It sounds like a fantasy come true: the young violinist performs with an orchestra. Upon hearing her, a recording studio executive in the audience goes straight backstage to sign her up for a record deal.
It's actually a true story.
This was Caroline Goulding, age 16, playing "Souvenir d'Amérique" by Vieuxtemps with the Cleveland Orchestra. But she was no newbie to the concert stage: Caroline has been spending her summers at the Aspen Music Festival since the age of 10, winning its concerto competition at age 13. She has performed also with the Detroit Symphony, and on NBC's "Today Show" and Martha Stewart's The Martha Show. She's appeared on "From the Top" four times, including its televised From the Top Live From Carnegie Hall 2006.
To tell the truth, she didn't quite know what to make of it when Thomas Moore from TelArc asked her about that recording gig, and she didn't really pursue it. It wasn't until later, when Moore contacted her teacher, Paul Kantor of the Cleveland Institute of Music, that she understood the opportunity.
"It was such a great surprise," Caroline said, speaking to me from Aspen earlier this summer."It was a dream come true."
So how does one go about doing a debut album?
"TelArc was so flexible, which I very much appreciate, in allowing me to participate in choosing the repertoire," Caroline said. "After Thom Moore called Mr. Kantor, we set up a date and time to meet and discuss repertoire choices. Before that, my homework was to think of pieces that I absolutely loved and that I would love to play on an encore disc. So I went to work, and I found all these wonderful pieces."
She chose some standard fare, including four pieces by Kreisler; John Corigliano's "Red Violin Caprices," and the Gershwin/Heifetz "Porgy and Bess" transcriptions, and she included that "Souvenir d'Amérique." She also found some less-played works, namely, "Four Souvenirs for Violin and Piano" by Paul Schoenfield, as well as a bit of Cape Breton Island fiddling.
"I was thinking of pieces I loved, and I love Schoenfield's Café Music," Caroline said. "It's just one of my very favorite pieces. I thought, 'Hmmm, I wonder if he has something for violin and piano?' So I looked up Schoenfield 'Cafe Music' on Rhapsody.com or something, and I fell upon a recording by James Ehnes and pianist (Andrew Russo), and I fell in love with 'Four Souvenirs.' I thought, 'You've got to be kidding me, this is incredible, I love this, I have to put this on.' I haven't heard any other recordings of the piece, except for that one recording. So I'm happy to help in promoting this piece."
For the "Porgy and Bess," she listened both to popular and opera versions of the songs. "I don't sing it in my head while I play, but it helps a lot, to know the words," Caroline said. "That's why I listened to the recording of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, just to hear the words, and hear how they sang it. I've also listened to some of the opera versions as well."
When it came to deciding on a pianist to collaborate with, she decided to ask "From the Top" host and pianist, Christopher O'Riley, with whom she was also playing the Mendelssohn Concerto for Violin Piano and Strings in D minor for a recording with the Cincinnati Pops called From the Top at the Pops, which is also being released today.
"He's an amazing pianist, collaborator and accompanist," Caroline said of O'Riley. "It was a pleasure working with him."
Caroline's involvement with From the Top has been an important part of her early development.
"I first went on the show when I was 13," Caroline said. "I auditioned in Aspen when I was 12, and then I got a call, and they were going to be in Ohio at Denison University, and they said, 'Would you like to come and play on our show with (renowned banjoist) Béla Fleck as our special guest?" And I said I'd love to, I was honored and excited that they chose me, and I was excited to work with Béla and Chris and all of the other wonderful musicians. It was a blast, a great experience."
Christopher O'Riley remembers that show as well, and how Caroline worked so easily with her fellow musicians. "She became sort of de-facto concertmistress for this string quartet arrangement they were doing with Béla Fleck, who doesn't read music," O'Riley said. "He wasn't in a position to really rehearse the piece, other than to play with the kids until they got it right. Caroline stepped up; she was putting the thing together. Not in any kind of bossy way, either, but she just had a supreme sense of confidence and competence in all of her situations -- in terms of communicating with an audience, in terms of her preparation, in terms of her striving for the best possible performance in everything that she does, in every style that she does, it's really kind of remarkable."
After performing with "From the Top" some four times, Caroline said that "it never disappoints me, it's a great experience. It's different than a normal performance – you get to communicate with the audience in different ways, you don't just go out and perform. It's a relaxed setting, it's a fun setting, especially for young musicians."
