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.
Top BlogsDuncan Alexander McKenzie
May 12, 2012 06:10
Greetings to all.
Can anyone really imagine how it must be to be a young boy and to live next to a huge garbage dump in Manila? And to work collecting garbage from that dump? Day after day, with no future and no hope of escape from this life of dreadful poverty. But all things in the human web of existence are linked and a man in Manila who is dying of leukemia tells his family that they must throw away his beloved violin on his death. All material things are transient and we must let go of them to allow our spirits to be liberated. Magically, Pedro Mendoza, the little boy, finds the violin on the garbage dump and becomes infatuated with it. He begins to play and it brings out a gift and a talent in him for music and for the violin. He is by "luck" discovered by an Australian who is being shown around the slum where Pedro lives. He hears Pedro playing Vivaldi and is entranced by the music and energized by this discovery. He arranges a music scholarship for Pedro in Australia and Pedro becomes a famous violinist. But there is one more thing Pedro must do to fulfill his destiny.....
My book is called 'Pedro Mendoza's Violin' and is available on Amazon.com. Please read it; it is a beautiful and inspiring story, with 5-star Amazon ratings. Musical instruments can shape our fate and our destiny, and everything happens for a reason.
Best wishes to all readers from Duncan Alexander McKenzie, R.N.
Here is one of the Amazon reviews:
May 11, 2012 10:16
Do you have fun when you perform?
What a great question V.com member Momoko Takahashi raised in her blog this week.
Her answer: "I don't."
I'll confess I've felt a great range of emotions when performing. I've had great, wonderful fun -- times when I've thought, "Playing the violin is the only thing in my life that is 100 percent easy and right and good!" I've also had some of the worst, near-nervous-breakdown moments I can remember. Both kinds of experiences tended to relate to my overall mental state, and not actually to the pressure of the situation. I've had a few auditions that went without a hitch; others where I got tunnel vision, nearly passed out and then wanted to chuck the fiddle out the window. I've had entire solo recitals that felt wonderful, and little tiny solos where I got so nervous, you'd think a bengal tiger was crouching over my chair, teeth bared, ready to devour me.
Ah, the drama of being a violinist! Do you ever have fun when you play? Or is it mostly a form of torture? I've provided a range of answers for you to choose:
P.S. I hope you do have fun now and then!
By Yevgeny Kutik
May 11, 2012 08:18
I started studying with Mr. Totenberg when I was 14. My previous teacher, the esteemed Zinaida Gilels, had just passed away and insisted prior to her death that I continue my studies “only with Roman Totenberg.” When I arrived for my first lesson and rang the bell, Mr. Totenberg answered the door himself. He was impeccably dressed, wearing a suit and pocket square, had a soft understated smile, and a confident but not overbearing presence. He spoke to me in Russian though I learned he also knew Polish, English, German, French, and Italian. His studio was covered with autographed photos from the Roosevelts, famous musicians, and other prominent people. His noisy little bird observed our first meeting from a cage on the corner desk. Needless to say, I was quite overwhelmed, nervous, and spent the entire lesson sweating bullets. Despite what I felt was an underwhelming display, he agreed to take me on as his student.
During my first few lessons, I came to recognize the truly great artist and teacher with whom I had the privilege to study. He had asked me to prepare several etudes by Jakob Dont, each one designed to train a different technical aspect of violin playing. In found these to be boring, simple, purely utilitarian compositions but with Totenberg, they took on a whole new meaning. He didn’t focus so much on technique as much as phrasing, the composition as a whole, playing it beautifully. I remember vividly when Mr. Totenberg demonstrated a Dont etude designed to train chordal technique – the way he played it was simply gorgeous. He turned it into a brilliant and elegant composition. That’s what we focused on for several weeks, the phrasing, the dynamics, making the composition stand as a whole. Lo and behold my chords improved too.
His guiding principles were twofold; know the phrase - every note and its purpose, every rhythm and its direction – because the musical phrase is king, and always play that phrase with your distinct voice. This reverential approach made every lesson with Mr. Totenberg not only an exercise in becoming a better violinist, but a better person. He was not one to dole out too many flowery compliments, nor was he particularly negative or aggressively critical. He was constantly nurturing and understanding. When things just weren't working he would look at me and say, "...well that didn't sound very good," with a dry little smile. I got a ton of those during my years with him. When things did work well, a simple "good" or "very good" spoke volumes. I got a few of those as well.
