Inspired by John’s consistent blogging, I’ve decided to start a blog about my ongoing viola adventures. This is not a practice diary; I’m anticipating probably writing every week or two.
Let’s start with some background. I’m well aware that I defy categorization as a string player: I’m a mostly self-taught late starter, but play mainly classical repertoire, aspire to eventually having professional or near-professional skill, and have been playing for more than half of my life. I’ve played in orchestras almost from the very beginning (about a year and a half in), though it might be a stretch to call the first few years “playing” because I was definitely in over my head at the time. After working my way up from beginner/intermediate level orchestras, I’ve been playing in Camellia Symphony Orchestra, an elite (semi-pro) community orchestra, for almost a decade. I’ve also been principal violist in two other community orchestras in the last several years (though I am not currently playing in either of those), and started to play regularly in chamber ensembles in the last year or two before the pandemic. In 2021, I’ve started taking regular lessons for the first time in my life, mainly focused on adjusting my technique for injury prevention, but also working on audition prep recently.
Musically, I’ve just had a very eventful two weeks.
Two weeks ago I had another virtual orchestra recording come out, which I didn’t post in “Share a Video” here because it was audio-only. (That’s another good reason to blog, I think?) I recorded George Chadwick’s “Noel”, the second of his four Symphonic Sketches, around the end of August for the Untitled Virtual Ensemble. Although Chadwick intended to evoke Christmas imagery, it wasn’t actually a Christmas piece; it was titled after his then one-year-old son Noel. Here’s the recording:
This fall I’ve gone back to school for a postgraduate law degree (LL.M) at UC Davis, and this meant the opportunity to join the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra. I was a little apprehensive about taking on too many musical commitments, but the fact that the university orchestra rehearses and performs at the Mondavi Center won out. I had my audition on Monday. It was an informal audition, where I was asked to play two contrasting pieces or excerpts of pieces (maximum 9 minutes) and do a bit of sight-reading. I chose to play the Prelude from Bach Cello Suite No. 2 and the first half of the first movement of the Clarke viola sonata, which added up to about 8-1/2 minutes. (I’m currently working on the entire Bach suite, and the entire first movement of the Clarke.) It wasn’t a high-stress audition by any means: the UC Davis Symphony is conducted by the same person as my other orchestra, so I mostly just needed to show that I was taking the audition seriously and not relying on already knowing the conductor.
I recorded a complete (rather nervous) run-through of my audition rep over the weekend before the audition. I intentionally did it on the UC Davis campus, in the student lounge at the law school, to try to simulate audition conditions. The audition itself actually ended up being less stressful than recording these videos!
And I got into UCDSO. The first rehearsal was Thursday night. The first concert is less than three weeks away: a one-hour noon concert on October 15, which will be the first event at the Mondavi Center since March 2020. We’re playing a piece called “Umbra” composed by Aida Shirazi in 2020, followed by the Sibelius violin concerto. We’ve also started rehearsing the symphony on our next concert in mid-November: Sibelius’s 2nd. (Camellia Symphony will also play the same symphony two weeks earlier, which saves a little bit of effort on the conductor’s part!) I have a stand partner who also has small hands, which is good for me because it means we are likely to use similar fingerings and will probably have little need to write separate fingerings above and below the staff. Also: although I’m older than most members of the university orchestra, I don’t really stick out because I’m not even close to being the oldest member. It’s open not only to students but also to faculty, staff, and alumni. In fact, I saw two familiar faces from Camellia Symphony at the UCDSO rehearsal, one fellow violist and one clarinetist.
Saturday night was my first public concert in 19 months, with Camellia Symphony. We played “Se fue Mendoza” by Juan Diego Diaz, which I posted on this forum; the Schumann cello concerto; and Haydn’s 103rd (“Drumroll”) Symphony. The Schumann, which I never really listened to closely before this year, might be my new favorite cello concerto. And the Haydn was a lot of fun: while I was not as much of a fan of Classical-era composers before joining this orchestra, I really appreciate the more athletic style that our conductor uses for symphonies of that era. In some ways it may even be a bit easier to play Haydn and Mozart at a relatively fast tempo. Although the fingers have to fly faster, it becomes easier to think in longer phrases and larger groups of notes, so as long as note patterns are well drilled, I find that there’s less tension in my neck and shoulders.
