed together, they just didn’t work. On top of this, although I couldn’t tell for sure from my seat, it seemed that the visual lines of communication between the principles might have been broken by the piano. Whether because of this or other reasons, there was a general fuzziness to the first movement that set me on edge. But then came an utterly divine Adagio with hushed string whispers and a lovely pearly touch from Serkin. The sounds settled softly over the audience like a down blanket. It was a young man’s portrait of his beloved, and it was so beautiful. I spent the rest of the concerto trying to process the discrepancies between those two movements. After the applause ended, I turned to my companion and demanded, “What was that?” And then I moaned and said, “I am never drugging myself before a concert again.”
After intermission came the first serenade. Listening to it live, I decided it’s too long for its own good. It goes on and on and on. And on. And then on some more. Sometimes when I listen to it I have the temptation to snap oh shut up and just write your d***ed symphony already. But that being said, it’s still Brahms, you know? Even long-winded Brahms is Brahms. And that first movement in particular is so special. Does anyone do that sweet, elated, hesitant, joyful, buoyant, serious, lighthearted thing like Brahms? He takes these ridiculously complex, oftentimes contradictory, yet instantly recognizable emotions, and then he composes music that perfectly expresses them. It had been a very full day, and my thoughts were beginning to drift, but I felt a happiness, a contentment, of the very deepest kind as I heard the quiet ending of the first movement fade away. Any fuzziness or timidity I’d felt in the piano concerto had vanished; the Orchestra was back to being the crazy-wonderful beast it normally is.
But who knows what I would have thought or heard if I would have held off a few hours on the medication? I’m vowing here publicly never to listen under the influence again, no matter how bad the pain gets. It’s just not worth it. It makes me wonder how many performances we really like or don’t like we actually don’t know if we like or not...if that makes sense. What other non-musical influences do we bring into the concert hall with us, whether they be the side-effects of Tylenol, or a flattering review we just read about the soloist, or the bitter aftertaste of a fight with a loved one? And how do those influences affect our ability to process what we hear? The realization that the experience of live music might be even more subjective than I’ve thought...? That’s seriously unnerving.
The first and the last concerts I attended that weekend consisted of Ehnes in Brahms concerto. I’ll get to him sooner or later, but all I’ll say for now is:
Two Paganini encores.
In the thrilling first installment of Emily Visits Violaland, Emily decided to take up a second stringed instrument, gorged on viola jokes for the final time, and picked up a fourteen-inch rental that sounded surprisingly good for the size and price-point. Now comes...Part 2! Read on for the earthshattering musical secrets she discovered while taking her first lesson from a professional violist friend (known in this and other Violaland installments as PVF).
PVF began the lesson by giving an A on the piano. I drew my bow across the string and suddenly had the terrifying realization – (in dramatic cinematic slow motion) – that the string had unwound by an entire fifth while I was hauling the case through various bus and train stations, hotel lobbies, and pedestrian malls in subzero wind chills. I flushed, ashamed of this ominous start to my viola career, and started to raise my arm to turn the peg, when -
“Oh!” I said. “That’s not my A, is it?”
PVF smiled approvingly.
I took more time tuning than I usually do, worried that the cold weather had done a number on the instrument. Thankfully once I remembered, you know, where the strings were, I found that everything was mostly still in tune, but I winced nonetheless as I played the G and C together.
“What’s wrong?” PVF said.
“The C-string,” I said. I tried to explain that it didn’t feel right, but I couldn’t come up with the words. I guess my ears still aren’t used to the presence of this new pitch, and the C sounded, for lack of a better word, weird.
“Actually, most of us consider C-strings to be an advantage,” PVF said. Mmm. Touché.
Once the tuning was completed, I stood and awaited a deluge of violistic wisdom.
“So,” he said. “How long have you had the viola?”
“Um...two or three days.”
“How are you with the clef?”
“Um...I don’t know it.”
“Any of it?”
