When First Violin Plays Miss Bossy Pants

Saturday night I went to a concert with the Manhattan String Quartet at Westminster Choir College here in Princeton.  It was a fund-raiser for the Westminster Conservatory, which provides music lessons and other musical opportunities for the community.  Anne Mei participated in a number of the Conservatory’s summer camps when she was younger.  Two of the most memorable bookended the terrible week in July 2009 during which Laura endured bureaucratic nightmares surrounding a major operation on her brain tumor.  I have described that week elsewhere in this blog as a trifecta of poor care.

In the CaringBridge blog I was using at the time to communicate with family and friends, I mentioned how the concerts closing each of these camps helped provide musical relief.  Laura’s operation was scheduled for Tuesday, July 7, 2009.  On the Friday before the operation Laura and I went to the first concert.

FRIDAY, JULY 3, 2009 8:24 PM, EDT

Laura had a pleasant distraction this afternoon from the countdown to Tuesday. We went to see the closing recital of the Teen Chamber Music Camp, which Anne Mei attended this week at Westminster Conservatory. She played cello in a performance of the Rondo from Mozart’s Oboe Quartet in F Major, and in the large ensemble’s performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. But the closing ensemble was the most rousing: all percussion ensemble, including Anne Mei on African drum, playing “Toro” from Guinea, West. Africa.

Anne Mei at second Westminster camp

On days when I had to stay late in Philadelphia, Jennifer Linett and her family helped take care of Anne Mei and got her back and forth to camp.  Laura was very weak when she came home the following Friday morning, but nothing would keep her from seeing Anne Mei in recital that afternoon.

FRIDAY, JULY 10, 2009 1:30 PM, EDT

Laura did get out of bed to attend Anne Mei’s end of camp recital this afternoon. She really enjoyed the concert, particularly the last piece, “Rosin Eating Zombies from Outer Space,” by Richard Meyer. It was good to see her laugh after what she’s been through this past week.

Anne Mei at Westminster camp 2

This past Saturday’s concert took place in Bristol Chapel on the Westminster campus.  A site also filled with memories of the Princeton High School orchestra Spring concerts over the past four years.  While those concerts were packed with family and friends, the room was a little more than half full on Saturday.  Chamber music had to compete with Halloween and the World Series.

I had never heard the Manhattan String Quartet before, but the program looked promising with Mozart’s “Hunt” Quartet and a Brahms Quartet.  In between the two we heard contemporary pieces, written by a retired Westminster faculty member, who happened to be sitting in front of me.  Of his three pieces, the most accessible to me was a Fantasy on a work of Schönberg, of all people.  With much contemporary classical music I can never tell whether the musicians are playing the right notes.  I got some hints when the composer shook his head “no” a number of times at the bass clarinet, who had been added to the Quartet for “Brahms Takes for String Quartet and Bass Clarinet.”  During the real Brahms Quartet he also kept starring across the aisle at the clarinetist, who had come out to sit in the front row and then fell asleep.  Even if the clarinetist was suffering from jet lag after his trip from Switzerland, that did not show respect for his fellow musicians.

During the opening Mozart String Quartet I noticed that the first violin seemed to be consistently louder than the other three players.  This was not as irritating as a concert I heard two years ago where the first violinist for the Elias Quartet not only played louder than the other instruments, she had pitched her instrument so much higher that it clashed with the others.  That performance seemed to reflect a need for attention.  On Saturday evening the first and second violins switched places after the Mozart and the first violin still frequently drowned out the other instruments.  During the Mozart I wasn’t sure if perhaps it was the practice at his time for the other instruments mostly to play accompaniment to the first violin.  That’s certainly how it sounded the other night.

With the Brahms String Quartet in B-flat Major, I was sure that was not supposed to be the case.  The program notes quoted a letter from Brahms about this quartet to a cellist friend of his.  “There is no cello solo in it, but such a tender viola solo that you may want to change your instrument for its sake.”  Unfortunately the Manhattan String Quartet played the whole quartet, including the third movement which was supposed to be the viola solo, with the first violin still the loudest.  The three instruments other than the viola were supposed to be muted during the third movement. I saw the mutes, but couldn’t hear any difference in the first violin.  (I can’t say about the second violin or the cello because they were drowned out by the first violin.)  The viola was barely heard when playing with the first violin during the so-called “viola solo.”

The violist did not help his cause by the way he was sitting.  He was turned in his chair with his back mostly to the audience.  The “F holes” of his instrument faced away from the audience towards the back wall.  In my last post I described the importance of the structure of how a string player holds her instrument relative to her body.  I should also have mentioned how important it is that the vertical plane formed by scroll, elbow and shoulder be as perpendicular as possible to the audience.  In this way the sounding parts of the instrument are directed out to the audience.   The timbre of the sounds we hear from a viola or violin do not just arise from the vibrations of the strings, but from all the overtones that these vibrations set off in the rest of the instrument.  If you’re playing to the back wall, the music gets muffled.

The net effect was that the Manhattan String Quartet pulled a very sweet piece into tense knot .  Paradoxically, the “tender viola solo” is marked as “Agitato (Allegro non troppo).”  To understand what Brahms meant, imagine the internal agitation of a mother singing a lullaby to her sick child as opposed to the squeal of a terrified teenager in Halloween III.

To illustrate, here is a link to the Jerusalem Quartet playing the third movement quite tenderly.  Their violist also demonstrates how to sit on the far right of the group yet still direct the sound out to the audience.  The Bozsodi Quartet places the violist in the middle as another way for him to face his instrument outwardly so the audience can hear the “tender solo.”

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