Friday, October 31, 2008

The Viola as Prima Donna and Other Improbabilities

Another lackluster week. I played a couple of Memos, played in my studio class on Tuesday night, and had a few rehearsals. Other than that, it's the normal eat, practice, sleep, repeat deal. However, I have been reading a book about the history of the Bartók viola concerto, and I was inspired to share this awesomely scathing review the concerto got when it was first premiered in the early 50s. (The title of this post is the title of the article). So here it goes:

The diverse efforts of Mozart, Berlioz, Hindemith, Walton, Arthur Benjamin, "Handel-Barbirolli" and others have succeeded in convincing us that the best viola concerto is one which isn't really a concerto, and that the fingerboard of the viola ought to be cut off, until further notice, at a point to be determined by a Committee of Chamber Musicians, but none too near the regions of the eternal resin. Only thus will the viola cease to lead into temptation. Meanwhile, painstaking musicological research has unearthed the inspirations, primary as well as pre-disposing, which make for a viola concerto. They are precisely four. The first inspiration is that the composer is fond of playing the viola. The second is that Paganini wants a viola concerto. The third is that Primrose wants a viola concerto. The fourth is that nobody, least of all the composer, wants a viola concerto, but that he hopes that once it's there someone will want it, since there are so few viola concertos. As for "exploring the virtuoso possibilities of the instrument," there aren't any, unless you want to change the viola's character, which nowadays isn't at all difficult, though Mozart has done far more in this direction than you with your whimpering and whining viola parts, simply by tuning the instrument up half a tone. If, however, you think that exploring impossibilities will give you ideas, you ought to turn to the saxophone, which offers the richest variety of them; or, since these have been dealt with by Ibert and Phyllis Tate, you might try a concerto for cow-horn. At least this wouldn't tempt you to throw in strings of semiquavers whenever you thought that virtuosity was called for - a game in which almost all modern composers of concertos for the violin family indulge. Beethoven started it, and indeed, with the deepest admiration for the content of the violin concerto, I do not find much reason to consider it a violin concerto. In our own time, the sense of the genuinely virtuosic possibilities of the violin family has largely been lost (for reasons that in my opinion lie ultimately in the development of harmony), which in part accounts for people's increasing readiness to write viola concertos. I personally would propose to every composer who writes a string concerto, including the great geniuses, to re-study the Mendelssohn which qua violin concerto has remained unequalled, and which incidentally goes to support Hindemith's discerning suggestion to Stravinsky, who is not a violinist, that his lack of executive ability, far from being a hindrance, would actually be "a very good thing" for writing a violin concerto.
Bartok's last work does not seem to lessen the improbablility of the viola concerto; even the would-be brilliant semiquavers are all there, in the last movement. At the same time the chief problem of the Concerto, which in places one hardly recognizes as Bartók (let alone the great Bartók), is more fundamental: should this music have been published at all?....If someone told me that I would find Elisabeth Lutyens' Viola Concerto immeasurably more satisfying than Bartók's I should have laughed in his face - which goes to warn us of even our most justified prejudices.

I love this review because it hardly mentions the Bartók concerto at all, and is instead an opportunity for the author to voice his great dislike of the viola. If only all viola bashing were this eloquent! Granted the Bartók concerto has a lot of flaws. But that's because he died in the middle of writing it. It's still a pretty cool piece, and just imagine how kick-ass it would have been had he finished the orchestration and finalized the viola part before he died. Course, this was a review of the Serly version, and it does sound decidedly un-Bartókian at times. Which is probably why they kept the manuscript under lock and key until the 1990s. But since the manuscript became available for study, 2 other versions have been published, not to mention countless others that may have been worked on but not published. The author of the book I'm reading created his own reconstruction! The most widely available new version is the Peter Bartók/Nelson Dellamaggiore version, but Csaba Erdelyi has published and recorded his version in Australia/NZ, but it is as of yet unavailable in the rest of the world due to differing statues of limitations on copyrights. Which is also why others haven't published their own versions (like the author, for example). Anyways, I'm reading this book, and I thought this was worth sharing. Enjoy.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Just livin my life, ayo ayo ayo

