A hero’s life

And then it was Thursday...

I knew this week would go quickly but I didn’t realize just how drained I’d feel by the time it was done - and we’re not quite done yet. It’s my third time subbing with NACO and it’s always been an inspiring thrill. This week’s program is straightforward: Beethoven’s 'Emperor' Piano Concerto with Emanuel Ax, and Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. Including a fair bit of (very well-executed) spoken program notes by the conductor, and a beautiful encore by Ax to close the first half, the night runs about 2:15 start to finish. Two great works, in one the soloist does most of the heavy lifting... in the other, there’s a ton of ridiculous concertmaster solo playing, which is fantastically impressive and wonderfully executed, but it still feels like every body on stage is sharing equally in a massive amount of heavy lifting to get us all the way through to the end. I’ve viewed other recorded orchestra performances on YouTube but never live - I wonder how it feels to experience it as an audience member, in the room, with all. that. sound.

Thursday night, concert #2 - Two longtime NACO members were retiring this year so there was a celebration planned for them as part of the season-ending after-party hosted at the conductor's condo a short walk from the NAC. I was just an extra but the powers that be were generous enough to invite me and the other subs to attend with the rest of the core members. Aside from plenty of pizza and beer to keep everybody happy, there was a terrific positive buzz and energy of camaraderie flowing throughout the space, it was nice to witness and be a part of, if only temporarily.

A friend I'd met last year as fellow subs, stand-partners for Strauss's Don Juan on a Hamilton Philharmonic concert, happened to have just arrived in Ottawa for a Vancouver Symphony Orchestra concert happening Friday night (and VSO would be playing the last date on their current Canadian tour the next night in Toronto) - she's been subbing with them most of this season - and texted me at intermission to say she was in the audience and enjoying the concert. We arranged to meet in the morning to catch up over breakfast before I had to catch my noontime train back to Toronto. What a lovely morning! We have distinctly different backgrounds but for whatever reason we seem to share (since our very first meeting) a mutual respect and I have realized she is one of few new friends I have made in Canada with whom I feel comfortable talking as openly as we do about the trials and tribulations of playing the freelancing and auditions game. No need to get into further detail here, but it was great to hang out.


So I pay for breakfast and return to the nearby hotel to finish packing and check out. Call an Uber taxi and soon I'm at the Via Rail station on the train to Toronto. 5 hours later I'm walking through Union Station with my viola on my back and suitcase rolling along behind me, heading to the TTC northbound to the Museum stop where I arrive at U of T for a rehearsal of Hindemith's Trio Op.47 with my friends Wallace and Stephanie. We sort out some issues and play through the 15 minute piece a couple of times, and decide to call it a day. I get back on the train at about 7:45pm heading further north to Yorkdale Mall where I grab some dinner in the food court, still towing my luggage, and then catch a GO bus to Bramalea, connect to another bus, and arrive back home in Kitchener just after 11pm. Yes, the day was a long one and the bus ride makes it longer, but I can rest en route and it feels good to be home one way or another.


Saturday. My 11 year old daughter has planned with our neighbor, her teacher, a brief recorder recital to showcase all she has learned in the past months. Complete with colorful program, surprisingly well-spoken program notes, a delicious plate of cookies and another of mini-PB&J sandwiches we parents helped prepare for a classy reception, and a beautiful backyard setting, the event was a pure delight. My little girl!

Saturday night I see Facebook posts from a mutual friend who attended the VSO concert at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, saying 'Bravo!' and sharing a couple of photos. It's fun to see my friend there in the section. I text her to see if she is sticking around for another day or so; I might be able to get her a ticket to the Hindemith chamber music concert. She is, and can come. I get her a ticket.

Sunday afternoon. My family comes with me into Toronto for the day - I have a dress rehearsal at 1, concert at 4. We drop my mother-in-law off at the airport on the way in - she is flying to Greece for a three week vacation with an old friend with connections to some guy with a 40 foot yacht over there, so they're going to spend the bulk of the trip on the water. Sounds fantastic!

The chamber music concert goes pretty well, but I find myself a little more tired than I would have liked to be for the occasion. Yes, too many commitments adding up, too many late nights, long days, not enough rest, not enough dedicated practice time in the past few days. My VSO-violist friend attends and meets my wife and kids at the post-concert reception. and I learn she is already also friends with the pianist I was just collaborating with. Interconnections are fun!

