Actually, Grandma and Grandpa (my in-laws) are not here, they are just letting us use their condo. We are here to spend Christmas with my buddy from high school and her family, our dear friends. Also, we are here to visit the Love of My Life, Colorado. Okay, well, at least it's my favorite place on the planet, Cleveland notwithstanding. ;)
The plan was to pack our bags, leave our sunny-and-75 home in Pasadena, and get over the Rocky Mountains without having any snow, ice or any type of problem whatsoever. Nonetheless, I got the major vehicle check the day before, and we packed our blankets, flashlights, water, etc.
After spending last night in St. George, Utah, I awoke very early to the sun rising in a deep blue sky (you mean, the sky is blue? We don't get that in LA!) and some serious cold weather.
Our first possible driving challenge was Fishlake National Forest, where we spent several hours last year white-knuckle driving through a snowstorm, barely able to discern where the white road met the white not-road. But today, the sky was as clear as a bell, and all we saw was a little snow on the ground. This was enough to excite our California kids, though.
“IT”S SNOWING!” said four-year-old Brian excitedly. “CAN WE STOP AND GET OUT AND PLAY IN THE SNOW?” Brian has no volume control these days.
My daughter, Natalie, at the more sophisticated age of seven, set him straight. “It is not snowing. Snow-ING is when the snow is coming down. This is snow. Not snow-ING. Just snow.”
Well, he was excited, but we were quite happy that it was *not* snowing. In fact, we breezed over that mountain pass as if it were the middle of July, without a care. As we were sailing down the other side of the mountain Robert looked at me.
“That was easy,” he said. “TOO easy.”
But the clear blue sky held out, and we just kept flying through Utah, right to Colorado, where I insisted that we stop to take my picture at the “Welcome to Colorful Colorado” sign so I can blow it up and place it on my desk, next to the pictures of my husband and children.
“We will never be making better time than this,” I told Robert, so in addition to a few stops for postcard pictures (my grandfather always used to say, “Why take a picture you can just buy on a postcard?”), we also stopped at my favorite doo-dad store in Fruita, Colorado.
This whole journey was looking pretty nice. When we got back on the road, I took out my cell phone and called my mom, dad and sister and brother-in-law in Cincinnati.
“I'm watching the full moon rise over snow-capped Rockies, against a pink sky!” I reported. “And we've had no ice, no traffic!”
They had just returned from church and reported, “It's five degrees here, and there are 30 inches of snow in places!”
Mom assured me that, had we tried to visit them, “It would have been a disaster, for sure.”
At any rate, since my family lived for a long time in Colorado and loves going back, I was asking them for restaurant suggestions in Summit County. Though I had doubts about finding a restaurant that was open on Christmas Eve, and getting in with no reservations, I wrote down a few possibilities.
This is when my friend, Laura, from Denver, called. “Looks like there's been a terrible accident; they've closed off Interstate 70 at the Eisenhower Tunnel. From the TV, it looks pretty hopeless, cars lined up for...well, a long way. And they aren't moving.”
That's kind of like saying that your circulatory system as been shut off at the aorta; it's pretty tough to find a good work-around to get over the Continental Divide.
“I think that's our karma, running out,” said Robert.
This is when we decided to go for the luxurious dinner. Why not? We exited at Frisco, a nice little town near a lake, surrounded by 14,000-foot, snow-capped peaks. As we drove into town, we noticed the fairy lights all over the pines trees and even aspen trees. Though much is closed on Christmas Eve, this little town was sparkling with lights and with the kind of feathery, high-altitude snow you can practically blow off your car. Many of the restaurants were clearly open for the holiday. My sister, Katie, had recommended an Italian restaurant called “Tuscato,” and they seated us right when we walked in. It could not have been more perfect: a warm atmosphere, lots of windows looking out on that Christmas-y street scene, and great food. Robert had spaghetti and meatballs. I had a fabulous salad with blue cheese and a steak. The kids pretended to eat pizza and pasta. Then we all shared a piece of cheesecake. Our bellies were full.
