February 2006

Surviving the A String

February 20, 2006 16:08

Tina Wilke’s thread about “what do you like best about your playing?” got me into a rant about what I least liked. The A string, I replied. The problem-child string of my violin; willful, disobedient, inconsistent. Particularly when played with the fourth finger. When I try for the E note, I’m reminded of failed attempts at elementary school sports, where I’d fling my arms at the tetherball or swing the bat with no athletic prowess, instinct or knowledge of physics on my side. The fourth finger on the A string acts the same - it flies out there, blindly, panicked, landing with a sort of splat, nine times out of ten in the wrong place.

What’s going on here? Why does my fourth finger know where to go on the G, D and E strings, and why is it such a nightmare on the A string? It’s been months since I began the fourth finger business – how can I still be so lamentably poor? Worse, the bad playing is contagious. My B sharps consistently and the C sharp doesn’t. In my attempts to get the notes right, my shoulders hunch, making my bow skitter around and catch the open D string, which growls in disapproval. The bow tilts crazily, like a car on snow, too close to the bridge now, and a moment later overcorrecting to produce the skritchy sound so distasteful to the human ear.

Lesson time is the worst. There I stand in front of my teacher, screwing up notes I learned six months ago. “I don’t know what to do with this A string!” I hear myself say, a bit wildly. Surely she must be thinking that I don’t practice at home. Can a student be fired, I wonder, for not progressing at an acceptable pace? Will she, one day soon, turn to me with regret and unease etched on her face and say, “I’m sorry, I just don’t see that this is doing either of us any good…”

“Let’s try an A major scale,” she suggested gently last week, looking at my plum face. Then we segued into the tiresome Frere Jacques again, which always makes my adult sensibilities cringe. Following my success there, we proceeded once again to the week’s assigned piece. And bingo, the B sharped and the E flatted. Four times in a row.

What appalls me is the un-intuitiveness of it all. Or rather the intuitiveness to get it wrong; the heavy sense of inevitability I get from the A string—the dark twin of my easy-going, sweet-sounding, low-maintenance E string. The D string, as well, is so pleasing with its rich sound and resonance, triggering the sympathetic vibration of my G string until the whole violin hums. Even the G string is a breeze compared to the A string. “You’ll get it all eventually,” my teacher always consoles me.

I trudge through the parking lot to my car after the lesson, head hanging. I recognize the solution here is simply to stick with it. I’ll continue to practice five hours a week. Whether it’s a good-sounding practice or bad is beside the point. Experience has taught me to persevere through doldrums like these. A day off to lick my wounds, and back I get onto the horse. (Well… horsehair, at least.)

And then today, while still humbly aware of my ineffective stabs of the fourth finger on the A string, I notice something I’ve never noticed before. The B on the A string, when hit properly, resonates in my chest, as if I’m having a heart palpitation, or I drank so much caffeine that I’m feeling the bzzzzzzzz effect. How could I not have noticed such a thing before? Amazing, really.

And there it is—another compass for helping me negotiate this foreign terrain that so intrigues, baffles and exasperates me. Maybe some day yet, the A string and I will become friends, the way I am with my E and D string right now. I’ll play and it will hum to me in its clear, honey tone.

Until then, it’s practice, practice, practice.

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The Goddesses of the Cavani Quartet

February 2, 2006 23:54

For months now, I’ve harbored a fervent wish: to see Dvorák’s “American” string quartet performed live. Hearing a recording of it for the first time six months ago, particularly the second movement—the lento—made a powerful impression on me. I hadn’t realized chamber music could be so lush, so evocative and visceral. I vowed to put those swirling notes and moods into words and incorporate them into my novel, as the story-beneath-the-story while my violinist protagonist and her colleagues rehearse for their own performance of The American.

When I learned last week that the Cavani String Quartet—artists-in-residence at the Cleveland Institute of Music since 1988—would be performing this now-familiar quartet, I was thrilled. Tickets were still available and best of all, seating was general admission, first come, first seated. That meant I had a chance at front row center seats. I vowed to do whatever it took to get those seats.

