schulhoff

One of the many things I enjoy about attending the AIMS festival is meeting musicians from all over the United States – and often from other countries around the world – and having the opportunity to play music with them. Especially exciting for me is that the orchestra’s schedule allows for time to play chamber music, something I wrote about in a post a few years ago. This summer, I was worried that my late arrival at the festival would preclude me from finding a group to play with since many chamber ensembles are determined in that first week of rehearsals when everyone is getting to know each other.

 

I play in a quartet on a regular basis at home, but it is more accurately referred to as a “wedding quartet” or a “gigging quartet” because our music tends to be entirely in the light classical or popular music genres. This type of ensemble certainly requires a specific skill set, but it feels very different from what string players affectionately call chamber music. What sets real chamber music apart is the desire of all musicians (four in a string quartet, in this case) to study a piece of music and make it into something unique. Conversely, the goal of wedding quartets is often to replicate a song or a style that their client heard on the radio or from a CD. There’s much more depth to chamber music.

 

Luckily, I was asked if I was interested in playing a Schulhoff quartet! I had no idea who Schulhoff was – and it was only thanks to Google that I eventually learned how to spell his name – but I was excited to learn something new! As it happens, Edwin Schulhoff was a Czech composer born at the end of the 19th century whose career was encouraged by composers such as Antonin Dvorak, Max Reger, and Claude Debussy. His distinct styles changed throughout his life, and he died in August 1942 at the Wülzburg concentration camp near Weißenburg, Bavaria at the age of 48.

 

Schulhoff’s String Quartet No. 1 was completed in Prague on September 20, 1924 and was premiered the following year in Venice. We read the entire String Quartet No.1 at our first rehearsal, but decided that we could only reasonably study two of the movements and prepare them for performance in the time we had available. The first movement, Presto con fuoco, sounds a bit like it should be accompaniment to an aggressive and primitive folk dance, and this movement is also described as having a distinct “huskiness.” The score of this first movement is pretty straightforward and easy to put together, but our challenge was to make it more interesting by bringing out phrases and ensemble considerations that were only hinted at in the printed parts.

 

The third movement, Allegro giocoso alla Slovacca, is not shy about its Slovakian-inspired melody, and it is in this movement that some of Schulhoff’s more “experimental” sounds can be heard. Saltato and sautille, left hand pizzicato, artificial harmonics, and col legno can all be found in this movement. As we learned through the middle part of this movement, Subito meno (allegretto grazioso), sometimes just knowing how to do execute a technique is much easier than actually performing your part with the other musicians. After a few frustrating rehearsals, we decided to break down this excerpt as carefully as possible, enlisting the help of our cellist who counted aloud as we fit all of our acrobatics inside the beat.

 

 

Our Kammermusik concert last Tuesday was at 7:30pm in the Franziskanerkirche, a short walk from the Studentenheim where we were living. The church and monastery were founded by the Franciscan order in the first half of the 13th century, but it was largely gutted by a bomb in World War II. We walked past rows of stone markers with the names of many distinguished noblemen who were buried at the church from the 1400-1700s to get to the “green room” area before our performance. Unluckily for us, beautiful churches often make awful performance spaces because of the way they reverberate sound. It was made clear during our sound check that the fast tempos that we had worked so hard to achieve would simply not work in the Franziskanerkirche. It was disappointing to have to make the decision to play slower for the sake of clarity, but it also made our performance more uncomfortable because we didn’t get a chance to actually rehearse at this new tempo. Nonetheless, our performance was well-received, and I am so glad to have been a part of this quartet!

Katherine Dennis, violin 1

Lauren Scott, violin 2

Julius Wirth, viola

Allan Steele, cello

Other works featured on this program included Mendelssohn’s Quartet No. 6 Op.80, Ravel’s Quartet in F Op. 35, Busch’s Divertimento for Clarinet, Oboe, and English Horn Op. 62b, I Crisantemi by Puccini, and Three Kurpian Songs (Wyrzundzei sie dziwce moje, Oj wyjizdjoj, and U woz mamo) by Michal Spisak sung by an AIMS Tenor who spoke the Polish dialect of the work.

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springtime

Last night was the Spring Orchestra Concert at Charles F. Patton Middle School, an hour-long celebration of music with solo and string orchestra performances.

Almost one-third of the string students at Patton are now enrolled in private lessons outside of school — 4 of which just found a private teacher this year! — and I thought it might be a nice opportunity to highlight their individual accomplishments. Any student who studies privately was given the opportunity to perform a solo of their choice, and many took me up on the offer! We had ten students across grades 6, 7, and 8 perform solo works of their choice, and repertoire ranged from pop music (Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen) to movie themes (Dhoom, a Bollywood Thriller) to serious classical pieces (Symphonie Espagnole and concerti by Bach and Bruch).

