Friday, December 26, 2014

Strange turns

A couple of weeks ago, I was perusing Facebook and saw a post by one of my FB friends about a meeting of a local group that gets together to play the viola da gamba. It was featured on one of our local NPR stations:

Local Viol Fans Stay Loyal

The viola da gamba is something like a guitar, in that it has six (or seven) strings and frets, but it has a curved bridge and is played with a bow. It is played somewhat like a cello, in that it is held on the legs (where the "gamba" part comes from, Italian for "leg") in a vertical position. It is made in a a range of sizes (as depicted in the illustration above). Once the violin became popular, in the late 17th century, the viol became virtually obsolete. It has continued to be played and listened to by people interested in antiquities but for the most part not by mainstream musicians or audiences (with some exceptions, most notably Bach's three sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord).

Anyway, something about this stirred a desire I didn't know I had: I wanted to play one of those things. So I messaged the guy who posted the story -- he teaches both Baroque cello and viol -- and asked how I would go about getting started, and he offered to lend me an instrument. The upshot was that within a week I was sitting in his studio having a lesson on the bass viola da gamba. He sent me home with the loaner and a beginner's book.

A couple of days later, I was searching around on the 'net for info about viols and somehow came across an auction listing: an estate sale that included a lot of three violas da gamba, with bows, plus a pile of music and some extra strings. They were made in the 1970s by an amateur who had taken up violin making after he retired from his job as an engineer.

In an normal state of mind, I would be leery of this sort of thing, but I was apparently not in a normal state of mind because I soon found myself bidding. I didn't even notice until after I had made my non-rescindable bid that they were described as "tenor, alto, and treble" -- when what I really wanted was a bass.

The auction was set to end the next evening, and I spent the interim beating myself up mentally over being so stupid and hoping someone else would outbid me. There was one other person who bid a few more times, but I had craftily bid the highest amount I could imagine wanting to pay, so my bid automatically increased after each of his bids. I guess he hit his limit because at the close of the auction I was the proud (?) winner.

I went to pick them up the next day. I had no idea what to expect.

The pickup location turned out to be a modest retirement community, rows of plain one-story buildings spread out like caterpillars. I parked my car and proceeded down the row I'd been directed to; the door of the house was open, and I was greeted by a pleasant young couple who were handling the sale out of the owner's emptied-out place.

I was feeling fairly grim about the whole thing at that point, but they seemed so excited about it that I agreed to look at one of the instruments before I took them. They unzipped the largest case, and yep, it looked pretty darned amateurish: shiny red varnish, a very crudely carved face in place of the scroll. I don't remember what I said, but their enthusiasm made me feel a little better. The guy helped me carry all the stuff to my car, and I drove home.

After I had sorted through all the music and examined all the instruments, I realized that the largest one was actually a bass (what I had wanted in the first place), the middle one a tenor, and the smallest one (about the size of a violin) a treble -- the usual members of a consort. The treble's sound post was down, so I couldn't do anything with it, but after I replaced a broken string on the bass and tuned it and the tenor up, I realized that yes, these were playable and not totally terrible, especially for the price I paid. The music alone would have cost several hundred dollars, the strings another several hundred. I started to feel a little happier about my purchase. And then, I'm a sucker for instruments in general. So I guess these little guys will entertain me for a while.

"Christmas gambarama"

I did promise my husband not to make a habit of this.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Bach G major suite recording

I finally got the audio file from last week's concert fixed up -- here it is:

Bach Suite No. 1 in G Major for Solo Cello, played by me

Monday, November 10, 2014


I have a complicated relationship with musical stress. Putting myself into situations where it's inevitable provides motivation to practice with greater care and attention than I might otherwise but also can tip me over into being an emotional mess. This past week is a case in point.

This was what my week looked like:

Sunday: 5 p.m. - 7:30 p.m.: orchestra rehearsal
Monday: 10 a.m. - 11 a.m.: trio rehearsal
Tuesday: 10 a.m. - 12 noon: teaching (moved students here because of recording session and because they had the day off of school because of the election); 5 p.m. - 10 p.m.: recording session
Wednesday: 1:45 p.m. - 2:45 p.m.: piano lesson (moved because of trio rehearsal); 4 p.m. - 4:30 p.m.: teaching (only a half hour, but requires driving to and from; this week, I went directly there after my piano lesson, having rescheduled both because of the trio rehearsal on Thursday)
Thursday: 11 a.m. - 12 noon: trio rehearsal at the church; evening was dinner and a movie with my husband.
Friday: full day off to freak out.
Saturday: 10 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.: orchestra rehearsal; ~ 2 hours to chill, then 3 p.m. - 5 p.m., trio concert and reception.
Sunday: 2:15 p.m. - 4:30 p.m.: sound check + concert (at another church); 5 p.m. - 7:30 p.m.: orchestra rehearsal; post rehearsal, I went out to dinner with a friend from the orchestra, got home around 9:30.

