Boy. Monica Huggett sure strokes a mean fiddle. Mom and Dad and I went to hear her (and the rest of the Portland Baroque Orchestra) tonight, playing Mendelssohn.
I’m not a huge Mendelssohn fan, although his music is undeniably pretty. Most of the time it reminds me of 1940s Bette Davis movies. Most people (IMHO) overplay it. Done well, though, it’s like the best Bette Davis movie you ever listened to. And tonight was done very well indeed.
I have a soft spot for a good fiddler, having played violin in my youth. Well, I should qualify that: I massacred violin in my youth. Along about the fifth grade I took up the violin with ambitions of being first seat, first violin in the school orchestra.
That wouldn’t exactly have been a great achievement; our conductor, Mrs. Abernathy, was generally happy if she could get all our bows going in the same direction more or less simultaneously. Getting us to play the right notes was a far-off and forlorn hope. But my fellow violinists were Paganinis compared with me.
Violin wasn’t my first choice; I’d wanted to play the flute. Flutes were cool. Flutes were made of silver and came apart like machine guns so you could carry them in a briefcase.
Violins weren’t cool. But you could rent a violin for a nominal weekly sum. To play the flute, you had to buy the whole daggone thing, and even a bad flute cost several hundred dollars.
My dad was still in training; our family lived on what he could earn in off hours and my mom’s salary as a midwestern elementary schoolteacher. We couldn’t afford a flute…so I became a violinist.
I’d been playing piano for several years, so I had a fair musical sense, a good ear and I’d practically memorized our classical records. That was precisely the problem: I knew a violin shouldn’t sound like a cat encountering a lawnmower.
But mine always did. Mrs. Abernathy, having trouble isolating an odd sound, had me play solo. Then she clucked and moved me to the second violins.
She painted dots on the neck of the violin to remind my fingers where to go (which would have worked better if I could actually see the dots when playing). Her husband stepped in to give me lessons and I diligently practiced. Usually, when I practiced, the rest of the family ran for the backyard.
After six months of hard work…Mrs. Abernathy moved me to last seat, second violins and asked if I’d ever thought of taking up the cello.
So my folks hired Mrs. Gryznekowski.
Mrs. G was a real, gen-u-wine concert violinist. She lived in a big white house with pillars, tastefully decorated with lots of flowers, paintings and a housekeeper. She wore pearls to the grocery store and spoke with an accent. Her husband, brother and cousin were musicians, too, part of her string quartet that toured the world.
I worshiped her.
For our first lesson she told me to leave the violin in its case. She talked of the beauty of the violin, its venerable ancestry and how it could draw tears from a stone. She told me a story about one violinist who was so good that people killed themselves after listening to him, preferring death to never hearing such sublime music again.
Wow. THAT’s the kinda violin I wanted to play. “You will someday, if you practice,” she said solemnly, “Next week, we begin.”
I skipped home, stroking my death-dealing violin, and fidgeted through the entire week. On lesson day I presented myself a half-hour early. “Wonderful!” she beamed, delighted at my eagerness, “We’re still practicing, so you can listen to us before your lesson.”
She sat me in a pristine white silk chair, in a golden room filled with flowers, music stands and three mustachioed gentlemen in black turtlenecks. They nodded kindly, waited for Mrs. G. to resume her place, and began weaving bright patterns of sound.
I closed my eyes and entered a whole new world. Thirty minutes later, I followed Mrs. G. into the lesson room dazed with beautiful music. Then I took out my violin, laid well-rosined bow to the strings…and that cat ran into the lawnmower again.
I was horrified; real musicians were next door, listening to my awful scrapings. I played as softly as I could but “More pressure on the bow!” commanded Mrs. G., irritated at my sudden shyness.
And that’s the way it went for several months; there were always violinists in the next room, listening. I couldn’t bring myself to play in front of them, so I tried every trick in the book to avoid taking that violin out of the case.
“I don’t understand it,” Mrs. G. said, “You are the only pupil I’ve ever had who gets worse. Are you sure you practice?”
I don’t know what she charged my parents for those lessons, but it was a cinch they couldn’t really afford it. I think she knew that; after several months she finally told my mother to stop wasting her money, and I went back to playing the piano.
I still love a good violin–as long as I don’t have to touch it–and as I said, Ms. Huggett’s is one of the best. It’s crystalline, astringent and somehow manages to deliver personality without schmaltz. Even with Mendelssohn.
Even better, the Portland audience is great. These aren’t Manhattanites, anxious to be obviously cultured at Rockefeller Center, or the KenCen crowd in DC, checking everyone for faux pas.
Nope, these are genuine music lovers, comfortably dressed and not above stamping feet and whistling at a particularly well-played piece. (They DO, however, know not to applaud between movements). If you’re ever in town when PBO is playing, you should definitely stop in.
And I promise, I won’t be playing.