Sunday, April 20, 2008

My Violoncello Piccolo

I now officially own a violoncello piccolo.

(My first seconds with the new piccolo)

Last week I picked up the piccolo from Ifshin at their new store in El Cerrito, California. They had just moved there from Berkeley.
(The new Ifshin building in El Cerrito)

Haide Lin had arrived with my piccolo from China on April 1, and on April 10 I arrived on their door step to pick it up.
This was unusually soon after it had come from China. The instrument was built in China in the shop of Ifshin. Their luthiers over there work much the way they would have in the shop of Vuillaume in Mirecourt in the 1800's: one highly skilled person carves only scrolls. The other one carves top plates and yet another bends sides and one person makes varnish and applies it. Because they do only one thing, these people are remarkably good at it. Haide goes there every few months to help and instruct.
They make a lot of different instruments, most of them are more or less mass production.

However; my violoncello piccolo is another story. As I have told you in previous blog entries: very little is known about the violoncello piccolo. The exact size remains unknown. There are violoncello piccolo's as small as 1/2 size cellos, and some as big as 7/8 size cellos. People such as Dmitri Badiarov seem to have discovered proof that the piccolo was really more like a huge viola played on the right shoulder of the performer. Cellists of course, love to dispute that, since the Bach suites are sacred to us and certainly a violist should never touch them! I guess we cellists shouldn't be too protective of the suites. After all: it is such beautiful music: who wouldn't want to play them! The whole debate about the violoncello piccolo is great. The more people are talking about it, the more it will get researched!

I had opted to have a piccolo built that is roughly 3/4 the size of a baroque cello, but with the sides as thick as that of a regular cello, so that there is more air volume inside. This increases the chance that there is a decent C string on the cello, with enough depth.

For the people at Ifshin, both in California and in China this seemed an exciting challenge.

It worked!
It is great.
It is exciting.

When Haide arrived in El Cerrito with the instrument the beginning of April, he first put it in a kind of dryer to make it suitable for the ridiculous climate it would be going to. It stayed there for 4 days until there was not a drop of moisture left in the instrument. He made a fingerboard, soundpost, two bridges (he liked the 2nd one better) and set up the cello.

As I said: I arrived the afternoon of April 10 and spent a few hours with Haide moving the soundpost and bridge until it seemed right for the moment.
(Haide works with me on the perfect set-up of the violoncello piccolo)
I brought the instrument to my hotel in San Francisco and played it for a few hours. I was to be back in El Cerrito the next day to tweak some more.
Playing 5 strings for the first time was so interesting! Can you imagine: I have never played the 6th suite. Sure: I have tried to "plough through it" on numerous occasions, only to be frustrated by the difficulty. On this Thursday evening, in my hotel room in San Francisco I played it without interruption from the beginning to the end! I couldn't help wondering: why don't all cellos have 5 strings?!?
The biggest challenge was not even the new high e-string; it was trying to find the d and G strings! More about that in later blog entries.
It turned out that the C string was hitting the fingerboard too much when I played.
The next day at the shop of Ifshin, we decided to put a resonator inside the instrument to take care of the small wolf and Haide would take the fingerboard off the cello that evening and shave it down. This meant leaving it overnight for the glue to dry. It also meant we would have to leave a day later than we had planned to drive back to Edmonton (yes: we drove down to San Francisco).
(Jay Ifshin and Haide Lin are debating what to do next)

On Saturday we were back at the shop in the morning. Haide usually does not work on Saturday but ended up being there all day to set up my cello well. He made a new soundpost. That worked. The only thing was... the C string still didn't vibrate freely. Gut strings vibrate very wide and it kept hitting the fingerboard.
And that surely wouldn't get any better in Edmonton.
(In Haide's workshop on Saturday morning)

Eventually Haide cut a small incision in the neck, where it connects with the top plate. The neck now came forward and the fingerboard dropped. It worked. In order to do this he had to open the top plate seam and of course glue it back together once he was done. It had to stay in the glue clamps for a while: preferably overnight. But we were leaving the next morning at 6 am!
We took the cello, clamps and all, and dropped the clamps off on Haide's door step on our way out the next morning!
Of course playing it at home is so different. Now it is suddenly real! I have started practising the Prelude and Allemande of the 6th suite. It is so much fun!
I also rushed in an order for some e-strings! They are so thin: I am sure this e string will break soon.

