Violins, Nopales and Kansas Connections

This was supposed to be a piece about the fabulous cactus salad that my friend Juan Ramirez cooks up.  But during the course of putting it all together the other evening, the topic turned to violins.  Specifically, his violin.

 

Composer Ramirez with Bellingham Festival of Music orchestra conductor Michael Palmer after a rehearsal for his “Suite Latina” at the 2016 festival.

A composer and violinist, Juan has been in residence in Bellingham for the past three weeks where he has played in the first violin section with the Bellingham Festival of Music orchestra.  Last year, his work, “Suite Latina”, was performed by the orchestra with the Calidore String Quartet as soloists. The music evokes the sensuous dance rhythms of the composer’s native Mexico. The piece was originally written for string quartet and first performed at the Amelia Island Chamber Music Festival in 2001. Juan adapted it for quartet and orchestra, especially for the Bellingham Festival where it was given its world premiere and a standing ovation from the audience.

The 2016 festival audience gives a standing ovation at the world premiere of Ramirez’ “Suite Latina” for string quartet and orchestra.

But the celebrated composer is also known for culinary artistry as well, with his specialty being his native Mexican dishes, especially his mole, made from a family recipe.  It’s a recipe that takes him three days to concoct and includes much grinding and pulverizing of ingredients using a blending machine from India in order to get just the right texture and consistency.  Most Americans I know think of mole simply as sauce with Mexican chocolate as the key ingredient.  Chocolate, specifically cocoa, is a main ingredient in Juan’s family recipe, but it is only one of 18 ingredients that go into his tasty, slightly spicy sauce.  Adding his mole, which is more pasty than the runny stuff usually poured over standard Mexican fare, to homemade enchiladas or to chicken turns the ordinary into an extraordinary treat!

Juan serves up his mole dish.

I watched Juan in my kitchen warming the mole on the stove and assembling the equally as delicious cactus salad made with nopales, or the big, flat paddle-like leafs from the prickly pear plant, that we began talking about violins.

I asked if he ever had any trouble traveling with his violin on airlines, given the recent headlines about one professional violinist whose instrument the airline, United, insisted be checked as baggage instead of carried on board with her.  “Not since the new laws,” Juan answered referring to the FAA rules revisions in 2015.

Then I asked where, when and how he found his violin.  “That’s a good story,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.  His violin was made in 1748 by Carlo Antonio Testore of the Milano school of violin makers who were crafting their instruments in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.  It’s uncertain exactly how it came to America, but it was the possession of a plantation owner in Macon, Georgia prior to the Civil War.  He gave it to one of his favorite slaves who, upon the plantation owner’s death, “laid this instrument away as a keepsake,” according to a 1916 letter detailing the history.   The violin became the slave’s son, after his father died. The son had moved to the small town of Pratt, Kansas where he worked as a train porter.

At the mention of Pratt, I stopped Juan and told him that I was familiar with the town, having grown up in Kansas.  What a coincidence, I thought, for a musician who lives in Atlanta and plays with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra to be standing in my kitchen mentioning Pratt, Kansas!  But the story continues..

The beautiful tiger grain of the back of Juan’s Testore violin is as rich-looking as the sound it produces.

The son, unable to pay a debt owed to F.A. Erwin, the writer of the 1916 letter, turned over the violin as payment. Eventually the Testore ended up in a violin shop in Wichita, Kansas.  Juan was a student at Emporia State Teachers’ College (now Emporia State University) in Emporia, Kansas (also a place with which I am very familiar) when he visited the Wichita shop to have his bow rehaired.  The shop owner took the violin out of its case, Juan said, and handed it to Juan to play.  “I fell in love with it and the sound,” he recalls. But being a college student attending Emporia on a scholarship, he had no money with which to purchase it. The violin went back into its case.

Juan transferred from Emporia to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. When his teacher told Juan he needed a better violin he knew exactly the one he wanted. But when he contacted the Wichita violin shop owner Juan was told that an 80-year-old doctor had bought it for his son who had decided to take up the violin.  Juan was disappointed.

The composer/violinist proudly holds his cherished Testore violin.

Three years later, the violin shop owner notified him that he once again had the Testore violin. The doctor’s son, it seems, had switched from violin to accordion, and the violin was returned to the shop. Elated by the news, Juan dressed in his best clothes and walked down to the bank to ask for a loan in order to buy his prized instrument.  With the money granted, Juan booked a flight and headed back to Wichita where the shop owner took the violin out once again and handed it over to Juan.

It has now been his violin for nearly 46 years and he’s not likely to part with it anytime soon.  You might say the story has come full circle.  Juan plays it as a violinist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in Atlanta, Georgia, only a little more than an hour’s drive from Macon where the instrument first was traced.  And in 1988, Juan took it with him to Milan, the city where it was made, and played it in the city’s cathedral.

The cactus salad is ready to eat!

His story wrapped up just as the cactus salad was ready to chill in the refrigerator. Those same hands, which so nimbly had moved all over the fingerboard during the playing of music by Leonard Bernstein in the concert the night before, now turned to the delicate task of rolling enchiladas drizzled, inside and out, with Juan’s grandmother’s mole. That is another story.

 

 

A Swedish Birthday Surprise, Relatively Speaking

Birthday surprises usually come in the form of parties or gifts. I’ve received both. But last year for my birthday, I was surprised to learn about a new relative.  And fortunately, it came as a welcomed surprise.

The news arrived not with someone standing on my door, but in the form of a large mailing envelope sent from Sweden. I immediately recognized the return address as that of Bo, cousin to my aunt Marie who was married to my father’s brother, Dale. I’ve known Bo nearly my entire life. His family and my own have become like extended family. I spend time with them whenever I go to Sweden, as I did earlier this summer.