The kids still wanted to “play in the snow.” They didn't really understand that when it's 10 degrees and dark, this is not ideal playing weather. We let them throw a few snowballs, then we piled back in our little car.
We pulled into a gas station to get out an atlas, and at this point we met a semi-frantic fellow traveler, who said, “The tunnel is closed! What do I do? How do I get to Denver?”
Still closed. I wondered if we should get a hotel. This is when Robert had a brilliant flashback to when we used to live in Colorado, and he said, “You know, we are on the road that can take us to the alternate route, through Fairplay.”
“Isn't there a really high mountain pass?” I asked.
“It won't be too bad,” said Robert. “Besides, you're driving, not me!”
It was a long detour. But not too many people seemed to be doing it, and with good weather, why not try a 11,000-foot mountain pass in December?
“ARE WE THERE?” inquired my son, not for the first time.
Soon after we set out, I noticed that the full moon was illuminating all the snowy peaks. With such thin air, the light from the moon has a powerful effect, almost like daylight. And despite all that light, the stars were poking through the dark blue sky with their own brilliance.
“This is gorgeous!” I said. Even the kids seemed spellbound. We drove through Breckenridge, past little Victorian houses covered with lights, open restaurants with happy skiers, even an open Starbuck's.
As we left civilization and crept up toward “Hoosier Pass,” around hairpin turns, closer and closer to the sky, our eyes kept turning skyward. The stars, the moon, the sky! A big, white cloud looked like it had been painted in flourescent paints with in one grandiose stroke across the sky. We marveled at it.
“Maybe it's Santa's highway,” I conjectured.
“I THINK I SEE SANTA!” said Brian.
“That isn't Santa,” said Natalie, more knowingly. “But maybe we will see him...I think I see a light over there...”
We drove the scenic route until we saw that carpet of lights on the ground called Denver, the place where I grew up. I smiled the whole way, what a perfect Christmas Eve! Now I'd better sign off, so Santa will come!
Nonetheless, after I had baked some 100 cookies on Saturday for the aforementioned bash the following day, I set out to...drum roll...watch a concert! I went with some friends to the Southwest Chamber Music concert in Pasadena at the Norton Simon Museum Theater. I'm happy to say, this appears, from my one experience, to be a bastion of well-performed chamber music, with good thought put into the programming.
I went on the invite of my friend, Lorenz Gamma, who was playing the solo part for Vivaldi's Four Season's. I did not even know what I was going to see, just that I was going to see Lorenz! Anyway, “The Seasons” was the theme for the entire evening.
It began with something far from Vivaldi, a little surprise for those who may have come just for the very popular work; a pleasant surprise for me. It was an aleatoric 20th century piece, “The Seasons” by Toru Takemitsu. I am glad to see a group that does not shy away from performing such pieces.
The work was meant to be performed with some electronic devices, but due to some technical difficulties, they had to do it completely acoustically. They used high school students, positioned both on stage and on either of the balcony, who rapped with deliberation on various exotic percussion instruments while several speakers recited the weather forecast from different times of the year in several languages.
I was amused that they were reading the weather forecasts from Southern California, which to me a place with barely discernable “seasons”! But I guess one must adapt the piece to its environment. It was clinky and confusing and not altogether unpleasant; certainly evocative of the changing winds of time and season. Well performed, too.
The next piece, Thea Musgrave's “From Spring to Spring,” for solo marimba, proved to me that it doesn't matter the instrument, a true musician can mesmerize an audience with anything. Even a kazoo. Or, in this case, a marimba. Lynn Vertan, with a streak of rebel red in her bleach blond hair, played this piece with fine-tuned sensitivity, precision and energy, everything that makes music fascinating. Yes, here is a real musician, making a really odd piece, scored for an instrument not usually featured solo, absolutely spellbinding.
As the father of one of my Suzuki students said at intermission, “That was totally cool.” And he is not a musician, not at all. His six-year-old girl concurred, “Yeah, that was cool.”
Cool. Twentieth century music lives!
But of course, I was there to see my friend play Vivaldi, and the way he played it, it was worth the whole ticket. I've certainly witnessed this piece played badly enough times. In fact, I believe I was in on several high school performances of that variety....
