How did it get to be December 29th already? This has been a rather tough fall, work-wise, but I am grateful to some wonderful co-workers for helping me through it. I haven't been able to blog, or to play the violin, as much as I would like.
Unlike the other 2 pieces on the program, this piece was completely unfamiliar to me until I played it. One of the things I love about playing in an orchestra is being introduced to new music. While I always enjoy looking up new pieces on wikipedia, I think this entry is a little off-base. Especially the 3rd movement, the "Preghiera" is gorgeous, with a lovely cello solo. However, one thing I will say, is that, in spite of its nickname, it sounds nothing like Mozart. Tchaikovsky can't sound like anyone but his glorious self. The lead-up to the solo, which is one of several variations on a theme, has bells worthy of any sugar plum fairy. After the shimmering Preghiera and jaunty bells, however, come the 16th notes. In our edition, those 16th notes, at the top of the page just as it is turned over, herald the "oh c**p, here it comes" feeling.
When I first started practicing this, I found that A Recording is Worth 1000 Words. I ended up practicing in front of a mirror, regularly. Not only for bow distribution, but also for keeping the bow centered and straight. You never get too old for the basics. Further along in the process, I took my violin to a work retreat, and practiced while everyone else was out hiking: Adventures with Pyotr Ilyich, I: the Retreat, Fall Colors, and the Hurdy-Gurdy.
The most obviously difficult part of this piece, for me, was the arpeggios at the end. The first ends on B and the second ends on D. When I was first practicing them, they both pulled towards C in my ear: the B was consistently sharp and the D was consistently flat, as much as a half step in each case. And, initially I didn't hear that as the problem--I just thought they sounded kind of the same, fuzzy, and bad--until I started working with the electronic tuner consistently. Then, over time, each one started to take on a different character and flavor, and I started to be able to hear that difference between the two, and it made musical sense to me why Tchaikovsky would end the first one on B and the second one on D. It's hard to explain any better than that, but I don't think I would have gotten the same idea or understanding from practicing straight arpeggios in different keys out of context.
Somewhere in there, my violin teacher introduced me to "wristies," fingerless fleece gloves that allow violinists to keep their hands warm while playing. I'm wearing them in the concert video. I wish I'd discovered them earlier! Cold hands have been a personal scourge of my intonation and vibrato for as long as I can remember. And having cold hands has also resulted in a particularly discouraging sort of feedback loop, in which I hear myself playing with the stiff vibrato and poor intonation, and thereby get more nervous, resulting in even colder, stiffer hands, and worse intonation and vibrato, and so on. Having the wristies is helping me short-circuit that nasty loop, and is honestly helping me be less nervous. They're better than almost anything else I've tried so far. A couple of people asked me, with concern, if they were a brace or if there was something wrong with my wrist. Thank goodness, no--much less than before, anyway.
The biggest reason I waited to post this video, aside from getting snowed under at work, is that there are a couple of better copies out there and I was hoping that maybe one of those would work out. One of them, however, turned out to have a really nice view of the back of my head. So, this is the video taken by my daughter. There is one painfully out of tune section at the beginning that I just want to mention up front and get out of the way. All I can say about it is that thank goodness I didn't let it mess with my head. Rather than getting discouraged by that early intonation snag and sucked into a downward spiral, I was able to recover and move on. So sometimes maybe it's a blessing not to hear intonation so perfectly in real time, but wait to cringe until you hear the recording. In fact, I seemed to hit my stride and get better as I went along. I didn't wait, though, for the high D at the end. I cringed. My daughter said, "mommy, you made a scary face!"
A local online newspaper, the "Arlington Patch," covered the concert, and they interviewed our percussionist, Joe, and myself, which you can see here. The reporter asked me what playing in the orchestra "meant" to me, and I was babbling, but it's true. It is something quite wonderful to have music back in my life after 8 years off. I will say goodbye to 2010 with regret, but look forward to 2011 with happy anticipation.
Happy New Year, everyone!
Since my violin solo last month I have been taking it easy with the violin. To be honest, I haven't had a lot of choice. I had a tough week at work last week and had to cancel my lesson, and I am also taking advantage of a relatively light orchestra schedule of holiday music. Something has been missing, and last night was the right way to get back on track.
It was my birthday yesterday, three weeks before Christmas. It's a nice time for a birthday, nestled between major holidays, especially if you enjoy the lights, the decorations, the dark evenings, while people are still calm, with Thanksgiving a pleasant memory and avoidance of the frazzled shopping rush still seeming like a possible dream. In short, perfect timing for a symphony concert.