Some of the best advice I've ever received came from a particularly frustrating lesson with Mr. Totenberg. I hadn’t played well and, as I was packing up, I launched into a 10 minute tirade about my displeasure with my progress. I pleaded with him for some advice and wisdom. He calmly sat there, without saying a word, until I finished. He looked at me silently for what must have been a minute but felt like an hour and then, in his low growly, soft voice said one word: “Listen.” At first I was dismayed that this was all he had to say after I had just poured out my heart and soul to him. Then, as the weeks and months went by, I realized just how right he was. The key was and always will be to simply, “Listen.”
After about 8 years I finished my studies with Mr. Totenberg but we continued to stay in touch and occasionally I played for him. His advice and quiet wisdom always seemed to reassure me in this ever-challenging and demanding field. As I arrived at his house this past Monday, for what I knew would be my final lesson, I tried to prepare just the right words. Instead, he wanted to hear me play, more and more, Tchaikovsky, Wieniawski, Sarasate. Even though he could barely speak or open his eyes, he was as tough as ever – clapping and conducting in time with the music, trying to show me the correct phrasing, rhythm, and tempo. In the Wieniawski Polonaise, which we’d worked on years ago, he stopped me and, as before, defiantly clapped out the tempo he much preferred. It sounded better immediately. The time had come for me to leave and I still hadn’t found the right words. So, I held his hand, said thank you for everything, and told him that I was about to travel to Germany to play the Tchaikovsky Concerto several times. He managed to give me a faint but distinct nod of approval and I left.
His relentless commitment to music, to the phrase, to the violin, and to individuality will forever be a model to me. For years Mr. Totenberg has been, and continues to be, my inspiration. I can only hope to one day approach his level of achievement, musicianship, and humanity. He was a brilliantly profound musician, this is certain, but more importantly he was one of the kindest and most generous people I have ever met.
Thank you for everything, Mr. Totenberg. I will be listening.
By Raphael Klayman
May 10, 2012 19:18
When last we left our hero, blog-wise, it was 1999, and he/I had served as Concertmaster for Ray Charles. I'd lost touch with the contractor who had hired me for that gig, and hadn't thought in detail about that adventure until I recently wrote about it. Suddenly – and 13 years later – he called me again just a couple of weeks ago to hire me again as Concertmaster – this time for the famous television personality, Regis Philbin and his wife, Joy. The venue was to be the same. Formally known as the Harms Center for the Arts, it has since been renamed, Bergen PAC, and is a major performance venue in Northern New Jersey. The date was May 6, 2012.
From my previous experience I knew better than to ask if I could get hold of the music ahead of time. I showed up quite early but as with the Ray Charles gig, the people with the music arrived at the last minute. In the ensuing 13 years I had done many recitals, some solos with orchestra, made two CD's and had done hundreds of gigs of all kinds, both classical and popular – so I was rather more confident in my sight-reading skills. Nevertheless, in the position of Concertmaster, simultaneously sight-reading and leading your section is not the best position for either you or your section to be in. Then the contractor, who would be playing sax on this gig, told me that he didn't know exactly what the program would be, but that he had once worked with Regis Philbin before and that the overture that they used was not at all easy. “Great” I thought to myself.
Slowly, my colleagues trickled in. It was a small string section – 3 1sts, 3 2nds, 1 viola, 1 cello and 1 bass. As is often the case in such gigs, we were way under-balanced against a large reed and brass section. It was not until mid-way in the rehearsal that the strings got just one area mike. As it turned out, I knew the violist, cellist and bassist, but none of my fellow fiddlers. But though small, it was a strong string section. I learned that my stand-partner is a regular on Broadway, and the last seat in the 2nds was occupied by someone who had played a Mozart concerto with orchestra in Carnegie Hall.
