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Not Making it Look Easy

Karen Allendoerfer

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Published: May 30, 2014 at 2:42 PM [UTC]

I had been meaning to write about a new violinist I discovered while I was on vacation for a while now, and had not gotten around to it. But I was inspired by last weekend's vote on Lindsey Stirling.

Like many readers, I didn't know anything about Stirling from my own research or listening. I learned about her from my 14-yo daughter, who, when asked by her school orchestra teacher to choose a violinist who inspired her, picked Stirling. I also read about Stirling in Strings magazine not long after. That article, which was otherwise featured and typically hyped in the April 2013 issue of the magazine, included this rather remarkable sentence:

"Stirling plays out of tune in high positions, struggles with technical passages, and only plays legato. She doesn’t use dynamics and her playing is musically flat."

I don't think I've ever read such a brutally honest passage in Strings magazine in the 5 or so years I've been subscribing. On one hand, it's kinda refreshing amid the endless airy superlatives that usually comprise the verbiage about classical music. But on the other hand. . . what?

But I digress. While I voted Fan--No Apologies in the poll, I didn't originally want to write about Stirling. I wanted to write about Gary Lovini.

I was on vacation last year, visiting family in Europe and taking a cruise afterwards. While I saved my annoyed comments about the music selection on the ship as a whole for the comment card, I had nothing but good things to say about Gary Lovini. He was the first major headliner, the first show the first night of the cruise, and no one knew what he did. There were pictures of his face in the cruise bulletin and blurbs saying what a great and amazing act he was. Probably a singer, we thought.

He came out on stage alone, in a sequined outfit, reinforcing those expectations, and then suddenly, produced a violin and started to play Hooked on Classics. The audience cheered. He played Scottish and Irish Fiddle tunes, he played Schindler's List, he played Unchained Melody. It's possible that he played out of tune in high positions or struggled with technical passages. I don't remember. What struck me more than anything was how physical his show was. He danced, he did acrobatics, he came out into the audience, so near that you could see beads of sweat rolling down the side of his face.

As I watched, and stood and clapped and moved and danced along--all of which I greatly enjoyed doing--the phrase occurred to the back of my mind: *he doesn't make this look easy*. But I didn't think that with condescension, I thought that with admiration. I knew it wasn't easy what he was doing, and I appreciated his honesty. He was working hard, playing the violin, and having fun doing it. There are certainly classical performers who look like they are having fun on stage--but many don't. (I know I don't. Especially not when I'm playing technically difficult passages in high positions.) And I have to admit that is something I have always found off-putting about watching videos of Heifetz: the haughty expression, the controlled body language. The way he makes it look so easy--easy for him, anyway.

After he was done playing his first set, Lovini took the microphone and admitted that he'd kept the violin off the publicity materials on purpose. He said that in his experience when people see a violin, they have certain expectations, and they don't come to his concerts.

After the concert, in the line to get CD's signed, I approached him, told him I played the violin also and was looking for music more like this to perform in public, like at the Farmers' Market. I told him that I would have been more likely, not less likely, to come to his concert if he'd mentioned the violin in the publicity. He smiled at that but said that he gets a larger audience when he doesn't market himself as a violinist.

It was almost a year ago that I went to Lovini's concert. And Lovini is British, so the market dynamics he's facing might be different than they are here in the U.S. But I wonder if the success of Lindsey Stirling indicates that times are changing. That maybe it's becoming more okay to be a violinist who doesn't make it look easy. I hope so.

From Emma Otto
Posted on May 30, 2014 at 7:05 PM
This is a very interesting article. I used to play the violin in a very straight-faced manor. A few months ago, I was playing the New World Symphony and I ended up getting really far into the music and personally identifying with what was being portrayed through the piece.

After our concert, several people came up to me and said that, out of all the violinists on stage, I looked the most energetic and they had especially enjoyed the concert for that reason. Ever since then, I've especially focused on getting into the music and really "acting the part" on stage. People love it!

