I haven’t been practicing much lately. Playing, yeah; practicing, no. I’ve spent much more time listening, thinking, and writing than actually practicing. Since I’m aiming to become a music writer rather than an actual professional musician, I have a feeling that in future the practicing will take a back seat more often than not. This is dispiriting.
I should have a goal, I think to myself.
I page through the music crushed in my overstuffed folder.
Yeah. A goal would be nice.
I have some goals. Had some. At one point. Last Christmas’s goal was to play the first movement of Bruch. I can hack through it now. Or I was able to, a couple months ago. So…checkmark. On the other hand, I ruined it for myself for a good long while, at least when it comes to using it for orchestral auditions, which right now is the only use I’d have for performing it. I played it too much and practiced it too little, and now it needs a lot of detail work. Especially rhythmic detail work. Why is my rhythm so awful? I’ve always had problems with rhythm. I never was taught a consistent method of how to count. One-ee-and-a-two-ee-and-a…I can’t keep that straight in my head, so I limp along with other less effective homemade methods. I should teach myself another way. How do I teach myself another way? I page backward. Kabalevsky? Do you play Kabalevsky at an orchestra audition? I heard a rumor one of the players in the first violins soloed with a local orchestra once in Paganini 1. Hmm. Actually. No. I read that in a program book once. It wasn’t a rumor. Hmm. Well. There’s another orchestra in town. Maybe I could audition for that. But it rehearses so late at night. It would screw with my sleeping and medication schedule… A goal. I need a goal.
I page back further. Bach. Solo Bach. The g-minor adagio. I smile at that. I’m making progress with that. Unlike everything else. Probably because I brought that to my lesson early last month. I have five copies of it. A beat-up one I’d learned off originally – one with the pencil marks my teacher made – a copy of the one with the pencil marks my teacher made, in case it got lost – one where every fraction of each beat is slashed off, so I can see what notes fall on what portions of what beats. That one looks like heiroglyphics. I can hardly see the notes. And then there’s the one smooth clean plain one that I’m hesitant to mark. A few weeks ago I determined that I need to make a master copy, with only the necessary markings. I need to spoil that clean sheet of paper. I haven’t had the heart to yet.
Amy Beach Romance. I love that piece. I’ve had this idea of presenting a recital of pieces dedicated to female violinists, and chatting a bit with the audience in between each piece about the woman it was dedicated to. Yeah. That would be cool. Beach Romance, Coleridge-Taylor violin concerto, Mozart K454, Lark Ascending. Something like that. I’ll have a lot of fun finding an unpaid pianist for that endeavor. Or getting the nerve up to embark on such a project without needing colon hydrotherapy afterward.
Orchestra music. I can sight-read that, luckily. Christmas music… Lots and lots of Christmas music… God, the year’s gone fast… So many changes… So many things to think about… Stop. Focus.
I page further back.
A Mozart duet. Another smile, fainter this time. No excuse to bring that one out. Unfortunately.
Then I see a piece which, for the moment, will remain nameless, since I’m embarrassed to admit I’m trying it. My motives for learning it are not entirely musical. It can’t be used for auditions. It wasn’t dedicated to a female violinist. I don’t have anyone to play it with. It stretches me technically, probably too far. It meshes with exactly zero of my musical goals.
I take it out of the folder.
After a moment of deliberation, I prop it up on the stand.
The logical side of me collapses and starts weeping in frustration. The illogical side rejoices.
I take a closer look at it. Actually, it features lots of techniques I’d like to work on. Double-stops. Lots of those. Double-stopped fifths. Lots of those. High shifts. Lots of those. …Am I insane?… Some trickier timings, for me leastways. Some new styles of bowing. All in short spurts, easy to split up, easy to practice, easy to focus on. If I take it slowly…
Yes. I like it. I like this choice.
I spend an entire practice session on this piece. On a single line from this piece. On a single simple line from this piece. I go over it and over it and over it. The metronome goes click-clack, click-clack, click-clack. Over. And over. And over. And over. And over.
My obsessiveness feels a little unnerving, especially since it’s so calm and exacting. Calm obsession strikes me as being more dangerous than wild obsession. More productive, too. I inch the metronome forward notch by notch. I trance out in a haze. Once in a while I will skip backward or forward, but I know it’s just a little rest for my brain and my hand, and my concentration always finds its way back to that same line. Two grace notes, four sixteenth notes, a quintuplet, eighth note, eighth note… Two grace notes, four sixteenth notes, a quintuplet, eighth note, eighth note. Two grace notes, four sixteenth notes, a quintuplet, eighth note, eighth note. Blahduh – one-ee-and-a trip-uh-let-plus-two da da.
I suddenly feel a swell of happiness, secure in the knowledge that this is (apparently) all I need to occupy myself. Happy, and a little scared.
When I start to get tired, I turn off the metronome and try it, see if I can play it while hearing the click-clack in my head. I can. But as usual, my dependence on the metronome has resulted in a total lack of understanding of where the line rises and falls. So I try shaping the notes a new way. Suddenly the notes sound like someone talking – like a person sassing back while imitating someone who has frustrated them. I like that. I like the way it sounds, and I like the way it makes me feel as I play it. I like the things I’m finding to pick out to improve. They’re things I wouldn’t have picked out last Christmas. They’re proof I’ve improved this year. Somehow. A little. Maybe.
I snap the case shut and turn off the light.
A few notes, I’ve decided, is a perfectly acceptable goal.
Here is a surprisingly frank interview with violinist Marie Hall (1884-1956). She obviously had a dizzying drive and spunk to spare. She saw what she wanted and she went for it, other people’s opinions be damned. I wonder if all of these astonishing stories are true...
This article originally appeared in Success Magazine in March 1906.
She Began As A Street Musician:
Marie Hall, the Greatest Woman Violinist, Tells the Story of Her Hard Struggle to Win
by Ernest R. Holmes
“I was always determined to be at the top, and I’ve always had plenty of energy and perseverance.”
It was a very slight girl who said this, a girl with a thin, pale face, very serious brown eyes, and a mass of most rebellious dark hair, neither long nor short, just “coming in,” after an attack of typhoid fever. An utter stranger might well have questioned what it could be that such a frail person could lead the world in. Yet that girl of twenty-one can almost lay unquestioned claim to be the greatest woman violinist, and she is compared with Kubelik, her friend and benefactor, pupil of the same master.