When I opened the envelope from Bo, I expected to find a birthday card, but was surprised to find much more.  Inside was a letter that read:  “As you are very like Pippi Longstocking in many ways there is some connection to her in you I must say…As the author Astrid Lindgren who wrote the book is a kind of relative to your mother.” Along with the letter was a family tree linking my mother to the Swedish author as a fourth cousin.  My mother’s fourth cousin?

The books of Astrid LIndgren on display here in a shop window in Vimmerby have been translated into 70 languages.
The books of Astrid LIndgren on display here in a shop window in Vimmerby have been translated into 70 languages.

What a discovery! Astrid Lindgren is one of Sweden’s most treasured authors. Her books about the freckled-faced, pig-tailed girl, Pippi Longstocking, has become a children’s classic throughout the world. Her books have been translated into 70 languages and made into several films and television series. There is even an Astrid Lindgren’s World, a children’s theme park and a popular family destination located outside Lindgren’s hometown of Vimmerby.

Families leave Astrid Lindgrens World after a day at the popular theme park.
Families leave Astrid Lindgrens World after a day at the popular theme park.

Lindgren herself was honored last year when her picture was placed on the 20 Swedish kronor, replacing that of another beloved Swedish children’s writer, Selma Lagerlöf. Bo had enclosed one of the freshly printed bills inside my letter. In addition, Lindgren and the characters from her books became the subject of a set of shiny silver commemorative coins.  One of these, along with the folder with spots for the other coins, I also found in Bo’s package. I want to collect the entire set.

Children's author Lindgren was honored in 2015 when her picture was placed onto the Swedish kronor. There is also a commemorative coin set.
Children’s author Lindgren was honored in 2015 when her picture was placed onto the Swedish kronor. There is also a commemorative coin set.

Having learned about my Lindgren connection, I of course made it a priority on my recent trip, to visit Lindgren’s hometown of Vimmerby where she was born, where she is buried and where Pippi’s adventures are set. It was a part of my trip to which I was most looking forward.

I drove into Vimmerby mid-afternoon on a Saturday. It was only a 48 minute drive inland from Vastervik, where my husband and I had disembarked from the Gotland ferry. The shops in Vimmerby’s town square had closed at two o’clock. I would not buy any Pippi Longstocking souvenirs to carry home. We strolled into the charming square, empty except for a handful of visitors like ourselves.

Play strutures like this child-size cottage sit in Vimmerby's town square for children to explore.
Play structures like this child-size cottage sit in Vimmerby’s town square for children to explore.

At one end of the square sat the old, mustard-colored Town Hall and opposite is a lovely hotel with patio tables on the porch.  In the center of the square, near the hotel, are several small play structures taken from Lindgren’s books:  a sailing ship,a cottage, Kindergarten-sized children were crawling in and out and climbing up and down in delight.

I meet Astrid LIndgren's lifestize sculpture which sits in he hometown of Vimmberby, Sweden.
I meet Astrid Lindgren’s life-size sculpture which sits in he hometown of Vimmerby, Sweden.

On the other side of the square, nearer the Town Hall, is a life-size sculpture of my famous cousin sitting at desk with a typewriter. It felt a little odd to meet my newly found relative in this way, but was quite an honor at the same time.

I next sought out her resting place in the neatly kept, hilltop cemetery. Thanks to some local residents, I found her gravestone, alongside that of her parents and sister. It was a simple stone for such a celebrated figure, quite humble and unassuming. I wondered if it reflected her personality in life.

The famous author's grave stone is a simple stone in the Vimmerby cemetery.
The famous author’s grave stone is a simple stone in the Vimmerby cemetery.

As we walked back through the streets of Vimmerby we noted the spots where Pippi and her sidekick, Tommy, had their adventures. Then we headed out to the Lindgren family home, where Astrid was born and lived as a child. The little house is located on a farm known as Näs in Vimmerby.  It stands exactly as it was when Astrid grew up there, having been restored by Lindgren herself. Tours of the house are available almost daily except when closed for the winter from mid-December until March. Unfortunately, we arrived after hours. Had someone been around I might have told them that I was a ‘cousin’ from the U.S., in hopes that they would take pity on me and allow me inside.

In the Exjoibit Jaöö. Lindgrenäs life and achivements are presented for visitors.
In the exhibit hall. Lindgren’s life and achievements are presented for visitors.

Also on the property, owned by the city of Vimmerby, stands a modern glass-walled exhibition hall where her life and achievements are displayed. But again, we were too late and unable to go in. I was disappointed but until only a year ago, I didn’t even know that the woman remembered here was even remotely related to me. Now that I do, I will return the next trip to see both the house and the museum.

Back in Stockholm, three long, large banners hung down from the city’s concert hall.  On two of the red banners were the words: Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award with the name and image of the winning author—Meg Rosoff—printed on the center banner. The award is presented annually to presented to authors, illustrators, oral storytellers and reading promoters to honor her memory and promote interest in children’s and young adult literature. It is the largest such literature award in the world.

Banners of this year's Astird Lindgren Memorial Aware stream down in Stockolm's Concert Hall.
Banners of this year’s Astrid Lindgren Memorial Aware stream down in Stockholm’s Concert Hall.

Lindgren’s apartment  in Stockholm where she lived for 61 years, is also open for tours but reservations must be made in advance. Even though we were unable to secure reservations, Bo accompanied me to apartment. The apartment itself looks out over a large park, Vasa Park, bustling with children. Lindgren would be pleased, I’m sure, to hear their gleeful shrieks and young laughter outside her window.

Next time I visit Sweden, I will return to these places for an inside tour. For now, however, I have the commemorative coins Bo sent to me and the 20 kronor bills that I collected and carried home to share with my family. How many people can say that their cousin appears on their national money? What a birthday surprise that was!

 

Beautiful Music in My Own Backyard

Summers in the Puget Sound area, where I live, don’t officially start, weather-wise, until July 13, according to local meteorologists.  But in Bellingham, summers begin when the musicians from around the country arrive for the Bellingham Festival of Music.  That happened last week.

