May 2007

From one dinosaur to another

May 24, 2007 19:34

I started to write a reply to Ihnsouk Guim's question, "Am I a dinosaur?" and it got so long I decided to turn it into a blog entry.

No, Ihnsouk, I don't think you're a dinosaur, I think my own tastes are rather similar to yours. And I also feel at times as if I'm way out of step with the mainstream. I'd chalk it up to age, as in middle, except that I felt the same when I was myself younger and thinner.

But I still don't think that framing the issue solely in terms of sexuality is quite fair, or accurate for that matter. As I was thinking about it after the last go-round on the previous thread, I decided that what bothers me about current trends in classical artist marketing is really more the stylized, almost uniform, look of people in the media these days, and the fact that classical musicians are starting to resemble them, not the sexuality. I don't have anything against sexuality, even overt sexuality. But there's kind of a mind-numbing sameness, and alienness, about the models and movie stars who stare down, or out, at us from billboards and the sides of busses as we go about our business. They seem less and less like real people and more and more like aliens. They are becoming harder and harder to connect with.

My favorite CD currently is the following: J.S. Bach - Six Cello Suites performed on viola, recorded by Patricia McCarty, viola

I received it as a gift for Christmas last year. I've been listening to it every day since then. I love this CD. And in the absence of a real live viola teacher at present, I am starting to feel as if McCarty is my teacher. I compare her interpretations with others, I adopt some of her ornamentations. I recently read about her in the context of composer Rebecca Clarke. Her 1985 recording of Clarke's Viola Sonata is apparently regarded as a classic and has played a role in the renaissance of Clarke's music. I admire the role she has played in this endeavor. As I learn more about her, McCarty is becoming one of my personal heroes.

This is the picture of her on the cover of that CD:

As much as I like what I've read about and heard of McCarty, I admit, I'm not crazy about this picture. It's too made-up, too glam, too formal. Too many sequins on the dress. However, the picture did not prevent me from putting the CD on my Amazon wish list, nor did it prevent me from recommending the CD to friends.

But there are other pictures of McCarty out there, for example, this one:

To me, this is the person playing on the CD. She is who I hear when I put the iPod buds in my ears and close my eyes and lose myself in the music. She is a wise teacher, she is someone who cares enough to bring a forgotten composer back to us. She is someone I'd like to know better. The other picture doesn't say that to me.

Finally, it occurs to me that the violin world could use some elder stateswomen. We have elder statesmen: Heifetz, Milstein, Oistrakh, Perlman, Zuckerman, I could go on. Their accumulated wisdom and experience, even into middle and old age, I would argue, enriches us all. But I can't think of any women of that stature and gravitas. At least not yet. I'm hoping that Midori and Hilary Hahn and Sarah Chang will get there eventually. Anne-Sophie Mutter would have been a good candidate . . . but apparently she's retiring at 45. Maybe nobody wants to see a 60-year-old woman in a strapless gown, but I at least do want to see and hear 60-year-old female concert artists still actively playing, just as I want to see and hear 60-year-old male artists. The current glam trend works against that, and I think we as the audience are going to be poorer for it.

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May 21, 2007 04:25

Yesterday morning I went to hear a friend play Rebecca Clarke's Lullaby on viola for the offertory at our church. The offertory was being collected for a group called "Bikes not Bombs". Before she played, an official from the organization spoke for a few minutes. He said that it had started in 1984, sending containers of bicycles to Nicaragua. Now they send bikes all over the world, their latest container went to South Africa.

My church has been around since 1630; it has gone through its ups and downs in membership and redefined itself many times. It wasn't always a UU church, it started out as a Puritan congregation, became Unitarian in 1819, and added the Universalist tradition in 1961 when the two denominations merged. Social justice has long been important to UU's, and most recently, in the past 6-12 months, we as a congregation have actively taken up the cause of environmentalism. Individual members have always supported it in a general way, but now we are taking more group action: working it into the Religious Education program, making the building a "Green Sanctuary," watching "An Inconvenient Truth," making individual pledges to do more in our own lives, discussing political action, supporting groups like this.

Admittedly, I came to hear my friend play, not this guy talk, and I was thinking that maybe he was going on a bit too long, and then she started. I knew nothing about the piece before, I hadn't even heard of Clarke until my friend introduced me to her. Here is a review of a new CD of some of her music, including the Lullaby.

