Amnon Govrin will play the Vaughan Williams solo The Lark Ascending at our next performance. Amnon is also a fellow musician in the KCO as the concertmaster. We discussed his upcoming performance and playing in the KCO.
Amnon: My brother started to play the piano when I was 5 (he was 9). The story in my family is that I wanted to play something too, but the violin and not the piano. Granted, it was a good choice, as I stuck with it long after my brother stopped playing the piano 5 years later.
My dad wanted to play the violin himself, but couldn’t do that in the 1920’s and 30’s and then, of course, the second world war in Romania, so he didn’t get to do that. I can imagine that even though he says that I picked the violin, he had something to do with it as well.
KCO: Where did that take you, from 5 years old onward?
A: I started playing, then after several years, my brother stopped playing the piano. I continued. When I was 12, I joined the Haifa Youth Symphony Orchestra and after a few years became the concertmaster. Then, when I went to college, I went to an engineering college, the Technion. I played in the orchestra there as the concertmaster as well. After college, I played on and off without any real consistent playing and that’s it.
KCO: Where was this?
A: I grew up in Haifa, Israel. At schools there, unless they were art schools, there wasn’t any orchestra. The municipal orchestra was a great place for all the kids from all the surrounding cities to play in an orchestra, all the instruments. A big span of ages from around 10 to 20 and sometimes beyond. We also went to Europe to do a bunch of festivals and competitions so a pretty cool experience as a teenager.
KCO: That sounds fantastic. I had similar kinds of experiences. I really cherished them.
A: The big kids take care of the little kids, there are some parents who chaperone, but it’s kind of like a big family going together, playing and meeting other people.
A: I think that one of the things was that I saw myself as an average player, versus a very good at math and physics student. That was part of it. Another part of it was that, growing up, the PC (personal computing) revolution happened and I got a computer. Combine the two and it was a very clear decision to study computer engineering.
KCO: I think what you’re saying is you found something you’re just as passionate about, in computing.
A: Yes, and maybe even more. Another aspect of it was that I had an amount of perfectionism creep in at some point, and it was easier to achieve it at school then with music.
Letting go of perfectionism is a maturing process.
KCO: At what point do you decide to get back to playing?
A: Like I said, I played on and off, just for myself. I was picking up things here and there, playing with a few people like some folk music, bluegrass a little bit when I had people at work who played the accordion and guitar and things like that. I never completely stopped, and then when I got to Microsoft (where I work), I created a mailing list of chamber music players. That didn’t go very far.
At some point I decided to look for an orchestra, and there was the orchestra mailing list. It was the Microsoft orchestra which is now the Kirkland Civic Orchestra. I talked with James and came to a rehearsal and I was hooked.
The thing that strikes me the most is that in my line of work and personal life – with a family of 4 kids – there is constant context switching. Coming to that first rehearsal and spending 2 hours of playing, it shut all that down. I was in a state of mind that I wasn’t in for years.
KCO: I have to say I had a similar experience. When I sat in the back row with my tuba, I thought, “I don’t have to think. I know how to do this.” I never thought about it as context switching, but that’s exactly right. It is almost automatic.
A: When you do this, you also have a very tight feedback loop around any other thoughts or other distractions. Because if you’re distracted, within 2 seconds, you will miss a note or something like that. You have too tight a feedback loop so you avoid getting distracted. It’s essentially meditative.
KCO: The Kirkland Orchestra evolved, and you become the concertmaster. How did you progress from concertmaster to doing a solo?
A: Last season, as concertmaster, I had concertmaster solo one of the pieces. It was great to do that. At the end of the season, James suggested, “we’re going to do Lark Ascending, why don’t you play the solo?”
I was a little hesitant. I told him that I’d think about it. I took 2 weeks to practice it as if I were going to do it, to see how far I can get with it. I don’t practice hours a day like I did when I had free time on my hands. I wanted to see how far I could get and extrapolate that to actually being ready for a concert. It seemed reasonable and I just loved the piece.
I knew the piece before but I of course, wasn’t as intimate with it as you become when you start playing it every day. It was fantastic. It just felt like something that I can play now, much better than I could play when I was young. Even though, technically I could play more say “fast and furious” things when I was young, because of that daily practicing and the muscle memory for things like Paganini violin Concerto or a Tchaikovsky. Things like that were available to me to pull on back then and they’re not so much now. However, now I think that the different types of sounds that I can produce is different than what I could, and better than I could do then.
KCO: Would you call that tone? Your tone is better?
A: Yes, my tone is better and more varied. Back then I think I could play the fast and the furious and now I can do the sensitive.
KCO: That’s one of the few good things about aging, I think.