The Bellingham Festival of Music begins its summer season with a picnic for the musicians at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal.
The Bellingham Festival of Music begins its summer season with a picnic for the musicians at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal.

The Festival, now in its 23rd season from July 1-17, is one of the things that I look forward to every summer. In fact, the Festival is one of the amenities that attracted us and ultimately convinced us to move to Bellingham. It must be a draw for the musicians too as every summer, 44 musicians from major orchestras across the U.S. and Canada (plus additional players as needed) assemble here to play two weeks worth of some of the most beautiful music in the world.  We like to think that they are also playing in one of the most beautiful places in the world.

It all begins with a welcoming picnic for the musicians, conductor Micheal Palmer, the chorus members, sponsors and the families who host the musicians in their homes during their stay.  This year’s picnic took place at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal which offers a terrific view of the Bay and Bellingham. It’s an ideal spot for returning and new musicians to meet this year’s Festival board members, local sponsors and the home hosts.

Janet Lightner,co-owner of Boundary Bay Brewery, served brews with her sister, Vicki, at the Festival of Music picnic.
Janet Lightner, co-owner of Boundary Bay Brewery, served brews with her sister, Vicki, at the Festival of Music picnic.

The potluck picnic, provided by the Festival Board member and volunteers, is tasty and plentiful.  Following appetizers and drinks, with local prize-winning microbrewery Boundary Bay serving up some of its finest beers, the picnickers head off to the buffet table and dinner. Afterwards, this year’s Board Chair, Karen Berry, officially opened the season by introducing maestro Michael Palmer who, in turn, introduced this year’s team of musicians.

Thumbs Up
Festival musicians Marci Gurnow and Christian Colberg give the buffet table a thumbs up at the opening picnic for the Bellingham Festival of Music.

Section by section, starting with the first violins of course, the musicians took their turn at the podium to share with the evening’s guests their answers to the question: “What was your most embarrassing moment as a musician?” There were some great ones: insects falling onto instruments and being flung into the audience, missed cues, parts of bassoons falling out during performances, women’s undergarments landing on violin scrolls during a Tom Jones’ show, auditions that turned out well despite mishaps and being encouraged to pursue other professions.  It all made for some entertaining anecdotes.

Many of the Festival’s musicians have been coming to Bellingham for years.  They have become a ‘family’ in the sense that they know one another’s spouses and children, have forged long-lasting friendships with their home hosts and share in the joys and sadness of one another’s lives. Last summer, one of the musicians stayed beyond the Festival dates in order to have her wedding in Bellingham. This year, a group from the orchestra is throwing a baby shower for an expectant father who’s playing here while his wife, nearing her due date, remained at home.

Bellingham Fesitval of Music Chair Karen Berry welcomes the musicians and guests at the opening picnic.
Bellingham Festival of Music Chair Karen Berry welcomes the musicians and guests at the opening picnic.
Maestro MIchael Palmer takes the podium to introduce the Festival musicians.
Maestro MIchael Palmer takes the podium to introduce the Festival musicians.

This long-term bonding has, over the years, made the orchestra tighter when they play together onstage. At least that’s my belief having now gone to concerts for the past 20 years. Although together for only a short time, with rehearsals only days ahead of each concert, they meld into a solid sound.  I have often found myself astounded to be sitting in my own backyard–nearly literally as the concert hall at Western Washington University where they play is within walking distance–and listening to world-class performances.

Principal bassist from the Seattle Symphony Jordan Anderson shares his ‘most embarrassing moment’ at the Bellingham Festival of Music picnic.

For Festival goers, the concerts are a bargain with ticket prices topping at $45 for premiere seating in a small, intimate performance hall of just 650 seats. I recall the many years that I lived in Los Angeles and

was a subscriber to the L.A.Philharmonic. Travel time from our home was 45 minutes at least, depending upon traffic, bargain tickets were usually no less than $45 and in the top tiers of the 3,000 seat hall, plus parking costs and don’t forget money for the babysitter. Granted, I no longer need to pay a babysitter, but all the other costs of hearing live classical music and experiencing outstanding performances in as beautiful a natural setting as you’ll ever find make the Bellingham Festival of Music an incredible deal. Especially for us locals.

Donna Lively Clark from the Festival orchestra's viola section tells the picnic guests how much she enjoys the shopping when she comes to play.
Donna Lively Clark from the Festival orchestra’s viola section tells the picnic guests how much she enjoys the shopping when she comes to play.

If you don’t live in the immediate area, you can spend the week vacationing and enjoying the classical music concerts at night and any one number of activities during the day–strolling the art galleries and shops, tipping a few brews on the ‘Tap Trail,” hiking or biking on one of our many trails, playing golf on one of 22 courses here, fishing, kayaking or sailing on the Bay. I can’t think of a place I’d rather be.

 

One on One with Beatle Paul

When I was kid, my parents often sat down on Sunday evenings to rest and relax watching their favorite television programs. For my dad, it was the Western about the Cartwright family, “Bonanza”. For my mom, it was the variety show hosted by the radio announcer turned TV personality, Ed Sullivan. My childhood favorite was “Lassie,” about the heroics of a talented and loving collie that aired earlier than my parents’ picks. Most of the time I didn’t care which of the two programs they watched as I liked both. Until February, 1964.

IMG_0961Bow
The Beatles take a bow after their performance onstage.

I had heard at school from some friends who had older siblings that Ed Sullivan was presenting a new music group that evening that had come all the way from England to appear on his program. Even though we lived in the heartland of the country, word about this new band had spread. My friends were very excited about it so I thought I must tune in to see what it was all about.

The channel was turned to the CBS affiliate. I sat down on the floor and scooted up close to the screen. The suspense was terrific.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Sullivan announced in his “really big” distinctive voice, “The Beatles!”