I had (shallowly perhaps) requested that the piccolo would look different from the baroque cello that I have from them. The varnish did not quite turn out as dark as Haide had wished but it is still quite different from the baroque cello that I have.
They also antiqued it differently, so to the untrained eye it really shouldn't look like I am playing the same instrument when I play them back to back.
(The baroque cello and the piccolo together)

I also have sight read through some Boccherini sonatas. They are difficult! But not so much on a piccolo. How fun!

While in California we went to visit Andy Carruthers and spent a great day with him and his family.
I also got to play "the" cello again. It is still so great!! It is such a powerful instrument. And so intimate at the same time. Someone will fall so in love with that cello! It made my heart beat faster and ache, that is for sure... I seem to have such connection with the instrument. Unfortunately my bank account won't allow me to have yet another instrument.
When I do some performances of the suites in California I will certainly include a Carruthers cello in the series! (I secretly hope it will be this one, but for Andy I hope it will sell before that time!).

The other thing about going to California in this time of year: THEY HAVE FLOWERS!!
While I love Edmonton, there is a two month time that I would rather skip every year.
From mid March to early May. It is brown. While it is usually sunny; I do miss the flowers.
(Calla Lilies are really tall!)

And this weekend here in Edmonton is ridiculous: it is snowing... (yes: that is unusual, even for here)! I feel energized though, by the spring that we had there. And it sure is less busy here!
(California Poppies)


For those of you wondering how my England experience was: I had a lot of fun.
The performance was fun. It is difficult to imagine that no one even noticed that I had a carbon fibre cello!
But I was sure glad I had brought it.
Even though Air Canada had promised to hand carry the instrument in and out of the plane and put it on the belt for fragile items: it came tumbling down the regular luggage belt and even landed on the bridge...
Needless to say that I nearly had a heart attack.
But the cello was not even out of tune!
(Performance at Canada House on Trafalgar Square in London, UK)

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Violoncello Piccolo is ready!

I just heard from Ifshin that my piccolo cello is ready! I am going to pick it up mid April!
As soon as I have it, you will hear all about it. I can hardly wait.
If it is as good as the baroque cello that I have from them, I will be in for a treat!

The recording with the Strathcona String Quartet is done. We did a day of recording today. Try playing jazz music at 8 AM on a holiday Monday!
It was really great fun though and I think the CD will be very good.

My focus can now go to playing suites 1 through 4 in London on Friday. Playing them on the carbon fibre cello is interesting, especially since I have not been playing it that much lately (I really do love my Mirecourt after all!)

I changed strings on both cellos.
It started last week when I changed the strings on my Mirecourt again. I kept the Larsen soloist soft a string, but changed the rest to Larsen Soloist medium. I did not like the wire core after all: they were buzzing too much.
It is such an expensive experiment with all these strings!
I kept the a soloist soft: that string sounds great on this cello.
I thought that the d, which also was a
soloist soft, could use a little more "oompf" and the soloist medium does just that.
I changed the strings on the carbon too! It now has almost the same set-up: all soloist Larsen, all medium. And to my surprise: I like it!
Let's hope the cello "survives" the flight to London....
I thought I had decided to bring my great Roy Quade bow, but I am getting cold feet. What if something happens to it?! I may take my husband's Coda Bow after all...

