Monday, June 24, 2013

HOMELESS CHRONICLES IN TAMPA - #ROW80 BLUES


Yeah, yeah, I know. But in some alternate universe, there IS a #ROW80 a-boil, right now!

This is probably the least, or most, reasonable reason (sic) for creating a post, depending on your point of view, but as I am so damned sick and tired of talking about me, me, me, rather than mi, mi, mi, fa,sol, la, ti, do, this will work in lieu of DaTScans, drooling, eyesight with no depth perception, but 2 of everything, and general dementia and hallucinating. In other words and other circles, a typical violist.

So, I got dem #ROW80 blues... in E minor, no less. The enharmonic, or relative key is G Major, with 1 sharp (#) and Brahms' 4th Symphony and Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony are written in E minor. I always enjoyed playing these pieces, because the viola parts are tough. Unlike Amadeus freakin' Mozart, who sucks, oh so precociously and preciously and is so terrifically boresome, that the entire viola section falls into a stuperous coma. Beethoven fixed that, when he jumped from the Classical to the Romantic era in his 3rd Symphony (the “Eroica” not the “Erotica” as some idiot typesetter put in a program once, along with all of the orchestra's names misspelled. I underwent a sex change and was “Marc Wallach”) in the 3rd movement in about 16 measures. Plus, according to some historians, Ludwig and I share the same birthday, just not the same year, har har. Vivaldi (who also taught Paganini; perhaps the greatest violinist ever) is a sweet ride and so is Haydn, but Mozart is the lamest of the lame in my book, with the sole exception of his "Requiem" which I haven't played, but sung Alto, and loved. Unjustified hero worship, in my not-so-humble opinion. Thank god, he's pretty avoidable.


My house is a Mozart-free zone and zero-tolerance does apply. Violators will be subjected to the Biebster for 80 hours. No exceptions.

In mentioning different genres of music that I have played, it should be mentioned that I was classically trained and in the Galamian school of Pedagogy. Ivan Galamian was a noted pedagog in string teaching for violin and viola. I studied with one of his students for a number of years, but strictly classical repertoire. That previous paragraph meant nothing to anyone unless you were trained in the Suzuki method of playing violin, viola, cello or string bass. You know, with the tapes on the fingerboard? The idea was anyone who was possessed of a tin-ear and completely tone deaf could play a non-fretted string instrument. Trust me. You can't. You can however, piss off the rest of us and embarrass your parents.

Over the course of my career in music, however, I had the opportunity to learn and play every other kind of music and in just about every kind of venue. I've even played on top of a swimming pool for a political fund raiser, which was interesting. Not something I'd care to repeat, though.

               I got dem Row80 blues...
               nuthin' here for me to do...
               I got dem Row80 blues,
               'cause A to Z is done and gone as well...
               Row80 has me singin' the blues in the key of Hell...
               'Cause C# is a bitch of a key to sing
               Next tah-ime, I be a-singin' the Row80 blues,
               I'm-a goin' for the key of B minor, or maybe F minor
               With accidentals 'n' double-sharps 'n' double-flats...
               'n' that'll show them violinists... They can be a-singin' the blues...                  
               Cause they like to play ever' thing in e♭major, the most boring key on earth, ever...                                                                                                                                                    
               'n' they lubs dem a whoooole lotta Mozart. I got dem Row80 blues... 

San Francisco Symphony and Corky Siegel Blues Band, 1971

These seem dated to me now, although I love playing Blues more than most other genres, because of being able to "bend" the notes.

Leonard Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story

On the other hand, "Symphonic Dances from West Side Story" remains one of my favorite pieces to listen to and play. The Broadway production and movie had no violas, but the Dances do and the parts are difficult indeed. Still my favorite; I've played them as recently as 2006, with Maestro Coppola and they are still hard and awesome. Not dated one bit. Oh, yeah, the violas have to yell "Mambo!" in this. 

