August 26, 2012 at 1:12 AMMozart's Sinfonia Concertante seemed pretty straight-forward on the viola--especially when using scordatura and playing in the easier key of D major instead of E-flat major. By playing with the viola tuned up a half-step, the brightness of the open strings would allow it to match the violin's timbre, whose tone adversely would be darkened by the flats. In only a couple of days, I'd hashed out the bowings and fingerings of the first movement, leaving just a bit of polishing to do and some time in the brine to season it up to performance level.
Satisfied, I flipped to the Andante, ready to hoe out some lines and plant some ideas. But instead of tidy little self-explanatory runs similar the first movement, I discovered troublesome phrases that lacked purpose. I fumbled clumsily for a bit and put it away, feeling awkward and thwarted. If I'd had a teacher, I could at least figure out what to do with the bow, or at least they could tell me "Louder here!" "More articulation there!" or something like that. I needed input. Consulting youtube, I dug out a performance by Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman to take notes on their bowings and fingerings. Of course, then my jaw fell off my face: I was nowhere near this level of playing! To an untrained eye, they're just moving their arms back and forth, sticking their fingers here and there, and then these beautiful, expressive phrases come out, simple as that. Anyone could play like that, right? The answer is, unequivocably, no.
Just then, they finished the cadenza, and the orchestra made its reappearance. Something about that C minor chord... What was the impression I just got? I backed it up and listened repeatedly. It was such a vivid, undeniably clear image, the exact taste and color of... of death. Did someone just die? The music so deeply affected me as to haunt me all the way into town. Hopefully, I could change this heavy subject for something lighter to go with my coffee break.
Over an americano, I chanced upon a seemingly random article Laurie Niles had posted on facebook. Apparently, a well-meaning elderly woman, though lacking any formal training in the restoration of fine art, had taken it upon herself to repaint a fresco of Christ that had badly deteriorated. Her intentions were the best, I'm sure, but the result sadly resembled a crude finger painting of a monkey in a tunic. Wow, how would you like to make the global headlines for destroying a work of art with your ignorance? For making a laughingstock of Christ? For being the sole creator of Monkeyjesus? I couldn't look at it without laughing at the pitiful desecration. And then, something suddenly didn't seem so funny anymore. Changing subjects, I checked my email and found an uncannily well-timed note from Michael Avagliano regarding the Andante:
"There's a story, possibly apocryphal, but it makes sense in the timeline of Mozart's life. He was on tour when he wrote the Concertante, and he received the news of his mother's death. The story goes that this movement was a kind of final conversation with her. It is pretty apparent, though, that he tended to reserve C minor for the most somber and tragic works he wrote."
Chills ran up my arms. What an amazing piece, that Mozart was able to convey to an uninformed person like myself such a graphic sensation of loss, and that Perlman and Zukerman were able to communicate it so specifically through their playing that I understood this without ever being told. And to think I'd been tromping around, hacking up those phrases like a hoodlum vandalizing a graveyard! Have I no respect for the dead?
Tiptoeing back into the studio later, I attempted to reverently resume practice, only to be haunted by images of Monkeyjesus hiding around the corner of every phrase. I could barely lay bow to the string without seeing his crude, disfigured mouth and vacuous eyes. What now? Something had to change; I had to get this monkey out of the studio!
Monkey in tow, I reconsulted Itzhak and Pinky, but this time with a different purpose in mind: if the two instruments are having a conversation, then I should listen to what they are talking about. Instead of watching the bows and fingers, I paid attention to how the violin and viola related to each other, noting the underlying orchestral setting as well, which added a context to each phrase. In the margins, I wrote words that would help remind me of these concepts.
Back to the studio. Cautiously bringing the strings up a half step, I finally got to experience C minor on the viola for the first time, and the colors literally unlocked the piece like a decoded secret. This time, instead of putting the cart before the horse and focusing on technique, I focused on the ideas I'd imagined that would fill the canvas with the proper colors and shapes.
Hopefully, the more particularly I envision what I want on this canvas, the better I will be able to find the technique to make an accurate rendition. After all, I want to paint a convincing picture of that final conversation between Wolfgang and his mother. The clearer the image in my mind, the better chance I'll have of getting it there.
I still can't help but wish I'd had a little more formal training, though...
(14:35 for the Andante)
That probably makes no sense so I am going to go to bed now.
Laurie, there's always that little element of, "Am I in over my head?" when you first approach some hallowed pieces. Bach tends to do that to me, too. It takes a certain amount of humility to address our faults and strive toward something better. And yes, I'm so glad music is a malleable art form, always evolving, always allowing for growth.
Laurie puts a finger on the advantage we have as musicians. A performance is a one-time thing (well, before YouTube anyway) and the musical monkeyjesus fades away with the last note. We're human, after all.
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