Beyond the Notes 2016
Laura Metcalf, cellist
Cellist Laura Metcalf, acclaimed for her "gorgeous cello legatos" (Washington Post) and her "sensitive, melodic touch" (Blog Critics Magazine), is known for her compelling solo and chamber music performances both worldwide and in her home of New York City. She has given concerts in 40 states, as well as Argentina, Canada, Japan, United Arab Emirates, Austria, Germany, France, Mexico, England, and South Africa. She has appeared as a soloist with the One World Symphony, the Laredo Philharmonic, Ensemble 212 Orchestra and Orquesta Sinfonica Sinaloa. She is the cellist of the acclaimed string quintet Sybarite5, which was the first ensemble of its kind to win the Concert Artists Guild Competition, and which has since toured the globe performing to sold-out audiences in Carnegie Hall, the Library of Congress and many others. Sybarite5's debut album reached the Billboard Charts Top 10, and the quintet gave the world premiere of a concerto written for them by Dan Visconti with several American orchestras in 2015. Laura has performed at the Aspen, Caramoor, Ravinia, Newport, Chautauqua, Taos, Sarasota, