April 5th, 2011 § § permalink
Top to bottom: Julian Fong, Ting Chin, Miriam Blatt, Milton Wong, Joe Neeman. Photo by Olivier Hubert
Franz Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major, D. 956, is one of the most sublime pieces of chamber music ever written – especially if you’re a cellist. It’s one of the few string quintets that feature two cello parts, and it doesn’t matter which of the two cello parts you play, they’re both great. Recently five friends and I have performed the piece at two separate house concerts (along with other chamber pieces performed by other musicians), and we get to play it one more time at 3pm on Sunday, April 10th at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Pleasant Hill.
The picture above was taken at the first house concert, but the recording for that concert didn’t turn out well. The recording for the second house concert turned out better, so here it is. The acoustics in the church for the last concert will be even better so if you’re available, come check us out! There are also some wind quintets on the program that should be interesting.
String Quintet in C Major, D. 596, by Franz Schubert
Performers: Joe Neeman, violin 1; Milton Wong, violin 2; Miriam Blatt, viola; Brady Anderson, cello 1; Julian Fong, cello 2.
January 25th, 2011 § § permalink
My lovely wife bought me Rock Band 3 for Christmas. I already owned some incarnation of Guitar Hero (also a gift, also from wife), so a plastic guitar with five clacky plastic buttons and clackier strum bar already cluttered a corner of our living room. Guitar Hero belongs to that genre of video game known as a “rhythm game” where correctly pushing buttons on a nominally instrument shaped controller in response to visual or audio stimuli racks up points. You may argue this is true of all video games, so the distinguishing factor here is that the stimuli are nominally music related. Push the buttons in time to the beat or flashing light, basically. Rock Band 3 mostly follows the same model as Guitar Hero except with the addition of more instruments (vocals, drums, and keyboard). With the purchase of a microphone we now have a video game that Susan and I can actually play together.
Rock Band 3 interested me because of the new “Pro Mode” feature. For instrumentals, rather than playing a cut down instrument with five buttons, players now have the option to play the real thing, or at least something a lot closer to the real notes. This requires a MIDI capable device which in the case of the guitar or keyboard could be considered a bona fide genuine musical instrument. The guitar is already on order and won’t show up until March, but I already have a MIDI keyboard. So I plugged it in expecting to kick ass and was instantly, crushingly humiliated. A virtual audience threw beer bottles and kicked me off the stage in the midst of playing “Roxanne”. I barely managed Devo, and “Whip It” involves a grand total of seven keys, dammit.
The problem is, my brain is wired to read music notation. Very hard wired. To the detriment of many other things.
And Pro Mode does not involve reading music. It involves reacting to upwardly scrolling columns of beads. This is the normal modus operandi of these musical rhythm games, but Pro Mode more than doubles the stakes (twelve columns instead of five buttons, mapping to a keyboard octave), and throws in whole scale remappings to other parts of the keyboard for good measure. As a generous gesture, it color codes these bars. However, even this generosity does not create anything close to resembling to music notation. In fifty years, as music education dies a slow agonizing death in elementary schools, it may perhaps supplant music notation and mnemonics such as Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge may be perceived as an utterly quaint historic custom. But this is not the musical notation that I can read today better than I can recognize my neighbor’s faces.
I struggled with this for a few days and got somewhat better. Then I went after a Trophy: playing 200 consecutive notes on Pro Keyboard mode in Sister Christian. I tried for two hours, clawing my way to 170 before screwing up, and gave it up. My brain waggles fingers in reaction to a restricted set of stimuli involving black beans sitting on horizontal lines on a page and that wasn’t about to readily change. So I did what any sane musician would do: I went away, found a recording, transcribed the keyboard part of Sister Christian to manuscript paper, came back, and kicked its ass.
And now you know why this page of music is floating around my living room. You may call it a cheat code if you will. It is certainly an arcane scribbling that, when correctly followed, allows one to beat an arbitrary task set in a video game. The fact that there is some higher merit attributed to this piece of paper is perhaps just a stubborn fiction that I will cling to in the name of my art.
