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Winter 2023

Meet Our New Musicians

by Allan Rosenfeld


Joe Merchant, Principal Bassoon

What do you find is the most challenging thing about playing your instrument? How do you work on this?

I find the most challenging aspect of the bassoon to be the reeds I play on. I spend every day making reeds in order to guarantee that I'll be able to meet the demands of the pieces I'm rehearsing and performing. Although this takes up a lot of my time, I try not to think about it. Otherwise I'd be a nervous wreck. 

What’s your favorite place in the whole world and why?

The corner of Freeman Ave and Manzanita St in Los Angeles. There's a fig tree that grows over the property boundary. Free figs.


What were you doing before coming to work in Charlotte?

I was a school bus driver.

Allison Drenkow, Assistant Principal Cello

What were you doing before coming to work in Charlotte?

I was in the Colorado Symphony for four and half years which also happens to be where I'm from. 

Why did you pick your instrument?

I originally wanted to play the trumpet, but I had braces for 10 years so it was more of a fleeting idea. I think ultimately it was the range of the cello that I gravitated towards.


Any pieces you’re particularly looking forward to playing in the orchestra here?

There are so many goodies coming up--Rachmaninov 2 is bound to be an especially indulgent week. 


Chihiro Tanaka, Acting Assistant Principal Viola

What do you love the most about your instrument?
The sound! The viola has one of the most unique sounds and I just love everything about it.

Tell us a little something people would be interested in hearing about you offstage?

I love cooking and exploring new restaurants and different types of cuisine. I'm really excited to be a new resident of Charlotte and explore the food scene in the city - send me your recommendations!

Any pieces you’re particularly looking forward to playing in the orchestra here?

Mendelssohn Symphony No.2!

Stuff That Breaks (Onstage) 

by Jeremy Lamb

Once the performance begins, nothing can go wrong!


...said no one, ever. The thing is, during a concert most people are focused on the music itself, not worried that their equipment will suddenly fail. But it does happen, and when it does, it's usually epic.

During the first rehearsal of Kwame Ryan's week with the CSO in January, he struck his baton on the music stand and the two halves went flying into the orchestra. Kwame lamented that it was his "baby", that he'd had that baton since college. One might not guess it, but batons are all weighted and balanced quite differently, so conductors spend a LOT of time finding the right one for them. Or should I say, waiting for the right one to find them...


String players have the most fragile instruments, needing to worry about all kinds of issues: snapping strings, seams coming unglued (from humidity changes), bridges falling down, pegs slipping, bow hairs breaking, and of course, accidentally dropping their bows and instruments. I was in a rehearsal a few years ago and the violist dropped their bow, tip down, onto the floor. Often this wouldn't have been an issue, like any of the hundreds of times we drop our cellphone and nothing happens, but this time the head of the bow sheared straight off. Bows are made out of pernambuco, which is one of the densest woods on the planet, so it feels like it should be impervious to that kind of fall, but bows are designed to be stressed in one direction and one direction only — so hit it on the tip and it will often break. 


Bassists have such large instruments that they worry less about things breaking and more about the noise it creates when they thwack their instrument into another bass or a music stand. Especially during performances, this is loud enough for everyone in the building to hear. 


We cellists worry that our endpins -- the long metal spike that stabs the floor -- will slip out of the little notch it has made. This tends to happen more when we shift back up the cello, so if we're tense and clamping the instrument, we’ll actually be picking the instrument up a tiny bit, and that's when the endpin loses its grip and the cello goes flying. It’s incredibly frustrating!


As a luthier, I'm used to fielding questions about violin soloists breaking so many bow hairs during a performance. "Was it just a bad rehair?" they ask. Sometimes, it actually is! (Therefore, it couldn't have been my rehair.) However, it usually isn't from a batch of brittle hair, rather it's because some bows are more flexible than others. When a player puts the bow on the string, the hair is sandwiched between the wood of the bow and the string, so if the stick is on the flexible side, it'll grind the hair into the string with more force. Anyone playing a concerto on a bow like that is going to break a lot of hairs simply because they have to play so loudly. On the other hand, a symphony musician blending into the section will rarely be playing with that much force, so they just don't break as many hairs.