The recording session came about this way: A friend of the couple I've been playing quartets with is an amateur composer, and he wrote what amounts to a cantata in memory of his wife. He decided to go all out and have a professional recording done, and he asked the couple to put together a string quartet, so they asked me to be the cellist. The music wasn't difficult, but the recording session was grueling -- five hours for about a half hour of music (which, I might add, is not unusual). The recording engineer called out every tiny slip of intonation, bow, or ensemble. If any of us tapped a foot or counted under our breath, it showed up on the recording and we had to redo that measure. Plus, we were being video-recorded, and you all know how much I love that! Even though it was interesting to get immediate objective feedback on what sounded good and what didn't (and to verify that yes, those little oopsies that you think no one notices are indeed audible), after five hours of this under hot lights, with no dinner, I was wrung out.

The trio concert on Saturday was the culmination of all our work on this music. This could have been the fun part, after practicing together for half a year and performing the program a couple of times. But the place where we played was a church sanctuary, and though the acoustics were pretty good, the setup with the piano was dreadful. The piano was an indifferent Kawai baby grand that was in a box -- it looks like they might even have built this wall around the piano while the piano was sitting there. So there was no way to move it for the best sight lines. The flutist and I had to sit up on the altar as close to the piano as possible. I could only see either of them if I completely turned my head, and all I could see of the pianist was her face. At this point, we knew the music well enough to stay together sort of by instinct, but it was frustrating. Also, we didn't get much of an audience, so that was disappointing. We did get some nice feedback from the people who did attend, but oh well.

The concert on Sunday was when I played the Bach G major suite. I was stressing out about everything -- my bowing and fingering choices, my tempos, the fact that I didn't feel secure enough to play from memory, and how I was going to look. I reacted by sinking into a scarily black depression. My theory about why this happens is it's the body's way of coping with the stress, letting one retreat into a much more calming (though not fun) "I don't care" state. As it turned out, because I was in this state of calm, the recital went swimmingly. I used the music and played well. I got lots of nice compliments afterward. There is a recording but I haven't listened to it yet.

One interesting aspect is that at none of these events did I experience cold or shaking hands. The worst point of tension while I was playing the Bach was in my right leg, with a bit of shaky foot, but since I wasn't playing the piano it didn't really have an effect.

In between all of this, orchestra rehearsals started for next weekend's concert. We are playing warhorses: Mendelssohn's "Fingal's Cave" overture, the Haydn trumpet concerto, and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. You know, that Beethoven is pretty hard, which you quickly realize when you hear an amateur orchestra try to play it. But I'm sure the audience will enjoy it way more than the usual odd pieces we play. Dress rehearsal is Friday, concert Sunday, and then I am done with prescheduled stress for a while -- at least until the next time I do this to myself.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Refining the Bach G major cello suite

About a week ago, I was offered the opportunity to play a solo piece on a concert that is taking place next weekend. It's a series featuring chamber music, basically just for fun -- no one is paid, and there's no admission charge. Since this is something that doesn't happen to me that often, I said yes, and my suggestion of the first Bach suite as my repertoire was met with enthusiasm.

I've performed it before, in its entirety and in bits and pieces here and there (I remember playing the prelude for a fashion show once!) and didn't think it would be such a big deal to put it together. But naturally, the more I have delved into the piece the pickier I have gotten about how well I want to play it.

The bowings especially have made me think hard. There are slurs marked in the original copies of the piece (there is no manuscript in Bach's hand), but they are not consistent and often seem erroneous -- grouping notes or adding articulations in odd places. This invites experimentation, and with every cellist doing it differently, there's no one right way.

So I've been going through each movement trying to decide exactly how I want to play it. In recent years, in contrast to the rather gluey Romantic interpretations of the past, many cellists have "gone for Baroque" with it (sorry) -- using lighter bowing, faster tempos, and crisper articulation. My explorations are a little more in this direction.

It's a bit daunting, in the sense that I realize how slapdashedly I've been playing it all this time. But at the same time, it's fun because I do have the time to work on this now, and I much more master of the tools required (mostly patience, awareness, and trust in my abilities).

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Concert nerves

About a year ago (shortly after I became more at liberty after I left my full-time job), I was asked to play in a trio -- flute, cello, and piano. The flutist is principal in my orchestra and is an excellent player, as is the pianist, so I agreed. Earlier this year we began rehearsing a short program with the plan to play it once in October and once in November.

The October performance is upon us, and I do not feel 100% ready. I wonder if anyone ever does, really? There's so much that's unpredictable. But aside from that, I'm now wishing I'd practiced the music more -- a lot more. We did a run-through of the concert this past weekend at my house in front of about a dozen friends and family, and though it was a nice social occasion and we generally played well together, I had too many wobbly moments (at least based on my listen to the recording), and gee, my sound wasn't all that good! I just got back from a string-buying expedition; fresh strings should help quite a bit with response and tone. I hope.