January 10th, 2009 § § permalink
I’ve decided to keep the new cello! You can click on the picture for a bigger view of it.
The cello that I had been playing for the last decade has been in the family almost as long as I’ve been alive. Roz played it before me, and when I graduated to a full size cello, we alternated with it. When I moved up from playing piano in the intermediate division of youth orchestra to playing cello in the senior division, alternation wasn’t going to work since Roz was principal cellist in the senior division; we needed two cellos. So our family bought a new, surprisingly good sounding Chinese made cello. We ended up alternating on that new cello, and whenever we needed to play simultaneously for orchestra I used the old one.
When I moved to California I inherited the old cello. I’ve known for years that it wasn’t a very good instrument, but since I wasn’t playing much it didn’t matter. Lately that’s changed. A few months ago I ended up at a CMNC workshop where they had too many pianos and was forced to play cello for two days. It was there that Burke, the chamber coach for one of the days, said that I was better than the instrument I was playing. Now, Burke is a cellist, and our regular trio group knows him well – we’d signed up for one of his own workshops during the summer to work on the first Rachmaninoff piano trio. (I was playing piano. It’s not a well known piece, incidentally. It ends with a funeral march. Actually, the entire piece is an elegy. Despite that, it’s actually quite a fun piece for all three instruments.) So I value his opinion and took him seriously when he expressed some wonder at the weight of the cello I was playing – cheap cellos have thick wood, which make them heavy.
What set me to serious consideration of a new instrument was orchestra. I ended up being the only cellist for the Christmas concert in December, and was thus the de facto soloist on Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasy on Christmas Carols. It starts off with an extended cello solo and has other exposed cello bits within, and I’m afraid that I didn’t sound very good. Fifty percent of that was my own playing, but the other half I will blame solely on the instrument. The cello has never sounded good on the low strings, and wolfs like mad in fourth position on both the C and G strings; of course, the Williams piece starts off right there. On top of that, it’s definitely not a cello that projects well in a hall. Or in a closet, for that matter. On the recording, you can barely hear me play. Which is probably just as well.
Cellos are like cars: you don’t typically buy them online. Actually, instrument dealers tend to be more trusting than car dealerships: they typically let you take the instrument out for extended trials. On the other hand, I did more or less buy my car online, so why not my cello? And given the limited money I was willing to spend, that put me squarely in the category of “student”, workshop made cellos, so there didn’t seem to much point in going to a shop like Ifshin and comparing a limited selection of mass made instruments. I looked online and took a chance on Linda West’s online storefront based out of Santa Barbara. I kept an eye on a particular model made by Calin Wultur (a workshop in Romania) that she had nice things to say about, and after Pixar paid our film bonus I ordered the instrument online just before the New Year. Linda and I had a interesting e-mail exchange about cases, strings and cello setup, and a few nervous days later the instrument showed up.
So I’ve had it for almost two weeks now and I’m happy with it. For one thing, it’s a very nice instrument to look at. The back is a single solid piece of bird’s eye maple, which I understand to be a rare set up. The sound on the lower two strings is gorgeous, much more richer and powerful than the old cello. The D blends well with the G. I think the A is a bit thin, slightly nasal, but I suspect changing the string will help with that. Admittedly, I’m sure a lot of the difference between the old and new instruments is the setup – for one thing, the old cello has never had a bridge properly cut for it, so the strings were much too high above the fingerboard (making it much harder to play in upper positions). For another, the new cello has much nicer fittings: carbon fiber end pin, ebony wooden tail piece, and Linda also chose a Belgian style bridge and strings that match the instrument well. I think I disagree with her on the Jarger Forte that’s on the A, but the Belcanto C and G definitely sound great. There are some minor fit and finish issues, and I’m a little sad that the finish on one of the cornices got rubbed off during transit (it’s got Montagnana dimensions, so it’s wide, and barely fits in the case), but I definitely feel that this instrument is better than I play and is something that I can grow into for the next few years.