The idea to add solo performances was sparked, not by someone asking for a performance opportunity, but from a student who just recently began studying privately. She came to me after her first lesson to tell me how much she had enjoyed it even though her new teacher had assigned “babyish” material (Suzuki’s Twinkle Variations and 1-octave scales). She apologized to me a number of times throughout her description, worried that her enthusiasm would offend me, the “other” teacher. She told me that private lessons were very different than what she expected and that skills she once thought were easy (such as holding her bow) are now being critiqued so closely that she feels challenged. She told me that she thinks she likes private lessons better than orchestra because she thinks that she does more in her private lessons than in orchestra rehearsal. It was hard for me to contain my own excitement, and I explained that yes, private lessons should challenge her in ways that are different from orchestra.

In orchestra, we take our personal achievements — position/posture, reading ability, tone production, our ability to self-correct things like intonation and articulation — and we offer them for the good of the whole ensemble. Now, your good posture keeps you from encroaching on your stand partner’s space, your tone production allows you to make meaningful contributions to your section’s sound, your ability to identify notes and rhythms is tested for accuracy, and demand for visual and aural skills is higher. Rehearsing in orchestra should look and feel different than working with a teacher one-on-one. It should stretch your mind in different ways. Rehearsing as part of an ensemble is like reading sentences in a book, whereas the first years of private lessons are often more akin to copying letters of the alphabet or learning how to spell simple words. Even the word “lessons” in a public school setting takes on a different meaning. Lessons in school are, ideally, taught with a group of similar instruments (all cellos, all violas, etc), but more likely there will be a mix of instruments, clefs, parts, and/or abilities in a school lesson group. In reality, school lessons are what we call “group class” in Suzuki or “sectionals” at the youth symphony, college, or community orchestra level. Perhaps using the same word for group learning and private study does more harm than we think.

Here’s a video of one of the soloists from last night’s concert, a sixth grader who performed with his brother. 

The Sixth Grade Orchestra performed four selections before heading into the audience to watch the rest of the concert. They began with Air for the Dutchess, a piece by Julliard-trained violinist Conni Ellisor that was composed for the Prelude Orchestra of Stringendo in 2015. Next came two of the Three Scenes from a Green Valley by William G. Harbinson: The Winds on Big Hill and Chapel on Nettle Knob.  Larger musical works — such as suites, symphonies, concertos, and sonatas — can be thought of as musical novels because their movements are intended to be performed in succession to create a complete musical idea. Though we only performed two of the three scenes, we can already recognize their musical relationship: The Winds on Big Hill blow in e minor, the relative minor to G Major, the key in which the Chapel on Nettle Knob’s melody flows. Additionally, their tempos are related by a ratio of 1:2 — Each quarter note pulse in The Winds on Big Hill‘s Presto tempo is equivalent to the eighth note pulse in Chapel on Nettle Knob.

You can listen to their performance of The Winds on Big Hill using this link.

Most of us recognize Pachelbel’s Canon as soon as it starts because that particular pattern of 8 notes has so successfully infiltrated our culture. In music, we call a continuously repeated pattern an “ostinato,” but in rock music, this type of pattern is called a riff. Composer Soon Hee Newbold was inspired by these bass guitar riffs when writing this next piece, and she even gave a little nod to Pachelbel by letting the bass clef instruments start as the first violins wait their turn.

You can listen to their performance of Rock Riffs using this link.

We listened to more soloists as the Sixth Grade Orchestra left stage and was replaced by the combined Seventh and Eighth Grade Orchestra. One of the soloists performed the Suzuki Violin School arrangement of The Two Grenadiers by Robert Schumann. I can remember my first violin teacher, Mrs. West, saying “The man is running very quickly” in rhythms specific to the più mosso section as I studied this piece as a child, and I enjoy teaching this particular solo for a number of reasons. Younger students can wrap their heads around an image of a soldier more quickly than they can understand what a Waltz or Bourree is, and older students can finally have a concrete example of a composer’s use of relative and parallel key signatures (d minor’s relative major is F Major — as indicated by the Bb in the key signature– but its parallel minor is that very familiar key of D Major!). Even parents can partake in the learning process a little more actively when they realize that the fanfare in the new key of D Major is familiar because they’ve heard it each year on the Fourth of July (Schumann quotes from the French national anthem, a melody made famous by Tchaikovsky in his 1812 Overture). Here’s the poem that inspired Schumann to write this work.

