Friday, August 10, 2018

Midsummer Musical Retreat 2018

The Midsummer Musical Retreat (MMR) is a weeklong event for amateur musicians that takes place at Whitman College in Walla Walla every year during the first week of August. I attended for the first time in 2014 and had such a great time that I have not missed one since!

MMR is open to instrumentalists and singers of all abilities. The idea is to make music all day every day with breaks only for lunch, snacking, wine drinking, and dinner. Just about everyone is friendly and when music is not being played, there is lots of socializing and getting to know our fellow travelers in the world of amateur classical music and jazz. At the end of the week, on Saturday, everyone performs whatever they have been working on which, for most of us, means at least two and possibly more performances over the course of the day.

On most days, we meet at 8:30AM for a sectional with one of the coaches specializing in our instrument. We spend the time working on any difficult passages in the music we are playing in one of the large ensembles (the Symphony Orchestra in my case, but others go for the Chorus, String Orchestra, Symphonic Band, or the Big Jazz Band). At 9:45 the large ensembles rehearse until noon. Lunch comes next, followed by be three hour-long sessions for ensembles or classes. The Fermata Bar (where we pause - get it? - for wine, snacks, and ad hoc group performances) is at 5:15 followed by dinner at 6:00.

On arrival day, Monday, there is an after dinner concert at 7:30 to introduce the faculty, followed by a reception at 9:00 for socializing and wine drinking. Tuesday evening there is a "Pops for All" event where people play and sing show tunes and other popular songs. Oh yes, and to drink wine. Wednesday night features a "Folk Jam" (I have never done this one), and Thursday night is "Club Morendo" for which people sign up to perform anything they want. On Friday night there is a faculty concert (usually excellent) and Saturday features Skit Night and the Big Band Extravaganza.

So we keep busy.

For me, the morning sectional included all of the bass players and our faculty coach, David Brown of the Vancouver Symphony. This year there were only two basses so we had a lot of quality individual time with Dave. Since our parts had only a few difficult passages, we had time to talk about all things bass, from exercises to improve technique, to the best types of strings, to the pros and cons of the new fold-up travel basses. We also read through some bass trios just for fun.

After the sectional, the Symphony Orchestra rehearses from 9:45 to noon with my old friend Roupen Shakarian conducting. Roupen was the music director of Philharmonia Northwest (my home orchestra) from the 1980s to 2010. I spent 15 seasons with him in Philharmonia, so I am familiar with all of his quirks, including his stock of Monty Python jokes. Also, having played for many other conductors, I really appreciate the clarity of his conducting style. It's the best I have ever seen, including conductors I have watched leading professional orchestras.

In the afternoon, my three hours were: chamber music in the first hour, a small jazz group in the second, and the "Afternoon Orchestra" in the last hour.

First Afternoon Hour
When the string bass is mentioned in terms of chamber music, most people who know something about repertoire think of Schubert's "Trout" piano quintet. Some otherwise well-informed persons believe that, in fact, the Trout is the only decent chamber piece for bass. As one lady said to me at lunch one day "There is the Trout. And then the Trout. Oh yes, and the Trout." However, those with such uninformed opinions are sadly mistaken and I felt compelled to defend the honor of my instrument with a "Well, actually..." moment. I myself have played the first two movements of the lush Vaughn Williams Piano Quintet at previous MMRs. The Dvorak String Quintet Op. 77 is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written and I put together a string quintet (two violins, viola, cello, and bass) to play it at Philharmonia's Chamber Musicale in January. And there are more, as you will see. So no, as wonderful as Schubert and his piano quintet are, for the bass it is not the Trout and only the Trout.

Originally, our quintet had intended to take the first movement of the Dvorak to MMR but, at our first rehearsal in March, I just happened to have the music for George Onslow's String Quintet No. 12, Op. 34 available and asked if the group wanted to play through it. We sight read the first movement and it was love at first play.  So Onslow it was for MMR.

Despite the examples I gave above, it is true that chamber music including a bass is not as common as I would like and many of the pieces are not well known. So,  if I want to play, I have to pay. In this case, I obtained the music, recruited people to play it, scheduled rehearsals, registered the group for MMR, decided who the best coach would be, and tried to make sure we got that coach assigned to us. These things I did. And if I do say so, my master stroke was getting the estimable David Brown to coach us. He is a great teacher, a nice guy, and somehow manages to combine super-human technical skills on the bass with great musicality and a totally unpretentious demeanor. He's not a good coach. He's the best.

Second Afternoon Hour
Patrick Sheng, an enthusiastic young jazz guy, coached a group of inexperienced jazz players in the second hour. I probably had the most jazz experience of anyone in the class and I don't have much! We were all expected to improvise solos and some had never tried such a thing before and were a little nervous. One trombone player adamantly refused to do it! It was fun but not exactly fulfilling musically speaking.

