Fuck Pretense

I was a classical violinist for about 20 years. From age 9 to about age 30, I persisted. It was a struggle. An instrument I loved with all my heart when I began taking lessons became my nemesis, the most hated object in my world, by the time I was 18. After I left my parents’ house in 1988, I made a valiant effort to keep playing. I tried to learn how to adapt, to improvise, and to love the instrument that was the bane of my existence for so many years.

I gave up.

I kept the violin for a further 10 years or so, picking it up occasionally. Upon finding out that I had an instrument that wasn’t being played, a coworker with connections found a home for it at an elementary school music program. The instrument had sustained some cracking from Colorado’s dry air and had poor repair jobs over the years. It was ready to go somewhere that someone could learn to play it. I felt the mildest twinges of guilt when I handed it over. After all, I’d loved it with all my heart in the beginning.

My parents started taking me to classical music performances when I was pretty young. When we moved to the small mountain town of Evergreen, Colorado, when I was about 7 or 8, we found we had a classical music gem in our midst almost immediately: the Colorado Philharmonic Orchestra. The CPO was a seasonal gathering of invited young musicians, an opportunity for them to hone their craft in a beautiful mountain retreat, basically a resume builder for recent music school graduates. The group stayed in a privately owned group of antiquated log cabins very near my parents’ house (this place has subsequently become the Bears’ Inn B&B. The mess hall became The Bistro at Marshdale).

The CPO became an integral part of my life for many of my young years. My parents served on the board and sponsored a couple of musicians each summer. Me and my friend Rachel, both budding violinists, served as concert ushers, mailing list volunteers, and parade float queen and attendant. I was the attendant. I was secretly super jealous of Rachel for Miss CPO role. 😉

We met so many lovely people. The Japanese oboist sponsored by my parents made me my first sushi with ingredients my mother bought for him. It was love at first tuna roll. A violinist named Linda was so kind to me. She gave me the most gentle, open-minded, and encouraging violin lessons I’ve ever had. For three months of my life she let me make mistakes, encouraged disparate timing, volume, and style. She let me play an entire section of a piece in harmonics. She let me use delay and syncopation. My parents trusted her completely, and never knew a thing. When she left, she gave me a teddy bear that was the softest stuffed animal I’d ever had. Linda has sent my parents a Christmas card every year since.

I think a hand like Linda’s would have kept me playing for many years longer than I did. My teachers were all excellent musicians in their own right, but they didn’t last long if they didn’t meet my parents’ exacting standards. My dad made me practice with a metronome. If he heard me experimenting or playing a piece in a way in which it wasn’t written, he came into my practice room and told me how it should be played. I had to practice an hour a day during the week, two hours a day on weekends, for years. Nine years, to be exact. My parents had convinced themselves that I was some kind of prodigy who was destined for Juilliard. At first, I believed them and thought I really had some talent. Since I loved to play, it wasn’t a big deal, but as time wore on, outside interests crept in and I came to understand that I would always be mediocre. Practicing became a constant struggle, a battle I had almost daily with my parents.

I continued to attend classical concerts with my parents throughout my teen years. It sounds so awful to whine about something that so many people enjoy, and that even more people can’t afford to enjoy, but I found those concerts nearly insufferable. As a child, to sit still and be quiet for hours while very serious people played very serious music was a chore at best, pure hell at worst. I remember my parents taking me to a house in Evergreen where a small group of people were gathered to hear a baroque group play the Brandenburg Concertos. All six of them. With five movements each. Two and a half hours of interminable boredom. I thought I might go mad.

There were pieces that I liked. I loved the opera, still do. I like pomp and circumstance. I love Wagner’s over-the-top bombastic drama and fatalistic themes. I love every fucking thing Mozart has ever written; I’ve often referred to The Magic Flute as my “gateway drug” to opera. I listened to it over and over again as a kid. Many people, including my father, deride Mozart as the pop prince of classical music, to be lumped in with the likes of Vivaldi and Schubert. I tried to be interested in the Russians. I tried to like Beethoven and Bach. They’re fine, they’re all fine. But the heart wants what it wants, you know?

I did love some very complex stuff, but it was violin-related and my parents couldn’t understand my attraction to those pieces. Because it was considered “classical” music, I was allowed to like it, but what I really appreciated about the pieces I liked was that they were FUN TO PLAY. In particular, I was drawn to ‘gypsy’ music, because it was creatively written, and therefore also meant to be interpreted creatively. The use of different techniques (plucking, harmonics, intricate bowing, left-hand pizzicato) allowed the musician to be playful. Of course there was sheet music, but you can listen to different elite violinists play, for example, Vittorio Monti’s Czardas, and they all play it a different way. There is room for interpretation and experimentation. Czardas is what my teachers called a “show piece.” I secured my position in the string of first violinists of the Denver Young Artist’s Orchestra by using that piece in my audition. People love a show.

Do yourself a favor and listen to a version of Zigeunerweisen played by Itzhak Perlman. Do it now. It’s short, I promise.

I’ll wait.

You are most welcome. Also, if you have a chance, watch any violin virtuoso (ahem…Salvatore Accardo) play anything by Paganini, who was in his day suspected to be possessed by the devil for his skills. I think Paganini may have been the first metal musician ever.

So. Back to the beginning of this rambling ridiculousness.

About a month ago my friend Sarah asked me to go to an evening at the Portland symphony with her. It was a generous offer, she’d gotten the tickets for free to see a piano virtuoso, Kirill Gerstein, play Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto no. 2. My childhood trepidation about being terminally bored instantly reared its ugly head, but I also try to remind myself that this kind of musical enrichment is supposed to be “good” for me, so I said I’d be happy to go.

I felt all the things upon entering the concert hall. It’s all the same. The pretentious surroundings, Portland’s wealthy showing up with coiffed hair and fur coats, everyone talking in hushed tones so as to appear refined and pretending they’re knowledgeable about the music. Applause for the concertmaster (1st violin), the tuning, then the applause for the conductor. Most people (not the heathens in the audience!) know to withhold applause between movements. I loathe all of the pretense. I know this shit like the back of my hand. It makes me want to scream at the top of my lungs.

But. Wait, wait, wait. The opening piece was by a modern composer, Talia Leon, who won a Pulitzer Prize for it. It was excellent. I’m often confused by new classical music, but hers was brilliant, and connected, and it reached away and then pulled you back in to a certain theme, which was chaotic but recognizable. It was absolutely incredible.

Then, the guest pianist did the Rachmaninoff piece and it was absolutely stunning. I was completely floored. He got a standing ovation with whoops, and came out twice to bow. The third time, he played a little encore, a sweet but difficult piece that wrecked me all over again. I am so glad I got to see that.

Then there was an intermission, and the second half was a Prokofiev piece that made me want to gnaw my own arm off. I learned an important lesson. I have one hour of classical concert music in me, and that’s it. I’m going to try continuing to take myself to concerts, but allow myself to leave at intermission if I want to.

And besides, I’ve got Itzhak Perlman on the calendar for next month, and you absolutely can’t go wrong with him.

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