I ordered a new bow too. Arcos Brasil, silver. I wasn’t sure about the bow at first. Back then, Roz and I both had Dörfler bows, except hers was twice the cost of mine. However, I never noticed a difference in tone when I played with her bow, perhaps a slight difference in ease of spiccato. So I was very surprised to notice a significant difference in tone with the new bow. Even taking into account that I just had my old one rehaired, and the rosins were different, the new bow just makes the new cello sound just a bit better.
Here are some quick recordings I made this afternoon of the first 90 seconds or so of the Brahms E minor cello sonata – my favourite piece for trying out cellos. This is the old cello; compare it to the new one, with everything else more or less constant. Sorry about the very poor intonation; I haven’t practiced this piece in a while, and, well, my intonation sucks. The accompanist (me) wasn’t drunk, but if you know the piano part, you can hopefully excuse how hard it is to keep in time while playing by yourself on the off beats. My playing and recording set up doesn’t do justice to the differences between the two instruments, but you should be able to hear the completely different resonances between the two, particularly on the lower strings.
January 2nd, 2009 § § permalink
A lot can happen in one hundred and nine days.
Susan has been sick the last few months, and is still sick. She’s had to go to the hospital twice. We were lucky to have her discharged just prior to Christmas, and her parents flew out to help make it more festive here, but it seems like it will still be a long way to full recovery for her.
During her second extended hospitalization Kaylee decided to take after her mother and have a solid week of being sick as well. She took to waking her dad three or four times a night to be let out into the backyard to do her business. As a result her dad did not sleep particularly well, especially after spending evenings at the hospital. At least she recovered, albeit immediately after being taken to the vet.
Before and during all this going down, I’ve found myself playing a lot more cello. Two days at the CMNC workshop when they had too many pianos, and two quarters as the principal (and sometimes, only) cellist with orchestra. The first quarter concert was a treat: a performance of Mozart’s Requiem in Berkeley with full choir, including the Vilnius Pro Musica group from Lithuania. We’ve never sounded so good. The second quarter concert featured yours truly as a soloist on Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasy on Christmas Carols. That experience, along with Burke’s assertion during the chamber music workshop that my current cello is a piece of crap, convinced me I needed a new cello. So I ordered one – it’s on trial and I will post more about it if I decide to keep it.
Our wedding website is up: ffwed.com. Currently more of interest to guests, but we’ll have photos there after the big day.
Happy New Year to all. I’ll try to keep my New Year’s resolution to boost this blog’s interestingness.
June 24th, 2008 § § permalink
We spent last weekend in Southern California, sweltering through a heat wave at Disneyland, being tourists in Hollywood, and attending the world premiere of Wall-E at the Greek Theatre. Getting to go was Susan’s privilege as a lead on the film and I got to tag along and pretend to be famous. Although not your A-list Hollywood event, there was still a red carpet scrum which we were mostly tangential to. Susan claims her foot is visible somewhere in a publicity photo next to some Disney Channel starlet, while I as usual am the invisible, not even implied presence. We did play spot the celebrity and at the after party, we hovered for a moment, one mere foot away from Sigourney Weaver (she’s the voice of the ship’s computer in Wall-E) – alas we were too awestruck to introduce ourselves.
That wasn’t the first time I’ve seen the film; that would be the end of last month at the Wall-E wrap party. A lovely event, made more so by an especially touching thanks from the director to the crew. As for the movie itself, I’ve sat through it three times now and it holds up well. It is truly unlike anything we’ve ever done and works brilliantly.
