January 2005

January 24, 2005 00:39

Who cares if somebody wants to use a “virtual orchestra” for their musical theatre production of “Oklahoma”?

Well, we all should care.

That's why I said, “Yes,” when violinist Mark Casillas asked if I could pass out flyers at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, where “Oklahoma” is running through next Sunday. He was asking on behalf of the LA musicians union , of which I am a member.

This production not only used non-union actors (a major cause for grievance in this town that is teeming with professional actors) but it also made use of a computerized device called a virtual orchestra machine. Though “Oklahoma” is scored for an orchestra of 18, this production used 8 musicians, plus the machine, which is controlled by a non-musician operator.

The Pantages sits in the strangely seedy but upscale heart of Hollywood. Though I have lived in LA for five years, I have not spent a lot of time here. On my way down Hollywood Blvd. I passed The Erotic Museum, next to Starbuck's, many souvenir shops, and every kind of human imaginable, in all shapes, sizes, colors and manner of dress.

I parked about a block away, still not sure whether I was walking through a dangerous neighborhood or not. It was a great night: warm weather, the sky in the pink afterglow of sunset, a full moon. I looked at the buildings towering around the theatre. The Capitol Records building caught my eye. It was evidently made to look like a stack of records, though me it just looked like something from the old cartoon, The Jetsons.

I found Casillas standing next to a box of white flyers, next to the Pantages marquis. With him was violinist Jim Sitterly . Soon after came two other violinists, Araksia Nazlikian and Olga Babtchimskaia.

Casillas gave us the lowdown on proper behavior:

1.Say, “Good evening, are you going to 'Oklahoma'?” That will catch their attention.
2.Don't ask if they want a flyer, nobody wants a flyer. Hand it to them and say, “This is about the music you'll be hearing tonight.” This is a non-confrontational way of saying it.
3.Be nice to these people. They are going to a musical. We want that! Conclude by saying, “Enjoy the show!”

Casillas demonstrated his spiel for us, and it worked like a charm. He had clearly thought carefully through what to say and exactly how to say it. Even some rather skeptical patrons were charmed by Casillas' geniality and non-confrontational nature and thanked him for giving them this “information about the music.”

I had dressed in semi-business attire for doing this. I wanted to look professional and intelligent, since appearance is about all people take in during the three seconds you try to hand them a flyer.

Araksia and I went to the west side of the marquis while the other three took the east side. We took our post right over the famous Walk of Fame

We spent an hour passing out several hundred flyers, which explained the virtual orchestra and gave a phone number for patrons to call and express any dissatisfaction they may have with the half-live, half-virtual orchestra. Most people were interested, and they took the flyers. Some were already aware of the situation and expressed disappointment in the increasing numbers of productions done this way.

One man said, “Some of those machines, they sound just about like the real thing, it's scary.”

Perhaps to some, but the LA Times critic Daryl H. Miller seemed to hear a pronounced difference. In his review on Jan. 20 he wrote, “A glimpse into the orchestra pit at intermission reveals a far-flung array of keyboards, which explains the hollow, blunt-edged electronic fill sound around the...live musicians.”

A “musical” is about the music. Is it necessary to tell people this? I believe so. They may go to a production like this and simply conclude that they don't like musicals, not knowing that the real reason was that the music was not the kind of human expression they were seeking.

A group of musicians, playing with their heads and hearts in sync, creates a kind of live chemistry that no machine, however sophisticated, can mimic.

9 replies | Archive link

January 20, 2005 15:17

We violinists understand the power and importance of our art: the wisdom that comes from studying an instrument, the satisfaction from performing with people, the beauty of listening to the music itself, the history and personality of a fine old instrument.

But it feels, at least to me, that we are speaking to the wind, for few others in our society seem to share our passion. People understand the value of reading, math, and computers in classrooms. But fine arts?

Violin classes are rarely offered in our schools. Teachers are overworked and poorly paid. Politicians and school board members don't generally understand the elegant beauty of an enduring work like a Mozart symphony and why it holds more for us humans than does the passing pop song of the day.

