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Thursday, July 29, 2010


Life wasn't all program building and good works, heaven knows. A good deal of fun stuff happened once we had all survived the Y2K panic. While the new decade, century, and millennium were getting themselves going, I decided to make a serious re-entry into the world of amateur chamber music. As with so many important turning points in my life, this came about quite by accident. Susie and I were shopping at a little fresh produce market one day -- a sort of Whole Foods without the pretension and self importance -- when we ran into Barbara Greenstein, a fellow resident of Pelham and wife of George, an Amherst College Physics Professor. Barbara was a warm, lively, pixy of a woman, deeply involved in all manner of Valley good works, and also a long-time serious classical quartet player. She knew that I had played a little violin in my time, and invited me to join her at her home for some quartets that next week. I dusted off my violin [and the bow I had bought at the urging of Rose Mary Harbison], and sat in as second violin. With her signature kindness, Barbara assured me that I had not done badly, but of course I knew better.

In Watertown, I had switched to viola, the better to find people willing to tolerate my playing, so I decided that if I was going to give quartets a try, I had better stay with that instrument and find someone to teach me how to play the thing. Stammel Strings, the local Amherst luthier, kept a mimeographed list of people in the Valley who offered lessons on the violin and viola, and I picked a woman who played viola with a local early music group that Susie and I liked. But she turned out to be having carpel tunnel problems [the bane of string players], so I went down the list a bit further and found another woman living in the town of Hadley, which sits like a strip mall between Northampton and Amherst. I made the call, and was set up for a first lesson.

Delores Thayer turned out to be a tall, beautiful blond woman who was co-principal violist of the nearby Springfield Symphony Orchestra -- a serious professional musician. After listening to me play for a bit, she started me out with a C major three octave scale -- one small step beyond learning which hand to hold the instrument with. Thus began an extraordinary eight year journey that brought me, by dint of countless hours of practice and weekly ninety minute lessons, to a point at which I could do a creditable job of the viola part in a middle Beethoven quartet or Schubert's Trout Quintet. I studied every major and minor three octave scale. I learned how to play them one note on a bow, two notes, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven [hard one, that], and twelve notes on a bow. I studied all of the natural, harmonic, and melodic minor scales, and then began on two octave double stop scales -- thirds, fourths, sixths, and octaves. I worked my way slowly and with great determination through Kreutzer and every other book of exercises Dolores had on her shelf, and tackled one solo piece after another, even essaying the Spring Sonata and the Bach Suites for unaccompanied cello, arranged for the viola.

A word about the little matter of arrangements for the viola. In the world of string instruments, the viola don't get no respect. There are websites devoted entirely to viola jokes [example: What is the difference between a lawnmower and a viola? Answer: You can tune a lawnmower.] Relatively little in the way of solo literature, or even exercise books, has been written expressly for the viola, so violists subsist on arrangements, usually from the vast violin literature, but sometimes, as in the case of the Bach Suites, from the smaller but still impressive cello literature. The one corner of the musical world in which the viola is acknowledged and respected is in the domain of the string quartet. I mean, if you don't have a viola, a quartet is just a trio. I had no illusions about being a solo violist, of course, nor even any real desire to be one. I just wanted to play well enough to be invited to participate in amateur quartets.

Very early on, I made a rather surprising discovery about arrangements. Many of the ones I was playing had been made by Joseph Vieland. Joe and Vera Vieland had been among my parents' closet friends, and I actually learned from their daughter not too many years ago that it was the Vielands who recommended to my parents that I study the violin with Irma Zacharias.

As a boy, I never practiced [I am here rehearsing some things that I say in Volume One, Chapter One of this Memoir, for those of you who joined me along life's way], but since I was, as teachers liked to say to parents, "talented," I managed to learn to play with some rudimentary facility. This time around was a totally different experience. Loree Thayer was a no-nonsense teacher, and I think she quickly sensed in me a pupil who was ready to do some serious work. Each day, I would go into the second floor spare bedroom next to my study and practice for an hour. Now, an hour a day is not much practicing for a real student of a string instrument. Those boys and girls on the way to careers as performers think nothing of putting in six or even eight hours of hard work each day. One hour, for them, is just a kind of clearing of the throat, some leg stretches before the serious running begins. But an hour was a great deal more than I had ever done, and before too long I could hear the difference. I actually learned how to play in tune.

