The PDR: Samsara

Back in August, my friend Michael told me about a friend of a friend who hosted musical salons/informal concerts in her apartment. He had been persuaded to perform at the next one and was planning to sing the Iron & Wine song “Naked As We Came” while accompanying himself on guitar. He thought it was the sort of event I’d enjoy and invited me to come. A few days later, he remarked that “Naked As We Came” had a subtle harmony line on the refrain. Would I like to sing it with him at the salon? I said sure.

We had one rehearsal after Georgian chorus one day, and then that weekend was the performance. The salon (that’s what I’m calling it) is called the PDR (for Playa del Rey, where the hosts live), and each PDR has a theme. This one’s theme was samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth.

I find the concept of a salon like this really appealing. I used to host music parties for my friends where we’d get together and play strange instrumental arrangements (flute, viola, cello, piano/bells) of classical and not-so-classical pieces I liked. These days, I host singing parties where we sing shape note tunes, folksongs, and rounds in two- to four-part harmony. The PDR is more performance-oriented, and the participants are mostly fairly serious, even professional, musicians, but the host explained at the beginning of the evening how her goal was to create a low-stress performance venue where musicians could play for a friendly audience and anyone was welcome to participate.

The opener was Monti’s “Csárdás,” performed by a violinist accompanied by the host on one of her two grand pianos. When I heard the title, I wondered if it was going to be that “Csárdás,” and it was. Next a flautist played Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise,” also accompanied. I’d thought “Vocalise” had been written for cello (silly me); it turns out it was originally for soprano, with no text, and has been transcribed for every instrument imaginable. This was followed by a pair of piano pieces by Grieg, “Homesickness” and “Homeward.”

We were up next! I perched on a chair next to Michael, who was on a piano bench. “Naked As We Came” is a pretty short song, two verses, each followed by the refrain, and I only had to sing my harmony line on the refrain. Michael was doing all the rest, including the pretty guitar playing. The host thought it was the first time there’d ever been singing not accompanied by piano at the PDR, and we were also the only non-classical piece of the night. It went pretty well, and people seemed to enjoy it!

Next someone played a series of Beethoven bagatelles. In the meantime, I noticed that a musician who’d come in late had unpacked an instrument from what I’d thought was a cello case. It was not a cello but a viola da gamba! And he was next. He played “Death” and “Lyfe” by Tobias Hume, an English (Scottish, actually) composer and mercenary who wrote music for viola da gamba when he wasn’t fighting for Sweden. That’s what the viola da gambist told us, anyway. Before performing, he showed us the sheet music he was playing off of. It looked like a facsimile of the original, very old notation that vaguely resembled tablatures.

After the Hume, his girlfriend joined him with a Baroque violin to play a violin sonata by Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, a composer I had in fact heard of thanks to this very nerdy activity I did in high school called music listening. (My team made it to the state championship match every year, and when I was a senior we won.) Viola da Gambist told us Jacquet de la Guerre became a musician in the court of Louis XIV at the age of five (later Wikipedia browsing suggested she performed for the king at five but became a court musician only later). Anyway, the sonata was beautiful.

Lastly, someone sang three art songs while accompanying himself on piano, which was quite impressive. He sang Schubert’s “In Frühling,” Fauré’s “Les Berceaux,” and Mozart’s “Abendempfindung”; I especially liked the Fauré (chanson over lieder, I guess).

After the concert, I went to talk to Viola da Gambist and Baroque Violinist about Jacquet de la Guerre and the violinist’s instrument. I told them I was a cellist and was envious of people who played the viola da gamba, and Viola da Gambist told me he knew where I could get a viola da gamba for free. I wasn’t sure if he was joking or not.

Later, I was talking to Baroque Violinist again. She had lived in Boston all her life, and it turned out she’d been in youth orchestra with someone I knew in college. She also told me Viola da Gambist’s sister was a fiddler, and I put two and two together and realized she was my favorite local contra dance fiddler! Small world.

By this time, some people had left, and those who remained were chatting about Handel’s operas and whether they’d been trained to be better at memorization or sight reading. Then Viola da Gambist regaled us with his take on Italian Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo’s life (Gesualdo was another composer I’d studied in music listening). According to Viola da Gambist, Gesualdo had discovered his wife having an affair and killed her and her lover. Thereafter, he lived under house arrest. He wrote madrigal after madrigal for his live-in singers, and because he listened to nothing but his own madrigals being performed back for him, they got weirder and weirder (chromatic and such).

Just before we left, Viola da Gambist showed me the Hume music and tried to explain to me how the tablatures worked. I asked him whether he’d been serious about the free viola da gamba, and he told me about the Viola da Gamba Society of America or somesuch, which likes getting instruments into the hands of eager would-be viola da gambists. He even said he was looking for a student…but I did not rise to the bait, however much I’d like to play viola da gamba. I have my hands pretty full with the cello, the fiddle, and the hammered dulcimer, none of which I play frequently enough.

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