What exactly is Time for Three?
I'd call it a group of serious musicians, geeking out on everything that finds favor with their ears. The three of them – violinist Zach DePue, violinist Nick Kendall (grandson of Suzuki pioneer John Kendall) and bassist Ranaan Meyer – met as students at Curtis, but it's pretty difficult to pin down their "genre." Amazon gets close, calling it "a fusion of classical and fierce folk fun."
When I spoke to Zach last week over the phone, he didn't have a tidy answer, either.
"I'm not really one who is able to say what its place is on the shelf in music," Zach said of the group's new album, Three Fervent Travelers. "I think we're just doing what we like to do."
At 30, Zach also serves as concertmaster of the Indianapolis Symphony. Add that to 22 weeks of touring for Time for Three, and Zach's one busy fiddler.
"I grew up learning a very distinct style of Appalachian fiddle tunes, for the purpose of playing with my family," Zach said. "Appalachian-style is not as swung as, say, a Texas-style fiddling; it's a northern fiddle style, and there are endless, countless tunes to learn."
"I learned all those by ear from my brothers," Zach said, "they literally sat down with me when I was nine, and I learned by trial and error: I play it for you, you play it back, and then go back and forth until you have the tune. I remember Wallace teaching me 'Wake Up Susan' for two hours down in the basement."
That kind of early experience has allowed the members of Time for Three to arrive at their tunes through a combination of both live experimentation and written arranging.
"We compose with the instruments in our hands," said Zach. For their new album, the group brought in another Curtis friend, Steve Hackman, a conductor, pianist and singer-songwriter. "He's been delving into the pop world a little bit, but he still brings that classical attitude to everything." He helped them with their arrangements and also created an arrangement of Imogen Heap's "Hide and Seek." As with all their arrangements, the final edit happened when they went through the song bit by bit, taking this out and adding that.
"We like to say we have a garage-band mentality," Zach said. "That really is our process, though, through trial and error, with the instruments in our hands."
Having both the classical and garage-band mentality, they also like to break the rules in both realms.
"We don't like those rules, as a group," Zach said. "I find that we like to be more about expression and by any means necessary."
What does that mean? Well, for example:
"If Ranaan brings a straight-ahead jazz tune, for instance, or a melody that maybe Ranaan intended for jazz, we'll play through it. As we play through it, Nick will say, 'Man, it works well with this beat,' and he'll start chuckin' a beat, and I'll do it again. 'That feels a lot more up my alley,' and then I'll join him on that, and Ranaan will say, 'Wow, I didn't figure this piece like this, but this is cool,' and he goes with it," Zach said. "This is opposed to, 'We're going to play the head and the deck, you're going to take the solo, and then if you and Nick can trade off two-bar phrases, and then I'll take a bass extension solo and we'll play the ahead again in unison, with a trash-can ending.'"
In other words, even garage bands have their standard vocabulary, and "Time for Three" likes to stand all of it on its head.
"We try to re-invent the structure," Zach said. "We never say 'you'll play through it once,' it's more like, 'it feels like you should play that through half, and take it into this cool thing we just jammed out on,' so it never follows a structure. It ends up being more thought-out and more through-composed, rather than saying 'this session will be completely open to you improving; we'll be laying down harmonies for you.'"
"We've also found that free-styling has been successful," Zach said. "Rather than stopping and talking to an audience, we literally will free-style our way into the next tune, based on what's going on in the room. There is no structure to that, whatsoever. But there is an art form to it and the audience has to be open to it, as well. They have to come expecting it."
"We've been experimenting with this with outreaches with high schools" Zach said. "The high school kids – when we ask, 'Is there another question?'...about the third question they'll say, 'Yeah, can you guys just keep playing?' So we just we stop talking and go back to playing."
Much of "Three Fervent Travelers" is recorded live – remarkable for the energy this creates and for the fact that these guys joyously perform their stunt-filled high-wire act with no safety net. Listen carefully, and "The Simpsons" theme floats out of the "Orange Blossom Special"; a thread from Dvorak's American quartet peeps out of a tune about Pittsburgh called "Of Time and Three Rivers."
