It’s late October and I’m sitting on my hosts’ lovely back porch, overlooking their beautiful yard in Greenville, South Carolina. The North Carolina Baroque Orchestra is joining forces with the South Carolina Bach Choir to give a weekend of concerts in Spartanburg, Columbia, and Greenville. Nothing beats a weekend of Bach, especially when it’s a perfect 78 degrees.
A week ago, I was in San Francisco concluding a three-week trip to the West Coast where I got to spend time with some of my favorite people, get a few baroque lessons, and generally absorb as much culture as possible. This culminated with a concert by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra under Nicholas McGegan playing Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, one of my all time favorite pieces. (I admitted to one of my students at EMF that I went through a phase of blasting it every morning and dancing around the house. I thought it was a great way to start the day, but apparently she thought that was hilarious.)
On the first half of the program, Robert Levin performed Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto and I was blown away by his improvised cadenzas. He bounded fearlessly around the fortepiano (the direct ancestor of the modern piano, used in the late 18th and early 19th centuries) weaving the themes of the movement together in more and more distantly related keys. Sometimes he would stop time altogether and make the audience laugh as he stretched the tension in the room before finally inviting the orchestra back in to join him.
I brought my best friend, Meryl, and her fiancé to the concert, who both have a deep appreciation and understanding of all kinds of music. In high school, Meryl introduced me to Bob Dylan, Joanna Newsom, Van Morrisson, and Sigur Ros, and in return, I showed her Bartok, Shostakovich, and Vivaldi. We spent our weekends going to live shows in New Haven and coming home reeking of smoke because, as a society, we hadn’t yet decided it was gross for people to do that inside. I was not surprised when, a few years ago, she told me she met a super smart guy named Chris in San Francisco who also loves to play the piano. They have a nice upright that lives in the kitchen with stacks of Beethoven and Mozart Sonatas on top.
We all agreed that the Philharmonia’s performance had tremendous energy and they particularly enjoyed hearing the distinct sounds of period instruments for the first time. But, again, what stood out was the improvisation and the general sense of communication onstage amongst all the musicians.
I remember a time when improvisation felt impossible to me. I didn’t know enough theory...what if it sounds bad? what if I play a wrong note?? Little Miss Perfectionist, who resides in my brain, yet again was preventing me from trying something new. I first stretched my fear muscle a little bit in high school playing bass in a jazz quartet. Instead of written out music, I was looking at a chord chart and creating a bassline on the spot. But I still refused to take a solo.
Years later, I played bass in another group, this time a cover band with some friends in Miami. That was even a little more stressful because no one else was even using charts. Here I was, a classically trained violinist who performed the entire Brahms Violin Concerto in Mr. Kantor’s studio class at CIM from memory, sweating about memorizing a few rock songs. Ever since I was little, I memorized things quickly, but I relied almost entirely on muscle memory. The simplicity of the basslines by themselves did not allow for me to learn my “part” by itself and I often found myself desperately looking at the left hand of our guitar player, Justin, to make sure I was in the right key.
Now I am so grateful for these experiences because they forced me to do a number of very important things.
1. Understand the harmonic structure.
2. Memorize the formal structure.
3. Be able to continue playing while focusing on listening to the rest of the ensemble to be sure I was “in the groove” both harmonically and rhythmically.
I am reminded of Jeanne Lamon, the legendary Music Director of the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, who said that in order to truly play together, you must adjust your own aural perception by bringing the sound of the entire ensemble to the foreground and pushing your own sound into the background. Like adjusting the focus of a camera lens. It was refreshing to hear one of the most distinguished violinists and conductors of our time place a higher value on the ensemble sound as a whole over her own personal contribution. The emphasis on the cultivation of great ensemble playing and the opportunity to improvise are both reasons I feel that the Early Music movement has more in common with music like jazz, bluegrass, and rock and roll than with modern symphony orchestras.
A week before the Philharmonia’s concert, I got a message from Charith Premawardhana, the founder and artistic director of Classical Revolution, a movement which focuses on performing great classical music in unique locations such as bars and cafes. This season marks the tenth anniversary after he started it in San Francisco and now there are chapters all over the country. Charith and I met in Miami years before when he was getting a chapter started there.
So when Charith saw a Facebook post putting me in SF, he asked if I would like to come play Beethoven Symphony No. 7 with a small group at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. I’m basically always down to play Beethoven so I said “Absolutely, I do.” When I arrived, however, I realized that we would also be backing up a band playing a set of David Bowie songs on the first half. I then noticed a number of microphones scattered throughout the orchestra. Nothing makes a orchestral player nervous like sticking a microphone in their face. We had a quick soundcheck, played a few parts of the Symphony, and stopped to eat some dinner before the show. That was it. We were just going to read down some David Bowie charts with a band with no rehearsal. No big deal.
No one else was remotely phased. In the words of Seth Godin, this was Charith’s “Tribe” (check out Godin’s amazing TED talk, “The Tribes We Lead"). They believed in the mission of the organization and they believed in their leader. He had written out some basic charts and positioned himself in the center of the ensemble playing violin so he could communicate with everyone. It was at this moment I was so glad for people like Meryl in my life who showed me the great music outside of the classical world because I was familiar with most of the songs. “Life on Mars” is a personal favorite, and a song I’ve actually been trying to arrange myself.
Sometimes the charts didn’t match exactly what the band did. But something magical happened. Nobody got lost. Nobody strictly ran down their page of music and then stopped and said, “Well that’s what I had in my part.” Nobody sat on a note that didn’t make sense in the chord. They listened to the band, looked around to be connected with everyone, and made sure what they were doing was contributing in an artistic way that made sense.
It makes me think of Tina Fey’s autobiographical book “Bossypants” (which is not only hilarious, but incredibly inspirational) where she talks about the ground rules for improvisation. The first and by far most important rule is to “Say Yes.” Whatever the other person suggests, you accept and go with it. That is what I loved the most about this concert at the de Young Museum. There was no complaining, no blaming, no throwing of hands up in the air in frustration. Everyone said yes and it made me feel safe. I stopped worrying about playing all the perfect notes because there was no judgement whatsoever. We took turns soloing during instrumental parts of the song, and I noticed everyone adding their own personal ornaments (to use a baroque term).
It was a transformative moment for me, to be part of such a performance. It clarified what is important to me, and what skills I value in the musicians I work with. Perfection is nowhere on that list, but the ability to sacrifice your own ego for the good of the group is there. And above all, I just love to play with people who can GROOVE.