I suddenly had the fleeting thought that maybe it hadn’t been the greatest idea in the world to schedule a lesson with an extremely busy professional musician without even knowing the clef of the instrument he makes a living playing. I wondered if I was being A) really brave or B) really stupid.
But if my lack of knowledge worried him, he didn’t show it, because he proceeded to bring out an alarmingly thick clump of sheet music. “Okay. So,” he said. “Here are two things you are going to come to hate. Ševcík,” and he dropped a bundle on the stand, “and Schradieck,” and he dropped another one. They came down like bombs. Then at the back was a single sheet of paper. “Oh, and then some Bach, so you don’t want to kill yourself by the end of the hour.”
Yes, this was going to be fun.
I’m one of the few violinists in the world who has spent more time reading about Ševcík’s life and students than I have actually playing his exercises. (Fun factoid: Ševcík had his eye whacked out by an E-string that snapped in his face. When I told PVF this, he said, “Did he really? He sure took it out on the rest of us.” Truer words have never been spoken.) So the Ševcík was...I’m ashamed to admit it...new to me. I know. I’m a very bad violinist. But none of my teachers ever introduced me to him, and I never knew where to even start. Anyway, we started out with some measures from the Opus 8. I was getting lost intonation-wise, and not sure if what I was playing was the same thing that was on the music, and being my melodramatic and perfectionistic self, I began to despair and wonder if I maybe wasn’t cut out for the viola after all.
Then he said one sentence that cleared it all up. “You’re not used to the half and the whole steps.” Over the last twelve years I’ve unconsciously absorbed what marks on the clef consist of half and whole steps. On the violin, you see a note on the bottom line of the clef and then a note on the bottom space of the clef, and if you’re in C-major, you know it will be a half-step. You don’t need to consciously think “E to F, that’s a half-step, so fingers close together”; you just know. With alto clef, when you see the same thing, it’s a whole-step. So you actually have to stop and think “F to G, that’s a whole step, so fingers wider apart.” This relationship between notes is going to take just as much getting used to as the actual note names, and for some reason the thought had never occurred to me. To prove the intonation issues were mainly clef-related, we fast-forwarded to a portion where the music was written in treble, and of course things immediately became much easier. I let out a breath of relief.
I also learned that it’s important to be able to recognize larger intervals. It’s obviously much easier to identify intervals at sight than to think “okay, so if this note is on the second line from the top, I need to go down to think what string I’m on, and that’s D, so now I’m on the D-string, okay, so now I need to add my fingers in, so that would be E, so first finger down, okay, well, I think this is the right pitch...” I’m more familiar with interval-recognizing as it applies to piano-playing, but that will be changing. If I can glance at two notes and see they are a fifth apart, and I know where to put my finger on one of them, all I have to do is use that same finger a string up or down. Done, and done.
Another thing that helped immeasurably was PVF playing through each measure once before I began. That way I could have it in my head and focus more on the actual physical portion of playing the instrument rather than putting all the brain-power into deciphering the clef. I’m finding I can do better work by copying something tricky I’ve just heard than by trying to read it. I used to think this was a bad thing – that it was cheating or something – but I guess it’s not, as long as you don’t rely on copying by ear all the time.
When we moved onto the Schradieck, my prospects grew brighter. I knew the Schradieck; I’ve used those exercises for years on the violin. So I played through a few of those.
“See, look. You’re reading alto clef,” PVF said.
“Um, no. Not really. I’m remembering the violin exercises and then hearing them in my head and then playing them by ear.”
“But that’s how you learn alto clef,” he said.
At one point I said, “I’m wondering if I should just give up reading in treble for a couple weeks.”
“No,” he said firmly. “No need to do that.”
I looked at him, dubious. “Are you sure?”
“Positive. It’s just a separate place in the brain. You have treble clef, bass clef, and now alto clef.” He spoke as if this was no big deal, as if picking up a new clef is as simple as picking up a third book from the library, or a third bag of groceries at the grocery store, but the idea boggled my poor brain. However, PVF clearly knows what he’s doing, so I’ll set aside my doubt (for now) and listen to him.
