"I stink at this!" said my nine-year-old son in exasperation, watching the red golf ball roll past the hole for the fifth time. "I can't do it!"
He was ready to quit after his super-frustrating miniature golf experience -- on the first hole of the course.
"Just keep with it, you'll get better," I said. "We all stink at it, the first time. You've never hit a golf ball with a club. You don't know how hard you have to hit it, or how lightly, or what angle it will go at when you hit it various ways. You just have to do it a bunch of times to get a feeling for that."
He was not convinced. As far as he was concerned, he was just a natural-born golf dolt and he might as well just quit right now. My boy's no-can-do attitude seemed almost ridiculous to me. I knew very well that he'd be more competent and feel more confident, even by the end of the game, if only he kept with it. But the point is that he could only see as far as his failed first attempts. He couldn't see those misses as the inevitable bumps on the road to proficiency.
I'm happy to say, though, that he persisted, and by the last hole of our mini-golf game, he certainly was getting a feel for it, he even hit a hole-in-one.
For the violinist, the whole journey is full of squeaky "first attempts." The frustration comes not only to the beginner, but also to the lifelong violinist. Trying new techniques can seem like venturing into territory where you just don't belong, whether your new technique is using the fourth finger, doing vibrato, or performing a run of 10ths in a Paganini Caprice.
Last week Sting was recording with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Abbey Road studios, according to the UK Telegraph "It is, by some distance, the biggest band I’ve ever played with," he said in the article. After recording orchestral versions of his own songs, like "Englishman in New York," "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" and "Next To You," Sting plans tour the United States and Europe with the orchestra. What is the tour called? Symphonicity, of course!
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This story caught my eye because it's about a student at Lawrence Central High School in Indianapolis, which is the same high school where my husband graduated. But what a neat story: it's about a football player named Ronald Gilbert, who is also a violinist. He started playing at his public middle school when the director promised a trip to Kings Island. But he hung on for more than just a trip to the amusement park, like the rest of us, he fell in love with the violin and kept it up, at the same time as he was the school's star defensive lineman on the football team. Next year he'll be going to Indiana University with a scholarship and a new violin purchased with donations collected by his friends. He plans to study music and law. Cool!
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Sadly, this is an all-too-familiar story: funding dries up for a music program at Schuylkill Valley Elementary School in Pennsylvania, and the third-grade students will not be able to go on with their musical studies, after four years of instruction. It happens everywhere: an enthusiastic group raises some money, gets some grants, runs a great program for several years, and then the program cannot be sustained. Music education needs full support, not just ad-hoc programs here and there. Yes, it raises kids' performance in school.. Music teaches skills related to math, to language, to physical coordination, but in an integrated way that only music can teach. Its absence in education means that generations of children go lacking. Did you learn your ABC's with a song? Most of us did. Music is an integral part of the way humans learn, and yet we think we can somehow cut to the chase of education by leaving out "frills" like music and arts and whittling our way straight to math and reading. It is not so.
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More on conductor Jorge Mester's abrupt departure from the Pasadena Symphony, here is an LA Times article about Tension at the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra. It's all is pretty messy; though symphony administrators contended that Mester announced his departure to musicians while negotiations were still underway; Mester's representative Diane Saldick told the LA Times that when Mester and his attorney met with orchestra leaders on May 11 to discuss his future, "they were advised that the board had 'unanimously' decided to terminate his contract." The LA musicians' union also alleges that one musician was let go for publicly expressing outrage over the situation with Mester.
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Performances by violinists this week: Violinist Sergey Khachatryan played the Tchaikovsky concerto with the San Diego Symphony under conductor Jahja Ling on Friday: "Most violinists play Tchaikovsky’s concerto as a heroic struggle between soloist and orchestra, a musical surfer paddling up to a 30-foot wave and then riding it all the way home. What made Khachatryan’s rendition so unusual was his understated presence in the first two movements. He didn’t so much play his part as imply or suggest it, and oddly enough, that made his performance all the more compelling. He endowed his melodic lines with beauty and lyricism, coyly holding back in the bar or moving slightly ahead," said Christian Hertzog in a review on SanDiego.com.
Violinist Stefan Jackiw played the Sibelius Concerto with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic under conductor Joel Levine for the orchestra's season-closer last weekend. "Jackiw’s mastery was evident in countless ways, from his command of the opening movement’s complex cadenza to the ease with which he allowed the adagio’s opening melody to unfurl. No less impressive was the soloist’s insistence on exploring the full dynamic range. In passages that called for pianissimos, Jackiw enticed the listener in much the same way that a confidant might whisper a secret," said Rick Rogers in a review in The Oklahoman.
And last but not least, Toyota's violin-playing robot made the news this week, performing at the Japanese pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo 2010, with a rather dispassionate rendering the Chinese folk song Mo Li Hua (jasmine flower). Are we about to be replaced by robots? Judge for yourself:
I have a sentimental attachment to the third movement of the Seitz Concerto No. 2, which is the first piece that appears in Suzuki Book 4. I didn't study the Suzuki books as a child, but I did study this piece, and I was asked to play it at a concert, in front of my entire elementary school. I said "yes" before really learning the whole piece, and I can still remember the panic I felt, certain I could never learn the last page of it! But I worked very hard, and it went well. So I remember it as one of those early wins.
For the list below, I included all the concerti that Itzhak Perlman recorded in Concertos from My Childhood as a starting point, then added a few more pieces that students frequently study. The pieces are in alphabetical order by composer. I purposely left out certain concerti and pieces that students study but that are not really considered "student" pieces, such as the Bach Double, Bach Concerto in A minor; all the Mozart Concerti; Bartok Roumanian Folk Dances, Kreisler pieces, etc. The list is by no means exhaustive, so feel free to add your favorite below, if I didn't include it! And if there is a story behind your favorite, I invite you to share it.
"And now, Peter will play the Vivaldi Concerto in A minor, third movement..."