I haven’t seen video of our Schumann and Haydn performances, but here are some YouTube videos of other orchestras for those not familiar with the pieces:
Camellia Symphony has the next week off, and then we start working on our early November concert: a piece we commissioned from Pittsburgh-based composer Laura Schwartz, the Nielsen violin concerto, and Sibelius Symphony No. 2.
This week was my second week with UC Davis Symphony. Camellia Symphony had the week off. I didn't have a lesson during my audition week after auditioning that Monday; my teacher was not available that Tuesday (my usual lesson day) and it didn't matter a whole lot to me because I needed to rest a bit after the audition anyway. That means I also had my first post-audition lesson this week.
The Clarke sonata is going on the backburner for now because of all the new orchestra music being piled on. My lesson focused on off-the-string bow strokes and on the Bach suite. I'm not planning to take a lot of my orchestra music into lessons, except when I really need to fix some technique in order to play it well. That was the reason for working on off-the-string bow strokes: in the third movement of the Sibelius violin concerto the orchestral strings spend a lot of time playing a pattern of one 8th note and two 16th notes, spiccato, at a fast tempo, and it's hard to keep the bow bouncing steadily in that rhythm at that tempo. Right now I'm playing in the upper half of the bow with an extreme bow tilt to keep the bow from bouncing too high.
Umbra is a real exercise in extended techniques. I've attached a photo of the first page of the viola part to illustrate. It's very atmospheric, and has some unusual effects like alternating between a harmonic and a fully stopped string. The contact point moves a lot (the "ord. --> MST" means going from "ordinario" to "molto sul tasto" while playing). And you can also see some unusual accidentals: you can see a half-sharp (played a quarter-tone above the natural) and a 1.5-sharp (played three quarter-tones above the natural).
Other than this, UCDSO has continued rehearsing Sibelius 2 (which I'm starting to get much more under my fingers), and the rest of the music for the November concert was handed out but not rehearsed. The other two pieces on UCDSO's November concert are "Prélude à une nuit américaine" (2019) by Mathilde Wantenaar, and "Tabuh-Tabuhan" for two pianos and orchestra (1936) by Colin McPhee. The McPhee looks really interesting; it's a piece fusing Indonesian and Western musical ideas by a composer who was Canadian by birth but lived in Indonesia for most of his life, wrote extensively on Indonesian music, and became a naturalized Indonesian citizen.
In my last post I forgot to mention the virtual orchestra projects I was working on for Untitled Virtual Ensemble. I recorded one of them, the first movement of Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, on Sunday. Next weekend I’m planning to record a more obscure late Romantic piece, Walpurgisfire (c. 1913) by Helena Munktell.
Tonight was Camellia Symphony’s first rehearsal on its new program, for a concert the first week of November. We did a complete reading of Sibelius 2, which was messy, and worked on the third and fourth movements. I didn’t do very well with it either, both because I was exhausted and because auditory cues simply weren’t there with most of the orchestra sight-reading. We also spent some time working on the first and third movements of the Nielsen violin concerto, which I’m excited about because I think Carl Nielsen is one of the most underrated of all composers. Both pieces are going to be a real challenge. We did not rehearse our newly commissioned piece, “Figment” by Laura Schwartz. The viola part for that piece is extremely easy for the left hand (no need to move fingers quickly, all comfortably playable in first and third positions) but a bit challenging for the right hand (rhythmic complexity and lots of ricochet bowing).
About the fatigue: Mondays are challenging for me because my class schedule is packed from early morning to late afternoon, and then I go straight from there to rehearsal; I was extra tired today after going on a long hike on Saturday. (I anticipate the spring semester being more flexible because I’ll be taking fewer classes and mostly working on my thesis.)
I was able to practice some Bach on campus earlier in the day between classes; I already have a favorite spot for outdoor playing at UC Davis, under a live oak in the Arboretum about 50 feet from the law school building. There’s a low, thick stone wall under that tree that I can put my viola case on, at the right height to use my viola case as a makeshift music stand. And the spot is well-shaded for most of the day, which is important in the heat; it was about 90 degrees out when I was practicing. I also have a makeshift practice room inside the law school, a conference room in the basement that was repurposed into a storage room during the pandemic and is still about half-full of boxes even after in-person instruction has returned. The music building was closed for the first month that I was around, because most of the university is on quarter system and only the professional schools (law, medical, veterinary) are on semesters. Now that it’s open again, I need to stop procrastinating and email the music department about getting authorized to reserve practice rooms – now that I’m a member of the orchestra I’m eligible for that privilege.