The girls in the television audience went wild as the four-member rock band launched into the first of three songs: “All My Loving.” In the second half, they played two more including the one I remember best opening with the four beat introductory measures: “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” A record 73 million watched that evening and the rest, as they say, is history.

I, like every other pre-teen and teenager then, was taken by this mop topped group from across the Atlantic. I liked the strong,driving beat of the music, I preferred their “British” sound to the saccharine tones of Perry Como, my Mother’s favorite popular singer, and I quickly learned the lyrics and the melodies. My parents were less enamored.

My Dad surprised me with the Beatles first album.
My Dad surprised me with the Beatles first album.

But when my Dad returned from his national photography convention that spring, he presented me with a gift that “all the kids in Chicago were buying,” according to the salesman. I nearly flipped when he took out of his bag and handed to me the record album: Meet the Beatles. It was my first long play record and certainly my very first rock music album. I still have it, the album cover shows years of love but the record still sounds great when you pop it onto a turntable.

I had already bought the special magazine about the Fab Four with a cover identical to that of the album. I read it cover to cover devouring the bits of info about the twenty-something Beatle members. Paul McCartney, the “romantic” of the group, became my favorite Beatle.

Beatle cards were collected like baseball cards by young fans such as myself.
Beatle cards were collected like baseball cards by young fans such as myself.

I collected Beatle cards. Each was the size of a baseball card, (which I also collected,) featured a photo of the band and was autographed by one of them. I practiced capitalizing my “G’s” like George Harrison’s and still write it that way today.

During the six short years the band toured in the United States, I never saw the Beatles in a live performance. Tickets were too expensive and they seldom performed anywhere near my small hometown in mid-America.  I finally got my chance recently when Paul McCartney performed his One on One concert in Vancouver B.C.  I was finally in the same room as Paul, along with nearly 16,000 other excited McCartney music fans.

McCartney charmed his fans at his One on One concert in Vancouver B.C.
McCartney charmed his fans at his One on One concert in Vancouver B.C.

Paul may be 73 now, but I was a teenager again as I took to my seat high above the arena stage. McCartney came out to the roar of his audience as he kicked off the evening with what was clearly a crowd favorite–“A Hard Day’s Night.” For the next two hours, the beloved former Beatle played a program filled with mostly familiar songs–including “Lady Madonna,” “Let It Be” and “We Can Work It Out”–from the Beatles and Wings, along with a couple newer tunes.  I and the crowd sang along with most of them. In between, while switching out bass guitars or moving from the guitar tot he piano, he told stories about the songs, about his band mates, about his life.

I never knew, for instance, that the beautiful ballad “Blackbird” was written in response to the Civil Rights movement.  Or that Beatle producer George Martin changed who sang the lead part because John Lennon couldn’t both sing and play the harmonica on the last line: “Whoa, love me do.”

Between songs, McCArtney told ancedotes about the Beatles and his bandmates.
Between songs, McCartney told anecdotes about the Beatles and his band mates.

Some performers who’ve been at it as long as McCartney has, resent singing the old hits. Not McCartney. He clearly enjoyed playing them for the audience and came back at after taking his final bow he returned for an encore (clearly programmed because of the choreographed pyrotechnics) for another 45 minutes.

I looked around at the audience who were waving their arms and singing to “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”.  The feeling was magical. Many, like me, were teenagers when the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan, but it was a multi-generational group.  That a band together for only ten years could produce so much music that has become part of the popular culture is remarkable. I relished every minute of McCartney’s concert. Though those young Beatles stepped onto Sullivan’s stage more than 50 years ago, for me it was almost like seeing them for the first time, because in way I was.

The encore at McCartney's concert was a display of light and pyrotechnics.
The encore at McCartney’s concert was a display of light and pyrotechnics.

 

Finding Faces of Phoenix in a Surprising Place

Travelling is an adventure.  No matter how many times I have visited a place, I seem to discover something new, something that I overlooked before or failed to take in during previous visits. This happened to me on a recent trip to Phoenix.  I lived in that city for five years a long while ago. The city has grown tremendously since then although the city’s core remains much the same as it was then.

This trip I stayed with good friends Eileen and John whose home is around the corner from where I last lived in Phoenix, just one block from Phoenix College.  At the time I lived there, Phoenix College was not nearly the size it is today. Early one morning, I decided to stroll through the campus just to see what had changed.

The oblelisk-like moasiac sculpture stands 18-feet tall.
The oblelisk-like mosaic sculpture stands 18-feet tall.

At the end of my walk, I headed down the parking lot towards the little duplex where I once lived. But before I got to it, I came to an obelisk-shaped sculpture towering on the corner. I had to gain a closer look.

The three-sided artwork is filled with faces from the Phoenix community.
The three-sided artwork is filled with faces from the Phoenix community.
Topping the sculpture is a steel abstract of the Phoenix bird.
Topping the sculpture is a steel abstract of the Phoenix bird.

The three-sided sculpture was filled from top to bottom with faces.  What a curious piece, I thought. Each face was different.  Their expressions drew me in. I moved around and around the piece, looking up and down, trying to get a better view of the ones placed higher, towards the metal abstract Phoenix bird topping the structure.

I must return to the house, grab my camera, come back and photograph this intriguing art piece, I thought. When I did, I asked Eileen if she knew anything about the sculpture. Indeed, not only did she know about it, but her own face was among those on it!  Together she and I walked back to the corner where it stood. But as hard as we tried, we couldn’t find her face amongst the many. “My daughter knows exactly where it is,” she told me, “I’ve forgotten”

My friend Eileen's face is among the many on the sculpture.
My friend Eileen’s face is among the many on the sculpture.
The expressions of the sculpture's faces draw you in.
The expressions of the sculpture’s faces draw you in.