I don't have anything that intelligent to add about the music itself: I thought it was quite beautiful and elegant, and my friend did a great job. She claimed to have been very nervous beforehand, even said to me "don't laugh if I miss the high note," which I thought was a bit odd--it wouldn't occur to me to laugh at someone playing in church, and certainly never at her. Her nerves didn't show.

Somehow, though, even as she was playing, I still kept thinking about "Bikes not Bombs." When she finished, I was inspired. I imagined kids riding around Nicaragua and South Africa and cities in the USA on their bikes. I felt as if this was the type of lullaby we needed, and it was in our reach. It struck me then that the Offertory as the musician experiences it is a weird beast: not a performance only, not merely background Muzak, not solely a plea for money.

It struck me that now that we are involved as a congregation in something many of us are passionate about in this way, the stakes are higher. It'll matter more if the music is badly played, or if it is the wrong choice. Those of us who play music as a service have a higher responsibility, not just to the composer, or to ourselves, or to the audience listening right there at the time. At least that's how it seems to me. Yet when I prepare, when I practice, it's usually been all about me--my technique, my improvement, my sound, my time, my effort. How to balance both concerns has been a tension for as long as I can remember studying music.

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I need some direction

May 16, 2007 04:33

I'm feeling a little unfocussed and distracted. Lots of opportunities, not sure what to choose or work on, or where to go next. And I want to hear what *everything* sounds like on my new viola.

I volunteered to play in church again over the summer for a congregation-led service. The person leading the service will be in touch about the music. I don't know if they want violin or viola, classical or folk. I think they'll be happy with whatever I suggest, but the uncertainty is nagging. Then, my Bach-double-suggesting friend seems to have gotten distracted. She's playing viola next Sunday: Rebecca Clarke. I've never heard Rebecca Clarke before, it should be interesting. But she can't think about the Bach double until this is over.

And then there's the Farmers' Market. I thought that some fiddle tunes might be more appropriate than all Bach all the time, so I bought a fiddle book for violists. I'm learning some tunes from Boston, seeing as this is the Boston area: "The Belles of South Boston," and "Boston Fancy." It's fun, but I'm really operating in a vacuum. I don't know any fiddlers and I've never had a fiddling teacher, either.

And there's Wohlfahrt. I'm almost done with Book #1, which was my goal, to be done with it by June. So I've soon got to pick some new etudes, more challenging ones.

And there's the Hook Sonatina. It's easy and fun, but it is the devil to memorize. I'm trying to memorize it and I keep getting stuck. It has a lot of repeated phrases, some are a fifth lower than before, and it circles around back to itself and then has a new variation. I get caught in endless loops, playing the wrong octave, going back to the beginning in the middle, going forward to the end at the beginning. This is a piece that, technically, I could have played in 6th or 7th grade. It has a little 3rd position, but that's it. I don't understand why it's so hard to learn by heart. Bach was easier!

A new family moved in across the street. Our kids love to play with their kids. The husband is a serious trumpet player. He suggested we play together sometime. I'd like that, and I'm flattered to be asked, but I'm nervous. He's serious, he plays in a band, he studied at a conservatory. So, note to self: find some music that sounds nice so I don't embarrass myself. Post the question to discussion. Viola and trumpet?

I've gotten to the point where I actually have a "repertoire" on viola. Yeah, it's limited, but I don't want to lose it. And by the time I play through the things I've memorized (so I don't forget them), I'm almost out of time.

Perhaps a teacher is an obvious solution at this point. But I feel like I need more of a life/organization coach.

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It's mine!

May 12, 2007 13:35

I bought the Doetsch viola! The Eastman was growing on me during the week, it sounded especially nice with the Prelude from Bach suite #2, but I decided still, in the end, that I wanted the Doetsch. It has a smooth, lovely sound that I don't seem to ever get tired of. Every time I put it back in the case, it was with regret.

And I played the Prelude from Suite #1 the best I ever have on my new instrument, especially the ending chord. I have an unfortunate tendency to land on chords sometimes and make them harsh, but this one sounded sweet, singing. The Telemann viola concerto also sounds wonderful on this instrument. Yes, a good instrument makes you a better player.

Still, it never really stops, you can always get something better. I just finished reading the article that Al posted about the teenage girl with a $115K violin whose parents are sacrificing virtually everything for her and her sister's music education. For some weird reason, that makes me feel better about spending a bit under $2K for my viola. At least it's paid for, and so is the house I'm practicing it in.

