A Performance of My Piece, "Twelve-Bar"

by Matthew Raley Last January, violinist Laura Rubinstein-Salzedo premiered a trio I wrote for violin, flute, and cello as part of her senior recital at Sac State. She was joined by Kim Davis (flute) and Courtney Castaneda (cello). I am so grateful for their hard work on the piece, and for their fine playing. Click the link below for a recording.

Audio: Twelve-Bar for Flute, Violin, and Piano

"Twelve-Bar," draws from two American sources of music. As the title indicates, the piece uses the twelve-bar blues form as an ostinato. All melodic and rhythmic motives come from the folk hymn, "What a Friend We Have In Jesus." These motives appear in fragments and short quotations of the tune throughout the piece, with the complete tune played by the flute at the end. I hope you enjoy it!

A Performance of "Along the Field"

By Matthew Raley

Each year, I have the privilege of performing with many excellent student musicians at Chico State. Michael Beale, a fine tenor who graduated last spring, is one of them. We performed the song cycle Along the Field by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) at Michael's senior recital a year ago. The cycle contains eight poems by A. E. Housman.

Vaughan Williams is famous for his lush string writing and folk melodies. While Along the Field shows the folk influence, it is unusual for Vaughan Williams and for art song literature in general. The piece calls for voice and violin only. Its harmonies are spare to the point of austerity.

Here are mp3 tracks of the last three songs from our performance. I hope you enjoy them!

Good-Bye

Fancy's Knell

With Rue My Heart Is Laden

Playing the Nelms Violin

by Matthew Raley For several weeks, I've been switching between my violin and one loaned to me by a friend who wants me to evaluate it.

You'll recall that I had low expectations of this violin until I saw it in the case and played on it a little. Its tone was even, responsive, and capable of different colors even with poor strings.

So I put on an old set of my own strings (Evah Pirazzi, "stark") and started testing the violin across a range of pieces. I played several Rode caprices, and the better strings made an immediate difference. The violin was resonant, spoke brightly, and barked accents at my command. Double-stops and chords, in which the bow is pulled across several strings quickly, were clear.

I got similar results in the Novácek Perpetuum Mobile. As I played through a couple of Beethoven sonatas I found an additional virtue. The violin was capable of real sweetness when I played lyrical passages. This was confirmed when I read through the 1st violin part to the Brahms clarinet quintet.

But I was always bothered when I would begin playing this violin. It would sound nasal, brash. One evening recently, I started with the 2nd movement of the Brahms quintet, and was able to isolate some of the pitches that squawked the worst. But after ten minutes or so, when I went back to those pitches, the squawk was gone.

Conclusion? This violin is grumpy right out of the case. It needs to warm up.

There are other qualities I wonder about. So I'm going to Redding violin maker John Harrison soon to see if he can find any information about Lee Nelms, and if the sound-post might need adjusting. I'm not one to waste a good excuse to go to Harrison's shop.

Evaluating a Violin

by Matthew Raley So, a guy asks me to play a violin he inherited. I can't find any information about the maker, Lee Nelms, but because the instrument exceeds my low expectations I am intrigued. I want to find out how good this violin is. My problem is that I really don't know how to evaluate one.

Okay, I know how to play. I know what I like. But there's an art to examining a violin that I just don't possess.

For one thing, I have never played a great violin. It's one thing to hear Itzhak Perlman play a Stradivarius in a hall; playing one yourself is something else entirely.

You have the sound immediately under your ear. The surface noise of the bow pulling across the string--or the absence of it--as well as the subtler overtones are all right there. Further, you gain rich tactile information from the way your vibrato warms the tone, the effect of bow pressure and speed, and the vibrations of the violin itself in your hand, shoulder, and head.

John Harrison, a maker in Redding, CA, once told me that he had made a violin decades ago for a Chico State professor. While he was trying the new instrument, Harrison was closeted with the professor's Strad, examining, measuring, and above all playing. It's experience like Harrison's, repeated many times, that I would consider reliable.

To play a truly great instrument is to learn why the sound in the hall is so powerful. Never having had the experience, I feel that my standards are unreliable. I did once play a selection of contemporary Italian violins, each worth a fair amount of money. I didn't like any of them. Part of me says that my coolness can't be right, that my thirty-five years of playing instruments in the yuck-to-good range has messed up my taste.

