We were chatting as usual, waiting for our daughters by the front door of their elementary school. It's a new school, and our daughters were in its first kindergarten class, which began with literally with no classrooms, no playground equipment...just lot of faith. The parents in this class have bonded fiercely through three years of travails and triumphs at a new public school.
"I hope everything is okay?" I said to Susan, wondering mildly about her medical problem.
"Well," she said, looking around. "It's kind of a big problem."
"I have breast cancer, and I have to schedule an operation."
"Oh Susan!" I said, and gave her a big hug before even thinking about it.
"I called today to schedule the operation," she explained, "and they couldn't find a pen so that they could give me an appointment because they have a new office. Couldn't find a PEN! I was ready to run over there and say, 'Look, HERE'S A PEN!' Then I realized this might not be the most constructive attitude."
Good Lord in Heaven, it's the attitude I would have had. No, I probably would have done it, would have torn over there in my car, red-faced and in the huff of my life, would have run inside and screamed, "I have CANCER, okay! Get it OUT OF ME! Here's the (insert expletive) PEN!"
Her little girl, Emily, who looks from certain angles just like my little girl, Natalie, ran up and hugged her mom. Susan put her finger to her lips, Emily did not know yet.
My own daughter hopped into the car and started poking at her little brother. Emily has a little brother, too, a two-year-old with curly red hair. They call him "pequeno John" because he likes to speak Spanish.
Cancer. If I could just take it away for her! Just how unfair, how frustrating, how upsetting. I have not spent tons of time with Susan, but I realized in that moment how much I've enjoyed her wonderfully wry humor, her intelligence, and the way she has helped the school so much.
What on Earth could I do for Susan?
I decided she needed books that would not take her to overly dramatic places: the Jan Karon books, "The Power of Now." And music that would not plumb the depths of the human soul but would mercifully be beautiful without going to a dark place: Mozart. I put it in a bag. Then I threw in my soft blue hat. If one faces the possibility of losing one's hair, one needs a comfy hat.
This still felt pretty feeble.
When I saw her on Friday, she'd had a hair cut. She explained that her lovely hair dresser had cut it short, to make things easier if/when it fell out, and she had also offered to go wig shopping with her. Susan's operation is scheduled for Monday.
Today I did something I've done now three years in a row, I ran in the LA County Komen Race for the Cure, a fundraiser for breast cancer research. I set out at 7:30 a.m. with my friend, Libby, her baby, Caroline, and violin teacher friend, Julie Bamberger, for the Rose Bowl.
I want to let Susan know that I was joined by more than 10,000 people in rooting for her recovery. I want to tell my Aunt Gail, who has simultaneously faced the same situation as Susan in the last two weeks, the same thing. And I want to let my Uncle Mike and his 10 children know that I also ran in memory of his late wife and their mother, Beth, who died five years ago from this disease.
I wish they all could have seen this tremendous outpouring of support, honoring victims of breast cancer and celebrating its survivors. From the crest of the first hill, I was awed by the volume of people in this sea of humanity.
People participating in the run could wear pink sheets of paper, showing they were running either in memory or in celebration of someone. People literally wore on their shirts an entire range of emotions surrounding breast cancer: from triumphant to poignantly sad, from serious to barracks humor. One woman was wearing two signs, "In memory of Grandma," and below it, "In memory of Mom." The silly award goes to someone I passed, a tall man with white hair, wearing a blue shirt that said, "Men Have a Breasted Interest, Too!"
My favorite one, though, was this sign: "In celebration of...ME! Ten years!"
So here is the thought and the prayer that I'd like to put out into the world: that Susan and my Aunt Gail will be able to join me in running this next year. With a full head of their own hair, wearing signs that say: "In celebration of...ME!"
This was my first thought while watching a performance of Barrage Saturday night at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium here in California. Though I've never seen “Stomp,” I believe this is on some level the violin version of that kind of show, put together by Music Director (and violinist and teacher) Dean Marshall and Choreographer Brian Hanson.
In a nutshell, seven cool-looking violinists in their 20s show off their considerable violin chops playing fiddle and pop tunes while prancing nimbly about the stage, doing all kinds of fun tricks with their fiddles without, miraculously enough, snapping a bow stick or smashing a fiddle to smithereens.
