Tag Archives: Violin

Pekka in Perth

This one slipped under the radar.

Back in 2009, I blogged about an ACO concert I saw in Perth featuring the talented and fine violinist Pekka Kuusisto.

This year, I noticed that he’s back in Australia!  But I was disappointed that he seemed to performing only in Sydney for the Musica Viva Festival 2011 (http://www.musicaviva.com.au/whatson/musica-viva-festival).

But I did this – if you want to see Pekka play in Perth, then you can catch him playing jazz violin at the Perth Jazz Society on 2 May.   It should be a great gig!  More details here:  http://www.perthjazzsociety.com/programme/#1892  

If you’re in Albany, it looks like he’s playing there too.  Tickets available here:  http://www.bocsticketing.com.au/whats-on/414/pekka-kuusisto-and-iiro-rantala/

Henning Kraggerud Masterclass

Our state orchestra, WASO, started an excellent program last year where they get visiting soloists to give a masterclass to local musicians.  

Last night, I quickly rushed from work, dropped Little Miss 10 home, then made my way to Hale School to see Henning Kraggerud give a violin masterclass.  He’s in town this weekend to play my favourite violin concerto, the Sibelius.

It seems that WASO, together with partners UWA, WAAPA and AUSTA, rounded up 4 lucky local violinists to play.

And what a great night it was!

We heard movements from the Prokofiev and Korngold violin concertos, a showy Smetena tune, and Ysaye’s extremely difficult Ballade.

And like Renaud Capucon’s masterclass, much of what Henning was trying to draw out from the players was moving from beyond notes to making music and story telling.   Is that the key ingredient that sets these elite apart from the rest?   There definitely was some “magic” that Henning was able to make when he made his violin sing.

It’s not just story telling and musical interpretation but amazing technical prowess too.  I was extremely excited when it was introduced that Shaun Lee-Chen was playing the Ysaye (and jealous! I wish I had the time and ability to learn and play this!)  Shaun played it really well – his technique is definitely very solid and intonation was really good.   I thought, what could he say to Shaun?

A lot apparently!  Henning knew the Ballade back to front, playing it with even more ease – unbelievable.  The interaction between them and going into details and “tricks” of the Ballade was purely brilliant, insightful and entertaining.  Reading his bio, no wonder he knows it so well – he has recorded all the Ysaye unaccompanied Violin Sonatas! 

And the volume and depth of sound that came from Henning and his violin – amazing.  I wonder if he really was playing on his Guarneri del Gesu last night.

WASO and sponsors (Apache Energy) – thanks for putting this on.  It definitely is a win-win – raising the profile and respect for WASO’s soloists as we get to see them work behind the scenes, but also improving and inspiring the music community in WA.

More info

WASO’s Masterclass program – http://www.waso.com.au/default.aspx?MenuID=292

Henning’s Biography – http://www.imgartists.com/?page=artist&id=207

WASO concert this weekend – http://www.waso.com.au/EventDetail.aspx?ProductID=2485

Wondering if I should enter the Freo Eisteddfod

Well, it’s come to that time of the year again – I’ve looked up the Fremantle Eisteddfod website and they have the 2011 schedule online!   The closing date is 18th March and the Eisteddfod will be held between the May 12-21.

For the past 2 years, I’ve dusted off my violin, and used the Freo Eisteddfod as a goal to work towards – to learn one of the great violin concertos.

In 2008 I learnt the Wieniawski 2nd, but didn’t compete.   In 2009 it was Sibelius.  In 2010 it was Tchaikovsky.  

Both experiences created MUCH stress in my life.  But it actually helped me keep up my violin.   You see, after the month of May in the past 2 years, I really haven’t picked up my violin at all (except for the YouTube Symphony thing).

So I’m wondering if I should do this again in 2011?   Learn another movement from a great concerto in 3 months? 

I really have left it quite late this time around.   I was hoping I could do the Brahms, Barber or Beethoven, but there’s really not enough time.   I guess I could learn the 3rd movement from the Sibelius or Tchaikovsky?    Or tackle something different like the Carmen Fantasy?    Or maybe play something with less notes to learn like a Mozart concerto.

