Friday, July 22, 2011

The Vocabulary of Music

I’m happy to report that Sebastian no longer looks like a giant playing a toy viola.  We replaced his rented 14 1/2-inch viola yesterday with a full-size, 16-inch beauty of an instrument, a Tanglewood 200 made by Eastman Strings.  It’s all his now, or will be once I write a check for the second half of the total.

I am a string instrument novice, so these milestones are all new to me.  I knew he needed a larger instrument.  I’m ashamed to say that he's needed it for – oh, at least four or five months now?  The trouble was in finding a time we could both go to the studio and have him try out a few different sizes.
Sebastian tries out his new viola and bow.
Sebastian has rented a viola through a local business, String Solutions, since he started playing in the fourth grade.  He has moved up a couple of viola sizes since then, as he’s grown taller (current height is 5 feet 7 1/2 inches), and I knew that eventually we’d purchase a viola, if he decided to stick with it.

Karen Madsen, the owner of String Solutions, had Seb try two different sizes, the 15 1/2 and the 16.  He felt comfortable with the 16, so then we had to choose between the moderately priced specimen and the more expensive model.  He played the same song on both of them, and this led to an interesting discussion about how difficult it is to explain how one instrument sounds compared to another.

"We don’t have the vocabulary words to describe it," Karen said.

She’s right.  As she noted, the cheaper viola had what might be called a brighter, pointed sound, and the more expensive viola had a warmer, deeper sound.  But those words are inadequate in conveying the nuances of tone.  It’s something you have to hear and feel.
A closer look at Sebastian’s new viola and its French-made maple bridge.
Karen also had Sebastian try a couple of different bows.  Again, I am such a novice – I knew nothing about what bows are made of, how professionals still use wooden bows, but amateurs more often use bows made from fiberglass, carbon fiber, or some combination.  I couldn’t help but think of Harry Potter, and how “the wand must choose you.”

The wand – I mean, carbon fiber bow – that chose Sebastian was the more expensive one.  Go figure.  Maybe it has unicorn hair inside it?  He also got a new case with backpack straps and a handy subway handle, which Karen said is called that because people do use it to hang onto the instrument when they’re traveling on a subway.

Once all the costs were totaled, I was wishing we had a subway nearby so Seb could put out his case in the station and play for commuters, as a way of paying for his new instrument.  But what I told him was this: if he wants to pay me back, he can do that by practicing often and playing well. 

I won’t have the words to describe the sounds he’ll make on his new instrument, but I do have a word to describe what I feel when I hear him master a piece: pride.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Little More Homework

OK, I’ll admit it.  I get teary-eyed every darn time I hear the teenage cast of 13 sing the song, “A Little More Homework.”

I’ve been looking in the back of the book for the answers
Hoping the bell wouldn’t chime
But I’m not ready to put down my pencil just yet
There are too many answers that I didn’t get
I need a little less pressure and a little more time

I am trying to follow

I am trying to lead
I am trying to learn what is true
I am trying to be what you want and I need
And we all have a little more homework to do


The song and the show have a lot to say about the pressures of being a teenager – a time that I wouldn’t want to return to, but I get to relive in a way, as the parent of two teenagers and one tween.

The talented cast of 13/photo by Tania Legvold
One of those teens, Sebastian, just turned 13 last month and is in the Northfield Arts Guild production, which runs for one more weekend.  He plays a brief role as a rabbi, and he plays a teen named Richie.  It’s been great fun to see him in this show, singing, dancing and making all kinds of costume changes (spoiler: he’s the one hitting the high note on “Bad Bad News,” and one of the geeks in the the “Being a Geek” song).
Sebastian, as a rabbi, before going onstage opening night.
Steve is not in the show (although he’s a great actor, playing a teenager might be a stretch), but he’s been toiling behind the scenes as the producer.  The show has been enthusiastically received, and I hope tickets sell out for the remaining four performances.

You don’t have to be a teen to appreciate the show’s messages about friendship, popularity and staying true to yourself.
Nana and Seb after Sunday’s performance.
I probably can’t say it better than the two appreciative fans who sent this message to the show’s director, Rachel Haider:

“... we raise our voices in shouts of praise for the delightful evening of humor and dramatic excellence.  And, the audience, young and old, got the message! ‘We still have a lot of homework to be done’ in our everyday relationships, in our acceptance of diverse cultural and religious roots, in cheering for and caring for each other.”

I plan to see the show one more time, on Saturday night.  And I’m going to do my homework and pack some Kleenex in my purse, so I’ll be ready.

Monday, July 11, 2011

No Fair!

I learned today that the North Dakota State Fair has been canceled due to the ongoing flooding problems in Minot, where the Souris River has not receded as quickly as people had hoped.  The fair board made the decision on Saturday, a day after the area received significant rainfall.  The fair had been scheduled to open July 22 and run through July 30.

I’m sure it’s a huge disappointment to thousands of residents.  The state fair is the largest event in North Dakota; last year, it attracted a record 308,000 visitors, which adds up to almost half of the state’s population.
The June 28 view from the grandstand/photo courtesy of the North Dakota State Fair.
The news caught my eye not because I had planned to attend, but because I have a historic interest in the fair.  My great-grandfather’s band played at the North Dakota State Fair about 100 years ago, when the fair was located in Grand Forks.

