real lj idol | week 24 | 1821 words
In your wheelhouse
There was a time when I dreamed of being a concert violinist. I was no prodigy (or even close), but dreams are often unbound by the limitations of reality.
In college, my ambitions changed. My once-minor stage fright escalated toward panic, making solo work all but impossible. But the larger truth was that as I got exposed to more of the classical music repertory, I discovered that what I really wanted was what everyone else thought of as a fallback profession: I wanted to be an orchestral violinist.
Most of the solo violin repertory comes from the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras. I like some Baroque and Classical pieces, but what I really love is Romantic, Impressionistic, and early Twentieth-Century music. Orchestral works offer a much greater opportunity to play music from those eras. But there's also something uniquely wonderful about being part of the larger whole. Each orchestra section contributes its own melodies, harmonies, rhythms, or tone colors, with all the parts cooperating, overlapping, and balancing each other. It's the musical equivalent of a team sport.
One of my favorite experiences was my senior year of college, when a new performing arts center opened in Eugene. The University of Oregon's Symphony was invited to play as part of a day-long opening ceremony, and our conductor selected the Janáček Sinfonietta as part of our program. That piece needed more team players than the symphony had: nine good trumpet players were required for the brass fanfare in the opening and closing sections. The conductor put up posters and auditioned players, hoping to get enough performers from the music school's students. Her final tally included a percussion major who had last played the trumpet in high school, but it was enough.
Our performance of the Sinfonietta was some of our best work ever. I still haven't found a recorded version that unleashes the soaring quality of the trumpets while maintaining the crispness in the percussion and other brass that our conductor evoked from our orchestra. That opening movement defines the Sinfonietta for me, and demonstrates an unusual side-effect of the orchestra experience. Even though the stringed instruments do not play during that movement, and have wonderful moments later on, that is still my favorite part. Being surrounded by the brass and percussion sounds onstage as they built that wonderful sound was actually more fun than many other pieces I've played.
Concerts offer both glorious and inglorious moments. Some missteps come from other players, as with the performance (also in college) of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. The oboe player who led off the symphony inexplicably began at half tempo, forcing the conductor to urge the pace forward in large, awkward increments. Shortly afterward, the first-chair French horn player lost his embouchure during his big thematic moment, and his once-proud note took an embarrassing dive down the overtone series. The conductor scowled at the offending musicians, but otherwise kept her cool.
Most surprises are due to the conductors themselves, and after weeks or months of uneventful practice, you never see them coming.
We had a guest conductor from Germany for one concert series in college. During the live performance of the Háry János Suite, he suddenly started to crowbar the air with his baton while making chimp-like faces. His movements somewhat matched the comic sound of the music, but he'd never done that before. All the first violinists choked back giggles and desperately looked away—at the second violinists, who were also trying not to laugh. You could hear the flurry of sound as shoulders shifted and heads tipped in any direction that would not result in looking at another person. Somehow, not a single guffaw escaped. It isn't often that the hardest part of a performance has nothing to do with the music at all!
During the three years I worked as a radio-announcer in Peoria, Illinois, I played with both the Peoria and Knox-Galesburg Symphonies. Peoria was about 50 miles from Galesburg in one direction, and 75 miles from Springfield in another, so the three orchestras shared a lot of musicians. They had their practice and concert schedules down to a science, with each orchestra rehearsing on a different day of the week and no two holding concerts on the same weekend. Had I not gotten a job back on the West Coast, I would have auditioned for the Springfield Symphony the next year.
Playing for those semi-professional symphonies really spoiled me. We'd have four rehearsals, and then the concert—a much faster and far more appealing pace than you find in college or community orchestras. We tended not to rehearse entire pieces all the way through, but instead focused on the trickier parts or where the collaboration between instruments was more challenging. That worked pretty well, and allowed the orchestra to do more concerts, which also meant more variety in the music—a win for both the audience and the performers.