It looked so cool, so totally fun, it made me wish I could play the violin.
Wait a minute, here, I do play the violin!
To be honest, I do have that kind of fun playing the violin, though I look rather less active by comparison.
That happy little kokopelli I drew up there in the left-hand corner of Violinist.com dances somewhere on the inside of me every time I play, even something like a Mozart mass. It bounds happily when I play an up-bow that sweeps off the string, and it lands like a skier sliding down a slope when the bow comes down again. My little dancer jives to the percussive feel of a spiccato (off the string) passage, and it undulates to the groove of fiddle-like string crossings. It bobs its little head when I play some nice crazy syncopation or off-kilter rhythm. And it sways gently when a slow, rich note comes out of the fiddle, making my whole body vibrate.
Dean Marshall and Brian Hansen simply brought our secret joys about violin playing to the theater, in a show that makes this inner dancer manifest.
The setting, a “gypsy camp,” looks like something out of a Tim Burton movie, wiry and asymmetrical. The seven violinists, Seonaid Aitken, Carly Frey, Benjamin Gunnery, Mitchell Grobb, Jessica Hindin, Matthew Harney and Thomas Sidebottom, also play with percussionist Bob Fenske, bass guitarist Tim Harley, drummer Jonathan McCaslin and guitarist Jason Graham.
The story, “Vagabond Tales,” is a bit of a silly device. Robert and I giggled over the disembodied voice of the narrator because he sounded exactly like one of our yoga instructors: kind of vampire-like.
The spoken story didn't really seem to matter much because the action of the show carried enough drama to keep me fully entertained.
The violinists were dressed mostly in jeans and nice T-shirts, with the occasional scarf tied around the waist or leg for that “gypsy” look. Supposedly they were two “tribes,” fighting over, uh, making music? Okay, I totally did not follow it!
They played 21 numbers of greatly eclectic origin: fiddle standards like “Old Joe Clark,” the Beatle's tune “Eleanor Rigby,” jazz like “Sing Sing Sing” and one of my faves, the James Bond movie tune, “Live and Let Die.”
The Barrage bunch played with solid conservatory technique, flawless memory and excellent pitch. During “Front Porch Jam,” the musicians tried to out-do each other with their fancy licks, and the fiddle playing was downright virtuosic.
Marshall's charts look fun and do-able, I actually bought a book of them after the show. But aside from the clever arrangements, what really made the show come alive was the way choreographer Brian Hansen picked up on the fun of violin playing and brought it to the stage.
At one point during “Dark-Haired Boy,” the violinists were separated into two groups that traded off a string-crossing ditty, and during the rests they circled their bow arms dramatically, accenting the whole circular nature of bariolage.
During “Sally G,” they rolled huge exercise balls out, dribbling them in turns, sitting on them to play, bouncing on them while playing, even lying backwards to play.
“Chopstickin” was equally fun, beginning with the perscussionist going around and tapping a drumstick on the strings of everyone's fiddles, which they held way out in front of them or to the side. It made for both a nice col legno effect and a satisfying visual image. And how about this one: two guys on their knees, offering up their fiddles for a girl to strum, one with each hand. I had to blush!
During “Rasputin” they did what every little boy violin student dreams of doing: fencing. Violin bow as sword, isn't that what it's really for? Even better, during “La Salle de Classe,” they whip-sawed the bows, in timed succession, to create a series of swooshing sounds.
“Eleanor Rigby,” which has a string quartet in its original form, found them exchanging pizzicato riffs.
I enjoyed “Karen's Air,” a love song. I couldn't decide if it was a love song to “Karen” or to the violin! It helped heal my bad memories of that excruciatingly uncomfortable love scene in the Red Violin. Erase and replace: Imagine, the sad girl, kneeling alone, with no violin. Her love is playing his violin nearby, and he sees her. With the violin still on his shoulder, he comes and wraps his arm around her tenderly. She lays her head on his shoulder as he brings bow to string around her and begins to play sweetly. She just rests and listens. When he stops, they cradle the fiddle in their arms together. Perhaps only a violinist could understand this love song and all the nurture, love and devotion wrapped up in a violin.