In other news, CSUEB orchestra is done for the school year. This term our cello section was reduced to three (yours truly as principal this time around), but we padded out the rest of the strings with more professionals and we sounded excellent at the concert. We have come a long way since last September. The program this term was the Marriage of Figaro Overture, Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, KV. 488. The last was weird: the first concerto I ever played with orchestra back when I was ten. Two decades later and I’m on the other side of the piano playing cello. No real regrets, just a small irony. Cello’s not in storage for the summer. I’ve been dragooned into playing the bass part for some Slayer noodling at work. An honest to goodness bass amp has been ordered and is on its way. More on this furious acoustic metal assault soon.
February 28th, 2008 § § permalink
So there’s that orchestra thing I do, every Wednesday I lug my cello to Cal State East Bay in Hayward, dump fourteen quarters into a parking meter, and practice for a couple of hours. Our spring end of quarter concert is coming up next Wednesday, March 5th. We’re playing Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn, and Gluck’s Overture to Iphigénie en Aulide. 7:30 in the Music Building Recital Hall. Request your ticket online!.
A few comments about orchestra these last two months. Everyone else in the cello section who was around last quarter is gone. I was the sole cellist for the first three practices, then a ringer from the SF symphony and a high school student showed up. Ringer is gone, but I think he’ll be back for the concert. Meanwhile, it’s been me and the student, who is now the principal of the section. Roz probably thinks I’m annoyed at this, but she showed up and, while sight reading, played the music on the spot better than I after having practiced for three weeks, so .. yeah, she deserves to be there, I don’t.
Susan told me that I’m a cocky cellist based on the amount of practicing I’ve been doing (i.e: none). While I’m probably over confident in some areas, piano probably among them, I don’t think that’s true of cello. I feel like I’m slogging uphill, every step of the way. The Brahms Variations with its five flats in some sections proves that I’m still intonation challenged when it comes to any flats. G flat? Forget it. F sharp? Sure, no problem. Yes, I know it’s the same note, but put the G flat next to an A flat and suddenly I’m the guy playing sour notes in the lower strings. The one area I’ve realised some progress on: while I rarely pencil in bowings (there’s that cockiness again..), that’s partially because I can actually come up with sensible bowings on the spot, or at least remember them from week to week. I’m not at the level of deciding how to bow a phrase based on musical merits – don’t ask me how to bow the Bach Suites, please – but at least I understand that bar beginnings and sforzandos should be down bows, certain staccato phrases are probably easier up bow, and that the string sections should be more or less consistent.
Somewhere I picked up the habit of pencilling stars into my music. I wonder who I got THAT from, and how many stars of hers I ignored over the years.
I’ve been neglecting blog lately. Fifty hour work weeks, chamber music activities for the last three weekends (playing piano, not cello, even though two weekends were devoted to cello sonatas), plus family in town and the last thing I’ve been wanting to do is bang out a screed on the keyboard. Nonetheless here’s one to round out the second month of the year.
December 3rd, 2007 § § permalink
A bit late, since the official notice went out when I was in London (more on that later when I get film processed), but if you’re free this Thursday evening:
California State University, East Bay Symphony Orchestra
Buddy James, conductor
Johann Sebastian Bach – Orchestral Suite #4 in D Major
Aaron Copland – Quiet City
Ludwig van Beethoven – Symphony #1 in C Major
7:30 PM Thursday, December 6, 2007
25800 Carlos Bee Blvd, Hayward, 94542
Music Building Recital Hall, MB1055
$7 general/$5 seniors and youth
Free to all with CSUEB ID
Information: (510) 885-3167
Tickets: (510) 885-3261
Now excuse me while I scramble to rent a tux.
October 11th, 2007 § § permalink
It’s one of those times in my life where I have too much going on. Came down with a cold, but mostly recovered in time to spend last week in Vancouver with family; Dad included, first time in seven years. Dad gave me a Leica M6 camera and lens, and I’m now faced with the daunting proposition of learning to shoot film after using point-and-shoot digital exclusively. I have a chamber music workshop this upcoming weekend, playing piano both days: two Brahms piano quartets to prepare. We’ve been training Kaylee, working with a dog trainer every Saturday for an hour and working on her D-O-W-Ns during the rest of the week. And then there’s a silly Lego minifig customization project I’ve been working on, involving everything from Krylon Fusion paint, boiling Sculpey, drawing in Illustrator, and printing water slide decals.