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A tale of two violas

May 7, 2007 10:27

I enjoyed viola shopping, and now I have not one viola but two, and neither of them is the one I planned to bring home. The place was a bit of a madhouse on a Saturday morning, too, and my 3-year-old got bored and started running around the room while I was trying to play.

I went in search of the Eastman 305 viola outfit, which came highly recommended and was reasonably priced. I was all set, I thought I would get it. I thought I'd be done.

And then, surprisingly, I really didn't like it at all. Everything about it wasn't a good fit for me: the color (much too dark), the sound (too bright, with an edge, not mellow enough--if I wanted that, I'd get a violin), the bridge shape (too flat--kept hitting strings that I hadn't planned on, but she said "the bridge was carefully shaped to match the fingerboard").

They had two other instruments for me to try, an older Eastman model of similar price but more attractive appearance, and a Rudoulf Doetsch, for about $500 more. Naturally, which one did I keep coming back to? The Doetsch.

On one hand, I feel a little manipulated. Wouldn't it be a standard sales technique to put a slightly nicer instrument next to the other two, have it stand out as clearly better, as the "best in class," and thereby tempt the poor sucker (I mean, customer) to spend the extra cash.

But oh well, I'm tempted anyway. The Doetsch is really lovely, lovely color and sound. After playing 3 Bach movements on both it and the OK Eastman, and some solos for young violists, I asked the saleswoman to play something for me too to see if the Doetsch projected or was just too mellow/muted from a distance, and it didn't seem that way. On the contrary, even when she was playing, the low notes were richer and smoother. And projected well. The OK Eastman's were a tiny bit scratchy. I hate scratchy.

There's good accessory news. The Coda Aspire Carbon Fiber bow was great. Indeed, viola bows can actually be easy and smooth to use, and "handle well". Bye-bye brazilwood! And I don't think I need to spend any more for a higher end carbon fiber bow. This one is just fine as my "second last" bow.

And the blue velour interior Bobelock case is also lovely. At first she said, "oh, I think I have a new green one I can get you." "Uh, no. No green!" "But this one is a nice dark green . . ." "Um, please, no green. Blue?" "Here you go." Ahhhh . . .

Information about Doetsch instruments on the web is sketchier than about Eastman instruments. They aren't available on eBay or any cheaper from any other on-line source, and I want the service, expertise, and convenience from the shop anyway, not to mention the trade-up possibilities.

So now I have the Doetsch in the blue case and the OK Eastman in the old green case, on trial for a week. The Doetsch sounds better in my rec room too. I *can* afford the extra $500, and even my husband heard the difference between the two instruments ("less screechy" was his verdict). I think he can be convinced. He even said, "maybe you should just buy the Doetsch and be done with it."

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Viola shopping

May 5, 2007 04:37

I'm going viola shopping today. I'm pretty excited. Between my daughter's soccer game and a church rummage sale, I'm going to try out some new violas (no, not at the rummage sale!)

I've been surprisingly obsessed with this decision all week and it's been interfering with the rest of my life and with getting "real work" done. Viola, viola, viola is all that's on my mind.

The cello busker has come back a few times to the T-station and I've seen him there on my way to work. Yesterday he played the Prelude from the Bach cello suite No. 1, a piece that I had practiced myself on the viola the previous evening (as well as performed in church a few weeks ago and have been listening to on my iPod). Listening to him, I kept thinking "no! no! that's all wrong. You shouldn't play it like that. More soul! More slurs! You call that intonation?" Not that I said anything aloud, but I was also thinking, if he can do this, so can I.

Jennifer blogged about wanting to be more immersed in music; I'm feeling like I need to be less immersed. I hope I can find an instrument I like and move on.

Thanks to everyone who's borne with me and given me advice in the discussion thread about rental credit.

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Busking at the Farmers' Market

May 2, 2007 18:21

Sometimes it pays to read your junk mail. My town, Belmont Massachusetts, started a farmers' market last year. And although I kept meaning to go all summer long, I never did. Then, this year, I got the newsletter, "Roots and Shoots" in the mail. It said "looking for young performers" to serenade the shoppers and vendors.

And they already had some performers last year, the evidence is here.

Undeterred by the request for "young" performers and the apparent age of the people who have done this so far, I wrote back and said I'd like to fill in when/if they couldn't find enough students. They wrote back and said they'd be happy to have me. So, June 14 and maybe other times as well, I'll be playing Bach in the Farmers' Market. I might even pick up some vegetables along the way.

It reminds me of Albert's blogs about his garden: somehow the combination of string music and fresh vegetables seems just right for a summer day.

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