Or shall I just leave my violin in its case this year…

Arranging Bruno Mars’ Just The Way You Are for Violin and Cello

An old friend of ours is getting married this week and asked if we could provide music.   She specifically requested for a few modern pop tunes.

I’m always a bit apprehensive about playing pop repertoire with classical instruments.  Is it going to sound really corny and crap?  Will it still convey the same emotion without singing or lyrics?

A bit of Googling and I found U2’s Beautiful Day [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X5ZkVYXguhQ] as well as Bruno Mars’ Just The Way You Are [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MpqJjasrD7I] arranged and recorded by the Vitamin String Quartet.  Seems like this US based quartet has done a heap of pop and rock covers, and they don’t sound too bad either!

Unfortunately, our instrumentation for the wedding is going to be keyboard/piano, violin and cello.   Still, I used a combination of the  recording by the original artists together with listening to the Vitamin String Quartet arrangement to come up with my own arrangement – for piano trio!

I hope it will be OK for the wedding!

But the whole exercise on this Sunday morning has made me appreciate how much effort goes into arranging music.  Just these 2 pieces took nearly 4 hours – and that’s just for a pretty rough draft version.   I’d estimate I’d need another 4 hours to polish it up.   And then do an actual run through to see whether it sounds OK and is playable!

Not in the YouTube Symphony

Oh well…

I’m not a “winner” of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra.   Wifey keeps on telling me to get over it.

But I’ve watched my video a few more times, and those of the “winners”.   And I’ve come to the conclusion – I’m just a boring player to watch.

And I need to change this.

I’m sure there are a multitude of opinions, but music is primarily a form of communication – a performing art.   Playing the notes, articulation, phrasing..  that’s all one side of the coin.  But on the other side, is the visual aspect.

On an audio CD, you don’t get this – and so I know I’ve been sometimes surprised to go and watch an artist in person and be disappointed.  Or sometimes the reverse – sometimes seeing the performance, the emotion and movement in an artist, leaves such an impression that just listening to their audio recording afterwards is quite a different experience.

I think I need to work on the visual, performing aspect of my playing.   So it “looks” like I’m playing what I’m feeling.  For an audience member, this will then reinforce their aural sense with the visual sense – therefore heightening their overall musical experience.  Surely?

Any thoughts?

I’m a finalist of the YouTube Symphony! Vote for me!

I can’t believe it!

After receiving the email about being a potential finalist, and some musings that it doesn’t necessarily mean that I could be an actual finalist, I got the email from YouTube saying that I really am a finalist in the YouTube Symphony 2011 competition!

Woohoo!!!

What does this mean?   It means I’ve progressed to the voting round.  It seems they’ve whittled down the field to 80.  If they are choosing 8 desks of 1st and 2nd violins, that’s 32 to get through.   Although the fine print says that the number of votes doesn’t totally govern who gets through, it sure would be nice to get at least a few votes!!

So, if you have a spare minute, just log onto the YouTube Symphony website (http://www.youtube.com/symphony), click on Vote then Orchestral Auditions, click on the Violin section (bottom left next to the conductor) and then scroll to find my video (Jason Chong), click on it then click Vote!

What do you get?   I can’t offer you much unfortunately, but maybe a shout out on my blog!

Potential finalist of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra!

For the last few days, I’ve been checking my iPhone constantly for new messages from YouTube.  Yep, it was the time range when entrants to the YTSO 2011 competition would find out if they got chosen to progress to the next round.

So I was extremely excited when my iPhone pinged me on Saturday morning with an email from YouTube.

I have been chosen as a potential finalist or potential alternate! 

I can’t believe it!!   Wifey thinks I’m mad, that I’m suffering some mid life crisis.  Must be like how I’m the oldest (nearly twice the age) of entrants in the Fremantle Eisteddfod.  I wonder if I’m the oldest entrant in YTSO 2011?   Surely not at 35!

