Monday, December 29, 2008

Have a Nice Trip...

With December just about over, my thoughts and attention have turned to the January chamber program. I am playing a concerto with the orchestra on that concert and I have already started having nightmares.

I'm not terribly worried about the performance itself. (Yet. Those nightmares won't start until a few days before the performance.) I'm excited to be playing a lesser-known work written by a great composer. The thing that scares me is getting on and off the stage without tripping. I know it sounds ridiculous, but this has always been the aspect of performing that causes me the most anxiety.

When I'm in a situation where I will be making an entrance, I have to make a plan. As the sole female member of the Principal Quartet, I have the honor of walking out first when we perform. Last season I was so flustered by walking on stage that I nearly missed my chair when I sat down. This season we practiced walking on stage several times before our first concert. I'm sure the boys thought I had completely lost my mind but they indulged me anyway.

My philosophy that shoes should not be painful to wear, along with my above-average height, means that I don't wear high heels on a regular basis. I hardly ever stand in them for extended periods of time. I am not comfortable in them. Actually, I think I'd be steadier on roller skates. For this upcoming concert, I have started practicing in the shoes I plan to wear to lessen my odds of doing a face-plant on my way on and off the stage. I don't know, though. The roller skates are sounding like a safer option every day.

Monday, December 22, 2008

I Saw Mommy Stitching Santa's Pants

Friday evening when Santa came on-stage for the first time during the Clayton Holiday Concert, I noticed that he had a hole in his pants. I figured that since I could see it, the audience probably could too so I told the symphony's director of operations after the concert. Her reaction was, “Oh no, not again!” Turns out this is not the first time Santa has had a problem with his pants. I offered to fix them.

I think most people have a secret, or not-so-secret passion. Mine is all things related to sewing. When we bought our house one of the big selling points with us was the large bonus room. At first the room was primarily dedicated to music with a small corner for my sewing machine. Now the opposite is true. Slowly, the sewing machines, cutting table, and fabric have taken over the room. Even when I am ripping out a pants zipper that I accidentally installed backward (so you would have to reach your hand down your pants to pull it up...) I am always happy when I'm sewing. I love playing the viola and I'm glad to play with the Knoxville Symphony, but if The Metropolitan Opera Company or Cirque du Soleil called needing a costume designer I'd be there in a heartbeat. This is why I offered to fix Santa's pants.

My motto when fixing something is “First do no harm.” This is followed closely by, “Measure twice, cut once.” When I took out the old repairs to see what I had to work with I had visions of Santa wearing a pair of red sweat pants for the rest of the Clayton performances. The pants were in bad shape. Finally I said a little prayer, made a slit in the lining and repaired them as best I could. Luckily my repairs held for the rest of the performances. I did cringe every time Santa high kicked or karate-chopped his way across the stage. I had hideous visions of his pants disintegrating on the spot.

I enjoyed playing costume mistress for the night, but I think the best part of the whole situation was seeing my four-year-old's reaction when she got up in the morning to find Santa's pants hanging up in the studio.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Weather Outside is Frightful

Oh the weather outside is frightful, but the music is so delightful. And since the stores are so insane, let it rain, let it rain, let it rain! Wait. That's not really how the song goes, is it? In any case, that is how I feel right now. This week work has been my haven from the craziness of the season (and the weather!).

We began rehearsals on Tuesday for the Clayton Holiday Concert. This concert is fun for a variety of reasons. It is always the last thing on the KSO's schedule before winter break. Playing in an orchestra requires people to work closely with each other. Physically, we don't really have our own space (no cubicals) and the nature of the work is personal and intense. Beginning around the end of November, people start getting cranky. Everyone seems to brighten up for the Clayton concert because we know that a break is imminent.

Clayton is also fun because there are always many elements that aren't present in other concerts. Tuesday night our operations manager made an announcement cautioning us about having open containers of liquids on stage. This is a no-no under usual circumstances, but for Clayton we are so wired up that a spill has the potential to fry several people. Not that I find electrocution exciting. It's the things powered by all the wires that I find interesting. In addition to the usual stand lights, monitors and amplification, there are lit Christmas trees and decorations. It's very festive.