It wasn't quite as funny as when I had three students playing the "Gavotte" by Martini, and I was able to announce to the parents, "This is going to be a three-Martini recital..." But I had a lot, a LOT, of students playing various Vivaldi pieces at my studio's spring recital Monday evening.
I tried to mix it up, putting Vivaldi between duets and other pieces. And at one point we got to hear the first, then the third movement of the A minor, right in a row, which gives everyone a feeling for (almost!) the whole concerto.
"When students play Vivaldi's Concerto in A minor," I found myself saying to everyone, "they start the piece at one level, and when they finish, they emerge as an entirely new violinist."
I didn't actually plan to say that. But with five students all at the beginning, or in the middle, or just beyond, the Concerto in A minor, I've had quite a lot of time to think about this piece and its effect on students.
In the Suzuki sequence, most of this piece is presented in the latter part of Book 4: the first movement, then the third movement. The second movement, the slow movement, comes later, in Book 5.
Now make no mistake, the A minor concerto was used for teaching purposes well before Suzuki incorporated it into his method books some 35 years ago. I studied with a traditional, non-Suzuki teacher as a kid, and yes, I played the Vivaldi A minor concerto, the version edited by Tivadar Nachéz. This is the same version that appears in the American Suzuki books, though there is dissention in the ranks over its use.
Having learn the Nachez version as a child and taught it for many years, I was taken by surprise when I took out my fiddle and read through a new edition by Kurt Sassmannshaus, which is more along lines of the original. First, there are the differing slurs and articulations, but in say, m. 24, and m. 60 – typically difficult for a student – there are different, easier notes! The same is true in the third movement, with the difficult passage at m. 75; it's easier, more violin-friendly.
My students all overcome those Nachez-imposed hardships, and I think they are better for it. On the other hand, I'm a pretty big fan of going with the composer's original wishes.
But back to my original point, I do believe this concerto usually transforms a student. I would argue that once a student has learned this piece, she or he tends to emerge with faster fingers, a better ability to do passagework, increased endurance, increased confidence and ability in third position and a stronger bow stroke.
Of course, I must explain what I mean by "learning the concerto": I mean memorizing it and performing it in public. Making your way through a piece of music, without memorizing or performing it, is a lot like chewing a piece of bubble gum. You get some sugar out of it, but then you spit the thing out. You don't reap a lot of nutrients. When you memorize and perform a piece of music, you digest it in a way that is just not possible otherwise. The memorizing demands that you truly solve the problems. And you will hold yourself to a much higher standard, if you are required to perform the music.
For most students, certain passages in the Vivaldi A minor Concerto require more practice and repetition than anything they've ever played up until this point. To conquer these difficulties is to reach a new understanding about what is possible. A certain passage seems impossible at first, but after breaking it down, repeating it correctly (likely with rhythmic variations, etc.) many many times, it becomes possible. You may understand this idea and accept it, but until you actually do it for yourself, you know it in only a superficial way.
I've seen students resist this piece, and I've seen complaints about it on Violinist.com. Students say they don't like it, they are sick of it, they just want to play something else.
Well, I'm not sick of it after 30 years. It's a good piece. I suspect students resist the piece precisely because it is not low-hanging fruit; it requires a lot of work. They want to find a way around it, so they don't have to go through it.
You don't like it? Listen to it more; it's a well-crafted piece. You don't like the work? Tired of playing the same piece? Keep in mind that repetition is part building advanced technique – in any endeavor. And there is a reward for the work: reaching a new level of ability.
Conductor Jorge Mester will be leaving the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra, after serving 25 years as music director. I can't pretend to be objective about this, I'm not. I have played, on and off, in the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra for many years, and conductor Jorge Mester has always made it a wonderful experience, with his fine musicianship, his rehearsal efficiency, his humor and his all-around good nature. Why is he leaving? There are a few versions of that, but it certainly has to do with the symphony's rocky finances, which took a deep plunge several years ago after the symphony combined with the Pasadena Pops and Pasadena Youth Symphony Orchestras. Here is LA Times reporter Mark Swed's account of Mester's last concert, which was last Saturday. During a standing ovation, Swed reports, violinist Julie Rogers stopped the applause to speak to the audience, calling Mester's departure "an insurmountable loss to the orchestra and the community. We play not because it’s our job but because it’s you," she said to Mester. Here is a letter to the editor of the Pasadena Star-News, which includes some interesting comments from Pasadena community members if you click on them, and here is a basic account by the LA Times of what happened.
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I recently received an e-mail from a friend with deep connections to the city of Nashville, who wanted to be sure his friends understood that Nashville "recently experienced catastrophic flooding in some areas that matches the devastation of hurricane Katrina." He went on: "I have a lot of friends in Nashville, and much of the public does not seem to be aware of how bad the flood damage has been." Well, here is a video peek inside Schermerhorn Symphony Center, where more than 20 feet of water filled the lower floors, damaging every room and destroying pianos and other equipment. To film the video, T.V. crews had to wear Hazmat suits and masks. Here is the link for the Red Cross of Tennessee, which is accepting donations for its efforts to help flood victims.
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Cincinnati College Conservatory violin professor Kurt Sassmannshaus (known as "Prof. S" on Violinmasterclass.com) released his colorful violin method books for children in 2008, and this week The Sassmannshaus Tradition Viola Method is now available in English, published by Bärenreiter. The set includes four books.
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Performing this week:
Violinist and conductor Uto Ughi will perform Saturday at the Shanghai Oriental Art Center with pianist Alessandro Specchi. He will perform works by Pugnani, Beethoven, Paganini and Saint Saëns, using a 1744 Guarneri del Gesù and the 1701 "Kreutzer" Stradivari.
Yesterday violinist Regina Carter released her new recording Reverse Thread, her treatment of African folk-melodies, which is sometimes jazzy, sometimes minimalist, sometimes almost bluegrass-sounding. I've got it on the stereo right now – good stuff. The project was funded in large part from her 2006 MacArthur "Genius Grant" of $500,000. Here's a review, which also includes musical samples.