The first piece for the Seventh and Eighth Grade Orchestra was Iowa Spring by Paul Seitz. Technically, this isn’t a challenging work — it is composed in D Major and consists primarily of eighth-, quarter-, half-, and whole notes without any syncopation — but I absolutely love programming it for a middle school ensemble! Each section has moments of independence, there are hints of canon, dynamic contrast abounds, and there are parts with full, loud sounds that are exciting to play. More importantly, Iowa Spring is a fantastic introduction to half-string harmonics. Harmonics on a bowed string instrument are glassy, silvery sounds produced by lightly touching the string at the node located, in this case, at 1/2 the length of the string. In order to get these notes to “speak” (to sound clearly), the musician must be able to release any tension in the left hand which might’ve been used to hold the instrument (a common crutch of string players who neglected attention to posture when they were beginners and a nearly impossible task for upper string players who don’t use shoulder rests as kids) and they must be able to bow quickly and broadly across the string. I think Seitz uses these harmonics to give the sense of wide open spaces, but they also give a loneliness to the sound that it seems like American composers really embraced during the mid-20th century. This piece might be trying to capture a misty spring morning in Iowa, or perhaps it was more about stargazing (students are usually quick to pick up on the similarities between Iowa Spring and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star). My camera got knocked out of place for this one in our concert, but here’s some footage of this piece from our dress rehearsal onstage at the end of last month.

Concerto “alla Rustica” was our challenge piece this quarter due to the unfamiliar time signature (9/8), half and extended positions for violists, cellists, and bassists, and just a ton of notes for the violinists! Vivaldi used this triple meter to make the concerto sound like a folk dance and give it a “rustic style.” We only played the first movement for our concert, but I may dig out the other movements for us to sight-read before the end of the year.

Jupiter fromThe Planets” by Gustav Holst went exceptionally well in concert considering meter changes, dotted rhythms, ties over barlines, and frequent fermatas. You can hear their performance using this link. The concert concluded on a mellow note — another type of harmonic, actually! — with Moodscape by Susan H. Day. Since PSSA testing and other disruptions meant I didn’t have enough time to fairly assess potential first violin soloists, I took the composer’s suggestion to have the beginning and ending sections played as soli — or, a solo for a section or part of a section (in this case, the outside players on each stand). I found Moodscape while hunting down another piece by Susan H. Day — King’s Court — that my students in Guilderland begged to play practically every day. Since then, I’ve programmed more than a few works of hers because I like her use of harmony. You can listen to the 7th & 8th Grade Orchestra perform Moodscape using this link.

All things considered, it was a great night for middle school music!

música en españa

I recently returned from a trip to Spain which was, unlike most of my international travel, entirely for pleasure! I had never been to Spain before, and it was thrilling to try to experience as much as I could in the cities of Barcelona and Madrid in a short amount of time. Despite being centered around cured meat and cheese (and very few vegetables aside from pimentos), the food was very appetizing, and the many museums that I visited were enthralling. What I especially enjoyed seems to be typical of European cities: engaging street musicians.

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I’ve busked often in my life, not to pay for my travel, but to enhance my visit with a little extra spending money. Busking, or playing on the street for donations, is good practice for sight reading, and it has trained me to be able to talk, move, and generally be more flexible when I’m playing my instrument. Soliciting money in this way can get competitive, especially in Europe where the variety and quality of street musicians varies greatly. I observed many guitarists busking as I traveled in Spain, but to my dismay, most of them were equipped with amplification systems to attract a larger crowd. Amplification seems less authentic to me, and I don’t like what it does to the tone quality of acoustic instruments.

Here are some examples of the music I heard on my trip:

Sardana, a dance that is symbolic of Catalan unity and pride, being danced in front of the Cathedral in Barcelona. A “cobla,” a small group of musicians, accompanies the dancing.

Flamenco, a combination of folkloric musical styles, includes singing (cante), guitar playing (toque), dance (baile), vocalizations (jaleo), clapping (palmas), and finger snapping (pitos). How much of this is improvisatory is unclear to me!

Choir singing religious music outside the Barcelona Cathedral on Palm Sunday.

Marching bands in parades for Holy Week.

Various other buskers: outside the Picasso Museum, outside of the cathedral in Barcelona, in the El Born neighborhood near our Airbnb, in the park in Madrid, on the street in Madrid

Additionally, Ben and I indulged in some classical music. We perused a bunch of Spanish string repertoire at a small shop on La Rambla in Barcelona (and purchased some sheet music to take home), and we saw instruments in some of the museums.

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Most notable – and frustrating – was the quartet of Stradivari instruments at the Royal Palace of Madrid. These are the only decorated instruments the maker is known to have made as a set, and it includes his only decorated cello. Some sources say that in 1702 King Philip V, during a visit to Cremona, offered to commission the quartet from Stradivarius, but delivery was delayed. There was some ensuing confusion involving Prince Charles IV of Austria which resulted in the set being brought together. Although the violins and the cello never left the royal palace once they had arrived, the viola was seized by the French at the end of their occupation in 1814. Five, of the only eleven known decorated Stradivaris, are at our Smithsonian Institutes in Washington, D.C.