So there's the concert, the reception, and then a post-reception dinner&drinks at a nearby pub with just the performers (and family). And then it's 8pm, and it's Sunday night - a school night. And we have to drive home! So we say goodbye and get back in the car. 90 minutes later we're parked at home. Too long after that our kids are finally asleep. And then... wait, what's on the calendar for the rest of this week?

emptiness! a couple of days off! fantastic.


Variations on a Theme

I don't know how many string players have had the opportunity to perform Beethoven's 9th Symphony in public (twice  this weekend, and for sold out houses! That was fun) but whatever the number it must surely be dramatically more than the number of those who have also had the opportunity to perform Beethoven's Grosse Fuga, Op.133 for String Quartet - much less the complete cycle of the composer's 16 String Quartets, much less record them all for commercial release. Perhaps the reverse ratio is larger, i.e. the number of professional quartet players who know Op.133 inside and out who have also gotten to study and perform Beethoven's 9th symphony.

Why am I going on about this? I just did some cursory googling about the symphony compared with the quartet and the closest I came to finding something relevnt was someone's college thesis contrasting Beethoven's Quartet Op.132 with his 9th symphony (Op.125). Somewhat interesting, but not what I was hoping for. Yes Beethoven's Late Quartets generally share rough similarities in ever-more complicated structures and dramatically contrasting themes and characters running the gamut of expression, but in the midst of the 9th's Ode to Joy finale I found myself feeling right at home with it and experiencing a particularly strong familarity with the musical content as reminding me in many ways of the Great Fugue. Maybe it's just my sense of Beethoven's "Late" period style generally that had my hairs standing a little more at attention than usual, but a few connections felt fairly obvious in the moment.

The progression of the entire piece from struggle or triumph

The alternating passages of fast sixteenth notes and fast triplet eighth notes are particularly reminiscent of the first extended ff section of the Fuga

The alternation of violence with angelic chorales

The shoxking introduction of humor - the Alle Marcia in the 9th; the relatively lighthearted 6/8 sections in the Fuga - interrupted with violence before a more beautiful chorale moment blooming into the final triumph

...anyway I don’t in any way profess to be an expert in comprative musical literature when it comes to symphonic repertoire, but I have my fare share of rally and if you’re reading this I would actually enjoy hearing your take on Beethoven’s late symphony’s compared with his late Quartet’s. Some points are perhaps obvious but I feel like opening a conversation nonetheless. Let’s see what happens! Leave me a comment or something...


Meanwhile, a few more days have passed and I am now currently (how unnecessarily redundant can I be?) on a Via Rail train from Toronto to Ottawa where I’m spending the week playing Heldenleben and Beethoven’s “Emperor” Piano Concerto with Emanuel Ax (he’s got chops!, says my friend Adam) and  the NACO. I came very close to missing the train, all because I was enjoying a brief moment of social grace following a chamber music concert at Gallery345 this afternoon. Indeed, between the concert and the after party I had a rehearsal in the same gallery space with a different group for a recital next Sunday at the Rosedale Presbyterian Church. So I realize I created my own stress and near-total misery. In the end, a friendly Neighborhood Uber driver got me downtown and to my train platform with a little less than 2 minutes to spare, so all is right with the world.

But now, as the stress-sweat begins to evaporate, I’m thinking a little more about the music we just performed today: one movement of a piano quartet by Chausson, three songs by Faure arranged for viola (me!) and piano, and the rather massive, and frankly weird, Piano Quintet from 1890 by Sibelius. Do you know that one? Yeah, I didn’t think so. You should check it out, in the spirit of being willing to always try anything at least once... We’ve done it twice now, and thankfully it went better this time. But it’s still an odd piece. Five huge movements clocking in at nearly an hour total, concluding wth what can only be described as a pirates’ sea shanty. Parts of the thing are fun, parts beautiful, parts ridiculously bombastic and rambunctious... Tons of great viola-centric melodies help it’s case, of course. I heard after the concert a comment that the piano part is actually written, er, terribly, more of an orchestrestration condensed into a two-stave piano score than anything. It feels like Sibelius, then just 25, couldn’t get the symphonic form out of his head despite the limited instrumentation... I don’t have any great profound insights here, just thinking about it. So there!