Violinist Anne Akiko Meyers recorded the "Romance"by Dvorák, with Andrew Litton and the Philharmonia Orchestra, for a new recording by Sony called Dvorák Greatest Hits. If you just want to get her track alone, click here.
(This is Part III in a three-part series featuring violinist Rachel Barton Pine, talking about the Victorian-era violinist Maud Powell, and the preservation of her history and her music. If you haven't read them yet: Part I and Part II.)
Did you know that John Philip Sousa was a classically-trained violinist?
Yes, I'm talking about the man who composed 136 marches, including Stars and Stripes Forever, whose Sousa Band toured from 1892–1931, performing at some 15,000 concerts.
Violinist Rachel Barton Pine revealed Sousa's violin background to me while we were talking about the American violinist Maud Powell. Powell toured Europe twice with Sousa and his band. The first tour, in 1903, included 362 concerts in 30 weeks in 13 countries! The Sousa Band backed her up for pieces like the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and Saint-Saëns "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso," according to Maud Powell Favorites, the new book that also has the violin music for a piece called "Fantasia on Sousa Themes" by Max Liebling, which she also played during those tours.
In fact, the Sousa Band performed in hundreds of cities and towns across America and played an important role in bringing classical music to American ears.
Sousa and Powell
Rachel: This is a part of classical music history in America that either the orchestral world doesn't want to admit or has simply forgotten. When you think about, say, the year 1900, there were six major orchestras in America. Those six orchestras – combined -- played fewer concerts in the year 1900 than the Sousa Band did. Not every town in America yet had an orchestra; that's why violinists would play concertos with piano accompaniment.
The players in the Sousa band, in many cases, were superior to the players playing in what are now the famous orchestras, because the Sousa Band paid better. Someone who wanted to get the best-paying job would be in the Sousa Band instead of the New York Phil. So (the Sousa Band's) level of player was phenomenal, and they were playing concerts at every town that had a rail stop, playing for populations that never had heard an orchestra and weren't going to hear an orchestra any time soon.
Sousa himself was a violinist. That was his instrument!
The only reason that he chose to tour with a band and not an orchestra was because stringed instruments were less well-suited to the harsh travel conditions of the time. The type of touring he was doing involved sometimes playing multiple towns in the same day, and no climate control whatsoever. Instruments made out of wood -- they weren't too hardy. They still had gut strings at that time. It would have been a disaster!
His band, what we call the Sousa Band, was not like the bands that we now know today. It had a totally different configuration, different numbers of wind and brass instruments. He basically tried to replicate a symphony orchestra as closely as he could, without using strings. So he would have 40 clarinets in place of the first and second violins. Even when we play repertoire composed by Sousa, we don't ever hear it played the way it actually was played by Sousa's band, with that kind of configuration.
On top of that, Sousa always said that his mission was to educate, as well as to entertain. We remember him for all his marches and waltzes and overtures, for the light, popular music that he did. But on every one of his concerts, he was playing (Richard) Strauss tone poems, movements from Dvorák symphonies. The Sousa Band played portions of Die Meistersinger, 10 years before the Met ever got around to doing its first American staging. He was doing the most cutting-edge modern classical music, arranged for his band, at a time when people had never been exposed to this music before. His Sousa Band would play works by Tchaikovsky, works by Brahms, the most progressive, new music coming out of Europe. It's fascinating; people were hearing these classical works, these symphonic works, played by Sousa Band long before they ever heard them played by orchestra. That was how America was being introduced to the symphonic repertoire.
I'm still so surprised that more hasn't been written about this.
On every of his concerts, he would feature a woman singer -- either an alto or a soprano -- and a female violinist. This was a bit of showmanship. The guy was no dummy; he said it was 'Relief for the eyes, as well as the ears...' – a terribly un-PC thing to say these days!
But he arranged violin repertoire like Saint-Saëns B minor, Mendelssohn, Wieniawski D minor -- all of these concertos -- for Sousa Band accompaniment!
The Sousa archives are at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, I've been to the archives. There are manuscript parts, for the entire Sousa Band, of all the great violin repertoire, for Sousa Band accompaniment. There's an album waiting to be made, but believe me I'm not going to record the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with Sousa Band until after I've recorded it with an orchestra! (laughing)
Laurie: That sounds reasonable enough.
Rachel: But some day, that would be kind of interesting, to record those things just to say, hey, here's how thousands of people all across America first heard the Mendelssohn Concerto!
Laurie: I can't imagine it, the introduction to the Mendelssohn...
Rachel: But this is artistically valid – he was a true musician, he was a great orchestrator, and he was trying to retain as closely as he possibly could, the original flavor and colors of the real orchestral arrangements. So he wasn't just doing a cheesy, let's-get-the-show-on-the-road transcription, he was trying to be true to the spirit of the real music. He wished that he could do it with an orchestra, but he was going to do the next-best thing because he couldn't do it with an orchestra.
I've also done some interesting research on the women violinists who toured with Sousa, of which of course Maud Powell was one. It calls up a couple of interesting things. First of all, Sousa wanted the best, and he could afford to hire the best. It seemed to me that learning about the women who soloed with Sousa's band would be virtually synonymous with learning about the best women violinists from America during those years.
Sousa kept very meticulous scrapbooks of every concert program, pre-concert feature story and post-concert review. He always said he would let the audience settle down by giving the what they came for, by playing the popular pieces. Then he would lay on them some of the classical music, this cool modern stuff that he really believed in. We never think of that side of Sousa when we think of who he was.
He would always play one piece that was printed on the program, and then he would follow that up with two or three or even four encores. So each one piece that you see printed on the program was actually three to five pieces that were performed. The only way to know what actually was performed is to read the reviews.
It's interesting to see what the women violinists played, and played as encores. The reviews would go into detail, describing their playing, describing what dress they wore. I actually went through the entirety of Sousa's scrapbooks, a major undertaking. I paid an intern hourly to go through and Xerox and anything that referenced one of the violin players. I have about a foot of photocopies, of every single clipping from all of Sousa's career, about every one of his women violinists. I paid another intern to collate it by violinist. Some of the women would tour for a couple years and then years later, they would come back for another couple of years – it wasn't consecutive. There's a doctoral dissertation waiting to be written!