Especially during the Schradieck, PVF saw some tension in the left hand. Turns out I was overcompensating with pressure because I was playing a viola. It’s big, of course, but it’s not so big I need to press down on the strings like I’m white-knuckling a safety bar on a roller-coaster.
“What would your thumb do if I tried flicking it off the neck?” PVF asked. “Would it fall right off or stay glued?”
“Um.” I actually had to think about this one – to stop and focus, because I wasn’t paying attention to my left hand. “It would be sticky,” I decided. “It would come off, but it could be looser.”
“Try a scale lightly touching the strings, like you’re playing in harmonics.”
That helped a great deal. It seems that if the viola is going to teach me anything, it’s going to be efficiency. Because with the viola, it seems as if you’re either efficient, or in pain. There’s not much of a middle ground...at least for me. I can get away with certain bad habits on the violin that I can’t get away with on the viola.
Although the Ševcík and the Schradieck didn’t engender thoughts of suicide, we finished up with Bach anyway. He’d brought along the Courante from the first cello suite. This was a bit of good luck, as it’s a piece I’ve played many times before on violin (albeit years ago), and of course I’ve heard the cello suite many times. PVF isolated the first line, and off I went.
The Courante was more of a Dirge the first couple of times through, but after a few times I found I honestly was remembering where certain notes were. There were some unnecessarily dramatic pregnant pauses as I calculated what note was where, but by the end of the session...I was reading a portion of a movement of a Bach cello suite in alto clef. Not particularly well, and not particularly quickly, but I was doing it. I thought I’d have to play something like scales or Ševcík or flashcards for weeks before I could even begin to look at something like Bach. But I was wrong; Bach turned out to be just as helpful at helping to lodge the clef into my skull as either scales or Ševcík.
There was obviously much more to the lesson, but a lot of it is stuff that’s difficult to explain in words and would be much better demonstrated in-person. But here are some random tidbits to keep in mind for any violinists who are thinking about taking up viola...
- The viola has a tendency to droop more than the violin because it’s bigger and heavier. (At least it did at my lesson.) Resist the temptation to let the scroll drop; it will affect your ability draw a straight bow.
- Actually, full straight bows in general become even more important than they are on a violin, if that’s even possible.
- Despite the instrument’s larger size, keep the left elbow tucked under; the fingers always need to be right there on top of the string ready to fall on the fingerboard.
- Breathe while you play. Exhale fully. This will help keep your right shoulder low and loose and help your tone. (Who knew exhaling would help your tone on a string instrument? I for one had never made the connection...)
- I was having difficulties getting into and finding higher positions on the viola and I couldn’t understand why. It turns out it’s because I’ve always used the old violinistic trick of knowing you’re in third position by feeling the rib of the instrument lightly on the side of your hand. But not all violas’ third positions are located there. And mine isn’t; if I feel for the ribs, I end up about half a step sharp. Hence the feeling of being completely lost.
- Don’t ever, ever tell cellists you like the Bach suites on viola. They will come and kill you in your sleep. Probably brutally and with an endpin.
I ended the session fried but inspired. “This is going to help a lot of issues that I’ve just skimmed over on the violin,” I said, cheerfully nerdy.
We then got to talking briefly a little about the differences between the two instruments. I said that although I love it, the sound of the viola has a tendency to make me melancholy.
“Embrace the sadness,” PVF said, with a glint in his eye.
So what have we learned from this installment of Emily Visits Violaland?
Lesson Number 1: Alto clef is easier than it first appears.
Lesson Number 2: Transcriptions of and familiarity with the Bach cello suites are very helpful.
Lesson Number 3: To help avoid frustration and delusions of idiocy, it’s best for violinists who want to make the switch or the addition to take a lesson or two from a well-trained violist (emphasis on “well-trained”) (did I mention the violist should be well-trained?). Obviously the instruments look deceptively similar, but there are a lot of differences to keep in mind, and only someone who has done a lot of thinking and learning about the mechanics of the viola is going to do you any good. Don’t go to any old yahoo who just plays the viola on the side.