As it turned out, that overture was not much of a problem, and neither were most of the songs. Most. Midway in the program there was a song with extensive violin solos. Nothing like sight-reading solos in a high-profile gig with a celebrity to get that adrenaline pumping! My solos were not quite like Ein Heldenleben but they weren't exactly “Twinkle” either. Some of it went pretty high, and some of it was awkward. (Don't even ask me the name of the song. I already don't remember.) But even the solos intrinsically were not the main problem. The main problem was that we didn't have an independent conductor, but rather the music arranger and pianist, who conducted from the piano, which was kind of far from me, and his back was to me. He kept saying that he couldn't hear the violin and that this song was all violin. But the real problem was actually the previous song, which had some unclear cuts and an immediate segue to the song with the solos. We didn't know where one song ended and the next began. So of course I wasn't sure where my solos started. Did I mention adrenaline pumping? It was more like “filler up – and with premium”! Regis and Joy came in for the 2nd half of the rehearsal to do just a few of the songs. I'd only heard them speak on his show – but they actually sang pretty well! And they seemed very nice. The last thing he focused on was – you guessed it – the one with my solos. The first time through we were lost for the reasons I mentioned. And the conductor let me have it. I kept my cool and explained the problem to him. He seemed to accept it, but was very vague about explaining the cuts and ending of the previous song. Fortunately a couple of my colleagues figured it out and I asked if we could try it again, and we did – and finally, it worked. Regis' producer asked for the spelling of my name. (I wasn't sure at that point whether they were finally pleased with my work, or wanted to make sure to remember whom never to call again!) I gave him my card, and we broke for supper.
That is, everyone else broke for supper. Even though I'd eaten little that day so far, I wasn't about to start now. I marched up to a dressing room, grabbed a complimentary can of coke, took out my violin and practiced that solo. I erased almost every previous fingering and bowing, and re-worked it to insure my own security and solidity as well as to support the interpretation I was already forming. And to maximize projection. I thought to myself as if I was talking to the conductor “oh, you're gonna hear me all right!” Having done all I thought I could do under the circumstances, I took a break, approached the Philbin's dressing room and offered Regis copies of my 2 CD's, which he accepted graciously.
Back downstairs in the wings I chatted with some colleagues and we prepared to go on stage. As is customary, as Concertmaster, I waited till everyone else was seated before going out to supervise the tuning of the orchestra. At that point, Regis, also in the wings, made a characteristic crack “There goes Klayman – Big Shot!” I took it as the really good-natured Don Rickles style barb that it clearly was, and chuckled. In fact it made me feel that however temporarily, he had somewhat accepted me into his group.
The show started well and continued well. Then came the song with the solos. I was nervous but confident. The conductor even gave a couple of cues – which by that point, I didn't need, but it was nice that he remembered. Then suddenly something odd happened. Something seemed strange with the lights. I realized that they were shining a spotlight on me! “Oh my God!” I thought to myself. There wasn't enough pressure till now! It takes longer in the telling, but this all happened in about a second or so. I immediately re-focused myself – and I can honesty say that I nailed those solos from top to bottom. And I did it with style, if I say so, myself. As to projection, I think they could hear me over in the next township! As I ended on a high B-flat, I noticed that Regis, who had already finished his part was looking at me in a nice way. He then announced to the audience “Ladies and gentleman, that was Raphael Klayman” - and I took a bow. I must say, that was a very nice moment for me! There was a shorter solo in another song as well, but that one was never a problem, and it went fine.
I must say that close up, I came to appreciate how good Regis Philbin is at what he does. It's the type of banter that makes people think they could do it just as well – but it's not as easy as it looks.
So all's well that ends well, I suppose. Perhaps in another 13 years I'll get a call from the same contractor to serve as Concertmaster for another celebrity. And if I can still play...
May 10, 2012 18:48
Does this ever happen to you?
Me to student: Ok, let's go straight to repertoire today. Show me how far you got on XYZ concerto.
Or the flipside:
Or my favorite:
Please tell me I am not the only one this happens to! I hear these stories of legendary teachers who have all their students' pieces memorized and always remember exactly what they worked on three years ago, let alone had trouble with last week! Yet invariably I have a couple students around the same level, and get them mixed up, or can't remember which of three similar-level pieces we decided to do next, or just have a braindead moment and can't remember what in the world we are supposed to be working on!! My students know that they'd better bring their practice notebooks every week because that's how Mrs. L. keeps her brain organized!
