Well, this week is my LA Philharmonic audition and I'm ready. I think. At least I've done all I know how to do to get ready.
It all started 29 years ago when I said to my mom, "Mom, I want to play the violin," and she said, "The violin?"
Hah, you laugh! But it's true.
Then for some inexplicable reason I kept doing it, kept wanting to be in orchestras. In fact, I joined my first youth orchestra only a few years after taking up the fiddle. When I could barely eke out a Mozart concerto (and I shouldn't have been doing it, it really was a few years in my future), I tried out for the big youth orchestra in town... and didn't get in. I was undeterred; I switched teachers and got in the following year. In high school I never was in fewer than two youth orchestras, plus school orchestra, plus whatever anybody asked me to play in.
I really loved to play in the orchestra.
When I was at Northwestern I got so fed up with the violin that I quit taking lessons my senior year. But I stayed in the orchestra. While I was getting my master's degree in journalism, I still was taking lessons, playing juries and playing in several area orchestras. When I worked full time as a newspaper reporter, I was in two professional orchestras, and I was teaching.
I remember when I was trying to "be a journalist," and I had to "do things for my resume." For example, I had to write some stories for the college newspaper about stuff I found to be utterly uninteresting, so that I could have "clips" of my writing. And I had to get an internship at a magazine. It was work, just to even think about what I was supposed to do to "build my resume."
My resume for the violin is simply my life, no contrivances.
I did this audition two years ago, and did not do it last year. I spent a while learning to like my violin again and playing things other than excerpts, like a lot of Bach. This with much help from the very wonderful teacher, Lorenz Gamma.
I was toying with the idea of doing it this year, casually learning the excerpts. A good number of them I've obsessed over for years; others were downright pesky to learn!
Then Barry Hou of Marquis Violins put this Gagliano in my hands. I thought, I should give my new friend, The Italian, a shot at playing in a really fantastic orchestra. Don't you think? Barry agreed. I suspect he knew I'd be unable to part with it if I had it that long, and I pretty much am!
At any rate, I studied my excerpts and pieces well. It's a process of reduction, starting with the slow ordering of notes and articulations, moving to phrases and gestures, and then ultimately, the whole excerpt and feeling behind it.
I realized that pretty much every teacher I've ever had has put his mark on my playing, or at least on all this sheet music. I think I've finally arrived at a place where I'm putting my own mark on it all, too. I practiced a lot, made some changes and decisions.
Yesterday I had a great "excerpt party" with a friend. One might think that the stress, the feelings of competitiveness, etc., would make this a dicey proposition just days before the audition. But really, it was so perfectly collegial; we'd been studying all the same music, and we were facing the same rather formidable situation. We each found a few errant notes; a good thing to find before and not after the big day! Somehow our different approaches to all these excerpts and pieces were more interesting than anything else.
Lastly, and I'm sure you will all understand why this has been the most difficult thing of all, I've given up coffee for the last week. Robert has been sympathetic, "Life isn't very exciting without your best friend, Cuppo Joe, is it?" I've been....narcoleptic. Today I fell asleep at my son's piano lesson, WHILE the teacher was talking to me!
So I hope that my ten minutes in the middle of the stage at Disney Hall are ones of great lucidity, clarity, concentration and calm. And whatever happens, there's a medium vanilla latte waiting for me at Peet's Coffee in Pasadena when it's all over!
Apparently I'm not the only person in love with an enchanted fiddle.
My newsfound fascination with old Italian violins (and my desire to spend time with fellow mommy Candy) let me to the Huntington Museum in San Marino, Calif. last night. About 75 people gathered to listen to author Toby Faber speak about his 2004 book, Stradivari's Genius.
"The instruments he made are still the best in the world, even after 250 years," Faber said. "They are amazing living links to the past."
Antonio Stradivari lived for a long time, from 1644 to 1737, and he made violins almost until his death, making his last three violins at the age of 93. In his book, Faber follows the individual histories of five Stradivarius violins and one Strad cello to illustrate the breadth of this luthier's long and prolific career, and its subsequent effect on the musical world.
Considering the kind of money a Strad goes for these days, it was interesting when Faber provided us with the value that Stradivari put on his own violins in a will: 166 Cremonese lyra for each of seven violins, or the equivalent today of $700 U.S. dollars. Faber estimated that the highest price ever fetched for a Stradivarius violin was $4 to $5 million.
"Stradivari violins were not valued as much as Amatis in the 50 or so years after Stradivari died," Faber said. "One of the reasons is that stringed instruments need a period of aging," which he estimated at 50 to 100 years.
Though the first violin by Stradivari, dated 1666, claims he was a pupil of Amati's, subsequent instruments he made do not make that claim. One possible explanation is that perhaps he was not Amati's pupil, Faber said.
It is likely that Stradivari was trained more as a woodworker than as a luthier.
"They are remarkably well-carved," Faber said of the Stradivari instruments. "The saying went, 'Others did with would what they could, Stradivari did with wood as he wanted.'"
