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Karen Allendoerfer

Playing on Sunday

May 2, 2011 at 3:21 PM

A couple of weeks ago there was a discussion thread started by a player who didn't want to perform on Sunday for religious reasons. She certainly has the right to make this decision and have it respected by others, but it nonetheless got me to thinking, especially as I spent about 6 hours playing and performing yesterday.


I am a member of the Philharmonic Society of Arlington and have been acting as concertmaster for the orchestra for almost 3 years. As we like to say in some of our publicity materials, we are the only community musical group in the greater Boston area with both a full chorale and orchestra. For this concert, the orchestra performed the Bruckner Mass No. 1 in D minor with the chorale. In previous years we've performed other big choral works including the Schumann Requiem in D-flat, the Schubert Mass No. 5, and Handel's Messiah. For these concerts, there are over 150 musicians in the church, all on Sunday.

I have to admit that choral music doesn't come easily to me. I did spend several years in my church choir, from which I retired after joining the Philharmonic Society. (Only time for one rehearsal a week.) But even so, I'm not a very good singer. Or, if one wanted to be kind, one could say that I have one of those voices that "blends." Advice on violin playing that is heavy on the singing metaphors never goes over that well with me, either. I don't *want* my violin to sound like the human voice.

Even with all that, it has been an amazing experience to play with a full chorale. The Credo movement in particular of this Mass is very technically challenging, to the point that the piece just isn't performed very often, by anyone. It was most of our first experience with the piece. At the beginning of the rehearsal cycle I remember thinking that if the chorale could just sing really loudly and drown out the orchestra in certain sections that might be the best outcome. It turned out that some of the chorale members were also thinking that the performance was a stretch for them too. But that's how we grow as musicians: by playing challenging music.

Challenges are all well and good, and this concert did not lack for them. I also had a few little violin solos in the Russian Easter Overture. I had an anxiety dream the night before the performance in which the tip of my bow broke off, causing the horsehair to come undone. In the dream I then tried to borrow a bow from a friend, only to find that the bow I was trying to borrow was impossibly curved, like a bow that shoots arrows. And then, I was running back to the church with the bow, and time was ticking away, and as I reached another hill and valley between me and the church, I knew, definitively, I was not going to make it. Then I woke up. It was 5:30 am and the concert was still hours away. What's more, my own bow was safely tucked in its case, horsehair intact. I had spent my most recent lesson on those solos, particularly on starting them strongly. Just a G, just a D. But there are so many ways to play a G and a D. Pre-Mozartiana, I might have been totally freaked out by this. But now the solos went pretty well. They were not perfect, but they had a strong start, vibrato, reasonable intonation, no big breaks in the sound. Flowing, or like a bird. It was work to get to that point, and it was the kind of work that is satisfying and gratifying, but it was also work that was largely about me, about my own dreams and concerns and hopes. When I think about not playing on Sunday, that's the kind of playing that I'm suspecting some folks might want to take a break from, one day a week, for spiritual reasons.

But then came the Bruckner. There were times during rehearsal and in performance when that piece gave me a different kind of chill. It's tremendously exciting to feel the pulse first in the percussion, then the cellos and basses take up the beat, then we violins come in, all preparing for the choral entrance. There's nothing like it. It's at times like that when it is good right and salutary to be just one of many, fitting harmoniously into a wondrous whole. Word-and-book-based religion has never held much appeal for me. Music like this touches something deeper. The words, ritualized in a dead language, are just a vehicle. It is worship in pure and primal form. This is music that has to be played, and experienced, on Sunday.

During intermission and after the concert I was talking to an audience member, a senior citizen from Germany who came to the US in 1956. Not a performing musician herself, but a music appreciator, she said that she found Bruckner to be very like Wagner, musically, but more religious. She found this made Bruckner less accessible to her than Wagner. I wonder if this is true more generally for audiences nowadays, as we become a culture that uses music mostly for individualistic, rather than collective purposes. Reclaiming Bruckner would mean playing on Sunday, but it would mean playing in a different way than seems to be the current fashion--less soloistic, less anxiety, less perfectionism. More Joy.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 2, 2011 at 4:48 PM

 Great blog, lots of interesting thoughts and comments for us to mull over. Got a kick out of your bad dream; it could have been a scene torn out of my own bad dream script book. And the Bruckner comments - good stuff. All of it was.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 2, 2011 at 6:51 PM

 Terez-thanks!  Glad to see you around here again. How is your novel coming?