Usually it results in a bit of humor...occasionally a bit of wasted time or a lesson going an illogical direction for a few moments. Sometimes I get a little frustrated-a really good teacher would never get students mixed up, right? Or... maybe it happens to the best of us, and just a little more often to me with my spontaneous, nonlinear brain. And as long as we can laugh and move on, and sometimes it results in good ideas...and as long as i know who just got a new puppy, and who has exams next week, and who is going to get really excited about the new duet book i just got in...
...maybe the world will go on, even if once in a while I get a little mixed up.
By Karen Allendoerfer
May 10, 2012 14:11
Beethoven's 1st symphony has a Trio in the 3rd movement which is pretty tricky. It's easy to get behind, especially in the back. I'm in front, and in an early rehearsal I hear this happening over and over again, like I have an echo behind me.
A person on the stand behind me taps me on the shoulder with her bow. "I think you're leaving out that rest. Or maybe you're skipping a measure somewhere."
I feel mortified. I mean, it has happened. I have left out measures and rests. I have led the section astray. But I don't think so, not this time. I can hear the horns and see the conductor, and I'm a pretty major Beethoven geek. I know what this piece is supposed to sound like. And it's fast.
Still, I spent the next week listening to and playing along with a recording. Because the problem could have been me. But by the next rehearsal, I know I'm right. Even if I wasn't before, I am now. It's fun, fitting in my part. I nailed it every time at home, and I'm flying. Still, overall, live, it's a bit of a soggy mess. And there's that echo again. I think, I know what I'm doing, I'm just going to come in correctly and they can follow me. So I do. My stand partner is with me but the echo doesn't go away. I play louder, so I can hear myself, so others can hear me, I think.
And then it happens: I get shushed. Okay, yeah, the music says, um, pp. "But I'm the only one who is coming in correctly!" I protest, mentally. "I'm the only one who's keeping up. If I play too softly *everyone* will be behind." But, well, I need to listen to the conductor. I observe the printed dynamics, and I can barely hear myself. But I do, in amidst everything else. And I'm still right.
Over time and rehearsal the echo goes away and the violins start to blend together. The conductor talks about the importance of watching rather than listening from the back. The problem with listening from the back is that the sound takes a split second to get to you. I actually know this from when I've sat in the back, but I sort of forgot. And this playing louder thing--in spite of my good intentions, it's not helpful. To be a good leader maybe sometimes it's necessary to play softer. To hear what everyone else is doing and what the section really needs.
* * *
Beethoven's Choral Fantasie has a little string quartet part near the beginning of the Finale which is pretty tricky. It's easy to get off from each other, no matter where you are sitting. I'm first violin, and I can't hear the second violin. I drop down a little bit, trying to hear her. The whole thing sounds weird, but I don't know why. I play even softer, trying to figure it out.
When the conductor cuts us off, the second violin leans over and says, plaintively, "I can't hear you at all!" Really? Hmm. I can hear myself just fine. I'm in a higher register, on the E string, which to me cuts right through all other ambient noise by virtue of its pitch. "I can't hear you either," I confess. My stand partner, who is sitting right between us, looks to the right, then to the left, and then leans back against the back of her chair.
"Next time I'll look over at you right before we come in."
The next time it's a little better, but still not really nice, not what this piece deserves.
"I think you should just play louder," someone remarks. The conductor agrees, "go ahead and make it a solid mezzo-forte." I also note that there is, for this piece, an enormous grand piano with the top partially up sitting between me and the audience. Who is going to mind if I play louder?
So, I play louder. I look at the second violinist before we come in. And then I kind of dig into the string. Not a lot, but no more of this dainty stuff. I can hear the cello, and I'm with her, at least.
Now everyone thinks it's much better. It goes well in the performance too.
So, when to play softer than you want to? In a section.
When to play louder than you think you need to? When you're the only one on your part!
It doesn't sound that tricky when you put it that way, but surprisingly, it is.
By Laurie Niles
May 10, 2012 10:21
My fellow Suzuki teachers and I were tuning violins as dozens of students and parents buzzed around before the big spring recital, when a piercing, wooden "CRACK" startled everyone in the room.