For women, the dress code usually relaxes for this concert. Normally we have very specific dress requirements: all black, no plunging necklines, at least a ¾ length sleeve, dress pants or tea to ankle length skirt, black hose, black closed-toe shoes. For the holiday concert we get to add a bit of color. This year we can wear red accessories. This announcement prompted an earnest back-stage debate among the women of the orchestra about what constitutes an accessory. Red shoes, boas, socks, scarfs, flashing reindeer noses, giant Christmas ball earrings, and tinsel were all discussed as possible apparel. Depending on what people choose to wear, this has the potential of being just as festive as the Christmas trees and decorations.

We have many guests for this concert. Joining the symphony on stage are the Knoxville Choral Society, Sound Company Children's Chorus, Appalachian Ballet, vocalist Shira Adler, and, of course, Santa Claus. Santa is one of my all-time favorite guest artists. He's just so jolly. I also get major respect from my four-year-old because I know Santa.

Don't let the weather keep you away from this concert. The Civic is warm and dry and if your holiday spirit is flagging from stress and exhaustion, a few hours of music and entertainment will leave you with renewed excitement for the holidays. Who knows, it might even snow.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Happy Birthday, Elliot Carter!

This past Thursday, December 11th, was composer Elliot Carter's 100th birthday. He celebrated with a birthday bash / concert at Carnegie Hall. Perhaps even more impressive than Carter reaching his 100th birthday is the fact that he is still actively composing. His body of work is expansive and includes large orchestral works, chamber pieces, and music for single players. He has won the Pulitzer Prize for music twice for two of his string quartets.

Carter appeared along with Daniel Barenboim and James Levine on The Charlie Rose Show last week. Here is a link to the entire show.

In 2002, Alan Baker interviewed Carter for American Public Media's American Mavericks series. You can listen to the interview or read a transcription here.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Holiday Cheer

I find the weather we are having right now very strange. I grew up near Chicago and December always brought cold, snow, and ice. In Northern Illinois, it doesn't rain in December, it snows. Growing up, it was rare that we didn't have a white Christmas. I must say that I like winter weather here in the South much better. Still, a high of nearly 70 degrees like we had yesterday is oddly mild even for Knoxville. I think the warm weather along with the fact that Thanksgiving was very late this year is the reason why I'm not exactly in the holiday spirit yet.

I have no fear, though, because for musicians December is a month of immersion therapy in holiday cheer. As I mentioned in my last post, the KSO has quite a bit going on this month. Music is something that is unique to the winter holidays. There are not many songs that are sung at Thanksgiving, Halloween, or the 4th of July. There are hundreds of songs written for Christmas. Many are happy and cheerful, but even the pieces that are not fast and upbeat, such as the Mannheim Steamroller version of Silent Night, evoke the spirit of the season unlike anything else.

This evening the symphony will travel to Morristown to perform a holiday concert. I enjoy playing in Morristown because there is always a good turnout and the audience is enthusiastic. We will play holiday music including, by request, the aforementioned version of Silent Night. Also on the program are Carol of the Bells, Sleigh Ride, and excerpts from The Nutcracker. It ought to be a good shot in the arm for anyone needing a dose of holiday cheer.

Monday, December 8, 2008


December is an unusual month in the KSO's season. Other months of the season are predictable concert-wise. We have a Masterworks concert and then usually a Chamber or Pops concert along with a smattering of community outreach performances by small ensembles. In December, we turn away from our usual schedule of classical music and direct our attention to the upcoming winter holidays. Even though we don't perform concerts in our usual series, we manage to keep plenty busy. Last week we performed a holiday concert at Lincoln Memorial University. This past weekend we performed the Nutcracker with the Appalachian Ballet Company. On Thursday we will perform a holiday concert in Morristown. Next week we will begin rehearsals for the Clayton Holiday Concert. There are also small ensembles from the symphony that are doing special outreach performances at area businesses and hospitals.