The Kohl Mansion, a venue in Burlingame, California, south of San Francisco, is a spectacular rose-brick Tudor structure, set on forty rolling acres. My friend Missy and I showed up ninety minutes early, plenty of time to stake our claim as “first arrivals” and enjoy the pre-concert lecture, which took place in the library, a sumptuous wood-paneled room complete with fireplace, bookcases and comfortable armchairs. Theoretically, following the lecture, the first-arrivals would be the first to pass from library to the main hall, where they could choose their seats.

But theory couldn’t hold up against reality: dozens of charging seniors determined to get to the hall first. Missy and I stared, stunned, then leapt to keep up. But the damage had been done: by the time we made it to the hall, two dozen people had found seats before us. Equally disappointing, another two dozen of the best seats had “reserved” signs on them. The best we could do were seats off to the side, affording us a good view of the first violinist and cellist. But the violist’s back, we were soon to discover, faced us, and worse, completely obscured the second violinist—the position my protagonist played. The terrible implication of this sank in during the first piece (Mozart’s string quartet in G Major). For six months I’d tried to visualize the second violinist playing the Dvorák—how she and the first violinist (her nemesis from conservatory days, with whom things have now heated up in a different way) would interact together. And now, here it was, and I was going to miss it. I felt almost breathless with disappointment.

“Ask the people closer in if they’d consider moving down,” Missy suggested during the intermission when I fretted about it.

“You mean the ones who mowed us over to get to those seats first?”

“Um, you’re right. Never mind.”

I stewed in growing despair until I saw a staff member pass. I reached over, clutched at her arm and explained my situation. The woman, whom I’ve renamed Saint Patricia (otherwise known as Patricia Moy, executive director of the Music at Kohl Mansion program) listened, and then, to my dazed relief, nodded. “I’ll get you the seat you need,” she said. And within minutes she’d found me a new spot—a spare chair set in the center aisle, close to the front. It couldn’t have been better.

The performance of the Dvorák was everything I’d hoped. The Cavani Quartet—all females—played brilliantly, with an unparalleled sense of ensemble. They supported one another not only with their music, but with exchanged glances, inclined shoulders, nods of approval and the occasional private smile of good friends sharing a delicious adventure. Their interpretation of Dvorák’s work seemed to reflect all the choices I’d have made—lush and theatrical, never too rushed or athletic.

The lento in particular, was riveting to watch. The first violin, played by Annie Fullard, sings its lament—a search for something unutterably sweet and painfully elusive—followed by the reassuring echo of the cello, played by Merry Peckham. But the best part for me was when Mari Sato’s second violin shared the melody with Fullard. The music made me think of a pair of hawks circling in the sky—soaring, tumbling over one another, dipping, separating and coming together. It was the same pure expression of grace, love and longing I’d been writing about. It was art that transcended its medium. The performance stirred me so much, tears stung my eyes.

The cello takes over the melody at the end of the lento, like a benevolent parent, come to soothe the exhausted violins (and listeners) and lend perspective to the drama. The movement’s final notes feel like a big cosmic blanket laid over the listener as they drift off to rest. When the four musicians had finished the lento, nobody in the hall moved; no one breathed. The mood created was that absolute.

I stayed tensed on the edge of my seat through the spirited third and fourth movements. Afterwards, I almost leapt out of my chair in my appreciation for the group’s performance. I wasn’t alone—we all cheered and applauded the quartet until they performed a rousing encore by Charles Alexander.

I could continue to wax lyrically, about the “meet the musicians” reception that Music at Kohl Mansion hosts after every performance (BIG points to the venue for this fabulous feature); how generous and giving the musicians were in spending time with the attendees. Mari Sato, in particular, allowed me to monopolize her time for over thirty minutes as I pelted her with logistics questions about the second violinist part, group dynamics, interpretation and tempo decisions. Another day, another blog, perhaps. In the meantime, I’ll end with the mantra that has been playing in my head since Sunday night (right there alongside “The American”): Dvorák’s music is divine. And the women of the Cavani Quartet, who played their hearts out with such gusto and finesse, are goddesses.

© 2006 Terez Rose

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