From Ann Marie Cordial
Posted on May 2, 2011 at 6:55 PM

Our Community Orchestra also plays on Sundays, and we just did the Russian Easter Overture (right around Easter), Marche Slave, and Handel Water Suites.  I never really thought about the implications of playing on a Sunday, but we played in a church with a nice crowd who really seemed to appreciate our performance, and our concert went very well.  Afterward, I nearly broke my neck because I missed one of the alter steps on the way down. 

Nothing bad came of it (I caught my balance at the last second), but I will certainly be careful the next time I play in church!


---Ann Marie

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 2, 2011 at 8:26 PM

 Anne Marie, I think that Sunday is a great day for a concert, and it's also a day to reflect on the roots of much of the music we know and love.  Bach spent most of his life and career as a church musician.

Even the Russian Easter Overture has its roots in Russian Orthodox liturgy, the Obikhod. The wikipedia entry for that piece is quite interesting:  it says that the short violin cadenzas represent the light shining from the Holy Sepulchre.  (I'm actually kind of glad I didn't know about that while I was playing them . . . )  

From Tom Holzman
Posted on May 2, 2011 at 9:11 PM

Karen - it is great to see another of your blogs; lots of food for thought there, as usual.  My orch also plays Sunday concerts.  I think it is a good day for concerts.  I am glad your concert went well.  I have not played with a large chorus since high school (before the end of the Cretacious Period), so I have no recall of what it is like.  I do love chorale music, but am not a great fan of either of the composers you played, particularly Bruckner, who I tend to find boring and inaccessible.  Maybe, based on your experience, I would appreciate his chorale music more than his symphonies.  

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 2, 2011 at 10:03 PM

Tom, I am not familiar with any Bruckner symphonies, and I have a good friend who loves Wagner but claims Bruckner is boring and repetitive.  I might agree with that (except for the part about loving Wagner--I don't), especially if I just had to sit in the audience through a Bruckner symphony I didn't know.

I only know that this particular Bruckner Mass grew on me over time as I learned and played it with a live chorus.  It has harmonies that are interesting without being bizarre, and dramatic dynamics.  There is some repetition, but I think that repetition has its uses in some situations.

Rimsky-Korsakov, on the other hand, I adore, even the first time through.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on May 3, 2011 at 12:50 PM

While there is probably some link between Wagner and Bruckner, I would not describe Wagner in the same terms.  "Awful" is one that comes to mind.  "Interminable" is another.  Maybe those are synonyms for boring and inaccessible.  I think Puccini had it right about Wagner when he said that he went to a performance of Parsifal that started at 5:30, and when he looked at his watch three hours later it said 5:45.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 3, 2011 at 1:57 PM

 > Terez-thanks!  Glad to see you around here again. How is your novel coming?

Glad you asked here and not on my thread where I might have had to censor my reply. It is 100% finished/polished and my agent sent it out to a handful of editors last week. Round one. Wish me luck - it's a tough, tough market to break into. (Which is why it's best not to publicly announce on my blog page that she's trying to sell it, b/c it might look bad a year from now, if she couldn't sell it and such.) But I'm just happy as anything that I was able to complete the novel to my satisfaction and that my agent liked it too. And Ilse turned out so great - one of my favorite characters of all time.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 3, 2011 at 2:09 PM

 >I think Puccini had it right about Wagner when he said that he went to a performance of Parsifal that started at 5:30, and when he looked at his watch three hours later it said 5:45.

Tom, this is hilarious! I don't feel quite so bad about ignoring all of Wagner's repertoire now. But there's some Bruckner, in truth, that I quite like. Some of it has a Mahler-esque touch, really piercing emotion. Just that the brass gets so damned loud and plaintive sometimes.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on May 3, 2011 at 6:13 PM

Mark Twain had something very funny to say about Wagner: "Wagner's music is better than it sounds."

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 4, 2011 at 3:03 PM

 LOL! Tom, you are just the wit these days... : )

From Tom Holzman
Posted on May 4, 2011 at 5:55 PM

I try.  Gotta keep all you v.commers entertained.

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