Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Misadventures of a Traveling String Quartet

As we are in the dog days of summer, with everyone in the quartet scattered about doing their various summer projects, it seemed a good time to blog about travel. Not the fun kind that takes you to your favorite vacation destination, but the very different, very specialized business travel of a string quartet. [WARNING]: As the cellist in the Serafin, I probably have the most gruesome war stories to share - some of this is not for the faint of heart.

While we do not travel as much as some quartets who tour for the majority of their work, Serafin Quartet has taken a number of trips by plane and automobile, and the travels, while usually fun and fulfilling (certainly from the performance standpoint), offer unique challenges. Traveling by car is not too big a deal, other than the extra time and energy required to be on the road. In our trips, we have tended to travel in pairs, mostly because of logistics of where we all live, with separate departures from Philadelphia and Wilmington. Driving together to concerts and tours has been a wonderful way to get to know one another and enjoy each other's company. The most compelling reason to drive to destinations far away, instead of flying (we have driven as far as Atlanta from our home base), is my darn cello. We have flown too, but it's a special, and expensive, challenge.

Given that I play a nearly 300-year-old Italian instrument worth way more than I am, we always purchase a seat, so flying to a concert means purchasing five tickets, not four - a pricy proposition, even if the concert presenter is paying us pretty well. You might be thinking, "But won't the good people at [insert your favorite carrier's name her] Airlines take good care of the cello in baggage if you tell them how valuable and fragile it is?" My answer to that, sadly, is this:
This (not the Testore, but a couple of cellos ago) is what happened the last time I checked a cello as baggage, in what I thought was a very secure travel case, back in the summer of 1996. When confronted with this evidence, the head of baggage at La Gaurdia Airport, for an airline not to be mentioned (but it rhymes with "Flaberican"), actually wondered aloud that perhaps I did this to the instrument so I could get some money back. So, no, I don't check the cello anymore.

Flying with the cello as a ticket-holding passenger is a very special way to travel, sometimes horrifying, sometimes hilarious. I've worked on some pre-emptive responses to well-meaning folks at the airport, such as "Don't worry, it fits through the X-ray machine" and "No, I don't wish that I played the flute", and I still get a quasi-sadistic sense of giddiness when I see the horrified look on a flight attendant's face, right before saying "It's okay, it has a ticket". While my SSQ colleagues get to their seats and put their violins and viola in the overhead compartment, I go through the process of getting a seatbelt extender and strapping old Testore in its seat, usually with a few more pre-emptive remarks: "Yes, full fare, I'm afraid", "Yes, I should get its snack" and, oftentimes a reprise of "No, I don't wish I played the flute."

Other than the photo-evidenced incident above, though, I have generally had pretty smooth sailing, including our flight to London a few years ago, where the very earnest people at British Airways secured the cello into the seat for me in such a way that it would have likely been the only one on board to survive a major crash. It looked something like this:
This isn't my cello, but slightly overanxious protection such as this is common on a few international carriers.

Some other cellists, and recently some notable ones, have not fared so well in their travels. The troubles of famed cellist Lynn Harrell with Delta Airlines were just highlighted, to typically hyperbolic and hilarious effect, by Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central (watch at your own risk!):

A few years ago, Greg Beaver, of the wonderful Chiara Quartet, was told he had to upgrade his cello's tickets to first class to be able to board and fly. Seeing as that would have destroyed any earnings the quartet would have made, he had to send his wife (also his quartet mate) on the flight with their 11-month-old daughter while he waited for another flight with a less combative flight crew.

And earlier this year, touring cellist Alban Gerhardt had his bow and cello damaged (the bow most likely destroyed) when a TSA agent carelessly closed the case after inspecting it.

So, it can be a big challenge for us to travel, particularly flying with the cello, but when it comes down to it, it's a worthwhile hurdle to overcome in getting to do what we do, even without the frequent flyer miles.


Monday, July 1, 2013

The Magic of Outreach Concerts

It's the start of summer! Like so many families, organizations or other groups at the end of a season, we Serafins were engaged in some planning for the next season recently. We are excited about so many upcoming concerts, some of them are special "outreach" concerts and I thought it would be a good time to talk about what that actually means as its an important movement in classical programming these days.

If you've never been to an outreach concert (sometimes called interactive, maybe even educational outreach or depending on the audience "family" concert) it means that we performers will be trying to engage the audience beyond just sharing beautiful music. Everyone in the quartet has engaged in different types of these performances. It could be as simple as talking to the audience about who we are, showcasing each instrument alone briefly if (usually younger) audiences aren't familiar with each instrument. It could be quite musicological or theoretical, like a concert we recently played at Dickinson College where we spoke of the structure of our Beethoven op 132 quartet, breaking down sections, playing motives and counter motives in isolation and showing how themes transform throughout movements. This was for a class with some prior background in musical history and theory. For another outreach event, we got a little more abstract, engaging with a poetry class and hearing the aspects of rhythm, meter, syntax or even phonetic artistry they were relating to in our music. Here it's really important to note part of the magic of outreach concerts: they are a two way street! We in the quartet are so inspired by our new knowledge of audience perceptions that it changes how we play! Hearing how the audience responds to a particular phrase, or sound heightens our own awareness of that element and colours our feelings about it when we play.