This is why Violinist.com member Bill Townsend has created The Amati Foundation. He understands. Not only that, he wants to help others understand, too.

Let's just say that I've never been riveted to a 43-page "Operations Overview," but I was to this one. Because Townsend's plan is nothing short of a vision to bolster what he calls "The Stringed Arts."

Robert and I met Bill, his assistant, Kelly, and a marvelously fascinating couple named Bill and Judy Sloan, on Tuesday at Mastro's, a steakhouse in Beverly Hills. Bill and Kelly had met with so many people during the day, they were ready to topple over. But we appreciated them meeting with us and bringing us the scoop about The Amati Foundation

You may know Bill as someone on the site who makes violins. Well, I'm here to tell you more.

Townsend was bit by the fiddle bug when he was on a 1999 business trip to China as an executive with the search engine company, Lycos. As it happened, his translator was the son of a luthier. Before he knew it, Townsend fell for the art of making violins and set to making one under this luthier's guidance. He came home to Austin, Texas, and set up shop in his garage. Since then he has made more than two dozen violins, including one played by Martie Maguire of the Dixie Chicks.

In explaining his reasons for forming the Amati Foundation to business leaders and potential donors, Townsend elegantly sets forth the problems of our times for violinists and those who want to see the violin thrive:

  • While studying an instrument is shown to improve memorization and analytical thinking, only 19 percent of American schools offer string programs today, compared to 80 percent in 1960.

  • American orchestras face rising costs and deficits, declining income, aging and dwindling audiences.

  • Many professional musicians have trouble getting their hands on fine instruments, while collectors are sometimes faced with dilemmas over what to do with instruments, how to have them well cared for and loaned in an appropriate manner.

    The Amati Foundation's ambitious plan involves a program for creating a historical collection of 36 reproductions of some of the world's finest violins, violas, celli and double basses. He has already invited 33 well-known makers from the United States, Canada, Czech Republic, Germany, China, United Kingdom, France and Italy to participate by making these copies.

    The plan is to have all these instruments made over the next few years, then throw a big event and put them on display for the public for several months.

    After that, the collection of instruments will be available for loan for eight years. That means that orchestras around the world will be able to borrow the entire collection, so that just about everyone in the orchestra would have a replica of a Strad, Guarneri, Amati, etc., in their hands for a concert series.

    Townsend says that not only will this be a nice public relations hook for orchestras, but it will also allow orchestra musicians around the world to inspect and perhaps appreciate better the work of modern luthiers.

    In 2015, the individual instruments will then be made available for loan to outstanding young musicians who aspire to a career in music.

    On the education front, Townsend wants to provide 500 schools across America with free violin instruction. At these schools, selected fourth- and fifth-graders would be taught using a curriculum that would combine Essential Elements for Strings and Suzuki, along with a novel online program that would allow children to get feedback on their playing via the computer. He wants the kids to be able to learn a variety of styles: classical, bluegrass, contemporary and baroque. The foundation would also outfit each school with violins.

    It's a very ambitious program, but Townsend seems to have the energy for it, and he is working tirelessly on accumulating the resources. His plan is impressive, with good thought put into it. On the day we saw him, Townsend had raised nearly $100,000 on just that day. But he will need several million to pull it off.

    If you want to lend financial support or donate an instrument, you can do so through the Amati Foundation website.

    He will also need our help as a community of violinists in finding talented teachers, lending advice and promoting his efforts among those who can help.

    We can certainly use an angel and advocate to energize our world of "Stringed Arts." Let's hope his efforts, along with our own individual efforts, do just that!

    5 replies | Archive link

    January 7, 2005 23:02

    So there it sat on the kitchen table: the International Musician, open to page 32, which lists... a “section violin” position open in the LA Phil, auditions in May.


    Who put this here? Clearly my conniving husband had opened my union newspaper before I even had seen the mail, and he divined what might be of most interest to me.

    It is...most interesting.

    5 replies | Archive link

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