One forgets, with the ubiquitous nature of this piece, that it is quite virtuosic. This group played it with just one member of each section, and they were a tight band. They played it with so much good thought behind it, such solid interpretation. It was a delight to behold. My friend, Lorenz, is such an artist. Really. It makes me feel better about life just to know people like this, who truly love music and give it their full effort, with heart and mind.
Halfway through the week my throat got that not-quite-right sense of dryness.
On Thursday afternoon came my student who is also a licensed physician's assistant. She took one look at me and said, “It's a virus,” nodding, “Starts as a tickle in your throat. Your eyes are watering. Sneezing? Yeah. Better get some Loratodine.”
Still in denial, I figured that it must be one of those mild viruses. After all, I really felt fine, other than that tickle. So more students came.
“Um, do you want us to go home?” the mother of my cute five-year-old student
My next student came, and by then I apologized for being a “little sick.” His lesson did not last its full length, as I rapidly sped down a very steep hill. His mom looked at me in a puzzled way. “You are just getting this today? You must be very contageous!”
After he left, I called my 5 p.m. on his cell phone. “Are you already here?” I asked. “I'm about a block away, why?” he said.
“Well...” I sent him home.
I picked up my kids from the sitter's, and by then Robert was home. Thank heavens! I went straight to bed, after sneezing about 30 times. I wanted to sleep, but all I could do was to sit upright and keep very, very still. My eyes were so swollen, I considered the idea that maybe I was going blind. My head pounded, my nose and eyes ran like fountains. Moving only increased the pain.
On Friday, I did not emerge from bed. I thought of Denise Gilman, my college girlfriend, who once stayed in bed for something like four days.
“I think Denise is dead,” announced another of my college pals, during the third of those days long ago. “Should we take her some food?”
I can thank Denise for teaching me to “Do a Denise.” Which is to say, when you are extremely sick, cancel absolutely everything, no matter how important it seems, and sleep, sleep, sleep like a dead person.
So my fever did finally break sometime in the middle of last night, and I emerged from my long slumber this morning, feeling rather beaten up but better. Today, I got up and helped my four-year-old son practice piano, then fell back into a deep sleep. When I awakened, I found the little guy sleeping beside me.
Unfortunately, in order to “Do a Denise,” I had to cancel all my Saturday lessons and miss out on the holiday concert for my Suzuki group. After so many weeks of working with everyone, I was sad to miss out on seeing them perform. :(
But every time I do anything, like empty the dishwasher or play for five minutes on my violin, my temperature shoots back up to 100. So I'm not out of the woods. But, one more day of sleep ought to do it.
Okay, back to bed with lemon-ginger tea.
I just haven't heard this piece played often, nor have I had frequent occasion to play the orchestra part. But what a work! Certainly it is not a roller coaster that you can simply get on, sit back and enjoy the ride. It is full of quirks and asymmetries. The violin starts all alone with a gorgeous, plaintive melody. Then it starts hiccuping a bit later -- elegant hiccuping, of course. The third movement features devilishly fast little notes that don't exactly lay with ease on the fiddle, passages everyone has had to practice a few million times to get to speed. And the last movement ..that's the one with the brain scramble.
But what a pleasure. There is nothing like a stage full of people with considerable musical powers, using them to the maximum.
Mostly, it's Lin, playing on his "Duc de Camposelic" Guarneri "del Gesu" from 1734. At 44, he has made numerous recordings, continues to perform all over the world and teaches at Juilliard. He also has led several music festivals, including the Taipei International Music Festival in his native country, the LaJolla SummerFest here in California, and in the works for the future, a music festival in Shanghai.
It is easy to see why he has met with such success, both as a world-class performer and as someone who has been able to bring people together for music festivals. Not only is his playing is thoughtful, interesting, elegant, but also, he's just a really friendly guy! His found face seems to be in a perpetual smile, and he has an eloquent way of speaking about music.
