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.

 

 

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.