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Laurie Niles

'Can't Say Enough about the Violin': Laurie Niles' annotated Internet recital

April 28, 2010 at 9:18 PM

Many of you who couldn't make it to my recital last Friday in Pasadena, California, expressed an interest in being there, so here it is, via the Internet!

This recital was given as a benefit for McKinley School, the largest public elementary school in Pasadena with nearly 1,200 kids – and also my children's school. We took donations at the door, and we still welcome them! (We didn't quite make the $25,000 that Josh Bell did for the Bloomington, Indiana schools – he remains our inspiration!) Here is where to donate to McKinley.

So welcome to my recital, and I've written down the introductions that I gave to each of the six pieces I played, which were all designed to help people understand the various kinds of things that this wonderful instrument – the violin – can do.

Laurie Niles in recital

This first piece, Blackberry Mull, was actually written before people had Blackberry cellphones. But that reminds me: turn off your cell phones!

The piece is by the fiddler extraordinaire Mark O'Connor, an American composer who is very much alive today, performing all over the world. Every year he holds string camps, camps for grown-ups in which people who play in all different musical styles – fiddle, classical, rock 'n' roll, bluegrass – get together and learn to play in ways that are new to them. Mark is working on getting kids involved as well, and he's writing a series of string method books for kids. This piece was inspired by a jam session he had at his Fiddle Camp in Tennessee, and I will read straight from his words about the piece:

"One jam took place in which Appalachian fiddler Bruce Molsky and Natalie Haas played an old tune he called Blackberry Blossom. Bruce got it from a 1930's recording by an old fiddler...When I first heard the tune, my mind was not just carried away to Appalachia but places beyond. During a trip to the Isle of Mull of the west coast of Scotland in the summer of '03, I felt inspired to play around with the old Appalachian tune I heard back at the Camp...The word 'mull' can also mean mixing a variety of ingredients together. This piece is an example of how I sometimes perceive fiddle music to be: a mixture of musical ingredients to document one's travels."

As I sat down to play, the violist, Carrie, turned to me and said, "'Travels,' or 'travails'?"

I laughed. "Travels, AND travails!"

"Blackberry Mull" by Mark O'Connor. Featuring guests Carrie Little, viola, and Dane Little, cello.

The composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in Europe, of African descent. He made it part of his life's mission to preserve the music of African-Americans, and he came to the United States a little more than 100 years ago to do so. This piece, a spiritual called "Deep River," was part of a set of piano arrangements he made called "Twenty-Four Negro Melodies."

Another musician of that time period, a female violinist named Maud Powell, heard him play these arrangements. She fell in love with "Deep River" so much that she transcribed it for violin and piano, so she could play it herself. Maud Powell was an amazing woman; just imagine, she was a traveling soloist – a woman soloist! – 100 years ago. She would take her violin and her trunk of costumes on a train, and she would play in tiny towns all over the American frontier. She played this piece everywhere she went.

I found "Deep River" in a collection of Maud Powell music that was just published this spring, edited by a wonderful violinist named Rachel Barton Pine. (We will feature an interview with Rachel, about this collection, next week on The notes about this piece say that "it was the first time a white solo concert artist trained in the the European classical music tradition had performed an African-American spiritual in concert." Maud Powell was doing something very important in bringing this music to a wider public.

You will notice that this arrangement has a little thunderstorm in the middle. I see it as being a lot like the nature of faith: it begins as a beautiful, peaceful haven, but then it is shaken with doubt. In the end, that beautiful music prevails and the peace returns. Here are the words:

Deep river, my home is over Jordon,
Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into camp-ground.
Oh, children, Oh don't you want to go, to that gospel feast,
That promised land, that land, where all is peace?
Walk into heaven, and take my seat,
And cast my crown at Jesus' feet
Lord, I want to cross over into camp-ground.

"Deep River" by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor; Laurie Niles with pianist Ben Salisbury

Maurice Ravel was a French impressionist composer, and we might not think of him as someone who would write something called "Blues," but he did, in the 1920s, near the end of his life. It took him four years, so long by the time he finished it, that the violinist he wrote it for had arthritis and couldn't premiere it!