So Tuesday I went to Den Haag to my teacher's house to get my instrument adjusted. Some friends of his from Germany who just happen to be really great instrument repair people were stopping by to look at his viola and whoever of his students as well, so me and one other of his students came with our instruments. They filed down my bridge a little, adjusted my soundpost, and my viola sounds so good! Whoa! It was pretty sweet. And luckily it stopped raining by the time we were done the adjustments, so I took the opportunity to wander around Den Haag a little. I went to the Binnenhof, which is an inner courtyard surrounded by all the buildings of the Dutch parliament. The central courtyard was once used for executions, and has a big 13th century Gothic dining hall called the Ridderzaal (Knight's Hall) on the one end. There must have been something going on because there was a red carpet of sorts and barricades with people crowded around them. Maybe the Queen was there. But waiting in a mob is actually kind of boring so I just had a look around and left. I wandered around for a bit, found the Canadian Embassy (since I figured it's probably a good idea to know where the embassy is if I ever need to go there), walked past the Paleis Noordeinde, the king and queen's official residence. I eventually made my way back to the Binnenhof, and visited the Mauritshuis museum. The building was actually a mansion dating from 1640, and in 1822 it was converted to a museum to host the royal collection. I saw Vermeer's "View of Delft" and "Girl with a Pearl Earring", as well as Rembrandt's "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp". Pretty cool stuff. Aside from the biggies that are always on show (if they're not being lent out) they have rotating exhibitions of course, and the one showing was of Dutch cityscapes. The Netherlands has had a strong tradition of strong city-states, so as far back as the 1600 artists had started painting cityscapes. It was pretty cool, but there's only so many times you can see a painting entitled "View of ". I was a little sad I didn't get to see Andy Warhol's "Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands", but it wasn't on display. I considered going to a few other museums, namely the Galerij Prins Willem V (which was opened in 1773 and paintings are still hung in the manner popular in the 18th century - every possible space on the wall is covered in art), and Escher in het Paleis Museum (a permanent collection spanning MC Escher's entire career, housed in the former residences of Queen Emma). As well, it would have been supercool to tour the Vredespaleis, the home of the UN International Court of Justice, but you need to book ahead to take a tour since security is understandably pretty strict. But instead I decided to head back home. There's so many cool things to see! It's too overwhelming! Also I was tired from getting up early to catch the train, and sort of travel fatigued since I'd just gotten back from Maastricht the afternoon before.
The rest of the week passed by pretty quietly. I practiced, and went to the gym. I had a Memo in Amstelveen on Thursday morning, which is one of the suburbs of Amsterdam. But it was all good because I got paid an extra 12 euros for extra travel, and it's not like I had anything to do! Holidays! The only stupid thing about the holidays is that the school was on limited hours - 9-4. Which is just ridiculous. On a normal school day nobody is there at 9 am, or pretty much before 11 or 12 for that matter. And we have even less incentive to get up early on our holidays! I think if they wanted limited hours, they should have done them from 12-8 or something like that. But apparently most schools just shut down altogether, but music schools can't do that because we need to practice. The library was closed entirely for the whole week which was annoying, since it already has limited enough hours as it is (it's only open monday to friday, mon 12-5:30, tues-fri 10-5:30). Yeah, that's another weird thing I don't know if I've mentioned yet. Not only is everything in the entire country (pretty much) closed on Sundays, but everything's also closed on Monday mornings. And most things close quite early compared to in big cities in Canada - there's no such thing as grocery stores open until midnight, let alone the awesome 24 hour stores - here most close at 6, and the late ones close at 9 or 10. I can only compare it to living in Saskatoon, and every day is on Sunday hours. It's frustrating because I don't keep 9-5 normal hours, and so when I have free time everything's closed. Boo-urns. Also, another interesting thing I've discovered while working for Memo - all the preschools and primary schools are locked up tight, and you have to get buzzed in. There's no such thing as just walking in the front doors of a school. You have to call and get buzzed in. And most of them have playgrounds in an inner courtyard, so there's no way that you can really get at the playground either. I'm not sure if it makes me feel more or less safe, because it's a little worrying that they feel they have to take such precautions. I just think of the elementary schools I went to, where all the doors were unlocked and open at all times, the the playground was a big field that was completely open. It's the same way that when you see lots of police around you feel more afraid rather than more safe. Anyways, I just thought it was strange.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Uno Maas(tricht)