According to the State Historical Society of North Dakota, the first state fair was held in Grand Forks in 1890, after North Dakota became a state.  Beginning in 1905, the State Legislature authorized a state fair to be held in Grand Forks in odd numbered years and in Fargo in even numbered years, operated by their respective fair associations.  In the mid-1960s, the legislature decided to establish the official state fair in Minot, which had hosted fairs beginning in 1922.

This is the first time the state fair has been canceled since Minot became the official site in 1966.  Among the disappointed will be those who had tickets for shows in the new grandstand, which debuted last year.  Booked acts included Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow, Toby Keith, Charlie Daniels, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Pat Benatar.  The tickets will be refunded.

Fairgoers at the 1909 North Dakota State Fair were treated to a much different lineup of entertainment.  One featured group was the Grand Forks Military Band, directed by G. Oliver Riggs (it was called a military band because of the style of music, not because of a military affiliation).  The band played its own concerts and also performed for vaudeville acts at the fair. 

A July 17, 1909 article in the Grand Forks Evening Times explained that the band had a “splendid” program prepared for the state fair visitors, its repertoire consisting of “some of the best standard overtures among which are the ever popular ‘Poet and Peasant’ and ‘Light Cavalry,’ besides selections from the grand and comic operas, Strauss waltzes, popular song medleys and a grist of light, catchy music.”

The article also mentioned that the band and its popular director were known for their liberal encores; at the last concert, the band was to have left the stand at 9, but kept playing encores for 20 minutes.

“Those who attend the biggest state fair North Dakota has ever had will have the pleasure of listening to the best band that ever played at a North Dakota fair,” the article concluded.

Another story about the fair, in the Grand Forks Herald, reported that 25,000 people attended the opening day of the 1909 fair, and some arrived via the city’s new streetcar system.  Popular attractions included speed exhibitions by the world’s greatest harness horses, a balloon ascension and fireworks.

G. Oliver and his band members received good reviews at the fair’s conclusion.  A July 25 article in the Grand Forks Herald stated, “The choice of selections was one of the fine features of the concerts given by the band who occupied their own portable bandstand close to the judge’s stand.  Grand Forks does not need now to look to other organizations to furnish band music for she now has seen a result of Mr. Riggs’ efforts a band second to none in the state.”

I wish the residents of North Dakota all the best as they recover from the flooding and look ahead to the 2012 state fair.  And if Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow are back in the line-up next year with a rocking medley of Franz von Suppé’s “Poet and Peasant” and “Light Cavalry” overtures, I am so there.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Summer Music Miscellanea

I have mid-summer brain right now, which makes it difficult to muster the effort required to write a well-researched blog post.  But the blog must go on, so here are some updates on the summer musical doings in the family.

• Louisa returned June 29 from a fabulous trip to a the Pacific International Children’s Choir Festival in Oregon with the Northfield Youth Choirs.  She blogged while on the trip (click here to see the posts) and was full of stories about the experience, in which the singers grew musically and got a glimpse of college life (they stayed in dorms on the campus of the University of Oregon in Eugene).


Louisa, on right, with her fedora twin, Synneva.
The choir did some sightseeing before and after the music festival.  Here’s a link to a video clip of the choir members singing “Bring me Little Water, Silvy” while visiting the fish market in Seattle’s Pike Place Market (Louisa’s way in the back, wearing a black fedora):
http://www.flickr.com/photos/northfieldyouthchoirs/5890691439/


• Sebastian has started tech rehearsals for 13, the Northfield Arts Guild’s summer show.  It’s a high-energy musical with an all-teenage cast that ran on Broadway a few years ago.  Seb plays a boy named Richie and also plays a rabbi (and gets to sing in Hebrew).  The show opens Thursday, July 14, and runs for two weekends.  You can order tickets online here.

The poster for 13.
• Louisa, Elias and I attended the Justin Roberts concert Wednesday night in Central Park, sponsored by the Northfield Public Library.  Roberts is a Chicago-based performer who once taught preschool in Minneapolis.  Steve and I were introduced to Roberts’ catchy, parent-friendly kids’ music by our friend Becca when Elias was a baby.  Roberts first performed in Northfield about 10 years ago and has returned almost every summer.  He was nominated for a Grammy this year, and I interviewed him for a NorthfieldPatch article in February.
Jungle Gym is the latest album by Justin Roberts/photo by Todd Rosenberg
Louisa was pretty sure she was the oldest non-adult in the audience.  It was strange to scan the crowd of parents and young children and hardly know any of them.  In earlier years, I would recognize almost all the concert-goers.  I guess that’s what happens when your kids grow up.  It didn’t matter, though, because Roberts is a great performer, and his music is enjoyable for anyone who’s ever been a kid.

• I can’t end the post without mentioning Steve’s great musical accomplishment while we were on our Mediterranean cruise last month.  He won a prize, a fetching Royal Caribbean travel wallet, for being among the top three finishers in the Finish the Lyric contest.

He and our friends Donna and Tiny also distinguished themselves by kicking off karaoke night with their rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  I did not take any video of their performance, so you’ll just have to imagine the crowd’s enthusiastic applause at the conclusion of the six-minute song.