The biggest time commitment that I signed up for: I’m again a cellist in a real de facto orchestra! Classical this time, not punk rock. I auditioned for the orchestra at California State University two weeks ago, which meant buying new strings, actually practicing the cello, and dusting off the default audition piece: Prelude from Bach’s D Minor Suite No. 2. Amusingly, I recognized the sight reading immediately: the 3rd movement from Beethoven’s Fifth. Honestly hadn’t played it, but I knew very well how it was supposed to sound.
I got in, which may have had something to do with the orchestra being hard up for strings. I discovered just how hard up last night at first rehearsal: strings consisting of one first and two second violins, three violas, and three cellos. Fortunately we have a full wind and brass section, and they are very good. They consist mostly of students – as I understand it, due to budget cutbacks CSUEB had terminated their orchestra program a few years ago, resulting in the mass departure of the string students. The winds and brass programs remained intact though. As for us strings, currently it’s a mix of community members and students, and I anticipate any expansion will have to come from the community in the next few weeks.
Oddity I can’t get over: people think I have a nice cello. I don’t, really; it’s a crappy “Stradivarius copy” with wooden tone – although it’s much improved with a new set of Pirastro Obligatos – but some of the other musicians play school rental instruments. Not trying to sound like a snob, but I’m surprised that at the university level, people still play rentals. I guess I was spoiled while I was at the Academy. (Or just spoiled in general.)
We plowed through Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night Dream overture and made a hash of it, but started hitting our stride with Beethoven’s first symphony. As we played it, I started grinning as I found and reactivated long-unused neurons that had actually played the fairly challenging cello part over fifteen years ago while in the Delta Youth Orchestra. Rounding out our current repertoire is some interminable Bach, and Copland’s Quiet City (cello solo, treble clef – gack). Quite ambitious! Our first concert is the first week of December. Before then, I have some cello calluses to develop, and some major intonation issues involving C sharps on the G string to work out. Should be fun.
May 15th, 2007 § § permalink
Practiced a bit of cello tonight. I hauled it out and blew the rosin dust off it a couple of weeks ago, in part because I signed up for the June chamber music workshop at CMNC; in part wanting to honour the memory of Mstislav Rostropovich, who passed away recently. I’ve never met or seen him in concert, but my cello teacher Eugene studied with Mstislav; for how long, I don’t know, but Eugene always referred to him fondly as “Slava”, and Rostropovich had evidently left a lasting impression on Eugene. In particular, stressing the importance of the quality of tone, and so Eugene in turn tried to impart this to his students. Hence in my lessons, it was always about being grounded, sinking (but not digging!) into the strings with the bow with the weight of the arm, sometimes with a demonstration involving the weight of another arm on top of your own as you bowed and listening to how the instrument somehow got richer in tone – but not harsh. Then there was the near avoidance of playing near the fingerboard – softer meant slower bow, not light fluffy bow. Vibrato was slow and controlled, never spastic; always to enhance the tone, not as an end to itself. And heaven forbid you play an open string just for convenience’s sake – it’s always about the tone! I don’t know how much of this came from Rostropovich as opposed to Eugene’s other teachers, but still like to think that no matter how far removed Mstislav had a direct influence on how I approach the cello as an instrument.
Which isn’t to say that he’d like to consider me part of his legacy. Far from it. It’s been years since I had cello lessons, and in retrospect I wish I’d studied with Eugene a lot longer. Cello’s very hard for me to pick up after an extended absence. With piano, after an hour or two of practice I feel comfortably competent; cello is battling uphill all the way just to chase that elusive quality of tone when playing a single note. I still have problems even with just the basics: for example, I’m not confident about how I hold the bow, because nowadays after half an hour, my bow hand is cramped and aching. My left hand at least still has permanent calluses, but because I have fat finger pads and a tin ear, at least where the cello is concerned, my intonation is shockingly bad. I’ve never learned the theory of bowing and thus have to rely on markings such as Pierre Fournier’s edition of the Bach suites, which Eugene would be upset at: open strings everywhere, and harmonics for convenience. (I still have some lingering suspicions about Eugene’s bowings though; they’re remarkably similar to Fournier’s..)