However, I learned about them after our visit (and audio guided tour) of the Palace because neither the guides (audio or in person) nor the printed literature in the gift shop had any information on them other than the name of their famous maker. Supposedly, these instruments are used for annual performances, but I couldn’t find information about what quartet receives the honor of their use. As typical with violins from Stradivari’s time, the necks of all these instruments have been altered, but I was puzzled to see the upper string instruments strung with Evah Pirazzi and Vision strings — not Dominants, as I have seen most often with Stradivari violins — and bridges carved by an unknown craftsman from New Jersey (no shop affiliations, no reviews on forums, etc)! How could it possibly be cost-effective (or even musically preferable) to send such a prized set of instruments across the world for repairs? Photos weren’t allowed, so we did the best we could!

 

Here’s what we saw of the Palau de la Música Catalana in Barcelona (we missed the only tour that day):

7/8 stringfest

Despite the snowy, icy weather that closed schools on Monday and caused such a bad accident on Route 1 that the Unionville Chadds Ford School District had to close again on Tuesday, the District 12 7/8 StringFest went off without a hitch!

Patton was represented by two 7th grade violinists, three 8th grade violists, and an 8th grade cellist in the 100-piece orchestra of students from 22 local schools. The families of these students were in for a real treat with this StringFest because the rehearsals and performance were held in the Upper Darby Performing Arts Center — part of Upper Darby High School. This is a huge space with stadium-style seating which allows the audience a fantastic view of each and every musician. It was also nice for us teachers to be able to easily walk all around the orchestra as they rehearsed or sit up in the higher seats and keep an eye on the progress of our individual students.

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The conductor for this event was Gary White of the Philadelphia Sinfonia who brought a lot of experience and an array of helpful string-specific suggestions to the podium. Though horn was his primary instrument, Mr. White’s time studying with Luis Biava at Temple University and later conducting the Pottstown Symphony instilled in him a passion for string music. His was an ambitious program, and my students from Patton worked hard for many weeks to prepare their parts. They performed:

  • The Star Spangled Banner by John Stafford Smith arr. Paul Lavender
  • Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 by J.S. Bach arr. Merle Isaac
  • Allegretto from Symphony No. 7 by Ludwig van Beethoven arr. Robert Longfield
  • Farandole from L’Arlesienne Suite No. 2 by Georges Bizet arr. Merle Isaac
  • Blue Grass Ball by Bruce Chase
  • It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) by Duke Ellington and Irving Mills arr. Robert Longfield
  • New World Symphony from Symphony No. 9, Mvt IV by Antonin Dvorak arr. Deborah Baker Monday

7_8 StringFest students 2017

 

5/6 stringfest

Three students from Charles F. Patton Middle School performed in the District 12 StringFest this past Monday at E.T. Richardson Middle School under the direction of Miku Shiota-Rosenbaum.  These three students came together with other 5th and 6th grade students from 30 schools in District 12, rehearsed for close to 7 hours, and performed a concert for parents and families Monday evening.

Miku is the conductor of Delaware County Young Musicians’ Orchestra, but I knew her as my stand partner during my brief involvement with the Delaware County Orchestra back in 2009. At that time, a former theory teacher of mine was conducting the Delaware County Orchestra and had recruited me to help fill out the first violin section for a few concerts that season. Miku played violin in the ensemble and also knew the conductor from college years, though she was primarily trained as a pianist.

Students prepared and performed the following works from Classical and Popular genres:

  • Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen arr. Robert Longfield
  • Adagio Cantabile from Pathetique Sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven arr. Carrie Lane Gruselle
  • Bésame Mucho by Consuelo Velazquez arr. James Kazik
  • Shake it Off by Taylor Swift arr. Larry Moore
  • Country Wedding from “The Moldau” by Bedrich Smetana arr. Sandra Dackow
  • The Star-Spangled Banner by John Stafford Smith arr. Sandra Dackow
  • Pizzicato Polka by Johann Strauss Jr. arr. Robert McCashin
  • The London Symphony: Themes from Symphony No. 104, 1st Movement by Franz Joseph Haydn arr. Jeremy Woolstenhulme