For me, I’m secretly glad that being a non-professional musician means I don’t have a “reputation” that I need to uphold and prevent me from doing random things like this 🙂

But I’ve been playing back my recording for the last week and am actually embarrassed that my intonation is a little shaky, especially in the Mozart – the first piece in my video!   Luckily, intonation is not the only criteria used for judging and I hope musicality and interpretation are just important.

Anyways, I think I now have to wait until around the 10th December when official public voting starts, and then see what happens.   If I do get through, then it’s a week over in Sydney to hang out with other musos from around the world, and hopefully some top notch professional musos too!

*Fingers crossed*

Playing for the WA Ballet Gala

A few weeks ago, I lived the second life of a musician playing in a pit.   The “pit” refers to the area typically below the stage where the orchestra sits when playing for an opera or ballet.  

What happens first is that the orchestra gets together to “note bash”.   Learn the notes, rehearse playing together, identify and practise problem areas, especially those that require co-ordination between different sections.    It’s also a time to find out what the conductor wants and the style and tempos they want us to play.  

The next stage is the dress rehearsals with the dancers.   By now, the orchestra can play the music and the focus is on co-ordination with the dancers, staging, lighting, logistics of program order, etc.  With ballet, we have to be flexible as a lot of timing depends on the dancers, the steps they are doing and the choreography.  For example, some sections had to be played slower because it was physically impossible for the dancers to spin, twirl, etc that fast!

And then it’s the start of the actual shows.  This time round, and I think it’s pretty normal, the best audience responses were on the opening and closing nights.  In between shows, applause was good, but not as boisterous or spontaneous.   Luckily the season wasn’t too long this time, only 5 shows – but still, I love the excitement and buzz of the closing night performance.  It’s finally all over.

For me, it was a great chance to pick up my violin again and play with others in a professional environment.  I think the orchestra did really well.

The strangest part of the whole experience however was that we, as musicians, never actually saw the dancers doing the dances.  I find this most strange.  I believe that the way we (musicians) would have played would be very different if we knew what was happening on stage.   How different?  Not really in tempos as we rely on the conductor to set these, but just general interpretation, emotion, feeling and appreciation for what’s happening – the “bigger picture”.   My wifey went to one performance and gave me the lowdown on the dances – and I was surprised that the choreography for one of the pieces matched various parts, as well as the overall Sonata Form of the whole movement in general.   I’m not sure how this would work logistically though – would we get all the musos to watch the performance to pre-recorded audio?   What do other companies do?

I know that in the swing dance world, dance bands (from back in the Harlem days in the Renaissance and Savoy Ballrooms) actually worked off the dancers and the dancers off the musicians in a self perpetuating energy cycle.    This makes current classical ballet performances very lacking in comparison!   Maybe the number of musicians needing co-ordination is a factor here – we rely on our conductor to be the conduit.

Here’s a photo of my view of the theatre:


Notice the nets?   This made me smile – I’m guessing that they are there to catch the dancers in case they stray too far forward and accidentally fall into the pit!  Now that would be something to remember!    But maybe something not to laugh at – a quick Google shows several times when this has happened before…

2007 – Ballet dancer injured in Atlanta Ballet production of The Nutcracker – http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/11/arts/dance/11arts-OSHAINVESTIG_BRF.html, http://www.accessatlanta.com/atlanta-holiday-guide/holiday-events/after-nutcracker-fall-dancer-240391.html
1998 – Ballet dancer died in Dutch National Ballet production of Romeo and Juliet – http://www.heraldscotland.com/sport/spl/aberdeen/ballet-dancer-died-trying-to-save-director-in-orchestra-pit-fall-1.234032
  
More info here of the WA Ballet Gala show here:  http://www.waballet.com.au/whats_on.php?id=57

The story behind my YouTube Symphony audition

I haven’t been giving my blog much love lately.    Real life has just gotten in the way with trips to Sydney and Singapore and an orchestral gig.  Blog posts to come up soon!

