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Classical Notes: February 5, 2010 Archive

The Parker Quartet takes on Duluth

Posted at 3:04 PM on February 5, 2010 by Laura Ciotti
Filed under: Parker Quartet

The Parker Quartet continued their Artist in Residence tour this week with a performance in Duluth on Tuesday night. Luckily, they didn't encounter any bears. Read the quartet's last tour entry.


Daniel Chong, violin

Daniel Chong Having the chance to visit Duluth was really nice. We had passed through this town on our way to Madeline Island a few summers ago. We had gone there to teach at a music camp for a week, and I remember finding it a bit strange to be on an island inside a lake. Granted, Lake Superior is I guess, well, superior than the other 9,999 lakes around these parts, but I couldn't help but think that there must be a technical term to differentiate an island within a lake versus an island within the ocean. Funny story though about that trip to Madline Island: we had to take a ferry back from the island to the shore of Wisconsin and two really funny things happened. It was early in the morning so all of us desperately needed our caffeine fix so as soon as we got off the ferry we headed towards the village coffee shop. Now I don't know if Kee looked especially foreign that day or if the lack of caffeine was unflattering to his otherwise fine complexion, but a man inside the coffee shop turned to him, looked, and said "Welcome to America!" Our theory is that perhaps the fellow thought we had been on a long, treacherous journey from our neighbors in Canada. But who knows? People say some weird stuff. . .

So as we left the coffee shop with steaming joe in hand we piled into our minivan (which is, by the way, God's gift to string quartets) and Kee proceeded to drive towards home. In order to get back to the interstate we had to drive down Main Street and as the car starts moving Kee says in his morning/monotone voice, "there's a bear on main street." I'm sitting in the back just trying to stay conscious enough to take a few sips of my coffee so without looking, I go "yeah right man."


"No, really. There's a bear on main street."


(glance up)


"OH MY GOD THERE'S A BEAR ON MAIN STREET!!"


"That's what I said."


Sure enough, there was a black bear in this little town on Main St. headed for a big metal garbage can. So like typical dumfounded tourists we jumped out of the van, pulled out our phones and started shooting pictures of him like he was a hollywood celebrity. None of us wanted to get too close of course, and since our photo taking materials were sorry excuses for capturing anything in some detail we all ended up with photos that looked like a random street with a black dot in the middle which I always pointed to when showing my friends and told them that was bear's furry behind. I don't think any of them believed me.

The Mitchell Auditorium at St. Scholastica is a wonderful hall to play in. The sound is bright, clear, and resonant. I also liked the size of the hall. Not too big, not too small. Great for chamber music. The audience was spectacularly quiet. I felt like everybody was listening intently which is always a nice energy to feed off of when we're on stage. It helps us focus and ultimately helps the music come out clearer. It was also wonderful to see an audience that encompassed a wide range of age. Some of the younger students I saw there I recognized because we had worked with them the day before and some others I didn't recognize. It was also the first time that I felt like the audience was into the Q & A session at the end of the concert. They asked some really good questions and there seemed to be some really knowledgeable people there who are enthusiastic about chamber music. Always a good thing!! We didn't spend much time in Duluth so I didn't really get to explore a lot. We did hit a great restaurant called the Zeitgeist Cafe and Jessica, Bodie, and I checked out Keene Creek Dog Park - a little fenced in area at the intersection of Grand Avenue and I-35 where dogs can run around wildly which Bodie is extremely talented at. I didn't even have to train him to do that.

Karen Kim, violin

Karen KimHome sweet home! We returned last night from a quick trip to Duluth, and though we only spent one night on the road, my joy at being home is not diminished. It's funny, sometimes short trips feel more disruptive than long ones--I think it's because you never get a chance to settle into the rhythm of the road.

Despite the brevity of this trip, I was still able to succumb to a strange phenomenon that I'll call road-transference. Road-transference is the psychological adoption of someone as a parent-figure while traveling due to a sub-conscious need for stability. As I am not a natural wanderer, I often find myself in the midst of road-transference. Most often, the object of my road-transference will be someone who seems capable, reliable, and caring. In Duluth, the person whom I adopted as road-mother was Patty Mester, MPR's regional station manager; In Bemidji and Sioux Falls, it was Kristi Booth, the regional network director. And now I'm starting to realize that this is sounding a little creepy...but the effects of road-transference are negligible! Most often, I will just be a bit more at ease with whomever has been adopted. Don't worry, Patty and Kristi, I won't be calling you at 2 a.m. in desperate need of relationship advice!