While the music we play for our holiday programs is not as technically difficult as our usual fare, I actually think December is one of the most challenging months in our season because everything gets turned on it's head. In other months we tend to have the luxury of having rehearsals for one or two programs at a time which are followed closely by performances. In December this is not always the case. For example, last week we rehearsed the Nutcracker on Tuesday and Wednesday and then performed it Saturday and Sunday. In between the rehearsals and performances of the Nutcracker we had a rehearsal for our runout concerts which we performed last Thursday at Lincoln Memorial University and will perform again this coming Thursday in Morristown. In the midst of those programs, the quartets have had recent performances at Oak Ridge National Lab, First Friday at the Emporium Building, and other area businesses and hospitals.

The time lapse between rehearsals and performances is not a big issue musically, it's just different than our usual schedule and requires a different mindset. December is about keeping all the balls in the air without dropping any.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Middle Fiddle

When people find out that I play with the Knoxville Symphony, the conversation generally continues as follows:
“So, what instrument do you play?”
“I play the viola.”
“Viola... Is that like a violin?”
“Well, kind of...”

The viola is not nearly as well-known as it's counterparts in the string section. It is held under the chin like a violin but has a lower sound. In fact, it has the same strings as the cello: C-G-D-A but they sound an octave higher. In the Knoxville Symphony, the viola section sits right next to the first violin section. Our general purpose in the orchestra is to support and fill in the middle of the string sound. Our parts are the best bits of what the violins play combined with the best parts of what the cellos play. And, sometimes we even get the tune to ourselves. It may sound strange since the violins usually get to be front and center with the melodic line, but my love of orchestral viola parts is the main reason I switched my focus from violin to viola in graduate school.

It's rare for an orchestra to program a viola concerto. The viola is not considered a solo instrument, which is too bad. I'm not sure why this is, there are a number of possibilities. Compared to the violin and cello, there's not much solo repertoire written for the viola. When Lucas asked me to play a viola concerto with the chamber orchestra this January, we began the hunt for a Baroque-era viola concerto. There were exactly three to choose from. There are hundreds of Baroque violin concerti. It's not that composers don't like the viola. Actually, many composers were also amateur violists. Dvorák, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Bach all played the viola. (So did Jimi Hendrix, but that's another story.) Violin has always been king of the strings and an audience favorite. Historically, composers have relied on commissions to pay their bills. Perhaps if one of Mozart's patrons had been an amateur violist he would have written five viola concerti instead of five violin concerti. Most of the solo repertoire for the viola was written in the 20th century although there are some great pieces from earlier eras.

Some pieces that feature the viola are:
Harold in Italy by Berlioz
Symphony #6 “Pathetique” by Tchaikovsky
Don Quixote by R. Strauss
Viola Concerto by William Walton
Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major by Mozart

Monday, December 1, 2008


This week the KSO starts rehearsals for our performances of the Nutcracker with the Appalachian Ballet Company. I really like the Nutcracker. We play it every year and I never get tired of it. The music is challenging but familiar. It doesn't take much rehearsal or practice to get it back in shape. I think this is what makes it so much fun for me. Usually when we play difficult music I haven't had the luxury of performing it many many times. The Nutcracker is comfortable. I no longer need to count rests because I just know when to play. The music is familiar enough that I can sit back and play but the part is meaty enough that it's not mind-numbingly boring.

Another thing I like about playing the Nutcracker is that we are in the pit. I expect I'm in the minority amongst my colleagues in feeling this way. We are pretty cramped for space. I shudder to think about having to evacuate in the case of an emergency because it's difficult to move around down there. Still, I like playing in the pit once in awhile not because of the pit itself, but because it signifies a different kind of playing. When we are in the pit, the orchestra takes on the role of supporting what is happening on stage. Musical decisions are based on how long it takes a dancer to land a jump or how many steps they need to fit in a certain amount of music. For Masterworks concerts it is rare that we make cuts or add repeats. We generally play the music as it is on the page. Sometimes we don't play every repeat but that is about as far away from the printed music as we get. For opera and ballet performances the music is more of a suggestion. We make big cuts, we swap pieces around, we add repeats, and we even extend or contract note values based on what is happening on stage. I find the process interesting.