We know what "Impressionism" means for the visual arts: just picture those beautiful Monet paintings, where, if you look very closely, the painting appears to be nothing more than dots of color, but when you back up, it creates an image and makes sense. Impressionist music is very similar: it doesn't make sense if you examine it with too much detail, but if you can let it wash over you, you can get the feeling of it.

As for the "Blues" movement we're about to play, I have a story that I always think about when I play it; I don't know if I read it somewhere or I made it up, but here it is: Imagine that you are in a busy city, a place like New York. It's evening, and everyone is relaxing in their apartments, which are all very close together and stacked on top of each other. It's a warm evening, so all the windows are open, and someone is sitting in a window, strumming a banjo. The neighbor below hears the strumming, so he goes over to his piano, and he starts playing along. He doesn't know exactly what key the banjo guy is playing in, so they are actually playing in different keys. Pretty soon a neighbor who plays the saxophone hears the music and decides to join in.

Now, when Ravel wrote his sonata for violin and piano, he stated that his aim was to show just how fundamentally incompatible these two instrument are! So sometimes the violin and the piano are at odds, but please enjoy: we are going to make a lot of beautiful racket together.

Maurice Ravel "Blues" from Sonate for Violin and Piano

Sergei Prokofiev actually wrote the sonata we are about to play for flute and piano, but we violinists are greedy and have stolen it for our instrument. Actually, the person who decided to steal it was a famous Russian violinist named David Oistrakh, who personally asked Prokofiev to write a violin version. Prokofiev obliged, and the result is one of my favorite pieces, which works beautifully on either instrument. I decided to play it because I was so inspired when I heard violinist Augustin Hadelich play it a few months ago.

Sergei Prokofiev Sonata, Op. 95, I. Moderato

We hear a lot about Mozart being a child prodigy, but for some reason we don't hear so much about Camille Saint-Saëns, who was every bit the prodigy and musical genius that Mozart was. Saint-Saens' "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso" was my favorite violin piece, long before I was ever able to play it. It is a piece that inspires me, that I enjoy immensely. It's just FUN. I hope you enjoy it, too!

Camille Saint-Saëns, "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso"

For an encore, I'd like to play you one of the most beautiful pieces ever written for the violin, "Meditation from 'Thaïs.'" I love to play it on this violin, which I've had now for four years, a Gagliano that I bought here in Pasadena at Marquis Violins from Barry Hou. I hope you enjoy it.

Jules Massenet, "Meditation from 'Thaïs'"

Thank you for joining me for my recital!

* * *
This recital was given as a benefit to McKinley School in Pasadena, California, and here is where you can donate to McKinley, which is raising money to save its arts programs and core teachers for the coming year.

A big public thank you to:

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on April 28, 2010 at 9:41 PM

Bravo! Really nice playing! I love your sound too!  I hope my speakers will allow me to listen to the whole recital the next time though. I was able to only listen the first half (my computer sound system is not always working). 

This recital looked very interesting!

Keep on the good work, and again really beautiful playing!


I'm sure this school will be very happy also!

From Anne Horvath
Posted on April 29, 2010 at 12:47 AM


Also, nice dress!

Posted on April 29, 2010 at 3:40 AM


Nicely done

From Becky Jenkinson
Posted on April 29, 2010 at 5:01 AM

I loved the recital, Laurie, and was particularly touched by what you said about the piece, Deep River.   Your violin playing is so beautiful, and I have been very inspired.  Thanks for taking the time to post the recital.  Even though I am in Northern Ontario.....way way far away, I can enjoy this beautiful recital!!

From Royce Faina
Posted on April 29, 2010 at 9:05 PM

Can I borrow that dress???????

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on April 29, 2010 at 10:01 PM

I didn't know this of you Royce ; )   Sorry for this off topic sentence but it was too funny...


Posted on April 30, 2010 at 5:39 PM


Congratulations for your recital  !!  Your playing, your looks and your dress are just beautiful !

I agree that Camille Saint-Saëns was a genius, but Mozart is a genius that came from another galaxy.


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