I recently found by accident (through YouTube) that UCDSO's November 20 concert will be livestreamed on YouTube, which means you all have a chance to hear the concert in real time! Will post reminders later.
What I've got lined up in orchestras now, with YouTube links for people not familiar with the pieces:
UCDSO, October 15
(Yes, it was Camellia Symphony that made the first recording of Umbra last year while there were no live concerts. Unfortunately I wasn't there because I was still unable to play after my car accident.)
Camellia Symphony, November 6
UCDSO, November 20
Mathilde Wantenaar, Prélude à une nuit américaine
Colin McPhee, Tabuh-Tabuhan for two pianos and orchestra
Jean Sibelius, Symphony No. 2
Last week I was down with a bad cold (tested negative for COVID) for half of the week, and since then I've been playing catch-up on a whole bunch of non-music things, so my practice time suffered. (I also missed a UCDSO rehearsal last week.) I've been trying not to bring too much orchestra material into lessons, but this week I split time between Bach and fixing some bowing technique for off-the-string bow strokes. With the Bach, my intonation was all over the place, so my teacher has me practicing every movement with a drone on D (the suite I'm working on is in D minor) and listening for intervals. The bowing work is already starting to pay dividends in orchestras.
UCDSO performs tomorrow at noon -- or today, rather, seeing as it's after midnight now. Again, it's a short free concert to re-open the concert hall. And it's also being livestreamed on YouTube.
The stand partner I had at the first rehearsal hasn't been back; I'm not sure if she dropped out of the orchestra or is just sitting out one concert. That's a bit of a disappointment because I was hoping I'd be able to learn something from a viola performance major with small hands. (That said, my viola teacher also has small hands, so it's not a huge loss for me.) My new stand partner is an alum a few years older than me, which is nice from the perspective of sitting next to someone of similar age, but he's a tall guy with huge hands, so I'm using different fingerings from him and quietly envying his ability to stretch to notes and his ability to play a wide fourth-finger vibrato.
Meanwhile, with Camellia Symphony, work continues on the Sibelius symphony that both orchestras are playing in November. At this point I'm starting to get quite comfortable playing every movement except the scherzo, which still needs a lot of slower practice to get the notes under my fingers. With all the other movements, the most important thing I'm focusing on at the moment is avoiding excessive pressure on the string when the music is marked fortissimo. I still have a tendency to overplay those moments in big, late Romantic repertoire and choke off the sound sometimes.
I might want to comment on the process of breaking down challenging orchestra rep at some point, but I should probably get to bed soon. Sibelius's 2nd Symphony has some good examples of scary-looking passages that become much less scary after noticing patterns or breaking down into smaller chunks.
@AndrewH Very nice performance. The first piece was very unusual, but by the end I was even enjoying it
The Sibelius was very nice. I've always liked the beginning of that and the performer today did a great job. In later parts of the piece there were some woodwind (esp bassoon) and percussion that startled me a bit. But it was such a dramatic interpretation I really liked it.
It appeared your stand partner didn't show up, or was that her just in front-right of you?
(too bad there were a few technical glitches in the stream... maybe too many viewers)
Bob in Lone Oak, Texas
I was a little late for the live stream, but still really enjoyed the performance!
Hate to have to admit this, but 2001: A Space Odyssey started to creep into my mind while listening to Umbra.
Judy Kang was amazing - of course I was riveted on her different forms of vibrato, since I'm a bit obsessed at the moment. Couple of times I felt she was drowned out(?)
It was nice I could actually see you this time!
All in all, extremely enjoyable - Thank You!
I'm not sure what happened with my stand partner from the first rehearsal. I haven't seen her since, but her name was in the printed program today, so I assume she hasn't dropped out of the orchestra. I think some of the undergrads may have had schedule conflicts that kept them from playing this first concert (it's the only daytime concert all year). The stand partner I had for this concert is the one I've had for all rehearsals after the first one.
I was also quite struck by Judy Kang's vibrato choices when I first heard her in rehearsal this week. At the very beginning of the concerto she used a much narrower vibrato than most violinists I've heard, and gradually widened it. I thought it really seemed to help with the image of ice thawing.