A: I don’t take it out of the realm of possibilities if I again played hours a day, consistently, then I could reach some of the fast and some of the furious, but it’s not something that is available. There’s only so many hours a day and work for example.
KCO: You mentioned that you were the concertmaster in your younger days, but that doesn’t generally mean you’re also a soloist. Soloists are almost a different group of people. Did you do more solo stuff? Are you just really coming back to it now?
A: I did a few. I soloed as a violin student. I had my yearly student concert and recitals, and the final recital for finishing the conservatory.
I played very few solos with the orchestras I played in, where perfectionism turned stage nerves made these experiences something that I had the urge to do but ended up feeling like I could have done better. It’s a part of what makes Lark Ascending feel right – it’s an expansive, flexible piece that takes a different ratio of artistic lines and technique than many others, a piece that requires the breathing and maturity that I feel I have now compared to my youth.
A: I’m a bit disappointed to play it with the sheet music. In my youth, by the time I knew how to play something, I knew it without the music. Lark Ascending is also a piece of music unlike most that I played as a kid, when technique was easier for me to learn and the pieces I played took me on that path.
One thing that I didn’t tell you that I think is a little amusing, is that when I became concertmaster of Kirkland Civic, this is essentially the first time I get paid for playing music. I took that first check and I framed it and jokingly because it says, “I’m a professional musician, regardless of anything else.”
Playing solo, relates to that a little bit and it’s really exciting to take on a piece like that because it’s a piece that requires ⅔ maturity and ⅓ technique.
It has its technique. It has its high notes: the E string and some fast stuff and difficult parts to it. However, if that’s the only thing that you do with this piece, then it’s a huge disappointment.
Listening to a bunch of different versions of it, of other people playing it over the course of this year, made this very clear to me that that was the case because there were people who played it flawlessly technique-wise, but it was just not there. It wasn’t connecting. I’m hoping at least that I can bring out the emotional pieces there and make people connect with that piece, which is something that I don’t think that I ever did as a kid.
KCO: Last question, do you have any thoughts or unexpected surprises about being the concertmaster or anything about the Kirkland Orchestra that you find funny?
A: Kirkland Orchestra is unique in the sense that it’s a not an orchestra where you come and audition. It essentially accepts everyone who wants it enough to sit there and play in the orchestra. Coming from a place where I, as a kid, I had a recital every year and I finished the conservatory, I actually now know more about the level that I’ve reached than I was realizing then.
I have to say that I was a bit skeptical in the beginning, but I think it’s what comes out of the orchestra at concert time. What James in his wisdom is capable of getting out of us as a group is pretty amazing. I’m definitely proud to be part of this orchestra and definitely overcame my skepticism early on.
Being concertmaster is interesting, it’s fun, it’s a little stressful because you know, I have no one to come to, but myself and of course James. It’s here specifically I do more I think, bowing, than I have done in the past. Maybe the reason is that in the past orchestras that I’ve been in, we’ve played things that were more on the beaten path, than symphonies and concerti for violin or piano that have been played again and again and again. There was much less need to think about it before starting rehearsals as opposed to the pieces that James picks.
One of my pleasant surprises was to realize how technology helps us with this, because when I was last playing with an orchestra in the early 90’s, we were very far from having the scenario of using a computer to put markings on parts and then printing that. The parts were all original parts that had to be manually marked. There were none of these capabilities that we have right now.
Jim puts stuff on OneDrive, I take it off there. I mark it with my laptop that has a pen. Jim gets it right away. This was an interesting kind of connection between the technical world and the musical world. Two worlds that were 100% separate from one another before.
KCO: Same for me. I’m used to show up; they give you a book; you go back there. At the end of the night, you give them the book back. All of a sudden I can download my parts! What? I was blown away by that.
A: Yeah, and the fact that, I can tell you that there must be someone who is a musician in the team that does Edge at Microsoft, because all you need to mark music is Edge. It has not only a pdf reader, that’s pretty mundane, but you can also set it to show 2 pages and you can tell it to essentially flip pages like they’re a book of music. You can say whether the first page is by itself or with the second page. Essentially you mimic the physical sheet music. I can tell you that when I practice the orchestra pieces, I just sit in front of my monitor and have the music there. I don’t even pull out the actual sheet music that we’re playing in the rehearsal.
KCO: I don’t do that, but that sounds fantastic.
A: There must be someone who’s a musician because this is a purely musical scenario versus just reading a pdf. With a normal pdf document, you could just scroll it and you wouldn’t care about pagination and about first page being separate or not.
Thanks to Amnon on May 14th for some proofreading and clarifications.
Interview on May 10, 2019 by Francis X. Langlois – tuba player in the KCO