Clearly I have plenty to work on. We’ll see if I can make a dent in some of those etudes; maybe sometime in the spring I can visit PVF again. Actually I have to, because I never did remember to ask about the secret violist handshake. Maybe I can learn that after I get alto clef firmly into my fingers.
Coming up in future installments of Emily Visits Violaland…
- Emily wonders what it will take for her to think of herself as “a real violist.” Why does it feel like she’s not a real violist even though she’s obviously playing viola? Do she have to play a fifteen-inch instrument? Does she have to learn a viola sonata or concerto? Does she need to play viola in an orchestra? Where will that dividing line be?
- Ševcík and Schradieck. Lots and lots of Ševcík and Schradieck...
- Thoughts of suicide.
- (No, just kidding.)
- But she may be murdered by her neighbors…
What do you call someone who hangs around musicians a lot?
Why don’t violists play hide and seek?
Because no one will look for them.
What’s the longest viola joke?
Harold in Italy.
Did you hear the one about the violinist who got frustrated arranging music for string orchestra because she didn’t read alto clef, who had some weaknesses in her violin playing that she thought viola playing might solve, and who had a viola-playing friend who she thought might help her navigate the subtleties of switching between instruments?
She took up viola.
No. She did.
Seriously. I’m not joking. This actually happened.
A month or two ago I arranged a piano piece by Amy Beach for my little string orchestra. The two violin parts were a piece of cake, obviously. The cello parts didn’t come quite as effortlessly, but they were still relatively easy; I did play for a year or two in my teens, and although I’m a terrible pianist, I’m fluent in bass clef.
But those violas. And that alto clef.
I know that technically it’s not possible for clefs to leer, but I swear this one did. It taunted my cluelessness. "I might as well be a cipher to you," it said. "For all these years, you’ve sat next to violists; learned chamber music featuring violas; heck, worshiped Lillian Fuchs and had the wildly unpopular heretical thought that there are times in her hands that the Bach cello suites sound just as good, if not better, on the viola...and you haven’t even bothered to glance at me, let alone take the time to learn my pitches. You have to go to Wikipedia to figure out what you’re doing when you’re writing notes on me. Wikipedia! You don’t know when you’re asking violists to make inconvenient shifts, do you? – you don’t know how to finger beginner players’ parts, do you? – in fact, you don’t know anything about violas period, do you? You like to think of yourself as a well-rounded musician, but you don’t know a thing about me. Haha. The joke’s on you now, isn’t it, Miss Violinist? Isn’t it? Isn’t it??"
I kept hearing Edith Lynwood Winn’s opinionated turn-of-the-century voice in my head: Every violinist should play the viola to some extent. This aids one to produce a robust tone, and a knowledge of it is very helpful to the ensemble class.
Every violinist should play the viola to some extent...
Every violinist should play the viola to some extent...
In one of those common real-life coincidences that editors view as contrived when they're found in novels, the guy who sits next to me in orchestra is my luthier, and he has a shop and rents out stringed instruments. In early December my portable stand broke during one of our gigs (FYI, cold Wisconsin winters + plastic stands + forgetting plastic stands in cars in cold Wisconsin winters = problem), so I emailed him asking if he could bring along a spare stand to our next gig and I’d pay him there.
Then, suddenly and on impulse, I tacked on a quick paragraph asking about viola rentals. I asked if he had any available, and if so in what sizes, because with my small frame and chronic pain problems, I’d prefer a smaller one. Weirdly, I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing. I was treating the request like a covert mission. A drug deal. Looking back, I’m not sure if I was keeping it a secret to cushion against disappointment in case it didn’t work out, or whether if deep down all the jokes over the years actually have engendered some anti-viola prejudice in me.