"We pull from a lot of things, and we all listen to a lot of different music," Zach said. "Right now, for example, I'm big on Muse. They're basically U2's opening act right now. Their music is very orchestral, and it's very clear to me that they are classically trained, in one way or another. They have a pianist, and they totally lift classical pieces. I've heard Rachmaninov in their music; I've heard Chopin in their albums, not even re-done; the Tchaikovsky piano concerto....They can be like Bruckner, in terms of the epic quality of a lot of their tunes."
"It's funny because for years, Ranaan and I didn't listen to a lot of music because we didn't want any influences on what we were creating," Zach said. "We wanted it to be purely organic, from us. But it's been hard. Once I hear something that really catches my ear, I have to go discover it. It's just one of those things."
One of the songs they discover on "Three Fervent Travelers" is Imogen Heap's pop hit "Hide and Seek." To me it is a song with a mechanized, monochrome aesthetic – but it becomes a poignant exploration of sound and harmony in this trio's hands.
"We spent quite a bit of time getting that right – or getting it where it is," Zach said of the "Hide and Seek" arrangement. "I shouldn't say 'right'; it feels good."
"We bring a chamber music attitude to it," Zach said of their work on this piece. "If we handed the piece off now to a student group, there would be a lot for them to learn about playing together, creating homogenous sound together, just like you would in a Beethoven quartet. We're kind of proud of that. We hope, in the future, groups will play this stuff."
It's not available yet, though.
"We're working on that," Zach said. "We need to work on that, because it's fun to hear other groups play what we do."
Speaking of students, how does one work toward being a successful fusion musician?
"I think that for any instrument, the best starting point is training classically, for better or for worse, because it's so refined," Zach said. "Hands down, it's the hardest to play well and sound good. If anybody ever argued that, I would be strong-pressed for them to prove that, by studying jazz, you could then cover, on a violin, all styles of music. I feel like if you start from classical, you have the capability, the tools, that can allow you then feel jazz, to feel bluegrass, to understand it. Certainly the guys that pushed the envelope for the violin – Bach, Paganini, Ysaye, Bartok – those are classical composers. Classical been very successful in pressing the technical aspects of the violin forward."
"My family is almost a study in what happens when you start from classical but you're open to all styles," Zach said. Zach has three brothers: Jason, who is in the Philadelphia Orchestra, Alex, a rock fiddle player who plays with electric guitarist Steve Vai, and Wallace Jr., who is also a violinist.
"We all come out of classical music," Zach said. Nothing is better than classical training, from purely technical perspective, to give you capability on the instrument, he said. As for cultivating that creative side and learning to play in different genres: listen, and imitate.
"Listen to Stephane Grappelli, listen to Ricky Skaggs," Zach said. "Listen to different artists and mimic what they do. Then also listen to other instruments and try to somehow recreate that on your instrument. Obviously, there are some limitations, but I think just learning by ear, trying to capture styles, is one of the first steps."
"It covers a lot of different styles of jazz, in the jazz idiom," Zach said of the concerto. "We've been getting our mind wrapped around that type of world and living in it, so it's going to be fun to recreate that piece. Of course, in that idiom, Chris always says, 'Man, if something doesn't fit well on the fiddle, just change it...' He's very cool, but I always like the challenge of doing what he wrote, first and foremost."
-- There were many stories this week (Here's the one in the Miami Herald, and one from NPR) about blind violinist Romel Joseph, 50, who survived for 18 hours in the rubble of his own music school in Haiti – playing in his mind every concerto he knew in order to keep his sanity before he was pulled from the collapsed building. His wife, Myslie, who was 26 and pregnant, died in a room two floors below him, and the New Victorian School, which he had founded 1991 in Port-au-Prince, was destroyed. According to Claire (Rott) Lee, who used to accompany Romel at CCM, checks or money orders can be made payable to the Walenstein Musical Organization Inc. and sent to 2817 NW 168th Terrace, Miami Gardens, FL 33056. School supplies may be sent to the New Victorian School, c/o Victoria Joseph, 18320 NE Eighth Ave., North Miami Beach, FL 33179. We are considering what members of Violinist.com can do, please submit any ideas to this discussion thread.