So I'm back. Back again. My friend Hayley and I went on a weekend trip to Maastricht, in the very south of the Netherlands. It's right at the bottom of the country, and about 5 km one way in Belgium and 20 km the other way is Germany. We took the train out Saturday morning, and after brief confusion finally arrived in Maastricht around noon. Unbeknownst to us, the train from Amsterdam seperates at Sittard, and one half goes on to Maastricht while the other half goes to Heeren. And we just happened to be sitting on the Heeren side of the train. So we arrive in Heeren, and can't figure out what happened. So we had to catch a puddle-jumping "stop-trein" from Heeren to Maastricht. But it turned out quite nice though, because we saw some South Limburg countryside that we wouldn't have seen otherwise. Maastricht is the "Crown Jewel of the south", and is about as far away from windmills, clogs, and tulips as you can get. There are Spanish and Roman ruins, since it got its start as a Roman town and then was occupied by the Spanish for a long period of time. As well, the city hosted two key moments in the history of the EU - in 1991 the 12 members of the European Community met to sign the treaty for economic, monetary, and political union, and they reconvened the next year to sign the Maastricht Treaty, which officially created the EU. So part of Maastricht's new revitalized Ceramique district (which used to be filled with ceramics factories) has a big square called Plein 1992, in celebration of the EU and the Maastricht Treaty.
We met up with our host Marten at his flat, which is about 3 blocks from the train station. We dumped our stuff off there, and then headed out with Marten who took us on walking tour of Maastricht. This was my first adventure using to find a host to stay with. And I must say it worked out great. Marten was a great host, and we had a really fun time in Maastricht. He took us all around the city on Saturday. We visited the church with the Zwarte Christ, a statue of christ that's "black" because it's made out of very dark wood. We checked out the old city walls and fortifications, the Sint Servaasbasiliek which is a church that dates from around 1000, walked by Sint Janskerk but it was closed for repairs, went to the Onze Lieve Vrowebasiliek which has parts dating before 1000 and may well have been built on the foundations of a Roman cathedral. We got some coffee at the Markt Square, visited a water powered granary, and then got some groceries and went back to Marten's where he cooked us a very tasty Thai curry for dinner. We then proceeded to drink copious amounts of wine and discuss life until about 2 am. Good times.
On Sunday 'morning' (and by morning I mean around 12:30 pm) Hayley and I set off with a mission to visit Sint Pietersberg, a Roman fort 2 km south of the city. It's a nice walk from town, and it lies just on top of a hillside overlooking Maastricht. We didn't get to go on a tour of the fort since we missed the 1 tour they run every day, but we did get to go on a supercool tour of the Northern Corridor System Tunnels, which were built by the Romans throughout the hills over a period of 2000 years. The Romans developed the tunnels by quarrying soft marlstone at a rate of just 4 blocks per day, creating an underground system that provided refuge to the citizens of Maastricht whenever they found themselves under attack. During WWII for example, the tunnels housed a well, a storeroom, a chapel, a kitchen, a bakery, and a pen for livestock. At one stage the Northern Corridor System Tunnels had over 20 000 separate passageways adding up to a length of over 200 km and stretching underneath the Belgian border - until the French blew up a big chunk during the war, thinking they were under the Sint Pietersberg fort. However, they only succeeded in entombing hundreds of French soldiers. Geniuses at work. The caves are quite chilly, and are really really dark. Also, they're full of graffiti from across the ages. The tunnels were only closed to the public in the 1980s, so up until then people could just wander in and write their name on the walls. I saw a lot of English/American names written with the date 1944 - Allied soldiers no doubt. I even found some names carved in the wall somewhat ornately with the date 1698. Cool stuff. The guide's favourite game is (with your permission) to leave with the lamps and go to the end of a long curved passageway, and then we have to walk through the tunnel in the pitch black, using our hand on the wall to guide us. It is so dark and so ominously silent down there, that apparently grown men break down and cry when left without a light. In our tour group, one of the kids piped up as soon as the light disappeared around the bend: "Ik kan niet see!" It was pretty funny. After our tunnel adventure we walked back into town, and ate some food at a nice little cafe in the Markt Square. Then we headed back to Marten's and hung out with him some more. But we ended up turning in at a more reasonable hour since we were all very tired from our late night before. This morning we got up and did some dishes for Marten before we left - he was already at work so we decided to leave him a little present. We caught the train at about 11:50 and got home to our doorsteps at about 3:00. Not too bad. Now it's back to real life, somewhat. It's still the fall break, so the school has limited hours. I may make use of my Museumkaart and go to some museums around town, and I was also thinking of taking day trips to Den Haag, Rotterdam, or Utrecht. We'll see.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Walk this way

I feel like I should be walking around like a cowboy, all bow-legged. Yesterday I met up with a guy from Israel who messaged me on to go for a bike ride in the countryside north of Amsterdam. He (and another tourist from Seattle who he met on a city tour the day before) met me at school, and we headed out into the countryside. Beautiful weather, all sunny with a breeze to keep cool. Perfect biking weather. The Netherlands has a huge network of bike paths, and really great signage all over the place so that you never get lost. We biked north, and more north, and passed some very quaint towns like Volendam and Edam (yes like the cheese), until we got to Hoorn. The catch is, Hoorn is 31 km north of Amsterdam. And once we got there, we had to bike all the way back. So that was a 62 km round trip. And then counting the distance I bike to school and back, I biked around 80 km yesterday. And also because I'm crazy, I went to the gym and worked out. I lifted all my weights, and ran for a couple miles, and then did a yoga class. Surprisingly, I'm not very sore today. Pretty much only saddle sore. I also got to take some pretty pictures yesterday, so enjoy - on Saturday I have my own couchsurfing adventure in Maastricht!