I needn’t have feared disappointment. Sure, he wrote back. I’ve got a 14-inch in stock; if you can handle your violin, you almost certainly can handle this viola. $20 a month.
Yes, it turns out that for pennies a day, you too can give a home to a lonely viola in desperate need of love and attention.
After I heard from him, I started a thread here about adding on viola to my musical workload and got some helpful advice (thanks guys!), the most urgent of which seemed to be, take a lesson from a violist.
As it turns out, I’m lucky enough to have an obliging professional violist friend (to be referred in this and future installments of Violaland as “PVF”). He was kind enough to agree to take some time away from his busy schedule of doing the mysterious violay things professional violists do to let me in on some trade secrets. My lesson is this weekend, so by Sunday I should be fluent in the secret violist handshake. (There is a secret handshake, right?)
Yesterday I went to pick the instrument up, half nervous, half giddy. My luthier came in the room with a Hoffman Concert from Shar – a really nice sturdy little thing whose value I would have assumed to be at least four or five times what it actually is. It’s not so bad to look at, either. I wonder if this is just a particularly nice shop and a particularly nice rental, or if cheap stringed instruments have drastically improved in quality since I began playing twelve years ago.
He left the room so I could be alone for my big viola debut. I took a breath, raised the bow, and started a scale on the C-string, making sure to relax as much of my weight into the bow that I could.
The weeks of waiting were worth it. The tone resonated through my chest, like someone humming very loudly right next to my heart. I remember the feeling of a soothing vibration from my cello days, but this was so much better because it was right beneath the ear, and the tone didn’t take nearly so much effort to draw out. The G and D strings had large, wide, wise sounds. (How can sounds be wise? But they are. I felt like I was listening to a philosopher.) And the A-string! It should basically be the same thing as my violin’s, right? But it’s not, at all; it’s a totally different creature. It’s mellow, mournful, melancholy. Shifts on the A-string just tug at the heart. It’s the stringed instrument equivalent of walking through an animal shelter and seeing dozens of sad eyes follow you around. And there’s no bright silvery quick-vibrating E-string afterward to cheer you up. The mellow, mournful, melancholy A-string is the high point of the viola. It’s the happy part. I’m melancholy by nature, so I loved it.
While I was at the shop, my luthier kindly offered a fifteen inch for me to try. Its sound was even bigger and broader, and more (for lack of a better word) viola-ish. But my intonation was dodgier, and it was harder to get a good tone out. Verdict: if I didn’t have chronic pain issues and could have weekly lessons with a well-trained teacher, I would have assumed I’d get used to it and brought the fifteen inch home. It wasn’t unmanageable by any means; it just felt inconvenient. It was heartening to know that a woman who’s ninety pounds and five feet five inches can almost handle a fifteen-inch viola. Something to keep in mind for the future.
But for today leastways it would be the fourteen-inch. I signed the papers and away I went.
I got home and compared my violin and the viola, both aesthetically and aurally. I spent the whole time playing various excerpts of solo Bach. I marveled at how the same passages could sound so entirely different on the two instruments...and how brilliantly Bach wrote for each range. I ended the session with my violin (I have to let her know she’s still my baby) with a quiet double-stop from the g-minor adagio – D on the A string and open D. I gently raised the bow from the string and let the pitch ring in the air. This was a day well-spent, I decided.
Suddenly I heard a strange sound behind me that I’d never heard before, as if there was another player in the room. I turned around just in time to see the D-string on the viola vibrating in resonance. My violin was talking to the viola...and the viola was answering. For a brief moment I got weirdly emotional (it was a long day, okay?). It was touching, and all the confirmation I needed that the two instruments can live happily in harmony.