I don't even know how to spread the word, but I would love to turn over my materials to a young person, some doctoral candidate who wants to undergo that project. I'm never going to have time to go all the way with it because I have to do my concerts! But if they wanted to do their document on the topic of Sousa's women violinists, they could start with the clippings as a jumping off point, looking into each of these women's lives, or even just picking one and focusing on her. But it's a dissertation so waiting to be written!
We all know that studying classical music enhances a person's abilities and thinking in many ways: it trains coordination, involves patterning and counting, it builds on language skills like articulation and expression, etc. etc. But it looks like passively listening to the music of Mozart may not have the direct intelligence-enhancing effect that makers of “Baby Einstein” and other baby products inspired by the Mozart Effect have advertised. Let's hope that this doesn't keep people from introducing the music of Mozart, as well as other classical music, to their young children. When my first child was born, the State of Colorado actually gave me a tape of music by Mozart, and I also had a CD called Mozart for Mothers-to-Be. I probably would not have thought to listen to the music of Mozart during those days, had it not been for the Mozart Effect craze. If Mozart did not enhance the brain of either my daughter or me, I can attest to one effect that it did have on this mother and her baby girl during the first six difficult and colicky months of her life: it brought a measure of beauty and calm to our days and nights. The music of Mozart, specifically – not of Richard Strauss or Beethoven or Tchaikovsky or the Beatles or Coldplay – was the perfect antidote to the jagged pill that is early babyhood and motherhood. So for all of you moms, dads, kids, stressed-out students: I still recommend Mozart!
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Violinist Paul Todd (1929-2010) died earlier this week; he was a professor of violin at the University of Nebraska at Omaha for many years, retiring in 1996. Todd was concertmaster for the Honolulu and Austin symphonies, and associate concertmaster for the Omaha, Oklahoma City and Albuquerque symphonies, according to an obituary in the Omaha World-Herald.
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Here is the story of a fascinating civil lawsuit, brought by Plain Dealer music critic Donald Rosenberg against Musical Arts Association — the group that manages the Cleveland Orchestra. According to the story, Rosenberg – after writing critically about the orchestra's conductor, Franz Welser-Möst – was reassigned September 2008, to cover anything but the Cleveland Orchestra. It brings up all kinds of interesting questions: How far can a critic go, how far should a critic go? How far can an orchestra go to protest the criticism? What is a critic's role in the community? I would say it even begs this question: what is a newspaper's role in a community?
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Some news for educators: Carl Fischer Music has made it possible for music teachers and directors to page through its new string orchestra titles and hear full performances of these pieces through its website, CarlFischer.com, with free full performance audio MP3 tracks and complete non-printable PDF scores. The new option is only available for 2010 String Orchestra titles, but it does sound like it might make the job of selecting music easier for string teachers to do online.
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Who's playing, where:
Violinist Elena Urioste will play the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the Delaware Symphony this weekend: http://www.desymphony.org/
(This is Part II in a three-part series featuring violinist Rachel Barton Pine, talking about the Victorian-era violinist Maud Powell, and the preservation of her history and her music. If you haven't read it yet, here was Part I and here is Part III)
Who was Maud Powell?
She was only one of the most famous and accomplished violinists at the turn of the 20th century – born around the same time as the violinist Fritz Kreisler.
"I like to think that she bequeathed a legacy to me; the very truth she had lived and died for, and her commitment to her violin, to her music, and to humanity," Yehudi Menuhin said of Powell.
"Maud Powell's name is well-known to me," Jascha Heifetz wrote in 1979, "believe it or not, my students know who she was and what she stood for."
But do you?
Violinist Rachel Barton Pine has spent the last seven years of her life making sure that, not only will people know about Powell's history, but they will be able to play the music that she played: her arrangements, transcriptions, original cadenzas and lesser-known works that she commissioned and/or championed. We spoke about Rachel's efforts to restore the musical legacy of Maud Powell, music which has now been published in Maud Powell Favorites. We talked specifically about the challenges and merits of each piece, listening samples of which are available on Rachel Barton Pine's website.
Rachel: There's so much to this collection. First of all, there is a very generous amount of repertoire – 43 pieces. A lot of pieces aren't necessarily pieces people yet know and love, but I guarantee you that every one is a gem. If you play through them, you'll love every one more than the last, it's just an amazing collection of pieces. And the music covers a surprising amount of variety and styles, considering the very narrow number of decades that it covers.
Also, the program notes by Karen Shaffer aren't just the little mini paragraphs you might get in other books, but every piece has a full-length essay. The volume of text is an entire book, in and of itself!
Many of the pieces are technically simple enough that they can be played by less advanced students or by enthusiastic adults who play the violin as an avocation. There are certainly virtuoso pieces in there – the "Fantasia on Sousa Themes" by Max Liebling and the "Caprice on Dixie" by Herman Bellstedt – pieces that can only be played by a Paganini soloist! But then there are so many pieces that are absolutely rewarding lyrical pieces, little character pieces. They certainly are worthy of being performed by professionals, but they're also pieces that have potential to be enjoyed by the student and amateur community.
Laurie: How many years did it take you to edit and assemble all this music?
Rachel: About seven years. It's been a major part of my life for quite a long time. I can't overstate the intensity of this undertaking. There were some pieces -- both some of Maud's own arrangements and those works dedicated to her – that existed only in manuscript, that had never been published. You can't just take the manuscript and insert it into the computer and that's that. There are things that have to be corrected and decided upon. So I had to check it against the manuscript and make what you might call urtext editorial decisions. Is that smudge really the pitch above or the pitch below? Or if there was a discrepancy in bowing or phrasing, was it meant to be a discrepancy, or was it just a quick scribble that they hadn't added? All those kinds of decisions that you have to make, in order to present a "clean," true-to-the-page edition.
