A double concerto! Don Quixote! A duo recital! Schubert's Great C Major Symphony! School concerts! Taxes!

It's been a busy year and I dare say Spring ain't even here yet. Well maybe just barely. It’s taking long enough...

First thing's first: this Thursday April 5 2018 at 8pm I'll be performing an exciting program with the Hart House Orchestra in Toronto featuring me and my violinist friend Arkady Yanivker from the TSO as soloists in Arthur Benjamin's "Romantic Fantasy" for violin, viola, and 'small orchestra' (the HHO is anything but 'small!' but it's ok, they're doing a great job playing sensitively and not completely burying us...) — PLUS me and the fab young cellist Emma Fisher covering the solo viola and cello parts in Strauss' seminal tone poem Don Quixote. Despite my extensive touring with the CSQ for so many years I haven't performed soloistically on my own (or at least without the Quartet, since we did do a few quartet concertos (Spohr, Mozart, Elgar, Pablo Furman) with various groups along the way) with an orchestra since my postgraduate days in London. U.K., when a violinist/conductor friend was my enabler in an ad-hoc orchestra presentation of Paul Hindemith's viola concerto Der Schwanendreher at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama... So I am really looking forward to this! If you're reading this post and just survived this run-on paragraph, consider yourself invited. Admission's free!

About one week after the HHO extravaganza (bonus trivia: the HHO is apparently the same age as me!) Arkady joins me again for a virtuosic violin-viola duo recital at The Music Room in Waterloo, 8pm April 11. We've been having fun simultaneously prepping the Benjamin double concerto and the duets we found for this KWCMSprogram, which includes: Mozart's famous Duo No.1 in G major; Sibelius' little known Duet in C Major; Bohuslav Martinu's rarely played "Duo No.2" (not one of the Three Madrigals, this is a completely separate, full-length 3-movement work); and just for laughs, Alessandro Rolla's delightful "Duo Concertant" which features a brilliant "Tema di Caraffa" at the heart of the 3-(and a bit)movement work. Sound like fun? Come out to 57 Young St. in Waterloo at 8pm on April 11 and join us for the evening!

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Loads of other fun stuff is also upcoming. The KWS pops program this week is a collaboration with Cirque de la Symphonie. Next week we’re performing the Barber violin concerto featuring our own concertmaster as soloist, along with a very cool work by Thomas Ades and Schubert’s “Great” C Major Symphony No.9.

My wife is playing a noontime chamber music concert on April 18 in K-W that I’m looking forward to, and later that same day I will be attending the final concert of the K-W Symphony Youth Orchestra Chamber Music program, for which I have been coaching a String Trio on Sunday’s since mid-Fall... and even later that same day my son’s playing French horn in his high school music program’s Spring concert.

Lots more coming in May, I’ll write about that later.

And taxes. Eventually those will get done, too. So says tradition, anyway. 

What a summer - what a year! Part 2

(what follows is basically an overview of the variety of work I've managed to get busy with since leaving the world of professional full-time string quartet and moving to Canada as a freelance musician...)

So... I’m writing this from Ottawa, two days into a week of work as an extra playing Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherazade and Shostakovich's 11th Symphony with the NAC Orchestra in NBoC's production of Nijinsky. This is my second stint with the NACO; the first was for the season opener back in September - just before I’d published my previous post. As I alluded to then, I’ve managed to get and keep pretty busy with a variety of musical work in my post-Quartet life since relocating with my family to Canada.

In addition to these couple of trips to Ottawa (and I've just been booked for another week with them in May 2018) I've had a bunch of great subbing opportunities in Toronto's orchestral viola sections. On a couple of My first Canadian freelance work was in early Fall 2016 doing Mahler’s 3rd Symphony with them in Roy Thompson Hall - not exactly dipping your toes in to test the water... It was an amazing first gig, and my just-starting-french-horn-lessons son was able to come into the city with my one night to attend one of the performances. 

A few months later, in January 2017 I played as an extra in the pit for the COC’s production of Wagner’s Gotterdamerung - once again, diving in headfirst to the serious rep - not a bad first professional opera experience! Other violists playing that show included Angela Rudden, the principal of the NBoC Orchestra. We had dinner together before one of the performances and aside from offering advice on a range of industry subjects she was kind enough to put me on the sub list for the Ballet, and I eventually found myself playing a run with them as well.

Indeed, all of the performance and teaching work I have found so far in Canada has been thanks to friendships and the generosity of those who have helped connect me with 'the right people' as I've sought out a new, post-Quartet career path.