He was kind enough to let me chat with him in his warm-up room before rehearsal last night as he was fiddling with the Infeld blues on his amazing violin. I also took note of his quirky gold Japanese mute, which he uses because it doesn't rattle.
I asked him for his thoughts about the Bernstein.
"I love the piece, the Bernstein Serenade is a masterpiece," said Lin. " If I dare to be controversial, I think it is even better than the Barber Concerto. Barber, in a way, is more European sounding. Bernstein is more quintessentially American, especially the jazzy bits in the last movement. Everybody loves the Barber Concerto because it is so beautiful, but I have trouble, in a way, with the fact that Barber wrote two consecutive lyrical movements. Then he wrote a very brief and very virtuosic finale. I find it just a little bit problematic in its continuity, that the first movements sound very much alike in mood.
"Bernstein, to me, is a beautifullly-crafted piece with lots of hidden structures, which are really strokes of genius. Then, when you step away from it, the music doesn't sound dry or academic. It's a really lively and beautiful piece."
Yes, beautiful. But a little hard to put together.
"It is very tough for everybody involved, as you know!" he laughed. "Tough for the conductor and the orchestra as well. But it's well worth the effort. I would say it is an American classic."
Lin said that though he has played it for some time, he has not yet recorded the work.
"I would love to record it at some point," he said.
I wondered what was actually the most challenging part of this work for the soloist.
"There are some awkward passages in the first movement. In the fast part, there are all these consecutive ninths. A ninth is just generally a little hard to get," he said. "We practice tenths, and octaves, but ninths are kind of neither here nor there. Then in the fast third movement, the scherzo-like 'Erixymathus' movement, you have to really pay total attention to the conductor. You cannot get off, it just has to be so metronomic, and yet you have all these notes to play."
Lin first heard the piece as a child, when he had an old LP recording with Isaac Stern. Bernstein actually wrote the piece for Stern, who premiered in Venice, Italy.
"That piece was a little too esoteric for a child," he said. Children seem to be drawn more to concertos like the Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn or the Barber. "But I remember, singularly, the opening melody of the Bernstein. This melody always stuck with me, it was just a very mesmerizing tune. Later, when I had to learn the piece and I got more and more familiar with the rest of the work, I realized that the heart and soul of this work is actually in the slow fourth movement, the 'Agathon.'"
He finds some American jollity in the last movement. "This bit where the violins go," and he played the jazzy little lick, " if it weren't strings and you put a jazz band together, it really sounds like a Big Band, with a drum set going." He laughed, "I guess Bernstein couldn't resist putting a real bit of Americana in there."
After this concert, Lin will continue with a busy schedule. Next month he will begin a tour with the Moscow Philharmonic. They will go from Florida across the country to Orange County, Calif., stopping in about a dozen cities. He still teaches at Juilliard, but "my students won't be seeing much of me in January," he laughed.
In other projects, Lin is working on starting up a new music festival in Shanghai for April 2006.
"Shanghai is on a building spree, every corner you turn there's some new skyscraper going up," he said. "They are building a new concert hall there right now, state of the art. It's going to open next fall and they wanted to form a festival there. So I'm putting it together as well."
He said he enjoys the opportunity to put such things together.
"I want to put together things, that for instance, the Shanghai Symphony cannot have, like multiple soloists," he said. "I want to put interesting things together that the audiences don't get to hear.
He also likes the opportunity to play to the strengths of the artists involved in a festival.
"For instance, I don't like playing Paganini. If somebody says, you have to play the Paganini Concerto, I'm not going to do a good job. Whereas I'm passionate I'm passionate about Brahms, Bernstein, and with with those I will do a better job. Likewise for my colleagues. If I put things together, I want to realize what they're passionate about, what their strengths are. "
Lin finds great hope for the future of classical music in Asian audiences.
"Asian audiences are great because they tend to be young," Lin said. You know we worry about the gray-haired ladies coming to concerts here, but over there they're much younger. You want to build on that, because that is the future. If these folks like what they hear, they will keep coming back."
Gil Shaham talks with us about the staying power of Bach, the agility of Baroque bows, the appeal of fast tempos, and more.
Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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