This video includes, in order, 1) the allemande from the first Bach cello suite, transcribed for violin, excerpt, 2) the allemande from the first Bach cello suite, transcribed for viola, excerpt, 3) the adagio from first Bach sonata for solo violin, excerpt, and 4) the adagio from first Bach sonata for solo violin, transcribed for viola, excerpt. I thought it only fair to give each instrument a piece from their “native” rep. Also, I’m familiar with the whackload of mistakes in these clips, but forgive me; I always regress in front of an audience or a microphone. Plus, I used my laptop mic, which is made obvious by the mysterious crystally sounds scattered throughout. But hopefully, crap quality aside, the clips give a general idea of where I am at the moment in my viola journey.)
So what have we learned in this installment of Emily Visits Violaland?
Lesson Number 1: You don’t need an excuse to try the viola. A simple curiosity is reason enough.
Lesson Number 2: Don’t let your size hold you back from at least trying a viola.
Lesson Number 3A: The viola is amazing. The melancholy of the A-string may lead to dysthymia, but it’s amazing.
Lesson Number 3B: Refuse to listen to Edith Lynwood Winn at your peril.
Coming up in future installments of Emily Visits Violaland…
- Emily experiences how frustrating it is when people have no idea what your instrument is, and learns how to strategically deploy the phrase “um, it’s between a violin and a cello...”
Until next time...
Five extraordinary masterworks. Four beefy programs. An unforgettable third symphony. Two world-class soloists. One ecstatic music nerd.
Brahmspalooza ’012 is upon us.
Unfortunately (fortunately?), Brahmspalooza ’012 is not actually known as Brahmspalooza ’012 anywhere other than in my mind. The Minnesota Orchestra has done the dignified thing and labeled their ten-day long midwinter festival devoted to everyone’s favorite bearded misogynistic Hamburgian “Bravo Brahms.” The four programs consist of the first and third symphonies, the two serenades, the two piano concertos, and (of course) the violin concerto, along with some extra treats like the Haydn Variations and Schicksalslied.
And it looks like next weekend I’m going to get to see two of those programs in three concerts!
The summer I turned seventeen, I went to music camp. Every few nights we went to concerts by guest artists of the highest caliber, and when we didn’t go to concerts, we listened to each other perform. In a weird way, the opportunity to do a whackload of intense condensed listening impressed me even more than the chances I had to actually play. Ever since that summer, I’ve dreamed of having an experience like that again: a spurt away from the obligations of real life, soaked through with live music of the highest quality, designed to sharpen my ears and expand my intellectual horizons.
This January, after quite a long time of waiting, I’ve finally got the chance I’ve yearned after.
As soon as I found out I could go to at least a portion of Brahmspalooza, I realized I had an opportunity that I literally might never have again in my life. World-class orchestra, world-class soloists, in some of the greatest repertoire ever written, all by a single composer (and what a composer!), performed within the course of a few days. This is going to be a classical music masterclass, and I’d be a crap music lover if I didn’t take full advantage of it. So I went to the library and picked out the thickest Brahms biography I could find, which turned out to be Jan Swafford’s. I’ve always enjoyed Swafford’s Slate columns on music. A year or two ago I actually checked out his Brahms biography, but for some reason never started it. But alas, that was before the enticing prospect of Brahmspalooza ’012. Now I had both a deadline and a reason for reading, so I tore into that thing like a hungry dog gnawing a beef femur.
I was hooked from the very first page. This is the best music biography I’ve read for a long time, maybe ever. It has the psychological insight and emotional breadth of a fine novel. Swafford is not afraid to humanize the gods of music, and thank goodness, because few things are as unloveable as saints. Swafford shares anecdotes ranging from the heartbreaking (a widowed Clara Schumann concertizing and sobbing backstage in between pieces) to the bizarre (Bruckner fondling Beethoven’s skull during an exhumation), and manages to effortlessly weave these smaller sketches into a much larger canvas. I’m of a mind to deconstruct this book and graph an arc of the narrative, because I was so enthralled with the writing that I didn’t pay any heed to the underlying structure. Which, of course, is the hallmark of any great performance, whether literary or musical.