There's an amazing story of someone using the fragility of string instruments to their advantage: The renowned violinist Niccolo Paganini was said to put a little notch in the E string before a performance, making it very likely to snap at a dramatic moment. He would then dazzle the audience by finishing the concert on the lower three strings. The set up of this story actually happened last Christmas when CSO violinist Susan Bloomberg watched helplessly as her E string slipped from its peg during a performance of the Messiah. It made a loud "bang" as it lost tension, and the rest of her instrument went out of tune with it. Needless to say, she didn't walk to the edge of the stage and play the orchestra part on the G string.


While strings can snap and instruments can come unglued, the main thing string musicians actually worry about during performances is dropping their bows. This is especially easy to do when alternating between bowing and plucking, though I’ve seen all kinds of things happen on stage. While I was a student at Peabody, a violinist lost control of their violin before the last few bars of a loud piece, and they somehow threw it over their head where it landed in the violinist's lap behind them. As the final chords were played, the latter violinist triumphantly held up two violins and one bow, making it the most epic ending of any performance of my career. 


One easy way to top that story is to ask a percussionist if they've ever heard of anyone dropping a cymbal or triangle during a performance. Fortunately this hasn't happened in the Charlotte Symphony to anyone’s knowledge (but feel free to query YouTube!). However, Jacob Lipham, our beloved timpanist, once flung a mallet off stage in the middle of a concerto competition. “Here’s to say I did not win that competition!” he wrote.


Wind players just worry that their reeds will misbehave: dry out, warp, swell from moisture — all of the things that wood will do. Otherwise it's just general maintenance, mostly of the rubber pads that seal the keys onto the instrument. Brass players have the most durable instruments of all. The only thing they might lose sleep over are sticky valves — not exactly a Hollywood movie plot waiting to happen. Rotor valve instruments, like the horn, trombone, and sometimes tuba, have strings inside that can break or come loose, but nothing can happen that is visible even to the musicians playing them. 


Fortunately none of these problems are life threatening, with one exception: the opera pit. No, not from the million tempo changes in a standard opera, but from singers accidentally — very accidentally — flinging props off the stage and into the pit. Once, again at Peabody, a fully functional and very sharp sword was hurled into the pit where it landed inside a viola as it was being played. The violist was unharmed, save for the near heart attack that followed. This is one reason why you'll often see nets over the pit. 


And there you have it! During the next concert you attend, keep your fingers crossed that the music is beautiful and uninterrupted by any of these costly, disruptive, and sometimes epic failures.

The Best Viola Moments According to Ben Geller

To list some of my favorite viola moments in the broad orchestral repertoire is problematic simply because this most beautiful art form is known for its rich voicing. It might be like asking which color is a painter’s favorite.

That said, I will draw the reader’s attention to a few passages where the viola section shines. For this exercise, I’d like to list moments where composers use the viola section as a chorus of alto strings playing together, as opposed to principal solos or viola concertos. 


I must acknowledge that I have not played every orchestral work or symphony, and I am still becoming familiar with even those works I have been fortunate enough to study and perform. In fact, two of the pieces I would submit as “favorites” I actually have not performed.

Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra
After the fanfare made famous by Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” there comes a beautiful moment led by the violists. This is one of my bucket list pieces I haven’t had the chance to perform.

(Excerpt begins at 2:58)

Hector Berlioz: Roman Carnival Overture
Acting as a duet partner to the English Horn, the viola section contributes beautifully to a gorgeous moment before the music really takes off. (Excerpt begins at 1:30)

Gustav Mahler: 10th Symphony
The very opening of the his posthumous symphony is haunting and lyrical, and solely brought to you by the violas. (Excerpt at beginning)

Dmitri Shostakovich: 5th Symphony
Perhaps I lean towards the bleak, but the middle of his first movement features a lower restatement of this ghostly melody.

(Excerpt begins at 7:05)

I hope you all can get a chance to explore these beautiful works and their viola moments!

And now, in an effort to highlight the hallowed traditions of the genre: 

The Viola Joke Corner

What's the difference between a seamstress and a violist?
The seamstress tucks up the frills.

Why are viola jokes so short?

So violinists can understand them.

Why do violists stand for long periods outside people's houses?

They can't find the key and they don't know when to come in.

Birth Announcement!

Congratulations to Principal Bassist Kurt Riecken and his wife Jackie on the birth of their little girl Lena, born December 21, 2022 (Pictured below along with older sister Johanna)

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