Caroline plays on the 1617 "Lobkowicz" (AH) Amati, which she has had on loan from the Stradivari Society for three years.
"It's a fantastic instrument," Goulding said. "You grow with the instrument, and it grows with you. I'm glad I've been given the opportunity to have it for three years, because it's opened up so much. Actually in the first two months, it opened up incredibly fast. It has a very big sound."
An Amati with a big sound?
"Exactly, which is surprising," Caroline said. "I remember playing with the Cleveland Orchestra, only about three or four months after I got it. One of the orchestra members said, 'That thing is a cannon!' They couldn't believe it when I told them it was an Amati. I don't even want to say it has such a big sound 'for an Amati.' It has such a big sound, period."
I wondered how Caroline got on this fast track – did her parents beat her with a wet noodle to make her practice?
"My parents are actually both special education teachers, which is actually kind of a different story than the usual one," Caroline said. Caroline started playing the violin when she was three and a half, when her two older brothers petitioned their mother to get her an instrument of her own, so she would stop trying to play with their saxophone and trumpet. She recalls being drawn to the violin because it resembled a guitar, though she soon fell in love with it for its own qualities. She started with teacher Julia Kurtyka, from the Detroit area, with a modified Suzuki method.
"It was always something that I did for fun, always a hobby, there was no pressure to live up to a certain dream or a certain futuristic goal," Caroline said. "It was a healthy upbringing, and it let me grow as a musician, naturally. My entire family has been supporting me every step of the way, but without push. It's a very fine line, between support and pressure, and they've done a wonderful job with keeping it healthy. I've heard horror stories; I've witnessed horror stories, and I'm just thankful."
She has studied for a number of years with Paul Kantor, who has helped shape her playing "in a way that my own personal style could still shine through," Caroline said. "I think that is the art, the brilliance, of his teaching. Each of his students has a voice of his or her own, as an artist, and he doesn't step on that. He doesn't cover that or change that. He helps you cultivate it. He opens the door for you."
The last few songs on Caroline's album are traditional Cape Breton Island fiddling; has she done any step dancing herself?
"I've actually done a couple of classes on step dancing, but that's beside the point, I was always on the wrong foot!" she laughed. "I went over the Cape Breton Island for fun, actually, for a different experience, a fiddling experience. We heard about it from friends, and we thought it would be a great vacation spot for the family, in Nova Scotia, Canada. While I was over there, I met all these wonderful musicians and fiddlers, and I was able to study with Buddy MacMaster, who is the grandfather of Cape Breton Island fiddling, and his niece is Natalie MacMaster. She's amazing, she's such a great fiddler. I just loved it there, I was able to play with him, and another great musician, Brenda Stubbert, and the Ceilidh Trail School of Celtic Music. I also studied with Alasdair Fraser. He actually plays with Natalie Haas, who graduated from the Juilliard School, and I think they're more alternative styles, as well as Scottish.
"It's a mix between Irish and Scottish music, with mostly Scottish," Caroline said. "The island is full of Irish and Scottish immigrants, and you can definitely tell in their music, because clearly it has Celtic roots, but also, it's like a different dialect, like the difference between a northern accent and a southern accent."
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We were in the middle of Kansas, falling asleep at the wheel. We'd listened to everything on all of our iPods and were passing hundreds of miles of green corn and prairie in silence.
"I'm falling asleep," said Robert. The kids were already snoozing in the back. I opened my eyes grudgingly and groped for the CDs.
"How about this?" I asked, handing him a new CD sent to me by violinist Lara St. John.
"Polkastra?" he said. "'Apolkalypse Now'?"
And thus the atmosphere in our quiet car shifted.
"What is this, Laurie?"
"I don't know!"
Soon we were laughing, reading the liner notes out loud, laughing more. Wide awake. There's everything but the kitchen sink in this album: quotes from Beethoven and Paganini, Gypsy licks, impressive contrabassoon solos, and laughter. It's a lot of fun.
Lara St. John, whom we know for her recordings of Gypsy music, the Bach Sonatas and Partitas and most recently, the Vivaldi and Piazzolla Four Seasons, pulled together friends from all over the globe for this project: Canadian folk fiddler Daniel Lapp, the Met's contrabassoonist Mark Timmerman, Israeli accordionist and percussionist Ronn Yedidia, jack-of-all-trades bassist Jack Campbell, California French hornist Andy Doe, percussionist Yuval Edoot, and even didgeridoo artist William Barton.