Knowing I would be playing jazz at MMR, a few weeks earlier I purchased pickups for my bass and a Fender bass amp called the Rumble 40. It is very lightweight and helps out a lot when playing with horns, drums, and piano. I will also be using it in the big band I have been playing with at home. It definitely made me one of the cool kids at MMR as both of my fellow bassists borrowed it twice for their own performances.

Third Afternoon Hour
Roger Nelson conducted the Afternoon Orchestra and we read through several pieces including a Mozart overture, a couple of symphonies, and what have you. It's fun to sight read and we got to do a lot of it. Toward the end of the week, we selected two pieces to play in public:

Vaughan Williams: English Folk Song Suite, March: Folk Songs from Somerset
Haydn: A movement of one of his Paris Symphonies which, sadly, I have now forgotten,

At Tuesday night's Fermata Bar, after a few glasses of wine, I joined a pickup group of string players performing "Eleanor Rigby" and "Ascension" which is apparently a pop tune from around 2011. Whatever.

On Wednesday night around 9:00pm, several of us got together to play purely for the joy of it. A couple of my cellist friends were there, along with a humorous Canadian violist of my acquaintance, and a few violinists, all capable musicians. I brought music for the Dvorak String Quintet and someone else brought the Brahms String Sextet No. 2 in G major. I doubled the 2nd cello part on the Brahms and we played both pieces late into the night. This turned out to be one of the most memorable musical experiences of my life. So much fun.

Club Morendo is held on Thursday night in the basement of the student center. Whoever wants to perform signs up and the music continues from 9:00pm to whenever they are done which is sometimes close to midnight.

A jazz band at Club Morendo with hiking friend and cellist, Juha, on sax
Sometimes people surprise you. In the Afternoon Orchestra, I had noticed a woman playing the oboe very nicely. At Club Morendo, I saw that she also has other talents! Take a listen. There are two people from my string quintet in this group: Larry, our first violinist, arranged the music and is playing guitar. Our second violinist, Erin, is the backup singer on the far left.

On Friday, the weather had cooled off to the low 90s so the Fermata Bar was held outside. That day our jazz group from the second afternoon hour played a tune WITHOUT MUSIC. That's how good we were! Or not. Oh well, no one is perfect.

Here are a couple of scenes from Friday night's Fermata Bar:

A jazz band featuring my hiking and music buddy, Jim Whitehead, on keyboard and my fellow bassist Ed Sale. Most importantly, my bass amp is barely visible behind Ed.

The crowd at Friday night's Fermata Bar
After dinner on Friday, a concert by the faculty (i.e. the coaches) is traditional. These are all fine professional musicians and the performances are often fantastic. Case in point: David Brown playing Psy by Luciano Berio.

David Brown showing us how bass playing is really done. 

Sooner than seemed possible, Saturday, the day of performances, arrived. At 8:30am the Saturday Sampling event begins on the music building stage. Everyone who signs up gets two and a half minutes on stage. I think there were 57 groups this year so the music went on for over three hours. I believe our group was number 53 so we were late to the party. However...

Last year I was in a bass trio and, unfortunately, one of us lost his mind during the Saturday performance and it did not go well. This year was different. Our quintet took the stage and we tore into the Onslow with confidence and passion. After the last chord the audience jumped to their feet shouting and clapping. I must admit, it felt GOOD. Afterwards, we got lots of compliments from people whose musical judgement I respect including, most importantly, David Brown himself.

We are all smiles after killing it Saturday morning. Diane on cello, me, Jacob on viola, our coach David Brown, Erin on 2nd violin, and Larry on first violin.

 This was a great group, diverse in age, ranging from 24 to 63 (yes, that's me) and all personally compatible. We had a lot of fun making music together and, after all, isn't that the point?

On Saturday afternoon, the Symphony Orchestra rehearsed for an hour or two and later, I performed with the Afternoon Orchestra at the Tea a la Cadenza as it is styled. People snacked and drank tea while a few groups played.

In the evening all of the large ensembles performed at Cordiner Hall. My group, the Symphony Orchestra, performed last and played these pieces:

Saint-Saens: Overture from La Princesse Jaune, Op.30
Grieg: Symphonic Dances, Op. 64, 2nd Movement
Lutoslawski: Mala Suita (Little Suite)

After the concert, we had dinner on the lawn and then went inside for the final event of the week: Skit Night and the Jazz Big Band extravaganza. The Big Band sounded good (I hope this link to facebook works for everyone) and the skits varied from meh to OK to salacious. One act was a woman who could whistle loudly by inserting two fingers into her mouth. Any two fingers, as she pointed out. She ended by holding up her two middle fingers, putting them in her mouth, and whistling Hail to the Chief! Most of us loved it. Then a certain young female cellist I know gave an extremely suggestive (OK dirty) description of how to moisturize a bassoon reed. It had to do with slowly licking the bottom of the reed and... Well you get the idea.