It is very rare these days for smaller ballet companies to perform with live music. Knoxville is lucky to have the Appalachian Ballet. I am very much looking forward to our collaboration with them.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Side by side

The KSO has been doing side by side concerts with various area high schools for quite a few seasons. A side by side is a program that pairs professional musicians with high school students. We are able to help with the nuts and bolts of playing an instrument such as fingerings, bowings, sound production, etc, and we are also able to do some mentoring to students who might choose to make music their career. In the past the side by side concerts have consisted of one or two rehearsals followed by a concert.

Last year my quartet did a side by side with the orchestra from Austin East. I admit I panicked a bit when I got the music. There were quite a few pieces and the music was enough like jazz to make me sweat. I like to listen to jazz and I have great admiration for those who play jazz. Playing jazz is not my forte. There were directions in the music I had never seen before, such as “bow slap.” The AEHS orchestra had been rehearsing for awhile but we only had a few rehearsals with them to put the concert together. In the end, though, the kids were flexible, Jonathan East who directs the orchestra was very laid back, I expanded my musical comfort zone and the concert came off fine.

This season the KSO is partnering with Austin East High School for an extended side by side program. For several months, five string musicians from the KSO have attended a rehearsal once a week at AEHS. Working with the students on a long term basis has allowed the musicians from the KSO to forge a stronger connection with the students. The students enrolled in orchestra at AEHS are not in the class for an easy A. They want to be there. There are times when there are not enough materials, such as instruments, for every student to have their own. They take turns or they improvise, using a violin bow to play the cello when a cello bow is not available. They make it work. Their hard work has paid off. Several students have been able to pursue college opportunities that may not have been available or affordable to them without the skills they gained through their work with Jonathan East and the AEHS orchestral program.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Feel the Burn

The Seventh Symphony is one of my favorite Beethoven Symphonies to listen to. Whenever I have had the chance to play the piece I have really looked forward to it. After the first rehearsal, though, it always comes flooding back to me how physically demanding the seventh symphony is and I start to plan how to make it through the week without injuring myself. Tonight after the dress rehearsal, Concertmaster Mark Zelmanovich joked that there were two orthopedic symphonies: Beethoven's Seventh and Schubert's Great. I don't think he's too far off.

I know, “My, what an athletic group of people” is probably not the first thought that enters your mind when you see the Knoxville Symphony on stage. There is no KSO baseball team or even fantasy football league. But, like professional athletes, we have worked for years and years to train our bodies to do what we need them to do. The difference between, say, the KSO's viola section and the LA Lakers is that we in the viola section have spent our time honing our fine motor skills while the LA Lakers have been focusing on gross motor skills. All of the musicians in the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra are elite fine motor athletes.

The element that makes Beethoven's Seventh Symphony so physically challenging is rhythm. The entire symphony is driven by repeated rhythmic figures. In the hands of a lesser composer I could see this being boring or even irritating for the listener. Not so with this symphony. Actually, the repetition of rhythm is what makes the first and fourth movements so exciting to listen to. It is music that GOES somewhere.

Everyone sitting on the stage has a turn at driving the rhythm, but Beethoven seemed to be particularly fond of putting the second violin and viola sections in the driver's seat. In the fourth movement, the seconds and violas play pages of fast notes. This is after we have played everything else on the program. If the concert were a marathon, the last movement of the Beethoven would be right around mile 20 where people start hitting “the wall” and feel like they can't go on. Tonight during the dress rehearsal I hit the wall about half a page into the last movement. I had a cramp in the bicep of my bow arm. (I didn't know it was even possible to have a cramp there!) The muscle started twitching. My shoulder burned. But, like a runner, I powered through and felt exhilarated at the end.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Now playing...

Often I'm asked if I listen to a recording of a piece in preparation to play it. The answer is yes, sometimes. If I'm not familiar with a piece I like to listen to a recording of it to make my at-home preparation easier. Hearing all the parts together helps to put my single part into perspective. A complicated passage where my section is playing alone requires different attention than a complicated passage where the entire orchestra is playing as loud as possible. However, if a piece is a familiar warhorse, such as our upcoming performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, I might listen to a recording once or twice, but I generally leave it at that. Everyone has an opinion about how these pieces should be played. My job is to follow Lucas' direction to bring his interpretation to life. For me, too much listening clouds my ability to do that.