I also don't really know what I'm looking for in terms of craft. An orchestra colleague of mine, Abraham Becker, once looked over my instrument from various angles, and said, "That is a well-made violin." Since Abraham is vastly experienced, playing everything from classical to Broadway to tangos from his native Argentina, I was gratified to hear his judgment. But I have no idea why he said it so confidently.

I can spot an atrocious varnish, or other obvious failings. An awful violin passed into my hands only two weeks ago, on which the varnish obscured all the grain of the wood, the purfling around the edges of the top and back was painted rather than inlaid, and the strings were unevenly spaced.

But the finer points of excellent craft I only pick up informally.

Still, The Nelms violin has piqued my curiosity. So here's what I'm looking at.

The Nelms impressed me in the case as a beautiful piece of work. I love the color of the varnish, and the grain of the split back.

Here is my own violin:

You can see it's a different model from the Nelms, slightly narrower and longer. You can also see the wear of its two-century history, like the spot where the varnish has worn away on the back by the neck. (The left hand often rests there.) The wood itself has many qualities that I prize, like the unusual grain, and the single-piece back on which the grain is slanted.

I have owned it since high school, when I bought it from my teacher. It hung in his shop for years, and I used to stop in just to play it.

In my next post, I'll compare the sound of these two instruments, and see if I can't diagnose the things that bother me about the Nelms.

The Controversial Gidon Kremer

by Matthew Raley At a post-concert party in the early 1990s, Saul and Aron Bitran, the violinists of Cuarteto Latinoamericano, were debating the merits of virtuoso soloists. Gidon Kremer's name came up, and there was a pregnant pause. One of the brothers, I don't remember which, said quietly, "I think he does things just to be different."

The other shook his head in dismay. "Oh, I don't agree. His readings have real merit."

That's the way it is with Kremer. He leaves houses divided.

In this performance of the Giga from Bach's Partita No. 2 in d minor, he varies the tempo in ways that I don't understand. But Kremer's playing is brilliant, full of unexpected colors, clean articulations, and rhythmic interest.

He even divides me.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VzMhO1E1ZQo]

Ravel Singing the Blues

by Matthew Raley [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QXbgEbVTpys&feature=related]

I like this reading a great deal. It's not too fast, for one thing. For another, Mai Suzuki plays with guts. I can hear the pitches in the pizzicato section of this movement, something I can't always say. Though she has a tendency to push her tone, I would say the edge she gets is appropriate and satisfying.

Schoenberg Discussed and Played

by Matthew Raley [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=av2XTNgA72w]

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gmf4Z9HsnFQ&feature=related]

I have written elsewhere about the entertaining contrasts between Glenn Gould and Yehudi Menuhin. In the first video, the contrasts are amplified as the pair converses about Arnold Schoenberg's Fantasie, Op 47. In the second, we see another example of the duo's partnership.

In one sense, I don't know why I post these. People usually hate Schoenberg. Added to this is the fact that the discussion between Gould and Mehunin is at a high technical level.

But, dog-GON-it!, they're saying some important things about real musical problems, especially after Gould says, "All cards on the table, you really don't like the Schoenberg." And the playing is quite good, demonstrating that Menuhin retained even post-war a powerful tone and intonation when he was "on."

So, if you've never heard anything by Schoenberg, take this in.

By the way, my 3-year-old Malcolm sat silently on my lap through the entire 10-minute performance, transfixed. (No jokes there in back!)

Menuhin and Gould With a Complete Bach Sonata

by Matthew Raley No excerpts today, but a complete work in a film that is fascinating at many levels. Start with the performers, Glenn Gould and Yehudi Menuhin. It would be hard to find two more different characters.

Gould was eccentricity incarnate, seen here making a circular movement with his head that is, shall we say, unsettling, and seeming to talk to the keyboard. You can also, of course, hear him singing.

Menuhin was a study in elegance. Not only his left- and right-hand positions, but his posture and his tailoring are flawless. He has an economy of motion that is inspiring.

So, behold, the cherub and the gargoyle.

The piece itself adds another layer of interest. Bach's Violin Sonata, BWV 1017, is a powerful work, and the third movement (pt. 3) is a favorite of mine. But the question always is, "How will the performer interpret this music?" Today, there is a consensus that we should play it Bach's way -- light, dance-like, less vibrato. This is a consensus I basically agree with.