Monday, October 13, 2008


Life continues on. I was super excited to go see the Concertgebouw play Prokofiev's Classical Symphony on Saturday, but halfway through the day on Friday I started to feel very tired. At first I just thought it must be because I had gotten up at the ungodly hour of 6:30 to go running with my friend Simona, but then I started feeling all achy and feverish, and I ended up getting very sick. I spent most of Saturday in bed, except for my brief sojourn to the grocery store in the afternoon. I needed food, and even though I wasn't feeling very well all the stores are closed on Sunday so I had to go out. I also stopped at the drug store and picked up some good old vitamin C. Needless to say, I didn't make it to the concert. I am feeling much better now, though I still have some vestiges of the sickness. I am a bit stuffy, and have a cough. But other than that I feel fine. Which is of course a relative term.

This weekend is the start of the Herfstvakantie, the fall vacation. We have a week off, for whatever. A lot of people are going home (because they're from England/Austria/Spain/Germany/somewhere else close), but my friend Hayley and I have decided to go to Maastricht for the weekend. She has to work on Monday evening, and I'm going to have a lesson even though it's the vacation, so we're just going to go for a couple of days. Maastricht pretty much as far south as you can get in the Netherlands, and it's surrounded by Belgium and France. It's one of the oldest cities as well, as it used to be a Roman town. It's also got hills, which is quite a novelty. And a whole system of tunnels hewn out of the hills from as far back as the Roman times. I just hope the tunnels will still be open. Maastricht's sort of described as the most un-Dutch Dutch city, so I think it will be pretty cool. On Tuesday as well I will probably go to Den Haag to get my instrument adjusted by these people my teacher Sven has recommended, who are there for one day only. As well, Hayley and I though it might be nice sometime a little later in the week to take a day trip to Rotterdam. So we'll see. Tomorrow I'm meeting up with a guy from Israel who I met on, and I'm going to take him on a little biking tour of the countryside around Amsterdam. It's a nice excuse for me to do it as well, since I've been meaning to since I arrived in August, but haven't managed to leave the city yet. There always seems like there are other things I should be doing. It's the classic musician guilt - you should be practicing. And if you are practicing you should at least be sitting at school not practicing. Hayley and I are probably going to couchsurf in Maastricht too, since it's the only way to travel!

Fun fact I learned today in my Musical Body class: our guest lecturer was a doctor at the clinic for musicians and dancers in the Hague, and one of his colleagues did a very cool study. He got the first 150 patients who walked through the clinic doors (musicians and dancers) to fill out a survey that would determine whether they had ADHD. Now only about 2-5% of the normal population suffers from ADHD. What percentage of these musicians and dancers did? You might think like I did that it would in fact be very low, since you are required to focus and concentrate for long periods of time. Until he explained that one of the manifestations of ADHD is hyper-focussing on one action or task, at the complete detriment of focussing on anything else. And then it struck me - what is the prototypical absent-minded musician? Someone who can tell you absolutely everything about their instrument from its creation to the present day and is generally a master at their craft, but can't organize their life worth shit or even remember your name half the time. Well, this study found that 50-60% of those walking through the clinic doors suffered from ADHD. Now keep in mind that these are injured musicians and dancers, so their hyper-focus may have led to strain themselves over the limit, but it makes a lot of sense doesn't it? And that doesn't take into account those of us who have some aspects of ADHD but don't "suffer" from it in a clinical sense. Then I'm pretty sure that would encompass at least 90% of professional musicians. You have to be slightly batty just to survive. Anyways I thought it was an amusing fun fact. Enjoy. My Thankgiving gift to you.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Wil jullie danse?

Wow, it's been a while since I posted. I don't even remember as far back as Sept. 27. Let's see. I continue to rehearse for Black Angels. I continue to take Dutch lessons. I've started working/volunteering for this MEMO program, in which students go to nurseries and daycares throughout the city and do little 15 min music presentations for the kids. I had my first 'try-out'this morning, and it went well. On friday I do my first real paid MEMO - you get about 15 euros an hour for it. You can only earn a max of 150 euros a month, but it's pretty sweet because since you're technically just a paid volunteer, I don't have to pay taxes on it. Playing for kids is really fun - though it's funny the difference between the baby groups and the toddlers. The babies just sit and stare at you, because you're just totally blowing their mind. They can't do anything but stare. But the toddlers get really excited, and clap and dance and run around. It's very cute. This week I started getting up at 7 am to meet my friend Simona who lives near me to go for an hour run around the Sloterplas (lake near our place). It's good for now, but I'm still shopping for a gym for when the weather gets really gross. Also on friday night I met up with Ramon, the 'Dutch freeloader' who stayed at my rents place in Saskatoon back in 2005. I had my first real dutch brown pub experience, and even drank some crazy Frisian liquor. I continue with my Concertgebouw addiction, averaging about 2 concerts a week. This weekend is Prokoviev 1st piano concerto and the Classical Symphony. I must go. But then after that I think I have to cut back on my concert consumption. Only if I want to eat. And I like food almost as much as I like sleep.