56 StringFest 2017

I still feel new when it comes to the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association system, but I’m slowly beginning to understand the differences in procedures between these PMEA festivals and the NYSSMA festivals that I am more familiar with. PMEA District 12 serves students and music educators in Philadelphia, Chester, and Delaware Counties, which makes it sound a lot like NYSSMA Area All-State, but the selection process, competition, and resulting concerts are much more similar to the NY’s All-County orchestras. Selection for StringFest began in the late Fall with a teacher recommendation form, and everything was done online. The number of students invited per school depends on the string program enrollment at that particular school, and acceptance may have little to do with the student’s actual ability. Questions posed by the host director addressed topics ranging from a student’s comfort using vibrato and ability to adjust bowings to how responsible they are in school orchestra. Surprisingly, there were no questions about the type of solo study a student may be engaged in or statements about the level of mastery expected at the StringFest. I was very happy that the three students who represented Patton were also some of my strongest students in the 6th grade, but I worry that this PMEA selection system doesn’t encourage individual initiative and doesn’t promote healthy competition with the school programs. It also places a lot of weight on the teacher’s recommendation which has the potential to be quite subjective.

We [ARE]The People!

During this tumultuous time in our country, so many issues return to ask the question: who exactly, are the “people” to which the preamble of our Constitution refers? Dan Turkos, a bassist in the Prometheus Chamber Orchestra, sought to define this group on Friday evening through a collaborative concert with the Prometheus Chamber Orchestra, Arcana New Music Ensemble, Bowerbird, and the Mighty Writers program. Turkos described seeing a mural peaking out beneath the overpass to 676 on his commute which inspired him to curate this special program:

 

“…My concept for We the People is not patriotic, as many will initially recall this phrase as the opening words to the Constitution of the United States. My thought was to celebrate the differences we, as people, share. Our differences are what make a community and a country, and our city of Philadelphia inspired me.”

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The Prometheus Chamber Orchestra is an ensemble that embraces differences of style, having performed contemporary improvisation, symphonic music, chamber music, rock, bluegrass, and jazz on previous programs. Their programs are offered free of charge at the historic Church of the Advocate, and they work to build special connections to the Philadelphia community by providing educational opportunities for diverse groups of students and presenting the works of local composers. Though the majority of musicians in the Prometheus Chamber Orchestra were locally trained at Temple University, they have frequent guest artists from other music ensembles in and around Philadelphia. For this program, Prometheus Chamber Orchestra joined with Bowerbird, a non-profit organization that shares music, dance, film, and related art forms across the region, and the Arcana New Music Ensemble, a group dedicated to presenting interesting, beautiful, and unconventional music.

 

The first piece on the program was Suite in Bb Major “Les Nations” TWV 55:35 by Georg Philipp Telemann, a work that caricatured different cities, cultures, and everyday life through its nine movements. Perhaps 18th-century audiences understood the musical distinctions Telemann made between Turkish, Swiss, Portuguese, Russian (Les Moscovites) styles, but such references were too difficult for me to discern and digest at first hear. Much more entertaining was concertmistress and guest artist Mandy Wolman’s skillful leadership. A violinist in Tempesta di Mare, Wolman was sought for her expertise in Baroque style and practices, and she was tasked with realizing Telemann’s music in an appropriate style despite the use of modern French bows. What unity of phrase, breath, and intonation her leadership inspired! There was great energy and simplicity throughout the work that made it both aurally and visually engaging.

 

The transition of personnel following the Telemann was accompanied by a speaker and two spoken word performances. Prometheus violist Veronica Jurkiewicz thanked their hosts at the Church of the Advocate and directed the audience’s attention to word associations and posters hanging around the gym that were created by students and participants in the Mighty Writers project who had attended a preview performance earlier in the week. Someone associated with the youth programs at the Church of the Advocate performed parts of an original rap inspired by the loss of his mother at a young age, and another performed a monologue from a play entitled Black Jesus.

 

Worker’s Union by Louis Andriessen was the next piece on the program. This 1975 composition is notated as a single part that can be played by any kind of instrument, melodic or percussive, and we watched as a bassoon, electric guitar, trombone, horn, and other non-bowed strings were added to the ensemble. The sheet music did not notate pitch in a traditional way, and musicians interpreted intervals relative to a single horizontal line which represented their instrument’s middle register. About this piece, the program stated: “Noisy, hypnotic, and powerfully dramatic, Worker’s Union is a parable for political organizing: in the composer’s words, ‘Only if every player plays with the intention that their part is essential will the work succeed.’”

 

Having never heard this piece — or any by Dutch composer Andriessen — I wasn’t sure what to expect. Noisy and hypnotic and, dare I say clamorous, it certainly was, but I felt none of the drama, strife, or struggle that I expected from the name of this piece. To say that it contrasted the Telemann suite in every way is both a comment on the composition and the performance itself. Dissonance and twitchy rhythms assault the audience with a wash of sound, but if anything else was discussed in the rehearsal it failed to come through in performance. Heads were buried in the giant — and creatively crafted — scores, but if not for somewhat pulsating body movements it would be hard to tell that the musicians knew that they were playing with so many other colleagues. It seemed like every bow stroke and turn of phrase was considered in preparing to perform the Telemann Suite, and I wonder if the Andriessen would’ve felt more edgy and intense with similar attention to detail.