Tuesday morning in Duluth was a real road-mother/daughter experience. Patty and I had the great pleasure of waking up early for a 6 a.m. interview at the local TV station. Patty brought me coffee, drove me over to the station, made sure I had everything I needed once we got there...classic road-mother nurturing. Once we got to the station, I realized that the amount of coffee I had consumed was not up to par with the people working there. I had sipped down half a cup with the goal of being just lucid enough for the interview, but leaving myself the possibility of passing out once I returned to the hotel. I was aware that everyone else was speaking much more quickly than I, but I was also very sure that I was not capable of matching their speed. At the end of the interview, I played a bit of solo Bach, and I remember thinking, in my early-morning stupor, "I'm just gonna take it easy..." I have since watched that interview online, and I can't believe how slowly I played! The record was set that morning for the earliest I have ever attempted to play the violin.

We also gave a master class and, of course, a concert in Duluth. Many of the students we heard had learned the music on their own, so I was very impressed by the level of self-motivation. Our concert in Mitchell Auditorium was well-attended (thanks to MPR for their amazing audience-building) and the audience was extremely attentive--probably one of the quietest audiences we've ever encountered! I totally appreciated the audience's focus, but I was also very glad when they opened up during our Question and Answer session after the concert. It was nice to walk away feeling that we not only connected with them on a more abstract level through the music, but also on a personal level.

Jessica Bodner, viola


Jessica BodnerEvery concert can feel so different even if the setup is the same - in this case it was the same repertoire as our concerts in Bemidji and Sioux Falls, and Steve Staruch was the MC just as he had been before. It's amazing how each city can feel so different, how the feeling of the city can influence us, how that can effect the feeling in the audience, and in turn, how that effects the feeling of the performance. So far, the Troubadour concerts have all been set up to be the same, but the amazing thing is that they have all been so different. It may be subtle; sometimes something may seem huge to us but through the layers of translation may not be so huge in the grand scheme of things. It is sometimes hard to remember, but helpful if I can, that in many cases this is the first time the audience has seen us play a particular piece (or play at all). It may be the first time they've ever heard this piece live, or the first time they've been to a chamber music concert, or the first time they've seen any type of music live. This is something I think I can draw upon for inspiration instead of thinking "I did the connection between these two notes better last time, but then the feeling of this one note may have been better this time, what should I focus on for the next time?..." I came away from this concert in Duluth thinking a lot about this, and I think it's going to inspire me for a long time.

It was cool to be in Duluth. After driving amongst a lot of flat land, it's kind of funny to all of a sudden be around hills. I've been wanting to check out the North Shore (people say that it feels like you're at the ocean). I guess Duluth is sort of on the way to reaching this part of Lake Superior's shore. If anyone is planning to visit Duluth, I would definitely recommend Pizza Lúce for breakfast (try Pesto Eggs Benedict or Breakfast Burrito!) and Zeitgeist Café for dinner. Definitely the best food on our tour so far.

We have about a month before our next MPR Artist in Residence concert in Decorah (it's on Kee's birthday!). It will be great to visit there because we'll see one of Karen's sisters, who is teaching there this semester. In this month, I will visit one of my best friends in London (we have a week off because Dan is playing with a chamber orchestra on the east coast), we'll play concerts in Annapolis, MD, St. Croix, and here in St. Paul, and one of the things I'm looking forward to the most is that we'll learn a new Haydn quartet, which we'll play in Decorah. It's seriously awesome!!!

Kee Hyun Kim, cello

Kee Hyun KimAnother week, another city! The quartet is just back from a concert we gave in Duluth, MN. Compared to our previous trip, two weeks ago, to Bemidji and Sioux Falls, this was a breeze. First and foremost, the driving! From St. Paul, it took only a little over two hours to get to Duluth, so it just felt like a little extended commute.

It felt good to be busy again. This past week, the rest of the members of the quartet were playing as guest members the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, with whom we've been in residence with since last year. They didn't need any cellists last week, so as a result, while everybody was busy attending rehearsals (sometimes 5 hours a day!) and playing 3 concerts over the weekend, I was getting up at 10 (on a good day), practicing, doing whatever...! and still had so much time on my hands that I didn't know what to do with myself. The quartet was only rehearsing 2 hours a day, as opposed to our usual 4, because after that much orchestra rehearsal, who has the stamina and mental focus to go into ANOTHER, and arguably more involved, rehearsal??

A great benefit that I had with all this free time, was that I had time to get my cello adjusted. A lot has been said at the Q&A sessions after the concerts about our instruments. For those of you who weren't there, I play on a cello made in Milan in 1844, by the Italian luthier Giaccomo Rivolta. It is relatively low maintenance for an old instrument, but like any antique, can be a bit temperamental and must be cared for and looked after.