Parents froze in alarm; teachers raised eyebrows knowingly. Only one thing makes that kind of noise: a bridge. A bridge collapse sounds like the end of the world, but usually a teacher can make it right. Unless, of course, the bridge looks like this:
And indeed, it looked just like that. A helpful student ran to me and handed me the two pieces. Looking on, another parent suggested, "Maybe we could kind of stack them, and the strings would hold it all in place?"
"I'm afraid this bridge is done being a bridge," I said, shaking my head.
Meanwhile, the student with the injured violin was huddled in a pew with his parents. He was one of our youngest, about seven years old, dressed in his crisp white shirt and black pants for the concert. He was crying inconsolably over his quarter-sized violin while his parents tried to make it all okay. In his pre-concert exuberance, he'd fallen on his fiddle, and there was no going back.
The buzz had returned, and the show would go on. It was to start in about five minutes.
I sat next to the unhappy boy.
"I have to tell you something that happened to me when I was about your age," I said.
He looked up.
"Right before a concert, I tripped over my bow. It snapped completely in half," I said. "I couldn't use it in the concert."
"Did you get it fixed?" he asked.
"It was ruined, for good," I said. "So I kind of understand how you are feeling."
"Maybe we can find you a violin to borrow for part of the concert," I said.
A member of the family sitting behind us tapped me on the shoulder.
"Does he need to borrow a violin?" she asked. "Our boy isn't playing in all the pieces; he could use his violin."
"Really?" I said, looking at the boy in the other family, who was five years old and about the same size. This was to be his first concert. "Would that be okay with you?"
He looked at his mom and nodded.
"Well, that would be a very nice thing for you to do, to lend him your violin," I said. "You'd be kind of a hero."
So the two boys shared one violin for the concert. There was actually quite a bit of switching, as one was a "Pre-Twinkler" and another in "Early Book 1," and we'd mixed up the songs. The Pre-Twinklers went first, then the fiddle was exchanged, and at the very end, they changed back for "Twinkle."
Maybe a bridge built between two little boys is worth the price of a broken one!
By Emily Hogstad
May 10, 2012 08:19
Last night I had a dream that I was in an orchestra. It was a very good group, made up largely of members from the Minnesota Orchestra, who had given up their careers in that august organization and relocated to my small Wisconsin hometown. We were searching for repertoire. "You should try Bruckner 8!" I said. Although most were ex-members of Minnesota, they weren't familiar with Bruckner 8. So the music magically appeared and was distributed. We began the last movement first (as you do in dreams). We got to a certain point where everything (i.e., the strings, the horns, the horns, and the horns) came together, and you know what? It was magnificent. What a rush. However, we decided to cut it off at one of the climaxes because whatever concert we were programming for had a strict time limit.
I tried listening to the passage in question this morning, curious if my midnight dream had any effect on me. Sorry to say, it didn't. Bruckner still grated. But I'm heartened my subconscious is working on it. We'll see if this dream ever comes true. (Minus the mass exodus of Minnesota Orchestra members to Eau Claire, Wisconsin.)
Anyway. As the kids on Tumblr say...
"This has been a post."
(If this blog means nothing to you, it's probably for the best. Just keep scrolling.)
May 10, 2012 01:24
Actually, I sometimes get sick. Not "egad, not again" sickness, more like "my hands are clammy, I'm sweating, I feel nauseous and my hand's shaking, I need an aspirin and I might be getting stomach flu" kind of sickness. It's called stage fright. It is no longer on the level of "this sucks", it's on the level of "oh god this is terrifying". It's not fun at all. I have "fun" playing video games. I do not have "fun" performing on stage.
I thought, when I was little, that it'd get easier as time went by. It didn't. The more I sought to produce something better, the more I had something that I needed to tell, the stage fright got progressively worse. The more I had practised, the more I had banking on 40 minutes of a performance. The worse the fright got. I'd overtense myself, missing that balance point when you're just concentrated and nervous enough to let loose your inner hound and let the sound rage throughout the hall. And then come back depressed. Sometimes in tears.