 

The concert concluded with nine movements from Apartment House 1776 by John Cage, a work commissioned for the American Bicentennial that embodied his idea of “multiplicity of centers.” Cage altered 44 pieces of four-part choral music by William Billings and other early American composers and used four solo voices, each representing a different tradition in the United States: Protestant, Sephardic, Native American, and African American. Prometheus Chamber Ensemble selected Funeral Anthem, Tyndale, Worchester, O Give Thanks, Rapture (XXV), Tempest, Weymouth, Rapture (Harmony XLII), and Bloomfield for this concert and featured a singer and flutist. During this final portion of the concert the lights in the gym were dimmed and slides of different murals from around Philadelphia were projected against the back wall. Mighty Writers North program director Shamira O’Neal had developed an entire instructional unit entitled “We The People” as part of Prometheus’s first collaboration with their program, and the audience was able to read statements about interpreting the United States Constitution as this last work was performed.

 

John Cage built silence into Apartment House 1776 which broke up the bonds of harmony that had existed in the original compositions. Separating individual tones and chords by silence seemed like he was placing a greater importance on the sounds themselves than their relationships to each other, perhaps linking to the theme of this concert by comparing sounds to the value of individuals within their own families and communities instead of that individual’s usefulness on a larger political or economic spectrum.

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Unfortunately, the performance of this work created connections between the tones through silences that were energized by movement and visual pulse. Being able to see the musicians physically counting through rests with pulsing body movements and metered breath detracted from the emotional impact of this work, and an internalized tempo would’ve been preferable. This was not the primary flaw in this particular performance of Apartment House 1776 because such a distraction could be abated by gazing at the mural projection instead of the instrumental performers. Unforgivable and impossible to ignore was the poor intonation of the guest flutist whose line grated with the resonant chords and pleasant timbre of the strings and vocalist. Prior to the movement with extended flute, violin, and cello soloists, the flute’s musical line had not been quite as prominent, and the Prometheus musicians did well to stand their harmonic ground. However, a noticeable derailment occurred at this mid-way point and the ensemble could not recover. In a performance of a work by a composer with such high standards for precision, it is disappointing that one instrumentalist could exert such a negative influence.

 

Some things are unavoidable when exploring new and unfamiliar music, playing with musicians of different skill levels, and preparing for a public performance on a tight schedule, and all things considered, the Prometheus Chamber Orchestra does a fantastic job of bringing string music to underserved communities. Their enthusiasm for community connections and personal exploration of style is apparent in each performance offered, and that they do not benefit financially from ticket sales and often have to overlook sub-par acoustics, beeping door sensors, disruptive audiences, and other distractions is important to note. The concert performed in reverse (Cage — Andriessen — Telemann) may have had a stronger impact and clearer message, but I appreciate the way that individuals in the organization take charge and present music in a way that is meaningful to them.

mendenhall inn

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The Patton Middle School Music Department has a tradition of heading to a local banquet hall to perform holiday tunes for a senior citizen luncheon, and this year was no exception. Due to some unforeseen circumstances the choirs couldn’t join us, but the CFPMS Jazz Band and my combined 7th/8th Grade Orchestra put on a good show! We played selections from our upcoming Winter Concert and added a bunch of Christmas carols in between, both as a string orchestra and in smaller chamber ensembles. Our joint performance lasted just over an hour and students were rewarded with lunch at McDonald’s before returning to classes.

We even had a chance to do the mannequin challenge!

odd bus

I was hired as a violinist for the Philadelphia premiere of “A Concert of Concern,” part of the Sacred Rights, Sacred Song organization of musicians and social activists. As stated in the program, Sacred Rights, Sacred Song envisions Israel as a healthy Jewish democracy in which the spiritual civil rights of all Jews are protected; Judaism is expressed and celebrated freely and equally by men and women and in its myriad forms of observance; and matters of personal status and spirit are governed by a Public Jewish Law that welcomes vibrancy and creativity. The mission of Sacred Rights, Sacred Song is to educate the North American Jewish community about challenges to religious freedom in Israeli society and motivate them to provide moral, visible and financial support to promote a Jewish democratic society based on the notions of gender equality and freedom of worship.

