Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Quick December Stories from Concertmaster Ken Johnston

Two quick stories for those of you who might be showing up for the Handel Messiah next week. (In fact, I know only these two stories of Handel.) He almost died in a sword fight. Better still, his life was saved by a button on his coat; one of those big metal ones that were the thing to wear in 1700. The other guy evidently got a good thrust in, and the button blocked the sword, chipping the sword tip and also leaving a nice welt on Handel's chest. The other story isn't really any less glamorous. He went flat broke at least twice in his life, yet died a very rich man. (Evidently, one of the"flat broke" parts was due to his own stupidity.) In particular, I always have the sword story in hand for my students. It's one of those examples of music as language, how music written by a nutcase three hundred years ago can be so different for modern ears as to feel stolid and dull. Our ears are acclimated to different things now, so when people like Bach and Handel, (who were born in the same year), come to mind, we have a mental picture of a wig, certainly not a sword fight. Throw away the wig and what we're used to hearing, and this music can sound quite different.

Actually, a third story...

The last time I performed part of the Messiah was, of course, a year ago in December. This included a string quartet and choir on the westside of Cleveland. I was playing viola this time, and I was squashed in between my cellist friend and the organ. We were in the middle of one of the recits, when a solo singer gets to glide up and down and everywhere for a while on her own, and a low instrument, like a cello, plays a drone note. This means that next to me, my buddy was holding a single note, with big slow bows, for maybe thirty seconds. I was thankful for the break, since reading notes on a viola is different than on a violin, and while one is second nature to me, the other really isn't. So, I was peering forward, getting ready for whatever came next, and I reached up with my elbow at just the time the tip of his bow came close to me. He almost dropped the bow when it hit me, and the middle of his long, smooth note turned into something of a mine field. It stuttered, cracked, and eventually he gained control of it. It was like watching someone in the few seconds that they wobble on a bike right before falling off. oooops! Two weeks later, we were playing another quartet gig, and we were sitting differently than for the Messiah. He commented that at least this time, we were further away, and so his bow was safe from me. After a comment like this, it was bound to happen! We collided again, and almost the identical story occurs. I remember holding my breath, trying not to laugh, until the thing ended. Right there onstage, my eyes tear up, and as people are approaching to tell us that they enjoyed it, he and I are both wiping our cheeks and thanking them. I know....really professional! The real lesson here is that I'm bad luck on a viola. I've done worse on a violin, come to think of it. In the fifth grade, during a concert, I skewered my standpartner in the ear with my bow. In my defense, I think every kid has done this maybe once or twice. It didn't help that I was in love with her at the time though. I've been ashamed ever since.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

From the Concertmaster

I never know quite how to answer when people ask which Dvorak symphony I'm about to play. I usually try to mumble the number and look at my feet. I might have just left another town where I played Mozart 39, listened to Beethoven 3 in the car, and by the time I get to Erie, the remembering-numbers thing isn't working anymore. To make things better, Dvorak thought that his first symphony was lost, so there is for example what he called his "fifth symphony", which was the first to be published, thus making it his "first symphony", according to his publisher. This same piece, however, happens to be the  sixth that he had written, so obviously we have the Dvorak symphony #5/1/6, and this is what we will be performing in November. (We're calling it Dvorak's sixth.) If they can remember which number to reference, musicians would simply call it Dvorak 6, in the same way we would speak about Tchaik 5 or Schumann 2, since somehow "Dvorak's sixth" feels a little formal.

Speaking of that particular concert, we have the Beethoven Violin Concerto on the way, and therefore, of course, some Beethoven stories. There are QUITE a few, by the way. Dvorak and his publisher could never agree on numbers, but Beethoven outright stole from his publishers. (He wasn't good with numbers either.) There were times when Beethoven published the same piece with multiple publishing houses. In one instance, the story goes, he had offered the same manuscript to several publishers in London. One of the publishers didn't offer him the correct postage to send the finished product, so he sent the piece only to some others. When the first finally sent money, received the music, and then discovered that the piece had already been printed by their rival down the street, they were a They sent Beethoven an angry letter, and in typical Beethoven style, he sent an even scarier taunt right back. (He was probably in the middle of throwing a frying pan at one of his maids. He tended to do that...and no, he didn't even drink.)

I mentioned that he wasn't good at numbers. People like to speak about the math/music connection in the brain. I've never quite believed this, and if you saw my elementary school math grades, you'd be skeptical as well. There is, somewhere, a blank page inside one of Beethoven's manuscripts, and on it is a lot of scribble obviously meant by him to calculate how much rent he owed. He didn't know how to multiply, so instead, he has added all of these figures together, and still ends up wrong. To more important issues though...the violin concerto. I've never played it, since this is one of the big scary ones that very few can play in tune. If I'm playing Brahms or Tchaikovsky, nobody would know how out of tune I might be, (I'm a little sarcastic, but there's some truth here), but in the Beethoven, you'll hear everything! When I was in music school, we each had a playing test at the end of the year, called a jury, which meant that we were to perform for the faculty. To add to the terror, we had to play all the simple patterns: scales, arpeggios, etc... Very few sound good on these, and in the words of my friend, it always felt like we were standing naked under bright lights onstage. The Beethoven concerto feels a little like this, so please believe me when I say that a soloist sounding decent on this piece is REALLY good! Besides, it's a great thing to hear. Beethoven wrote it at a time when he was making lines as long as possible with as little harmony as he could get away with. That's a story for another time, but on YouTube is a video of Anne-Sophie Mutter playing one of the cadenzas. It's insanely good playing, (and in tune), and she's still as beautiful as she is here, so while it might take a little while to get to know the piece, you can at least look at her while you do.