One thing I have squeezed in is to continue working on the YouTube Symphony Orchestra (YTSO) violin audition.  Unfortunately with travelling around and having 2 kids to worry about too, I didn’t have much time to learn or record my audition 😦  I had to fit in some of recordings just before I sent the kids to school on two mornings in the past week!  Yep, you’ll see Miss 9 run out of her bedroom to get breakfast!

The audition seems a bit fairer this time around.   You now need to prepare 5 pieces and it’s a more typical Symphony Orchestra audition choice – a solo Bach, a Mozart concerto and a range of orchestra excerpts.

Here’s what I chose!

Bach Partita in D – Allemande

I’ve played this before.  Actually, I think most violinists would have played this – it’s something you “have” to learn when you learn to play the violin.   For me, it was good to go back and polish this up again.

My interpretation has definitely changed since when I played it back in my teens.  Back then, I loved the heavy, grand versions of the Bach.  I used to use Itzhak Perlman’s BBC video as my yardstick.  But my current mood is for a more delicate, minimalist approach and bringing out all the intricacies of the various voices all intertwined.  I would have loved to have recorded this with absolutely no vibrato, but the style of your playing depends on the acoustics and my lounge room doesn’t have much reverb, so I had to use a little vibrato.

Bach is actually hard to play well.   Bach was a genius in trying to use a single instrument to play multiple voices.  Here there’s no double stops, yet there’s usually two voices throughout.  It’s also hard because there’s a lot of semiquavers, but you don’t want it to sound like a study.  There has to be some movement and phrasing, yet trying to keep time.   I hope I did it justice!

Mozart Violin Concerto in A – 1st Movement

I had trouble deciding between the two Mozart concertos.  I actually hadn’t learnt either of these concertos.  I’ve only learnt and played the 3rd concerto many years ago.   But I know wifey has been bugging me to learn one of these instead of the “great” violin concertos that I’ve been messing around with lately.

I chose the A major, mainly because I saw Renaud Capucon conduct a masterclass on this recently and was totally mesmerised by his playing of the introduction – read more here.

Mozart is deceptive.  People think these concertos are “easy”.  Easy – maybe easy to learn the notes, but to play it expressively like an operatic dialogue – no.   I remember the comments in a couple of my AMEB exams in my teens were all about trying to make my playing more operatic.  No, not like an aria!  But like multiple people having a conversation, and having some meaning or direction to the conversation.  After all, music is communication right?

So fast forward to today, I think I have a better understanding of what the music is trying to achieve, but whether I brought this out in my playing is a different matter altogether!   I know my intonation is not bang in the center here – and that’s really because of lack of consistent practice.

Strauss Don Juan excerpt

Argh!!  This is a hardy – from a technical point of view.   Fast runs and arpeggios.  But also so passionate!

The first thing I did was to listen to a recording of it.  There’s so many other parts in the orchestra during this passage, that it’s hard to play alone.   But at least I got a grasp of the tempo and what the music was trying to achieve.

I find it hard to play passages like this solo too because when you’re playing in a section of 5-8 desks of violins, and the whole symphonic orchestra around you, you get this feeling that is hard to replicate alone.   Also, you can probably get away with a few inaccuracies since the section swallows you up whole!

The trouble with this excerpt is that the difficult passages just keep on coming!  Especially when you think you’re out of danger near the end, but then all those quiet triplet passages hit you.  Aargh!

Beethoven Symphony No. 9 excerpt

I’ve played a few Beethoven Symphonies, but interestingly not the No. 9 yet!   I wasn’t familiar with this passage, so I had to find a recording and listen to this part to get the context.

I found this another hard thing to play solo.   With a whole section, you can change your playing to match the others around you, and to produce the common blanket of sound as one.  But individually, if I played like that, it would probably sound very plain indeed.   Also, in a concert hall with more reverb, one can get away with playing less but still sounding more.

So I decided to make my own tone nice here in my dead-ish lounge room by use of vibrato..  maybe too excessive?

Mendelssohn Symphony excerpt

Final excerpt!   This would be great to play in an orchestra!   The challenge here is the triplets – trying to keep them going without any other orchestral part to bounce off or to keep in sync with!

Here’s the final product!   I hope I at least get to the 2nd round this time.