In the Spring of 2016, when the Quartet work in San Francisco was nearly done, I received a Facebook message from Eric Nowlin, who had heard from our mutual friend Jonathan Vinocour - with whom I'd performed a few times in the previous couple of seasons - about my planned move to the GTA. Eric was preparing to leave Toronto for Detroit after several years as the TSO's Associate Principal Viola and his studio of viola students at the University of Toronto would be in need of a new teacher come Fall. I was very happy for that little bit of serendipity, happy to have at least some work to look forward to when I moved - and conscious that his departure would quite probably lead to more subbing opportunities... and eventually, a chance to audition for his position. I accepted his offer to take over working with his students, and he put me in touch with the admin folks at the University.

---

One of the final CSQ projects was to record the two Brahms String Sextets at Skywalker Sound in California with Barry Shiffman on viola and Zuill Bailey on cello. We had performed them a few times earlier in the season and were looking forward to what would be our Quartet's final recording experience. Three weeks before the sessions were scheduled to begin the last week of April, I went rollerblading alone one morning near my mom's house in Danville, and took a hard, stupid tumble about three blocks from the end of my round-trip route. The damage was a grade 3 AC separation: the force of my spiraling my into the ground at high speed had ripped apart the ligaments connecting my left clavicle to my shoulder. It was intensely painful, and I couldn't play. A doctor suggested surgery, then reversed their opinion, trying to figure out the fastest way to get me playing again in time for the recording if at all possible. The alternative was to just let things heal on their own - the long term prognosis was about the same either way, but surgery was likely to delay my short-term recovery. My colleagues considered all the options for the production plan and decided to go ahead with the recording as scheduled - we had so many elements in play that we wouldn't be able to reschedule - but we also identified another violist we all respected to be 'on call' to do the recording in case I was still unable when the time came. It was all very awkward, and shitty, and the timing - so near the end of our final season, with so many final projects to do together - couldn't have been worse.

Long story a little shorter: somewhat miraculously I did end up able to play the sessions, and despite the residual pain it felt fantastic to pull through and fully participate in the project that my accident had put in such jeopardy just three weeks earlier. I know it was scary for my colleagues but I also felt well supported by them all as we made our way through the music. The celebration at the end of the whole thing was well-earned. Zuill later texted me warm congratulations I will always remember and appreciate; Barry offered to connect me with some people in Toronto and began introducing me via email to principal players in Toronto - Teng Li with the TSO and Keith Hamm in the COC.

In the weeks that followed I set up a couple of coffee meetings for days when I'd be in the country on one of my periodic family visits carved out of the final stretch of Quartet touring, and had nice initial conversations with each of those renowned and respected players. I didn't know what to expect, I didn't really have a plan, I didn't really know what my goal was other than to meet the people my friends had said I should meet, and see if I couldn't make a decent couple of first impressions. We talked about the ups and downs of chamber music, about the good and the bad of the orchestral scene, about my previous experience, about what might I be interested in doing - about what I might be willing to do... And it began to hit me that I was really off on my own now, professionally speaking, for better or for worse, but I didn't feel anymore like I had earlier in the season, when I'd been describing it as heading toward the edge of a cliff with a plan to jump but no idea about what was actually down there or whether anything would be there to catch me. Now at least there were some smiling, familiar faces looking up at me as I was about to jump!

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So I made the move, settled in with my family in Kitchener, got my work permit in the mail just in time to start the school year, and began teaching at U of T and performing wherever I was asked, doing my best to earn more than we were spending.

One year later, in early May 2017, the TSO held a national round audition for that Associate Principal Viola position. I finally had my first chance to actually win a job and upgrade from the freelancing lifestyle to full-time employment with a good and stable income. The freelancing work proved an excellent crash course in some of the standard audition repertoire - which I really had no experience with thanks to my 15 years in a string quartet! With five or so weeks' notice to learn 'the list' as best I could, I made a little daily practice schedule to make sure I got through it all, and scheduled a few mock auditions with new friends in both Toronto and Kitchener. When the day came I played well enough to advance through the first round to the semi-final that took place the next morning, but then made it no further.

Now the day after that, the K-W Symphony, who performs in a beautiful concert hall not 10 minutes' walk from our home in Kitchener, was also holding an audition for their Assistant Principal Viola position. Some of the audition repertoire was the same, some bits were different. With the TSO's audition experience immediately behind me like an excellent warm-up, and now feeling a little like this was my last best chance to grab a stable job - if not as well-paid as what I'd been doing in SF - right where we were already living, I managed to win that one. That was a good day. I had subbed with the KWS several times in the Spring of 2017 and enjoyed working with them: they're a good sounding group, fun, and friendly. They offer an employee healthcare benefits package, the salary pays the bills up here, and this year they're playing a 35 week season which leaves a handful of gaps in the calendar I've been able to still fill with some subbing with TSO and NACO for additional variety and extra income. But forget all that - you just can't beat this commute.