The June workshop is two days. I was planning to play cello the first day, and piano the second day with my trio group (we’re still playing together regularly!). Alas I screwed up my schedule and the Ratatouille wrap party’s the first day, so no cello and.. no compelling reason to force me to practice. I should try to keep at it though. My trio is preparing the second movement of the Schubert E flat piano trio; tonight I tried the cello part for the first time and sight read it well enough. So there’s some sort of core competency there, even if I can’t figure out when the E flats are really closer to Es.
October 23rd, 2006 § § permalink
I keep getting asked about the Punk Rock Orchestra. Short answer: there isn’t a functional PRO at this time, or if there is one, I’m not a member of it. Soon after I joined, there was a management crisis and several last minute rehearsal cancellations, leading to disgruntled musicians. Our last practice was in May, with a new conductor. Attendance was bad: I was the only cellist who bothered showed up. A month later, an e-mail went out that we lost our practice space, and since then I haven’t heard any updates. It’s a pity: I was looking forward to scrubbing out the bass line for “Schwartzenegger Über Alles” (arrangement of a Dead Kennedys song), perhaps for a performance timed for the fall gubernatorial election. And now I have a tube of purple hair gel that I don’t know what to do with.
In the mean time, I substituted another, less punkish musical endeavour: I signed up for a workshop put together by the Chamber Musicians of Northern California, held yesterday at UC Hayward. The last one I attended was in February, 2001, so it’s been a while. This time I was in for piano for one of the two workshop days. When they told me I was going to be in a trio and asked about music choices, I immediately went for the first Brahms piano trio in B major, Opus 8. This was just before I left for Vancouver for Canadian Thanksgiving, so I got back late the Tuesday evening after, I had twelve days left to learn it.
I picked the Brahms mainly because I happened to have the music, and because I’ve tinkered with the first page and liked what I heard. Otherwise, I didn’t know then what I was getting into. I grew up not liking Brahms, but the last piano concerto I did was his first one in D minor, and I had great success with it. (Too bad I never got to play it with orchestra – financial cutback victim – that’s another story.) After having lived with it for two weeks, I’m happy I learned the piece. It’s a fairly difficult piano part, but proved to be tractable in the two weeks. As a piece of music it’s a very interesting mix of early Schumann-esque Brahms and late period Brahms. Even though it’s Opus 8, the commonly performed version is the one he revised much later in life at the insistence of Clara Schumann. The original version still survives and it’s interesting to compare the two, to see where the youthful overexuberance was trimmed away, leaving behind a mature and better work.
The workshop was yesterday, and I was partnered with a good violinist and an even better cellist, who did a great job of sight reading the difficult cello part. I was fortunate: like most things in life, chamber music is best when it’s a partnership of equals. CMNC workshops have a system of self ranking, meant to ensure that you play with people of equal calibre. The first workshop I went to, I self ranked as “advanced”, and ended up unhappy at playing the Schumann piano quintet with musicians who were struggling through the string parts. So this time around, I signed up as “professional”. I apologise for this insult to friends who actually make a living at piano playing, but the general CMNC rule seems to be inflated self rankings.
Still it’s obviously been a while since I played chamber music: the coaches pointed out the problems I was having with ensemble balance. I was told to leave the lid at full stick, so I’d like to blame that, but the fact remains that the Brahms trio is densely written in the piano part and easily overpowers the lower violin registers. Something to work on for the next workshop – maybe I’ll go for the “Dumky” Dvorak trio and go through another two weeks of forearm pain all over again.