Some things eluded me. Despite weeks on end of boring repetition and finger exercises, I never did develop a slow, beautiful vibrato. I had learned a sort of nervous shake as a boy, and could not break that bad habit. But I did learn how to play double stops, which as a boy had intimidated and baffled me.

Very shortly after I began my lessons, Barbara invited me to join several of her friends for regular weekly quartet playing. Don White, a retired professor, was a short man with considerable facility on both the violin and the viola. He would play first violin. Don actually had a case that could hold both a violin and a viola nestled side by side, something I had never seen before, but that I learned is common in the amateur quartet world. Barbara Davis was our cellist. Barbara was a young mother [young compared with the rest of us, that is to say] married to a neurologist who was in practice with Susie's MS doctor. Barbara was very self-deprecating, but she had a beautiful tone, and since, as viola, I sat next to her, I got to enjoy that sound while we played.

I was hopelessly outmatched by Don and the two Barbaras. They had been playing quartets forever, it seemed. Barbara Greenstein, who was several years older than I, had started when she was a girl, and told stories about her own teacher, who lived to be a hundred. Although each Haydn or Mozart or Beethoven quartet we played was an old, familiar friend to the three of them, it was terra incognita to me. Their customary modus operandi was simply to sit down and say, "What shall we play today?" But I insisted that they decide a week in advance which several quartets we would attempt, so that I could work on the viola parts before we met.

Real amateur quartet playing is a social as much as a musical event. At its best, it is a conversation among the instruments, and through the instruments, among the players. Really to enjoy amateur quartet playing, you have to like the people you are playing with. In addition, the second violinist, the violist, and the cellist have to be fortunate enough to find a first violinist who is willing to play with them despite being a great deal more proficient than they. The reason is that in the classical literature -- Haydn, Mozart, early and middle Beethoven, Schubert -- the first violin part is much, much harder than the other three. Indeed, in some cases, as for example in the Haydn opus 20 quartets, the first violin part is really a virtuoso turn with accompaniment from the rest of the quartet. Now, human nature and musical enjoyment being what they are, a violinist good enough to do a creditable job with the first violin part is probably going to want to play with folks who are up to his or her speed, so it is rare indeed to find four amateurs who will stay together and really enjoy playing with one another.

For some reason, with a generosity and patience at which I marvel even now, many years later, Don White and Barbara Greenstein and Barbara Davis chose to put up with my inferior playing as I practiced and practiced to catch up with them. Eventually, I think I did, and I hope that in the end they found it as enjoyable to play with me as I did to play with them.

The turning point came, in my mind at any rate, when we undertook to play Beethoven's Opus 59, Number 3, the third of the three Razumovsky quartets [so called because Beethoven dedicated them to Count Razumovsky]. As good fortune would have it, Susie and I were scheduled to spend a month in our Paris apartment just then, so I took my viola with me and devoted the month to working on my part. I figured -- four movements, four weeks, one week on each movement. Since the apartment is very small, Susie would sit in the little courtyard garden, or maybe go have her hair done, while I sawed away and tried to get myself up to speed. I say "get myself up to speed" advisedly, because the last movement poses some serious challenges. It is written by Beethoven in the form of a fugue, and mirabile dictu, the viola starts off. This, I can tell you, is very unusual in the classical quartet literature. I had a recording of the piece by the Emerson Quartet, who are well known for playing at manic speeds, and by my watch, they played the last movement at 165 quarter notes to the minute, a tempo so fast one cannot actually listen to the music. I took that as just another example of their bravado until I looked at a facsimile of the original and discovered that Beethoven himself had scored it for that speed.

Well, 165 was out of the question, so I started out legato, mastered the fingerings and bowings, and slowly ratcheted up the speed as the week went by. As we prepared to leave for home, I managed to play the entire movement at 100 quarter notes to the minute. Not even two-thirds what Beethoven called for, but not chopped chicken liver either. I hoped my quartet mates would be satisfied. Oh, did I mentioned that it is a simply gorgeous quartet?