The piece, I later learned, is titled “Faces of a Community” and represents the diversity of ages, cultures, and people who make up the Southwestern city of Phoenix.  During the making of the artwork, my friend’s face was molded in plaster by one of the artists, locally renown maskmaker Zarrco Guerrero.  The mold was then used to create a clay likeness of her face which was attached, along with the many others, to the final piece. The pieces were glazed in blues, terra-cotta and creme colors and carefully positioned up and down the obelisk.  It would have been fun to watch as the artists’ placed each of these faces and the manner in which they established the relationships of one to another.

The final piece was installed in 2002 and was the end result of a collaboration between artists Helen Helwig, Niki Glen, MIchael Anderson and Guerrero. Students, teachers and community members all participated in making the life casts and moulding the faces. Today, the 18 foot tall sculpture anchors the northeast corner of the campus where, undoubtedly it attracts students and visitors, like myself, who just happen upon it and provides a perfect way to finish or begin a walk around the Phoenix College campus.

The faces were cast from life models and reflect the diversity of the Phoenix city.
The faces were cast from life models and reflect the diversity of the Phoenix city.

 

 

 

 

MIM Shows Stradivarius String Masterpieces

You may have heard a Stradivarius violin, but have you seen one?  Up close?  I had a chance thanks to a special exhibit currently at the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) in Phoenix.

While in Phoenix recently as a board member with the Bellingham Festival of Music (BFM), I and BFM President, Karen Berry met with MIM’s director of marketing, Karen Farugia. Afterwards, I had some time before heading off to meet friends. It wasn’t enough time to visit the MIM’s permanent collection (which I’ve done) of 6,000 instruments, but thought I could manage a quick tour of MIM’s special exhibit in the Target Gallery:  Stradivarius: Origins and Legacy of the Greatest Violin Maker.  I bought my ticket and stepped into the gallery.

Phoenix' Musical Instrument Museum, known as MIM, is one of the city's newest museums.
Phoenix’ Musical Instrument Museum, known as MIM, is one of the city’s newest museums.

The exhibit, which opened in mid-January and continues through June 5, welcomes you with a multi-screen video introduction to the area where this legendary violin maker lived and worked: the Northern Italian city of Cremona.  The video gives a brief overview of this rich, historic city which yielded so many early master violin makers, in addition to Stradivari, and explains how the city’s proximity to the Fiemme Valley forest provided these craftsmen with the fine materials they needed to produce what became some of the premier instruments in the world.

The Stradivarius exhibits starts off with a multi-screen video about Cremona.
The Stradivarius exhibits starts off with a multi-screen video about Cremona.

The violins of this exhibit have been artistically (and no doubt carefully) hung within a clear, climate-controlled plexiglass case so that the viewer can walk entirely around them to get a close and complete look at them.  In addition, every ticket to MIM comes a set of earphones so that as you approach the instruments on display, you also hear the sound of the instrument played by musicians who are masters of it. But what’s striking about the Stradivarius exhibit, is how incredibly gorgeous these stringed instruments are, indeed works of art in appearance as well as sound. Their beautiful, burnished wood shines in the light reflected from overhead.

A visitor to the Stradivarius exhibit reads the description on the wall while listening to the music of the instrument on display.
A visitor to the Stradivarius exhibit reads the description on the wall while listening to the music of the instrument on display.

First on display is the exquisite violin made by Andrea Amati, recognized as the father of the violin. Amati was a luthier in Cremona who, according to some histories, was asked to make a lighter instrument than the lyre and viol di gambas that he was building at the time. The viol di gambas resemble the modern-day cello in that they are played upright between the knees. Amati came up with a design that was smaller and lighter although similar in appearance to the viols. He added the fourth string which soon became standard to violins and is credited with developing the methods used in constructing the Cremonese violins. Only 20 of his instruments survive today. One of them, known as the ‘Carlo IX’ created for France’s King Charles IX in 1566, is in the MIM exhibit.

The beautfiul Amati violin with its contrasting neck, fingerboard and tailpiece.
The beautiful Amati violin with its contrasting neck, fingerboard and tailpiece.

As you can see from my photograph taken at the exhibit, Amati used a lighter colored wood for the neck, face of the fingerboard and tailpiece and decorated it with fine, delicate black line design. On the backside of the violin, he added a golden crown and fleur d’lis, still visible but fading with time. Interestingly, whenever Amati made violins, including this one I believe, he made them as part of a matched set. They were used, with the viola, viol da gamba and lyres for example, to provide dance music for those at court. It’s a bit humbling to stand in front of this historic instrument and realize that its maker gave us the start of our beloved violin of today.

The ribs of Sacconi's violin on display at MIM are gorgeously embellished.
The ribs of Sacconi’s violin on display at MIM are gorgeously embellished.

Equally as stunning is the “Violino Barocco” by Simone Fernando Sacconi, also displayed at MIM. This violin is so named because its neck is shorter and its fingerboard like those from the Baroque era of music.  It was built in 1941 by the Italian maker who is regarded as one of the foremost violin makers of the modern-day. Sacconi, who died in 1973, devoted himself to extensive study of Stradivari’s techniques even using his antique tools. Although difficult to photograph through its display case, you can still see here the exquisite design of this violin’s ribs and get an idea of the lacelike intricacy of the bridge.  To view it in person is breathtaking.

The bridge of Sacconi's violin is amazing unto itself.
The bridge of Sacconi’s violin is amazing unto itself.

But of course, the instrument in the exhibit that draws your greatest attention is the one violin made by the master himself, the “Artot-Alard’ violin of 1728. It is the first time that this particular violin has ever been on display in the United States. Made when Stradivari was 84, it is a fine example of his craftsmanship.  Look closely and you can see the close, straight grains of the spruce wood used to make it. Undoubtedly, this is as close to a Stradivari that I will ever get so I stood before it as I might an art masterpiece, which it truly is, taking in its beauty, admiring its deep color and imagining what it must be like to actually play it.