But as I talked with Miss Marie Hall, the day after her second New York concert, her pale face grew animated, her eyes opened wide and flashed, and her words came with a decision that revealed a soul on fire with her art, and a determined will to great for her slight frame. One felt almost a pitying fear that her efforts would over-tax her strength.
As Miss Hall talks, one forgets her frailty, so sure of herself is she, and so full of her music. And the impression of an iron will and a dogged determination keeps recurring as she tells incident incident of her rise from street and music-hall playing to a place among masters of the most human of instruments.
“Yes,” she said, “even when eight years old, I was determined to be a great violinist. My father was a harpist. He was with the orchestra of the Carl Rosa Opera Company and another, and he tried to teach me the harp. But I wanted the violin. He taught me a little on this, but still discouraged my continuing. I heard a lady play a concerto of Paganini, and I was bound I would play it too. With only a little help from my mother, I learned it in a few hours, and then played it for my father. He was astonished, and gave up to me. I had my beloved violin lessons.”
She had won by the weapon she has used ever since – winning prizes, tuition, instruction by the best masters, and now financial and artistic success.
“I have been lucky,” she went on. “I have always found friends to help me, I don’t know why. And if people won’t do what I want, I play for them, and generally then they do what I want,” and she gave a roguish smile as she thought of the magic power she keeps in little, slender, white fingers.
It was thus she won Kubelik, and through him his master, Sevcik, with an audacity that surprises when one thinks what she must have been at sixteen. Kubelik was taking London by storm.
“I went to hear him,” related Miss Hall. “I saw immediately that he had something I never had been taught, and I felt sure that it was from his teacher. I heard all his concerts, and I resolved that I, too, would learn that wonderful technique. I waylaid Kubelik – I was only sixteen, and my long hair was hanging loose. I told him I wanted him to hear me play. He smiled, and seemed amused, but consented. I went next day. His accompanist met me, and, seeing my violin, said, “But are you really going to play to him?” “Of course I am,” I answered, “that’s what I came for.” Kubelik came. He was very kind, but still seemed amused. I told him I wanted to know who his master was, who had taught him to play so, for I wanted to go and learn to do so too. He said, “I’ll hear you play first. I suppose you play from memory?” “Of course I do,” I replied with spirit, and then I played him two concertos that he had played the day before. He said it was wonderful, that I must go to his master, Sevcik, at Prague.
“I went to Professor Kruse, my teacher, and said, ‘I have found something that you can’t teach me. I must go to Sevcik to learn it.’”
The girl’s audacious proposal met with strong opposition from her master and her benefactors, who were supporting her in London. When there was no other way to gain her point, Miss Hall declared that if she could not go to Prague, she would quit studying and go home. She had her way, and it proved for the best, just as her decision for the violin and against the harp was for the best.
The ten years between her first public appearance at a little hall in her birthplace, Newcastle, and her triumphant debut at Prague, in 1903, were full of ups and downs, but that childish determination to be “at the top” shines through it all, and illumines seeming wilfulness that somehow always led to better things. One can gather, too, for Miss Hall is very frank, that her parents, musicians though they were, hindered rather than helped her high ambitions, though willing enough that she should help the family purse by playing in the way they always had. When enthusiastic Newcastle gentlemen wished to educate her, her nomad father took the family across England to Malvern, near Worcester. Her next benefactor, Max Mossel, violin professor at Birmingham, gave her a year’s instruction, and secured her a free scholarship at the Birmingham School of Music. Friends, won by her playing, aided her father to take her to London to Wilhelmj, who was so delighted that he wanted to adopt her, and he did keep her and teach her several months. But, as she told me, “I did not stay long. I was afraid of him, and of the bulldogs he kept in the room next to where I practiced.”
Then the ambitious girl tried for a Royal Academy scholarship, and won in the competition, only to find that it meant merely tuition, and there was no money to pay her board in London. She had to give it up, and go back to playing for her father in concert halls, and even on the street, for the family was then desperately poor. They wandered to Bristol, and there something in the little minstrel’s playing appealed to a musical clergyman, now Canon Fellowes, of Windsor. He asked her to his house, found out her poverty, her genius, and her ambition, and interested wealthy friends in her. Here again her unambitious father was an obstacle. He did not want to sign an agreement to give her to others’ care for a three years’ systemic course. When provision was made for the family, to compensate for the loss of her now valuable earning capacity, he consented, and the way was clear to accomplish all that the girl’s genius was capable of doing.
Then came Kubelik. When she had won consent to go to Prague, Kubelik aided her in every way, even to securing an apartment for her, and won over his old master, Sevcik, and Dvorák, director of the Conservatorium, to a lively interest in the little English girl.
“And there I worked,” said Miss Hall, reminiscently, “ten hours a day, but it was pleasure.”
When Miss Hall talks of Sevcik and his method, she grows enthusiastic. She says no one else on earth teaches such technique, and in such a systemic way. To that method she ascribes her sureness, and the confidence with which she attacks the most difficult concertos. On entering the Conservatorium, her attainments were recognized, so that she was admitted to the sixth year work, and in one year she had completed the whole course. Then for five months Sevcik gave her private lessons, – his “little concerts” he called them, so delighted was he with her playing.
When she gave her “coming out” concert in Prague, to invited guests, they recalled her over a score of times after her rendering of Ernst’s concerto in F sharp minor. Two gold caskets and a laurel wreath were hers before she left Prague for other triumphs at Vienna, and then her appearance at St. James Hall, London, where the enthusiasm is said to have been unequaled since Rubinstein took London by storm. The long years of patience practicing (four thousand bowing exercises, she told me,) the alternate hope and despair, and the struggle with unappreciative parents and dire poverty had borne fruit – she was a great concert performer.
When I asked Miss Hall how much of a great artist’s success is from genius and how much from hard work, she looked puzzled for a moment, and then said: -
“Well, you must have the mind, the feeling to know what is right. You do feel, you don’t know how,” and she put her hand to her breast in an effort to express intuition. “You must be able to grasp the principles of art. If a person does not admire beauty in whatever form, if he is satisfied with the course and vulgar things, he can never become a great artist. Hard work will not make him one.”