Then there was the category of pieces where the manuscript was lost – a great tragedy. Maud Powell's husband, at the time of her death, gave her entire music library to the Detroit Public Library, and rather than keeping it in a special collection, they filed it on the shelf. Because the music was placed in the circulating collection, some things have literally been lost. For example, we don't have a record of her interpretation of concertos and sonatas, because recordings weren't that long yet (so she did not record them). We would have had some kind of record if we had been able to study her markings – her bowings and fingerings, notes to herself on the page. But the sad thing is that all those have long since been erased by generations of students, who borrowed those pieces (from the library) to learn them. They erased her pencil and scribbled their own pencil on top of it. You can't tell at all which markings are hers, and which that remain are not.
Then there were the pieces that had never been published – where the manuscript was lost. Now a few of them are just simply lost. But those that had been recorded by Maud, we were able to take the recording and transcribe it. That meant listening over and over for hours and hours and hours, to every note of every measure, to figure out what her bowings were. I didn't put fingering indications or slide indications into the music, I figured that's easy enough for people to listen to and wanted to leave the page a little more clean in case people didn't want to take that type of interpretative approach, but I thought bowings, for sure, are part of the substance of somebody's transcription. So I had to get that right, and boy, that was a very interesting challenge!
Laurie: If a person wanted to start on this music, what would be a good place to start? What if you are an adult amateur, or an intermediate student, or a teacher who to assign one of these pieces to one of your students, what would be a good intro-level piece?
Rachel: There are of course some pieces that are in the Suzuki repertoire itself, the Dvorák Humoresque, and the Beethoven "Minuet" – but those are actually not easy! Those arrangements have thirds, they're in original keys, they haven't been made into violin-friendly keys, they're in the piano keys, which are not easy for violin.
Laurie: I've actually played your recording of the Maud Powell arrangement of the Dvorák "Humoresque" for my Suzuki kids, and it had a really neat effect on them. Even though they are playing it in a simple, violin-friendly key, when they listened to your version – the Maud Powell version – with all the embellishments, some of felt inspired to try adding some double stops and slides. They realized that they don't have to do it just the Suzuki-recording way!
But tell me, what am I going to give my Suzuki Book 4 student from this book? What would be good for a college recital? Which are virtuoso pieces?
"Deep River" (No. 18) and "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," (No. 19): They have a few challenging shifts, you can definitely do a little of your own simplification in terms of. "Deep River" has its roots in the African-American community, but it is one of our beloved American songs, we really think of it as a song that belongs to all of us. I've played it as an encore so often, not just when I have a performance with piano accompaniment, but I'll even play it just as Maud wrote it, a cappella.
You can take the lower octave, instead of doing all those octaves, to take the upper voice of the sixths – just for those few spots. That makes them totally achievable.
"Molly on the Shore" (No. 30): This is a really fun one, it has a few places that are in seventh position, but why not bring those few measures down an octave? So there might be a few things that teachers have to tweak, but it wouldn't be like making a wholesale transcription of a transcription.
(Henri) Ern "Minuet" (No. 28): This is a cute one that's ready to go.
The Amy Beach's "Romance" (No. 25) and the Henry Holden Huss "Romance" (No. 38) do go quite a bit of the ways up the fingerboard.
(Carl) Venth's "Aria" (No. 43) doesn't have too much radical stuff way at the end of the fingerboard...it's got a lot of emotional scope, that would be a great alternative to the kind of pieces students tend to play like Rachmaninov's "Vocalise." The Venth Aria is so gorgeous; it has delicate parts and passionate parts, and it's so well-crafted.
"Minute Waltz" by Chopin (No. 3): If you don't play it at the speed of light! There is a longstanding tradition among pedagogical repertoire: to play a piece that, professionally, would be played at a very fast speed, but a student can play it at a moderate tempo. If you take this piece and put it at what you might call a "student tempo," it becomes totally playable. Also, it's Chopin's year, so this is the year to play it! Again, you can choose to use different the types of fingering: if you're a professional artist you can go all the way up the D string and do lots of expressive slides just for the sake of having shifts that are there to make an effect. If you are a student you can choose a more simple fingering, where you remain in fewer positions and lower positions but still treat the melody really beautifully. That makes this Chopin piece totally playable by kids and students; it's such a fun one.
Jean Sibelius' "Valse Triste" (No. 14): This would be an intermediate piece.
Jean Sibelius' "Musette": There is a whole section that is sul G, which gives it a cool effect. But you wouldn't have to play it sul G. You can play it just fine in the first position; it makes that piece much more simple. It's such an appealing piece.
Christoph Gluck's "Melodie" (No. 7): The Kreisler version is a favorite that everybody plays. I don't know if Maud's is any easier or harder than his. It's crafted along the same lines, but it's a nice alternative to play hers instead of Kreisler's.
Marion Bauer's "Up the Ocklawaha" (No. 24): This still sounds almost contemporary for our ears today. It's not atonal, but it has very progressive use of harmony that still seems very current, somehow. Marion Bauer is a woman composer. Maud had been touring in Florida back when it was a swamp, and she took a trip up this narrow river. It was such a spooky environment that she wanted to have a piece of music created to capture her experience. It's is a reflection of Florida – not necessarily drawing on American traditional music, but drawing upon unique American experiences.
Cecil Burleigh's "Four Rocky Mountain Sketches" (No. 27): Here's another descriptive piece. It's not the Alps, it's not the Himalayas, it's the Rockies. It's music that could only have been created by an American who knew what he was talking about – our wide-open spaces and our incredible landscape.
Then there are the Maud Powell transcriptions: Jules Massenet's "Twilight" (No. 10); or the Dvorák "Humoresque" (No. 5); or J. Rosamond Johnson's "Nobody Knows the Trouble I See" (No. 19): These are serious pieces that really should be in the meaty part of our recital program.
