Tuesday, October 30, 2012
photo: David Dickinson, photo by John Groseclose
During my day off I took the opportunity to watch the movie Copying Beethoven. I was curious how a modern actor, director and writer would flesh out a historical figure we can also feel through the music he left us.
At first when I saw that Ed Harris was playing Beethoven, I admit skepticism. I have images of John Glen in The Right Stuff imprinted on my brain. However Mr. Harris’ performance mesmerized me.
The movie was set in Beethoven’s late period when he was writing his Ninth Symphony and his late string quartets including the Grosse Fuge, Opus 130, and his fourteenth quartet, Opus 131.
In OPUS we play segments from both of these quartets. It was fascinating to see what Stephen Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, the writers, interpreted as Beethoven’s ideas about these works. Here are two quotes I found poignant:
Of the Grosse Fuge: “Of course it is ugly, but is it beautiful. It is meant to challenge your sense of beauty. I'm opening up music to the ugly, to the visceral. How else can you get to the divine except through the guts of man. [The gut] is where God lives not in the head. Not even in the soul. But in the guts, because this is where the people feel it.”
Of the Opus 131: “When does the movement end? It doesn't end, you must stop thinking of beginning and ending. This is not a bridge...it is a living thing, like clouds taking shape, or tide shifting. [But musically how does it work?] It doesn't work; it grows. You see the first movement becomes the second, as each idea dies a new one is born. In your work you are obsessed with structure or choosing the correct form. You have to listen to the voice speaking inside of you. I didn't hear it myself until I went deaf.... The silence is the key: the silence between the notes. When that silence envelops you then you then your soul can sing.”
The ideas of the visceral and silence resonate very strongly in OPUS. In fact, there are four different types of silence written into the script for the actors to observe almost like rests in a score of music: Beat (shortest), Pause, Long Pause and Silence (longest). Mr. Hollinger, our playwright, accentuates every scene with each of these silences. But perhaps more importantly, the writers were getting to the point that an artist has to shut out the daily noise to listen to inspiration. This is a theme we’ve been working on from day one in rehearsals. Robbie Harper, our director, pointed out on day one that this play is about life getting in the way of our art. Our challenge as actors and musicians in the play is to get through that noise, deal with it and still arrive at our Opus. In that fight we find the visceral as well, exploring the guts and grit of the creative process.
As for the movie, the passion portrayed moved me...music as life and death. And, yes, I cried. Twice.
Wednesday, October 17, 2012
The Emerson and Me.
At the first rehearsal party last night, I mentioned the Emerson String Quartet. I felt a palpable excitement when I mentioned that name. Certainly they deserve the adulation. They are state of the art at this moment and worthy of the respect I felt last night: rock stars of the chamber scene, if you will, as their nine Grammy Awards attest.
Their famed cellist David Finckel is so busy with performance he does not take students. However, living in a digital age, Mr. Finckel has decided to start creating a legacy online by creating a series of short instructional videos called Cello Talks. In essence they are master classes for cellists filmed in hotel rooms around the world as he tours. The topics range from what to carry in your cello case, to optimal vibrato speeds to bowing technique. They are short master classes for cellists that are infused with a curiosity that surprised me. This has not only helped me with the cello on stage but also helped me to be a better violinist, which I play in real life.
This interaction via the Internet with Mr. Finckel has made me feel as though I have a personal mentor who is at the top of his career and the top of the world of music. It highlights Mr. Finckel’s generosity and his awareness of his place in the music world. These videos in no way replace a teacher or music program, but they add a depth of understanding to the topic that you can only get from a great mentor. The Emerson String Quartet will soon be losing David Finckel after over thirty years together. The group will no longer be the same. You can’t change a member of a tight ensemble and have the same product. It will certainly be outstanding, but never the same.
I have no grounds for this next statement, but I personally, perhaps romantically, believe that the playwright, Michael Hollinger, had the Emerson String Quartet in mind when he wrote this play. The long standing relationships between players who studied together at conservatory (Juliard in the case of the Emerson Quartet, Curtis in the case of the fictitious Lazara Quartet in the play), the veto power given to members, and their national stature are too reminiscent. It is the fraction of those deeply developed relationships that are the fodder of our play. The Emerson String Quartet has planned for a smooth transition to its new member. The Lazara’s transition is abrupt and haphazard and leaves plenty of room for dramatic intervention hopefully to the delight of our audiences.
I had the fortune of seeing the Emerson String Quartet live in Westchester County, New York in 2002. They were every bit as good if not better than their reputation. They played Bartok that night. It was insidiously beautiful. The Bartok jarred your ears and then began to seep under your skin. You couldn’t help but be seduced by the playfulness and ruggedness of the interaction. The pure joy of the group playing the notes seeped under your skin as well. No matter what was happening in their lives outside of that room, nothing but pure joyful energy went into those instruments.
The Emerson String Quartet members are an inspiration for me. Through the Cello Talks and via that one evening’s live performance, they remind me as an actor to bring passionate curiosity to my work and nothing but that pure positive joy to my audiences.