“But in your struggles did you not get discouraged?”
“Yes, indeed I did, and I do yet. I just give up, and think I will not try any more. Then I conclude it is worth while, and I go at it again.”
For those of you who didn't know, The Lark Ascending was dedicated to Hall and premiered by her.
In November 2010 the Inside the Classics team announced they were commissioning a major new orchestral work by Brooklyn-based composer Judd Greenstein. Okay, whatever, big deal; commissions like this happen all the time, right? Wrong. This project is unique on a variety of levels. It wouldn’t be financed by one major donor, or a fund contributed to by major donors; instead, it would be paid for by ordinary people who would each chip in anything from $1 to $1500. Bergman and Hicks labeled this project the “Microcommission.” A donation page was set up on the Minnesota Orchestra website, and at the end of each 2010-2011 Inside the Classics concert, viola cases were scattered throughout the lobby, in which audiences were encouraged to drop any spare cash. (I knew viola cases were good for something!) By June 2011, hundreds of people had given $20,000, enough to buy the Inside the Classics audience a brand new orchestral work. Leading up to the big premiere in March 2012, Greenstein – a thoughtful, engaging young composer who writes appetizing music influenced by a wide variety of genres – is contributing his thoughts about his work and the creative process on the Inside the Classics blog. (He wrote a mind-bogglingly interesting entry this month about nomenclature and why he’s hesitating to call this new work a symphony. If that kind of thing floats your boat, you’ll want to check it out.) He was even a part of the Shostakovich 5 show this week, elaborating on the idea of how composers “steal” from one another, employing an extended metaphor about a very tasty crouton. (Okay, so maybe you had to be there, but trust me, it was entertaining and enlightening.) Next January he’s going to be in Minneapolis again to provide input on the next Inside the Classics show on John Adams’s My Father Knew Charles Ives, and of course he’ll be an integral part of the March season finale at which his new piece will be dissected and premiered. And as if there wasn’t enough going on already, he and Bergman have just launched a project called The Listening Room, described here as “an online book club, only with music instead of books.” Together the two of them are going to be soliciting questions from blog readers, resulting in a (hopefully) absorbing discussion of the music that has influenced Greenstein. (Even if you live nowhere near Minnesota, you can take part in this. So stay tuned.)
(Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, during a visit to New York earlier this year, Bergman conducted a five-part video interview with Greenstein in which they discuss everything from Milton Babbitt to the future of live music to social experiences in the concert hall. So yeah. They’ve been busy.)
The microcommission is one of those ideas that is so painfully obvious, it’s embarrassing that nobody in the classical music world has embraced it yet. (At least not that I know of, anyway.) The idea of microfunding has permeated our modern digital culture, from the emails we get from various politicians and fundraising organizations begging for “small donations of just $5, $10, or $20!” – to celebrities going on Twitter hiatuses until their fans chip in a certain amount of cash for various charitable purposes – even to late-night television, where this April Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert sang a duet of Rebecca Black’s Friday as a reward for their audiences after 2000+ viewers raised nearly $120,000 for the awesome website Donors Choose. So heck, why not extend the concept to orchestral music? All the cool kids are doing it, so why can’t we nerds have some fun with the idea, too?
The Inside the Classics team didn’t stop there, even though they easily could have done so, and patted themselves on the back for their innovation, to boot. But they didn’t. They realized they could seize this opportunity to get even more creative: to use new technology to connect audience members and to help them form an emotional and intellectual connection to “their” piece and its composer. (By the way, their selection of Judd Greenstein as the microcommission composer was an inspired one. He very neatly and effectively shatters the myth that all contemporary composers live in lonely unheated garrets, suffering from acute social anxiety disorder and writing hideous cacophonous things that they swear to God our grandchildren will understand.)
(Case in point, Greenstein’s fantastic quartet Four on the Floor, performed by, you guessed it, members of the Minnesota Orchestra.)
(Also, to lure you into watching this... Bergman has a mildly entertaining page-turn mishap sometime during the course of the video. I'll let you figure out where. Now you *have* to watch, right?)
After the show on Shostakovich 5, the audience was invited to stay for a post-concert performance of Greenstein’s quartet Four on the Floor. This high-voltage piece was performed by four musicians from the orchestra (including Bergman, who obviously had a bit of a full plate this weekend). It’s a fun piece to listen to, but it’s even more fun to watch. Complicated rhythms ricochet back and forth between the parts, and at times the first and second violins seem like they’re in a wild dance-to-the-death with the viola and cello. After the final virtuosic chords ripped through the hall, the audience – which was bigger than I thought it would be – burst into wild applause. It was quite a sight to see the ensemble and the composer taking their bows together onstage: three ridiculously accomplished members of the orchestra, the violist/writer/host who has put so much thought and creativity into making this series happen, and the young up-and-coming composer who I feel is on the edge of unleashing some very, very exciting sounds that even small-town Midwestern me will be able to appreciate. I hope I’m able to make it to Minneapolis in March to see the final result of this creative ferment.
That being said, I have no idea how the project will pan out. Nobody knows yet if audiences will like Greenstein’s new piece, or if tickets will sell. Speaking more broadly, I don’t know how many more years the Inside the Classics series or blog will go on, or if the concept could survive in any meaningful form if either Bergman or Hicks would, for whatever reason, give up their ItC duties. But maybe, in some weird way, that’s all beside the point. Maybe it’s the mere willingness to experiment that matters. Because even if certain aspects of the project fall short of expectations, chances are, others won’t. And some might even exceed them. Actually, it’s totally within the realm of possibility that the Minnesota Orchestra is starting new concertgoing traditions that will serve to deepen their audience’s appreciation for old and new music alike. That’s exciting. That’s thrilling. Maybe musicians in other cities will sit up and take note and try similar things, customizing ideas for their own individual communities. And maybe in the process we’ll finally shut up at least some of the people who take such sadistic pleasure in telling us that no matter what we do, we and the music we love are doomed to perpetual irrelevance. God, wouldn’t that be fantastic?