Maud Powell's Brahms Concerto cadenza: I knew this from having written my own cadenzas: if you look up my manuscripts, and compare that to my Carl Fischer Collection, you'll notice there are lots of differences. The manuscript was used as a shorthand to remind myself what I wrote -- not meant to be used by anybody but myself. So there's a lot that's missing! Maud Powell's cadenza is a little bit along those lines: she had no intention of publishing it, she just wrote it down for herself, and that's what we have to go on. So we do publish a sort of urtext, clean copy of what was in the manuscript, and then I provide a second copy of my suggestions for how it actually would be played.
Max Liebling's "Fantasia on Sousa Themes" (No. 39): That is a difficult piece. If somebody wanted to use it for an international competition in place of Ernst's "Last Rose" or Ravel's "Tzigane," it would be right up there, in terms of showing whether or not you've got the chops. It's very, very difficult, absolutely top-level, Paganini stuff. Note-wise, the "clean version" and the edited version that I created don't vary all that much. But where I believe there was a call for having an edited version is the fact that it's so darn difficult that it took me many many hours to just come up with a solution for how to finger it to make it playable at all. So it's not a question of choosing the artistic fingering that you believe in, that matches your interpretation, It's a question of solutions. How can I actually make this passage possible? I wanted to maximize the potential that people might take the plunge and perform it. By providing ready-to-go fingering solutions, it will make it that much more likely that people will decide to take it up and add it to their repertoire, play it in concert.
It's purely recognizable as Sousa, but what we forget is that Sousa didn't just write marches, he also wrote a couple of operas. The first handful of themes come from his operas. Then of course it ends with the Stars and Stripes, which is great, because that's the one we all know. It's a perfect piece to use in place of a European fun flashy showpiece -- we can now perform an American piece that will serve the same role but will be something from our own country. And I really see this Sousa piece having a lot of life, not just for Fourth of July concerts or American-themed recital programs, but to be added to any recital program by American artists or even by non-American artists who want to play something American. That's a piece that I'm really excited about getting out there and adding to the virtuoso repertoire.
This Maud Powell sheet music collection is so much more than some appealing pieces to add to your repertoire. It's inspiring on so many different levels. I happen to be a research geek, I love learning about the composers' lives, the performance practices of the time, all that stuff-- But not everybody does, and there's nothing wrong with just liking the music for itself!
The music is good enough that it can stand on its own two feet and exist apart from its interesting history. It's great music, and that's what really matters in the end. If it were historically interesting but not quite great, then it wouldn't have been worth spending seven years of my life! But it's because the music is absolutely top-quality that it was worth putting in all of the effort.
The past informs the future. The values by which Maud Powell lived her life still have resonance for artists and students today: the fact that she championed new music, the fact that she was so giving of herself to students who came to her for advise, the fact that she sought out communities that she could introduce classical music to, and all of these are things that we still should be doing. The fact that she played things by women composers, by composers of different ethnic backgrounds.
Coming Friday: Part III, What you never knew about John Philip Sousa!
(This is Part I in a three-part series featuring violinist Rachel Barton Pine, talking about the Victorian-era violinist Maud Powell, and the preservation of her history and her music. Part II and Part III)
To explore the new four-book series Maud Powell Favorites, is to find lost treasure, to discover a missing episode that sheds new light on everything about violin music, and especially violin music in America.
I do not exaggerate. The books, assembled by historian Karen A. Shaffer and violinist Rachel Barton Pine, follow the life and music of the American violinist Maud Powell (1867-1920), a trailblazer who changed the American musical landscape greatly during her short life. But out of these pages emerges much more: the voices of Dvorák on his deathbed, being visited by Fritz Kreisler; of Jules Massenet before he ever wrote "Thais"; of Jean Sibelius – whose 'radical new' violin concerto was premiered in America by Powell in 1906; of early African-American composers; of women composers. Powell's journey spans the globe, from her birth in 1867 in Illinois, to her education under Joachim in Europe; to her concerts in St. Petersburg, Russia, her concerts in South Africa, all across America by train, and even across the Pacific to Hawaii. She died at the young age of 52; playing the last six notes of "Nobody Knows the Trouble I See" as she was seized by a massive heart attack on Thanksgiving 1919, in St. Louis. These are just a few of the episodes in her life documented in essays, pictures and clips, like a Victorian scrapbook in which every last detail is annotated and explained
It's all larger than her life. Consider this thought, quoted from the book's ruminations on American composers: "The paradox confronting the American composer was that the European classical music tradition was his heritage, yet alien to his experience." Aren't we still trying to reconcile these things, more than a century later?
Beyond all this fascinating history is a collection of violin music – 43 pieces that Maud Powell played, transcribed or wrote, along with the piano accompaniment for each. The music is playable, worthy and forgotten no more. I actually took up one piece, "Deep River" by Samuel Coleridge Taylor, arranged by Maud Powell, and played it in a recent recital. Audience members loved the music, and they applauded the choice: one of the first African-American spirituals that was brought to a wider audience, in large part because of Maud. Beyond her transcriptions of works by known composers such as Beethoven, Boccherini, Chopin and Dvorák are works by lesser-known composers: Dan Emmett, J. Rosamond Johnson, Marion Bauer; Amy Beach, Cecil Burleigh, Henri Ern, Arthur Loesser...the list goes on. (You can listen to samples of these works here, on Rachel Barton Pine's website.
Concert violinist Rachel Barton Pine, tireless advocate of our art who has has recorded a tribute to Maud Powell's legacy and spent countless hours editing music for this series, spoke to me a few months ago about being the music editor for this project, and about what makes Maud's life and music so relevant to us today.
(BTW to purchase "Maud Powell Favorites" you must buy it from the Maud Powell Society. In the same old-fashioned spirit as is the style of this book series, you must fill out a form and send a check! Attention music libraries across America: you should have this book.)
Laurie: Exploring these books was like going to an old used book store or library, and discovering a long-lost box of music, programs and letters from another century – it was really enlightening about that period in history.
Rachel: Learning about Maud's life means learning about what was going on in America, in classical music, during the years of Maud's life. Going back to the biography of Maud Powell that Karen Shaffer penned, it was really a book that was far beyond Maud, and I feel the same way with this repertoire in "Maud Powell Favorites"; it's not just about Maud's transcriptions and the works dedicated to her, but it's this voice of violin repertoire from the Victorian era.