 

I wasn’t sure what I had agreed to when I got the call, but I was excited to be playing with some other musicians from The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia as a part of this project. Sacred Rights, Sacred Song commissions renowned Jewish composers to set music to lyrics that tell stories of religious and civil rights concerns in Israel. Composers featured on this premiere were Gerald Cohen, J.A. Kawarsky, Fran Gordon, Naomi Less, Jerome B. Kopmar, David Gooding, and Ellen Schiller. There was not much “in between” when it came to the music I was provided: it was either easy, held notes and simple, repetitive rhythms or lines so fast, high, and complicated that they might’ve come out of a violin concerto!

 

We had one rehearsal and a day-of dress rehearsal prior to performing in the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater on 12 Cheshvan 5777 (if I read my Jewish calendar correctly), and to say the instrumentalists felt uncertain is putting it mildly. Our conductor, Cantor David Tilman, was a friendly gentleman whose inconsistencies might have been a result of stress caused by the free-spirited choir. The ultimate goal of the concert was to energize a modern Jewish Democracy movement that works to remove the definition, interpretation and application of Public Jewish Law from the control of an ultra-Orthodox minority in the modern Jewish democratic State of Israel, or so the advertisements said. It didn’t seem like this performance was well advertised, and so it wasn’t surprising to look out and see a rather sparse audience, but everyone involved in producing the event seemed pleased with the outcome.

 
Ben was able to take photos:

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Here are some of the lyrics:

The Odd Bus

If a public bus has a certain number,
the rules on that bus must change.
I know that in a democracy, that sounds a little strange.

If a public bus stops at certain places,
all passengers should beware.
The seating on that public bus is neither just nor fair.

It makes no difference what you think
or what principles you hold.
It’s been decreed that on that bus,
as a woman you are told
where to sit, go to the back
‘cause that’s the will of G-d.

Don’t you think in a democracy
that is a little odd?

The Woman at the Wall

Did the birds join in chorus when the Levites proclaimed
Hallelujah, praise be the Name?

As I sit in my garden surrounded by sound,
I try to imagine what my ancestor found
when she came to this place.
Was there fear on her face or barely a trace
of awe and of wonder when approaching the steps with her sacrifice ready,
were her hands shaky or steady?

And what of the bird to be consumed by the flame?
Did the chorus of birds sound exactly the same?

Images of Av

On a hot Jerusalem day in mid-July, we learned that the camera does not lie.
Images from our Holy Place reveal the strength on Anat’s face
as she embraced and protected our Torah.

To the horror of those who traveled from afar,
each standing with mouth open and ajar.
As we saw the police of the Jewish State, bow to the fear and hate of those who deny a woman’s public right
to connect through prayer and song to our Creator of light.

Do we dare to sit in silence as this tyranny approaches?
No – the time come to say to our State that this way encroaches
upon the rights of all Jews who seek the Sacred at the Western Wall.

Am Yisrael, the pictures and the videos, like shofars call us to remember
that intolerance and hatred were the spark, the smoldering ember
that ignited the flames of destruction, in days long gone by.
Just like sacred memory, these images do not lie.

A Sacred Prayer

Each child has a sacred right to survive,
whether from Gilo, Gaza or Gadera.
In the Divine image each child is made,
whether from Haifa, Beit Hanoun or Hadera.

A sacred song must now be sung,
to remind ourselves that”We Are One”
is not just about a special tribe
but also about looking deep inside
to find a way to heal the Rift.

May we use song, our sacred gift
finding words, joining voices, Arab and Jew.
A New Year, a new commandment,
this we must do.

 

 

 

social intellgence

Week 2 at KIPP was, in many ways, very similar to Week 1, but with some added visitors! Peter had been absent on Monday and seemed to be still getting over whatever illness had debilitated him, but despite a haggard morning he was ready to hit the ground running at the start of the school day. I tuned the 16 violins when I arrived so that they were mostly in tune by the time students came to the music room.

The 5th grade classes began their lessons with a “Do Now” worksheet that had them matching words like bass clef, treble clef, half note, staff, and quarter note to their symbols. After reviewing the answers to these questions — each of which could’ve been answered using posters and other visual aids in the music room — students filled out the names of each violin string as well as the notes on the D string on a blank grid. The goal for these classes was to be able to pluck through “Hot Crossed Buns” by the end of the lesson and maybe make it as far as “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

The first group, Northwestern, had more behavior problems than I had anticipated based on last week, and I ultimately marked one student as non participatory for the day and three other students identified with behavior/focus problems. If IEP or similar accommodations exist for students at KIPP, I am not privy to this information (yet?), so I can only assume that all students are capable of demonstrating the social/emotional levels necessary for participating in this class. Particularly frustrating for me was a situation with one child who had been a bit problematic last week but had made a complete turnaround with his attention and attitude this week. He was engaged and participating and asking for help when he needed it, and I was really happy to see such a positive change. Unfortunately, mid-way through the lesson he lost $1 from his paycheck because Peter thought he heard him plucking his strings when they were all supposed to be in rest position. Because I happened to be sitting in the chair next to him at this time, I was certain that it wasn’t his strings that were being plucked, but this was almost impossible for Peter to discern. The result was that the deduction derailed this child’s focus and he became bitter for receiving unwarranted punishment. He earned his money back in a hail-mary offering of a giant sum of money, but he missed out on the last few minutes of instruction for the week because of the resentment he felt.

