Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Haydn Quartet Project

After this past year's Summer Strings came to a close, some adult members of the ensemble thought it might be a nice idea to play some chamber music together during the other seasons of the year, and to play it in the dining room of the assisted living facility where the violist lives. This violist, who was my stand-partner in orchestra for many years, suffers from early-onset Alzheimer's disease. She has difficulty with practical life issues, but when the viola is in her hands she plays beautifully. The cellist is a late starter who never played in a string quartet before, and the second violinist is a retired teacher who, though she has been a life-long amateur, also never played in a string quartet before. And I'm playing the first violin part, which is a novel position for me since I usually play viola in string quartets.

I suggested that we play through all the Haydn quartets in order, beginning with Opus 1. We meet once every two weeks or so, read the designated quartet through, work on trouble spots, and then read it through again. We have an appreciative audience of residents who keep coming back. The quartet novices get better every time we meet, and I keep surprising myself by actually doing what a first violinist in a string quartet needs to do.

Tonight we played Opus 2, Number 2 in E major. While we were playing I thought about the generations upon generations of people all over the world who have played these quartets, which were written in 1775, while living under all sorts of less-than-ideal systems of government. The people playing these quartets might have had the same psychic need for escape that my colleagues and I had this evening.

I don't know what the future holds for the country and the world, but I do know that next time we will play Opus 2, Number 3, and I know that it will be a meaningful, refreshing, and rewarding experience.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Dance to the Music of Time, or Caesium the Day

I have been listening to a podcast from the BBC that devotes individual episodes to individual elements. Aside from Tin, which is used in organ pipes, tin whistles, and a drum in a G├╝nther Grass novel, I have encountered little in the way of musical resonance, But today's episode on Caesium, which has been translated into this excellent article, makes me think of all sorts of musical things regarding time and measurement.

Now I understand what the atomic clock is. And I also learned that someone who studies time is called an Horologist, and the study of time is Horology.

I have always been amazed that we, as human beings, have the ability to divide beats into 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, and even 15 parts with enough accuracy to sing or play in unison with others. This article (and podcast) doesn't explain that phenomenon, but it at least provokes me to think about it. And then there's The Pajama Game.



With music's most famous Horologist!



And, of course, Messiaen's Quartet for the end of Time:


Sunday, January 08, 2017

Offbeat Afterthoughts

Last night, at the age of 57, I played my very first orchestral New Year's concert. The inspiration for most orchestral New Year's concerts is that of Willy Boskovsky and the Vienna Philharmonic, and there are usually Strauss Waltzes on the program. I have played quartet transcriptions of Strauss Waltzes, but last night was the first time I ever played the viola part of a true Viennese waltz as nature intended (as originally orchestrated).

At the first rehearsal my stand partner told me that one of her past orchestras devoted a whole year to playing Viennese music of all stripes, and the conductor was very meticulous about the way he wanted the after beats to fall. In Viennese fashion the second beat of the three-quarter-time measure falls a fraction of a bit sooner than it would fall when playing the second beat in a non-Viennese waltzes.

I had ample opportunity to experiment, and I found that if I simply let my bow drop to the string from above on the first of the after beats, and then allowed the second after beat to rebound gently on the up-bow stroke, I could get that lilting feeling that I understand to be stylistically appropriate. Since a mixture of gravity and Gem├╝tlichkeit was at play, it seemed to require no effort. No effort is good when your evening is populated mostly by off beats.

Another day, another off-beat.

This morning I played a bunch of waltzes arranged for string quartet. One was Viennese, but most of the pieces in three-quarter time were not. I tried my dropping bow technique on the Strauss, and it worked nicely. Then I tried the dropping bow technique on some non-Viennese waltzes, and it made them feel mannered and awkward.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Musical Life and Loss

The loss of a musician who, due to age, has exhausted his or her productivity is still a profound loss because a direct link to a tradition has been severed. I accept death as a natural ending to life. When someone lives out their full lifespan, that life is something to be celebrated, and the works and deeds that a person accomplished and shared should always be cherished as pieces of their best selves. I feel that with my mother's art that hangs on my walls.

But there is a personal connection that can't be seen, and can't truly be felt only through a person's works. (Usually words come easily to me, but now they don't.)

It has taken a while for me to truly accept Bernie Zaslav's death. I know that his body was failing. I know that he put in a good 90 years, and spent the last several months in physical discomfort. I know that he was ready to go, and that he was proud of what he accomplished during his life and his career as a musician.

Now I think of Bernie every time I play string quartets. And I believe that is the "place" he would have liked to be best remembered. In string quartets all over the world. There he is, mingled in with the Haydn. Celebrating sequences. Embracing dissonance, and rejoicing in resolution.

Now it's time to play some scales, while I look forward to playing quartets on Sunday . . .