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August 2009

Karen and Julie

August 18, 2009 04:54

 While I haven't had time to see any movies this summer, not even Harry Potter, I keep stumbling across reviews of the movie, "Julie and Julia."  The consensus among critics seems to be that Meryl Streep is amazing, Julia Child is amazing, and Julie Powell, the modern blogger and Julie of the title, is annoying and obnoxious, a petty and even trivial personality who is unfairly making money and 15 minutes of fame off her project of cooking her way through Julia Child's recipes, and blogging about it.  

I read the book last year.  Well, sort of read the book.  I read the abridged version as an Audiobook, on the T, the place where I do most of my reading these days.  I found Julie Powell's voice somewhat annoying too.  I didn't like some of the foul language she tossed around.  And, probably unlike most people who read that book, I'm not particularly a fan of Julia Child or of French cooking.  I don't have anything *against* Child or that cuisine, but my personal food paradise would either be in Italy or in Asia, not France.  The food that Powell described had too many weird animal parts for my taste.  Sometimes I found myself listening to Powell's descriptions of the food she cooked with an almost lurid fascination, as if I were observing a weird scientific experiment--and thinking, "you mean, they actually ATE that?"

So, if I don't even like French cooking and was irritated by the author, why did I read the book in the first place?  I was drawn to the premise, of getting out of a personal rut by following a dream, and then blogging about it.  I started doing something like that myself, with the violin, 3 years ago, and for that, I identified with Powell.  A number of Powell's critics have slammed her for 1.  liking the fact that people read her blog and that she gets comments on her blog, when she does; and 2.  being so much less interesting than her subject.  With these two things, I admit, I'm also guilty as charged.  I like getting comments too--who wouldn't?  Sometimes I check my blog while I'm at work, to see if I got a new comment.  And not always only when things are slow . . . sometimes as just a stress reliever.

Number 2, though, is what this particular blog is really about.   Julia Child is reported to have not been interested in Julie Powell, or her project.  Child may have made a dismissive comment about it, considering it "un-serious."  This moment is described in the book and apparently in the movie as well.  And what really surprised me, and inspired me, and gave me a grudging admiration for Powell in spite of her potty mouth, was Powell's reaction to that dismissal.   Powell didn't just pick up her marbles and go home.  She didn't give up.  If she felt betrayed by her idol, she didn't let that crush her spirit.  She even continued to admire Child, as she had before, and went to a museum to pay homage (in her own odd, irritating way).

For me as a violinist, being considered "un-serious" and being casually dismissed by someone whose opinion matters, the way Powell was by Child, is one of my worst nightmares. Sometimes this fear is so paralyzing to me that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Since I've been home from my trip, I've started at the Franck 4th movement a few times, at the notes on the page, and just not been able to move forward with it.  I inherited this music from a 92-year-old violinist in the Arlington Philharmonic, Phyllis Spence.  She's not Julia Child in terms of stature, but I admire her.  She's like the patron saint of the orchestra, she's been there from the beginning.  This piece was her senior recital.  At this point, the music is a little crumbly, so I xeroxed it.  But I can't decide if I want to use Phyllis' 75-year-old markings or those of Sarah Chang, who does many things differently on the recording I bought.  Coming up with my own markings and interpretation, which I know is what I'm supposed to do, seems completely beyond me.  Yes, I did it for the Stamitz first movement on viola, and felt proud of myself, but this isn't Stamitz.  Staring at the notes, I am Julie Powell at her worst, trivial and annoying.  I feel like Cesar Franck, Sarah Chang, and all the other heavyweights who have performed this through the ages and on YouTube, are laughing.  No, not even laughing.  I don't even matter enough to be laughed at.

But, I go to my lesson, because it's Monday, and after I stall for too long by chatting with my teacher and catching up on how the summer has been, the moment of truth arrives.  I have to play the Franck.  And, it's terrible.  It's out of tune, I am not sure of the fingerings, I keep stopping and saying "I don't know if I should play an open E here" or "that slide sounds bizarre" "I can't do that shift."  "What note IS that anyway?  Good grief."  Overstressed and underpracticed.  Not serious.  