As I grew up, I began going backstage. I've met quite a lot of major violinists at one point; Perlman, Batiashvili, Mutter, Bell, Fischer, Chung, Chang, Kremer... all those who had faced a symphony centre full of audience, their entire attention focused on them for a good 30 minutes. They always see my dog-eared, beaten-up, scribbled and bleeding graphite music, smile, and sign it (then they all proceed to praise my hands, but I digress). They notice my callused hands, the left hand finger curved, nails shorn to the quick. My right thumb is severely callused from the bow. They know that I am one of them, a fellow violinist, albeit a young one that might never reach their calibre. Their stances relax.
Every single time, I ask: "do you ever get stage fright?"
9 out of 10: "every time."
So why do I go on stage? The thirty seconds before walking out is inner, personal hell that I have to battle and overcome every time I give a performance. The performance time is a blur, each second slowed to an hour. Then the music ends, and I hear thunderous applause. I smile. I bow. And when the thunder stops, I retreat, sigh, and let go, turning into a deflated balloon. I've given everything, and there's nothing left.
I think there are few reasons that I can identify for musicians to go onto the stage, despite all the hell. As Linkin Park's vocalist said, "we have something that we need to tell". And then, there's that triumphant victory when you finish the last note, hear the last note die, and there's a thunderous applause. The feeling that for that brief moment, the entire audience and you were in the same world, the world you created. For thirty seconds of victory, I spend hours each day trying to decipher what the composer wanted to say through me, what I want to say through my violin. To perfect that technique so I don't have to worry about it on stage.
Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry said that going on stage is like doing a drug (and considering just how much drug he's done, I'm sure he knows all about it); that it's an addiction, that you suffer through so much for that short period of euphoria. If so, I'm so addicted I probably need to go to rehab. I see myself in the spotlight, applause filling my ears, and I pick up my instrument again, go back to the thirds that keep getting out of tune.
Is performing "fun" for you?
By Laurie Niles
May 8, 2012 10:00
"I believe so much in the moment … anything can happen, anything should happen!" Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg said about the magic of live music.
It's just one of the many Nadja-isms (*great Nadja quotes) on the new DVD, On Our Way, which celebrates her four-year partnership with the San Francisco-based New Century Chamber Orchestra, where she has served as director since 2008. (The name is perhaps a take on Nadja's 1989 autobiography, On My Way).
The group performs with no conductor: Nadja leads from the concertmaster chair, or as soloist. Otherwise the group looks to each other, relying on a heightened musical sensitivity and spirit of teamwork. One can sense the group's high energy, with Nadja as lightning rod, in the full performances shown on the DVD: Hugo Wolf's "Italian Serenade"; Astor Piazzolla's "Four Seasons of Buenos Aires"; Pyotr Tchaikovsky's "Serenade for Strings" and more. It also includes interviews with Nadja and other members of the orchestra.
Nadja spoke to me by phone last week from Portland, where she had just performed the Piazzolla with the Oregon Symphony. She was on her way to San Francisco, to rehearse with New Century for four performances this weekend of a world-premiere piece by Ellen Zwilich. We spoke about Nadja's efforts to expand the string orchestra repertoire, about how 19 people work as a team, and about the joy of live performance:
Photo by Christian Steiner
Laurie: I've been enjoying 'On Our Way,' and I see that New Century has concerts (this weekend).
Nadja: This is the final set of New Century's 20th anniversary season, and that's why I wanted to release the DVD, as something special for this year.
Laurie: There were a few things you said on the DVD, that I just loved. Here's one: "We play repertoire we have no business playing." What did you mean by that?
Nadja: Basically, the string orchestra repertoire is very small. In the standard string orchestra repertoire, there are maybe 12 or 15 really good pieces. Not much. After that, you have to dive into the quartet repertoire or the chamber music repertoire. What I meant by that statement is that we've made arrangements of pieces that a string orchestra really shouldn't be playing.
For example, (Hugo) Wolf's 'Italian Serenade,' on that DVD, that is not a piece for 19 people. (The Wolf) was written for a quartet, and it's hard enough for a quartet. With such a difficult piece, it's more than challenging to get 19 people to play and make it sound like a quartet. We also went on tour this year with Mendelssohn Octet (written for eight people). These kinds of pieces are written, in a way, as solo pieces. To have an orchestra play a solo piece is challenging.