I have also decided how to present the six suites in concert next season.
Last week American cellist Zuill Bailey performed in Edmonton and we were talking at intermission and after the concert with a glass of wine. He had the brilliant idea of performing all six suites on one afternoon, but perform a suite every half hour on a few consecutive Saturdays or Sundays.
I would play it as follows:
1:00: Suite 1
1:30: Suite 2
2:00: Suite 3
2:30: BREAK
3:00: Suite 4
3:30: Suite 5
4:00" Suite 6

The audience can decide if they want to listen to all 6 suites, walk out after two suites or just come for one suite.
That would take a lot of pressure off both the performer as well as the audience.
It means I as a performer won't have to worry about whether I still have a captive audience: they could leave after every suite for a break or just to go home.
And the audience doesn't have to worry about having to be polite and sit through all six suites when all they really want to do after hearing one or two suites is to throw a steak on the BBQ at home.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Different cellos, different interpretation?

This is the million dollar question of the project.

During the last few weeks I have been playing all three cellos a lot.
The Mirecourt sounds fantastic. I am using it daily because my Strathcona String Quartet is recording a CD, consisting of original compositions and arrangements of
jazz standards by George Andrix. About half of the works will be for string quartet alone. For the other half, the Quartet will be joined by Joel Gray (trumpet) and John Taylor (bass), both widely respected members of the Edmonton Jazz Community.
We recorded the string quartet pieces last week. The sextet pieces will be recorded on the 24th.
Of course I have been using my Mirecourt for this, and it is great!

Since I am going to London with Edmonton Economic Development at the end of the month, I have been practicing my carbon fibre cello a lot as well. And since I love the sound of the baroque cello so much, of course I have been playing it regularly too.

As you may remember, I had decided which suite to play on which cello.
Until I was asked to go to London, I was faithfully practicing the suites on the instruments that I had decided to play them on. So I practiced the 1st on the Mirecourt, the 2nd on the baroque cello, the 3rd on the carbon, suite 4 on my Mirecourt and #5 on the baroque.

Then came the London trip. I will take the carbon fibre cello, so... I need to make sure that I have played suites #1 to 4 (which I will be performing there) on the carbon.
What I have now discovered is that I play the suite completely differently, depending on the instrument. I
choose completely different fingerings, different tempi, different dynamics even!

I shall try to describe the differences:

  • The baroque cello is set up with gut strings: unwound a and d, and silver wound G and C. It is tuned to 4:15. Because the bridge is lower and the strings are tuned lower, the tension is much lower. This gives the strings a lot more "slack"; therefore, the strings respond slower. The overtones are much richer, the sound more intimate.

  • The Mirecourt has an unequaled character. Every string is a little different, making fingering choices challenging, since the string I play it on changes the feel of a section a lot. Having said that; I will contradict myself and say that this cello sounds very even across the strings. The mood can just be different from one string to the next, much more than on the carbon fibre cello.

  • The carbon fibre sounds like it has built-in amplification. It is very fast, very smooth, with almost no change when you go from one string to the next.

Let's take a look at the prelude of the first, G major suite. Towards the end of the movement we get the following passage:

I like to bring out the bass notes on the d-string.

  • On the baroque cello this happens almost automatically. The open a-string is so mellow that it never screams at you or demands attention. It sounds exactly the way I believe it should sound.
  • On the Mirecourt I have to try hard to get the sound that I got so easily on the baroque cello. The a-string tends to stand out. In spite of a "Larsen soloist soft" string, I have to work really hard in order to have the a-string not bark at me when I play this passage.
  • On the carbon fibre cello I get confronted with an entirely different problem: the notes sound much too equal. It is so "nice". There is absolutely nothing "offensive" about the sound, but it totally lacks character, unless I work really hard at making one note stand out over the other.
    So in a way this cello demands the most work to get the sound I want, even though it is the easiest to play. Go figure!

