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