The Artful Podger

I took a break from my Chaconne adventure for adventure of another kind; my (mostly) annual sailing trip with the LaTrappe Creek Ecological and Historical Society. This oddly-named group had been sailing for nearly 50 years and my first trip was 15 years ago. Our destination this year was the eastern part of Long Island Sound, and we had good winds and fair weather.

Spending a week on a sailboat is not conducive to good nail care so I trimmed them off before I left—another advantage of artificial nails—and didn’t think much about music or the Chaconne, aside from a few long stretches at the helm when I would rehearse passages in my mind. I returned home rested and ready to dive back in.

In a happy coincidence, the phenomenal British violinist Rachel Podger gave a recital at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts the weekend I returned, and the concluding work on her solo program was Bach’s D minor partita. I really admire her recording of the piece and was happy to have the chance to see and hear her play it in person.

Her program was all music for unaccompanied violin: a transcription of Bach’s 2nd cello suite, a passacaglia by Biber, a sonata by Tartini, a selection of English ayres, and the partita. The Biber work predates the Bach partita by a couple of decades and in some ways prefigures the Chaconne; I’m curious to know if Bach had a copy of that work or would have heard it play. In general, though, the program was survey of the state of unaccompanied violin music at the time of Bach’s composition of his sonatas and partitas, and provided great musical context for the Chaconne which was, of course, the final thing on the program.

I don’t often go to a concert with the idea that I am going to listen for particular things, and am content to listen with open ears and an open mind. But having immersed myself in this work for months and still facing some fundamental questions about its interpretations I was eager to hear how Podger handled certain things. Moreover, this was my first experience of hearing the partita played live by any violinist.

Podger is technically superb and highly musical. She also has an engaging stage presence, often looking out at the audience with a raised eyebrow as if to say “Did you hear what I did there?” She plays with a Baroque violin bow, which is shorter and more arched than a standard bow, and it gives a lighter sound. I’m not adept enough at recognizing the differences in violins to say much about her instrument, although it didn’t seem to me to have the shorter neck associated with “authentic” Baroque-style fiddles.

As I said, I was listening for some specific things. First of all, I was curious about the tempo she would choose and how much she might vary it from variation to variation. Judging from the second hand of my watch she played at about 60 beats per minutes, and the pulse stayed quite consistent throughout. She did not use much rubato (i.e. flexibility of the beat). It was hardly a “metronomic” performance, but she didn’t speed up in the scale passages or slow down for the “big” passages.

The second thing I was listening for was whether or not she “Frenchified” the rhythm of the dotted quarter-note/eighth-note figure (as discussed in this post). She did not. There was perhaps a little separation and shortening of the eighth note to give it a little snap, but it was subtle. 

Overall her treatment of the piece was light, with great transparency so that the different voices could emerge. For me it lacked a certain degree of emotional depth or drama; while such characteristics may not be part of an authentic performance, they are qualities that I want to express in my performance of the work.

One final thing that struck me was that the parts of the piece that sound difficult on the violin (the chords and double-stop passages) sound easy on the guitar, while the parts that sound really easy on the violin (the scales) sound harder on the guitar. It’s just one more way in which the piece becomes a different thing when moved from one instrument to another.

A Program Note: Great Performances on PBS is currently running a series called “Now Hear This” with the conductor and violinist Scott Yoo. The first episode, called The Riddle of Bach, explores the solo violin works and is well worth watching. You can find it online or on your local PBS station.

Interlude 8: Life (mostly) without guitar

A condition of my assistantship at Temple University was that I major in music history as well as guitar performance. Given the nature of the financial support offered—full tuition as well as a living stipend—I would have majored in horticulture. But I was happy to add music history, as it was a subject I really enjoyed as an undergraduate, and the assistantship gave me the opportunity to teach music appreciation. I had no way of knowing at the time how important that teaching experience would be in my eventual profession editing and publishing college music textbooks.

A couple of my graduate history courses at Temple were taught by a young man named David Brodbeck, who was finishing his musicology PhD at Penn. David was a wonderful teacher, full of enthusiasm and insights about music of the Romantic era, and through him I fell in love with the music of Schumann and Brahms. David suggested that I consider doctoral studies in musicology and, having concluded that I didn’t have the makings of a professional guitarist, I decided to pursue that course. I’d get a PhD and become a college professor. In the fall of 1984 that led me to Cornell, to marriage (eventually), and to a career in publishing. It did not lead to a PhD.

I kept up with the guitar for a while, teaching a few private students in Ithaca and giving a solo recital; a decision which was actively frowned upon since it took me away from the library. I accompanied a singer at Ithaca College in a program of lute songs (on the lute, no less). There was a walk-on role in a production of Shakespeare’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona” where I accompanied a singer in Schubert’s “Who is Sylvia” while dressed in Venetian carnival costume and wearing a mask. But once I started in publishing, first as a sales representative in Buffalo and later a marketing manager based in New Jersey, I went through longer and longer periods of not playing. When I did pick up the guitar, I played poorly…and so I would put it away again. Even so, being a guitarist remained a part of my identity; I know that because I always kept my nails at playing length.

When my first job as an editor took us to Madison, Wisconsin in 1993 I began singing with the Symphony Chorus. That led to a wonderful, and unexpected, opportunity when the the conductor, Roland Johnson, asked me if I would accompany a mezzo-soprano from Madison named Kitt Reuter-Foss in “I Wonder As I Wander” as part of the 1993 Christmas Concert.  I made an arrangement of the piece for voice, guitar, and strings and we performed it twice in front of audiences of 1800 people—by far the largest audiences I ever played for. I wish I had a better recording of the piece (and that Roland had rehearsed it a little more), but I am still very proud of the work:

I put aside the guitar again after that as my work life became more demanding and life in general became more complicated. In 2001 the publishing operation in Madison shut down and we prepared for a move to New York. On my birthday, September 4, I flew to LaGuardia, took a taxi into Manhattan, and checked in to an executive housing apartment on West 57th Street so that I could start my new job and continue house hunting.

That’s how I came to be in the city on 9/11.

In the aftermath of those horrific events, far from home, alone and lonely, what I wanted was a guitar. I rented an instrument, bought a foot stool, and started playing again. I didn’t care how I sounded; the embrace of the guitar and the feel of strings beneath my fingers were great comfort.

That September in New York was particularly lovely, with day after day of clear blue skies and pleasant temperatures. I kept the windows open in the apartment in the evenings while I played, and the pungent smell from Ground Zero drifted north and mingled with the sounds of Sor and Bach in the dry autumn air.