Music’s virtue

Just thought I’d share a few lovely words from the preface to Humphry Salter’s The Genteel Companion, published in London in 1683 and one of the earliest recorder instruction manuals in English. The original spelling has been retained, purely for its charm.

“I might as well endeavour to perswade, that the Sun is a glorious, and beneficial Planet; as take pains to Illustrate Musick with my imperfect praises; for every reasonable Mans own mind will be its Advocate. Musick, belov’d of Heaven, for it is the business of Angels; Desired on Earth as the most charming pleasure of Men. The world contains nothing that is good, but what is full of Harmonious Concord, nor nothing that is evil, but is its opposite, as being the ill favour’d production of Discord and Disorder…”

whimsical-angel-pictures-6

Happy May Day!

Sighting #3

Wow, a mid-20th-century hearthrob with a recorder. Talk about an unexpected prop. Judging from the hand position he didn’t really know how to play it; but I’m pretty sure that really didn’t matter…

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There are a variety of photos from this shoot to choose from. Wish I knew the photographer to credit.

University begins

When I decided to study music at university, I applied and entered as a modern flutist. The recorder wasn’t included in the syllabus listings of the schools to which I applied, a pretty normal situation at most universities and colleges in North America at the time. Some schools had an early music ensemble that played medieval and Renaissance music with the ‘once around the kitchen’ orchestration technique – ‘hold on, I just played the Kyrie on the shawm, now I think I’ll play the Christe on that sackbut, hand it over’ – but the idea of an actual early music department was barely a twinkle in any musicologist’s eye.

Edward Johnson Building, Toronto

I went to the University of Toronto and was placed in the studio of Robert Aitken, solo flutist with the Toronto Symphony and a fabulous player who went on to found New Music Concerts and champion contemporary music around the world. But before I’d had a single lesson I learned from a friend that the school had recently permitted the recorder as a major instrument for most courses of study, so I submitted a request to switch my major. My reasoning was fairly simple: I was mainly interested in earlier music and wanted to play it for a living, if I could. I loved playing the recorder, and all of its repertoire, and even though it wasn’t yet possible to earn a performance degree on it, the recorder made more sense in the musicology stream into which I was headed. Or so I thought.

It was the Performance Department Head who placed students with their professors, and he clearly didn’t think much of my decision. I asked him about it during my audition for concert band (everyone had to be in a major ensemble, more on that later), and he was completely bewildered. Loudly bewildered.

‘Are you SURE? But you’re giving up lessons with ROBERT AITKEN!!!’  He followed this up with some eye rolling, and muttered that it was my life to mess up, if that’s what I wanted…But in the end he signed off on the change of major – and he also placed me in the concert band, where I tootled away on flute and piccolo for most of my undergrad years. Now some people might not think that playing in a band is fun, but I loved it; and it beat the hell out of bleating my way through four years with the University Screamers (not their official title, as you will surmise), the choir made up of everyone who didn’t get to be in orchestra or band or concert choir. I did end up there in fourth year, after a school policy change that disallowed non-band-instrument majors from playing in the band. Oh woe. But, as they say, I digress.

The department head also figured he’d test my mettle right away by throwing me into the Collegium Musicum, a Baroque-repertoire performance class directed by the late great Greta Kraus, in which my sinking or swimming would be both immediate and highly public.

The late, great Greta Kraus.

The late, great Greta Kraus.

I was fairly terrified at the first session. There I was, a recorder-playing lowly first year student, in a roomful of senior performance majors and a fiery, expatriate Austrian lioness of a professor. It was a nerve-wracking beginning, but what a huge gift that department head had given me. Greta was an utterly inspiring musician and fantastic coach; and, fortunately, I swam. For four years, I got to play Bach and Telemann aria obbligatos and beautiful trio- and quartet-sonatas with many wonderful musicians, some of whom became colleagues for years afterwards. Valerie Weeks, a harpsichordist with whom I ended up playing for a very long time, showed up in Collegium the next year.

Kiwanis Festival Karma

Though I wasn’t a private student of hers any longer, I played until I was sixteen or so in a small consort for teenaged recorder players which Isabel Smaller continued to coach. For several years, Isabel would collect my friend Janet and I from our homes on Sunday afternoons and drive us out to what seemed like the middle of nowhere for a couple of hours of consort playing. It was usually a group of three or four, recorder playing not being a trendy activity in the minds of high schoolers – plus ça change, but anyway…Occasionally we were joined by people either a bit younger and/or very much older, but it was usually just three teenagers with recorders and one with a guitar. Isabel found opportunities for us to perform at the Unitarian church where we rehearsed, for CAMMAC* events and at other functions, and when we were all fourteen-ish she took us to play at a music education conference in Charlottetown, PEI. I found the conference boring, what with all the adults around, but the red soil of PEI was some of the coolest dirt I’d ever seen. I loved Charlottetown and I’m happy to have been back to play there several times since.

