Saturday, February 2, 2013


Today, I was listening to a hilarious song on You Tube called “Shoes” by somebody I never heard of, named Kelly. A friend of mine, Bryan, directed me to this song with no better recommendation than this on Facebook: “I was pulling into the parking lot of work, and this guy pulls in next to me with his windows down and the song “Shoes” blaring full blast, right when the guy screams “Fuck You!” It made my day!” Well, it made my day, too.

Bryan, is me, 37 years ago. We are so much alike it’s scary. So, with no more to go on, I race over to You Tube and scare me up some “Shoes” songs. It turns out it’s pretty funny and the “Fuck you!” part is, well, loud. After I listen to that, I see the Sibelius Violin Concerto, played Maxim Vengerov with the Chicago Symphony. This is probably one of my favorite violin concertos ever, although I do love the Prokofiev Violin Concertos and the Shostakovich Violin Concertos as well. Less so, the Tchaikovsky and the Mendelssohn Concertos. The Beethoven and Brahms violin concertos are in a separate category for different reasons, because, Ludwig and Johannes.

Mozart, no. Not at all. Garbage. Impossible to play, impossible to access emotionally. Just my opinion. One night I had to sit through a performance of a very-well known violinist’s rendition (I was actually in the audience, a sort of bus-man’s holiday, for a change) of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5. I was practically homicidal by the end. This violinist, who is technically perfect, has one speed for vibrato; “on.” This type of mechanical, Suzuki-arm vibrato is just impossible to vary. You cannot intensify it to impart passion, you cannot slow it down, you cannot speed it up. You can turn it off, with little success. I’d rather hear “3 Blind Mice” played on a car horn.

I once had a stand partner who had been taught this kind of fucked-up vibrato. We were playing a piece by Lloyd-Webber, a suite from “Cats” and the conductor wanted the last measure, which was just reduced strings pianissimo to use no vibrato, AT ALL. Done right, it is very eerie and effective. This was a pick-up orchestra, kind of thrown together at the last minute, filthy lucre and all that. My stand partner ended up playing “air viola;” he couldn’t stop that damn arm-vibrato. Kudos though, that’s a professional. If you can’t make it sound good, at least make it look good.

I'm not proud; I played a lot of this shit along with Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, et al. We're all whores.

I had the great good fortune of having tiny hands, I guess. I had to learn to crawl around on the fingerboard, although my viola is small. I use a combination, finger and wrist vibrato, which makes it easy for me to run up and down the fingerboard. I learned early on, too, that the closer I keep my fingers to the fingerboard, the faster I can play. There’s nothing stupider than being ½ beat behind in Tchaikovsky's "Marche Slave” during the exciting part. 

I was the Russian still buckling on my saber, while the Turks were overrunning the ramparts! I tried not to do that again. Instead, I developed what was politely called "premature articulation." Fatal in a man, more overlooked in women green-as-grass violists, this one is easily fixed. After having to watch conductors mouth "where's the fire," at me during the exciting parts (and yes, we really do LOOK at the conductors) I finally, and definitively, developed the fine art of listening and timing, using a metronome; the beat does go on.

When I get up into the high, high positions, which sound neato-keeno on Wolf, I have to use a combination of arm-wrist-finger vibrato which is very cool. Believe it or not, it took 2 coaches here in Florida to explain the mechanics to me. Along with a Professor of Cello, we were all able to somehow scrape together some semblance of a violist.

I kid, but I learned something along the way and it’s this; we’re all basically self-taught. My friend Kathy confirmed it and I've heard it time and again. I watched wonderful violinists. Joseph Silverstein has the bow arm to emulate. Maxim Vengerov has a left hand that is picture perfect. His bow arm is stiff to me and he has a tendency to play a bit too “glassily.” At times, he’s on the verge of almost losing control of his bow, or so it sounds; most great fiddlers sound that way. We emulate what we like and craft what we want.