In about 1690, Stradivari started experimenting with form, lengthening and narrowing the shapes for violins he made. Though ultimately these innovations did not take hold in either his own violinmaking or that of others, they did show the maker to be forward-thinking.
For violin makers, "Stradivari towers over nearly everything they do," Faber said. For a very long time, luthiers have focused on unlocking Stradivari's secrets, but only in the last 20-30 years has violinmaking "gotten up to the level they were back in Cremona in the 17th century," Faber said. That is because luthiers are using modern technology to analyze the physics of the violin; like Stradivari did, they are innovating. "They best violin makers are the ones who look forward."
The instruments that Faber wrote about include the Messiah, the Viotti, the Khevenhuller, the Paganini, the Lipinski violins and the Davidov cello (currently played by Yo-Yo Ma).
"After I chose them, I worried for the rest of my research that I'd chosen the right ones," Faber laughed. "I chose them because I wanted them to cover the full period of Stradivari's work.
Of the 1,000 some violins Stradivari made, about 600 remain today.
"Most were lost soon after Stradivari died," Faber said.
Even so, Faber estimated that only 100 to 200 of the remaining Strads are being played, while the others are in the hands of collectors. This caused me to gasp, shake my head..
But then Faber had a philosophical way of looking at that: "The collectors of today are the guardians of the instruments that will be played tomorrow," he said.
Faber spoke of "the way the players are uplifted by those who played on these instruments before." A Strad is incomparable for its power and response, he said. But he also spoke of a cellist who felt his cello knew the piece he was playing. I sensed that the audience around me, of mostly non-violinists, found this to be entertaining but perhaps something in the realm of Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster.
I would certainly argue that fine old fiddles have a "memory." When one plays a violin, the sound waves leave tiny patterns in the wood. Somewhere where science and poetry come together, the violin has a long memory of what was played on it before.
But I think it's quite an experience for owners of a great violin or cello, one that was played on by a great artist before. For example, in Faber's book he says that Yo-Yo Ma "has never been able to play the Elgar Concerto on the Davidov without sensing Jacqueline (DuPre)'s presence."
Faber also quotes Russian violinist Louis Krasner, who bought the Dancla Strad from Nathan Milstein: that Milstein's "playing and sonorities were, I would sense, still in the violin. A Strad violin, like a sensitive animal, knows its master and, like the living being that it is, has memory and loyalty."
Faber said that he enjoyed quoting the very quotable Yehudi Menuhin, who played the Khevenhuller Strad and said:
"A great violin is alive; its very shape embodies its maker's intentions, and its wood stores the history, or the soul, of its successive owners. I never play without feeling that I have released or, alas, violated spirits."
So I've been discussing with quite a few people my big crush on the Italian
Our very own Michael Avagliano reminded me of something that many people have told me: "The violin does have antique value -- in fact that's all that it has. The sound of an instrument, no matter how amazing, cannot factor into the price because it's subjective in nature (you love it, but someone else might not)."
Like deductions for a skater in the Olympics, there's a long list of items that cause mark downs in a violin's antique value: a base bar crack, a soundpost crack, a crack in the back (very sinful; the one I'm looking at has an intact back), over-polish, parts that don't match, and unnamed maker, falling on your tush while performing a triple lutz....
[By the way, Avagliano had some news of his own: he just had opened up his own violin shop, called Summit Fine Instruments, in Summit, New Jersey. This is after the shop where he used to work, Machold Violins, moved from New York to the Fine Arts Building in downtown Chicago.]
Another person I talked with was one Violinist.com's pioneer members, Emil Chudnovsky, who was kind enough to talk to me even though he was at a restaurant with his fiance.
"So what's the make of this violin?" he asked, "Ah, my mom had a Gagliano. She loved it."
I said that a number of people had advised that I could find the same sound in a modern instrument. He mentioned that he has played on a number of very fine-sounding modern instruments, in fact, most recently on an excellent modern violin by Howard Needham.
"When it's at its best, it has the timbre of an old Italian instrument and the resonance of an amplified modern fiddle," he said.
"I've seen some of Zygmuntowicz violins that put to shame anything anyone says about modern instruments, many of them are everything you might want to hear in an old or modern fiddle."
We talked about the fine modern instruments that are out there, and also the older one in my hands.
"There are many dealers that would say if it's not pristine, it's a bad investment, but if it's a good players' instrument you should seriously consider it. It's difficult to find a violin you are truly in love with."
"I think I have one I truly love, right here," I said.
"Well, just make sure they let you play on it for at least two weeks," Emil advised.
"I've been playing on it two months," I said.
"TWO MONTHS? And you're still in love with it?" Emil said. "Buy it!"
I can gauge my enthusiasm for playing a concert from the height of the heels I'm willing to wear and also whether I'm inclined to suffer the inconveniences of a dress.
For example, pit orchestra for "Oklahoma" = flats and pants. No doubt here, we're literally talking about being in the pit, underground. Another example: one of those church services where you have to come for an extra unpaid hour-and-a-half choir "warm up" before the actual three-hour oratorio: one has to dress for the marathon it is. Then there is the performance of another 'nother 'nother Tchaik 5: inch-high heels, maybe. And probably pants. It's not exactly a bad piece, but after playing it the 36th time, possibly in the same year, one can't get to dizzying heights over it.