Also, some of the arrangements I have commissioned were for pieces meant for a large orchestra. For example, on our second season we played 'Pictures at an Exhibition.' When you hear the title 'Pictures at an Exhibition,' you immediately think: enormous orchestra! Yet, this particular arrangement by Clarice Assad was just so brilliant. It was for string orchestra, percussion and piano; and you actually heard instruments that you didn't see on stage. It was just one of those strokes of genius.
So we play repertoire that is not written for 19 people. I don't want the orchestra to be relegated to certain repertoire or go into a niche. We can play anything and everything, and so that's I want us to do.
Laurie: I understand that you and the New Century will perform a world premiere piece this weekend in San Francisco. Tell me all about it.
Nadja: That is part of our featured composer program for this season, which is something I started when I came on, four years ago. Because our season is short, with four or five concert sets in a season, I thought that instead of having a composer-in-residence, having a featured composer would be more apt. We would play at least one existing work by that composer to introduce that composer to the audience; then of course, we would commission that composer to write something specifically for us. We've always premiered that piece at the end of the season; it's exciting to end the season with a world premiere, and also, it gives the composer some more time to write and prepare it.
We give them the option of writing anything they want, even if they want other instruments -- winds and anything like that. They mostly have elected to write violin concertos for me. I begged last year's composer, Mark O'Connor, not to write me a violin concerto. So he wrote something specifically for the orchestra.
These pieces are just fantastic, and this one in particular. It's more than just a violin concerto, it's a performance piece.
Nadja: (Ellen Zwilich) always wanted to write for me, and I'm a certain kind of player. So she really went to town with that! She wrote a piece, 'Commedia dell Arte' -- it's based on the Renaissance art form of Italian theater. It all these theatrical characters: like Harlequin, or "Arlecchino"; and Colombina and Il Capitano. It's a theatre piece, and so these characters each have instruments associated with them. Columbina, she's always with a tambourine; the Capitan always has his drum; and Harlequin has this flapstick thing. So I have to pick players to play these instruments. I'm very appreciative to Ellen for writing not only a violin concerto, but writing something specifically for me and for the orchestra; it's fantastic piece for us. She's heard us play, and she knew what we can do. So she really went to town with this one. It's going to be an amazing premiere. We'll have a challenge on our hands, but we're good with that.
Laurie: Did the orchestra used to do this featured composer kind of thing before you came? Why do you feel it's important?
Nadja: No, I brought that on, for two reasons. One, I wanted to mix up the featured composer element: to feature the young, up-and-coming composers as well as extremely established composers. For example, Clarice Assad was our first featured composer. She's this young phenom. We've also had two Pulitzer prize-winning composers. I also wanted different styles: for example, Mark O'Connor is not strictly a classical composer. We've also had Bill Bolcom, and it's just terrific to have the palette of that.
Also, like we discussed before, the string orchestra repertoire is small. By commissioning these compositions, we add to that repertoire, which is helpful to all string orchestras. Believe me, if you are a member of a string orchestra, you're always looking for new rep. Now we create a new piece every year for that (kind of) ensemble.
Laurie: You talk a lot in 'On Our Way' about the members of the New Century Chamber Orchestra making decisions together and the trust that you've built. It seems like sometimes that can be a precarious kind of tightrope walk. How do you continue to build on that openness and trust, yet avoid it going in the direction of ...
Nadja: …anarchy! (she laughs) Well, there's a time and a place for everything. There'll be moments in rehearsals where everybody, and I mean everybody, is talking. That's when I have to take on the role as boss for a moment and say, 'Okay, everybody shut up. We're going to do it my way.' Or, 'We'll do this, let's try that, and mix in with this and this and that.'
It's very personal. I remember very clearly, when I first took this job, I didn't know what to expect. I asked every music director, nearly every conductor that I've ever worked with, to give me their best advice. It was a lot of people, and very varied kinds of people. The one piece of advice that was absolutely uniform -- that every one of them told me -- was: 'Don't get friendly with the orchestra, don't get friendly with your players. It's trouble.'
It's the one piece of advice I ignored.
In any situation, even as a soloist, it's important for me to get along with the people I'm working with and to have a positive experience. It's more than just, 'Let's put this piece together and perform it.' Also, there are only 19 of us, so it's intimate, in that sense. New Century has always been a democratic group in their decision-making process, and I did not want to interfere with that. So little by little, we all -- yes -- became friends, and we're all very much a family.