A detail of the Stradivari violin on exhibit at MIM shows the close grain of the wood. A detail of the Stradivari violin on exhibit at MIM shows the close grain of the wood.
A detail of the Stradivari violin on exhibit at MIM shows the close grain of the wood.

I could have lingered there in the exhibit for an hour but my time had run out.  I managed to watch the short video on the “Science of the Stradivarius”, which you can see here by clicking on this link:  http://bit.ly/1pFwDEq.  It’s an excellent and fascinating explanation of how these incredible instruments were constructed.

Should you find yourself in Phoenix between now and June 5, I’d encourage you to plan some time to spend at MIM and this special exhibit. And if you miss it, don’t miss MIM next time you’re in the city. It’s truly a place where you can spend an entire day.  It’s a topic for a future blog post!

I had only a short time to visit the Stradivarius exhibit at MIM but was glad I did!
I had only a short time to visit the Stradivarius exhibit at MIM but was glad I did!

Reveling and Revealing at the Mardi Gras Mask Market

When it comes to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, you think of parades, Bourbon Street, beads and music. But you should also think masks because wearing masks on Mardi Gras and during the two weeks of Carnival that led up to the big day, is part of the tradition.  And part of the fun.

 

The Mardi Gras Mask Market featured the work of 15 mask artists and drew droves of collecctors and shoppers.
The Mardi Gras Mask Market featured the work of 15 mask artists and drew droves of collectors and shoppers.

For the past 33 years prior to Mardi Gras, mask makers from around the country have been bringing their handcrafted masks to the French Market Mask Market. It’s one of the highlights of the celebration and if you’re lucky enough to be in New Orleans of that weekend, as I was this year, it’s something you don’t want to miss.  Tucked in Dutch Alley, the market opens on Friday before Mardi Gras and continues through Monday.  During that time, Mardi Gras revelers and tourists can come to pick out a mask to wear or take home from a variety of mask makers who offer a their creations in a variety of styles.  Prices range anywhere from $15, for assemble-it-yourself kits, up to $200 or more for some of the more elaborate masks.

The cat mask shown here by his assistant, was Richard Thompson's new design at this year's Mardi Gras Mask Market.
The cat mask shown here by his assistant, was Richard Thompson’s new design at this year’s Mardi Gras Mask Market.

It’s a big weekend for the mask makers too, some of whom, like Richard Thompson of Finger Lakes, N.Y.  have been coming to this annual event 20 years or more.  This year’s mask market drew 15 different mask makers and hundreds of shoppers, some of whom, like Carrie of The Party Never Ends, from Washington D.C. came in costume. Carrie stopped at the booth of mask maker Wendy Drolma from Woodstock, N.Y. to pick out a mask.  “I have masks for all sorts of different occasions,” Carrie explained. After trying on several of Drolma’s leather masks, she settled on one with reddish tones.

Wendy Drolma greets collectors to her mask booth at the Mardi Gras Mask Market.
Wendy Drolma greets collectors to her mask booth at the Mardi Gras Mask Market.

Drolma is a self-taught mask maker of 25 years who began her craft at age 25. At the time, she had a corporate job but was looking for something else to do. “I like to say that mask making found me,” she explains.  And though others may refer to her as a mask maker, she likes to think of herself as an ‘alchemist’, whose masks transforms those who place one of her creations on their face. “I want my masks to say something about me,” she says.

Veronica Ur stands alongside some of her husband, Vincent Ur's, masks available for purchase during the Mardi Gras Mask Market.
Veronica Ur stands alongside some of her husband, Vincent Ur’s, masks available for purchase during the Mardi Gras Mask Market.

Vincent Ur is also a self-taught. His fascination with mask making in his 20s after he and his wife, Valerie, fist visited New Orleans. Valerie loved the masks she saw there and the two of them wandered in and out of the many shops that sell masks in the French Quarter.  When Vincent when home, he began experimenting and launched a new career for himself, one that has been very rewarding. In addition to selling masks on his website, Masks on Parade, Vincent takes special orders and recently completed masks for the Houston Opera’s production of ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ But he still comes to the Mardi Gras Mask Market as he done for the past 23 years.

Diane Trapp with some of ther masks shown at the 2016 Mask Market in New Orleans.
Diane Trapp with some of their masks shown at the 2016 Mask Market in New Orleans.

Diane Trapp’s masks have also appeared in many stage productions, as well as episodes of the CW television series, ‘Vampire Diaries’ and in pre-show events for Lady Gaga concerts. Trapp and her sister-in-law, Connie, live in Hillsboro, Ore. where the two have been happily creating masks for the Mask Market for the past 23 years. They even were there the year after Katrina hit, as was I. That year, I purchased one of Diane’s spectacular masks, which I still own and wear for special events. It never fails to bring in ‘awes’ from friends along with questions as to where I bought it. The two women each have their own style.

Colorful strands of yarn are decorate the masks of Connie Trapp.
Colorful strands of yarn are decorate the masks of Connie Trapp.

Connie recently began adding to her masks locks of colorful yarn that are tediously stitched into a skull-cap of sorts that slips over the wearers head. Diana brought with her this year to the mask market some fanciful animal masks adorned with papier-mache horns made from recycled grocery bags. “I’m from Oregon, after all,” she says laughing.  In addition to making masks, Diane also teaches a number of workshops to pass on her craft to novice mask makers.

Liz Blaz demonstrates how she applies paint to her mask art.
Liz Blaz demonstrates how she applies paint to her mask art.

