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December 2008

Anton, not Karl

December 22, 2008 05:57

My violin-a-thon is over for now, and I've been missing my viola again.  A couple of months ago I broached the subject of doing a viola concerto with my teacher.  The piece is a concerto in D by Anton Stamitz.  I heard this piece 25 years ago when I was in Berlin, studying at the Leo-Borchard-Musikschule.   At the time I was in the first violin section of the student orchestra, accompanying the viola soloist, who had won a competition in order to play the solo.  I loved this piece.  I can't explain it, then or now.  I moved back to the US, went to college, and never heard it again.

There is a famous viola concerto in D by Karl Stamitz that, as far as I can tell, is part of the standard student viola repertoire, along with the Telemann.  When I first started playing the viola, I picked up the Telemann and fooled around with it a little bit.  I even worked the 2nd movement into what passed for "performance shape" at the time and played it at sample lessons when I was looking for a teacher.  I like that piece, but it seemed a little too simple and also overplayed.  Mostly, it just didn't grab me as something I wanted to spend my limited practice time on.  I may revisit that idea some day, but I went looking for other pieces.  One of the perks of being an adult amateur, I guess:  you can pick music that does grab you.

So I found a recording of the famous Stamitz concerto, assuming it would be a blast from the past, and take me back to my Berlin days.  Hmm.  No.  Same period, could even be the same composer, but not it.  When I first became a member of, I asked around a little bit and Neil Cameron offered some helpful suggestions, even recommending a recording from an Amazon search.  I listened.  Also not it.  I finally found some sheet music online at Shar, a concerto in D by Anton Stamitz, brother of Karl, that I bought sight unseen, figuring I could return it, or maybe it would be something I'd want to learn, even if it wasn't it.  But it was.  It, I mean.

However, in the giddy aftermath of having found it, I stumbled through it on my rental viola and realized that I was not ready.  Telemann was one thing, but this was something else entirely.  It was, for example, very high, going into treble clef a lot.  As a violinist first, I don't mind that in principle.  But still, yikes.  My very own nosebleed section.  My respect for this long-ago competition winner went up another notch.

In any case, more than 2 years and a teacher later, I am now feeling ready to tackle this piece.  It still looks high, but more like a good challenge, and especially, good for ear training.  Lots of arpeggios, too.  I still can't find a recording, good, bad, or indifferent.  But I'm looking forward to taking on something meaty over the vacation break, and to bringing back my memories of Berlin.

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Intonation Feedback

December 16, 2008 04:31

For my birthday I got a Korg electronic tuner/metronome.  My teacher had been recommending I get one for a while, and I'd been resistant.  Not hugely resistant, but I just thought, "oh, I don't need more electronic gizmos."  I liked the A440 tuning fork that I carried around in my case.  It didn't need batteries, was small and compact, and was cool-ly low-tech and analog in a digital world.  If there was a power failure, an ice storm, or a total nationwide economic collapse such that batteries and electricity were no longer available, it would still work.  I'd still be able to tune my instrument and play.  Kind of like the reason I never got electronic windows on my car:  if the car for some reason ended up in the water, sinking, I didn't want to be trapped by short-circuited window controls. 

Well, I got electronic windows about 3 years ago.  And I got a tuner last week.  You can set the frequency of the A it plays, and it also tells you, by a digital needle and green and red lights, how close you are.  I didn't think I could, but in fact I can hear the difference between A440 and A441.  Interestingly, if I try to sing an A440, cold, I'm consistently just a little flat.  And it's *really* hard to get it just right.  I go up, down, around the pitch, without ever quite nailing it unless I stop singing and start again. 

What seems most useful to me right now is to just leave it on while playing.  It listens to the note you're trying to play (based on the A you set and equal temperament), suggests an identity for the note, and tells you whether it's sharp or flat.  When playing the violin, I guess due to overtones, the needle wobbles and the +/- red lights flicker around the green, even if I'm playing an open string.  The piano is slightly more stable, but even it causes some flicker.  I make it my goal, and my daughter's, to keep the green light on consistently. 

This has been a bit annoying to my daughter, to the point that she's said "mom, you're too dependent on that tuner!!"  But then, since the tuner has been on, her intonation has improved markedly.  It's just there in the corner of the eye, blinking red and green.  I don't even have to say anything.  Her arpeggios are usually right on.  She used to argue with me sometimes about her low 2's.  She'd say "it's *supposed* to be low!"  But not that low.  There's less room for arguing when it's so low the tuner calls it a B instead of a C. 

But the thing is, I have another voice in my head telling me my daughter is right.  In the back of my mind there is all this confusing stuff:  am I becoming a slave to equal temperament?  What about high leading tones?  What about ensemble playing?  As a musician you don't want to become "dependent" (there's that word again) on your gadgets.

I think, however, that there are levels to intonation and uses for the tuner at different stages of ear training.  That more information is better, in this case.  The A in my head is low.  Without a tuner I would tune to something like A437, and it would sound okay to me.  While that's a bit off, it's also, to my relief, not *that* bad.  I actually had thought it would be worse.  Maybe I can get it to be more solid with practice.  And my daughter has to fix her low 2 and stop arguing about it.  She can learn the subtleties of temperament and leading tones later, when she can play a basic C-major scale and arpeggio and keep it in the green. 

