my favorite performances of the decade

It’s 2020! Now, there is some debate as to whether the new decade starts this year or next, but humans like round numbers, so I’m going with 2020 for the new decade, (and it’s a random Roman’s fault that we have this conundrum, anyway). Will this one roar or suck? Who knows! Not me. But this past decade was an interesting one for me, I’ll say.

Between 2010 and 2020, I lost both of my parents, got divorced, got remarried, bought a house, and broke my collarbone. It was a real Dickens sort of situation, the best of times and the worst of times, all rolled into one.

Musically, it was a less mixed bag. I literally played so much music that I cannot even begin to remember all of it. But here are some things that come to mind from each year.

Me and Greg in our cowboy shirts. Wow, we look young!

In September 2010, I played my first concert with 45th Parallel, and took the show on the road with cowboy shirts to Pendleton, Oregon. It’s fun to look back at how young we were – and to think that the organization has grown into 45th Parallel Universe, and I’m one of the musician board members. Crazy!

Me and Joël onstage at Carnegie.

In May 2011, the Oregon Symphony made its first trip to Carnegie Hall in New York City. It was an amazing trip, see my blog post here, and was a huge publicity boon for the orchestra. In fact, our concert there made Alex Ross’ performances of the decade list in the New Yorker as well!

Rowena Hamill, me, Serena McKinney , and Elisa Barsten after a rockin’ Debussy Quartet.

In August 2012, I played my first concerts with the Methow Valley Chamber Music Festival. I got to meet and play with some remarkable musicians, and to enjoy the spectacular scenery of the area. It was also my first two rehearsal Debussy quartet. Yikes!

In September 2013, the then Third Angle String Quartet played Georg Friedrich Haas’ Third Quartet – which is played from memory in total darkness – for the first time at the OMSI planetarium. It was a formative musical experience for me in my first full season with the group. We’ve gone on to play it several more times, most recently in Astoria this year as the Pyxis Quartet.

Arnica String Quartet

March 2014 brought a performance of the three string quartets of the great British composer Benjamin Britten at the Community Music Center. Three masterpieces, all played in one sitting. Exhausting, but also exhilarating!

Third Angle and Alex Ross

April 2015 featured a performance at the Alberta Rose Theater of Third Angle New Music with renowned author and critic Alex Ross. Works of Cage, John Luther Adams, Henry Cowell, Steve Reich, and Lou Harrison. Alex Ross has long been a hero of mine, and it was fantastic to share the stage with him.

James MacMillan

2016 had a lot going for it, but tops of that year for me was the US premiere of James MacMillan’s European Requiem at the Oregon Bach Festival, as well as a chamber orchestra concert under his direction that same week. The Requiem is and was a stunning masterpiece, and one that should be programmed in Oregon again soon. Hint, hint…

Cycle One class at the GLFCAM.

2017 brought the emergence of the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music, and Third Angle and soprano Tony Arnold were the first artists to be invited to work with her slate of young composers. Musically, it was incredibly challenging and rewarding, but emotionally it was earth-shaking. What a joy it was to be involved with this project!

Colin Currie

2018 came with a collaboration with the Oregon Symphony Artist-in-Residence for that time period, percussionist Colin Currie. A string quartet of OSO musicians joined him for a mini tour to the University of Oregon and Oregon State University to play two works with him by Martland and Daugherty, as well as the String Quartet No. 2 by Quincy Porter.

Post Crumb mayhem with the Pyxis Quartet.

And, finally, 2019. There was so much to love about the projects I did in this year, but for me my first traversal of Crumb’s monumental and phantasmagorical Black Angels with the Pyxis Quartet (for the local micro-festival Makrokosmos) has to win the prize. I can’t wait to sink my teeth into it again!

Well, let’s see what the next ten years bring! Avanti!

Random musings on orchestral career longevity by a partially-recovered violist

[Note: written yesterday] I’ve got a long break between rehearsals today. The Oregon Symphony is doing a semi-staged version of Shakespeare’s Tempest accompanied by Sibelius incidental music for same. So, long break for various tech things to happen before our afternoon dress rehearsal. If you’re a fan of all things Shakespeare, it’s definitely worth a look this weekend. Find out about tickets and the like here.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about orchestral careers and their longevity. I was struck by a recent New York Times article on the Chicago Symphony’s legendary brass section that Principal trombonist Jay Friedman has been in his position since 1965. 1965. That’s three years before I was born! I’m in awe of his endurance and in his artistic integrity that has led him to be a formidable contributor to the famous “Chicago sound” for the past 54 years, give or take. Amazing.

