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|
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|
|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?
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 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.