* * *
Where is orchestral music headed? Are we in our final death throes, like everyone keeps insinuating we are (like we keep telling ourselves we are)? Is an out-of-the-box approach going to charm an audience that comes largely for old programming served up in a traditional manner? Can we get an audience that thrives on new experiences to buy tickets to the warhorses, as long as they’re performed with passion and commitment? Can we serve both demographics, or even get the two demographics to mix? Are either of those ideas wise in the long-run? What traditions will tomorrow’s audiences embrace? What will our programs look like ten years from now? Twenty? Fifty? Will there come a day when wordless all-music concerts will be heavily supplemented by concerts with affable, intelligent hosts? Will more orchestras start employing eloquent, opinionated bloggers as tools to establish deeper connections with their audience? Will we eventually be expected to communicate about music just as effectively with words as we do with our instruments?
I’d be a presumptuous ass to say I knew the answers to any of those questions. I’m wary of anyone who claims with any certainty to see the future. But I do know that my life as a listener has been vastly expanded by the new approaches the Minnesota Orchestra is trying, and you know what? For me, that’s reason enough to love what they’re doing, and to encourage other musicians in other communities to think about following at least some of their leads at least some of the time.
Because I want other music-lovers to have the same exciting experiences I’ve had. I want other people to come to concerts totally absorbed by stupid inconsequential things, then be transported to other times and places via the power of thought-provoking writing and music. I want witty charming intelligent musicians onstage sharing their thoughts about the repertoire. I want insights to bring back home to my own listening – insights that I simply won’t ever get in a traditional music-only concert. I want other people to have mind-expanding experiences with the work of living composers, and maybe even with the actual living composers themselves. In short, I want other people to get the same joy out of orchestral music that this blog and this series and this orchestra has given to me. I hope to God that’s not an impossibly naive wish.
So if you’re in the Minneapolis area, buy a ticket to an Inside the Classics show, give it a try, and let me know what you think. (I don’t think Sam or Sarah would mind hearing your thoughts, either, positive or negative!) If your own local orchestra has a similar program, try it out; see what works and what doesn’t. Putting on these kinds of concerts and utilizing new technologies are just two of the many tools available to us orchestral musicians as we move deeper into the twenty-first century. If audience-cultivating methods like these can succeed, maybe – maybe? – we’re not quite as close to dying off as we like to think.
Yeah, I am the artist formerly known as Emily Liz. Elizabeth is my middle name. Tricky, eh?
Just a head's up. After almost ten years on this website, it was time to come clean...
It's a warm night for November in Minneapolis, but I'm wearing tights, and I'm in a bus shelter, and I'm getting very cold. I remember I've forgotten something important, something I was stupid to forget, so I take the bus up the street to Target. I don't know the store, but it's big and it has escalators, so I assume it has what I need. It doesn't. So I go outside again. My feet are throbbing in my cheap heels. I have a fleeting guilty thought of how vain I am, that I'm forcing body parts into painful positions on the off-chance that some strangers I'll never meet again might find elongated legs aesthetically attractive. Adding credence to the thought of vanity is the dawning realization that although yes, I am a very small girl, I am not a size 1 girl; the secondhand dress I was so proud of finding at the thrift shop is beginning to feel more and more like a whalebone corset. I struggle to take a breath; my body forces me to yawn instead. I glance up and down Nicollet Mall and see a Walgreens. So I cross the street and wander up and down the aisles. Finally I find what I need. I pay and leave and sit down in the shelter again. I worry I'm sitting on my skirt, that I will stand up and find that the black fabric that has been so carefully ironed is now crushed. I feel a flash of frustration; if I'm going to wear a too-tight outfit, I want it to look spectacular, dammit. I shift my weight on the tulle. As I do, my stomach starts making strange noises it hadn't made before I buttoned up the dress. I wonder idly how this bodes for the quieter moments of the concert I'm about to attend. I wonder if anyone else will hear me, if they'll guess that the noises are from the too-tight dress, if they'll think me vain. Am I vain? A kind-looking woman steps inside the shelter; she speaks pleasantly to the man standing next to her, then takes out her phone and screams that she'll be home in a minute, that she's waiting for the bus, and that's she's fine, except she's cold, very cold! She quits the call suddenly without saying good-bye. A little girl runs between us and starts to cry. Buses come and go. Mine is late. I hop aboard and sway down the street. People speak in a buzz of languages I can't identify, much less understand. I pull the cord for a stop; at the next corner the back door doesn't open. I bang at it a little; everybody looks at me with raised eyebrows, except the driver, who doesn't see me at all. I sigh and stand back from the door. At the next stop I get off and sit for a moment on the edge of a fountain that has been drained for the winter. I see the hall in the distance; it's further away than I want it to be, but it's not worth waiting twenty minutes for the bus in the other direction. A man comes by and tries to sell me a rose. I tell him no thank you. This is an unwelcome reminder that appearances are deceptive; despite the seemingly expensive dress and musical tastes, I have no money. (Tomorrow afternoon I will have to scrounge through my purse to find a few dollars' worth of coins to pay a parking garage fee I forgot I owed.) I finally bundle up against the wind and set off for Orchestra Hall. Once I get inside I limp through the lobby and down the stairs. I get into the restroom and try to steady myself. It's hard; my ankles are wobbling. I soak my hands in very hot water.
When the auditorium doors open and I take my seat, my mind is still buzzing with inconsequential thoughts. Judging by the fragments of lighthearted chit-chat I hear all around me, so is everyone else's. The only discussion of the music is coming from an elderly woman behind me who is reading the program notes to her companion slowly, in a loud voice. A little after eight o' clock, the house lights go down and the orchestra tunes.
But the rites and rituals of a traditional orchestral concert end there. A violist, brandishing a microphone instead of a viola, and a conductor - a stylish young female conductor - come out onto the stage. She ascends the podium and raises her arms to cue the orchestra. The lights go dark, and darker, and darker. The first aching strains of the third movement of Shostakovich's fifth symphony emanate into the hall.