After that came plenty of exuberance: jumping and dancing while playing, playing in a group that is posed together impossibly close (like even closer than I sat in the tiny pit for “Oklahoma”), picking each other up while playing, and other joyous ways to play around with a fiddle and a group of friends. What fun!
So here is the public announcement for those of you who want to sing, dance, play and travel: Dean Marshall has some job openings for students or recent graduates that may be interested in being a part of this production. They are casting an accomplished violinist and guitarist to fill A.F. of M. contracted positions in the cast or Barrage. It is a year term contract and it involves a lot of travel. They are looking for musicians (males in particular) between the ages of 18 - 30. Auditions are Feb. 18-20 in Long Beach, Calif. For more information, contact Dean Marshall at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Not that I dislike listening to all the students; I find it a bit like scrutinizing a newborn baby: look, this one appears to have a whisp of blond hair, and a gentle manner, and...is that Great Aunt Helen's nose I see? And what a strong little boy, with such a set of lungs!
In these young violinists I see little glimpses of what the future may hold: a graceful bow hand, a certain attention to a turn of phrase, a perfectly straight bow, a sense of pitch. There is usually at least one thing each child does well, sometimes many things. I always wonder, what will these snatches of potential grow into? Will the child continue, or quit?
I love teaching the very youngest of children, it is just somehow in my nature, so I'm often teaching the “Pre-Twinkle” students, between the ages of three and seven. They are tiny. Some can barely express themselves in words, much less in music! Many do not play yet; they come to class with a cardboard fiddle. We sing “The Rest Position” song, tap our fingers to learn their names, air bow songs to learn the difference between “up” and “down.”
Today a new boy, Charlie, came to class. He was making an effort to assimilate, as the other kids already knew the class routine. His mom said, “I'm sorry, he just doesn't know anything yet, this is his first class, and his first lesson was just a few days ago.”
“Don't worry!” I said, smiling, “We all start out that way here!”
During today's recital hour, a boy from our Pre-Twinkle class played a rhythm repeatedly on an open E-string along with the pianist playing “Twinkle,” in what had to be his first public appearance. Another played “Twinkle” along with her brother. Then came a little girl who played a Suzuki Books 2 piece. Then Liz Arbus, the teacher who leads our group, announced that an alumnus of our Suzuki program would play for us.
Out came Violinist.com member Jenni Thompson , whom I had not yet met, and still didn't get to meet, with all the chaos of the evening! She played the Lalo Symphonie Espanol with accompanist Sharon Wu.
Let's just say, from the opening on, I was smiling, big time. If Suzuki programs are supposed to turn out amusical audioanimatronic robots, this program has failed miserably. She played with such musicality, solid technique and maturity, it was just thoroughly enjoyable. The Lalo just sang in my head for the rest of the evening.
I have only been with this group for five years, so I didn't see Jenni grow up, as her other teachers, Liz Arbus and currently, Cheryl Scheidemantle, have. But I couldn't help imagining this lovely 18-year-old as a four-year-old girl, coming to class for the first time with a cardboard violin.
They all start out that way. But look where they can go!
Jenni will be performing the Lalo with the Pasadena Young Musicians Orchestra at 3:30 p.m., Feb. 27 at the Sexton Auditorium at Pasadena City College.
His presence certainly inhabited this party, in the memories of people who were his former friends and students, in the spirit of the violinists who performed for the evening and even in a few of his possessions that were on hand.
I have to confess to a bit of blasphemy: that I have no personal link to Heifetz whatsoever. I did not grow up listening to his music. My childhood teacher was accepted into Heifetz' studio at USC and actually decided against taking from the master on the basis that Heifetz was more a performer than a teacher. So my first impression of Heifetz was of someone my trusted teacher avoided.
Then I went to Indiana University, where my teacher, Henryk Kowalski, asked, "Who is your favorite violinist?" Well, being a Colorado girl, I was true to both the Broncos football team and Eugene Fodor, our local hero, violinwise. So I said, "Well I like Eugene Fo.."