Liz Blaz, of New Orleans, also teaches workshops in mask making and recently was in Haiti doing exactly that. She’s been invited by the Minister of Culture for the Cayman Islands to come that Carribean country to conduct workshops there as well.  Blaz’ masks are constructed of leather.  Her interest in the craft took her many years ago to Abano Terme, near Padua, Italy, to study the techniques of Commedia dell’Arte mask making.  Her masks are now worn in theatrical productions throughout Europe and North America.

One of the many molds that Liz Blaz uses to shape her leather masks.
One of the many molds that Liz Blaz uses to shape her leather masks.

While visiting with her at the Mask Market, she explained how she first sculpts her masks using molds, then once she is satisfied with shape and it has dried, she begins to apply layers of paint until it feels it is finished. Some, such as the “mother of pearl” finish, takes many layers of paint blended together to give it the look she’s after.  According to her website, Blaz is working to create a Guild of Maskmakers, to promote and help perpetuate the art.

Scott Schoonover studied his craft in Bali.
Scott Schoonover studied his craft in Bali.

Like Blaz, Scott Schoonover, also traveled abroad to study his craft. Schoonover attended the University of Iowa where he studied set design and became interested in costume making. But it was mask making that intrigued him.

Schoonover's mask designs draw from his experiences in Bali.
Schoonover’s mask designs draw from his experiences in Bali.

He was drawn to Bali, where he learned from native maskmakers.  As Schoonover tells it, part of requirement was to also learn the dances for which each mask was intended. Schoonover says that experience led him to his own philosophy towards his craft which is that “we are a community of artists who tell stories essential to our identity based on a legacy handed down from our ancestors.” He’s now based in St. Louis, where he’s from originally, and sells his work to a number of theatre companies as well as through his website.

Portland, Ore.-based mask maker Tony Fuemmeler stands beside some of his creations on display at the Mardi Gras Mask Market.
Portland, Ore.-based mask maker Tony Fuemmeler stands beside some of his creations on display at the Mardi Gras Mask Market.

Tony Fuemmeler of Portland, Ore., also became interested in mask making while an undergraduate in theatre at the University of Kansas.  There he studied the Lecoq tradition with Ron and Ludvika Popenhagen.  His very stylized masks reflect Lecoq’s development of the neutral mask as a training tool for actors, “designed to facilitate a state of openness in the student-performers, moving gradually on to character and expressive masks, and finally to ‘the smallest mask in the world’ the clown’s red-nose.”*

Tony Fuemeller's masks reflect the Lecoq tradition of maskmaking.
Tony Fuemeller’s masks reflect the Lecoq tradition of maskmaking.

Lecoq’s use of mask changed the performers’ movement on stage. giving them a body-based approach to mask work, rather than a visually led one.  Fuemmeler, who is also a puppeteer and director now teaches workshops for actors that utilize this approach to character development.  You can read more about his work on his website.

Carrie of Washington D.C. tries on one of Wendy Drolma's creations.
Carrie of Washington D.C. tries on one of Wendy Drolma’s creations.

Throughout the weekend, collectors, celebrants and the curious come to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Mask Market at the French Market to see these wonderful creations.  They are special and unique souvenirs for anyone who ends up purchasing one of them, just as I did at my first mask market. Some of those come seeking new masks for their Mardi Gras costumes, while others, like myself, see their new acquisition as a work of art to be displayed and worn for special occasions. But whether you pick out a mask for purchase, take time to visit this market if you are in New Orleans during Mardi Gras weekend.  It’s an opportunity to see firsthand the work of some premier maskmakers who are continuing a tradition that dates back centuries.

A mask buyer checks out one of Diane Trapp's masks with the papier mache antlers.
A mask buyer checks out one of Diane Trapp’s masks with the papier-mache antlers.

 

Courtroom Drama

When author Harper Lee‘s newly published novel,  “Go Set a Watchman” was released two weeks ago,  it was heralded with special screenings of the film based on her now classic book, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird”, midnight book parties and readings, and all sorts of other events all intended to celebrate or promote (depending upon your point of view) this book.  The book, despite or perhaps because, of the controversy surrounding it, quickly climbed to number one on the New York Times best seller list where I suspect it will remain for a while.  Lee’s other book, after all, is now regarded an American literary classic and is studied by schoolchildren and beloved by readers.

It is one of my personal favorites too. A few years ago, I found an anniversary copy of the book which I purchased as a gift for my husband and then, as luck would have it, actor Gregory Peck signed it when he came to the Mount Baker Theatre with his ‘one-man’ speaking tour in 2000. He still cut a striking and statuesque figure even then at age 83 and was as gracious as he appeared to be in many of his on-screen roles. I must admit that I was appropriately starstruck with the 6-foot 3-inch tall actor who played Atticus Finch as he stood right there before me after his onstage performance writing an inscription and his name into the book .

I was reminded of all this recently when Lee’s other book made the headlines. My backstage encounter with Peck also came to mind a couple of years ago when I was commissioned to photograph a group of local political activists promoting women candidates for the cover of our weekly alternative newspaper, the Cascadia Weekly.

Local political activists gathered in the Federal Buildilng courtroom for this cover photo.
Local political activists gathered in the Federal Building courtroom for this cover photo.

We staged it, with permission, in the courtroom of the three-story Federal Building in downtown Bellingham. The building, designed in the Italian Renaissance style, is prominently located on a downtown corner where, every Friday since the 1960s, there has been a ‘peace demonstration.’ (I’ll have to write another blog about that one day.) Few locals ever go inside the noble structure except to purchase stamps or to mail a package from the post office branch located in the southeast ground floor corner. But they should as it’s a real design treat.