-- Cellist and longtime Curtis cello teacher Orlando Cole died Monday at the age of 101. Cole was a student in Curtis's first class in 1924, and he played in the Curtis Quartet for more than 50 years. He taught many of today's finest cellists, including Lynn Harrell. Violinist David Russell wrote this blog in memory of Orlando Cole..
-- Violinist Itzhak Perlman gently admonished a Los Angeles audience for clapping between movements of Mozart’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in A major at Cal State Los Angeles' Luckman Theater on Saturday. He came back onstage with “an urgent message from Mr. Beethoven." Apparently, Mr. Beethoven felt the applause between movements was breaking the music’s mood and wanted to voice his concern before Perlman began playing Beethoven's own Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 7 (“Eroica").
-- The strike is over, and The Cleveland Orchestra went immediately back to work, with a concert in Miami featuring violinist Leila Josefowicz , who performed a violin concerto by British composer Thomas Adès called Concentric Paths. Here is Lawrence Budmen's review from the Miami Herald.
-- Korean-American violinist Sarah Chang performed pieces by Brahms and Franck Friday night at the 14th annual Hennessy Concert in Hanoi. She also played a concerto written especially for her by American composer Christopher Theofanidis; here is the story.
-- Hilary Hahn played Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto with music director Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra last Thursday and here is the write-up by Mark Stryker of the Detroit Free Press. Of the concerto he said that Higdon “writes music in motion and music in Technicolor. In three movements, the 30-minute concerto unfolds largely in an infectious rush of kinetic energy, pulsating rhythm, gleaming hues and impeccable craftsmanship." And of Hilary: “It's hard to imagine a more persuasive soloist than Hahn, who put a high gloss on the pyrotechnics, from the evocative opening harmonics to the jumping jack intervals and the blazing finale; she also sang sweetly in the slow movement."
-- Rachel Barton Pine won Best Classical Entertainer 2010 from the 29th Annual Chicago Music Awards on Sunday.
-- Violinist Anne Akiko Meyers has been touring this month with jazz trumpeter, Chris Botti. with concerts in Greensville (SC), Morristown (NJ) and Portland (ME) Durham (NC) and West Palm Beach.
-- Teenage violist Jordan Miles alleges that plain-clothes Pittsburgh police brutally beat him and yanked off his dreadlocks because, as the criminal complaint says, Miles was standing against a building "as if he was trying to avoid being seen." Thinking he had been abducted, he said he was surprised to find that he had been arrested, according to the Washington Post.
-- Here is the South Miami Middle School Chamber Ensemble, who played for Haitian violinist Romel Joseph at Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital:
Chris Thile is a musician who gives himself over fully and completely to his music; to watch him perform seems almost like a séance, where he's simply channeling this thing called "Music."
The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra gave Thile's mandolin concerto its California premiere last weekend, something I'd been anticipating ever since talking with Chris before the concerto's world premiere with the Colorado Symphony in September.
For his mandolin concerto ("Ad Astra per Alas Porci" – "To the stars on the wings of a pig."), Thile said he didn't want to be different for the sake of being different. "The composer's duty is to be conjuring a sense of inevitability," Thile said. "Even if something is moving you intellectually, it needs to be moving your body."
And clearly, Thile was feeling every ounce of this concerto; he was "grooving" with the orchestra, whether he was playing or not. The music seemed a landscape completely of Thile's own making; meandering in both rhythm and pitch, but always intentional and somehow natural. In the first movement, his lightning-fast mandolin runs spilled into the first violin section, a spiccato run rather fast for a whole section, but well-done, LACO violins. 'Does he actually have six fingers?' I wondered at one point; they moved fast enough to give that illusion. As the movement progressed, many ideas came in and out of focus: a swirly woodwind statement settled into something waltz-like, with gentle mandolin accompaniment, then just as it became recognizable, it morphed into something else.
The second movement reminded me that here in the 21st century, the sounds of birds and horse hooves no longer dominate our environment. If we take in our true sonic world, we might hear it in way Chris does; his inspiration for this movement was the sound of a New York City F train. Specifically, the whine of the train moving forward. As it picks up speed, it hits three ascending notes, settling into a faster speed, where it oscillates between two high notes. "It does it in retrograde when you slow back down," Thile explained at the pre-concert lecture, laughing. The third movement seemed the most tightly woven of them all, the orchestra and mandolin more integrated.