We play Kreisler pieces, but those are from a little later. And we play Wieniawski showpieces, but those are from a little earlier. But there's this place, this time, from our own continent, that we just never play and never hear.
Laurie: What kinds of revelations did you have from doing this project?
Rachel: It's fascinating to read about the lives of each composer and how they were trying to get things going here in America when classical music -- and classical music concert presentation -- was still in its infancy. Everybody was a pioneer; they weren't just walking into an existing culture and riding on the coattails of what had gone before. They were having to start symphony societies, start concert series. Composers had to try to get their music into artists' hands. Everybody had to be an entrepreneur.
Laurie: I was fascinated by this idea of Maud coming into a town, trying to get the pulse of the town, and creating a recital based on that. Did you relate to that in any way, being a recitalist yourself?
Rachel: Unlike many of her colleagues, who would play a big concert in a big city one night, rest on their day off, then play the next big concert in the next big city, Maud would find some small town halfway in between, and she would play that town's first-ever classical concert. She didn't have to do that. For a period of time, she was America's most popular violinist, and most successful violinist of either gender here in America. She could have rested on her day off!
But she believed the same thing that I believe: that music has the power to uplift the human spirit and that it's our responsibility to be missionaries for this music. Even if every classical music concert were completely sold out, with a waiting list, we should still do outreach, because the reason for outreach is to bring music to people who haven't heard it before.
It was fascinating to me to see that Maud Powell clearly had those same beliefs and those same motivations, way back when.
Of course, she died young. Life on the road was far more stressful, and medical care wasn't what it is now. They had difficult climate conditions and bad food. She traveled by rail, and by horse and carriage. Her husband famously said she 'wore her heart out,' metaphorically as well as literally.
But one advantage to that kind of travel was that she wasn't zig-zagging. For example, in the first seven weeks of my 2010, I did Sibelius in Syracuse, Brahms in Knoxville, Paganini in Finland, a tribute recital to Maud Powell in El Paso; I went to Israel, where I did the Mendelssohn Concerto, Brahms Sextet and a full unaccompanied recital, then I went to Springfield and did the Korngold, then I went to New York City and rehearsed the Glazunov to record with the Russian National Orchestra for Warner Classics in Moscow in April – that was just my first seven weeks! That's pretty nuts, and that simply wasn't possible back in Maud's day.
With the way she traveled, you had to walk through the town and get from the train station to the hotel to the local restaurant to eat your dinner...your feet were on the ground a little more, somehow, getting the pulse, like you said, of that particular group of citizens.
Also, she traveled with her entire wardrobe! She would arrive at each venue, check out the color scheme and match her gown to the colors of the hall. She really saw that as being part of the performance presentation. Maud would arrive early and set things up, lay things out – it was a more hands-on approach. It's something we've lost a little bit.
Laurie: Tell me about Maud's relationship to American music. She went to Europe for her musical education..
Rachel: You had to in those days!
Laurie: ...but then it seems that she really was engaging with America and American music.
Rachel: What's really fascinating is to realize how truly radical she was. At that time, even American artists were very prejudiced against American composers. They felt like our composers couldn't compare with the great composers of Europe, of the past. They wouldn't even give American composers a chance.
Maud Powell's family was a group of progressive educators – her uncle John Powell was the explorer of the Grand Canyon – and she applied those values to her life as a musician. Maybe our composers aren't yet as great as the greatest coming out of Europe, but that doesn't mean they're less talented; they need to be nurtured – that was her attitude. Our job as American artists is to be the ones to nurture them. So she devoted quite a lot of time to perusing the scores of every composer who sent one to her. The good, the bad and the indifferent, she would faithfully go through and offer her very honest and fair critiques, advice and encouragement. She said it's only through this type of process that our composers are going to learn and grow.
Those pieces that she found to be the most worthy, she would champion and add to her rotating repertoire. She would perform, record and commission music from the composers she especially believed in. This was cutting-edge contemporary music that everybody else was dismissing. Even among European music, she was pretty cutting-edge. Conductors were reluctant to program things like the Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and Dvorák concertos – particularly the Sibelius. Conductors would say, 'This is a piece that's so modern, obviously people are not going to be able to understand and enjoy it. Why don't we do something they know and they love like the Bruch or the Mendelssohn?' Nowadays we lump all of those in the same vote, but at that time, it was like trying to get a conductor to program the Schoenberg. But she insisted: 'The audience will love the Sibelius, I just know it.' If it had been somebody else they might have said, 'Well I guess I'm not going to invite you after all if you are insisting upon that weird concerto,' but she was so famous and popular as a player. They felt that if the only way we can get Maud Powell is to program the Sibelius, I guess we're going to have to do it. Then, of course, it would end up being a big success, and she would be vindicated.
She also added those concertos to her recital programs. Most towns didn't yet have an orchestra, and you couldn't record pieces of that length at the time. The only way to get those concertos into everybody's ear was to perform them with piano, which she did. So she was championing the most progressive of the music that was coming out of Europe, as well as encouraging and seeking the best of what America had to offer.
She also was the first white artist of any instrument to champion the works of black composers. Certainly guys like Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges and Samuel Coleridge Taylor – Afro-European composers – their works were being played by their European colleagues who were white. But she was the first person to not just play music as it came up, but to say look, this music ought to take its place and not be relegated to just the black classical music societies and the African-American orchestras. She actually made her own arrangements of Negro spirituals and insisted that this music be played.
Her version of "Deep River" was the first "Deep River" ever recorded, in 1911, before any vocal version was recorded. So this is very interesting, what she was doing.
It looks like violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, 33, will get back the 1741 Guarnerius del Gesu ("ex-Carrodus") she plays, according to Austrian central bank OeNB, which owns it, said an AFP report. The instrument, which was on loan to her from the Austrian bank, was seized last week by Swiss customs officers at the Zurich airport because she had not declared it upon entering the country. Whether or not a traveling artist who uses an instrument on loan is really legally compelled to do such a thing remains a puzzle for us....
