Monday, July 31, 2023

Orchestral Island

The experience of a single-day orchestral concert with a rehearsal in the morning and a performance at night is, for me, kind of like being on an orchestral island. It is like an island in time, and can be a remarkable experience, particularly when it involves music that is both great and challenging to play well.

This past Saturday I had the chance to play a concerto concert that was part of a piano festival at the University of Illinois. The orchestra was full of friends, some I hadn't seen for many months, and some I hadn't seen for a year, and the music we played (the first movements of the Mozart Piano Concerto #17, the Schumann Piano Concerto, the first Rachmaninoff Concerto, and all of the Gershwin Concerto) was terrific. Three of the soloists were students at the festival, and the pianist who played the Gershwin was on the festival faculty.

My "normal" orchestral playing mindset (when there are rehearsals over a number of days) is to have the music running in my head in the "background" while I am doing other things, and in the "foreground" when I am practicing for the concert. It often runs through my head when I am trying to sleep. But after the concert is over there is kind of a "dump" that happens, and other things take over, like music I am writing, or non-concert music that I am practicing.

But in this case I haven't had the chance for the music to run its course in my mind (partially because for three of the pieces we only played the first movements), so I have an extended medley of the exposition of the Mozart followed by various passages from the opening, middle, and ending of the Schumann, the hard enharmonic passages and nice viola melodies from the Rachmaninoff, and one exciting passage after another from the Gershwin.

It is nearly midnight, and I'm writing this post now so that when it is finished I can stop thinking about both the music from the concert and about writing a post about it.

So here we are.

But the experience on Orchestral Island also involves the tremendous kind of interpersonal communication that goes on when forty or fifty musicians spend their rehearsal time in fully-focused concentration. The like-mindedness and connection that happens during the four or five hours of playing together is like nothing else in the world. And when you mix in really great soloists, and a conductor who really understands the music and is capable of communicating that understanding, it is really difficult to return to the "normal" life of a solitary musician.

Maybe that is why the music keeps running through my head. It was such a positive experience for me that in spite of the mental and physical stress connected with learning my part quickly, and the really hard work and concentration that is involved with playing a concerto program on such a small amount of rehearsal time, I really didn't want it to end.

But now this blog post has come to an end. Maybe I'll be able to get some sleep.

Monday, July 24, 2023

The Forest Near Ingolstadt for Soprano, Cello, and Piano

The text of this piece is adapted from chapter eleven of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the only passage in the novel that I find appropriate for a musical setting.

It takes place in the moment that the monster becomes aware of his senses. He experiences pleasure when seeing the moon, and can contrast that pleasure with his feelings of hunger and thirst. He notices that over time day turns into night and back into day. He also notices the sounds of birds. He tries to imitate them, but can't.
[March 11, 2023]

The music and a computer-generated recording are available on this page of the IMSLP. You can also listen here. The piece is in three movements, and lasts around thirteen minutes.

The New Grown-Ups Treehopper

Our son Ben Leddy and his Boston-based band have just released a recording, and I think it is fantastic. Make sure to listen to "Goodbye," which Ben wrote when he was a teenager, and sings with the perspective of an adult (and with such a beautiful voice). The instrumental playing is really remarkable too. All of it.

I'm so proud to be the mother of one of the New Grown-Ups.

Monday, July 17, 2023

Meditation on the best-known musical Méditation

I think that the best known musical meditation is the one from Jules Massenet's 1894 Opera Thaïs. The action that accompanies this piece happens offstage, when Thäis leaves her life as a pleasure-seeking courtesan, and enters religious life. After the Méditation, the monk Athanaël, who had persuaded Thäis to convert, realizes that he is in love with her.

The Méditation is set for solo violin, two harps, winds, and a chorus of closed-mouth singers. For my transcription for viola and piano I transposed the piece into G major (a fifth lower), and rewrote the piano part to better reflect the colors, pitches, and motion of the original score.

Martin Pierre Marsik's piano reduction of the Méditation was published by Heugel in 1894, and I imagine it was approved by Massenet. But Marsik's piano reduction doesn't sound very good transposed a fifth lower, and a need for a setting of the piece for viola and piano wasn't on anybody's radar during Massenet's lifetime.