Then I think about other musicians, both in that orchestra and others around the country, where seemingly everyone in the broader musical world was muttering to themselves “why hasn’t that person retired, yet?”

It’s a tough situation, I can only imagine. But imagining it became easier for me since my cycling accident. I’m well on my way to a full recovery (knock on wood), but there were some dark moments in the middle of the night where I thought that I might never get there, and what would I do then?

When I began my tenure with the OSO, back in 1995, then Music Director James DePreist was famous for allowing musicians to stay long past their ‘sell-by date’. Then, finally, the musician in question would get invited to a ‘lunch with Jimmy’, and they’d be gently asked to move on. These days the process has been a bit less gentle, I’m guessing, marked by a very high-profile public dispute between incoming Music Director Carlos Kalmar and then Principal flutist Dawn Weiss, which ultimately led to the end of her OSO tenure.

But, regardless of the music director’s attitude towards personnel issues, there will come a time when an orchestral musician will literally be called to face the music. Many of us take great pride in what we do, and there is a lot of truth in the adage that experience can make up for some loss of technical aplomb, but I wonder why it is that some of us are unwilling to admit that we are not capable of performing at the requisite high standard day in and day out. Playing in an orchestra – especially a full-time major orchestra – is the equivalent of running a marathon every single week of the season. It places great physical and mental demands upon us. But there are many factors involved in recognizing when the time has come, or if there are a few years left to go.

Financial concerns are perhaps the most important factor taken into consideration. This is even more true with the perilous state of the national musicians’ union pension fund. Most musicians, unless they’re in one of the wealthiest orchestras, work more than one job to make ends meet, and funding one’s retirement is a fraught business. It’s easy to say “that person should hang up their axe and retire” but if they don’t have enough money to live on once their orchestral income stream stops, how likely are they to make that decision?

Pride is another factor. We all have egos – it would be hard to be a performing artist if we did not. We train for decades, and audition perhaps dozens of times, before we – if we’re lucky – win a position in a living wage orchestra. When we arrive, we are the fair-haired boy/girl who can do no wrong. Accolades roll in. Pretty soon, however, as we approach middle age, there are newer, shinier members of the orchestra who arrive, and we are part of the older guard. It’s easy to bristle under those circumstances. Resentment can creep in, antagonisms with our respective sections can arise, and tensions with the music director can begin or start to get worse. Even if one is able to objectively view one’s performance quality, and realize that it is slipping, there is going to be considerable resistance to that notion, especially if we think that our colleagues are conspiring against us, or that the music director has an axe to grind. Entrenchment begins, and denial strengthens. It’s hard to see a way out of that which doesn’t end in failure, humiliation, or betrayal. No wonder it’s such a difficult decision to make.

An additional factor, which is oft overlooked, is that musicians have been doing music for a long, long time. And during that time it has been one of, if not the, central defining aspects of their lives. Leaving active performing in an orchestra that you’ve spent the majority of your life with is a major, major decision. It is akin to a divorce or losing a family member in terms of emotional impact. It’s not a decision to be taken lightly.

On the other hand, I’ve witnessed colleagues who have woken up one day and realized that they were simply done. They had a great run, and it was time to move on to greener pastures and play for the joy of it for a change. I see them at concerts – some quite often – and they appear a decade younger than in their last season with the orchestra. It’s pretty gratifying to see that there is a graceful way to retire on one’s own terms (even if it might be relatively rare). However, just as every person is different, so too is every musician’s decision to stay or go an individual one, and one that must be respected. I hope that, when my time comes, that I will have the wherewithal, self-awareness, and humility to make the decision that is best for both myself and my colleagues. Fingers crossed!

contract some mahleria

Last night was the first performance of our classical series for this week. As I’m on work hardening and only playing the opening Mozart Violin Concerto No. 3 (with fabulous soloist Alexi Kenney), it was my treat to get to sit out in the audience (in the rarified Dress Circle, no less!) for the Mahler Sixth Symphony portion of the program.

What a performance it was! Astonishingly good. It’s hard to grasp, when you’re in the trenches, so to speak, just how the orchestra sounds as a whole. Let me tell you, it sounds amazing. This Mahler symphony has been one that I’ve warmed to slowly (not as slowly as the Seventh, though), but it has many rewards for the attentive listener. If you’re at all on the fence about coming for the remaining performances (Sunday at 2pm, Monday at 7:30pm), I’d whole-heartedly reccomend you do so. It will be a concert you’ll remember for a long time! Oregon Symphony website.

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