Ah, well. It's all a learning experience. I doubt anyone is going to listen to me more critically than I do. But there's that not-so-hidden desire to play not just adequately but superbly.

Here's a taste of the program: a trio by George Alexander Macfarren (1813–1887). I do think I improved somewhat as I warmed up (which I didn't have a chance to do in the couple of hours before we played). I felt sorry for the pianist having to play this on my Baldwin upright (the living room piano; I keep the grand in a more climate- and sound-controlled space in the house).

(Note that there is a bit of silence at the beginning. The piece is about 9-1/2 minutes long.)

Monday, October 6, 2014

Cello Tales

I have a video recommendation -- this documentary:

Cello Tales

The blurb at the above link:
Four strings, a wooden box that has lived for 300 years.
The cello is the most human-like of all musical instruments in shape, size and sound.
A daughter searches for her father's stolen instrument for a decade. An artisan looks for the best way to craft the perfect piece of wood. A soloist travels the world playing. A copyist recreates the sound of the great masters.
The cello. More than just a musical instrument.
It's about an hour and a quarter, mostly in German, with English subtitles. I didn't try to download it and just watched online.

It's both educational and nicely done, with some good music. It approaches the "cello mystique" in a non-mystical way, which I liked very much.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Bad, bad blogger: Updates

I apologize for the radio silence these past two months.

I've been doing a number of musical things, but every time I have started to write about them it all seemed too complicated to explain and not terribly interesting to anyone but me.

So herewith some brief updates:

The first week in August, I attended the Bennington Chamber Music Conference (linky here) as an auditor for five days -- basically, I read through a lot of chamber music with random pickup groups, but I wasn't assigned to a set group and didn't get coaching (except for one session when I filled in for a bassoonist in the Schubert octet). I am seriously considering going back for a full week next year. When I first heard about it, it didn't sound appealing (haven't I had enough chamber music coaching in my life already?), but there was something very pleasant about the experience as a whole.

I had a whole month of no piano lessons because my teacher went on vacation (one reason I decided to go to Bennington) -- the longest since I started with him in January 2012! But I kept practicing as usual (maybe a little less diligently on the scales :)). I've been working on Bach (B flat partita), Chopin (Op. 25 No. 1), Brahms (Op. 79, Nos. 1 and 2, and Op. 119, No. 1). Everything still seems like a struggle, but I have noticed that when I do play easier music, I play it much better than I used to. I'm much more aware of the sound that's coming out of the piano. At my first lesson after the break, my teacher suggested we start a new piece, and he chose the Mozart Fantasia and Sonata in C minor. Holy whatever! It's 30 or so pages of finger twisters thinly disguised as sedate classicism. But I'm game.

On the cello, I've been reading string quartets with one of my teachers from college and his wife (a violinist and violist). We've been getting together about once a week for some months now for approximately 2-hour sessions of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and so on. He retired some years ago, but he's played and taught just about everything, so what he lacks in finesse at this point he more than makes up for with intimate knowledge of what these pieces are all about.

I'm in a trio (flute/piano/cello) that is playing a couple of concerts this fall, and we've been rehearsing about twice a month since the spring. The other players are both excellent, which makes it a bit challenging.

I've also been attempting to give my cello practice some structure with two newish things. A while back, I heard an interview with Marta Casals Istomin in which she talked about Casals's late-life daily routine. She said that every day, he worked on a different Bach suite: Monday was G major, Tuesday D minor, and so on; the D major Sixth Suite he would do on both Saturday and Sunday because it's the most difficult. So I decided to try this myself. I had forgotten how hard those last two suites are! I have to confess that I haven't been able to do this every day, and I don't have a set routine, like, if it's Wednesday it must be Suite No. 3, but it's been a good refresher course.

The other is that I decided to work my way through the Popper High School of Cello Playing -- 40 etudes that are the closest thing cellists have to Paganini. I learned a few of them when I was in college, but I never treated them as music, and they really are. Inspired by this guy, I'm also attempting to memorize them. I realize that as a somewhat old lady I will never have the sex appeal of a Gen Y-er videoing himself playing Popper while sitting on the edge of his bed, so I don't know if I'll ever record these at all, but I do like working on them.

Then there's orchestra, which is gearing up for the season's first concert this month.

I'm still teaching a few students. I haven't tried to find more yet. I do enjoy teaching, but not the competition with other teachers, plus I'm not willing to take on just anyone. I don't think my forte is very young students, or hooking kids' interest by being an entertainer.

There are a few other odds and ends, but that should do it for now. I hope to be more inspired to write in the months ahead.