Another example:
The opening of the 2nd suite:

  • On the baroque cello this sounds so very sweet with open d and a strings. You can manipulate the sound, partly because the strings are so loose. It sounds warm, intimate.
  • On the Mirecourt the open strings sound great as well, in a very different way. With steel strings the colouring is less complex, but still has a great depth. It sounds a little less haunting than on the baroque cello, partly because of the higher tuning, partly because of the greater projection and higher tension. I take a slightly faster tempo with this cello.
  • On the carbon fibre, I tend to play the opening of this suite in the 4th position with no open strings. For those who know me, this probably comes as a surprise, since it seems so against my "religion" to play the opening of this suite anywhere but on open strings. But that sounds very boring on this instrument since it allows for so little colouring on open strings. It sounds beautiful in the 4th position though.
    Vice versa is true too. Playing this opening bar on the baroque cello in the 4th position sounds choked and unhealthy. On the Mirecourt it sounds good but I personally don't like it as much.

Yet another interesting example:
The following section in the 3rd, C Major suite:

  • On the baroque cello I keep the same tempo that I started the movement with throughout this section. I take time on chord changes.
  • On the Mirecourt I gradually increase the tempo. I do keep the first three notes of every four 16th notes slurred. I get back to the Tempo Primo in bar...
  • On the carbon fibre cello this section is a breeze! It is so easy I barely have to think. I decided to separate the notes completely (so no slurs!). And I play it at lightning speed. It sound phenomenal this way, but trying this on the baroque cello sounds pathetic!

Now comes suite #4, the Prelude.

  • On the baroque cello, I use almost a whole bow for every 8th note! If I don't it sounds scratchy and squeaky. I choose quite a moderate tempo. It takes a little time to get the low notes to sound.
    It is difficult to keep the 4/4 or 2/2 feel of this movement. I remember that I got a phone call from my parents many years ago. They are both professional musicians (classical guitarists) of the highest caliber. They were listening to the 4th suite by Anner Bijlsma. Apparently they had trouble deciding what the time signature of this prelude was upon listening to it, so they called me to find out. It is true: it is so easy for the second 8th note to become so dominant that it appears to become the first beat. The listener is at a compete loss after a while.
    I found this particularly difficult on my baroque cello.
    The other thing I am struggling with this particular suite on this instrument is with is the key. The E flat major suite is difficult for cellists, partly because there are so very many extensions. Upon completing this suite the left hand is quite tired. On the baroque cello I find this even more stressful because the instrument has no endpin. It sits very straight, which is even more stressful for the hand. In addition this cello is a little big anyway.
  • On The Mirecourt this suite is much less stressful now than it used to be. With the new bridge it seems much more manageable. I can choose any tempo I like to, which is a little faster than on my baroque cello, and the instrument responds well. After the Gigue I still feel the urge to shake my left hand and loosen my muscles! I do find though, that the slight struggle which is almost inevitable with the string changes in this suite, gives it a character that I really like.
    I use a much more compact bow stroke on this instrument with this suite. The faster bow necessary on the baroque cello makes it sound airy and flaky on the Mirecourt. Even when I use a baroque bow on this cello, I use much less bow on the Mirecourt than on the baroque cello.
  • The carbon fibre cello does this suite with great ease, but almost too much so. The string changes are a non-issue. The C string speaks as easily as the a-string, so one could play this as fast as one would like. So the work I find that I create for myself is to make it sound as if it is more labourious than it actually is.

The interesting thing about this journey is that I find myself searching for some qualities of the carbon fibre cello in the baroque cello, and vice versa.
When things are too easy on the carbon fibre cello, I try to mimic the struggle I have on the baroque cello.
When I struggle on the baroque cello, I try to find ways to make it sound more like the Mirecourt or carbon fibre do.

On the other hand, I cherish some things on each instrument and use them to accentuate the qualities of that instrument, like in the prelude of the 3rd suite, where I love the speed and virtuoso sound I can get on the carbon fiber, the warmth and depth on the Mirecourt and how it gets so lyrical and slow on the baroque cello.

The excitement continues...!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

A personal update

It has been almost 3 months since my last post, and so much has happened since!

  • I received a subsistence grant from the Edmonton Arts Council. It makes me really happy, because this project is turning out to be more costly in many ways, than I ever imagined! Receiving this grant means I can breathe a little bit easier, at least for a little while. I am applying for more grants and will need to find a few more ways to help me fund this project (any ideas?).
    The granting agency wants four copies of everything.....