With that, comes a feeling of power, and of relaxing. There's an intimate feeling when we go into rehearsals. Everybody speaks, everyone has opinions. That's how we put the pieces together: there will be a problem, then somebody will make a suggestion that solves that problem. Then the solution causes another problem for somebody else, but then we fix that. It goes on like that. But at the end of the day, we put all the music together, the extraordinary variety of music. And when it's time for the concert, everybody brings everything up a notch. It's yet to fail. Every single time we has a concert, it's like we go into H-D. It's extremely gratifying, and the democracy works.
Laurie: How do you keep one person from dominating, and how do you keep people from getting offended?
Nadja: It's like anything, you get to know the person, you get to know how they speak. For example, they're used to me. I will just start cursing about something and speak very fast because that's me, that's who I am. I'm from New York and that's my way of speaking. Somebody else will be very quiet, and everybody has to kind of really shut up to hear what so-and-so has to say because that's how they speak. We know each other. In the process of rehearsals it can get quite tense and insulting, but we know that, and we fix that. There's always somebody there to bring it down -- mostly it's me; that's my job. We never go to sleep angry. We get very heated, but we all have the same goal in mind, so that makes it work.
Laurie: It sounds like it's probably useful to be frank.
Nadja: It is, but it depends on the mood that day. Let's say I'm rehearsing something, and a particular section sounds very bad. Depending on how the mood of that rehearsal's going, I could say, 'You guys, this is really ca-ca. No good.' But if there's a little tension going on to begin with, then that's not how I would speak to them. It's all very dependent on what's happening in the rehearsal at that moment. But no matter what route anybody takes, we always come through beautifully at the end. There is the respect there, always.
Laurie: When you are leading from the concertmaster chair, or even as the soloist, what are some of the most effective ways that you can communicate, and what are some of the things you've found that don't work?
Nadja: In these four years, I've found that I'm kind of a natural leader. It's funny, just a few weeks ago I (led from the concertmaster chair) with an orchestra other than mine, for the first time. I had been offered to do this for a few years, and I never did it because I felt like I was cheating on my orchestra. But finally I did it; I was curious to see, is this even possible, with another group? It was a phenomenal experience, very powerful. This was an orchestra that's not used to not having a conductor.
Laurie: They must have had to make some adjustments, if they were used to having a conductor.
Nadja: They were fantastic musicians. But if you're used to sitting back and looking at the guy up there beating time for you, it's huge, when all of a sudden you have to go into a completely different mode of total concentration and responsibility for your part. It almost erases 20 years of sitting in the back of the section. It's demanded that you play better and that you bring your full game to the table. That was very satisfying, to see that happen, and also just to tell them, 'I cannot cue every single entrance, do you understand? I cannot. I'm playing the first violin part. You're going to count!' (she laughs).
Laurie: I loved this quote, that 'Anything can happen in the moment, and anything should happen in the moment.'
Nadja: That's how I've always felt about music, an overall credo. Live music is not a recording. Every single time a musician begins to play music, it can be magical. It doesn't have to be: 'We rehearsed it this way, this is how we're going to play it.' You have that foundation of, 'This is what we decided, and this is how it works,' But once you have that foundation and you feel a solidity with that, then comes the inspiration of a live performance. That's where I come in as a good leader: I believe in it, and I'm capable of doing it.
Many musicians cannot do it or choose not to, and it doesn't make any sense to me. It's an art form, and it's ever-changing. There's no reason to play a passage the same way every time you play it. The passage itself, the piece itself, has so much possibility and so much life. I love exploring that. In a concert situation, I may feel that I want to go further than what we rehearsed. My orchestra is so attuned to me -- they just know, oh boy, here she goes. They can see it in my eyes: let's go. That's what I meant (in the DVD) when I said that they'll just follow me off a cliff. It's terrific fun that way!
Revisit Violinist.com editor Laurie Niles' coverage from Canada of the 2013 Montreal International Musical Competition, including her interview with gold medalist Marc Bouchkov.
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Persimpatia, a magic project about four magic violins
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