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.