"I’ve often thought that one of the best ways to take the measure of an artist is to observe how he reacts to circumstances beyond his control," the violist says. "How does he respond to hardship, to success, to criticism, and how are those responses reflected in his work? When an artist finds himself in a place that is nakedly hostile to Art, how does he defend himself? Does he become a rebel, speaking truth to power and risking his freedom or even his life? Does he flee to the safety of art that challenges nothing and acquiesces to the powerful? Or does he carve some more complicated middle path, and leave it up to history to sort out his legacy?"
The blackness of the hall, the music, and the words transport me to a different place. Thoughts about the dress and the heels and the tulle and the (lack of) money and the cold and the pain and the bus and every other inconvenience I've suffered on this long, long day of travel suddenly vanish. Physically, I may be in Minneapolis's Orchestra Hall, at one of the Minnesota Orchestra's Inside the Classics shows on Shostakovich five, but mentally, I'm in the Soviet Union of the 1930s.
Despite my exhaustion, I don't get to sleep until well past one o' clock that night. I'm unable to get certain notes of the symphony, or the violist's terrifying suggestions of what those notes might mean, out of my mind. This is music at its most engaging, I think to myself, lying on the hotel bed and looking out at the Minneapolis skyline, all lit up in the crisp November night. This is a new way of doing an old thing. And if my experience as a listener is any indication, it just might be working.
I started reading the Minnesota Orchestra blog, Inside the Classics, sometime in 2009. I feel safe in saying that it's one of the most engaging in the classical music world. It's written by two big musical personalities, Orchestra violist and former ArtsJournal news editor Sam Bergman and Principal Pops and Presentations Conductor Sarah Hicks, both of whom bring their own unique and eloquent voices to the virtual table. Entries are wide-ranging in both tone and subject matter. To give a little taste of what they write about, a few of the eighty-odd tags on their blog include elitism, loud brass instruments, musical dorkery, musician humor, new music, philosophical musings, stirring the pot, the long-suffering audience, things that make us look lame and snooty, and Sam as neurotic freak.
Three times a year Sam and Sarah (as they call each other on the blog and onstage) get together with the orchestra to give what they call "a show about a concert." Last year they covered Dvorák's seventh symphony, Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe and La Valse, and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. I'd read about these concerts in the promotional booklets the Orchestra sends out every year and thought they looked interesting, but - and here's a shocker - it turns out that when you're a disabled young person caught up in the cogs of the worst economic downtown since the Great Depression, you tend to not have a lot of money to go see concerts, much less concerts in other cities. However, when a review that I wrote about the Minnesota Orchestra for v.com last summer became the subject of a flattering entry of Bergman's (gotta love the echo chamber!), I decided I wanted to do whatever I could to get to Minneapolis and meet him and see what he does in-person. (Okay, so clearly I come to this subject with some bias, especially since [in the interest of full responsible journalistic disclosure and all that jazz] I've met Bergman a few times since then, and I took a violin lesson from him in October, and I think he's a good guy. But in my opinion, writers who think themselves free of bias are deluding themselves, especially when they're writing about the incestuous world of classical music, where everyone knows someone who knows someone who knows someone else. If the alternative to bias means not getting to know the most interesting people in our art, I'll choose the bias any day, thanks. If you feel this invalidates everything I'm about to say, you're totally free to quit reading. Anyway.)
Long story short, this March I was finally able to make the trip to Minneapolis for an Inside the Classics show on Ravel, and I had a blast. The show's first half consists of Sam and Sarah having a dialogue about the composer, elements that influenced him and his work, and the form and structure of the piece in question, with the orchestra supplying samples of it and other related works to put it into perspective. (This portion of the show is similar to what Michael Tilson Thomas does in the San Francisco Symphony's gripping PBS series Keeping Score. If you haven't seen that show yet, you must. In fact, you have my permission to stop reading this and watch an episode. You're welcome.) After intermission, Bergman puts away the microphone and heads back to his seat in the viola section, Hicks ascends the podium, and the orchestra blazes through a full uninterrupted performance of the work. Cue wild whoops and hollers from the appreciative audience. Last season's concerts featured informal Q&A sessions after each show, and it's the easiest thing in the world to wait around afterward and say hi and engage them in a quick conversation about what you like (or don't like) about what they're doing.
(Sam and Sarah sell the ItC concept on Youtube. Look, classical musicians have finally figured out how to upload videos! Go us!)
I think shows like these tend to succeed or stumble based on two things: the quality of the writing and the charisma of the host(s). Bergman and Hicks leap over both hurdles with flying colors. They're smart, funny, and sophisticated; they know how to appeal to seasoned concertgoers without ever talking down to newcomers; they have chemistry to burn. One or the other could easily hold the stage alone, but together they conquer it. They both are a real inspiration to this writer who loves music, and who is trying her best to figure out how exactly one field can inspire the other: put another way, how to use words to discuss a wordless art form. When I see Sam and Sarah taking their bows after the first half of the concert is over, and then look around me at a 2500-seat auditorium filled to the brim with a crowd much younger and more engaged than the hoity-toity moribund one stereotypically associated with orchestral music, I feel all sorts of questions percolating in my brain. How exactly have they built up such a loyal audience? What have they done right (because obviously they're doing a lot of things right)? Why does so much orchestral music have the reputation of being so irrelevant and incomprehensible since, framed correctly, it's clearly not? How can we share it with people who are interested in it but hesitant to set foot in a hall? How can we fulfill audiences' thirsts for knowledge - thirsts that sometimes they didn't even know they had? Where do new technologies and new traditions fit into the picture?
I'm a dork; I've always been a dork; I've never really stopped to think about any of these things before, because if there's an orchestra concert and I'm in town and I have the money, I go to it, no questions asked. But not everyone is as fortunate as me; not everyone has six years of private music lessons and a summer at chamber music camp under their belt; not everyone has a family supportive of musical endeavors; not everyone has kind engaging musician friends who are willing to drop everything to discuss what they love and loathe about their art. So, if the vast majority of orchestral audiences don't have those advantages to stoke their love of music, how can we reach them and serve them and deepen our connection with them? The whole Inside the Classics project - the blog and the concert series both - encourages me to ask these hugely important questions. I'm well aware they're ancient chestnuts to a lot of people who make their living in the arts, but they're new and exciting to me. And I'm finding it fascinating to watch the members of the Minnesota Orchestra attempt to answer them.