Although my colleagues and I are not always listening to the repertoire we are currently playing, we do listen to a lot of music. So, what are we listening to? I decided to ask a few of my friends in the orchestra what music they are listening to the most right now.

Katy Gawne (yours truly), principal violist:
We have a deep love of vinyl at our house, so most of what I'm listening to right now are old recordings.
Violinist Fritz Kreisler playing pieces by, well, Fritz Kreisler
Benny Goodman: Sing Sing Sing (big band)
The Best of Ted Hawkins. (blues)

Jen Bloch, violist:
The soundtrack to Farinelli (Farinelli was the most famous castrato singer ever. The soundtrack blends two voices to achieve the striking and now long-lost sound of the castrato singer.)
Sting – Brave New Day
Edgar Meyer – Appalachian Waltz

Cathy Leach, principal trumpet:
Violinist Hillary Hahn playing the Sibelius violin concerto
The soundtrack to the musical “Avenue Q”

Lisa Muci, violin and Eunsoon Corliss, assistant principal viola:
folk music from Persia, Africa, and Iran
The soundtrack from the musical “Chicago”

Jill Allard, second flute:
The Weepies (acoustic folk rock)

Jim Fellenbaum, resident conductor:
The Nutcracker
Four Scottish Dances by Malcolm Arnold
Street Scene by Kurt Weill

The musicians I talked with were excited about what they were listening to. Eunsoon actually sang one of the Iranian folk songs for me that she is arranging for string quartet and Jill ran and got her ipod so that I could listen to the Weepies myself. I am excited because now I have a long list of music to seek out and enjoy. I hope that you got some ideas for new tunes, too.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

All in the Family

My daughter loves music. A result of being the child of a musician is that she has been exposed to all kinds of music pretty much constantly since birth. She has her preferences (she's not wild about opera but she LOVES the tuba) but really she's not terribly picky about what she listens to. Alice has been asking to come to a concert with me since she was around two years old. She is four now, but I think we can all agree that a KSO Masterworks or Chamber concert is not an appropriate outing for a wiggly four-year-old, even one who loves music. Luckily, the KSO also has a family series. My husband brought Alice to a family concert for the first time last year and it was a big hit with our family.

KSO's family series is different than any other I have played with other orchestras around the country. There are lots of things to do at the theater before the show. Kids can see instruments up close or explore the different aspects of being in and running an orchestra. The concert itself is also unique. There is a giant screen above the orchestra on which is projected a computer-animated penguin. Picardy, the star of the show, is a young penguin who enjoys music and wants to learn more about it. He interacts with Lucas, the orchestra and our guest artists in various ways. He even conducts the orchestra on occasion. Every concert has a single educational theme. Previous concerts have focused on the basic elements of music, families of instruments, and telling a story through music. Our concert on Sunday is titled “High-Low! Fast-Slow!” and will focus on the contrasting elements that composers use to bring variety and excitement to their works.

These concerts are long enough to be worth the outing but short enough to hold the attention of young wiggle worms. Another nice feature is that the musical selections and dialog are sophisticated enough that parents won't grit their teeth and check their watch through the whole performance. My husband has a very low tolerance for children's music / programming and he enjoyed the family concerts last season.

Alice is looking forward to our family concert on Sunday, and I must admit I am too.

Monday, November 10, 2008

We are the Borg. Resistance is futile.

When I stop to think about it, one of the things that amazes me the most about an orchestra is the ability of the players to play together. The number of musicians on stage varies depending on the piece we are performing. A symphony by Mozart generally requires less players then a symphony by Mahler, for example. Still, there are usually between 50 to 100 musicians on the stage at KSO Masterworks performances. Regardless of the number of musicians on the stage, at some point some of us have to play the same notes at the same time.