My husband is not a musician, so this kind of activity is not a regular occurrence for us. And in fact, although we've lived in the Boston area for over 12 years, this was our first time in Symphony Hall to hear the BSO. In previous years we've gone to smaller regional orchestras such as the Arlington Philharmonic (before I joined), the Longwood Symphony, and the Lexington Symphony.
We parked quite far away, and walked half a mile, enjoying what the city looks like at this time of year. When we got to Symphony Hall and tried to take our seats, we found that we had tickets for a row that didn't exist, row A. After some discussion, the ushers sent us back out to the box office, where alternate tickets were waiting for us, in row F, near the front and to the right, close enough to the 2nd violins to see what kind of shoulder rests they use.
After a medical leave and a series of guest conductors, James Levine is back, using a special conducting chair, and he was a delight to see--his passion, his energy, his sheer joy. Like Gandalf, or Dumbledore, he is a wise wizard of the classical stage.
First on the program was a violin soloist, Nikolaj Znaider, playing Mozart #3. Since I've been reading violinist.com, I've become much better acquainted with today's violin soloists than I used to be, but he was still new to me. Unfortunately, due to the acoustics of where we were sitting, I still don't feel that I have a good appreciation of the violinist he is. For this concert the seating was non-traditional, with the violins on either side of the conductor. We were close to the front on the right of the hall, near the 2nds. A hypothetical diagonal line drawn from me to the soloist would have intersected Levine's conducting chair. Most of the time I couldn't even see Znaider, and often, the sound of the "Kreisler" Guarnerius del Gesu that he plays did not rise above that of the orchestra. While I didn't choose the seats, and these weren't even the seats my husband bought since we were switched at the box office, next time I come, I will be sure to sit somewhere else! It would probably even cost less.
Here is the angle I wish I'd had. And a nice review by Jeremy Eichler of the program, which was also performed on Thursday night.
The Mozart #3 is a charming piece, and it brought back memories of my teen years spent studying the first movement solo part. My husband turned to me and asked, "could you play that?" The answer is a qualified yes, which I told him, but the answer to that question is always complicated. Orchestras all over the world play essentially the same repertoire, but the devil is in the details. "Well, right," he persisted, "you could plaaaay it, but would you stick out? Here in the back of the second violins?"
"Yes, I'd stick out. Well . . . maybe not if it was the Mozart orchestral part and I practiced really hard beforehand."
His comment got me to looking at the section players. What was especially enjoyable about being that close to them was seeing how human they are. One player wears an earplug while he's playing. One player has an Ohrenform chin rest like mine. Most, but not all, of them use shoulder rests. But not Kuns, either something fancier or less so, like a sponge with rubber band, that they adjust and play with during the rests. One player has a special chair, not like Levine's, with a little back support attached. Most of the men sit back, against the back rests of the chairs, which was a big no-no when I was in high school orchestra. Only the young woman in the very last stand, inside, sits the way I used to: on the edge of her chair. Also, as I used to, she bends her knee and tucks her left leg under the chair. In middle age I have modified and essentially abandoned this playing position because it caused back pain. Just looking at her, my back twinges. I notice that she, and some of the other players too, fidgets and switches position throughout the concert. The women who are wearing heels have trouble positioning their feet. For the most part, they do not just leave them "flat" on the floor like the men can. One player sticks her ankles out in front of her and crosses them while she's playing. I own one pair of high heeled shoes, and I wear them when I play in orchestra concerts. You know, I'm going to re-think that.
Second on the program was John Harbison's Symphony #2. Harbison and Levine are close colleagues, and, from the program notes, friends. I admit that Harbison's music may be an acquired taste. The piece is programmed in an interesting way, from Dawn to Darkness in 4 movements. I may or may not have been able to tell when one movement ended and the next one began. The movement that I think was "Dusk," was gorgeous, with a lovely, rich melody in the strings. It was my favorite.
The last piece was Schumann's Symphony #2. I played #3 last year with the Arlington Phil, and was unfamilar with this one. I always find reading Robert Schumann's biography to be troubling. Not much older than I am now when he died in an asylum, he struggled with his ailments when he wrote this piece as well. But he pushed through them, and emerged triumphant. I especially loved the Scherzo, and think I would love to play it, too. It has virtuosic passages for the violins, which the BSO executed brilliantly. Sure, if I tried to play that, I would "stick out," even if I practiced really hard. But there's something about fast runs, when you can do them, when you can't rush because you're playing them literally as fast as you can, poised on the knife edge of disaster, and you make it to the end, breathless and exhilarated.
After multiple curtain calls for Levine, we went back into the lit-up night. My birthday, and the concert, over for another year. I won't wait so long until the next concert.
Karen Allendoerfer is from Belmont, Massachusetts. Biography
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