Confession time: I live in small-town Wisconsin, and it’s driving me crazy. This year I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the Minneapolis metro, and while doing so I’ve discovered beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’m actually a big city girl at heart. (Well, bigger city girl, anyway. I realize that some people don’t consider Minneapolis to be a big city. However, I invite those people to move to western Wisconsin, live there for twenty-two years, and then visit Minneapolis. I can assure you they will reconsider their opinion.) Nothing else fulfills me – artistically, emotionally, spiritually – like the kind of world-class performances you find so often in the Twin Cities. Every time I walk down Nicollet Mall to Orchestra Hall, drunk with the throbbing energy of the city, dizzy with the thought that any minute now I’ll be in the big hall with the big orchestra and the big soloists, I feel like a magical new dimension of life is opening up before me. So you can imagine how thrilled I was this week when the stars aligned and I had the opportunity to see the Minnesota Orchestra and Midori in an 11AM program of Britten, Sibelius, and Debussy. The concert exceeded expectations in unexpected ways; I learned more about orchestral music in one morning than I’ve ever learned at a single concert before.
The concert began with the haunting Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten. I haven’t listened to much Britten, and I’m not sure why; I invariably love whatever I hear, but I just never take that next step to seek out more. Note to self: more Britten. This is lovely, powerful, weirdly unsettling music, soaked through with misty moonlit atmosphere. I love it. The orchestra played beautifully, although I don’t recall any individual standout moments. (Upon reflection, this may have been because I was too busy fangirling and thinking “oh my God I’m in Orchestra Hall! and look! there’s Osmo Frigging Vanskä! and Erin Keefe and Sarah Kwak and Sam Bergman and Peter McGuire and Tony Ross and all the others oh my God!” to pay as much attention as I should have to the actual music.) I did, however, get the general impression that the Britten was, more than anything else, serving as a curtain-raiser for the event that the orchestra website and brochures have been trumpeting for months: the return of Midori to the Twin Cities.
This is not my first encounter with Midori; I saw her in July 2010 in recital in Winona, Minnesota, and I wrote after that concert that “Her sound – at least as I heard it from the front row of the balcony – was clear, classic, elegant, beautiful, but maybe a bit small, and focused at the center of the hall, as opposed to extending out to the sides.” This time I was way out on the side of Orchestra Hall in the seventh row, so I had a chance to test out my July 2010 hypothesis. Turns out my doubts as to whether her sound could carry out to the corners were well-founded. Her playing was anemic, and it wasn’t a matter of mere acoustics; concertmaster Erin Keefe pierced through much more effortlessly during her brief solos in the second half of the program than Midori did in any of the Sibelius. In an attempt to get another perspective I listened to the MPR broadcast of Friday night’s concert, and I heard the same thing there. In both the broadcast and in real life, certain brief passages came across as clear and loud and gutsy, as if a technician had turned up a mike, but then within a few measures the sound would invariably, mysteriously, fade away again. I’d noted the same disconnect in her sound between the main body of her program and her encore in her July 2010 recital; it’s a very odd phenomenon. To add to the awkwardness, one of the Minnesota Orchestra’s trademarks is a huge dynamic range. Usually, of course, this is a divine treat, but in this particular performance, it almost became a liability as various players struggled not to obliterate their soloist. Whenever a tutti came and they were cut loose to do their wild magnificent thing, it ended up sounding like a toddler was futzing with the volume dial on a very expensive speaker. They never did find their balance, at least not from my seat. I’m sure part of the problem is that I’ve never heard the Sibelius live, and I’m spoiled with unnatural balance on recordings, but my gut’s saying it was more than that, that another player could have pierced through more often. Hopefully someday I’ll get another shot at hearing the Sibelius live, and then I’ll see if this was just a fluke, or if everybody vanishes so far away into the texture. (And who knows, maybe someday I’ll realize I owe Midori an apology for expecting superhuman volume.)
Aside from the projection issues, there were a couple of strange interludes in the first and second movements where everything seemed to slow down, where I didn’t quite understand where she was headed, where my thoughts wandered, where my attention was drawn to the second violinists, or audience members up high in the tiers, or the sheen of Erin Keefe’s hair underneath the spotlight. (Although to be fair, Erin Keefe does have gorgeous hair.) I heard a lot of passion in what Midori was playing, but I felt absolutely none of it. It felt very odd – almost voyeuristic, as if I was in the same room with someone who was crying over a love letter that I’d never be allowed to read.
Clearly, for whatever reason, our two souls didn’t quite connect that morning. Question: why do some performances grip you; assault you; touch, burn, something raw and searing and elemental deep within you – while others only make you think “hmm, impressive” and nod appreciatively while the bravos are shouted and the bows are taken? I know, I know, music is subjective, even (especially?) at the very highest levels of performance. It’s probably part of the reason I love it so; I enjoy being frustrated by ambiguity. But it’s still mind-boggling to me how I can be in the same room with two other much more experienced listeners and apparently hear a totally different performance.
Now it sounds like I’m coming down hard on a great violinist, which I don’t mean to do. There were elements to her performance that I really liked, too, like the dozens of little details she put into that ethereal opening, and her beautiful yearning shifts. Her technique felt solid, aside from a couple of passages in that beastly third movement where just about everyone struggles. She clearly has the chops. But based on my experiences seeing her last year in-recital, and hearing various mind-blowing Vanskä Sibelius performances over the radio, my pre-concert guess was that the orchestra itself would be the real star during the concerto…and I was right. I wish there had been a solo encore so I could hear how she sounded without having to compete with the orchestra. Maybe she’s just one of those violinists whose strengths are best appreciated in a recital setting.
After intermission came an orchestral arrangement of Clair de Lune. Vanskä has a habit of striding onstage and starting the orchestra before the buzz of the acknowledging applause has entirely dissipated in the hall. I’m not sure if he’s frustrated with audiences taking too long to clap as he comes onstage, or if he’s just that excited to get to the music, or what. That quick transition from applause to music didn’t work so well here; the weird result was that the entrance to Clair de Lune sounded jarring. The orchestra played beautifully (of course), but the arrangement itself struck me as rather cloying. I suppose it didn’t help that I watched Twilight last week and there’s that awful scene where Edward and Bella stand around in Edward’s bed-less bedroom for approximately eight hours while blankly stammering and breathing at each another, before randomly, improbably, bonding over their mutual appreciation for (you guessed it) Clair de Lune. (Note to self: don’t ever watch Twilight before going to see a Debussy performance. It will ruin it for you.) (Actually, just to be on the safe side, don’t ever watch Twilight again, period.)
