on goodness

The past two evenings I performed on a Third Angle New Music studio series concert called “A Family Affair”. It was a concert centered around one of my colleagues in the ensemble (and in the Oregon Symphony), cellist Marilyn De Oliveira. Marilyn is quite a remarkable human being. She is one of the few people I know who is almost relentlessly positive in her outlook, regardless of what is happening both inside her life and in the outside world. She describes herself – somewhat ruefully – as a pollyanna. She is also, perhaps because of this worldview, a tremendous advocate for music to everyone. She, as she put it at a Q&A session last night, was brought up with the view that music has an incredible capacity to bring joy to every single person who encounters it. She is, quite honestly, a musical evangelical. And she’s one of those advocates who doesn’t tell you why music is good for you, she just, by her way of being and inhabiting the music, makes you also want to hear more, do more, maybe even learn more about music.

It’s so admirable, what Marilyn embodies. The audience at the concerts this week were also completely rapt in their attention to what Marilyn and her band of friends and family presented. It’s a rare thing, to be on the receiving end of that sort of audience focus. There really was a give and take that one always hopes for, but seldom gets in larger scale performances in the concert hall. For chamber musicians it’s more common to encounter, but these shows were at a level of interchange between audience and musicians that was way up in the 99th percentile. I’ll close by saying a heartfelt thank you to Marilyn for her musical kinship and friendship these past few years, and for inviting me to perform with her this week. It was a career highlight for me.

Obrigado, Marilyn!

Program:

CAROLINE SHAW | limestone & felt (2012)
JOHN TAVENER | Akhmatova Songs (1993)
ANDY AKIHO | 21 (2009)
SVANTE HENRYSON | Off Pist (1996)
KENJI BUNCH | Adventure Awaits (2017)
Commissioned with support from The Collins Foundation
GIOVANNI SOLLIMA | Lamentatio (1998)

Performers:
Marilyn de Oliveira, cello
Edlyn de Oliveira, soprano
Trevor Fitzpatrick, cello
Charles Noble, viola
Michael Roberts, percussion
James Shields, clarinet

is alto clef becoming extinct?

<begin_rant/>

In the age of music notation software, composers and arrangers can crank out music quickly, and for the most part, neatly. However, in their quest to get an arrangement out the door asap, arrangers can often cut-and-paste lines of music from one instrument to another. I don’t have a problem with this – I’d mostly likely do it myself, if I were pressed for time – but what often happens is that the material that’s brought in from another instrument is kept in the same clef as the original instrument. Often, this isn’t a huge deal. Violists read two clefs in their everyday lives: alto, and treble. Here is a visual guide to how alto clef fits in with treble and bass clef (what pianists read when they play):

Three clefs, nesting in harmony (*cough*).

Those note heads designate the open strings of the viola. As you can see, the viola spans roughly half of each of the treble and bass clefs. Because of this range, the alto clef, squarely in the middle, works best, because if provides from the least amount of ledger lines (lines added above or below the staff) in the most commonly used range of the instrument.

That low C that you see in the bass clef – that is our lowest note. Unless we tune down our C-string, we can’t physically play any lower than that. However, we can play well up into the treble clef, using many ledger lines – if we tried to notate those notes in alto clef, it would be impossible to fit them on the page! Therefore, we use treble clef quite a bit for the sake of readability and ease of music engraving (what it’s still called even though most music publishing long ago abandoned engraved plates for printing).

Too many lines! Too many lines!

To make a long story a bit shorter, here is the received wisdom of orchestrating for the viola: use treble clef to enhance readability, and don’t go lower than the range of the violin (because many of us either play, or have played the violin, and going below G on treble clef puts us in territory where we can’t quickly read what the notes are).

So, back to our composer and arranger (mostly arranger) friends. They are on a tight deadline, and they cut-and-paste music from one instrument to another (or from a piano score to an instrumental score line), and the music is shoe-horned into the clef that the arranger has chosen for the viola part. Often, this is in treble clef, because they’re working from a treble clef source, and it’s easier for an arrange to quickly read (most people who don’t play viola or trombone aren’t super fluent in alto clef). Sometimes, this works great. Other times, not so much. When the arranger doesn’t proof their parts, we get stuff like this to read:

You can see that most of the chart is in treble clef – not a problem, usually, but at m. 47, we get the dreaded treble clef below-the-staff ledger line issue which makes all violists see red and post to twitter with #OrchestrationMatters hastags.

Please, arrangers, use alto clef for violists! And use treble clef only if it keeps our line within the staff or the normal range of the violin! Please, we beg you!

</end_rant>

season 22 begins

Season 22 – back to school!

It’s hard to believe, but yesterday marked the beginning of my 22nd season with the Oregon Symphony. Even though I’m closing in on the quarter century mark, there are still things that make me happy when I show up at the first rehearsal of the season.

First, my colleagues. Since we don’t have a summer season, the orchestra members scatter to the four corners of the globe doing summer festivals, vacations, and in some cases, other jobs. Because of this, we don’t get to see each other that much during our off time – even those of us who are close friends. Seeing everyone after the summer break is much like seeing one’s friends at school after the long break. It’s old home week, with lots of hugs and stories shared before rehearsal and during the break.

Second, the sound of a really great orchestra. With few exceptions, the summer festival orchestras we play in are not of the quality of the Oregon Symphony. They are fun, and good, but as festival orchestras, they are put together afresh each summer, often without the continuity of personnel that a full-time orchestra has. When we come back from the summer break, and I hear just how good we sound, even on the first day back, it makes me smile from the pleasure and pride of it.

Third, knowing I’ll be getting paid soon. Yeah, we don’t do it solely for the money, but the mortgage must be paid! In a less than 52 week orchestra, budgeting is a constant battle. Saving money from each paycheck to apply towards the summer bills, trying to figure out how much summer work there will be this year, etc. Some people rely on unemployment benefits to make it through the summer, but it has become so difficult to jump through all of the hoops that the state has in place that some of us – me included – have given up trying to collect benefits.

Today (Saturday), we perform at the Oregon Zoo in a program that has lots of audience favorites. The temperature will hit 99F today, with around 90 expected at concert time. Thankfully, no tuxedos or tails for us – it’ll be OSO polo shirts and slacks for us – and we have new water bottles to keep us hydrated, if not cool. Plus, there’s the 1812 Overture!