Well, this is what teachers are for.  Somehow, my teacher was able to pull a few pearls out of the swamp and find a thing or two that I had done well.  She also had an interesting perspective on the history of violin playing.  She said that back when Phyllis learned this piece (at age 17, 75 years ago), she was probably using gut strings.  And so the open E wouldn't have sounded so weird in that context the way it did when I played it on my modern strings.  And back then people used portamento more routinely, it was Heifetz who introduced cleaner shifts and more selective use of portamento to achieve certain effects.  I started to calm down.  Heifetz wasn't laughing, or dismissing, he was introducing me to clean shifts and useful portamento.  Phyllis wouldn't be laughing, regardless.  She cared enough to give me this music.  

I practice the shift to the high A a few times.  First by moving my first finger from B to E, then putting down the 4th finger on the A and remembering where that is.  It's flat a lot at first, but with a few repetitions it starts to approximate the correct pitch.  I also settle into a slower, more comfortable tempo, well below Sarah Chang's but easier to hear the interpretation as the notes slide by.  We only did about 3/4 of the first page, but at least that bit is starting to sound recognizable. 

I feel more at peace when I leave the lesson, like I know what I have to do.  And, I plan to go home and blog about it.  I think about Julie Powell again as I'm walking back to the T.  And this time what I think about is how she didn't let Julia Child's dismissal get her down or crush her.  How she might indeed be kind of trivial and annoying the way the movie critics say, but that, in the end, her very ordinariness is why I cared about her at all and read her book.  We can't all be Julia, or Sarah, or Jasha, but we can all find our own way, and connect with each other.

10 replies | Archive link

Musical soirees

August 10, 2009 04:02

 I like that word, "soiree."  It may or may not really be appropriate for a group of amateur friends getting together to sight-read (at least in my case) string quartets, but what the heck.  Last week, one of my friends and occasional stand partner from the violin section of the Arlington Phil invited some of us over to play quartets and to accompany her husband (a cellist) and his teacher on the Vivaldi double cello concerto. 

The afternoon was cloudy and humid, one of those pre-thunderstorm pauses that last anywhere from 20 minutes to several hours.  And they have a screened-in porch in the back of their house, where we played, looking out  on a beautiful flower garden.  The Largo from the cello concerto is unaccompanied by orchestra, just the two cellos, first trading back and forth and echoing each other, then together.  I imagined leaning out a window of one of the other houses in the neighborhood and hearing this music, it was like something from angels.  I love Vivaldi, he is one of my favorite composers, 7th-grade hacking through the A-minor violin concerto and all.  Then we took a break for a little sangria.  The music sounded even better afterwards . . . ;-)

Yesterday it was a different group, also Arlington Phil players, sight-reading Haydn string quartets.  Another violinist (whom I have also sat with, my first year with the orchestra I must have sat with every member of the first violin section at one point or another) organized the group.  Surprisingly, to me anyway, in both of these groups plus another that I played in for the orchestra's 75th anniversary celebration, I have been in demand more as a violinist than violist.  We have several really good violists around, and you only need one of them in a quartet.  The same with cellists.  But It seems to be harder to find two violinists available at the same time for some reason.  This group had played together a couple of times while I was on vacation, as a trio (violin, viola, cello).  They said once or twice that it was great to have a whole quartet together.  

We started out with some early Haydn quartets, and, sight-reading, I played 2nd most of the time.  Then, the cellist had brought some copies of Op. 17, which is a little more challenging.  At least the last 2 movements have lovely melodies in the 1st violin part.  We played through one of them, uncertainly, and I commented how beautiful the melody was.  The 1st violinist asked "do you want it?"  I said "sure, okay, I'll try it."  To my surprise, it sounded pretty nice.  The new violin again, the sound that comes out of it is still delightful to me--surprising in a good way.  I didn't even cringe very often when I heard myself (well, it also helped that I played a high F and G or two an octave down).  The room acoustics were pretty good too:  we were playing in the function room of a senior center, a former and refurbished high school with high ceilings and hardwood floors.  