PEIshoreline

Isabel also entered us in the Kiwanis Music Festival a number of times, usually in the “Recorder Ensemble, Open” category, which meant that there was no age limit for the competitors. Though I appreciate the ‘performance-under-pressure’ opportunity they provided, those Kiwanis competitions were usually a bit strange. We often ended up competing against grade school groups, which was thoroughly awkward. In one particular year there were only two entries in the class – a grade 4 school group, and ours. The school children were eight and nine years old, we were fourteen and fifteen; they’d been playing in school for a year or two, we’d been playing since we were their age; they played with several people on each part, we played one-on-a-part. Our group played part of the Hindemith trio and something from the 17th century, I guess, maybe Jenkins or Gibbons; the school group played something like Amazing Grace and Git Along Lil’ Dogie.

This type of class still exists in music festivals today, and it’s great because it provides anyone and everyone an opportunity to enter the festival regardless of their age. If a string quartet made up of middle-aged doctors wants something to work towards, this kind of class awaits them, where they might be pitted against the Happy Acres Ensemble and chamber ensembles from arts high schools. It’s all fine as long as the playing field is more or less even. But every once in a while it isn’t, as was often the case with the recorder ensembles.

Anyway, the school group played very well, and we did pretty well too I guess, but for the adjudicator it must have absurd. On one hand, the choice for first and second prize between two groups so different in age and skill level might have seemed like a no-brainer, but actually making the choice was totally ludicrous and unnecessary. These events are supposed to be positive, encouraging experiences for the competitors, especially the younger, less seasoned ones. As long as I have memory, I’ll always recall how that adjudicator dealt with the situation, with his wise but uncommon decision in the competition-oriented, winning-supposedly-means-everything, music festival world. He strode to the front of the room, congratulated everyone on a job well done, made some good suggestions for both groups, and announced to the assembled mini-multitude that he was going to make it – a tie for first. Absolutely brilliant.

And I often remembered this guy whenever I ended up in his position, as an adjudicator at Kiwanis Festivals in Ottawa, Guelph, Halifax and Sarnia. In Halifax there was a woman much like Isabel, whose name was Priscilla Evans. She seemed to run her recorder teaching studio with a devotion and intensity reminiscent of Isabel’s, and just like Isabel she went far above and beyond the call of duty when she believed her students warranted that kind of support. She also seemed to be able to keep several of her students interested in ensemble playing through their high school years, which was no mean feat; and consequently the ‘open’ recorder ensemble classes at Halifax’s annual Kiwanis Festival were always interesting, inspiring, and fun to adjudicate.

Keith, Alison, Janet and Isabel at Don Heights.

Keith, Alison, Janet and Isabel at Don Heights.

*Canadian Amateur Musicians/Musiciens amateurs du Canada

Remembering Washington

When I began collecting material for this post last week, I had planned to focus on the Tibiades of François Chauvon, a little-known collection of elegant and slightly eccentric suites from early eighteenth-century Paris. Eight of these can be heard on a CD released last fall on Montréal’s early-music.com, a recording project of which I was delighted to be a part.

But to paraphrase John Lennon, life is what happens while you’re making other plans, and earlier this week my writing plans were unexpectedly altered by the sad news that my dear friend and colleague Washington McClain, a baroque oboist whom I knew for close to twenty years and with whom I played countless concerts of chamber and orchestral music, had died. He was one of North America’s busiest and most admired baroque oboists and taught at Indiana University. When he passed away suddenly last Sunday at the age of fifty-two, we all lost a radiant musical light.

So for now, I’ll write about Washington and our last musical collaboration, which by a bittersweet synchronicity was that recording of Chauvon.

Washington was a superlative musician. Elegantly expressive and adroit in technique, he had ‘ears’ so good I’m sure he could hear the grass grow. He was a paragon of integrity and professionalism, and he was also a mensch. Wash was serious and of strong opinion when he felt he needed to be, but he also had a smile that lit up the room and a deep sense of collegiality. I also loved him for his genuine, ongoing exploration of everything and anything that really brought the music off the page, especially with repertoire such as the Chauvon. He never got tired of wondering.

Photo by Colin Savage.

Photo by Colin Savage.

For a few sweltering days during a heat wave in July 2011, Wash and I gathered with bassoonist Michael McCraw, harpsichordist Charlotte Nediger and violinist Julia Wedman to rehearse and record eight of the twelve Tibiades. We were lucky to have found nearly a full week when everyone was available for the project. It’d been quite a while since all five of us had seen each other and we were happy to be reunited, so there was a little bit of magic afoot. The Ontario Arts Council had given the project some funding, and we’d secured the services of an excellent producer (Ivars Taurins) and ears-of-gold sound engineer (Ed Marshall). Our venue was Toronto’s St Thomas’s Anglican Church, an anglo-catholic oasis of calm despite its location half a block south of one of the busiest streets in the city.