I played with Bernadette Peters several times and her music books travel with her, as with all headliners, to all the local venues and it is a tradition that the local backup players sign the backs of the books. This way, I've kept up with my Detroit friends and other friends over the course of my career. Violists are also a bored lot and we're notorious for silly jokes. One of her standard tunes is “Glow Worm,” and there is a passage where the violas are supposed to sing “Glow Little Glow Worm, Glow.” The printed instructions read “Sing.” A bit further on, they read “Play.” Some wag went over this piece of music with a pencil and wrote, “play” then “play and sing” then “sing and play” and then, “walk and chew gum.” My stand partner and I, a youngster from the Cincinnati Conservatory spent half a day getting over the snorts and giggles from this. Of course, during that night's performance we had forgotten and started laughing all over again. It doesn't help either, that these artists love to showcase the players by seating us on risers. Well, they told us to have fun.


The usual setup for one of these "show" orchestras is something like this. I'm not in this picture. I've probably been expunged from all publicity shots and sent to Valhalla or witness protection for violists, or something. Frankly, there's too much lame dripping off these folks. They're probably playing some Mozart, or "Babes in Toyland," Heaven Forfend!

So, from classical to rock; from hip-hop to heavy metal, I've pretty much played it all and I think that my favorite type of music to play is either something like the second movement of Grieg's Cello Sonata, adapted for viola in A minor, which has some awesome passage work in the upper register, or Rachmaninoff's “Vocalise” for Viola and Piano. This also has some great passage work in the upper registers, but the lower notes can be played on the “C” string, in higher positions, which really resonate on my viola. There are also the Max Bruch Unaccompanied Viola Suites, which just flat out rock.


Ma looks drunk; I look stoned. I'm not, just in my bliss, playing my viola. I am 16 here.

Contrary to what people may think, it's actually harder to play long, slower passages and interpret them musically, then to play fast passage work. That's like just plain ol' band music. I played in the Stage version of Mel Brooks' “The Producers,” which was a hell of a lot of fun, but it was just a bunch of 16th notes for about 80 pages. I played it for several weeks, so I was able to get a gander at the goings-on onstage. My favorite part is of course, the song “Springtime for Hitler,” where we get to depict WWII in 4 minutes, or 10. I forget which.


Beethoven's viola, which he played in various orchestras in his birthplace, Bonn, Germany. He was probably bored to death of Mozart and thought, "Mein Gott, we must have some decent viola parts around here. I shall write them! Wolfgang is an idiot!"

As we were packing up our instruments backstage, I mentioned to one of the percussionists who was stowing all of his drums, mallets, triangles and what-nots, “You know, nothing says Nazis like Bongos.” I also liked the part where Matthew Broderick tells his boss to stuff it, and shouts out, “Certified Public Assholes.” That wasn't in the 1968 movie. When I played gigs like that, we never ran through a full performance with the cast, until we opened. So, here I am in the orchestra pit, cackling like a hyena. There's always so much stuff going on in these things, you can pretty much get away with anything.

Once, I was eating Skittles out of a 1 pound bag and I dropped the bag during a performance of the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Player's (NYGASP) “Mikado.” However, just then the Grand Pooh-bah (Lord High Everything Else) was up on stage doing his shtick, and everyone was laughing, so no one heard all the Skittles skittering around. This same group also had an infamous pair of violinist brothers; Italians. One was concertmaster, and the other sat Principal second violin. Between a sound check and a show in some town or another, they went off and proceeded to drink wine with their spaghetti.

I was sitting kind of behind them; the pit was small, and we couldn't sit in our usual horseshoe shape. I was also the whole viola section. The conductor had decided years before, that he didn't need 2 or 3 and kept me employed, so I was squished between the cellist and the 2nds. Well, there was a fair amount of dialog and the concertmaster, kept nodding off, then he would catch himself and sit up with a start. After about the 4th time, I figured, he was going to drop his bow or violin, when he almost did just that. So, I looked the other way. My friend, Spenser, on cello, who was sillier than I am, started laughing and I was going to laugh, too, so I looked over at the wind section. Just in time to see the 2nd clarinettist yank his mouthpiece out of his instrument and bop himself right between the eyes, with the thing. Creepin' Jesus.