One of my favorite questions for myself is, "Do you play the violin, or do you make music?" Yes, I have to know how to play the violin if I'm going to make music, but my goal is ultimately to make music. The cherry on the top is when you can make music and connect with the audience through your motions at the same time.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on May 30, 2014 at 7:35 PM
If you want to see the real deal in crossover violin playing Google Katica Illenyi. She sings, dances, plays the Theremin and is a fabulous fiddler. She has intense classical training and can play virtuoso music but she doesn't demonstrate the upside that much. Katica is a beautiful woman on the cusp of middle age. She dresses fabulously, has a great stage demeanor and is the epitome of a star. She has a great supporting cast including two brothers and a sister, all virtuosos.n

I have the great pleasure of knowing her brother Ferenc who is a member of the Houston Symohony. My wife is his occassional accompanist for run out concerts in schools and nursing homes and they rehearse at the house. A recent program included Paganini's Nel Cor variations in the accompanied version (Prihoda). I mention this to highlight Katica's background and similar education and training. Not out of tune in the high notes.

But with all due respect Lindsey Stirling is an entertainer and we should be happy for the interest that generates.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 31, 2014 at 1:24 AM
Oh yes, I'm very happy for the interest that Stirling and other crossover artists generate. I'm a fan.

Thanks for letting me know about Illenyi. Her website looks great. It's silly, but this computer that I am using does not have sound (something wrong with the sound card). I would have to go upstairs to my old laptop to listen to anything she has online right now, and I'm too lazy.

Her bio reminds me a little bit of another artist I saw perform a couple years ago: Eden Macadam-Somer.

Eden is also the real deal when it comes to classical violin training (BM and MM in classical performance from the Moores School of Music in Houston), and she also has a beautiful singing voice, and she composes and dances, and has a folk band. She's now on the faculty of NEC, in the Contemporary Improvisation department.

Posted on May 31, 2014 at 12:45 PM
For those not motivated enough to Google here is a small sample of Katica Illenyi's work.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on May 31, 2014 at 12:47 PM

From curly swampash
Posted on May 31, 2014 at 12:55 PM
Remember the Andre Reiu article in The Strad.
From Tom Holzman
Posted on June 1, 2014 at 10:47 PM
Lindsay Stirling sounds as if she has some of the same problems I do. Maybe there is hope for me yet to come out of retirement and start another career!

Karen - thanks for giving us the information on Gary Lovini, who has not been on my radar screen. I think the crossover violinists play an important role by showing us that classical is not the only route to a rewarding experience and that some showmanship does not hurt. I can recall wondering, when Andre Rieu recorded a march written by a cousin of my grandfather's, whether our family should feel honored or slimed. When I posed the question on, I got a mixed response. However, when I asked my music theory/history teacher, he told me that Rieu was a serious musician, and that it was an honor. Ultimately, I had to agree that for someone like him with a significant popular following to record a Tin Pan Alley piece 100 or so years after it was written was worth something, even if it was not the NY Phil. So, I am with you on paying attention to these musicians and appreciating the role they play for the folks who are not interested in classical as much as other music. My son is a big fan of the Section Quartet, a string quartet that plays popular stuff.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 3, 2014 at 4:18 PM
I have an Andre Rieu CD. It's called something like "Romantic Moments." It's quite lovely, really.

And yeah, I felt similarly when I read that review of Stirling's playing. I resemble that remark!

My high school violin teacher wasn't helpful when I asked him if there was any popular music for the violin that I could play. He gave me Liebeslied and Schoen Rosmarin. That was his idea of "popular music," but at the time, in my early teens, I just saw those pieces as more serious assignments that needed to be learned--as another chore, basically (I think I'm still unfairly prejudiced against Kreisler because of that.)

I didn't want a steady diet of popular music, or to only play popular music, but I think that a little bit of it is like a snack or a nice dessert, or a picnic lunch. It can be a delightful break from rich classical fare.

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