Of course the idea of pre-concert lectures is nothing new, but an exciting aspect of many new outreach performances is that they try to engage listeners with multiple intelligences, not just analyzing the piece or providing a historical framework, but actually getting audience members to use their own musical skills to experience important elements in the piece they are about to hear. They might use clapping to experiment with rhythms, or conduct expressively, sing through some motives or direct harmonies. In other words, audience members get to improvise musically, guided by the musicians to get a thrilling sense of what it might feel like to create music. This new brand of outreach concerts is the subject of my dissertation and I'm thrilled to be playing in a group where every musician is up for experimenting with different kinds of concerts. Of course, we also will always love the traditional kind of concerts. To me personally, the music we play is often so deified in my mind that it deserves only the most holy temple, a concert environment of stillness and absolute simplicity to frame the piece.

So, dear readers/audience, I would love to hear from you: have you ever been to an outreach concert that was meaningful to you? What different experiences have you had beyond traditional types of concerts? Come talk to us after a concert and maybe you can be part of our planning sessions in the future.

Til next time,

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Intersections – Creator Meets Interpreter

I have always found it insight-producing to play a composition to the composer in preparing for performance. If it is a commissioned work, brand new, of course it is especially helpful simply to make sure the indications and instructions are being properly interpreted and are conveying what the composer intends, and to catch any mistakes in the notation. 
I have enjoyed the tremendous privilege of playing to various composers over my 30 years as a performer, including young composers still learning or honing their craft in university, but also towering figures such as Aaron Copland and Elliott Carter.  My musical journey has most recently presented the opportunity to play to Jennifer Higdon, as part of the Serafin String Quartet’s current recording project. 
I have also played to George Rochberg, Jacob Druckman, Martin Bresnick, Maurice Wright, and a score of younger, wonderful, but not as well-established composers. In each and every case, it is a mind-opening experience and produces insights that help to understand the individual composer’s personality, compositional process, style and “lexicon”. 
Serafin Quartet often plays to college-level composition students. Usually the aspiring composers are hearing their composition performed for the first time (other than through a midi file or keyboard). After playing the composition to them, we often ask them if it sounds as they had imagined it would, or was anything surprising. Their answers are diverse – some are excited to hear how it sounds, and some are disappointed in the results. Sometimes we try adjustments to tempo or character to try to get at what they intended. Then we discuss how they might want to mark indications differently to more precisely convey their intentions for times when they are not present to converse directly with the performers. We explain how their indications or lack of indications leads us, especially as string players, to respond with tempo choices, strokes, dynamic changes, bowings, stylistic character, and phrasing.  We explore how we play in response to one marking versus another – for example, if we see a line or dot over a note, slurs or no slurs - and we explain and demonstrate how the indications encourage us to play in one manner or another. 
Working with Jennifer Higdon on our upcoming Naxos release of her early chamber works was especially gratifying. She was so positive and encouraging about our approach to interpreting her works and the results we were getting. (It is affirming to hear that one’s interpretation is hitting the mark for the creator of the work!)
Also, she shared freely what she is after in the pieces we played to her, and even what was going on in her life that prompted the emotional content – confirming that we were finding the right emotional landscape in the work, although we had known nothing of specific personal experiences the work reflected. We also learned about her polyphonic inclinations – the idea that, in many sections, she wanted independent lines to interweave, rather than a line or lines standing out in clear relief. This gave us greater insight into how to approach the balancing of intricately intertwined lines. And we were able to confirm that in these works she was not feeling absolute strictness in a given tempo – that it was ok with her if the music moved a little faster or slower than specific tempo markings. 
In every case, the insights from meeting and spending time with the composer are meaningful. Even when the composer (as was Elliott Carter) is quieter and introverted – it is meaningful to feel his/her energy, to experience wit and/or seriousness, to observe where their ideas and expression seem to reside (“head” or “heart”, for example. It all helps the interpreter to feel more confident and assured about choosing a direction in deciding how to play the content of the music. Then, our technical choices can reflect more closely and deeply the inner workings of the composer’s creative soul. 
I treasure that place where we, the “interpreters”, meet the composer – the “creator”, whether in-person or simply from the pages of history and musical scores. It is a special intersection and a privilege to meet there!

--Kate Ransom

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A maiden voyage with late Beethoven

Since I was a teenager, I have lived in states of both complete reverence for and utter fear of Beethoven's late string string quartets (some of the last music he wrote - Opp. 127, 130, 131, 132, 135). I was hooked, and my fear was begun, upon hearing his monumental c# minor quartet, Op. 131, for the first time. At that point, I ran out and got myself a score and recordings, and pored over this music in a similar way that a theologian must look at religious texts. I found the music fascinating, confounding and incredibly moving. As a teenager, and then a young college music student, I understood that I had a connection with late Beethoven, but I was too intimidated to actually play it.