At the end of the day, it’s a very personal thing. I have a tiny frame, but I have a big sound, because of my 72-gram bow, which is the heaviest of viola bows. It’s a German bow, made by Richard Grunke. It’s a nice bow and weighted so that I can skip around on the strings and play spiccato (which, just between us? Is probably my worst talent. Let’s NOT play “Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Mendelssohn at my next audition, m’kay? Let’s play Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony. And Screw Mozart! Mozart blows dog wenuses)

Being self-taught means the teaching never stops. After I spent lots of quality time with my teachers, who became my coaches, who became my colleagues, who became my friends, a certain mind-set employed and then I became even more hard-wired. I think that this is true for everyone who has been down this path. I dissect everything; not everything is found wanting, but some things are, not to their detriment necessarily. There's plenty to enjoy.

My friends and colleagues who have trod this path, have their own stories and their own journeys. They may not have the same outlook and obsessions that pertain to me, but we all understand one another. What I’m trying to say, is that I cannot look at a video of musicians or anyone playing without, at some level dissecting it. I certainly do enjoy it, but there’s this overarching (background only) part of me that is saying, “hmm, tempo is a bit off.” Bum-ba-da-dum-dum. “God, I hate Barenboim’s interpretation, he should have stuck to the piano, fuck his conduction.” Bum-da-da-bum-bum. “hmm, it sounds as if Vengerov was a bit out of tune on those harmonics; could be my ears.”

Maxim Vengerov

That kind of shit is just part of the package. I get that; for me to get the “chills and goosebumps,” it has to be “found” music. Something I stumble across. My brain has to be ambushed. This is still pleasurable, but I pick it all apart. With the exception of Beethoven. Well, that’s not entirely true. I get an immense amount of pleasure out of listening to music as I’m dissecting it. It better be pretty good, though. If it isn’t, I’m gone.

Mozart? Nada, bupkus, zippo. I know; I’m beating a dead horse; lemme illustrate. I love to watch the show “Angel” on Hulu+ and I really get a kick out of the character, Spike. Spike shows up in one of the 1st season’s episodes, “In the Dark,” and turns Angel over to a torturer named Marcus, to get the location of the ring of Amarra that will allow vampires to walk around in the daylight. Well, while Marcus is working on Angel, he’s playing Mozart’s 41st Symphony. It’s just so goddamned annoying. At one point, in what is an otherwise very good, suspenseful and funny episode, Spike mistakenly refers to the “Brahms music.” Marcus tells him it's Mozart's Symphony 41.

Ah, Spike, Ya had me goin' there fer a moment, laddie, but ye hae nary a brain in that pretty head or an ear. Twon't work a'tall! I can't abide havin' ye scamperin' aboot like th't, aight?

I must interject here, I just love me some goddamn Spike, way more than Angel, who’s pretty dishy. Angel’s just trying to be good and redeem himself and while I love that and I see grace in that concept. Here's Spike and he just couldn’t give a shit. Plus, he’s hilarious. But, Jiminy Christmas! Spike! You LIVED through the flippin’ classical era. You were around when Mozart was top-40! And you were STILL around when Brahms was hitting the charts. What the Fuck? Mozart is eons way different than freaking Johannes Brahms. Brahms is the precursor to the 2nd Viennese School. Mahler and Alban Berg. Hello? Arnold Schoenberg? 12-tone music? Are you fucking tone-deaf? 

Mozart is “Row, Row, Row, Your Boat!” for God’s Sake. Brahms is “In A Gadda Da Vida!” Fuck! You probably think Justin Bieber is music for the ages and the Beatles were a passing fad! This will not do! I have to tell you, alas! I actually ditched a guy once because he was tone-deaf Yep, he was perfect, or so my mom said. He had money, was an attorney, but damn! That man couldn't carry a tune in a suitcase! I sent him on his way. So, you might want to brush up on your musicological whatsis, and do some ear-training for God's sake, Spike, m'kay?

Well, now that I’ve worn Spike out, we can look forward to the Stupor Bowl tomorrow. I hope Guy Who WasKnocked Down and Embarrassed doesn’t have a repeat performance and there are no copycats. JC and I are going to veg out and hope somebody wins.

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