For an encore, Thile played Bach's D minor Gigue. Anyone who has played Bach knows that it is quite a feat to work this piece to the point where the notes spill like water, like a fast-moving stream. It doesn't feel frantic or rushed; it feels inevitable. The speed of water is just the speed of water. Somehow his Gigue, too fast for human feet, still dances.
"It took Bach for me to figure out there was something mighty and substantial in classical music," Thile said before the concert, sitting with mandolin in hand, his left foot resting over his right, alongside conductor Jeffrey Kahane. "It always seemed to me that it wasn't grooving – which is very simplistic. It grooves, in a different way. To me, it was a revelation; it was mesmerizing to my core."
The desire to learn Bach's solo Sonatas and Partitas for violin pushed Thile to teach himself to read music, he said, as learning Bach by ear "was slow-going."
"It wasn't enough to listen and enjoy," Thile said of the Bach. He was like a kid who wants to take apart the stereo and see how it works, down to the last part. "Whenever you do that, the stereo's not quite the same when you put it back together."
I'm hoping for a recording of Thile's mandolin concerto (and his Bach!) It deserves a lot more than one listen. I can only say that I hope that more music can be written with this kind of integrity. We don't need more "PhD music" for our orchestras; we need the kind of music that truly makes us look – and listen – to our modern world, to hear it anew and to feel it more fully.
-- After a short strike, lasting less than a day, Cleveland Orchestra musicians are back at work after a settlement with management which calls for two-year wage freeze through August 2011, followed by semi-annual wage increases of 3% and 2% in the subsequent years.
Your college audition can determine the direction your life takes. No pressure there!
"I remember it like it was yesterday," said violinist Danielle Belén who gave a masterclass to high school students Jan. 10th at Metzler Violin Shop in Glendale, Calif. A graduate of the University of Southern California and faculty member at The Colburn School, Belén also is the winner of the 2008 Sphinx Competition and recently recorded works by composer Lawrence Dillon, to be released later this year on Naxos. (You have to check out Danielle's performance of Dillon's "Bacchus Chaconne", beautiful and immensely enjoyable!)
"It is the start of many things," Danielle said of the college audition. For example, it determines who your teacher will be for the next four years, where you will live, whom you will meet as colleagues... But one should have some perspective on this important event: "Unlike other college interviews, where you prepare for that interview for maybe a year, doing a string audition is different. You've been preparing 10-12 years," Danielle said. "We are always preparing for this audition. That takes a little stress off the audition; in a way, it's just another performance."
Last Saturday Danielle worked with four young violinists from the Los Angeles area; students of Elise Goodman, Alexander Treger and Gayaneh Kumar.
First was Cameron, age 13, who played the "Allemande" from Bach's Partita in D minor. Since he had the notes well in hand, Danielle focused on helping him with the more sophisticated issues of style and voicing in this piece.
For example, the Allemande begins with the resonant open D paired with a fingered D on the G string – a "double D," if you will. "Lean on it, it sounds almost like you are apologizing for it," she said. (And as a matter of fact, that double D is not just some editor's cute idea; you can see it written in Bach's own hand if you look at the manuscript). The same holds true for the double E in m 17 – it's a lot of "E," but go with it, sink into it.
When playing solo violin, "that allows you to play with more colors than you could play with piano accompaniment," Danielle said. With a concerto, "your color scheme gets a little narrowed because your main objective is to BE HEARD."
With that in mind, how does one widen the color range? One can alternate between a floaty and focused sound (m. 6-7 – high notes floaty, G-string notes focused). Also, one can lean into beats (m. 11) to create a dance-like feeling.
Also, for the chord at the end of the piece, keep the violin up (don't dip the fiddle to make the string crossing) and let the fingered fifths on the bottom settle in, using the whole weight of the arm. "Channel your inner fat man!" she advised the lean teen.
For Alexzandra, 15, who played two movements from Handel's Sonata No. 4 (some may know this one as the fifth piece in Suzuki Book 6), Danielle advised using a wider range of vibrato.