When we met and started to play, I soldiered through the first three movements, steeling myself for my big solo in the last movement. The end of the third movement is scored attaca, which means that one does not pause, but goes directly from the coda at the end of the third movement into the fugue of the fourth. I plunged in at one hundred quarter notes to the minute, playing my heart out. After about five measures, the others stopped me and said that was too fast for them. I HAD ARRIVED.

Back in '86, when I was living in Watertown the year before Susie and I got married, I had bought myself a three thousand dollar viola, a very big step up from the violin my parents bought for me when I started studying with Mrs. Zacharias. But after I had been studying for three or four years, Loree told me that my instrument really was not capable of producing the sort of sound I was now skillful enough to make. She suggested I might want to look into a new and better viola. As it happened, the royalties from my textbook were piling up in a savings account, so I was in a position to make a move, if I could find the right instrument. I spent several long hours in an upstairs practice room at Stammel's, trying out violas. As you can imagine, that is a rather daunting undertaking for someone of my limited abilities. How could I be sure that an instrument's inferior tone was not simply a result of my incompetence? Nevertheless, I found a beautiful viola that had been made by Marten Cornellisen, a master luthier who lived in Northampton. This was a serious instrument, fully good enough to be used by a professional performer. It cost $17,000, and I was quite sure bargaining about the price was not an option.

That left the bow, which I had finally come to realize was quite as important as the viola. Barbara Greenstein agreed to come with me to Stammel to serve as an independent ear. We took a bunch of bows and my new viola upstairs to try them out. The bows ranged in price from twenty-five hundred to five thousand dollars, so this was going to be a major part of the total bill. I tried one bow after another, playing the Prelude to the Second Bach Suite, which I had mastered so that I could perform it as a gift at my sister's seventieth birthday party. [She had told the guests she did not want presents, because she had enough stuff, so I presented her with the performance of the Prelude with the explanation that it had cost me a great deal of effort but would take up no room at all in her apartment.] When I picked up the five thousand dollar bow made by the French bowmaker Benoit Roland, the viola began to sing. At the same moment, Barbara and I nodded. I had found my bow.

I brought my new viola and bow to my next lesson and showed them proudly to Loree. She took them from me, tried them out, and pronounced them excellent. "Now," she remarked dryly, "you have no more excuses."

Which brings me to the subject of excuses and T-shirts. I would work diligently at home on my exercises and my "piece," and then I would come into my lesson to play them for Loree. Quite often, I would flub a passage I had mastered at home. By now I had something of a crush on Loree, and I did not want her to think I had been shirking, so I would say, a bit plaintively, "I played it better at home." Each year Loree would hold a "recital" at which each pupil would play his or her best piece. Since her private pupils were mostly children, she would give each one of them a little gift at the recital. One year, she presented me with a T-shirt on which was written the message "I Played It Better At Home." This was not too long before I went off to Paris to master the third Razumovsky. When I got home, I ran right out and had a T-Shirt made with the message "I Played It Better In Paris," which I wore to my next lesson. That is the T-shirt that I wear as I take my morning walk here in Chapel Hill, and several fellow joggers and walkers have asked what it is that I played better in Paris.

The annual recitals were a trial for me. At one of the first in which I performed, I found when my turn came that my hand was shaking violently. As you will understand, this is a bit of a disaster for a string player. It always amused me that Loree, who regularly played for paying patrons of the Springfield Symphony, was terrified of speaking in public, something that I did with no qualms or terrors, even if the audience numbered a thousand. When I mentioned my bad experience to my quartet mates, they all said, "Oh, you need to take Indurol. It is a beta blocker." Now, I am no pharmacist, but I knew that beta blockers were serious medications given to patients with irregular heartbeats. My primary care physician at that point was a cardiologist, and I could just see myself asking him for a prescription for a beta blocker so that I could play at a viola recital. But Barbara Greenstein and Don were insistent. "Half the first violin section of the New York Philharmonic take them before a concert," they assured me. So, feeling like a fool, I called Dr. Larkin and explained my problem. "Sure," he said. "My wife takes them all the time." They really worked. Apparently, the shaking is caused by a flow of adrenaline into the blood stream, and the beta blocker interrupts the signal to the adrenal gland. The next time I had to play in public, I took a pill an hour in advance, and my hand was as steady as a rock.