Fast forward, um, a lot of years, and here I am, getting ready to play the Op. 132 String Quartet in a minor with SSQ, this weekend at the University of Delaware, the first late quartet I will have performed. The interesting thing: I'm still fascinated, confounded, moved, and terribly intimidated by this music. When I was a student at the Kneisel Hall Chamber Music Festival, at the ripe old age of 20, I had expressed my late-Beethoven fears to Ron Copes, who is currently the 2nd violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet and was my chamber music coach at the time. His advice to me: "Don't be scared, dig in!" He said that this music will always be challenging and difficult, and never completely understood, so play it early and often. Did I listen to this sage advice? D'oh!

I guess I have some catching up to do. And I'm excited to get started on my late journey with my wonderful Serafin colleagues. Op. 132 is an expansive work of over 45 minutes, consisting of five movements in a kind of arch form. The outer movements are big, driven and intense. The 2nd and 4th movements are stylized versions of popular older forms (the 2nd being a minuet of sorts, and the 4th actually titled "Alla marcia", or "like a march"), with unusual twists and turns, particularly in the presentation of meter and rhythm. But where this work draws its greatest power is the central slow movement, which is, without exaggeration, one of the most moving musical utterances ever created. The full title, believe it or not, is "A Convalescent's Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode". The Lydian mode is one of the ancient "church" modes, a way of organizing music harmonically and melodically back in the Medieval and Renaissance eras of music, before the advent of major and minor scales and keys. So this music, while reaching out to the divine, also reaches back in time. The third movement, often referred to simply as "Heiliger Dankgesang",  is by far the largest of the entire quartet, and reflects Beethoven's thanks and renewed energy having been gravely ill in prior months. Whatever one's view is of the Divine, it is most certainly touched in this moment.

Here's a sampling of the movement, performed by the Stradivari Quartet:

So, if you're around Newark, Delaware on Sunday (March 10th, 3:00 PM, Gore Recital Hall at the University of Delaware), come hear us as we journey together through my inaugural Late Beethoven Quartet performance. We hope to make you fascinated, confounded and moved, too. (but don't be intimidated!)


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Musical Decision-making

I confess, I didn’t learn what this was until freshman year of college. I remember a friend saying to me “oh you know when you play a certain piece a lot, and all the decisions you’ve made seem really final, then you play with someone else and you have to make new decisions?”.  I was a bit confused because I had innocently thought “you just play a piece like it’s supposed to go.”

In my mind, the great performances I had heard were just artists who “REALLY played it how it’s supposed to go.”

Obviously I had a lot to learn about communicating in a chamber ensemble!  In truth, I had been making musical decisions my whole life.  Anytime you play music, whether it’s intentional or not, you are making thousands of little decisions about how to play it.  Anyone, musician or not who happens to hum a tune they know is making musical decisions.  These decisions about how you hear something, and eventually what makes your “voice” unique come from thousands of factors, all affecting your judgement of what seems right for that bit of music. 

Some examples of musical aspects we make decisions about are: Where do notes lead? Over a phrase, where do groups of notes lead (that is grow or move into each other), what is their overall shape? How connected are notes? Do they have stronger or more gentle articulation?  Timing: do you stay steady? Linger on an important moment, do you have a sense of rushing or moving forward?  What kind of sound quality are you trying to produce? A dark tone? Rich and warm tone?  Silky or feathery tone?  The questions are infinite, but most musicians have strong opinions about all these factors because they hear the piece as a “whole.”

Your decisions might be affected by what you’ve listened to, what you think the spirit of the music is, or what it means to you.  It’s truly amazing how differently people can hear things.  I’ll never forget a hilarious instance when I borrowed a colleagues part for the Bartok concerto and in a section where I had pencilled in “warm”, she had pencilled in “tortured”.  We joke that both markings really meant “use more vibrato.”

If composers tried to mark all these details into the score, the music would be covered in ink and practically illegible.  It would also take a lot of the creativity and fun out of interpretation.
I took a wonderful class at the University of Montreal one year called “interpretation” where we listened to various recordings of great artists and literally tried to notate all their musical decisions.  We had to blow up the scores to be able to fit all the subtle details in.  It was also remarkable to see from this perspective how “plain” the music really is.

Sometimes, the music is downright illogical, or confusing.  At the end of the famous 3rd movement “Heiliger Dankgesang” of Beethoven’s Op. 132 quartet that we will play this coming season, Beethoven writes a series of repeated notes, but ties them together with slur markings.  Usually, when you see this marking connecting two notes that are the same, it means there is no separation, that is play it like one long note.  However, Beethoven could easily have just written one long note instead of tying together smaller note divisions.  Does this mean you are supposed to make tiny separations?  Pulse each note division?  Perhaps Beethoven wanted the subdivisions of the beat felt more strongly but not emphasized under a long held note? Larry decided to research what other quartets had chosen to do and listened to a myriad of recordings from all different time periods.  He notated their solutions on a separate piece of paper and brought them to rehearsal.  There were almost as many interpretations as there were quartet recordings!  We still have not come to a final decision about how we will play that one important bar, but look forward to lively discussion and experimentation to test ideas and come to a unified musical decision. 

Until next time,