Naomi arrived during the first Haverford class, after Peter and I had discussed a new plan for me to pull out students both as a supplement to his lesson and a proactive approach to discipline. I took kids out in pairs, first singing finger numbers and note names of HCB, then individually fingering on their instrument as they plucked, and finally confirming that they could pluck through HCB with good position and tone. One student’s mother was also observing the class and came out in the hallway with me as I walked her daughter through the same process. This class was able to get all the way through Mary Had a Little Lamb, though they weren’t as successful with that tune as they were with Hot Crossed Buns. This group got as far as the last two worksheets in the “Do Now” packet which prompted them to identify notes in treble clef spaces and on treble clef lines.

West Chester, the next 5th grade group, was also quite successful with the blend of pull-out and large group instruction. It is unfortunate that one student, who claims to have studied violin at his old school, is already struggling to progress at the same rate as his peers because of his sense of superiority from already being introduced t the violin. Fingernail length for both boys and girls was the most significant problem for this group.

Each of these 5th grade classes got to watch a YouTube video from the Brooklyn duo named Chargaux (named from a blend of their names: Charly and Margaux). This one was a cover of “Shake it Off” by Taylor Swift, a song that many students recognized although I did not. Both these ladies were so charismatic and appeared to be having fun with their cover song. In addition, they have nice posture and position that students can model.

Some of the things that stuck with me from my day here was the use of a lesson plan objective as a student behavior tool (Peter had a selected student read the goal for the day, in this case, “We will be able to play Hot Crossed Buns using F#, E, and D”), the continued challenge of keeping the thumb anchored while plucking, and keeping the left thumb behind the first finger tape as opposed to opposite the 2nd finger. Peter used the word “cardboard sound” to describe the sound produced when the finger doesn’t entirely depress the string, and many students need to be reminded to keep their first fingers down as they play second fingers, partly to avoid this cardboard pizz quality.

The afternoon was filled with Kindergartners! I did the same introductory lesson with these kindergartners as I did last week (minus the dowel bows which we didn’t get to last week and only proved to be a distraction in the lesson). Of 6 groups of about 5-7 students per group, I added close to 20 students to my “wishlist” for violin class. As these are still trial groups, I’ll have more sample lessons to teach next week, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we came up with 40 or more beginning violinists to participate in Pre-Twinkle activities each week.

 

 

 

 

 

camerata

DSC00682

Camerata Philadelphia is an ensemble I had heard very little about in my years living in Pennsylvania. I had mostly assumed that it was a part of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia or, at least, played similar repertoire. In fact, it is a much smaller organization with a more of a focus on string orchestra repertoire than chamber symphonies.  Camerata Philadelphia is conducted and assembled by Stephen Framil, a well-traveled cellist who performs classical music as well as jazz and more eclectic genres, and this Camerata’s mission is to make the experience of great music accessible to all.

After a bit of gig shuffling, I was happy to be able to accept a call to play with this ensemble for their concert last Saturday. On the program were Mendelssohn’s String Symphony No. 5 in Bb, Dvořák’s Serendade for Stringsand a work by contemporary composer Stanley Grill called Meditations for String Orchestra. Our concertmaster, Luigi Mazzocchi also joined the maestro in a performance of Duo for Violin & Cello, Op. 7 by Zoltán Kodály.

Not much explanation was given for the eclectic programming, but it seemed like much about this concert was put together quickly. Though both the Mendelssohn and Dvořák were familiar works for me, the first — and only — rehearsal was unnecessarily stressful since we received seating upon arrival and had to wrestle with unmarked parts. Luigi did his best to jot in bowings when he could, but I felt uncomfortable being so unprepared as a principal 2nd violinist having to defer to an evolving 1st violin part. The majority of music was marked by the end of that rehearsal, but since it ended late on Friday night, there wasn’t much time to let it “sink in” before the sound check on Saturday morning. Things were cleaner by Saturday night, our second performance in the McInnis Auditorium at Eastern University, but most of us left even that one feeling defeated.

I’m not very proud of the product here, but it still might be worth viewing if you want to get an idea of what can be accomplished — if even a small amount — in a short time frame:

Mendelssohn mvts 1 & 2

Mendelssohn mvt 3

Dvorak mvt 1

Dvorak mvt 2

Dvorak mvt 3

Dvorak mvts 4 & 5