Playing Principal Viola: Baptism by 'Fire and Fantasy'

October 8, 2018, 5:46 PM · Fire&Fantasy

When I was in high school I had fantasies of being a concertmaster. My senior year I thought it might be a real possibility, and I was disappointed when, after the audition, I ended up “only" first stand inside, turning the pages. I was used to being a shy, quiet nerdy type who didn’t take up a lot of space. But, I had fantasies that the violin could take me out of all that.

Many years and another instrument later, a lot water has flowed under that bridge. I have been a concertmaster in a volunteer community orchestra, and it is a service position. Sometimes I felt overwhelmed by administrative demands, thinking, “they pay me as much as they pay everyone else: ZERO.” But overall, I loved it. I came to think of the orchestra as a second family. I thought and worried about them outside of rehearsal. And I cried when I moved away.

Tuning
Tuning the Arlington Philharmonic Orchestra for the Family Concert

Having taken up the viola as my primary instrument here in California, my concertmaster days are behind me, at least for now. But last spring after my Telemann concerto performance, my stand partner for the Nova Vista Symphony asked me if I would be principal viola in that group for this concert because he had a conflict with his other orchestra. I looked at my calendar, saw that the weekend was free, and said, “sure, I’d be honored.” I think principal viola is the best seat in the orchestral house: surrounded by cellos, violins, woodwinds, right in front of the conductor, in medias res. The fantasy was back.

And starting with the Bloch Concerto Grosso No. 1, the job seemed seemed manageable. I’d played the second violin part to the 4th movement Fugue of this piece in high school, and I recognized it. And there were a few nice, short solos for the principal viola. I dove right in to practicing those, took them to my teacher, figured out fingerings.

Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire

It took less than one tutti rehearsal before I was in over my head. Enamored of the Bloch, I had given short shrift in practice to the other two much more challenging pieces on the program: Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. I felt like Mickey Mouse in the Fantasia version, helpless as everything got out of control and descended into chaos. At one point as the notes went by, my stand partner and I looked at each other and laughed nervously: “Where are we?” “I have no idea. You?” “Nope.” Goodbye to the fantasies of fun and glory, and hello to section leader as service position.

via GIPHY

This concert was already going to break the difficulty record previously held by Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel, which this group played a year and a half ago. Then I got two emails about injuries to fellow violists, including my former stand partner. The Mickey Mouse feeling intensified. I listened to the Symphonic Dances and thought, it may be in 3, but who would waltz to that?

PracticeRoom
The dreaded practice room

The 100-day practice challenge Facebook group that supported me through preparing for Telemann last spring was subjected to more than their share of my venting. I would watch other people post their practice videos of a nice fiddle tune, or a movement of the Bach Double, or a cello suite, or some cool ukulele riffs, and I’d be jealous. They sounded so nice, and here I was slogging my way through the impossible, alternating between trying to keep up with the metronome and with YouTube recordings set to 0.75 speed. (I'm only including a still picture here, no video, because, like Vegas, what happens in the group, stays in the group!)

My part-time teaching job became less part-time this year too, with two new schools and two new co-instructors. One night I came home from work and felt so brain-dead I doubt I would have taken the viola out of its case, had it not been for the Facebook group. I recorded some brain-dead Dukas, posted it, and went to bed.

Fantasia

Dear Mickey Mouse, I thought to myself. You brought this on by your tendency to bite off more than you can chew. What can you do about it?

Well, one choice would be cutting back. And I did that, sort of. I cut back on online debates and chores that I don’t enjoy. Another choice would be to do what I do for music that I love. I didn’t love the Symphonic Dances (yet), but what if I acted as if I did? What if this were Beethoven?

I started listening to it all the time, especially in the car while I was driving. I looked at the score while I listened (not while driving). I looked up Rachmaninoff’s wikipedia page. He had a fascinating life: escaped the Russian Revolution and ended up in Hollywood. This led me to think about his stories. The woodwind melody in the first movement is sublime. Later there’s some trippy drug music. If I listen closely, I hear the ongoing struggle. Rachmaninoff suffered from depression from time to time, and this was the last piece he ever wrote, a retrospective on his life and career.