Stepping into the courtroom in Bellingham's Federal Building is like stepping into the trial setting for 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'
Stepping into the courtroom in Bellingham’s Federal Building is like stepping into the trial setting for ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’

The courtroom where the photo for the cover was done at a time when the courtroom wasn’t currently in use. It was once a Federal District Courtroom. (More recently, it’s been proposed that the courtroom come back into use as one of the city’s courtrooms.) I was so taken by the beauty of this judicial room that I stayed after my photo session for the Weekly to photograph it for myself. Although not an exact duplicate of the courtroom seen in the classic black and white film, it clearly is of a similar style and period so that just walking through huge wooden door so you transported through imagination to that setting. I could see Atticus Finch sitting at the defendant’s large, heavy oak table appealing to the judge positioned in the behind the big bench at the front of the room.

The audience is separated from the court floor by a mahogany railing that spans the width of the courtroom.
The audience is separated from the court floor by a mahogany railing that spans the width of the courtroom.

An elegant Honduran mahogany rail separates the court floor from the mahogany benches for the audience.  Tall, two-story arched windows line one side and allow natural light to fill the entire room. Running beneath the windows is the jury box, where, if I closed my eyes, I could see the jurors of that classic case intently following the arguments being presented before them.

There is no balcony in the Bellingham courtroom, as there is in the movie, but your eyes are led overhead to a coffered, vaulted ceiling that is 20 feet tall at its highest point. “Each octagonal ceiling coffer has an egg and dart moulding that surrounds a delicate stucco rosette planted in the coffer’s center,”  according to the building’s nomination for the National Register of Historic Places. It is an impressive judicial setting, one that certainly harkens to another era when such detail was the norm for important institutional structures.

Your eyes gaze upwards to the decorative coffered ceiling.
Your eyes gaze upwards to the decorative coffered ceiling.

Indeed, many small towns in this country have courtrooms of this sort built, as was this one, in the earlier part of the 20th century where the trial as seen in “To Kill a Mockingbird” could have taken place.  They remind us of a time when attorneys, like the fictional Atticus Finch, were eloquent, righteous and respected. Perhaps that’s one reason why some are so disappointed by the Atticus Finch of Lee’s new book, and why it has given rise to the controversy of whether the author ever intended it to be published. Regardless, if you live in the area, or are visiting, and have never seen the courtroom inside the Bellingham’s Federal Building, go upstairs sometime and have a peek. And let me know if it doesn’t make you think of Harper Lee’s literary classic.

 

 

 

Making Music in Beautiful Bellingham

Bellingham’s Festival of Music’s 22nd season got off to a bang on Friday evening when the orchestra, under the baton of Michael Palmer, performed the rousing Overture to Royal Fireworks Music by George Frederic Handel. Though evening was unseasonably warm inside Western Washington University’s Concert Hall the audience wasn’t deterred and applauded for an encore from soloist Vadim Gluzman who gave a stunningly beautiful performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. The orchestra too sparkled when it played Mozart’s wonderful  (never can have too much Mozart) Symphony No. 36 in C major, the  “Linz”.

Violinist Vadim Gluzman greets fans and sign autographs following hisperformance at the 2015 opening night concert Bellingham Festival of Music
Violinist Vadim Gluzman greets fans and sign autographs following his performance at the 2015 opening night concert Bellingham Festival of Music

I often have to remind myself that I am in Bellingham, a city of only 80,000 located 20 miles from the Canadian border, and not in Seattle or San Francisco or even Chicago or New York when I hear this Festival orchestra perform.  Of course, the musicians who play in this orchestra for two weeks in the summer, come from orchestras located in those cities. As many of them have said, it’s equally a treat for them as well to perform here year after year (some have been with the Festival since the first year). They have made many friends with their ‘host’ families and those who come to hear them play. They enjoy the opportunity to play in a our beautiful city by the bay and welcome the chance to escape from the heat of their home environs. (This summer has been unseasonably warm for Bellingham.)

Audience members await the start of the chamber music concert staged in Bellingham's Ferry Terminal each year with stunning views of the bay and the city.
Audience members await the start of the chamber music concert staged in Bellingham’s Ferry Terminal each year with stunning views of the bay and the city.

It’s one reason the New York Times singled out Bellingham’s Music Festival, along with that of select others in the country, for its article by Michael Cooper which appeared in today’s paper. It is, as Cooper so aptly put it, like ‘summer camp’ for classical musicians.

For concertgoers, the festival brings to the stage some of the world’s best classical music and musicians,  without setting foot beyond the city’s boundaries. In my case, I am only steps away from the WWU campus where they perform.

Mary Kary and Joe Robinson play for guests during a farewell gathering given at a private home to honor their retirement from the Belingham Music Festival.
Mary Kary and Joe Robinson play for guests during a farewell gathering given at a private home to honor their retirement from the Bellingham Music Festival.

I have had the pleasure of listening to and getting to know, for example, former New York Philharmonic principal oboist Joe Robinson, both as a member of the orchestra and as a soloist. (Pinch me.) Robinson retired from the Festival two summers ago but his spot was filled by protegé, Keisuke Wakao, principal oboist for the Boston Symphony.  And I’ve heard some of the finest soloists, such as the Israeli violinist Gluzman, performing in classical music today.

It also brings back to Bellingham local artists such as soprano Katie Van Kooten who’s singing with opera companies and symphony orchestras all over the world, and young rising talent, such as the Calidore String Quartet, whose violist, Jeremy Berry, grew up only blocks from the concert hall where he saw musicians on the very stage where he now performs as part of the Festival’s guest artists.

The Calidore String Quartet visits the Pacific Northwest to perform in the Bellingham Festival of Music.
The Calidore String Quartet visits the Pacific Northwest to perform in the Bellingham Festival of Music at Western Washington University. The quartet is making a name for itself internationally and includes violoist Jeremy Berry who grew up listening to concerts on the Festival stage.

At this writing, tickets are still available for some concerts. If you’re lucky enough to be in the area, or coming to this corner of the Pacific Northwest in the next two weeks, make it part of your summer. If you can’t make it to Bellingham’s music festival this year, put it in your travel plans for next year. And then you, like so many of the festival musicians, may also find yourself returning year after year!