Sunday, April 15, 2007

Diamonds from the Deep

We all know that life doesn't treat people in a fair manner. In the arts and in music particularly, this is quite evident. Those who shamelessly promote themselves often get noticed when the quiet and modest ones remain hidden, even if they are more able than the exhibitionists.

Every so often I go and hear a school, other youth or community-based orchestra play, to keep track of what is taking place locally. Although the level of groups varies greatly, they have one thing in common: the musicians, young and old, seem to enjoy what they are doing. It is easy to forgive a slightly messy passage or not-quite-perfect intonation if behind it there is a warm smile and an effort coming from the heart. It is a stark contrast to the often dour expression of a burnt-out professional whose technical execution may be closer to perfection but whose soul is not in it.

The reason for my 50-mile excursion this afternoon was to hear a native Seattleite violinist play the Vaughan Williams "Lark Ascending" with a community group in one of our more distant 'burbs'. Adrianna Hulscher can normally be found deep in the pit, playing in the Pacific Northwest Ballet's capable orchestra. I brought my fourteen-year-old nightingale of a daughter, and a gifted violinist herself, along to have a young pair of ears listening, in addition to my dinosaur ones. Miss Hulscher is the total opposite of her "look-at-me, ain't I sexy" colleagues, with their tight outfits aimed at seducing some members of an audience. Refreshingly, she has no need to focus attention to anything but her playing. It is hard to name many local violinists who could match her intonation and beauty of tone. Granted, she could come out a little bit more and play as if the audience was part of the performance, but hopefully this will develop with more solo opportunities. It is a pleasure to hear natural and musical phrasing, not having to witness a bizarre dance act in front of listeners.

A bit more than a week ago I helped out a few times in PNB's "Carmina Burana", every measure of which I know by heart. Orff was an interesting composer: his music is never too deep but full of catchy tunes and unexpected rhythms which are hard to get out of one's mind. The company has presented the work often, so it is no wonder everything went smoothly with minimal rehearsal time with the orchestra. Stewart Kershaw did a decent job conducting; the only thing missing were the children in the third part. Women's voices can never duplicate the sound of young singers, but logistics dictate that children cannot be working night after night.

A major problem arose with the sudden illness of the soprano soloist. Help was closer than anyone could imagine: a young pianist from the pit got ready with a few hours notice and brought the house down with her glorious singing. People might have known that Christina Siemens sings in addition to her job as a rehearsal pianist, but I don't think many had an idea how fabulous she is. A beautiful young woman, she has a voice to match her looks, with faultless intonation. Every one of her colleagues in the pit seemed to be anxiously awaiting her appearance, towards the end of the lengthy work. The following week the regular soprano, a fine singer, was well enough to return and Ms. Siemens was back in the pit, this time a heroine.

Sometimes one discovers the finest diamonds unexpectedly. Who would have thought that a pit orchestra was hiding such treasures! Perhaps there are more that will be discovered in due time.

About a month ago I played the same Burana (they sell ibuprofen by that name in Europe!) downtown with my own group, Rainier Symphony, in a fine concert and to an enthusiastic response. We also performed the Saint-Saƫns Organ Symphony in that program. It has some notoriously tricky passages which almost never go faultlessly. I've come home from many performances unhappy, shaking my head. It is ironic that it took a group of dedicated and enthusiastic music lovers to get it right, perhaps not a 100% but 99% will do fine.

In photos: Ralph Vaughan Williams and Carl Orff