At the time this film was made, the romantic interpretive approach to Bach was beginning to sound inauthentic. The heavy articulation, the dark tone, and the sentiment expressed in slides and accents, all turned counterpoint into a soup.

That is why Gould had formulated a modern interpretive approach to Bach at the piano. It was unsentimental: dry, spiky, fast. Some would still criticize his approach as mechanical. Gould was a controversial figure, especially for his 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations, a sharp departure from the romanticism of the time.

Which brings us to the really fascinating layer of this film.

Gould is playing with the man who popularized the romantic style of playing Bach on the violin. Menuhin is credited with bringing the unaccompanied sonatas the attention they deserve from audiences in the 1930s. He plays here with all his famous warmth of tone, all his sustained vibrato, and even with one or two slides. (It is also the case that his intonation is no longer secure, but that is another difficult story.)

See if you don't agree with me, you music lovers, that these two men achieved a common interpretation that works. I believe it has power even as the performers retain their musical personalities. Something of the contrast is part of that power. But their ensemble, their unity on such things as the length of 8th notes in the fourth movement (pt. 4), and their authority in playing the piece, all create an unusual synergy.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uz2TnU5dJSs&feature=related]

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cbzWLnBl4oM&feature=related]

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ccuawruSsqc&feature=related]

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MFMKCUuGh5o&feature=related]

Yehudi Menuhin Plays Bazzini

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbvitdwlMhY&feature=related] Bazzini's Calabrese is one of those virtuosic show-stoppers that send audiences to their feet. Besides displaying Menuhin's warm and flawless tone, the piece exhibits an intimidating list of the violin's special effects:

1. Spicatto: The bouncing of the bow, done here at tremendous speeds, producing very short, light notes.

2. Glissando: A slide up or down a string using one finger of the left hand.

3. Sul G: Playing only on the lowest string to produce a thick, rich tone.

4. Octaves: Playing a note at two different pitches at the same time -- two A's, for example. This is done usually with the index finger together with the pinky of the left hand, and requires a shift for every new pitch-class.

5. Tenths: Another instance of playing two notes at the same time, or double-stopping. The interval of a tenth is a third wider than an octave, and so requires the index finger and the pinky to stretch.

6. Assorted other multiple stops: There are some fiendish parallel sixths in this piece.

7. Harmonics: When a left-hand finger lightly touches the string at certain points, the player produces a ringing, flute-like sound. Harmonics can be heard in the very first gestures Menuhin plays, on the highest pitches.

At the piano, playing with perfect clarity and subtlety, is Adolph Baller, one of whose students I will be performing with this Sunday evening, February 8th. Laura Aue and I will play Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major at the Orland Evangelical Free Church.

Ivry Gitlis Playing Saint-Seans

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CN5eoZM-vE4] Ivry Gitlis is the violin's crazy old man. Here he is as a crazy young man, gremlin face and all, tossing off Camille Saint-Seans' Rondo Capriccioso with casual brilliance and a mighty sense of fun.

What I love most about Gitlis' playing, beyond his technical mastery, is the range of his tone colors. He can be hoarse, floaty, or rich. He has a wealth of vibrato techniques (speeds at which he vibrates his finger on the string), from non vibrato to a tornado-like spin.

I'd like to be crazy like this.

David Oistrakh Plays Brahms

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFMcBMqE6mQ] Here is a violin master performing the Scherzo by Johannes Brahms. There are several things I respond to in Oistrakh's playing.

For starters, Oistrakh played at a time when art music didn't have to be sold. He played with a disregard for the audience that I find healthy, as opposed to camera-oriented attitude that classical performers apparently have to have today. I accept the necessity of marketing in the arts now. But that doesn't mean I have to like it.

I love the economy and potency of Oistrakh's movements. I love the straightforward reading he gives here: not a lot of fooling with the tempo. And I think Brahms left us an compelling little piece.

But it's Oistrakh's tone that knocks me over. It is focused, clear, deep, and gutsy. And he uses changes of tone color and vibrato to express harmonic and melodic subtleties. Check out the change of sound he makes by lightening the bow toward the end of the second theme (1:40).

It's also comforting to know that the violin gods sweat.