After exchanging goodbyes with many people, some tearful (lots of wine, what can I say), I headed back to the luxurious Travelodge Walla Walla for the last time. In the morning, I drove back across the state to home and reality.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Hanford Reach

Where was this picture taken? The Sahara? The Gobi Desert? Well no. It's in the Hanford Reach National Monument about an hour's drive from where I grew up in the Tri-Cities.
Nothing to see here
Twenty-six of us boarded a chartered bus in Issaquah early on Saturday morning. The crowd demographic skewed white and retired and all seemed ready for a  weekend of desert hiking, geology talks, and eating. The outing was a field trip organized by the Puget Sound chapter of the Ice Age Floods Institute and was led by a retired geologist, Dale, who also happens to be the president of the Puget Sound chapter of IAFI.

Warning: Nerdy Geologic Info Ahead!

As we left Issaquah heading east on I90, Dale got on the PA system to tell us about the geology of the terrain we were passing through. The interstate gains elevation east of Issaquah and descends into a valley as it approaches North Bend. Dale told us that we were driving over the meltwater channel where glacial Lake Snoqualmie (which covered the current site of North Bend) drained into glacial Lake Sammamish. He also handed out geologic maps of Washington and pointed out the Olympic-Wallowa Lineament which is clearly visible on the map and is not well understood. It is obvious to the eye but no one is sure about its significance, if any.

As we passed by Lake Easton State Park, just east of Snoqualmie Pass, we learned that we were at the southern end of a north/south strike-slip fault (similar to the San Andreas fault in California) which has slipped over 90 miles over the eons, i.e. the rocks on the west side match those on the east side 90 miles to the north. After a stop at the Indian John Hill rest area, we descended into the Kittitas Valley, described by Dale as a giant saucer filled with sediment from the surrounding mountains and hills. Hence the valley's fertile farmland.

Our first bathroom break at the Indian John Hill rest area. The Stuart Range was looking beautiful.

East of Ellensburg we crossed Ryegrass Summit at an elevation of 2535 feet, less than 500 feet lower than Snoqualmie Pass but with completely different terrain: sage brush and grass vs conifers and snow. Around this time we started to see outcrops of Columbia River basalt, formed about 17 million years ago from a series of massive lava flows. This rock underlies the southeastern portion of Washington, about a third of the state's total area.

We crossed the Columbia River at Vantage and turned south towards Sentinel Gap where the Columbia cuts through the Saddle Mountains.  Dale told us that the east-west ridges in Eastern Washington (Saddle Mountains, Umtanum Ridge, Manastash Ridge, etc) were formed by California and Nevada pushing north against the apparently immovable rock of British Columbia. The resulting wrinkles are these ridges. The pressure is continuous and the ridges are still rising at the rate of 4-5 millimeters per year. So, during my lifetime Umtanum Ridge, for example, has risen nearly a foot! In fact it has grown a centimeter or so since I last hiked to the top of it.

We stopped at the Vernita Bridge Rest Area for an early (10:30am) box lunch. There was a bitterly cold wind blowing and most of us huddled in the lee of the restroom building where the sun reflecting off the building kept us warm. Then it was back on the bus for a 45 minute ride to the riverside trail head at Hanford Reach.

Vernita Bridge spanning the Columbia River
The trailhead featured locust trees, one port-a-potty, and an old log building which is apparently one of the buildings of the abandoned town of White Bluffs. We prowled around for a while and then assembled for a brief lecture by our hike leader, Bruce Bjornstad, a local geologist and an expert on the ice age floods. Then we finally hit the trail in now warm, sunny weather.
Locust trees at the trailhead
One of the oldest buildings in Franklin County has seen better days

Description of the old building above
Setting out on the hike. We walked about 6 miles in total with about 300 feet of elevation gain.
The view to the north from the top of the bluffs
Ever so often, Bruce, our hike leader, would stop and tell us something interesting. He picked up the rock shown below and asked us if we knew where it came from. Most of us knew it wasn't local because it is clearly not basalt. Bruce said it was an erratic (a rock that is not local) piece of granite that likely arrived from a few hundred miles north on an iceberg which ended up melting here. He picked up another rock, also an erratic, and told us that, knowing the processes that formed it, it is about 1.25 billion years old!

An erratic piece of granite from the Spokane area

Miscellaneous erratic rocks carried probably carried on a single iceberg. They have been lying here for over 10,000 years!
Mothballed World War II era reactors across the river on the Hanford Reservation. They are shut down and roofed for weather protection.
Miscellaneous photos follow:

Dunes at Hanford Reach. Saddle Mountains are in the distance.