    I am loving every minute of this huge project though!

  • I received an award: “Celebration of Women in the Arts Award of 2007” from the Edmonton Arts Council. I feel so very privileged, humbled and honoured!

  • I have just been asked to represent Edmonton in London, UK at the end of March for a sales mission which Edmonton Economic Development Corporation is working on with the Mayor's Office, Edmonton International Airports, etc.
    It will be great to go there and… I will be playing Bach!
    Unfortunately there is no money to buy a seat for my cello, so instead of risking it, I decided I will take my carbon fibre cello. It will be quite different from what I have been doing lately!

  • During the past few months I have reconnected with my good old fiend Mirecourt. During all of my performances and for most of my practicing and rehearsing, I have been enjoying playing it again. Since it got a new bridge, the instrument has become reliable and wonderful to play. It has been so interesting to find out how large a role a bridge plays in the overall manageability of an instrument!
    Apparently the previous bridge, while well cut, was a little soft and therefore moved ever so slightly under the string. This caused the intonation to become unreliable and the instrument to be moody.
    We cellists tend to be hypersensitive when it comes to the set up of the instrument (violinists tease us with that!). The soundpost has to be "just there" and nowhere else. The bridge has to stand "just so" and not differently. And when the bridge moves even a fraction of a millimetre, the sound changes, the playability changes, the character changes! Hard to explain to a non-cellist, but it can be a source of great frustration and anxiety. I have much less to worry about now!

  • I changed the strings on my Mirecourt again and I have gone back to Larsen strings. “Soloist soft” (doesn’t that sound like an oxymoron?!) on the a and d strings and wire core Tungsten on C and G. I love the power.
    True: I do miss the depth and wealth of overtones of gut strings, but this climate here in Alberta makes it too much of a hassle to attempt to play gut.
    It took me a month to play the gut strings in, which I expected. Then, for the next month, I enjoyed them immensely. The third month was filled with frustration because they lost their shine; they had dried out!
    Changing them every other month is much out of my budget range, so the Larsen is my pretty happy compromise. If I lived in a more humid climate, I would not hesitate for a moment though: I would continue to play gut.
    Compare the steel C string on the cello to the gut C string that I am holding!

    Nothing beats the warmth and richness of gut strings. Colleagues have asked if I didn't mind the more frequent tuning that you inevitably have to do with gut, or their slower response. I don't mind at all. Tuning is easy, just a little more frequent. And the slower response: I like it. I grew up on gut strings, so I know how to handle them. It gives the playing more depth, it seems more "true", more "honest".
    Now that I once again play steel, and wire core tungsten even, I have to keep reminding myself to feel deeper in the string than I instinctively would. What I mean by that is that the response of steel is so fast and easy that the performance can easily lack depth. Because one does not really have to work at one's sound, it is easy to leave it at that and just play. It is important for me to keep in mind my "ideal" sound and work at that.
    Is it too easy to "blame" the string? I think as a player it is important to remember what you want to hear. To not just let the instrument play you. I am getting into a discussion here that could go much further than that. The bottom line is that I play my Mirecourt again because the Carbon Fibre lacks that kind of depth. The Mirecourt has even more of what I am searching for when it has gut strings, but I can get it with the current set up as well, as long as I keep working at creating a certain sound.

    So what am I looking for? I had not played my Mirecourt for nearly two years because the carbon fibre cello was so very easy to play. So I do want an easy playing instrument. The new bridge on the Mirecourt gave me more ease, but I want the depth of gut, even though it is "harder" to play. I am not playing gut because it isn't practical in this climate, but I would if I were located elsewhere. If this isn't complicated...

    I am putting fine tuners back on the cello.