One point of the book that has been a consistent delight is Swafford’s explorations of Brahms’s rocky relations with women. As most musicians know, it seems likely that Brahms began his performing career as a child in the brothels of Hamburg, and he likely saw horrific things there that scarred him for life. (And yeah, I know this point is currently under contention, but for the moment I’m going to trust Swafford that it really did happen…) In any case, regardless of what occurred in the dives, like most other citizens of nineteenth-century Europe, he was a firm believer that women should be seen and not heard. At the same time, in a delicious paradox, he managed to fall in love with one of the greatest pianists of the age, Clara Schumann, who, maybe more than any other single individual, helped legitimize women instrumentalists. Swafford’s treatment of their relationship was my favorite part of the book: he never resorts to stereotypes, and he paints their love as more of an intellectual and emotional kinship rather than a (boring) traditional romance. Knowledge of their connection has made pieces like the slow movement of the first piano concerto (a portrait, Brahms once wrote, of Clara) echo with a unbearably sweet poignancy. Brahms himself wasn’t keen on the idea of posterity knowing how his life influenced his music. I have to disagree with the great man. Yes, the first piano concerto was gorgeous and beautifully affecting on first hearing, but knowing that as he worked its creator was thinking of an unattainable genius fourteen years his senior, whose husband helped make his career and genius possible? Well, there can’t be a much more intellectually and emotionally affecting experience in a listener’s life than that.
So, stage one of Brahmspalooza preparation – reading a good Brahms biography – was a go. What now?
I looked at the programs. The concerts I’m going to consist of the Haydn Variations, the violin concerto, the first piano concerto, and the first serenade. For some reason, a few years ago I got addicted to the first movement of the serenade, so I’m very familiar with that. And of course every violinist has worn out a tape or CD of the Brahms concerto, me included. But the rest of the rep was, embarrassingly, new territory. So I started to listen to some Brahms recordings.
And nothing but Brahms recordings.
Yes, the last few weeks I’ve been up to my earlobes in beautiful but unidiomatic string writing, lush harmonies, and a brainy, almost desperate, sincerity. I feel a little bit like I’ve been ingesting the aural equivalent of the meat-and-potatoes meals my grandmother used to cook for threshers.
To help it all sink in, I went to IMSLP and looked up the scores and followed along. I bowed and fingered difficult passages in my mind. I went through following first violins, second violins, violas, cellos, bass. And not just the strings, but the first horn, second horn, oboe, clarinet…everybody. I even practiced whacking things while following the percussion part (FYI, you do not want me to be the rhythmic backbone of an orchestra). I may not know the pieces inside and out, but I do know them a heck of a lot better than I did even a few weeks ago, and I even got some mental sight-reading practice into the bargain. I know where the big gestures are, where phrases are going, what tiny, unexpectedly moving moments to watch out for (I’m especially fond of a descending half-step in the first movement of the piano concerto; I actually dreamt about it recently, which may be a sign I have a serious problem). It has been a slog on occasion (oh, for a silvery Fauré barcarolle!), but the hours of careful listening have been worth it, and I have a feeling they’re going to pay off this weekend.
So it is that I’m doing everything I can to enjoy this hopefully-not-but-very-possibly-once-in-a-lifetime chance.
Now I’m going to turn this ramble over to readers. How do you prepare for important concerts? Do you do a lot of listening? How do you do that listening? Is the music in the background, in the foreground? Do you follow along in the score? Do you faux-conduct? Do you read biographies? Do you Google? Do you search out radio programs or podcasts? Or do you just chill out and come to the hall content in the unfamiliarity of pieces that are new to you? I want to enjoy every single measure of Brahmspalooza ’012, and I’d love to hear any tips or suggestions of how best to take in highly anticipated concerts.
I’m going to sign off with a terrifying cliffhanger that has nothing to do with Brahmspalooza ’012, and will probably be the subject of my next blog: this week, I’m picking up a viola for the very first time. Stay tuned…
More entries: December 2011
Enter to win Leonidas Kavakos' recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto.
Emily Hogstad is from Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Biography
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