Could we perform this piece?  Maybe--we started talking about where/how we could set up.  It has been great to get to know all these local musicians.  It is a whole new world I never had a clue about before.  What's especially nice about it, to me, is that nobody from this orchestra has an attitude.  We know we're all kind of at the same level; few of us have careers in music although some, like our quartet cellist, teach in public schools.  We're just doing the best we can and having fun.  And sometimes, that best is actually pretty wonderful.

4 replies | Archive link

Hot Turkey

August 1, 2009 03:36

There's nothing like going cold turkey to break an addiction . . . Three weeks without the violin, three weeks without the internet--which is worse?

I have not processed or posted any photos, and am barely finished unpacking. And, I have been awake since about 4 am due to the 6-hour jetlag. I usually think it's easier coming west than east, but this has been a tough couple of days. My uncle Jim, who had been fighting glioblastoma since April, lost that battle Thursday night. When I was 12, our family went on a family reunion cruise to Alaska. Our grandmother invited her three sons, which included my father and his two younger brothers and their families. I only have scattered memories from that trip: the scavenger hunt on the ship, glacier bay, the almost constant rain, some tribal dancers, and lots of playing with our cousins, Jim's kids. I haven't been back to Alaska yet, either.

On this trip, we (just me, my husband, and our two kids) took another cruise, this time on the Mediterranean to Italy, Greece and Turkey: from Venice to Athens to Istanbul and back, with stops at Mykonos, Santorini, and Ephesus. In contrast to that Alaskan cruise, this one was hot and it didn't rain at all. Our ship, from the Holland America Line, was called the Oosterdam. Its sister ships have names like the Rotterdam. Some of the workers on board the Oosterdam wore T-shirts that said "dam ships."  The article mentions Jim's sense of humor and fondness for practical jokes, but not how he also loved puns. Those T-shirts, and the "dam dollars" we collected for taking part in trivia quizzes on board (to exchange for a mug that said "O dam") would have made Jim's day. He once referred to his mother's childhood experiences with a father who was a public works engineer as "going from one dam project to another." So Jim, the punny title of this blog is for you.

Although the cold turkey experiences on this trip weren't so great, Istanbul--being both in Turkey and warm--was. I'd never really been near this part of the world before and it is beautiful, a bit like San Francisco, but with thousands of years of visible, vibrant history on top of it, underneath it, and all around it. During the day we took a short boat trip between Europe and Asia, went with a guide to the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and Tokapi Palace. I also came to appreciate Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as a real hero for our times. The last time I really thought about him at all was in 10th grade history class. But his vision for what Turkey could become--a modern secular state with the goals of religious freedom, pluralism, and tolerance--was prescient. It was interesting to hear the different tour guides' takes on the current political situation. One simply acted as if Ataturk's vision was unfolding as planned. Another expressed anger and some fear at the religious parties' political agenda.

Musically I had a rather confusing trip. For a couple of days I had a mental tape of' "Istanbul (Not Constantiople)" (TMBG version) continuously playing in my head. It has a (small) violin part. I also brought along my iPod and copies of the sheet music for Simchas Torah (Bloch) and Franck mvt. 4. I tried to listen to these faithfully every day and follow along the music at least once. I didn't make it every day, but I did manage to work out some bowings and fingerings for the Bloch. I think it will be interesting to see if that was useful at all when I get back to the instrument seriously. Will having the pitches in my ear help me put my fingers in the right place, even if they've never been there before? I admit I'm feeling a little anxious about both of these pieces. They are quite different from what I've played before--and so high. I feel my technique is sorely lacking. But the Franck in particular seemed just right for sailing away, rocking gently to sleep in the middle of the Aegean. I probably will not be able to hear it ever again without thinking of bright blue waters and sunlight.

Which is kind of what I need right now.

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