When asked to change to a narrower vibrato, Alexzandra was able to do so; now it was just a matter of actually using that range and not just defaulting to one kind of vibrato. "You have good control over the speed of your vibrato, you should use that more when you are playing," Danielle told her.
Also, it's important to remember, when vibrating on shorter notes (as in the Allegro movement), one has to make sure the vibrato does not go above the pitch. "You have to vibrate below the pitch and then land back on the pitch" before ending the note, Danielle said.
When vibrating on a note at the end of the piece or the end of a phrase, "keep the vibrato going for a split second after you pull your bow off the string," Danielle said. "It sounds good, and it even looks good."
Danielle also talked about coping with nerves.
"You have to accept that you're going to be nervous. Your hands might shake; your body is going to react a certain way," Danielle said. "When it comes down to it, the more performing experience you can get, the better. Play in masterclasses, play in front of family. I personally still play for my family!"
For Avery, 15, who played the first movement of the Wieniawski Violin Concerto No. 2, Danielle talked about communicating with the pianist while performing. Most college auditions are played with piano accompaniment, and it's important that this element comes together easily.
"(The pianist) can't read your mind – it's you job to know those spots that are tricky ahead of time," Danielle said. "There were a few spots when you just left her in the dust – you could have salvaged those spots in a more sophisticated way. It's relatively easy to send the pianist a message."
For example, an area with potential pitfalls in the Wieniawski first movement: when the piano has the melody and the violin is playing double-stop triplets, letters K-L (m 192-204). In the midst triplets against duplets, the pianist needs a few cues, but due to string crossings and a possible feeling of rhythmic displacement, one has to really practice giving the cue in the proper place. It may feel awkward to give the scroll a lift while doing a string crossing down four strings from the E to the G strings, but sometimes it's essential.
As for the notorious fingered-octave run on the first page of the Wieniawski, "it's not as fast as you think," said Danielle (and a lot of us would benefit from that advise – attempting to play it too fast is very common). "I would take it 'a little slow and deliberate' over 'too fast and not able to hear it' any day," she said. Also, one can use the mental approach that one is just going to the F, the last note that requires a fingered shift. "That's your only goal, but you just happen to play two more notes than that."
For the octave run, "it's important that your foundation be deliberate," Danielle said. In other words, don't just practice it fast and then wonder why you aren't making any progress or improvement. Take it apart, slow it down, play it successfully at a slow tempo.
Last came Jessie, age 16, who played the first movement of Vieuxtemps Concerto No. 5. Danielle had some wonderful advise for him about how to handle a particularly far-flung harmonic:
Yesterday afternoon, Robert and I made it our duty to fatten the classical music booster section in the studio audience for the Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien, with Hilary Hahn as the guest performing artist.
So we drove over to Universal Studios from our place in Pasadena -- with no traffic on a sunny day -- and took our seats in the studio that seats about 500. As people filed in, I wondered how many of them were big classical music fans, and on the other hand, how many had come to see Rob Lowe, or just to see one last show before the whole thing possibly gets cancelled.
Hilary's mom and dad? Definitely classical music fans. The lady in the high boots and leather jacket? Mmm. She's possibly here for Rob Lowe. The next lady in the high boots and leather jacket...Okay, let's just say we were in the minority!
No matter, everyone gave Hilary a hearty cheer (made heartier by my screaming myself hoarse) and off she went.
Some thoughts: this is not the easiest venue for a performance. They tape this as if it is a live show. The curtain opens and BOOM, you're on, and all those double stops better be ready. Not only that, but all those great camera angles we see on television are the result of about four cameras, some which roll around like golf carts with others suspended from booms. How did she keep her concentration, with all those cameras wheeling around, zooming in and out? There was so much motion, yet there she was, centered, poised. Kudos, Hilary. And what a win for classical music, that she was scheduled -- and rose so elegantly to the occasion -- on this night when so many people were watching.
So here is the video. Currently, the video of just Hilary is not available, but when it is, I will replace it. Hilary's performance can be found about a half-hour into the program (you can skip, you'll just have to sit through some commercials) at 36:42 to 41:12.
As for the rest of the show, 1:36 into this video, you can see Robert and me in the audience, up three rows, and over three seats is me, then four seats is Robert. Woohoo! After that is some raunchy humor. The segment with Rob Lowe was actually pretty entertaining and family-friendly, it's at 20:50.