I definitely wanted to talk to Lara about how she came up with this idea and made it a reality. And so we spoke, mostly over e-mail, and here's what she wrote:
Laurie: How did the musicians for Polkastra come together for this project? Were you all friends beforehand? How did you meet?
Lara St. John: All the members of Polkastra are friends of mine - but a lot of them met each other doing this project. When I first started putting together the core of the idea, I needed to introduce Ronn Yedidia (accordion) and Yuval Edoot (percussion) to Daniel Lapp (fiddle, trumpet, guitar, voice), so naturally, I had a lasagna party at my apartment, as one does. They all brought their instruments, got on like a house on fire, and I am still insanely proud of the fact that I finally got a complaint (around midnight in Manhattan - not bad) from five floors below about noise (all the other floors were enjoying it immensely).
Once that was set, I realized I didn't know any bass player well enough to be part of such a wacky project for nothing but home-cooked food. Thence entered Mark (Timmerman) on contrabassoon - a friend I have had since I was 13. He was game, and man, does that crazy instrument sound amazing on this sort of music.
Laurie: What fired your interest in the genre of the polka? Do you have a favorite polka? What do you find most compelling about the polka? What's most challenging for the violinist?
Lara St. John: We did a Polka album because we decided that polka was a genre that needed something new. In the past many years, in the U.S., it's become a rather insular and somewhat 'same-old' (or, at worst, 'old') idea. We decided to bring in the real origins of this dance, which spans almost every country in Europe, and also has a strong New World tradition to this day, as anyone in the Midwest knows well. Many Classical composers, from Beethoven to Smetana (and especially Strauss) were inspired by it at one point or another, thus our Classical 'tributes'. With this amazing group of musicians, we could have done almost anything, but decided to dance, laugh, and make folks do the same.
Laurie: Did you all collaborate on the ideas for the various polkas? I noticed that various members of the band composed most of the polkas for this album; what was that process like? Did you get together and try things, or did each composer go home, write one, then everyone tried it?
Lara St. John: We are a very far-flung group -- from Australia to California to South Pender Island (Canada) to Nashville to Manhattan. No one had any time to go home and write anything - most of the album was done when we were all together only once, for a great three days in February, so everything was figured out in our two days of rehearsal. Daniel, our Polka expert, had a whole bunch that he had written. The Classical numbers were done in advance, arranged by Matt Van Brink, and rehearsed in the same short time. Ronn Yedidia is more of a composer and pianist in real life than an accordionist, so he also wrote some tunes for the group. Honestly, I still can't believe the whole thing actually worked out. It was utterly mad, and fantastically fun.
Laurie: There's definitely a feeling of fun in the music, the program notes and in the whole nature of this project, but I suspect that you all took it pretty seriously, because there's some great stuff in here. Am I right that you did not record this at a drinking party? What is the band's favorite polka, from these that you recorded, and why?
Lara St. John: There was certainly no drinking going on (although I will admit it sometimes sounds like it), and we were very serious about the whole thing. I think it's good music to have a few cheers and beers to, and we sure did when all was finished! That's not to say that we didn't laugh our heads off constantly during recording, especially at the expense of the contrabassoon. Poor Mark. But he's used to it.
And, can I just say - it's far harder to write a short, fun-to-read 100-word bio than it is to write a huge, boast-y 1,000-word bio full of facts that no ever reads, yet it's so much more satisfying in the end! Everyone should do it.
Laurie: Did you record "Apolkalypse Now" on your 1779 "Salabue" Guadagnini?
Lara St. John: Yep. I don't have any other violin. The greatest extant Guad has been mine to play on for the past 10 years and is an open-ended loan, from an anonymous donor and Heinl of Toronto. I well know how lucky I am.
Laurie: Tell me about the name "Apolkalypse Now." Is it just a cute play on words, or is it possible that the Polkastra will actually bring about the end the world as we know it?
Lara St. John: It's a really sweet pun from our Horn player Andy (Doe), and should this disc for some unfathomable reason bring about the end of the world, at least folks will be Dancing Neros. Very few people (unless they are hardcore Joseph Conrad or Coppola/Brando fans) get 'the Hora! the Hora!', but I personally think that is the coolest pun by far.