I was contemplating all this Saturday night, while putting on three-inch heels and dress to play in the New West Symphony. Gosh, I like this group. Okay, maybe part of the shoe thing is just being on the west side of the Los Angeles metro area instead of home in rather, uh, homey, Pasadena. Or I could have been under the influence of my excellent stand partner for this series, Rock 'n' Roll Melissa, who just always wears cool shoes.
But also, the last two concerts I've played for this orchestra have been well worth getting about three inches taller for, with interesting programming and stunning soloists. The last one was a challenge, with Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphosis and then pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin playing not one, but both Shostakovich piano concertos. I'm thinking his last movement of the Op. 35 was as fast as anybody in perhaps the world has heard it.
Then last night's pianist, Arnaldo Cohen, well, he was probably worth four-inch heels, but those are against my religion, or at least the advice of a physical therapist. He played a beautifully accurate and musical Liszt Concerto No. 2, the lesser-played of the Liszt concerti. But what stunned everyone was his encore: a riff on themes from Johann Strauss's "Die Fledermaus." Cohen himself composed this encore, full of all kinds of stunning pianistic feats ("I think I made my life more difficult," he smiled, as he explained it to some musicians backstage) as well as some quiet moments of theme weaving that could come only from a very sophisticated musical mind.
Fine pieces, fine playing, yes, I'll wear my very best shoes!
I've been trying to hide it from the world but... I'm in love.
With a violin!
What to do, what to do. I was just going to date this fiddle, and now it's asking me to get married, and this time my parents have not volunteered to pay for the wedding.
It was a chance meeting, I live just a block away from a violin shop, and while I was there after hours, getting some strings, my good friend who I'll call for the moment My Dealer or maybe Mr. Matchmaker, said, "Hey, I've got this violin you might like. Why don't you give it a try?"
Yeah, right, right, I'll humor him. As if I'm even thinking about a new violin at this point. It's a Gagliano family fiddle, with a later scroll, with a number of cracks that bring down the price, though not so much that it wouldn't still be a tremendous feat to buy it. Right, I'll try it!
So I played it. I played in that room for a mighty long time, Mr. Matchmaker there listening to me play. "After all these years, Laurie," he said. "I've never heard you play. I never knew you played so well!" Frankly, I never knew I played so well, either. I played everything I could remember on it, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Meditation, more Bach. I think it liked me, because suddenly I felt like the fiddle itself was making requests. Suddenly I was playing the Wieniawski Concerto, which I hadn't played in nearly 20 years. I even found myself playing the Brahms, until I realized, hey wait, I don't know how to play the Brahms. I took this fiddle off my chin and looked at it. Enchanted piece of wood?
"Take it home for a few days, see what you think," said my friend. As he was signing out the fiddle, I nearly started to cry. "What's wrong, Laurie, this is a good thing!"
But I actually want it! This is not a good thing!
In a state of insanity, I called my parents. I called my coach. This was all while I was walking home. I came into our apartment.
"Laurie what took you so long?" asked Robert.
"This violin!" I said excitedly, and I started opening the case, had the fiddle out, started playing. "See, see! It's responsive! I can play so much, I just can't believe it..."
"Laurie," Robert said soberly, "You weren't looking for a violin. Especially at... that price."
"I know," I said slowly, "But I'm just going to die one day, whether I get a good violin or not. I can wait till I'm 65 and can afford it, or find a way to get it while I'm still playing, while it still makes a difference."
"Okay..." Robert said. "See what you think in a few days."
My Dealer has let me borrow the violin a bit longer. I'll use it for my LA Phil audition. I've shown it to a lot of people, and I know all its cracks and flaws. And I still love it, and I still want it. I've had people fall in love with it, too. And I've had other reactions. One person looked at the cracks, said it wasn't worth the price, said he could find me a better one for less. I've tried about 10 others, but I still want this one. Another said, "Sad to say, but the price isn't all that bad, for a really fine instrument. I mean, yes, it's that bad. But, no, it's not that bad!"
Another person whom I trust a lot looked it over and said, "I think it is what it is. The back matches the front, matches the ribs. It has all the characteristics. And it has a nice sound." Another violin maker said, "It has that Gagliano, honey sound." I've two different people play it for just a minute and hand it back, saying, "It's just so different from mine, I don't even know what to make of it."
But I do, I know exactly what to make of it: as much music as possible. Getting a violin like this would be a huge commitment, a commitment to make a lot of music, and make it well. No one can make this decision for me, about whether it's right to plunk down big money on a fine instrument. It really is like getting married, you have to decide yourself, is this the one? Then... it's a big commitment!
Hear more from the world's top violinists in The Violinist.com Interviews: Volume 1, which includes our exclusive conversations with Joshua Bell, Sarah Chang, and David Garrett, and others, as well as a foreword by Hilary Hahn.
Smiling as he spoke, Steinhardt offered his suggestions with clarity and appeal, in language both efficient and richly meaningful.
Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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