(If the above video is difficult to use, it's pretty easy to skip around on Hulu, here is the link for the Tonight Show on Hulu.)
Today we are resurrecting our weekly news update on Violinist.com, which we plan to post every Wednesday as "Violin Community News." Old-timers may remember that we used to run a "News and Gossip" column by Darcy Lewis, and this is a new incarnation of the same idea.
With a new album out today called Bach: Violin and Voice, I expected violinist Hilary Hahn to tell me that the violin is the closest-sounding instrument to the human voice, something I've heard many times before.
Her ideas about Bach's music for violin and voice started formulating when she was four, listening to one of her father's local choir concerts. Her interest was piqued when a soprano stepped up to sing an aria, then suddenly a second person stepped up – to play the violin, the instrument she'd been learning for just a few months.
I've been enjoying violinist Ben Chan's presence on the Internet for some time now. Few people "get" the whole video-blog "vlog" thing like Ben does, and his enthusiasm for violin music is infectious. I thought everyone would enjoy this tutorial he gives on a transcription he did of some gypsy music:
He's done a zillion of these videos; here is the link to Ben's YouTube channel
I hope we humans never decide that events like Pasadena's annual Rose Parade are too old-fashioned for our cyber-dominated, flat-screened world. Because to have all those real, live people parade past me today, with live horses, and live-flower floats and bands making music in real time...it sure made the world seem round and real again. Imagine, right before my eyes, just feet away from me, so many crazy things happened today!
I live in Pasadena, and every year I get to see the parade, not on television, but with my own eyeballs. Since you all couldn't be there, I took pictures, and so did Robert. Robert had a nifty press seat at the front of the route, I had fun seats with friends, at the very end of the five-and-a- half-mile route. (The rest of Robert's pictures are here, on his ThemeParkInsider blog. His pictures are comprehensive, while you'll find mine to be...quirky?) Here goes! Robert took this picture: The City of Los Angeles's float, which, happily, made the arts their theme this year. If you squint a bit, you can tell that they tried to make Disney Hall in the middle, with the Hollywood Bowl on the left --both venues for symphony orchestras, among other acts.
Yes, below you see a violin and bass, playing in a parade! There were a few more young string players, as well. I was so happy to see these kids, part of Susan Pascale's South Pasadena Strings. The group also performed in a Christmas Eve program at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, here's a nice video feature on that concert, and on the group.
It takes the parade nearly two hours to reach us, at the end of the line. During that time, people throw footballs in the street, visit with friends, eat donuts, honk horns, blow bubbles, make noise with party snaps and of course, spray silly string all over each other. My daughter, Natalie, models the silly string look:
Finally, FINALLY, the parade arrives. All the floats must be decorated with organic material: flowers, plants, fruit, nuts...This isn't some recent "green" thing; it's always been this way. Check out how realistic this plane looks, "taking off" into the sky:
Though television puts emphasis on the floats, I'm impressed by the people who walk past me, wearing their visually stunning costumes:
Often, people are performing tricks, like the man spinning a lasso around his horse, people on stilts, or these women, standing on their horses. When you see how high they are standing and what a wobbly ride it is to stand straight up, it seems a lot more tricky up close than it looks at a distance!
And for something mundane, but highly amusing: when a parade has horses, the horses inevitably make...messes. One of our friends was actually in charge of recruiting a crew of scooper-uppers, and there was a crew following every act with horses. (We cheered them heartily!)
Here is the Taiwan float: this guy looks like he's on a mission. Check out the beautiful sky, too.
These are all children on roller skates!
This was one of the best parts of the parade, the Ohio State School for the Blind's band, which marched the very long parade route with the help of guides. They were still playing after five miles, when many other bands were too tired and were only drumming. (One band that was too tired to play actually sang!)
And now, some of that live music; this video shot by Robert at the beginning of the parade: Ohio State's marching band:
University of Oregon's marching band:
More entries: December 2009
Our interview with Joshua Bell is one of more than two dozen in The Violinist.com Interviews: Volume 1, which also features talks with Sarah Chang, Maxim Vengerov, and David Garrett, as well as a foreword by Hilary Hahn.
Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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