"NO!" boomed Kowalski. "That is not your favorite violinist! Your new favorite violinist is Heifetz! HEIFETZ!"
So I got a few recordings. But I still didn't get it. The sound on the recordings was not like the pillow of sweetness one finds in many modern recordings, and I do have a bit of a sweet tooth. I was fond of his Sibelius, but I did not turn into a Heifetz nut.
Then more recently I carpooled to a distant gig with cellist friend, Michael Masters. He is a true Heifetz nut. He has every recording ever made, and he knows them inside out, note for note. So during the course of several carpools, he played recordings of nearly every major concerto, plus many showpieces, rhapsodizing the entire time..."Listen to the way he does that...that spiccato! And that turn of phrase, like it's ironic. Then ah, up to this, and that run, that RUN!" You get the picture.
I was seeing it now, and I was hearing it, too: Heifetz had an acute musical intelligence, and he had complete control, the kind of technique that no one but he has ever achieved.
It is no wonder that the subject of Heifetz causes such extreme reactions in people: love, hate, adulation, resentment, worship, raw jealousy....
So back to this lovely gathering Wednesday of people who knew him personally and professionally. The evening, and the entire concept of the "Jascha Heifetz Society," was arranged by the elegant Claire Hodgkins, a violinist who was an assistant to Heifetz.
During its five years of existence, the Jascha Heifetz Society has awarded 150 scholarships to young musicians, presented master classes with Ruggiero Ricci and Sherry Kloss and put on various recitals and educational forums.
About 50 people gathered in the cozy recital room at Benning Violins, with a 1946 picture of Jascha Heifetz sitting atop the grand piano, casting a contented expression over the events. Cellos hung along one wall, with some 60 violins in rectangular cubbies along another. Behind the piano hung a large photo of violins drying in the sun, as if on a clothes line, over a tulip-lined garden path and among blooming trees, an old-world building in the background.
For the occasion, Min-Jin played a range of works, from Bach and Beethoven to "Meditation from Thais" and "March from 'The Love of Three Oranges'" on her 1697 Stradivarius. The program notes included a quote from "The Strad," calling Min-Jin an heir to Heifetz. Here she was, playing for some of the finest and most accomplished violinists in Los Angeles who personally knew Heifetz.
She played with poise and elegance, though I'd be curious to see her play with her regular pianist, her sister Min-Jung Kym. Apparently she had not much rehearsal with pianist Mark Richman (they both had been sick all week), and this made for some disconnect.
Heir to Heifetz?
Well, those are big shoes. I think any violinist who takes it upon himself or herself to build the kind of technique this young woman had, to play with intelligence, knowledge and restraint, to show great devotion to the violin and to continue striving to be an artist for a lifetime can be called an heir to Heifetz legacy. He is the one who blazed that trail. But there will be no other Heifetz than the man himself!
She had some lovely moments in the Bach (this was Heifetz's arrangement for violin and piano -- I confess that I think the Bach stands alone better, call me old-fashioned) and in the "Habanera" by Ravel.
After Min-Jin played, Hodgkins introduced everyone to a 17-year-old violinist named Sean Lee, a current student of Ruggiero Ricci. Lee played Paganini Caprice 24 for us, then the Largo from Bach's C major Sonata. What relaxed octaves he had, what a fluid left hand! I just smiled to see it. He had the manner and gait of a high school kid, but something very close to full maturity on the violin. To play Paganini is to challenge the technique, to play Bach is to challenge the mind, and he was up for both. I looked at his long red tie and black suit, just a tiny bit big on him, and thought, "Looks like he will grow into this just fine!"
The frosting on the cake was Bruce Dukov, who played his "Happy Birthday" variations duet with violinist Ron Folsom. I had heard these variations before , but they were an absolute scream live. The variations are extremely virtuosic, peppered all over with quotes from Wieniawski, Paganini, Bach and the like. Visually, they come off like a comic duel, with "Happy Birthday" so intertwined in the two parts that one can't tell who has the theme and when they switch off. The two also played Dukov's new arrangement of "Stars and Stripes Forever," which he has promised to tell me more about once he gets it up online.