The island in the river is Locke Island, a nature preserve and sacred to the local Native Americans.

More dunes in the distance with Saddle Mountains as a backdrop

The layers you can see here are deposits from multiple ice age floods called rythmites. There are at least 15 separate floods recorded here. Beneath these layers are sediments from the ancestral Columbia River, i.e. deposits from before the floods.

Ice age flood deposits on top with ancestral Columbia layers below.

Nice colors in the late afternoon light
 We arrived back at the bus in the late afternoon. After an extended period of 26 people using a single port-a-potty, we reboarded the bus and drove to Kennewick for dinner and our hotel. We stopped at Columbia Center for a classy meal at the food court and then boarded the bus yet again to blunder around in the dark through parts of Kennewick that didn't exist when I lived there. We made it to the motel and, after a long wait in line for checkin (again 26 people), I collapsed into bed.

The next morning, after a decent breakfast at the motel, we bussed a few miles south into the hills to the Coyote Canyon Mammoth Site. The story goes that the man who originally owned the land ran a junkyard (it's still there) and, while making room for more junk, a backhoe operator found some large bones. The junk man didn't much care and he gave a leg bone to a friend who moved to Seattle and, apparently still has the bone in his basement and refuses to give it back. Eventually some locals who are interested in paleontology heard about the find and convinced a local rancher to buy the land and give them a free hand to research the site.

We listened to a short lecture on mammoths in general and the local species, the Columbian Mammoth, in particular.  Most salient point: huge long tusks.

The mammoth they are excavating has been carbon dated to about 17,000 years ago. It is probably male but they haven't found the pelvis yet which will tell them for sure. The theory is that the beast was drowned in the flood and the carcass was deposited here on the shore of Lake Lewis, the temporary 700 foot deep lake that lasted a week or so as the flood waters pooled upstream of Wallula Gap.

The dig

Apparently that is a mammoth vertebrae and to the left is a rib bone

This lady sifts through all the dirt that is excavated looking for small bones and whatever else she can find. She is also a character.
Afterwards, we went to Benton City for a delicious Mexican lunch at Hacienda Del Sol and returned to Issaquah via the Yakima River Canyon. It was a fun trip.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Hiking in 2017

It's a little late for this but...

Here are pictures from some of my favorite hikes from last year.

Umtanum Creek Canyon

With a couple of friends I drove across the mountains for a May hike in a branch of the Yakima River Canyon. I have rarely seen the hills of Eastern Washington so green!

Looking north toward Manashtash Ridge

Umtanum Creek
Balsomroot was blooming

Basalt Cliffs in Umtanum Creek Canyon
Apple blossoms in an abandoned orchard

An oasis in the dry hills

Wallace Falls

Towards end of May, daughter Anna and I went to Wallace Falls State Park and hiked up to the lake and then to the falls.

Wallace Lake

Wallace Falls
Lake Annette

In early June, Jim W. and I hiked to Annette Lake near Snoqualmie Pass. It was still winter up there!

The lake was still partly frozen

Spring was coming though

A stream along the trail
Teanaway Ridge

A week or so later, son-in-law Pierce and I went to one of my favorite destinations, the Teanaway Country, and hiked the Teanaway Ridge trail.

As we gained elevation, Rainier made an appearance

A view of the Stuart Range from the high point

Tolmie Peak

Our friend, Julie, was visiting from Sweden and I hiked with her and her two sons to the Tolmie Peak Lookout, one of my favorite places in Mount Rainier National Park. Perfect weather and good company!

Beautiful Eunice Lake

The Swedish crew

This is why I love Tolmie Peak

Mount St Helens in the distance
Second Burroughs

Another classic Mount Rainier hike is Second Burroughs. Another friend, Ingrid, visited from Sweden in mid-August and we had a group outing on a rainy day that cleared magically when we got to the trailhead at Sunrise.

In the parking lot at Sunrise

Somebody is looking confident. A recent PhD from CalTech can do that!

Nearing First Burroughs. You can see the trail to Second.

At Second Burroughs
Some of our group at the summit

An alpine meadow on the way back to Sunrise.

A meadow brook

Ebey's Landing

Ebey's Landing on Whidbey Island is one of my favorite places. We decided to show it to Ingrid and Daniel.

On the bluffs trail

Looking down at one of the lagoons

Blue Heron!

Walking back on the beach

Heather-Maple Pass Loop

My last hike of the season was with Jim W. in the North Cascades in late September. The trail head is at Rainy Pass. As you can see, the scenery is spectacular. I need more North Cascades hikes!

The larches were just starting to turn color

I am so looking forward to getting back on the trail this spring!