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That recording was hard work, mostly because of the oppressive heat. St. Thomas’s is a serene place with dark wooden rafters, terracotta tile floor and a paucity of large windows, but it got very hot and humid as the sessions progressed. ( You can’t leave the ceiling fans on, or leave the windows open during recording sessions like this, unless you think the sound of an idling truck or the barking of a Jack Russell terrier adds some extra élan to music from eighteenth-century Paris.) We consumed water by the jug, we toweled off repeatedly, we made ice packs to cool our feet (surprisingly effective!). There were a few more curses than usual about errant tuning, flabby strings and recalcitrant reeds, and some discussion about how much more clothing we could take off without offending anyone. But despite all that and the occasional self-recriminations we took turns having (“I remembered the repeat for the first four takes, why did I forget it now?!?”), we had a lot of fun exploring that music and were all very, very happy to have done so together.

We recorded for three days, creating a French Baroque sonic kaleidoscope by varying the number of players and instrumental colours for many of the suites. A prélude played by us all was followed by an allemande for the flute, violin and harpsichord, then a courante for the oboe with continuo, a gavotte for oboe and bassoon, an arpègement for solo harpsichord, and so on. Three of the suites were given the more standard treatment, one each for oboe, violin and recorder (with continuo). Here’s Wash with Michael and Charlotte, playing the Allemande from the Third Suite:

Allemande, la Dragonne – Suite 3

Still other movements got the tutti treatment with some spelling-off for variety’s sake, as in the Chaconne en rondeau from the Eleventh Suite:

Chaconne en rondeau, Suite 11

Chauvon: Les nouveaux bijoux came out last fall, and kind and favourable reviews have recently begun to appear. I’ve listened to the CD again several times this week just to hear Wash. Knowing I’ll never sit beside him again is heartbreaking, but his beautiful playing is there to enjoy as often as I wish. It was a joy and an inspiration to know and make music with him, and I’m beyond grateful that we made that CD.

Wash was also a good friend, affectionate, honest, thoughtful, funny, wise, and a great storyteller. People had to push pretty hard before he ceased giving them the benefit of the doubt. I can’t believe I will never have another of those long telephone conversations with him, or hear his laugh again. It seems inconceivable that our visits to the Ethiopian restaurant around the corner are over, and that he will never walk through our front door again. What a terrible loss. I miss him greatly and will remember him often, even if I should live to be a very old lady.

Don Giovanni, Japan 2000

Don Giovanni, Japan 2000

http://www.early-music.com/music/chauvon-les-nouveaux-bijoux/

Starting out

When I was eight I lived in the area of southwest London known as Barnes, and I went to Westfields County Primary School. Westfields was one of those old rectangular buildings with a central assembly hall/gym surrounded by classrooms along the walls, offices at the front end and the student cloakroom at the rear. The loo stalls were outside, so answering the call of nature between late October and April – most of the school year – usually necessitated a chilly trip. (That’s all been knocked down and replaced now, but the old back gate is still there.)

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In the autumn of that year my classroom teacher Mr. Green announced that he would be teaching group recorder lessons to anyone who wanted to learn, every Tuesday after school. He gave us a letter outlining the registration routine, lesson schedule, and the cost. Anyone wanting their child to participate was asked to sign the form and send it back, along with four shillings and ten pence or whatever it was – 2s.6p. for the recorder and the remainder for the book.

When I went back to school the next day with the signed form and money in hand, I was happy about it but I thought I was doing it at my mum’s insistence rather than mine. Years later I heard her version of the story, which was that I’d announced the offer of lessons, asked ‘What’s a recorder?’ and that when I understood it was the flute thing my Uncle Bill played, I got very excited and wanted to be signed up right away.

I don’t recall the part about Uncle Bill at all, but it doesn’t surprise me that he might have been an inspiration to me. Married to my mother’s first sister, he was one of those men whom everyone liked – cheerful, good-natured, sociable, intelligent, funny. It was one of life’s cruelties that he died of a brain tumour in his late thirties, leaving my Aunt with two small children and her heart bashed in.

Uncle Bill played the recorder at the family singalongs around my Aunt’s piano. My Aunt played piano extremely well, inventing accompaniments to show tunes, folk songs and the occasional hymn. Everyone loved to sing and did so enthusiastically, but I didn’t because I’d been asked not to. Allegedly I took after my father’s ‘tin-eared’ side of the family because I couldn’t carry a tune. [My father came from a family full of atheletes, and just to be clear, I don’t take after them either.] It was no fun not joining in at the family piano-swarmings, so the possibility of playing what Uncle Bill did must have seemed like a great idea to me. Off I went to recorder class.

