An Artist Prepares

Classic Arts Features   An Artist Prepares
Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra violinist Alison Harney charts a complex course to achieve the simplicity of Mozart.

"I believe it was one of the first concertos I ever played," Alison Harney says of the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 5, remembering herself as a 12-year-old practicing the concerto in a small town in California's Mojave Desert. As she gets ready for her performances of the piece on January 15 and 16 at Powell Symphony Hall, Harney expresses the fundamental anxieties that are part of an artist's preparation. "First," she says, "it's good just to get nervous."

Harney doesn't often take center stage as the soloist. Her last time playing a concerto at Powell was in February 2003 performing Mozart's Concerto No. 3 with guest conductor Alan Gilbert. She remembers that occasion affectionately. "The way the orchestra sounded was so beautiful," she says. "I was in heaven. It was the easiest thing to come in after the opening tutti."

But the road to that place of heavenly beauty can be rough. "For some reason a lot of one's demons come out to play," Harney admits. She had such a case of nerves before the Mozart Third, she found herself eating oatmeal before the concerts. It was the only thing she could eat. "It was like baby food," Harney recalls with a laugh.

The violinist believes those demons are common to performers. "A lot of artists, if they're being honest, will say that they have to wrestle with that," she confides. "The way I have to deal with them is this very practical, hands-on approach. I get involved in process and ultimately just transcend the whole situation, because ultimately that is what I want to do‹to transcend the world's chaos, to share something that's beautiful."

The fact that Nicholas McGegan is guest conductor for the concerts this month helps to mitigate the demons. "The most flattering part is that Nic McGegan specifically asked for me," Harney says. "I love him. I feel there's this musical connection that we have every time he comes here. So I was incredibly flattered and excited, and beyond flattered, I was honored and inspired."

She and McGegan have already collaborated on some critical decisions for the Mozart. For example, they have agreed to reduce the number of players onstage. "It's going to be quite intimate," says Harney. "That's how I deal with it emotionally. That is the way I see a Mozart concerto, as chamber music on a large scale. I know that Nic will help me connect with the musicians onstage."

After spending time studying the conductor's personal markings on the score, Harney says she set up a "support team, calculated a training regimen‹ kind of like Lance Armstrong. With Mozart you really need to get in shape. You really need to prepare 200 percent, because you don't have that margin for error. His work is so pure and simple. You can't just throw it together."

Her team includes pianist Peter Henderson who she says will work with her "almost like a vocal coach and to add another musician's mind to it." She'll also play for a number of her colleagues. "They might notice something I am doing technically that is getting in my way, musically," says Harney. "They might point out some intonation, little details that I'm just missing. It's another set of ears or eyes and another sensibility. Someone might say, 'You're really rushing that passage,' and I'll be like, 'I am?' because my attention might be somewhere else entirely." Harney says that she will also record herself and listen to those recordings with her own critical ear.

Later in her preparation the violinist may put together a string quartet "to get bowing and intonation. I need to go through stages: from piano to strings to orchestra. There's a psychological aspect, and if I can take baby steps…." Harney laughs at herself. "I have to be systematic about it. In the past I've seen a sports psychologist who's helped performers deal with their nerves. You have 20 minutes onstage, not very much time. So you focus all your energy toward that. I have to work really hard."

It is by taking these "baby steps"‹the "grunt work on the metronome," changing her cadenzas "about four times and driving all my friends crazy," and playing with those demons‹that she finds the purity and simplicity of Mozart.

"It's in there," she says of this concerto that she first learned at 12. But she has changed since then. "A lot of times young musicians play Mozart so well simply because they don't have an identity crisis or a knowledge of how hard it is." They have that sheen of innocence, in other words, but they lack the demon play.

"It feels very different, actually," Harney says of returning to Mozart's Fifth Concerto as a mature artist. "I think a lot of my fingerings and bowings were things that my teacher told me to do, and now I'm asking 'Why?' I'm changing a lot of things. I'm looking more at the original score, the original articulations, keeping in mind what I know about Mozart's character and his incredible genius.

"The thing that is transporting is the music, and the spirit. Whatever that creative spirit is‹the reason that Mozart's music is still here after more than 200 years‹I become absolutely possessed with that energy. I have to connect with it. It's a lot more of a rich experience now."

Eddie Silva is the publications manager of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.

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