Erin Keefe had a small solo during the piece, and now seems as good a time as any to mention that she is total dynamite. She approaches her new job with the precision and body language of a chamber musician, and she clearly has technique and musicality to burn. I hope her coworkers love her as much as I do. Halfway through the program I even caught myself imagining how amazing it would be to play in her section, and that has certainly never happened before. I’m itching to see if she can deliver the goods playing a concerto gig. Minnesota Orchestra programmers: get on this.
An arrangement of the piano piece L’Îsle Joyeuse came next. This piece was much more satisfying in orchestral form than Clair de Lune was. What a sweep of elegance and excitement! In the program Eric Bromberger mentioned that Debussy worked on the piece while vacationing with his mistress on the Isle of Jersey. Hmm. I’d heard the story before, but I never would have made the connection between the Isle of Jersey and L’Îsle Joyeuse; it certainly lent a whole new dimension to the defiant, bittersweet exultation that permeates the piece. I love enlightening program notes.
The last work on the program, La Mer, was the highlight of the morning by a million miles. Lushness, color, beauty, everything, and lots of everything. Sweeps and slides galore – touches of gorgeous schmaltz – washes of pure sound, followed by perfectly articulated clarity – astonishing, impossible dynamic contrasts. Phrases of only a few notes had (and I’m not exaggerating) five or more dynamics. Every single phrase was gorgeously shaped, especially in the lower strings; principle cellist Tony Ross in particular was a total standout. The whole concert I was really struck by all the principles, and how they interacted with one another and with Vanskä. For whatever reason, the entire orchestra gave off the vibe of a chamber group, and it was such a joy to watch. Music students: watch and learn.
There was a big moment toward the end of the first movement when a bold brass fanfare soared through the hall, and I felt as if I was on the top of a cliff overlooking a choppy salty sea, hair whipping across my face, coat whipping against the wind, totally absolutely against-all-odds invincible. Right away the tears began to prick at my lashes. Okay, I admit it – the brass made me cry. Not the violins, not the violas, not the cellos…the brass. So kudos to them for making this brass-averse string-player tear up. They were just magnificent. From now on whenever I listen to that portion of La Mer I know I’ll remember the way that the notes surged out above me, and how they so brilliantly, so miraculously, encapsulated everything I felt that morning – the relief of escape, the glory of the ecstasy of sound, the exultation of being in a big bustling city crowded full with interesting people who share my obsessive quirky passions. What a breathtaking experience.
So if you have the chance to see a great orchestra and haven’t yet taken advantage of it, for God’s sake, stop putting it off. Go into the city – find a friend to split the costs – take a very long day-trip – just do it. Find a way to make it happen, because I guarantee you that no CD or DVD or Blu-Ray or state-of-the-art surround-sound system can deliver inspiration with the same intensity that a world-class ensemble like the Minnesota Orchestra can. Trust me on this one.
A huge thank-you to all the people who helped to make this memorable day-trip possible. You know who you are…
(This entry was posted from my blog, Song of the Lark. )
Meet Edith Lynwood Winn.
Winn (1868-1933) was a turn-of-the-century writer, journalist, violinist, and pedagogue. She had a lot of opinions, and she took great joy in sharing them. Her books include Violin Talks (1905), How To Prepare For Kreutzer (1910), How To Study Fiorillo (1910), and The Etudes of Life (1908). (Most, if not all, are available on Google Books. Just look up her name.) I just stumbled upon them yesterday by accident. Winn sidetracked me with her authoritative voice, and ever since I've been reading her highly entertaining work in my spare time. I know relatively little about her besides what she reveals in the books.
She apparently studied in Europe (as almost all serious musicians did in those days) - once had a nervous breakdown after practicing too hard for too long - taught in public schools and colleges - lived in Boston - studied with Julius Eichberg, a Boston-based teacher who taught many great female violinists - edited music - and had "unfortunate fingers", in particular an obnoxiously short fourth finger (just like me!). She sounds like a very interesting, strong-willed lady, and even when I oh-my-gosh totally absolutely 100% disagree with her, I still find I Can't Stop Reading Her.
Here are some excerpts from Violin Talks.
Children's work in America has been as yet an experiment and is not based on psychological and pedagogical training such as teachers in the public schools are obliged to receive before they are entrusted with the education of the young. The theory that "any teacher is good enough for a beginner" is fast becoming null and void. There must be teachers trained for children's work. They most love this preparatory work. They must be willing to serve art from the beginning of child training. Such teachers are born and not made, and yet their preparation for teaching must be broad. They must know violin literature; they must love children and be able to meet the child on his own plane; they must be unselfish, consecrated, thorough. Above all, they must be able to produce a beautiful tone, - the first model which a child hears.
The teacher should possess a winning personality. The child should be obedient, respectful, prompt, and willing. The German child always comes to his teacher with a "good morning" and a hand-shake, but he stands somewhat in awe of his master. Teacher and pupil can be sympathetic without seriously interfering with the dignity of their relation. The nervous and highung child suffers under severe teaching.
In general, if a pupil has worked hard for eight or nine months without interruption, he should have a vacation during the summer, and he will begin with more freshness and vigor in the fall.
I believe that ear-training should go hand in hand with violin study. It is unfortunate, indeed, that the public schools of every town do not afford some musical training for children, but it is only in the average large town and city that there are trained teachers of music who direct and supervise the study of music through the various school grades. The consequence is that music teachers have to do more real drudgery than they should, and they are also compelled to teach ear-training, time values, and many other things which students ought to have learned long before.