Dukov's penchant for crafting delightful and virtuosic showpieces from familiar tunes recalls another facet of Heifetz' legacy: that he created so many arrangements and transcriptions of pieces for violin. People still follow in those footsteps.
After all the violin playing came the champagne, chocolate, conversation and instrument ogling. A man named Kenway Lee had brought an old violin case of Heifetz', lined in light green and wearing the initials "J H" by its handle. Though he did not have Heifetz' violin in the case, he did have Fritz Kreisler's Hill bow, which I took in hand, wondering if a bit of magic might rub off.
At one point, Hodgkins was showing one of Heifetz's mutes, one he used himself. We all just stared: the actual article, something Heifetz used all the time. Min-Jin looked at it with some awe and asked, "May I touch it?"
I think that's what we'd all like to do, just touch a little bit of that magic. One thing is abundantly clear: his great legacy has reached around the world and touched us all, whether we know it or not. It will live on, through his students and their students, through his recordings, through his transcriptions, and through his sheer example.
Happy Birthday, Jascha Heifetz!
My quartet, the Aurora String Quartet (named for the sunrise, my daughter's favorite princess and the city where I grew up), played a pro-bono educational concert at the Mormon church where one of my students is a member.
We had played the same concert a few weeks back, for the Pasadena Symphony's children's educational program, and we thought it would be nice to air it out again.
Last year we toured more than a dozen schools, playing for first- and second-graders, and our show was fun and successful.
This year we wanted a new show, but we wanted to keep that balance of music, education and fun. We decided to write one about Mozart. We called it “Maestro Incredible,” and made Mozart the “Superhero of Classical Music!” Since the movie “The Incredibles” is quite popular (and quite good, I'll add), we talked about the movie characters being born with superpowers and compared this with Mozart's “superpowers” as a child.
After starting by playing a bit from Divertimento K. 136, we then tried to take them back to the time of Mozart. We said there was a lot less noise in 1756. As I ticked off all the noisy annoyances of today: cell phones, airplanes, cars, CD players...my fellow members turned on various loud approximations: violinist Marisa McLeod played with noisy toy airplane, violist LaVette Allen sent a loud toy car across the stage, and the cellist Michael Masters rang and talked on a cell phone, until I yelled, “NONE OF THAT!”
Then we said that all you could hear were horses and birds during Mozart's time, for which we had a big red bird that makes very convincing North American chirping sounds when squeezed in the middle.
They liked that silliness, and hopefully it made a point.
We asked them if they'd ever heard this: then we played the theme from the piano variations on “Ah! Vous Dirai-Je Maman,” K265, and they all brightened quite a lot.
“It's 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star!'” Indeed, would a couple of Suzuki teachers (both Marisa and I!) forget such a thing? But Mozart's variations are so beautifully elegant, I can't say the same for...well, we needn't get into that!
“Mozart's superpower,” I revealed, “was that when he heard a song like that, he could turn it into this!” Then we launched into the next variation, which is a clever volley between right and left hand, or in our case, between first violin and viola. We continued in this vein, explaining also the “sad Twinkle” in a minor key, and the “fancy” Twinkle, which has a lot of noodly notes in the baseline.
After this, we played a bit more from the Divertimento and concluded with everyone's favorite Eine Kleine. I noted that the performances of it may well number in the million, and possibly that each of us has played it that many times and yet we still love it.
After the show, the children came up to the stage, along with the parents, to chat with us. They were so happy and appreciative. But what surprised me was that the adults talked about how much they craved this kind of an educational concert for themselves. One asked if we might play the same show for a group of adults, and another confessed to “not knowing much about classical music,” but being very interested in it.
Imagine this: educational outreach concerts for adults.
I think some people miss the boat with classical music, then, sadly, they think they can't catch it. As teenagers, many (most?) people are happy to listen to popular music, and its mostly uncomplicated and repetitive nature goes unnoticed. But as people get older, they crave something a little more sophisticated. Britney Spears just doesn't cut it any more. They like the little snippets of classical music they hear, but they don't know how to identify them, or find them. The classical music section of the record store boggles their minds!
We must pay special attention when someone asks us simple questions about this music we know so well. Spread the word!
Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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