Unfortunately, it sometimes also resulted in repetitive-stress injury. We usually had Friday night final-rehearsals and Saturday night performances, but once in awhile we'd rehearse on Saturday afternoon and perform the concert a few hours later. Because of the randomness of how pieces were rehearsed, there was a Peoria Symphony concert where I played second violin and didn't realize until the Saturday rehearsal (with guest soloist) that our section played nearly continuously through both the Mozart Clarinet Concerto and Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony. By the end of the rehearsal, I had severe back pain from continuously holding up the violin, and my left hand had started to go numb. By the end of the concert, my back was spasming and my left-hand grip-strength was gone. I'd played for over a decade by then, and never had that happen before. Suddenly, I understood why string players were sometimes plagued by tendinitis and carpal-tunnel syndrome. We'd had a few in college who were frequent-flyers at the Sports Medicine department, for exactly that reason.
Performances with the Knox-Galesburg symphony were fairly straightforward, except for an outdoor July 4th Pops Concert where it was so hot that I worried for my violin, and my chair came with me when it was time to stand up for applause (the varnish on it had fused with my shorts).
The Peoria Symphony's regular conductor also offered few surprises, except for night I gave in to the temptation to see what the second-chair violist had meant when she said she wished the conductor would stop spitting on her. Often, musicians watch conductors with peripheral vision (which conductors typically hate). That night, I looked up in the middle of the Sibelius Fifth Symphony, and got a full view of the red-faced, foaming-at-the-mouth conductor, who seemed to be on the verge of a heart attack or an outbreak of rabies. I knew he was really just caught up in the music, but still—I looked away as fast as I could, smothering an inappropriate laugh.
For one concert, we had a guest conductor whose regular position was with the Baltimore Symphony. We were a step down for him, and he tried to accommodate us. The program featured Smetana's Moldau, which has a very fast section that is difficult for the violins (and sometimes appears in orchestral audition lists for that reason). We rehearsed that part over and over again, with the conductor having to keep pulling the tempo back to the rapid triple-meter that was the fastest we could play.
It all seemed good until the reality of the concert arrived.
Just as we entered that section of the music, the conductor's arm came down in the large, rapid swoop that indicated he was conducting the tempo in one. That was the speed he'd wanted to take all through rehearsal, and knew we could not do. I don't know what possessed him, or whether he simply forgot who we were, but you could sense the stiffening of spines all across the stage as everyone realized what was happening and came to attention. It was a mad race to keep up with the notes, and by some miracle of luck or concert-adrenaline, everyone did. Fear of embarrassment is a powerful motivator, and we played with greater skill than we should have had.
Some challenges simply required creative choreography. Harris' Third Symphony had arpeggios scored for the first and second violins where all the players around you were playing a different sequence—including your stand partner. It was hard not to get lost, especially after the conductor randomly edited out bars of music in that long, confusing section. My stand partner used blank paper and paper clips to cover up the gaps, and we still had to mark and practice exactly where I would turn the pages so that both of us stayed on target. This was better than the time in college when my stand partner did the same thing using tape on rented sheet music (utterly forbidden—rented music is practically sacred), and managed to glue two of the pages together for the performance.
My favorite choreography was for the Bartok Dance Suite. It has a tuba solo, followed almost immediately by a muted tuba solo. But the tuba is a large, unwieldy instrument, and there was no time for the player to put in his own mute. He worked out a scheme with the trombonist next to him: he played the first solo, tipped the tuba sideways, and then the trombone player slam-dunked the mute left-handed into the tuba bell. It was successful, but looked silly enough to be worth watching during the rehearsals and concert.
My last performance in Peoria was the night before I began the long drive toward Sacramento to start a new radio job. I was part of a pick-up orchestra for a Tony Bennett concert. While it wasn't one of the big symphony programs with important works, it was a pretty nice way to spend what would otherwise have been a tearful evening of leave-taking and all the accompanying mixed hopes and regrets.
That was almost twenty-five years ago, and writing this reminds me how much I miss playing in an orchestra. In Sacramento, the Symphony is full of far-better-talented Juilliard graduates, and the only community orchestra is forty minutes away. The community orchestra didn't appeal when I first moved here, and after more than two decades of rarely picking up the violin, it is now too good for me.
But I do think about whether it might be possible someday—perhaps after the kids have left the house, and I finally have some time alone to practice again. Most of the beloved pieces I never got to play would be out of a community symphony's reach: Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and Firebird ballets, the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra.
Still, I realize now that the chance to be part of that music again—any of it, even Telemann, Haydn, or Handel—would certainly be worth it.
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