After those auditions were done, summer hit. I was trying to figure out cash flow to get us through to September when the NBoC opportunity - Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake  - came up fairly last-minute. Beyond being good money for the work, those couple weeks made me reconsider just how much I might actually like Tchaikovsky (I really didn’t much, before).

At some point I got an email from a violinist I'd met subbing with KWS on a program earlier in the Spring, who turned out to be a contractor for (among other things) the Toronto Concert Orchestra. They've been doing this fun summer pops series at Casa Loma in Toronto for about four years, and she kindly offered me dibs on any of the concert dates - every Tuesday in July and August - I might be able to do. So I picked a bunch and did that the rest of the summer, squeezing in staycation-style family fun here and there like trips to neighborhood parks and swimming pools, and even an awesome (but brief) road trip to Wyoming and back with my kids (mama couldn't travel with us at the time because of her chemo treatment schedule) along the way.

Through all of this, I’ve made new friends, reconnected with old friends, and encountered helpful strangers and generous veteran players who’ve welcomed me into the scene as more than just “the new guy” in town that I am - was? I already don't feel so new here anymore. And the music - so much good music. I’ve really been enjoying the sheer variety of music and musical partners in all these different orchestras, viola sections, conductors coming and going, and the great concert halls and smaller beautiful venues in and around the GTA.

And I haven't even mentioned the chamber music. There's been a lot of that, too, and a lot more coming up soon. Maybe I'll write about that next time.

New Release! Elena Ruehr's Six String Quartets out Feb.17 2018

I'm excited about this one! Elena Ruehr is a great composer, longtime faculty at MIT, a wonderful person and good friend of mine and the Cypress Quartet's. We had recorded five of her six quartets over the years before we disbanded in 2016, and those 5 plus one other (her 2nd, a work for string quartet plus voice) recorded by the Borromeo Quartet with Stephen Salters, are being released as an awesome two-CD set on February 17 2018 on Avie Records. Check it out HERE.

From the Avie site: "For Guggenheim Fellow composer Elena Ruehr the appeal of the string quartet lies in the ability of four instruments to express an infinite range of emotional possibilities, to communicate across time. Her six string quartets attest to her enthusiasm for musical time-travel: echoes of Perotin, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Dvořák, Schoenberg and jazz are there, but the musical language is purely her own. Elena’s Six String Quartets are a magnum opus, three of them commissioned by the Cypress String Quartet, two by the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, and one an ASCAP Award winner."

Reviews of the CSQ's earlier album featuring Elena's quartets nos. 1,3, and 4:

"It's a brave move by the San Francisco-based Cypress Quartet to devote its new disc entirely to a contemporary composer, and a little-known name at that. But the music of Elena Ruehr, raised in Michigan and now teaching at MIT, is so appealing, and the performances by the Cypress players so persuasive, that the project brings rich rewards.Ruehr's music hovers between a resonant neo-Romanticism and more cerebral contrapuntal techniques, and it's full of rhythm, life and colour, immediately accessible to the listener but rich enough to repay repeated listenings. It's hard to imagine it being given more committed performances than these by the Cypress players."
--Strad Magazine Review (April 2010 by David Kettle)

"Here is the fine young Cypress Quartet's cellist Jennifer Kloetzel explaining to Saint Paul Sunday’s Bill McGlaughlin how the San Francisco Quartet's close relationship to 46-year-old MIT composer Elena Ruehr came about: "A few years ago we decided to champion the composers whose music we like—by playing their music a lot and playing a lot of their music. We commission and recommission them and really get into their world, that's become something that's very important to us— Elena's become a real part of our musical lives." Her music is "infectious," says the ensemble's violist, Ethan Filner. You can say that again many times over after hearing the Cypress Quartet's recordings of Ruehr's Quartets Nos. 1, 3 and 4. The result of the quartet's immersion in Ruehr's musical world is one of the most appealing contemporary quartet discs in a very long time. The disc's title, "How She Danced," (Ruehr is a trained dancer as well as musician and composer) comes from the allegro third movement of Ruehr's Third Quartet and, as with so much of this, it sounds like the strongly tonal meeting point of Philip Glass' minimal-ism and the pan-ethnic folk-influenced music of the great early 20th century experimentalist Henry Cowell. In other words, it's where country reels and hoedowns and Hindu ritual and Balinese gamelan all somehow come together with the restless unison ostinatos of what was once "downtown" new music. A beautiful disc. ★★★ 1/2"
--Buffalo News - Listening Post (March 2010 review by Jeff Simon)

