I was hooked: run-on sentences about my first tastes of life-experience through chamber music

As a high schooler on summer vacation attending Sequoia Chamber Music Workshop in Northern California I discovered the crazy cathartic joyful buzz of sight-reading classical chamber music with friends. Every night after the daily participant concerts on the Humboldt State University campus, the music buildings emanated spontaneous and fantastically rough chamber music as we students - kids aged 12 to 20 - formed ensembles of variously bizarre instrumentation, checked out some sheet music for rare or popular pieces from the extensive chamber music library available to us, settled into otherwise empty classrooms, tuned up, joked around, and dived in. Sometimes one player knew the piece and might act as the guide. Sometimes nobody had a clue and we were the blind leading the blind.  Either way the game was to do our best to figure it out as we went along, from start to finish, playing as much of what was on the paper as we could, striving for musicial characters, faking when we needed to, shouting out rehearsal numbers and downbeats to help each other stay on track and together, to get from the first bar to the last with as little train wreckage as possible. This was musical discovery - no pressure to perform on stage, in front of judgmental audiences. This was just for fun! I was hooked.

In my first days as a post-grad diploma student at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London England I was fortunate to have been introduced to a friendly circle of players involved in a street-performing group called the Sigma String Quartet. More than a group, it was an organization - founded and managed by a brilliant Chinese businessman and musician (violin/violist) named Kai, the Sigma String Quartet featured maybe 20 or more players on a sort of nationwide rotation allowing for as many as (or at least? I never really knew for sure) three or four different Sigma String Quartets to be performing anywhere in England on any given day. Based in London, we spent most of our time and I learned the ropes on the busking pitch in the Covent Garden Market, with occasional outings by bus or packed into too-small cars to busk on other cities' high streets or in popular shopping malls, or to play weddings in country castles, or a variety of other gigs where someone had wanted a classical string quartet. Our sheet music, organized in battered white three-ring binders, included classical pops like Rossini's William Tell Overture and Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Pacelbel's Canon and "that opera tune from Bugs Bunny" (pick your favorite!). My weekly schedule - always careful at least theoretically to maintain some semblance of balance between the gigging and my also practicing "for real" for lessons and my other student-y activities at GSMD - typically included at least a few days of busking for anywhere from a few to way too many hours at a time, and a gig somewhere in the countryside. I thrived on the daily variety, and on the friendships I developed with my fellow buskers (In the same way I'd felt at IU that my non-musician friends helped keep me sane during undergrad, my busking experiences and colleagues added a unique flavor to my two years of postgrad work I'll never forget, that may have had as much an impact on my musicianship sense and skills as my proper studies at the Guildhall.) Before long I'd memorized the binder's worth of busking tunes and at some point one of us in one particular Sigma busking formation suggested we could add some choreography to the set - let's dance the Can-Can while we play the Can-Can! It was a hoot. Audiences loved the show, and I was able to earn enough busking (imagine yourself riding the long escalator into the Underground on your way home after a long succesful busking day wearing cargo pants with pockets absurdly weighed down with pound coins) to cover my cost of living in London those two years of study (I was also given a generous scholarship covering tuition from the school itself, for which, as with all gifts and donations!, I am eternally grateful).

Also during my time in the UK I discovered (thanks to my teacher recommending me as a sub for someone in the late-summer Open Chamber Music sessions) IMS-Prussia Cove in Cornwall. That was an incredible experience (I think I went three times in two years) and I will forever long to return....Don't know it? Look it up. Or ask me about it later.

Also during my time in the UK I got involved in a serious chamber music group, a piano quintet of GSMD students calling ourselves the Etive Ensemble, and managed with the help of the Guildhall student/career office (whatever it's called) to land enough concerts one term to make a little tour of southern England. That experience, as well as a week-long trip to Finland with a different group of GSMD students and faculty to perform recitals at a number of British Ambassador/Consulate properties and events, were collectively my first introduction to life as a touring concert musician. The travel, the sight-seeing, the new people, the foreign audiences, the fancy and plentiful food and drink... again, I was hooked.

When I had nearly completed my "PGDipMus" at GSMD I realized I had to choose what to do next. A few busking friends and I had discussed forming a new independent group to refine an act we could take sole ownership of - but I hesitated and decided to return to the States to, yes, study some more. I figured it was time to get my proper Master's Degree, and I'd been in touch with James Dunham (with whom I'd really enjoyed studying a couple summers earlier in Aspen) at NEC in Boston. He seemed happy to work with me again. I'd go there! That was easy.

I arrived in Boston in late August, moved into my new place - an apartment on Westland Ave., shared with two other NEC graduate students - attended orientation week activities, one week of classes, and then disappeared back to England for one more IMS Open Chamber Music session, during which I forgot nearly everything I'd just learned about Boston. The old Nokia cellphone I'd been using in London barely got enough signal to make a call if I hiked to the top of a certain hill overlooking the crashing waves near our rustic/idyllic lodgings near Penzance and stood stock still in a certain place, and at some point near the end of the session I heard in a voicemail that, having missed the chamber music placement auditions that had taken place while I'd been in England, I had been placed in an oboe-viola-piano trio for the semester, to be coached by my teacher Mr. Dunham. The Loeffler! sweet - I'd played that once in Bloomington, a beautiful and virtuosic piece, it'd be fun to do again, with new and more mature musical partners. I wondered what other music might have been written for that rare combination. I had something to look forward to upon my return to the U.S.

When I got back to Boston, I went to my classes and I met my chamber music partners. The pianist was the assistant to the director of the piano accompaniment program at NEC; she had been performing concerts on tour in Asia so she had, like me, missed the chamber music placement auditions. The oboe player was a Canadian grad student from Saskatchewan, who'd come to NEC from the University of Toronto; she had broken her arm in an accident while moving via U-Haul from Toronto to Boston and so she had, like the pianist and me, missed the placement auditions. We rehearsed regularly and sounded good together, and at the end of the semester we were honored, privileged, etc., to be one of just a few groups selected for NEC's chamber music gala concert. That was fun. And we'd even found another work for our weird trio, by - oh no! I can't remember... It was a set of 5 short character pieces called Schilflieder. Klughardt! That's the guy. Anyway, then the oboe player and I roped in a violinist and a cellist to play some other rare repertoire like the wonderfully bizarre Phantasy Quartet by Benjamin Britten, and wouldn't you know, we got to play on the Spring chamber music gala concert too. Weren't we awesome.

That oboe player is now my wife! We just celebrated 16 years married. Yay us! :)

More later - by the time we played the Britten in Jordan Hall that Spring, I already knew I wasn't staying for another year to finish my M.M. - the CSQ had come calling, and I'd decided to leave Boston and the graduate program to go join a bona fide professional String Quartet!

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.