Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Musician Profile: Ellen Cockerham, Current Acting Concertmaster and Principal Second Violin

Can you speak a little about your responsibilities being Principal Second Violin as well as your current role as acting concertmaster? How do the two compare?

It certainly has been interesting to switch between the two positions. Both present their own challenges and require different creative energies, but I think I enjoy both equally. When I am concertmaster, I am constantly making decisions that will affect the entire string section (and sometimes the entire orchestra). Principal second violin is a unique position within the orchestra in that it is the head of a section (the second violins), but it is also part of a larger section (the violins). When I am principal second, I am constantly working to maintain a balance between supporting the first violins and fearlessly leading the seconds.

My responsibilities as acting concertmaster include certain housekeeping tasks, such as making sure the orchestra tunes. Then there are the behind-the-scenes duties, such as determining what bowings to use. All of the string principals have to do this, but the concertmaster's decisions are copied throughout the strings section for uniformity. And people aren't just looking to me to know which direction to move the bow, they are watching to see what kind of bowstroke I am using, when to start or end a note, which string I am playing on, even what kind of vibrato I am using. It is also my responsibility to make sure that everyone is, in fact, paying attention to all of these details. And occasionally, I must emerge from the section to play a solo.

As principal second, I also have the (very) occasional solo, but I keep a lower profile in general. My role is to confirm everything the concertmaster is doing and to provide grounding for the stratospheric first violin lines. The big challenge is to know when to break away from the firsts and become an independent section. When I study a score in preparation for being principal second, I pay close attention to the ever-changing relationship between the first and second violins. Are we playing the same thing? Do we enter a measure before them? Is this an inner-voice (violas and second violins) figuration? Are the second violins the lead voice here? This is why, when I am principal second, you will see my eyes darting around from concertmaster to conductor to the other string principals. And sometimes to my music.

When did you first become interested in music?

I became obsessed with the idea of playing the violin at the age of 5. I went to a concert that featured a violin soloist and it stirred something in me that hasn't gone away since. I do love music, but I can't really see myself playing a different instrument. I've always felt a special connection with the violin.

What pieces or composers do you find most inspiring?

I think I am most inspired by music of great clarity (Bach cello suites, Schubert Symphony No. 5, Stravinsky L'histoire du Soldat) and music which sounds natural and improvised (Mahler symphonies, Bartok string quartets). And I will be eternally fascinated by the string quartets of Beethoven, which sound absolutely divine yet so utterly human.

What do you enjoy doing besides playing music?

I love riding my bike around town. I even ride to rehearsals when the weather is nice! I also love to write, so I am trying to nurture that hobby by reading a lot and keeping a blog. I recently started a container garden outside my Carytown apartment, which is something I've always wanted to do. And, of course, I love to cook. My favorite kitchen projects are things which you might not think of making at home such as peanut butter, ricotta cheese, clarified butter, bread, alfalfa sprouts and lattes. Speaking of which, if I'm not at home or at work, you can find me sipping coffee at Lamplighter Roasting Company.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

“This Missa’s a Mutha” – Robert Shaw

I’m eagerly (and anxiously) anticipating our final Masterworks concert of the 10-11 season, featuring the Richmond Symphony and Chorus in a rare performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. I have been interested in (okay, obsessed with) Beethoven’s monumental Missa since I first heard it at the age of 18. I was a freshman at Northwestern, and I thought I would buy myself a ticket to go hear the Chicago Symphony and George Solti do some Beethoven.

Here’s my great confession: I walked away from that performance a bit confused. It was a powerful 90 minutes, that’s for sure, but I didn’t really “get it,” and I wanted to know why! It was only a few years later that the piece clicked.

What made the difference, you ask?


You see, I came to Northwestern knowing a lot about choral music. I had sung many of the masterpieces of the symphonic-choral repertoire – even Mahler’s Symphony of 1,000! But, I had never really heard a Beethoven Symphony, a Beethoven Violin Concerto, a Beethoven String Quartet, or Fidelio. Once I heard all these individually, then listened to the Missa again, I finally “got it!” In the Missa Solemnis, Beethoven put everything he had – psychologically, spiritually, and musically.

It’s difficult to describe how his soul appears in this music – that’s more easily felt in a live performance. But, I can at least try to prepare you for some of what you will hear musically. 

You’ll hear a master orchestrator – one for whom the woodwinds were just as important as the ever -present strings.
The opening of his Seventh Symphony, for example, features full orchestral chords, followed by lyrical woodwind solos.

You’ll hear a lover of the dramatic potential and lyrical vocalism inherent in opera.
Listen to these two excerpts from Fidelio - the passion of the first and the long, vocal lines of the second appear throughout the Missa Solemnis.

Duet: “O namenlose Freude”

Prisoners Chorus: (which you heard in the January Masterworks)

You’ll hear the compositional skill of a technical genius in the many (many!) fugues.
In a nod to the Baroque genius Bach, Beethoven takes the fugue to new heights. (A fugue is a complex round or canon – like “Row Row Row Your Boat” with a PhD). His most famous fugues can be found in his string quartets, like this one:

Opus 59, #3 – last movement:

You’ll hear a concerto composer who could get into the soul of a soloist.
Here’s the second movement of his Violin Concerto, which opens our 2011-2012 Masterworks season, and which also has a kinship to the Benedictus movement of the Missa Solemnis.

These are but a few of the many examples of how the Missa Solemnis encapsulates the powerful, emotional, and intricate voice of Ludwig van Beethoven.

We here at the Richmond Symphony always feel humbled and honored to be able to delve into the music of Beethoven, whether it’s his first symphony or his final mass. And, it is a truly a privilege to share that experience with you - the listener. I hope this blog post helps you get in the musical mindset of this genius. We look forward to seeing you at the concerts on May 21st and May 22nd. Remember to come early for the pre-concert discussion, where we’ll tie all this together and explore why Robert Shaw called this piece one “Mutha” of a “Missa.”

See you at CenterStage!

Associate Conductor and James Erb Choral Chair