I liked playing a lot, and I didn’t have to be reminded to practise. My playlist of favourite tunes included Down in Demerara, March from Judas Maccabeus and All Things Bright and Beautiful, and like most kids I made up my own tunes as well. I still have a couple of those first attempts at ‘composing’ and they’re pretty hilarious, but I’ve often wondered why that particular creative desire went underground for so many years afterward. Years later, while teaching basic recorder for music education students at university, I regularly asked them to think back to their earliest musical experiences and asked, did they made up their own songs or tunes? Do they, still? (Most answered no.) When did they stop doing that, and why?

Very interesting, the looks on their faces as they wondered about all that.

Anyway, after a few weeks passed, my mother must have been surprised to get another letter from Mr. Green, asking that I be allowed to join the class which had been already playing for a year. He thought I’d catch up to them quickly and was worried I’d get bored if I stayed with the other beginners. So I switched group and, apart from having to deal with a few snotty comments from the second-years, it was just fine. That Christmas I joined in with my recorder at the family singalong, and it was just the best!

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My friend Pauline remembers that Mr. Green drove around in a Mini, often with a cello in the back seat. Sadly I don’t recall that, but I’m very glad that Mr. Green was such a music enthusiast, and so generous of spirit. He taught those classes without charging anything for his time. What a gift, and I’ll always remember him for it.

Side note for anyone who’s been designated as ‘tin-eared’:

Being truly ‘tone deaf’ is pretty rare, and most people who think they can’t carry a tune can learn to sing. We’re usually quite unaware of our voices, and when singing it’s hard to hear your own sound as it rattles around in your head. For some there’s also an experience of fear or embarrassment connected to our early attempts to sing in the company of others, and the memory of it can stick like grime. For me, some voice lessons in Basel and the generous encouragement from colleagues were a big help in banishing some gremlins of old.

I’m not about to sing any solos in public, anywhere, but I’ve managed to sing in small groupings at a few concerts and once I even sang two solo lines in a program of music from medieval convents, which on top of everything else was recorded for the radio. I was so nervous I almost passed out, but hearing myself when the show was broadcast a few weeks later was an amazing little moment. I was no Hildegard of Bingen, but I didn’t suck. Who knew?

Ignazio Sieber’s Recorder Sonatas

While excavating a section of my sheet music filing cabinet the other day, I came across the sonatas of Ignazio Sieber (c.1680-c.1757). His six sonatas for alto recorder and basso continuo were published, probably in 1722, together with an equal number by Johann Ernest Galliard. Since Galliard’s name appears first on the frontispiece, I dutifully filed them under ‘G.’ No wonder I lost track of them for a while.

Sieber certainly isn’t a household name but his sonatas for alto recorder and basso continuo are worth a look. We have very little biographical information on him, but see from the the publication’s title page that he was living in Rome (‘demeurant à Rome’) around the time his sonatas appeared in print. Not surprisingly, his writing for the recorder reflects the typical early 18th-century Italian taste for not extending higher than an E’’ and for hovering lower than that most of the time. Sieber hangs around in the high register more than Bononcini, Bigaglia, or Bellinzani for example, but he still doesn’t ask a player to spend a long time up where the air is thin. Italian recorders from the time have a beefy low register and a weedier high register than their German counterparts, for example, which would likely have affected how musicians composed for the instrument.

Certainly more interesting and demanding than the Galliard sonatas that precede them, Sieber’s sonatas are in C major (two), a minor, and g minor (three!), all key choices which echo Händel’s opus 1 recorder sonatas (also thought to have been written in Italy). The music is well written for the instrument, lies comfortably, it’s reasonably challenging, and he has a witty way with passagework. The slow movements include some examples of notated ornamentation but there’s much additional scope for a player to experiment with phrasing, articulation, pacing, and further elaboration. The continuo parts similarly offer a lot of opportunity for creative experimentation.

As with many lesser-known Baroque sonatas, the writing isn’t dazzling or brilliant throughout but then, let’s admit it, neither is Vivaldi’s. Plus, Sieber’s music provides considerable opportunity to add your own thoughtful two-cents-worth well beyond a few ornaments. You can team up with him to create something extra, an interpretation which you might call even more ‘your own’ than your versions of Telemann or Vivaldi. I’ve heard similarly unfamiliar pieces dismissed as not worth working on, but I wonder if such judgement is passed either because the recorder part has too few fast sixteenth note passages, and/or because the player lacks imagination. As we all know the components of a good piece and a good performance are many and varied; and if you do really want more fast arpeggios, you can almost always add some…

Plus, if you’re looking to create a program of music from a certain city or region, in a certain style or by a particular group of composers, having repertoire like this is a real boon.

A link to the facsimile at IMSLP (don’t be fooled by the initial title – Sieber’s sonatas are here!):

http://imslp.org/wiki/6_Flute_Sonatas,_Op.1_%28Galliard,_Johann_Ernst%29