Next Sunday afternoon, it’s Hindemith Trio Op.47 for viola, ‘hecklephone’ (for now, saxophone), and piano; and an amazing stark and devastating duo by Giya Kancheli for viola and soprano. I love my recital partners for this one - fab saxophonist Wallace was my future wife’s roommate in Boston and his wife Xin is the soprano for the Kancheli. But MAN it’s tough music. I probably said this elsewhere recently but if you are available you should totally come hear us. It’ll be memorable and maybe even moving, in a good way.

But first, Strauss! I roll into Ottawa near midnight tonight. Rehearsal #1 at 11am tomorrow. Concerts Wednesday and Thursday. Wish me luck or something. I’m looking forward to the work this week, but I’ve never played this particular music before, except portions that sometimes show up as audition excerpts... [Orchestral rep is] A very different beast vs. the great variety of string quartet music I’ve previously been immersed in for so many years - even though I’ve been working hard and finding some success as an orchestral musician and freelancer for almost two years since we moved up here, I still often feel very much like a newbie. I wonder how long that’ll last! (In my Quartet, I was “the new guy” for the entirety of my 15 year career.)


Beethoven 9 with KWS! Heldenleben with NACO! Chamber Music in Toronto! Gym Jam in Kitchener!

Beethoven 9 with KWS! Heldenleben with NACO! Chamber Music in Toronto! Gym Jam in Kitchener!

It's May! Yikes.

This weekend the KW Symphony performs Beethoven's 9th Symphony on our final Signature Series program of the season, along with Barbara Croall's stunning "Messages" - as the KWS website says: Odawa First Nations composer Barbara Croall’s piece, Mijidwewinan (Messages), is a work that evokes the delicate balance humankind has with nature; a perfect accompaniment to the Ninth Symphony’s message of peace and harmony. It's been a good few days of rehearsals in prep for this season finale, but we're not quite done even when the Sunday matinee has wrapped.

Next week we've got three fun school concerts for kids bused in to hear us at Centre in the Square. Actually at least one of the schools coming is located just across the street so they'll be walking over for sure. Some of my neighbors' kids are students there and I know they're excited to come hear us and see me 'at work' on stage, as opposed to standing around on the sidewalk outside our homes while the kids play with each other in our increasingly sun-drenched driveways...

Other stuff coming up in the next weeks include...

May 20 2pm at Gallery345 in Toronto, I'm in a chamber music program with my friends Adam, Arkady, Britt, and Elina playing music by Chausson, Sibelius, and Faure. 

May 21-25 I'm in Ottawa playing in the NACO's viola section for a concert program featuring Emanuel Ax playing Beethoven's 5th Piano Concerto, coupled with Strauss's Ein Heldenleben, about which I am super excited. Super!

May 27 at 4pm I'll be at Rosedale Presbyterian Church in Toronto playing some fantastic chamber music with my friends Wallace on saxophone, Stephanie on piano (doing Paul Hindemith's wicked piano trio op.47 for sax, viola, and piano); and Wallace's fabulous soprano wife Xin will join me for a devastating work by Giya Kancheli for viola and soprano. There's some other music on the program you'd probably also enjoy. You should come!

and then... June 3rd from 3-5pm in Kitchener - I'm hosting another Chamber Music Gym Jam! at Amma Yoga. Check it out here: http://www.ammayoga.ca/jam/ or here: https://www.facebook.com/events/2088339678056644/. Basically, I've roped in a bunch of my friends and colleagues from the KW Symphony to spend a couple hours sight-reading chamber music in public for free (well, I'm providing some snacks and good cheer). Sometimes friendly groups of musicians enjoy hanging out in one or another's living room reading chamber music into the night, typically accompanied by plenty of food and alcohol to keep us all happy despite the chaotic stress of sight-reading in an ensemble - but that's usually in private. I'm making us do it in public, which I think is maybe more fun, as long as the scene is properly set and nobody's expectations are too high. We did this back on April 22 and everyone involved, players and audience, had a blast, so I think we're all looking forward to the next attempt. If you happen to be in the area, come out and drop by, listen to us and laugh with us, you might even hear something really beautiful and moving!

All right, that's enough for now. Time for bed, with Beethoven's Ode to Joy melody looping in my head...

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!


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!


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.