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My first Messiah Concert

December 14, 2008 07:05

This afternoon I'll be playing the first violin part of Handel's Messiah for the first time in a concert.  I've sung a few excerpts of the soprano part over the years, even once with a sing-along orchestra in college, but it's not the old standard for me that it is for many here, or for one of my orchestra-mates, who says that December *is* the Messiah for him.

This concert has been a little star-crossed:  one of our long-time members fell and broke her arm right after the first rehearsal.  Then the principal 2nd developed something like tendonitis and had to drop out.  Last week a couple of us had to spend some time convincing a violinist who hadn't been able to make the first couple of rehearsals not to leave altogether.  I suggested 2nd violin because I thought that part might be more straightforward to sight-read and learn in a week.  At the dress, she's still there, in the back of the seconds.  But the soprano soloist had a nasty cold and couldn't sing the dress at all.

I've found that the sheer length of the piece is a major issue for me.  It is hard for me to sit and play for 2+ hours without much of a break.  It is also hard to keep on top of all the key changes.  I played poorly at the dress rehearsal.  I was distracted by stuff going on outside of rehearsal and missed accidentals.  One of them resulted in the  conductor yelling "Minor!" at the whole first violin section (so maybe I wasn't the only one who missed it).  But, on the plus side, going back and practicing after that has put me back in touch with musical key as an important concept.  As I have done with slides for scientific presentations, I'm learning the movements in order, going over them in my mind by title and key. 

Last weekend I attended a concert for my birthday by the Longwood Symphony Orchestra.  This is the orchestra I auditioned for but didn't make in the fall.  They played Vaughan Williams' "Sea Symphony," which is also a big long choral/orchestral work that I was unfamiliar with.  It lasts a little over an hour, which is only half the Messiah, but still, it was a long time to sustain attention.  Seated in the second row, right in front of the stage, I had ample opportunity to observe the violinists.  I now watch concertmasters more closely:  they all seem to have a lot of energy when playing.  It was remarkable, actually, the 2nd stand outside player looked similar in many ways:  both were young Asian men in their 20's in a black suit with the same haircut.  Both were skillful players, but the CM was "more," somehow.  The piece was enjoyable to listen to but it was rather cerebral.  The lyrics in particular were odd:  "Today a rude brief recitative . . . ".  And what *is* a "vast Rondure?" 

The hour passed quickly, but when it was over, I realized that I was glad I was in the orchestra I was in, playing the Messiah.  I think we will rise to the occasion.


I have two concert outfits, the sleeveless satiny embroidered kimono tunic that I wear when it's warm enough, and what I wore to this concert, which is velvet, and which I got on deep discount at Zia Clothing Outlet.  I put in my contact lenses (a rarity), and wore make-up (an even bigger rarity).  I got out my grandmother's diamond ring and my other grandmother's pearl Christmas brooch.  I got a few comments that indicate what I know already and what will probably be increasingly true as I get older:  I look better when I wear make-up. 

My family wasn't there.  My daughter had another karate belt test,  and this music is way too long for my 5-yo son to sit through.  My daughter passed, this time she is a blue-green belt.  (Hah!  All those push-ups I make her do when she makes mistakes practicing her violin seem to be helping . . . ;-)

The lighting in this church is, in a word, horrible.  The Philharmonic Society has donated significantly to a church fund to fix the lighting, and the process is supposed to start in January and be done by March.  That's great, but it doesn't help for this concert, which starts while the sun is up (barely) and still coming through the big windows, and ends at 5:30 on what is almost the shortest day of the year.   My little clip-on Mighty-Brite stand light is not enough, and I asked my stand partner to bring a heavy-duty stand light from the music store where he works.  Another early Christmas present to myself.  This helps me see (at least some of) the accidentals I missed at the dress. 

The church was full.  We ran out of programs and had to start giving out the ones that had been set aside for the orchestra to more people in the audience.  I talked to the oboe and I'm getting the hang of this tuning thing.  The soprano, recovered, nailed her solos.  There were, admittedly, a couple of rocky starts to a couple of the movements.  I am still getting used to following choral conductors.  This one in particular, I can't always tell whether he's giving an upbeat or whether he wants us to come in right then.  My stand partner, bless his heart,  is a little better at that. 

We do not do the Messiah every year, but we did it this year because it is the 75th anniversary of the Philharmonic Society of Arlington.  The Messiah was played in the group's first year.  So was Capriccio Italien, which we played at the last concert.  Our member with the broken arm, Phyllis, was in the audience.  Phyllis, who is 92 years old, has been a violinist with this orchestra for 74 of those 75 years (she couldn't join the first year because she was still in high school at the time and high school students were not allowed to become members).  "I'll be back for the next concert!" she promised. 

Three-quarters of the audience gave us a standing ovation.  We wished each other happy holidays, put away the stands and rearranged the chairs.  As I packed my new little stand light back in its box, the soprano told me she loved my dress.  My back hurt a little bit by the end, but it went away as I went out into the night.  Most of the audience had already gone home.  A little pause, lit by the strings of holiday decorations in the town center, before the last headlong plunge into the holidays. 

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