A couple of weeks ago I started writing a (supposedly) concise history of my violin playing as a way of marking the 25th anniversary of my grade 1 exam, although I soon realised I had missed that actual milestone by a whole year. I started playing the violin about a year and a half before I took the exam and I’ve continued playing it ever since so, with nearly 28 years of experience under my belt, it’s perhaps not surprising that even a fairly cursory account of it will take up a bit of space.
What started out as a single post quickly split into two parts and then became an entire trilogy. Hopefully it won’t go the same way as certain other increasingly inaccurately named trilogies and I’ll actually get it finished this time. Part 1 looked at highlights of my violin playing before I went to university and part 2 explored the non-classical playing I’ve done since then. This time it’s the turn of my post-university classical playing.
In fact, pretty much all the classical violin playing I’ve done (not counting stuff done at home for my own amusement and one short performance of Elgar’s Salut d’amour with a friend from church) has been in connection with university groups but, ironically, I didn’t join these until after I’d severed my formal ties with the university.
At one stage, sometime within my first year in Bangor, I formed a string quartet with three student friends from church. I can’t remember now whether I was playing viola or second violin in that ensemble, but I think it was viola (this would have been just after I got myself a viola and I think that’s what prompted the quartet, as we had two other violinists in the church band and discovered that our bass player also played cello). Sadly we only got round to having one practice before the year ended and the other three members of the group all graduated and left the area.
I went to a concert just before Christmas 2006 featuring the University of Wales Bangor (now known as Bangor University) Music Society (or MusSoc) Choir and Orchestra. I was very impressed by the concert but slightly shocked that they had more flutes than violins in the orchestra. Partly this was because they had a lot of flutes (about 14 as I recall — certainly a lot more than the usual 2 for an orchestra; this was largely due to their policy of allowing more-or-less anyone who wanted to to join, without auditioning for a set number of places) but also because the string section was quite thin on the ground. I made this observation to a friend of mine who was in the orchestra and the next thing I knew I was invited to join it. I did so and found myself a member of the first violin section (so, a bit of a promotion from my previous orchestra, although I was still mostly on the back row).
As it happens, I wrote on my (old) blog about my joining the orchestra, so I know both when it happened (12th January 2007 for my first rehearsal) and what we played for our next concert (my first with them): Rossini’s Barber of Seville overture, Schubert’s 8th Symphony (or at least the two movements of it that he actually completed) and his Ave Maria (with a soprano (?) soloist — a lovely girl called Sophie who also played in the second violin section), as well as Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre (with another lovely girl, Pippa, as the violin soloist) and Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms (a joint piece with the choir, conducted by my good friend Graeme). According to a later post on the same blog, the concert itself was on Saturday 21st April 2007 and went pretty well.
Unfortunately, my patchy blogging lets me down as a historical source after that point and I have to rely on my memory for the rest of my brief career with the MusSoc orchestra (incidentally, I think the official spelling may have been “Musoc” or “MuSoc”, but in any case it was universally pronounced as “muzz-sock”, so I think my spelling is better). I can remember having a break for a while, possibly just one term or maybe a year or two, but I can’t remember if it was immediately after the first concert or a bit later.
Amongst the other pieces we worked on in my time with the orchestra, the ones I particularly remember include Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture (which I think is what enticed me back after my break, since Beethoven is one of my favourite composers and I was eager to play one of his pieces – it also happened that the conductor was another good friend of mine, called Mark); Vivaldi’s Gloria (another joint piece with the choir); Vaughan-Williams’ Folk Song Suite and his Fantasia on Christmas Carols (the latter in one of our Christmas concerts, unsurprisingly; that was yet another joint piece with the choir); Korngold’s Theme and Variations (my first introduction to the work of this particular composer; bits of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite (I don’t think we did the whole lot) and Khachaturian’s Masquerade. We also did a suite of music from the film Pirates of the Caribbean, that I remember being much better music than I expected (I also remember the entire percussion section putting on bandannas and eyepatches, to the surprise of the conductor and the great amusement of everyone, when we performed the piece in an end-of-year gala concert). Finally, I remember doing one of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances (No. 5 from the Op. 72 set, I think it was) as a test piece for auditioning new conductors. That turned out, unusually, to be a piece of music that I enjoy listening to much more than trying to play since it sounds great (when played well) but is, to use a technical term, a bit of a bugger to play.
In addition to playing with MusSoc, I had one other orchestral experience (so far) in (fairly) recent years. I was invited to take part in a spoken (as opposed to fully-acted) production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Mendelssohn’s incidental music that took place in Bangor Cathedral a few years ago, as I happened to know the conductor (a lad called Chris, who had conducted a choir that I once joined for a Christmas carol service — singing bass with a heavy cold) and he was short of violinists. I forget when this was but it was a few years ago (probably around 2009 or 2010). Last year, I took part (singing bass again) in a production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Iolanthe, for which my friend Graeme (the conductor of the Chichester Psalms mentioned above) ended up being the accompanist. He pointed out to me at the time that certain parts of the Iolanthe music (especially the entrance of the fairies at the start of Act I) are a clever pastiche/parody of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream music, but it was only the other day, when I listened to the Mendelssohn again for the first time since I played it, that I realised how right he was (and, on reflection, how much the story of Iolanthe borrows from that of Shakespeare too, although it is principally a satire on the British peerage).
It’s been a few years now since I last played any classical music in a group. I don’t have any immediate plans for further forays in this direction but I certainly wouldn’t rule it out in future.