To understand why this is truly amazing, it's necessary to understand beats and tempo. Simply put, a beat is an even division of time and tempo is the speed of the beat. A tempo marking of 60 means that every beat is roughly one second long. That's a pretty slow tempo. Many of the fast pieces we play have a tempo two or even three times as fast, and often times we play several notes in one beat. So, if the tempo marking is 120 and everyone is playing 4 notes in one beat, that means that each note takes one eighth of a second. Does your head hurt from the math yet? Mine does. This is crazy enough, but when you consider that when the full string section is playing in unison there are 45 people sitting from one end of the stage to the other all playing the same thing at the same time, it is mind boggling. Yet, somehow we usually manage the impossible. Maestro Richman helps by (among other things) clearly showing the tempo when he conducts. We also watch each other and listen. But, ultimately, there is a bit of a mind meld going on.

I'm hard pressed to think of many other professions that require such unison precision from a large group of people. Ballet comes to mind as do cheerleading and the Rockettes. I think I'll stick with the viola.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Don't Know Much About History

I have a confession to make. I don't know a whole lot about the background of the pieces we play. Music history has never been my great love. My interest is captured more by the music itself and less by the reasons and composers behind it. I have found, though, that I enjoy the rehearsal and performance process more when I know about the pieces. As usual, I didn't know a whole lot about the pieces on our upcoming quartet concert so I did some research. I know that there are program notes available for this concert written by a much better writer than myself, but I thought I'd share some of what I've found anyway.

Smetana is not a terribly well-known composer. His most-played composition is Ma Vlast (My Country) which is a series of tone poems for orchestra. Of these, his greatest hit is Die Moldau which depicts a river. Smetana's first string quartet is also programmatic and is subtitled, From My Life. Youth, love, drama, Smetana gets it all in there. He even manages to musically portray his battle with a persistent ringing in his ears and subsequent loss of hearing. In fact, Smetana was completely deaf when he wrote this string quartet.

If Puccini had found the fountain of youth, 2008 would have marked his 150th birthday. To honor this event we will play Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums). In Italy, chrysanthemums are associated with death and funerals. Puccini wrote Crisantemi upon hearing of the death of an Italian nobleman. I am aware that playing a piece that was meant for a funeral is an odd choice to celebrate someone's birthday. Given the tragic nature of his most famous operas (La Boheme: people die. Tosca: people die. Mme Butterfly: people die. Turandot: people die.) I think Puccini would be pleased by our choice.

Monday, November 3, 2008


One of my favorite aspects of my job is that I have the opportunity to play chamber music on a regular basis. Don't get me wrong, I love playing in an orchestra. It is a tremendous experience to sit on stage in the middle of all that sound. In orchestral playing, my job is to do my best to help bring the conductor's vision of the piece to life. Whether I agree with that vision or not is irrelevant. Chamber music is different. A string quartet consists of four musicians with four different ideas about how the music should be played. We come to the music as equals, almost like having four conductors.

This season the Principal Quartet has two new violinists in Edward Pulgar and Sean Claire. I have known Edward and Sean for awhile and was excited to play with them. I was a bit nervous, though, when we had our first rehearsal at Sean's house and I spotted several swords above the fireplace. All string quartets have their disagreements, and the Principal Quartet is no exception. I was happy to sit near the fireplace that rehearsal. I wanted to be close enough to have the first choice of weapon just in case things got ugly. In reality, our rehearsal went as they usually go. We played, we discussed different approaches, we played again, we debated, and we then decided as a group which approach to take. No swords involved. A little disappointing, actually.

Even though our rehearsals are on the tame side, I am really excited about our collaboration. I have been looking forward to this upcoming concert since we settled on the program last winter. I love Smetana's first quartet. It has one of the juiciest parts for the viola of the entire string quartet repertoire. It is also one of the most difficult parts for the viola of the entire quartet repertoire. This is a piece where it would be useful to have more than five fingers on my left hand, but it is definitely worth the work.

Our concert on Sunday will also feature one of Mozart's later string quartets (K. 499 in D Major) as well as a short piece by Puccini. I know I'm horribly biased, but I think it will be a fantastic concert.

Chamber Classics Concert
with the Principal Quartet
Edward Pulgar, violin
Sean Claire, violin
Kathryn Gawne, viola
Andy Bryenton, cello
Sunday, November 9, 2:30 PM
Bijou Theatre
Tickets: | 865-291-3310