Just for a lark, after making my viola and piano edition, I made a personal copy transposed back into the original key, and when I played it on the violin with a pianist friend, it felt better to play with than the Marsik piano reduction. But I guess I am a bit biased.

My edition is now available from the International Music Company (and will be among the new issues on this page soon), and I am very grateful that they respected my choice to rewrite the piano part.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023


In the ten years since I wrote a post about Bartolomeo Campagnoli's Opus 22 Caprices for Viola and their relationship to the solo violin music of Johann Sebastian Bach, more of Campagnoli's work has been uploaded to the IMSLP. I was thrilled to find his five-volume Opus 21 Violin Method, which has, to my surprise and delight, violin versions of a handful of his viola caprices in the more advanced volumes.

Dedicated to the Duke of Cambridge, this lavish book has 132 progressive duets, and 118 solo violin etudes.

I like the above engraving of Campagnoli so much more than this wigged portrait:
While playing through the viola caprices this week (informed with my new knowledge about the differences between my bow arm when playing the violin and the viola), I observed that these caprices are not pieces to teach students how to play the viola. They are pieces written for violinists with advanced technique to help them learn what they have to do in order to play the viola well.

I'm excited about exploring all of the Campagnoli in the IMSLP:
Most interesting to me is the piece L'Illusion de la viole d'amour, Op.16 that is under the "compositions" tab. Unfortunately there is only one of the two parts available there. Maybe in another ten years the other part will come to light.

Monday, July 10, 2023

Long Tones and Summer Band Camp

It is band camp season in my university town. Summer after summer we hear hours of long tones played in unison on the fields adjacent to our neighborhood. And the percussionists work with an ultra-loud metronome.

I wonder if the improvement that band camp students experience in their playing during the week of camp is because of sustained (ha! what a pun) long tone practice.

During the school year, when a band rehearsal might last for a fifty-minute-long class period, there is simply not enough time for an extensive and leisurely long tone warm-up. At camp it becomes a community meditation, where you can turn off your brain, open up your breathing mechanism, and open your ears.

I imagine that during the school year most middle school and high school band students don't spend a hour of their after-school time practicing long tones, particularly when they have scales and etudes to practice and pieces to learn.

Sunday, July 09, 2023

DIY Roku Streaming Stick Extender Supporter

We have a "dumb" TV, and all access to the world via said "dumb" TV comes to us through a fiber optic network.

We use a Roku stick and an extender (which I believe we got for free), because the plain stick gets very hot very quickly when connected.

The problem with the stick and the extender is that things get heavy on the back end, and instead of providing an aesthetically preferable right angle, we have at least the look of instability distracting us from our viewing experiences.

My solution? Three black hair ties and one Command brand adhesive hook.

Thursday, July 06, 2023

Of plumb bobs and bow arms

I believe that my violin playing has improved significantly since my attention to my right arm while practicing has been "in the toilet."

[See this post for reference]

But upon returning to serious viola practice (my mother, or perhaps father tongue), I noticed that keeping the bow stick lower than the arm simply doesn't work if I want to make the sound that is in my ear. With my eyes glued to the mirror, I notice that the bow stick feels and sounds best when I have it either at an equal level to my arm, or in some cases a little bit higher. Instead of feeling that my right hand is like a weightless ball floating in a toilet tank, it feels (staying with plumbing water metaphors) more like there is a gently weighted plumb bob hanging somewhere between my forearm and my elbow, and my hand, while not being tense, responds slightly to that weight.
Except for the fact that moving around on a smaller instrument is easier, my left hand feels pretty much the same on both the violin and the viola (I have large hands for my height, broad fingers, and a square palm). I have always known that I had to do things differently with the right hand in order to sound natural on the violin, but until yesterday I never knew exactly what.

Practicing the Campagnoli Opus 22 Caprices with a viola-specific (perhaps my viola-specific) stick-to-arm relationship provides mind-expanding bow-arm-height awareness.

[N.B. The violist Paul Silverthorne gently pointed out to me that plumb bobs are not used in plumbing, although both come from plumbum which is Latin for lead.]