Me trying on a long black dress
The good luck Telemann dress

I told my teacher that my practicing of this piece reminded me of the movie “50 First Dates.” This movie stars Drew Barrymore as a woman with amnesia who must relearn her life and relationships every morning when she wakes up. I felt the same: every time I picked up “Rocky,” as I had come to affectionately refer to it, it was like I was seeing it for the first time all over again. “Well, how many pieces of his have you played before?” my teacher asked. "You don’t speak Rachmaninoff yet!” That helped me be patient. The most foreign part of it was in the right hand, not the left. The music was not square; it didn’t always land on a down bow for the strong beats. I learned to write in unexpected bowings so I wouldn’t second-guess myself when I landed on an accented up-bow. I kept at the metronome and the play alongs, as well as marking and isolating difficult passages. I counted down in the Facebook group to the last day.

Concert day came and I stayed home from church in order to focus and review some spots in all 3 pieces. It felt like cramming for an exam, something I’ve done successfully many times, but which I now think results in more anxiety than is ideal. My husband made lunch. I put on my good-luck Telemann dress.

Wildfire

FullSizeRender 63
West Valley College Theater

The air smelled of soot at the concert hall due to a wildfire in the East Bay. I said hi to my stand partners in crime in the viola section and we watched the pre-concert talk together. After all this, I felt pretty good about how the Bloch and Dukas went. My solos went off without a hitch. I never got lost. Even my performance in Rocky I was willing to give at least a B-minus. I missed notes here and there, but not in the exposed or important parts.

FullSizeRender 64
Assembling for the Concert

I had a small viola solo near the end of the Dukas. It is not technically difficult, but it is important, and it is just me, the only moving part. I am the Sorcerer returned, to set things back in balance after the apprentice's chaos. And I had a bow of my own, after the bassoons.

It occurred to me that I’d been so focused on my own anxieties that I hadn’t given enough attention to all the great work going on around me: the cellos just a foot to my left, providing grounding, rhythm, and drive; the concertmaster, who played many solos beautifully and with whom I played a duet in octaves in the Bloch; the conductor who remained cool, composed, and accurate in spite of the too-bright lights making him and everyone else sweat; the viola section, who rose to the occasion with humor and grace, playing an exposed chorale section beautifully; the bassoons who brought the apprentice’s magic to life; the orchestra’s new President who is devoting considerable time and effort to the group; and the neighbors and friends and family who came, expected and un-, to be in the audience. I tried to take a minute to tell them all that they sounded great, to thank them.

I had the best time at the reception afterwards talking with everyone. It turns out I wasn’t the only one who was anxious about the ambitious program, and the feelings of relief and celebration were palpable. To paraphrase JFK, we did this concert not because it was easy, but because it was hard. And it served to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. It brought us a little closer to the moon and stars.

ProgramCover
Concert Program Cover


Replies

October 10, 2018 at 12:33 AM · Great story with a terrific ending! Bravo!!!!

October 10, 2018 at 03:51 AM · Thanks!

October 10, 2018 at 04:04 PM · Great writing......having swapped around in several community orchestras myself, principal viola IS a great chair unless, trying to coordinate bowings with a dictatorial CM becomes a 'chore'...and as you say, the pay-may-be-the-same but in the groups I play'd, the CMs got an honorarium that puffed them up in their own minds...and status.

The pieces you mention playing are hardly in the realm of community orchestra 'standards' and perhaps a bit quixotic for realistic conductors.

Enjoy'd and ID'd with many of your comments....

October 11, 2018 at 03:31 AM · Two years ago Richard Lin, who was just profiled here as the gold medal winner in the Indianapolis competition, won the Nova Vista Symphony's Young Artist Competition and played Mendelssohn with them. Unfortunately I wasn't playing in that concert :-(

October 11, 2018 at 11:20 PM · What a wonderful experience, Karen! You continue to be an inspiration to us all. And, it is always worth remembering that your mistakes and missed notes are not crucial in the unexposed parts of the piece, a lesson I relearn every time I play a difficult orch piece. You gotta know what is important if you are having trouble getting everything in a piece.

October 12, 2018 at 04:35 AM · Hi Tom,

Yes, it can be hard to let those kinds of things go. Especially when you need to get back on after having fallen off the horse (so to speak). That's a skill in itself! I took a few days off practicing after the concert and now need to get back to it.

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