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.