"Who dropped the Skittles?" "Skittles, Shmittles! Why is the 2nd clarinettist unconscious?"

All of this has nothing on the extravaganza that used to be held annually at my church, Trinity Catholic Church in Brandon, Florida. The orchestra itself was a crackerjack orchestra, the conductor, not so much. But, he was the “Internationally known Father Whatsis” as he had played before Pope John Paul II in Rome. Translation: he sucked. He sucked so bad that one year, when we played “Sleigh Ride” for the eleventy-billionth time that year, he managed to confuse the orchestra so badly, the brass and woodwinds ended 2 measures AFTER the strings did. I am still trying to figure that out. I've played in concerts where the orchestra has gotten lost, but we somehow managed to end at the same time, but this is the only time I've played a piece, and a totally easy, no-shit-everyone-knows-this-turkey type of piece and we couldn't end at the SAME TIME?


Next year, let's stick to the "Typewriter Concerto," hmmmm? We didn't even have room for the Griswolds' Family Christmas this year! "Maybe we can ditch the Gumby Christmas Trees and the Elvis-Abe Lincoln-Serial Killer, too. That whole shtick is creeping me the hell out." "You can't say Hell in church." "Heck, then. Creeping me the Heck out. Besides, we don't even have a plastic baby Jesus."

Meanwhile up on the stage, Gumby Christmas trees and Snowmen Elvises, who could pass for either Abraham Lincoln or serial killers were cavorting with tone-deaf kids, elves and the Griswolds' Family Christmas on a huge screen, sans sound. Occasionally, one of the poinsettias would be knocked into the orchestra pit and we would be dodging soap bubbles (“snow”) and flying plants. The entire pageant was devoted to the secular, because the “Internationally known Father Whatsis” would get lost in “Ave Maria.” There was always something on stage that had me crying rivers of tears in hysterical laughter, every year, without fail.

I was always 1st chair viola and had a fine selection of stand partners over the years: “Somnambula,” the narcoleptic, who played with me on several tours, “Sir” Francis Drake, who was afraid of his own shadow and Lou, who used a whole 2 inches of bow and bitched about EVERYTHING. “I loathe this song, completely loathe this song. Have I told you how much I loathe this song?” He would say before each and every tune. Still, people lined up to play this thing, because it was like being on an acid trip; the orchestras themselves were awesome. We all played for a living. This was like a busman's holiday and it did pay well.

But, the not ending at the same time reminds me of when I was in Detroit, and we were playing Respighi's “Pines of Rome,” and I think the 2nd violins were hung over, or still drunk. “Pines of Rome” is one of these pieces that has divisi in the strings and the sections, 1st, 2nd violins, violas, celli and bass are not unison, meaning that each section is broken up, for a richer texture. Sometimes, that texture is mud. This was shortly after the epic fist-fight in the viola section; talk about an orchestra with issues. Anyway, the 2nd violins got lost and the conductor started screaming, “2nds! When you run out of notes, stop playing!” I'm guessing they had some slow readers over there.


I know people who will try and play 2 lines at once. You're not showing off. You're "failing." Badly. Stop it.

I've been fortunate that way; usually, the section that's getting it's ass chewed out is the section I'm NOT playing in at the moment. I'm either really good or I fake really well. The jury is still out on that one. Actually, a friend and a fine violist who coached me for a few years when I first came to Tampa, helped me distill it this way: We never really master our instruments. The best we can hope to do, is to learn how to disguise and minimize our flaws. I think she hit that just right. I also learned from her that we're all basically self-taught; our teachers can show us proper technique, but we do the work. A teacher's most important function is to inspire us and make us want to learn.

Post a Comment