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A West Coast Le Poisson Rouge? San Diego Symphony violinist John Stubbs has taken classical music out clubbing, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. After hearing a rock concert at a San Diego club called Anthology, Stubbs was inspired by the club's capacity to offer multi-media, and he immediately started thinking of ways to create a program filled with dance, film and live classical music. Stubbs, who also is conductor and music director of the California Ballet Company, formed a group called Luscious Noise, which will play a Mother's Day program this Sunday that explores theme of “spring,” with videos of Martha Graham dancing in Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” ballet, soprano Natalie Dessay singing Johann Strauss Jr.’s “Voices of Spring,” as well as live performances of the spring movement from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata for violin and piano, Sibelius’ “The Lover,” and works by Tchaikovsky and Mozart.
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Violinist Herbert Baumel died in late April at the age of 90. He was a 1942 graduate of the Curtis Institute, concertmaster with the Philadelphia Opera Company from 1940 to 1942; a first violinist in the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1942 to 1945; concertmaster with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic from 1945 to 1948 and also was concertmaster for the original 1964 Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” He also taught and conducted at Oregon State University. Here is a more detailed obituary from the Philadelphia Inquirer.
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What an inspiration! Violinist/violist Helen Gerald, who died Friday at the age of 91, played in the Amarillo Symphony from 1947 until 2009 – that's 63 years, and through seven conductors. In 1977, she co-founded Amarillo College's Suzuki String program with Suzanne Grooms. "Mrs. Gerald was such a nurturing teacher," former student Erica Swindell told the Amarillo Globe-News. "She cared so much about her students and set an example of what it meant to be an involved musician."
"You know that it's always like this, don't you?" said one of my colleagues, handing me some banana as I fretted a little, trying to wish the butterflies away before stepping onstage for my recital last week.
I do, actually. I know it's like this and ever will be. The difference is that this time, I didn't let a bunch of butterflies scare me away from playing a solo recital. The potential for having a really fun time was just too alluring – and I'm really happy that I did it.
It all started a few months ago, while I was watching my son do push-ups at his jujitsu lesson, way too early on a Saturday morning.
"We need somebody to do the next McKinley Salon," said Buddy Zapata, whose son was also on the mat. He's a fellow parent at McKinley School, the big Pasadena public school my kids have attended for the last eight years. Our "McKinley Salon" series is a fundraiser in which various parents perform, or show artwork. He played with his band for the last one.
"That sounds like a solo recital," I said, "No."
Jujitsu class lasts for two hours, and Buddy is a sweet-talker. By the end of it I was agreeing to maybe think about it.
So I tried not to think about it.
Oh what the heck, I'll call a pianist I like to play with, he is a doctoral student at USC. There's no way on Earth he'll have the time to do this thing. Thank God.
"I would love to play with you!" he said. Turns out, his doctoral recital was scheduled for a week before this date, so he'd be free of that pressure.
Well, that changed things. What could I do with piano? Hmmm, I could do everything I've been hankering to do for years. I smiled. Okay, maybe I wanted to do this after all!
I called up Buddy. "I'll do it," I said. "I'll make it about the violin, and showing people what it can do. It might actually be fun!"
Fun! I decided to dust off my Saint-Saens "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso," the "Blues" movement to the Ravel Sonata; the first movement to the Prokofiev Op. 94 (because I'd just heard Augustin Hadelich play it and fell back in love with it). And a few new things, Rachel Barton Pine had sent me her wonderful new book set of Maud Powell transcriptions and notes (we'll feature an interview about this next week on V.com) and so I decided to try performing one, the spiritual "Deep River," a version by Samuel Coleridge Taylor that was transcribed for violin by Maud Powell. And last but not least, I'd wanted for a very long time to play Mark O'Connor's Blackberry Mull, a trio for violin, cello and viola, and two colleagues, Carrie and Dane Little made that very fun project possible.
I practiced like I know you practice (a lot), and I publicized like I know you publicize (a lot) – though this time I had two amazing people help, photographer Elizabeth Jebef took this miracle picture of me that makes me look 20 years younger, and graphic designer Loren Roberts created posters and postcards.
Here are a few things I re-learned along the way:
You have to publicize a concert or recital long before you are ready to play it. The publicity has to begin at least a month and a half, maybe two months, before the concert, and you have to paper the town. You also have to spread it by word-of-mouth, and you have to start doing so before you feel 100 percent great about how the music is coming along. It's a little painful, but you must do it! There is nothing more heartbreaking, for me, than to go to a recital in which the performer has practiced and prepared, agonized over the music, only to find that I am one of 14 people in the audience. Not right! By the time you step on stage, you are ready. You want everyone there. So tell everyone, become a fountain of "please come to my recital." With huge efforts, I had an audience of about 80. I'm happy with it, but I would have loved about 250!
Perform for people beforehand. Running through pieces in front of friends and colleagues, like a performance, can be very revealing. Things that never seemed to go wrong in the practice room can sometimes rear their ugly heads during a run-through, and those are the areas where you should direct a laser beam. If I'd had more time, I would have had more run-throughs and taped at least a few, so I could really analyze what was going right and what needed attention and get deeper than the obvious things.
Always keep your audience in mind. This is what made this recital so fun for me; I wanted to show my friends that the violin is more than a squeakbox with which kids attempt to make noise. Also, I wanted to show them that the music written for violin is engaging and fun. I played pieces I loved, but with restraint, and with a thought to what I wanted to convey to my audience. This gave me a sense of purpose that went beyond proving something to myself – it was more about giving something.
Commitment helps. If you can nail down what you are going to play, with whom and exactly when, you'll have certainty about what direction you are going and exactly how to prepare. Also, getting postcards and posters up and distributed a month in advance made me feel completely committed: there's no backing out, this thing is happening. I was on board with it, and somehow this took away some of the desire to run away when it came time to play!
Be able to perform every piece a month before the date. If someething is going to be memorized, it needs to be fully memorized a month before the performance date.