My cello has been sounding a little bit out of whack, since I got back from the Christmas holidays. The sound was less resonant, it was tougher to produce a good sound, and it just didn't feel very good to play - it felt like I was sawing through a piece of wood with an unresponsive stick. And I suspect intonation was harder to hear, both individually and in the group, because the overtones from the notes that were sounded from the follow-through of the bow on the string, was higher than the actual pitch! This was really infuriating, as what at first sounded like it was in tune, would, upon release of the sound, suddenly become a bit sour and cringe-worthy.

Fortunately, the adjustment changed all that! With a few taps on the bridge, a few taps on the soundpost, and some straightening of the bridge, my cello sounded like $300,000 again. And, unlike last year, where I spent close to $800 to get open seams and cracks in my instruments patched up, I had NO cracks!! Progress!

Anyways, Duluth. Like I said, it was an easy ride - we all drove back to the Twin Cities after the concert, and even then, with slick, icy roads and at times stifling darkness, it took just a little over two hours. Duluth reminded me a little bit of Pittsburgh (I mean that in the best way - I LIKE Pittsburgh!), with its rolling hills, bridges, and industrial feel. We were staying at the Holiday Inn Waterfront in downtown - this area reminded me a bit of Halifax. I wish that I had had more of a chance to walk around and explore the city! It would have been much more enjoyable than driving around. Driving in Duluth was a bit nerve-wracking. Driving in a new city is always a bit disorienting, but here I found it even more so - I never knew where to turn, I couldn't figure out where the roads were, it was so damn hilly (and slippery! front-wheel drive no good...), there were one-way signs everywhere... Stressful.

I did manage to spend a little time, in an area right by the water - is it the Canal Park area? (I think I drove down Lake Park Ave. - what a charming little street, populated by cafes, antique shops, artisan shops, etc.) When I had gotten my cello adjusted earlier this week, I had taken off my mute and forgotten to bring it back from the shop. This was bad because in the Ravel, the mute is needed to create a plethora of more 'muted' colors (think of the color red, and the mute as the water you would use to dilute that color, creating a color that is more porous and translucent). So I googled instrument shops in the Duluth area, and found Christian Eggert's shop. Although I cannot say anything about the level of skill there (as I didn't get any work done on the cello), it certainly seemed to be well stocked! The space was incredible too - lots of light, lots of wood, and a view of the lake and the canal. One of the luthiers in the shop (was he Christian Eggert?) was extremely friendly as well, giving me a brief history of Duluth.

The concert itself was held at the College of St. Scholastica, in their Mitchell Hall. I really liked the hall - it was gladiator seating (where the audience was looking down at us), and the stage was not raised, but instead at ground level. The stage itself was wide and spacious, and the acoustic, even for such a large hall, was warm and glowing. The program was the same as before, with Steve Staruch introducing us and the first piece, and moderating a Q&A session at the end. Although it was the same program, and we knew what to expect going into the concert, the overall vibe felt a bit different. I was finding it hard to mentally focus, and to really find inspiration from within myself. Perhaps it was the fact that the hall itself seemed so big, or perhaps it was that I had spent too much time practicing all day and was spent (the quartet didn't start rehearsing until 5 pm, at our dress rehearsal) - in any case, the performance didn't feel as good as at Bemidji or Sioux Falls. This was certainly not the audiences' fault - I had stated previously that at a concert, not only is the audience feeling the energy of the quartet, but that we feed off the energy of the audience. This being said, the audience was a very 'well-behaved' one - there was no fuss, no coughing, no distractions. Instead, they seemed to be really focused on us and the music. It is my hope that the silence in the audience I heard while we were playing was a silence that was still engaged and taut with attention; and that the silence wasn't a reflection of my own partial lack of focus.

Ah well - although it wasn't our best performance ever, it certainly wasn't the worst we had ever played, and hopefully we were able to communicate the greatness of the music itself, if not our own exuberance at playing these great works.

Here's a shout out to Ethan and Freeman, two high-school students that I was fortunate enough to work with. These guys were really talented, and I hope that they keep up the good work! It was a lot of fun to coach them - I know that I got a lot of it, and I hope that you guys did too. (We worked on the first movement of Elgar concerto, and the cello solo from a composer named Suppe's "Overture to the Poet and Peasant.")
And as always, a special thank you to MPR, who made this all possible. In Duluth, we were aided by the manager of MPR in that area, Patty Mester. Also a special thank you to Laura Gill, a videographer for MPR, who came along with us for this trip and taped the whole thing.

And last but not least, if any of you are on Facebook, I invite you to join our newly created page - just search for Parker Quartet.