For eight years, my viola was my constant companion. I even took it with me to Kutztown, Pennsylvania when I had a speaking gig there, and practiced in the room in which the University put me up. The world of amateur chamber music is like many other hobbyist worlds, complete with a national organization, the Amateur Chamber Music Players. I joined the ACMP and received their international directory, a publication listing hundreds, indeed thousands, of violinists, violists, cellists, oboists, flautists, pianists and others eager to make connections with fellow enthusiasts and play. There was one obvious problem with the listings. The ACMP members include everyone from beginners barely able to make their way through an early Haydn quartet to performance level musicians and even instructors. Some way is needed to sort these folks out, so that they will not suffer needlessly in a group either too good for them or not good enough. The ACMP solution is a system of self-ratings. When you fill out the form that gets you listed in the annual directory, you are required to rate yourself as an A player or a B- player or a D+ player, and so forth. Well, you can imagine the dangers of that sort of system. Some people regularly exaggerate their abilities, either from a genuine failure of self-understanding or in hopes of being invited to play in a group that is really above them. Others, like me, engage in ritual acts of self-abasement out of a morbid fear of being thought to have gotten above oneself.

The real difficulty for me with the ACMP system is that I did not want to play with people I did not know, people I did not feel at ease with. Professional musicians like Loree have an entirely different attitude, of course. They care only about the technical skill and musicianship of their orchestra or ensemble colleagues. So I shied away from cold-calling people listed in the directory and limited myself to my little quartet and a few other playing opportunities.

My most memorable bit of ensemble playing took place in Barbara Greenstein's living room, but not as part of a quartet. One of Barbara's oldest friends was James Yannatos, a violinist and composer who for forty-five years until this past season conducted the Harvard-Radcliffe orchestra. Barbara and Jimmy [as she always called him] had apparently been students together at the Greenwood Summer Music Camp in the Berkshires, and remained close throughout their lives. One day, Jimmy came out from Cambridge to see Barbara, and our quartet assembled to play Mozart viola quintets with him. For the occasion, Don White switched to viola, and I played second viola. [A viola quintet is a composition for quartet plus an additional viola. It is actually quite astonishing how completely the tonality of the ensemble is altered by the addition of the second viola.] Jimmy, who is a performance class violinist, played first violin, of course. and for the first and only time in my life, I discovered what it is like to be inside a quintet when the first violinist is playing the music as it is meant to be played. The experience was a revelation, not at all diminished [at least for me] by my own mediocre play. I have sometimes thought that if I found myself in possession of vast amounts of money, I would hire a professional quartet -- say, the Borromeo -- to let me sit in and play along with them. But then I reflect that no amount of money could compensate them for the musical pain of playing with me, so I revise my daydream and imagine myself hiring them to play for me while I sip wine and eat exquisite canapés.

In the winter of 2007-8, as I was preparing to retire, Barbara's cancer returned, and this time there seemed little hope that she could beat it. I drove her to Boston several times for her chemotherapy, and she was cheerful, upbeat, greeting the other patients as old friends, telling stories about Greenwood Music Camp. But is was to no avail. Very quickly, she declined, and passed away. I miss her still.

With Barbara's death, something went out of my involvement with the viola. I continued to take lessons that last Spring, and played a few times with one group or another, but somehow it did not seem to make sense to go on practicing. When Susie and I moved to Chapel Hill, I made efforts to find a quartet, without success. It is now two years since we packed up that big house and moved into a comfortable condominium in Meadowmont Village, and from that day to this, I have not taken the viola out of its case.


孫邦柔 said...

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Faith said...

The name Vieland seems vaguely familiar. I was a student of Zachy (as I was allowed to call her) from age 7 to 16, and I am now 79. I loved your blog -- brought back memories of my childhood string quartet playing, on through majoring in music in college. Thanks for the memories :)