"I was enchanted with this, my first acquaintance with the music of American composer Elena Ruehr, and I think you will be, too. A strong, engaging personality suffuses her music. She was born and spent her early years in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, an area of much natural beauty that is said to have the most beautiful fall colors in America. Her music reflects a variety of traditional and world influences in addition to her formal education under mentors William Bolcom, Milton Babbitt and Vincent Persichetti. The daughter of a mathematician, she admits to a fondness for solving intellectual puzzles such as 12-tone rows, but she decided at an early stage in her career to leave the complicated stuff beneath the surface of what people hear, incorporating it into the musical form (For the record, Mozart did much the same thing).As a result, her music, of which we get a good sampling here from String Quartets 1, 3 and 4, written between 1991 and 2005, is both accessible and challenging. We sometimes forget, in analyzing the art of the string quartet, how sensually beautiful the sound of these four strings can be. Ruehr reminds us. Her art consists in large part of long melodies, long intonations and exhalations, gorgeously swelling tones and smartly struck pizzicati. The members of the Cypress Quartet – Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violins; Ethan Filner, viola; and Jennifer Kloetzel, cello – attest to the challenges they encountered in performing these works in an interview with radio host Bill McGlaughlin, excerpted in the program notes. They speak from experience of the 17-bar melody with a canon in 3 parts, with all four players playing fragments of it here and there, in the slow movement of Quartet No. 3. In this movement, entitled "The Abbey" and taking its inspiration from the style of 12th Century Abbess Hildegard von Bingen, the chant-like melody is supported by a catchy rhythm derived from it. The trick, which the Cypresses bring out with deceptive ease, is to make the music sound as simple and natural as possible."
--Sequenza21.com Review (Feb 2010 by Phil Muse)

What a summer - what a year! Part 1

A year ago I wasn't quite sure how this would all work out. Now, it would appear, I know.

July 6 2017 I flew with my family to Toronto from San Francisco to start anew in my wife's home country and leave the familiar stresses of America behind. The CSQ had had a great run and we managed to finish on just about the most positive note we could have imagined. Moving away from the Bay Area for me felt a bit too much like we were blindly jumping off a cliff, having chosen the direction to fall but without looking to see where we might land, or what might actually be down there to catch us - or not. A few mutual friends had generously offered to connect us with some key Canadian colleagues-to-be, theoretically laying the groundwork for the beginnings of our new careers as freelancing musicians in the greater Toronto area. But it was impossible to know what would ever actually pan out in terms of real work - would we find enough of this and that to make ends meet in this new existence?

We actually moved to Kitchener-Waterloo in June 2015, my wife and children living temporarily with my sister-in-law in Waterloo before we found a nice house to rent in the central Fredrick Neighborhood of Kitchener, just a few blocks from the Centre in the Square, home of the KW Symphony. The area was and I think still is known as the “musicians’ ghetto” because so many players live within easy reach of each other and, of course, the concert hall. But I was only a periodic visitor, flying in and out for a few days at a time every month or so depending on when I had been able to carve out extra away time in the CSQ touring schedule (thanks to the compassionate understanding and generosity of my colleagues), so I didn't really get to know the area until a year later when my wife had flown out west with our kids to witness the big Farewell Concert in SF and bring me back across the border with them, for good.

It was just a day or two after they'd landed in California to collect me when Elisabeth first felt the lump under her left armpit. We didn't realize it yet, but that was when everything changed.

I won't go into the nitty gritty about her breast cancer battle and recovery experience here - she has written many fantastic posts on a free blogpost blog I encourage you to check out - just make sure you're in the mood for gory details, physical and emotional. She's a wonderful writer, even about such terrible stuff as cancer. It's here: http://elisabethvscancer.blogspot.com - find the oldest posts and start from the beginning of her story.

What I will continue on about here is more about what I found myself doing professionally (this is, ostensibly, my professional website after all!) over the past year - where did I end up landing, and what caught me?

But before I get to that, I have to catch a red-eye flight back to Toronto in a few minutes. So, stay tuned for Part 2, perhaps within the next week or so, if we're all lucky. We'll see...

Let Playing Be Play!

