Every few weeks I perform at the early service at church. There are several musicians at my church and we rotate performances throughout the year at the early service. It is challenging to find pieces that meet the criteria: 5 minutes or less in duration, requiring no more than two rehearsals with the pianist, and appropriate for the setting. Every so often, we collaborate for an ensemble, but mostly solo works are the norm.
In three weeks, it will be my turn to play again. To date I've stayed within the realm of baroque music, but this next performance will break from that tradition. Instead I'll be playing a piece written by Rebbecca Clarke, both a composer and violist. I first became familiar with her work a few years ago with her Sonata, an emotionally provocative piece. However, the Sonata goes well beyond the 5 minute rule. Instead, I'll be playing the Passacaglia. It is written in C minor, one of my favorite key signatures for viola. Not only is it easy under the hand, but it also resonates well on the viola. The piece takes advantage of the full range of the viola spanning three octaves and the dynamics ebb and flow quite naturally.
There are endless choices of fingerings. It could be played quite easily in mostly first and third positions, but doing so would rob the piece of its depth of colour. The better choice is to stay on a single string throughout a phrase. Much beyond 5th position becomes quite unwieldy for any duration and can sometimes cause the viola to not "speak" as clearly, especially in the lower register.
Over the next week I'll be searching for a compromise between what is musically appropriate and what I will be able to manage at 8am on a Sunday morning. My first pass at fingering choices seems promising at the moment with the highest position being 6th for a short period of time on the upper strings and I've made a few adjustments to the bowings to make the chords easier to execute. It will take a bit more effort than past performances, but I think that I can manage this in the span of a few weeks.
So much for starting from the end of the alphabet. I seem destined to start from A and work my way towards Z.
I'm a huge fan of Dominant strings. I've been using them exclusively on my viola for many years. At the rate I play, I have to change them at least every three months, and in the busy season, every two months or so.
When it came time to replace my strings, I went out on a limb and did something different. Instead of the medium gauge strings I always get, I got the heavier (stark) gauge. It's not as dramatic sounding as changing to a completely different brand, however the difference in tone is amazing.
The thicker gauge strings brought a new richness in sound - like a milk chocolate vs. the white chocolate sound I had before. They project more and have more "body", something that the medium gauged strings never produced. The difference was big enough to be noticed by my fellow violists in the orchestra. The only downside is that it takes a bit more effort in faster passages on the lower strings to get a clear tone - bowing "into" the strings more. It took much effort to begin with, and now it takes just a little bit more.
So far, I think the additional bowing effort is worth it due to the payback in tone production. Most of what I play does not have fast passages on the C string. Brandenburg #6 being the main exception, which I don't plan on performing in the near future.
The first piece of my Z-A goal arrived Friday: CF Zelter's Concerto in E-minor.
Zelter was a contemporary of Hoffmeister and Stamitz, so I had a little bit of an idea of what I was getting into before the piece arrived. At first it didn't look all that bad, then I did a double-take when I saw the tempo markings. "A little fast" would be an understatement. I gave it a run through at a much slower tempo and discovered that it was comfortable "under the hand" so to speak. With work, I should be able to take it up to tempo.
In addition to the Z-music, I also received a collection Rebbecca Clarke's shorter pieces for viola and piano. Clarke is one of my favorite composers for viola. The collection includes "Passacaglia on an Old English Tune", "I'll Bid My Heart Be Still", two lullabies, an untitled work, and "Chinese Puzzle". I fell in love with the first two instantly. Though the Passacaglia would need some work to perform, the "I'll Bid My Heart Be Still" is quite easy to play and absolutely beautiful. I'll be performing that piece at church in a few weeks.
It is tempting to put down what I'm working on now to begin working on the new music, but it will wait until I can finally make it through Sitt's Concertpiece, which could be several more weeks at least. Sitt is more difficult that I had first anticipated - somewhat like how Brahms is under the hand: constant shifting in just about every position, accidentals that cause intonation accidents, and a prolific use of second position. Challenging, but fun.
As Laurie mentioned, it is that time of year again to submit applications for summer camps and festivals. I put in my submission a few weeks ago for Interlochen's Adult Chamber Music Camp and received an e-mail the other day that I am confirmed.
This will be my third year. I'm looking forward to this more than ever before. This year my "stand-partner-in-crime" will be joining me and we are making it a road trip from Houston to Traverse City and back. We have signed up for a two day pre-organized intensive study: Brandenburg #6, Bridge's Lament and Daugherty 's Viola Zombies. Yes, Viola Zombies. Think "Twilight Zone".
Besides the normal excitement of being able to indulge myself in what I love for a week, I'm also looking forward to seeing my old viola teacher again and introducing him to my stand-partner-in-crime. We are hoping that the two-day intensive will be with my old teacher. Who else better to guide us through the techniques needed to perform "Viola Zombies"?
This past week has been a rough one. Last Monday I received a call I'd been dreading: if I wanted to see my grandfather again, it had to be soon - within hours. I quickly packed, grabbed the viola and headed out the door to make the drive up to Tennessee. I made it to the hospital at midnight, slept by his bed along with my mother. The next morning, we were able to talk - a little. The doctor expected him to pass away within hours/days at the most. Well, GP (grand-pa) had his own ideas. By Friday we moved him into the nursing home for hospice care.
After we got GP settled in to the nursing home, I walked around the facility. It is a very nice place as far as nursing homes are concerned. But it tore my heart to see so many people (mostly women) in their wheelchairs gathered around the various nursing stations staring at each other and talking mostly to themselves as their daily social activity. I found the administrator and asked if they would like a viola recital. Definitely! Yes!!! We scheduled a time for Saturday.
Saturday morning, I went back to the nursing home and sat with my grandfather. In the afternoon, a nurse poked her head into the room letting me know it was time. I grabbed my viola and headed towards the cafeteria and started setting up as several residents were brought in. Some of the women dressed up with coifed hair, red lipstick and fancy necklaces. One of the few men at the home was right up front. I'd seen him the previous day sitting quietly watching TV with a blank stare.
I rifled through my music and pulled out Bach, feeling very thankful that I spent a good portion of my adult viola-life working on the Suites, and began with the 2nd movement of the 1st Suite. It didn't even cross my mind to be fearful of performing. I was completely focused on making the music that was in my mind come out in my own playing. Within a few measures it felt like the viola was playing herself, telling me what to do to make the sound more beautiful. Between each movement, the residents applauded enthusiastically. I continued through the Suites, picking a movement or two from each and ended the afternoon playing Ashoken's Farewell and the Sarabande from the 6th Suite.
As I packed up, two of the women spoke with me. They were thankful for the music and said I played beautifully. We talked for a bit, and then I headed back to my grandfather's room. The door was open. When I walked in, my aunt and a friend of the family were sitting by my grandfather. I put my viola down and went to sit once again by his bed. My aunt said they could hear me from the room. I don't know if my grandfather heard or not. He was asleep. He had been sleeping for 3 days solid.
I held his hand and felt the warmth. It had been cold the other day. Then I heard "the rattle". I was louder than the previous day. It won't be much longer now.
More entries: February 2010
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