  • The Jay-Haide baroque cello exceeds my expectation. And it keeps getting better yet. The sound is very warm and rich. I get raving comments on it. It does have gut strings (Aquila), but somehow I don’t have the same issues with it that I had with the Oliv gut strings on my Mirecourt. Might it be because I don’t have the same demands from the instrument? With the Mirecourt I play a lot of different music. I play with my string quartet, I regularly play with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (I guess it must be “flu season” because I have been happily playing a lot with them). I am in the middle of a recording with my string quartet (all jazz music!). The sound of the Mirecourt has to project a certain way, and it has to be clean.

    A Performance with the Strathcona String Quartet at Edmonton's City Hall.

    My baroque cello has a different character and purpose altogether. It doesn’t project the same way, nor should it. It squeaks a little sometimes, but it doesn’t seem to matter the same way it does on the Mirecourt. I also have not found that these strings have lost their shine. Perhaps the string quality is different, perhaps the instrument responds differently, I don’t know what it is, but it works.
    In ensemble playing the Jay-Haide is very strong. As basso continuo instrument it has power, depth and flexibility. I like it a lot!
    Practising suites 2 and 5 on it have been such a treat. I never want to put it down. What a shame I can't use it while I am teaching (because it is tuned down to 415 instead of 440)!

  • The carbon fibre cello has been "demoted" to teaching instrument again. This really is why I bought it in the first place. Except for the odd rehearsal this winter when I chose to take the instrument in -35 degrees Celsius weather, rather than risking my Mirecourt, the cello has not been played “professionally”.
    This of course will change next month, when I will take it to England for a concert. That will be fun though. The carbon fibre cellos, once again, are great. They are so easy to play and so reliable. The don't care about barometric pressure changes, humidity, temperature. They project like no other instrument, and really: they sound any way you would like them to sound. For me though, I miss the character of wood. Perhaps the "crankiness" of wood. It is very personal though. I did play it for two years exclusively and loved every minute of it. It is a worry-free cello, so I will be glad to take it on the plane next month.

  • The piccolo will probably be ready for me at the beginning of April. I can hardly wait!

  • Getting to know my new Basil de Visser baroque bow has been very exciting as well. It is so different (of course!) from my Roy Quade bow.
    It is fascinating to compare the sound of my two bows on the different cellos. My absolutely fantastic Roy Quade bow is a perfect match for the Mirecourt as well as the Carbon Fibre. The baroque bow is very nice on the Mirecourt as well. It definitely has much less depth on that instrument, the overtones seem thinner, but for certain music it actually is quite nice. If I play Bach on the Mirecourt with the baroque bow, it has a very different quality than with my modern bow. The phrasing is instantly different. Summarizing: the Quade bow is warmer, richer, sustains easily and responds quick. The de Visser bow demands quicker bow strokes and won't sustain the same way.
    On the baroque cello both bows are different again. Here the Basil de Visser bow responds with ease, speed and produces a complexity of sound that my Quade does not. It is almost as if the Quade bow is too powerful for it.
    On the carbon fibre cello, the baroque bow sounds absolutely terrible. Interesting, isn't it?
    I will discuss this topic more in depth in later posts.

Here I am, working on the Bach suites, playing different instruments, different bows, different strings.
I am researching, discovering, practising.

One of the many things I wanted to find out during this journey is how the equipment a performer uses affects the interpretation. The next few posts I will discuss that in depth, but I can tell you this much: the difference is bigger than I ever imagined possible!

I have changed which instruments I will use for which suite. This is what I probably will present at the final concerts:

Suite 1: Mirecourt Cello
Suite 2: Jay-Haide baroque Cello
Suite 3: Luis and Clark Carbon Fibre Cello
Suite 4: Mirecourt Cello
Suite 5: Jay-Haide Baroque Cello
Suite 6: Jay-Haide Violoncello Piccolo

I may or may not play all 6 suites in one concert. I have gotten conflicting responses to that. Some find it would be too long. They think I should spread it over two days. Others think it would be great to do it all in one shot, so that they can compare all instruments immediately.
I don’t know yet…Any thoughts?