strung out
my life as an amateur violist
 

    sitting second  |  # o
 
 

 

 

In the span of three weeks, I had experienced a singular musical epiphany inside Shostakovich’s masterpiece Fifth Symphony and performed under arguably the greatest American conductor/composer of the twentieth century, Leonard Bernstein. It didn’t take a genius to figure that at age nineteen I was unlikely to match those milestones again.  

But that’s o.k. I  figured I was damn lucky to have experienced even one of the two.  There were many more fine memories to come, just not of the epic variety.  

Sing Your Own Messiah was an annual event that began my first year in the PYP.  With the orchestra and soloists on stage, and the audience grouped roughly into bass, tenor, alto, soprano sections you make your way through Handel’s score.  My favorite chorus after all these years is “All We Like Sheep” (no, it doesn’t have anything to do with *that* kind of Deliverance).  First, because in the second line the last word is the beginning of a long run of sixteenth notes that sound like a bit of a musical stutter: All we like sheep / Have gone a stray ay ay ay - ay ay ay ay ay ay ay ay (well you get the idea).  Secondly, it’s difficult enough for the huge audience/chorus that they, er, go astray. Love that Handelian irony!  

The local NBC affiliate taped the whole concert each year and broadcast it on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  That’s as much time as I’m ever likely to get on the tube.  Having seen several of the performances on tape, I can tell you that you had to be there to truly believe the sound of a 2000 piece choir pumping out the Hallelujah Chorus.  

Through natural attrition and matriculation, I found myself slowly advancing towards the front desk (also known as the first stand).  It had been more than six years since my debacle at the head of the second violin section in the Prep; this time I felt better prepared to play the role.  

It’s not uncommon for a young player to catch fire and make a quantum leap advancement musically over the summer.  And so it happened in the viola section.  A fifteen year old leap-frogged to the assistant principal position after stunning Mr. A in a stellar audition with a difficult work, Hindemith’s Viola Sonata.  

At the beginning of the 85-86 season (my senior year in college), our wunderkind was named Principal Violist with me as Assistant Principal.  Cool!  I basically got the best of both worlds: the honor of helping to lead the section but without the intense focus and heat that the principal can feel.  

Leading a section at such a tender age requires a certain self-possessed attitude and discipline.  She was a hard worker, technically strong and applied herself with a seriousness you could not doubt. And she was also a high school junior.  I think it was tough for her having a 21 year old *guy* standpartner.  There were a few times where I should have worked harder at home on a difficult passage or two, but she didn’t really broach the subject with me.  On the other hand, I was able to add a little levity and humor to a section that is stereotyped as being dour and dull.  

In addition to this new role, I volunteered to become one of two stage managers for the orchestra along with a young whippersnapper (18) clarinetist, Mark Whitehead.  The stage managers are responsible for setting up the rehearsal room and transporting the large instruments (i.e. harp, tympanie, basses, etc.) from the rehearsal site to the concert hall downtown and then back again the next morning.  

Mark and I got along famously.  We both shared a geeky sense of mission about our duties.  He loved to drive that truck and I certainly had no problem with that.  He was good at it.  Mark would back that Budget rental to within an inch of exactly where it needed to be and hop out with a big grin all over his face.  

You had to squeeze the bigger tympani through the school doors on their sides to make them fit.  The basses were bulky but relatively light in their large black padded covers.  We hated the harp.  It weighed a ton and was extremely unwieldy.  You had to wedge it in tight or it would slide around in the back of the truck crushing anything in its path.  

All of the gear would be in place at the performance hall (Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall was our new venue) as the orchestra arrived for dress rehearsals on Saturday morning.  Mr. A appreciated the fact that he never had to worry about it and that we didn’t distract him from the music with a lot of worrisome questions.  

Out of the many PYP concerts over the years, I recall many memorable performances and only two trainwrecks.  The first, “The Maid of Orleans”, Tchaikovsky’s rarely performed opera, was a noble failure.  The vocal soloists (professionals) did very well, however getting the college choirs in sync with the orchestra, a type of collaboration that had worked many types in the PYP’s past, proved to be too great a chasm.  On the second to last rehearsal, all 200 of us were struggling to make music of the work.  After the altos or sopranos failed to make their entrance for the fourth in a row, Mr. A snapped his baton in two and hurled it against the wall in utter exasperation.  It’s an awful, helpless feeling when you head into a concert knowing that you aren’t ready.  But the show must go on.  It did and it wasn't pretty.  

The other wreck occurred at a Christmas Concert (the 26th).  Our narrator, a fine veteran violinist, teacher and overall nice gentleman, inexplicably lost his place in Peter and the Wolf and took quite some time to recover.  His eyesight isn’t so hot and I suspect that played a factor.  It was excruciating. Doubly so because it is so well known.  We all felt awful for him.  

Fortunately, the peaks vastly outnumber the valleys.  I’ve heard a few performances and recordings of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, but I’ll always prefer the version in my head of our performance in April 1983; it takes your heart and gently but firmly squeezes and squeezes until you can hardly stand it, and then releases, to leave you in its wake of agony and ecstasy.  Do not operate heavy machinery afterwards.  

Ever heard a marimba concerto (a marimba is basically a xylophone with wooden keys)?  Neither had I.  Hovhaness Fantasy on Japanese Woodcuts totally blew me away.  Jeff Peyton, armed with two mallets in each hand, was a picture of controlled onslaught.  Unreal.  Saxophone concertos are not all that commonly performed with orchestras.  It’s a shame.  Ibert’s Concerto da Camera is a work that people who think they don’t like contemporary composers should hear.  The rich timbre and fluid tones of Eric Lindburg’s tenor sax evoked the simple poetry of a city at night.  

Usually they toss you out, er, you matriculate once you reach the grand old age of 21.  (Hey, it ain’t the Portland *Youth* Philharmonic for nuthin’.)  And there I was until Mr. A asked me to stay for another season.  The PYP had an invitation to perform in the Soviet Union and he wanted to anchor the section with experienced folk (ego stroke :-).  You may not remember, but Europe was rocked by several terrorist attacks in 1987 which unfortunately led the organization to regretfully decline.  Damn. Mr. A graciously offered to keep me on in spite of the cancellation.  I wasn’t too proud to accept.  

That extra year bought me a tour through Beethoven’s Seventh (ah, a man who could truly write for the viola!), Falla’s El Amor Brujo (which would be made into a hot flamenco movie a year or two later) and Mozart’s Mass in C minor (shades of Amadeus!).  

It is very difficult to frame words around those years in the PYP.  In spite of the rough early start and the nerve-wracking annual auditions, on balance the whole experience was an invaluable gift.  From an explorers perspective, the musical landscapes were varied in both time and geography.  From a performers view, the sacrifice to the ensemble was rewarded with true synergy.  From a scholars side, the investment of rehearsal time to study and come to know major works was unique.  

I was leaving the orchestra, but it was not leaving me

 
 

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