Many people ask at what age a child should begin violin study. This depends upon the constitution and taste of the child, and upon his musical environment. It is better to begin at fifteen years of age with a competent teacher than to begin at seven with an inferior teacher. If there is no fine violinist in the town, let the child begin piano study with some good teacher, for piano teachers are more easily found. At the proper age let the child go to the city for violin lessons. Country and city standards differ. Country teachers, because of little competition, are prone to advance pupils too rapidly. The thoroughness with which the best city teachers work is an evidence of high standards. A faithful study of the first position requires two or three years for the average child.
Every violinist should play the viola to some extent. This aids one to produce a robust tone, and a knowledge of it is very helpful to the ensemble class.
It pays to be broadly educated. It makes us richer. It makes the world richer. It helps us to be happier. The man and woman who intend to devote life to the profession of violin teaching, or concertizing, cannot be too well educated.
Few pupils know how to practice, hence the prevailing fault of neglected rhythm. Said a well-known teacher: "Never let anything pass which is not up to the standard of true musicianship. It is better to play twelve Etudes in one year, and play them well, than to go over the whole range of Kreutzer and Fiorillo. You will have it all to do over again some day, and it will be hard indeed to undo what you have done unwisely or carelessly."
Many piano pupils use a metronome for daily practice. Let the violinist use his brains.
"Rag-time" music is the very enemy of careful reading, attention to rhythm, and the cultivation of the highest in music. It develops inexcusable laziness in pupils, and the teacher has to undo a host of faults which could be avoided if parents only knew them to be positively the result of the "rag-time craze," and would forbid it. This would save hard work on the teacher's part, and much sorrow on the part of the pupil.
A certain pupil has an over-emotional temperament. She even plays unrhythmically. A year or two of ensemble work will aid her greatly. Another pupil suffers from the effects of overpractice. She also plays unrhythmically. Rest is her only cure.
If I were the mistress of a home I should teach every child to recite poetry. The child who cannot feel the rhythm of poetry will not feel it in music, but he can cultivate both. I should allow him to dance. From his earliest years he should sing child-songs. When he is older let him study the languages and learn to scan Latin. Our greatest musicians are fine linguists.
Few girls can practice over four hours daily. Common sense and physique forbid.
Naturally a girl has more supple fingers than a boy. She also has a fine command of her upper notes on the E string, for her fingers are small, delicate and agile, but she has no the endurance of boys. She can play, and play well, but she must keep her health and practice only as much as she can endure.
The effects of overwork are spasmodic movements of the body and face, nervous bowing, and unsteady tone, affectation, and absence of rhythm. This, added to a poor sense of pitch, which often accompanies nervous troubles, is a serious detriment to success. Life is too short and too full of meaning for us to cripple our energies by overwork. The violinist should keep his energies normal.
From the first the violin should be a good one. There is no inspiration in a bad violin. Not everyone can have a good, or, rather, a valuable violin. Everyone can have a violin correctly made.
The violin should go to the repairer at least once a year. The bow should be rehaired as often as necessary. Mine goes to the shop three times a year. Both violin and bow should be kept very clean and free from excess of rosin. Many students permit rosin to accumulate under the bridge. That is dangerous. Rosin injures the varnish, and dust-particles spoil the resonance of the violin. One can wash the bow with good soap and water and a little ammonia.
Two or three half-hour lessons a week are sufficient for the average intelligent boy or girl. It is well to have someone at home supervise the daily work of the child, but that person shuld attend the lessons with the child.
I don't know why it is, but violinists are very often quite sensitively organized and delicate. One or two hours of daily practice is the most the beginner should undertake. I regret a year of hard work at six hours a day of practice. I paid for it by a nervous collapse.
I have often said that pupils should devote from fifteen to thirty minutes daily to scale practice; then they are not hampered by technic, as in Etude work, and, because the mind is concentrated one one thing, there is no excuse for faulty position. The prevailing "bad point" of new pupils is that the left elbow is not well under the right side of the violin, thus compelling the hand to tilt to the left, the thumb to cling too closely to the neck of the violin, and the whole arm to be changing its position constantly. There can be no progress with such a position, for intonation will never be correct, and technic, as well as a command of positions, is out of the question. Teachers who neglect these points do so at the risk of their own musical reputation.
Speaking of fingers, many violinists have most unfortunate fingers. I am one; my fourth finger does not reach to the last joint of my third finger, and in the higher positions, my thumb sometimes clings to the body of the violin, instead of to the neck. I have found, however, that persistent practice in the positions, with my fingers (on the E string) a little inclined toward the left, aids my thumb, while raising the hand and running the elbow very far under the violin permits the thumb to regain its proper position.
And now we must labor to obtain a normal position and as little extra movement with arm and hand, for all unnecessary movements cause great uncertainty and loss of security and time.
A prevailing fault is that of grasping the violin too tightly with the chin. The violin should be held by the left side of the jaw and not by the chin, which should rest upon the instrument at the left of the tail-piece.
There are many methods of holding the bow, but there is only one way of holding the violin - and that is the right way, - free and beautiful.
Now that I have spoken of the position of the body, it may be well to remark that young students should try not to move about much while playing. Paganini indulged in many contortions of features and of body, but his day is past. Many violinists sway the body to the rhythm of the music. It is, indeed, very hard to stand perfectly erect and motionless. The great artist is very full of moods, and he responds to the spirit of his music to such an extent that he is prone to move his body as he plays.
The violin is a difficult instrument indeed, but the drudgery of teaching lies in certain almost necessary repetitions. I find myself saying certain things daily. One is, "Do not allow the left elbow to remain far to the left of the violin." Another is, "Keep the fingers down as long as possible." Still another is, "Do not cling to the violin with the thumb."
And these excerpts are only the first thirty-odd pages! She has much more to say throughout the rest of the book.
So what do you think? Anything in there that leaps out at you as being incredibly relevant? Incredibly irrelevant? Good advice, bad advice, advice you can't make heads or tails of?
Winn's books have made me wonder, what will teaching be like a hundred years from now? What conventions of today that we take for granted will tomorrow's students laugh at? Which of Winn's ideas are due for a come-back (personally, I love the ideas of mandatory ear-training and viola-playing)?
Isn't it wonderful to read the work of a woman from a hundred years ago who is just as opinionated about the violin as we are today? What an honor to be part of this long continuum of passionate intelligent music-lovers...
More entries: October 2011
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