Knowing the Score:

How Coaches Approach A CMNC Day

In this series of articles, a number of our recent coaches responded to a series of questions from The Chamber Musician. TCM asked what they most enjoy about coaching adult amateurs and what they find most challenging, how they approach a one-day coaching situation, and what advice they could offer us to improve our chamber music experience. 

“Let Playing Be Play!”

by Ethan Filner

 I have coached countless young chamber music groups in summer music festivals and at all manner of schools over the years. But my participation as a coach at the Cal State Hayward CMNC workshop a few years after joining the Cypress String Quartet was my first experience working with adult amateurs. Simply put: I really enjoyed it!

As I guided the players through several hours of rehearsals in preparation for the masterclass performance at day's end, I found myself fascinated by the adults' interactions and general behaviour in this musical context: No matter what professional career they were pursuing or had spent a lifetime in, they each seemed to revert in character and attitude to the younger, “student” version of themselves when in the presence of their theoretically all-knowing coach.

How intimidated I expected to be, facing a trio of brilliant brain-surgeons who happened to also play stringed instruments! Here I was, not yet 30, thinking “These guys literally save lives ---- I just play music!"

But then I began to talk about the music, and they hung on every word. I asked a few probing questions about musical character, direction, articulation -- and suddenly the brilliant minds sitting before me became rapt children at story time. (Or whatever age they had been when they stopped studying music as kids before going on to med school -- I have often witnessed the sort of petty bickering and goofiness you'd expect from nervous teenagers on the first day of school.)

It was eye-opening, my little epiphany being that I, having studied and played music since the age of four, was as much a respectable expert in my field as any of these esteemed doctors were in theirs.

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Thanks to my background in string quartet playing, I am perhaps more comfortable working with string groups than with winds or other mixed groups. But as soon as I write that, I object to the notion! -- No matter the instrumentation, music is music. Virtually any musical idea is readily translatable - transposable? - from string to wind, or brass, or even percussion language, and back again. Indeed, I usually speak in terms of “voice” and “breath,” and often conjure visualizations of different instruments or natural sounds the written notes might be echoing, or downright imitating.

As a chamber music coach, I'll touch on many different things, in roughly this order of priority: overall feeling of the piece, sound of the group, rhythm, and intonation (unless it's really bad!

In a situation where we have very limited time, I'll typically focus on helping the group explore the character(s) in and of the music. Then, come performance time they'll at least have a clear and unified idea of what they're shooting for, so that regardless what minor blips happen along the way, they have the larger picture in mind, and everybody in the room can feel that they're striving for something beyond the notes on the page.

Musical ideas of expression like character, mood, and feeling are closely connected to, and mutually impacted by practical issues like a group's sound, rhythm, and intonation, of course.  I have confronted an unfortunate plethora of situations in which one or another player in the group (young or old) has serious trouble with rhythm, and this necessitates extra time spent on, shall we say, rhythmic cleansing. As for intonation, it is sometimes clearly worth going over some spots carefully to check and try to fix particularly nasty intonation problems, ensuring the players understand, for instance, the different roles and responsibilities of perfect vs. imperfect intervals within the harmony. I do prefer, however - when possible - to make any comments on intonation as a part of more general advice about the group sound, in order to not get bogged down in a coaching as short as they often are. (Working with a younger student ensemble who may be rehearsing more regularly, with more hours to spare, and perhaps with loftier public performance career goals, is a different game entirely: good intonation is a critical, key ingredient for a successful presentation of any music, and time must be invested in learning how to manage intonation issues within a chamber group.)

It's important to be able to get through the piece you will be performing, so I like the groups to play through their assigned bit of music several times throughout the day. This helps to ensure the group's collective self-confidence when it comes time to perform in public.

I also encourage groups to be more and more creative as the musical character is developed. It's most interesting for the players if they each contribute as much as possible to the creation of a collective, group plan for the piece. I take the approach, “There is no Right or Wrong Answer - All ideas are Valid.”

What would I suggest to help your own chamber music experience? It's amazing what even only occasional practice with a tuner and/or metronome (depending on what you want to work on, rhythm or intonation) can do for your playing. Want to get better at reading so you don't get lost in a new piece? Sight read more! Go the library, visit imslp.org and download a random piece for your instrument, and crash through it. Tomorrow, find another one! 

But above all, have fun! Have a good time. Be an explorer, an experimenter, a tourist, an adventurer - and enjoy the fact that you're not expecting to make a living off of your playing. Let playing be play!

(This post has been edited and updated; the original, published in 2005, is at http://www.cmnc.org/newsletters/coaches_view.htm