Laurie: Your bio says that you spent time with the Roma people -- the Gypsies -- after a frustrated Cold-War stint at a Russian conservatory. This sounds totally fascinating to me. What did you learn? How did you change? What kind of perspective did this give you on the violin? What is most compelling for you about Gypsy music? What is its biggest challenge, for the violinist?
Lara St. John: Well, I was 16, frustrated at Curtis, and having known only Classical music and very few people in my life, I decided to go far away - to Moscow - and learn something about life in general. I succeeded.
I don't know which bio you read, but what I do know is that one of my best friends there was a Roma, and I learned a lot from her, and others, about music, songs especially, and how to live in the present, and not just past and future.
This did give me a perspective violinistically, but not in the way you might think. Russian Gypsy and Folk music is very voice-oriented - unlike Hungary and Romania which has a lot of violin. I heard vibrato used vocally in ways I had never even fathomed, and worked quite a bit to reproduce that sound on violin. (Although I always sing in tune, I am a crap singer and sound like a 10-year-old boy).
I always encourage students and young folks to listen to voice as much as possible - in fact, I even brought in a boombox to my 'Sound Production and Vibrato' class at Mark O'Connor's camp and played them a bit of Romica Puceanu - a Romanian Gypsy singer- just to show them how much you can do with vibrato.
Laurie: You have recorded so much Bach, I wondered how your perspective on those works has changed over the last, say, 20 years. Or has it? Does the music of Bach ever get old, or does it just keep opening up for you?
Lara St. John: In 300 years no one has even come close to that kind of solo violin writing, and I doubt anyone ever will (for all those Ysäye fans out there - yah - fun, neat, violinistic and interesting pieces, but they cannot be compared...). There is always something new to discover in the Bach 6. I particularly like when he plagiarizes himself and one gets to hear what he really meant (for example in the G minor fugue, which is also for organ (BWV 539, in D minor), - and suddenly you hear this huge 4/2 chord in the organ version when we only have one note - and it is such a revelation). Same goes for the E major - everyone should study the lute version. And the Cantata that the the C major fugal subject came from. And the diminished 7th leap downward which meant so much to him... (from Agnus Dei of the Mass and the C major Largo, for example). I will now stop myself from going on 'til doomsday in manner of a blithering idiotic fan.
Laurie: As a violinist, I find that I sometimes encounter a "No-Can-Do" attitude when it comes to the violin. The perfectionism, the rules, the traditions of classical music can sometimes feel totally suffocating. You seem to be having fun. How do you keep the fun in your playing? Do you have any advise on this subject?
Lara St. John: Well. This is a great question, and I encounter it all the time.
I think the reason why we do this, is often, if not always, lost, in the ever more preposterous world of competitions and the idea of competition banged into young folks' heads, when this could not be farther from the ideal.
Bela Bartok once said, famously, that competition is for horses. I totally agree. Beethoven would not have even understood the concept, and would have lost every single one, had they existed in his time. I understand healthy competition, and having a goal, but it has become ridiculous - and I think that's a big problem for this, and even the former, generation, because people feel they are forced to follow certain rules.
Music is not something one can measure, and it never will be.
Here is now a small list of items that help me manage to have 'fun' performing:
My first and foremost advice is to learn to think for yourself. Ask questions all the time. Think long and hard about what it is you are playing, and if you don't agree with a teacher, say so. Whatever ideas you might have are never wrong as long as you have a good reason, are convinced, and therefore convincing. Teachers are only there to help along the way, not to make you a copy or slave of what it is they are used to (which happens far too often).
Secondly - be a perfectionist in the practice room, and not onstage. All bets are off the minute you walk out there - then, it's all about the audience - and they are there to hear how you interpret this music, and to have a great or intense or even tear-inducing time.
As my good friend Mark Timmerman told me years ago as he fetched me from the warmup room to play my first ever Curtis concert (it was Ysäye 6; I was 13, and rather nervous): "When all else fails, lower your standards!," and although that hardly sounds like advice, it's actually quite good. The little foibles no longer matter on stage, and the best thing you can possibly do is relax. It is impossible to perform relaxed unless you practice relaxed, so that is of supreme importance. I cannot, to this day, have any fun at all if I am even slightly tense - and that all came from the practice room.
