A Stand-up Cellist

September 16, 2016

There’s probably no science behind it. Yet it would seem that players of certain instruments need to have a sense of humor in order to survive in the music world.

I always thought that violists were at or near the top of the list since viola jokes are told regularly. So I was a bit surprised and entertained by the notes to a new recording, in which cellist Mimi Yamahiro Brinkmann pokes fun at a variety of instruments, including her own.

She says that people often see her carrying her cello case on her back and they ask her why she didn’t choose another instrument. It sounds as if she made her decision a while back and isn’t looking for an alternate.

She notes that musicians seem to develop a character based on the instrument they play, just as old couples often grow alike.  “You will never encounter a depressive trumpeter, an optimistic oboist or a highly strung viola player,” she surmises.

Yamahiro Brinkmann characterizes cellists as romantic and single-minded. Because their part in ensemble playing is usually limited, “in our minds we imagine the most magnificent musical architecture based on our humble part, while being surrounded by all too many prima donna violins, screaming violas and elephantine double-basses.” She adds that even after cellists find comfort in their imaginary castle, someone brings them back to reality by saying: “Can’t you play any louder?”

The new recording titled Cello Rising (Bis 2214) traces the cello from its role as a bass instrument to its rise to center stage in the concertos and sonatas of Luigi Boccherini of the 18th century. Yet even after cellists have been able to feel good about having arrived, Yamahiro Brinkmann assures us that somebody will tell the classic cello joke: “Why don’t cellists ever play hide-and-seek? – because no one would look for them.”

Ashley Solomon tells some amusing stories in the notes to the English ensemble Florilegium’s new recording of concertos and a cantata by Georg Philipp Telemann (Channel 38616). Solomon is a flutist, recorder player and co-founding member of the group. He reminds us that Telemann was offered the post with which we always associate Johann Sebastian Bach, i.e. the Kantor of the St. Thomas School in Leipzig (whose duties included providing music for the 4 major churches of Leipzig).  It turns out Telemann really didn’t want the gig.  He just wanted a little bargaining power with the city of Hamburg, where he already was the Kantor of the 5 main churches and Director of the Hamburg Opera.

Solomon notes that this is the same Telemann whose mother had tried to dissuade him from music by taking away all of his instruments. And he quotes the proclamation of the City Councillor when Bach was appointed to the position which Telemann turned down: “Since the best man could not be obtained, mediocre ones would have to be accepted.”  Given the way things turned out in music history, there’s sort of an implicit punchline or two hiding in all of that.

Lots of folks like riddles rather than jokes. Norwegian composer Johan Halvorsen kept even folk music experts working on a riddle for years. They couldn’t find the source of the tune Halvorsen used in his famous Wedding March, which he wrote for violin and piano and later orchestrated. They guessed that he had borrowed a folk tune, but couldn’t locate it in the collections of Norwegian tunes that had been compiled at the time. It turns out that Halvorsen simply got it first hand from a fiddler farmer, as he eventually admitted.

Halvorsen was a violinist as well.  He once travelled to the region of Hardanger in western Norway to learn how to play the Hardanger fiddle. It’s a fiddle with an additional set of sympathetic strings that make a sound when the bowed strings tuned to the same pitches are played. Halvorsen was the first to write an orchestral work that featured the Hardanger Fiddle, namely his incidental music for a stage work titled Fossegrimen by Sigurd Eldegard, which premiered in 1905.

Interesting that we just acquired 2 recordings of the music for Fossegrimen. One of those is from the 4 CDs of Halvorsen’s music featuring the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra from Norway led by Neeme Järvi (Chandos 10664). Violinist Ragnhild Hemsing performs on the Hardanger fiddler. The other recording features 2 sisters from Norway, who are part of the fourth generation of a violin/fiddle family with roots in Halingdal, where the Hardanger fiddle originates.  Åshild and Ingfrid Breie Nyhus include a Hardanger fiddle & piano version of the Halvorsen music on the new recording, which includes several classical works written for the Norwegian folk instrument (Simax 1333).

I went looking to see if there are jokes about the Hardanger fiddle. There’s one at the website of Jeff & Inna Larsen. According to them, Hardanger fiddlers spend half of their time tuning the instrument. And it's called  Hardanger, “because it is so dang hard to tune.” Karen Torkelson Solgård tells it in a slghtly different way in her article: “Strange Fiddle in the Attic, Part 2.” She says the running joke is that a Hardanger fiddler spends half his life tuning and the other half playing out of tune.

Now that I’ve got you in the spirit, how can you tell when a Public Radio station is raising money? They go on and on for minutes at at time to tell you about it – or do they? Actually listeners have an opportunity to have the last laugh if they contribute before September 27th. If we reach the Fall Fund Drive goal of $125,000.00 by then, we’ll forego the traditional drive. And that’s no joke! This past Spring, listeners managed to reduce the drive to just a couple of days. Call now with your pledge: 217-244-0025 or online to willpledge.org. And thank you for your support!


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