Thirdly, do not lose sight of why this exists in the first place. We are bringing to life and sound the unspoken words of great composers who wanted individualistic approaches to their work. Unlike visual art, music takes two, and if they wanted us to sound as though we were just spat out onto a conveyor belt by some smoke-belching factory, they would have all written for player piano and stopped at that.
Laurie: What is next for you? (Concerts, recording projects, other projects, life in general?)
Lara St. John: Well the first thing I have when I come off holiday on September 9th (and cut my left hand nails), will be our fabulous Polkastra show with all of us together again at Le Poisson Rouge in NYC on September 14th (at 7 p.m., in case anyone is in town!) What a great way to start the season. After that, it's life as usual again.
As for recording projects, I have many in mind, and at least one, if not two, will have come to fruition by this time next year. However, my little label has just released four big recordings in the last two years, all of them completely different, so I think I'm due a little holiday.
Tonight we make camp in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, after driving all the way across the country, reaching Washington, D.C., and turning south.
Much of our big family trip has been about theme parks because of my husband's website, ThemeParkInsider.com. So we've hit parks big and small: Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana; Kings Island in Cincinnati, Ohio; Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia, and today, Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
Robert wrote up these visits very nicely on his site, but I wanted to share a few musical tidbits I picked up today at Dollywood, the park in the Smoky Mountains that features the talents of Dolly Parton, and also has touches of her hospitality (they set out little cups of water for all, free, all day).
When the day began, the rain was pouring, I had a blinding headcold, and no one would sell me a Sudafed on a Sunday morning ("You need to sign in blood with a certified pharmacist, who does not arrive until after 10 a.m.," said the lady at CVS Pharmacy. I think that's what she said, but I was pickled with nasal ooze to really know.) At least I had two pills left, and that would see me through the day.
Lunch time was when I finally got to take those last pills, the sun came out, and we met my favorite person at the park, Miss Lillian.
Miss Lillian played a banjo and walked around the restaurant, trying to get people to find their "inner chicken" by crowing, flapping their arms, clucking, dancing etc. Always wanting to encourage live entertainers, I played along and said, "Cockadoodle doo!" for her (with feeling). She tossed me a fresh biscuit from her basket, in return.
We didn't see Dolly, but we saw a show called Sha-Kon-O-Hey! which included eight songs composed by Parton herself. I was happy to see, amid the singing, dancing, people soaring overhead with eagle-feather wings, that the show featured a five-piece bluegrass band, including a fiddle player who doubled on mandolin. They did not appear to be doing the Milli Vanilli thing; they were actually playing -- a welcome sight.
I also visited Uncle Bill's Music in the Valley;
Here, the lovely lady who ran the store showed me an interesting instrument that I'd not played before, the bowed psaltery, and within minutes she had told me and my daughter many interesting facts about the instrument, such as that it is mentioned in the Bible some 27 times. Then she provided us with a small, curved bow, some music, and let us have at it.
They had a decent selection of Mandolin music -- all Mel Bay, but Mel Bay has the corner on that market, doesn't he? Though one can find zillions of these books online, I haven't found altogether that many opportunities to leaf through these books, in the flesh, and there's no subsititute for that. I found "Texas Fiddle Favorites for Mandolin by Joe Carr" (marked down from $17.99 to $12.88) and snatched it up. It appears to have that balance of ease-to-play yet written in musical notation (as opposed to tab). We'll see!
As I stood at the cashier and the above-mentioned sweet lady rung up my book, I noticed a gorgeous-looking mandolin on the wall. Ooo really nice.
"What kind of mandolin is that?" I asked.
"A Washburn," she said, then quoted a price larger than $1,000. To a violinist, that didn't sound like a crazy price, though I know that mandolins generally cost much less than violins. I signed my name on the receipt, took my music, and turned around to leave. Then I turned back.
"Can I try playing it?" I asked.
"Sure you can," she said, and took it down from the wall. It sounded as nice as it looked, at it was easier to play than my own. Smooth. With a little crook for my right pinkie on the bridge. (Is that allowed? I don't even know!)
Now don't you be worryin'. Well, you can worry that I'm pickin' up a temporary southern accent (another week in the South still!) but I ain't gonna buy a mandolin before I pay off my fiddle!
More entries: July 2009
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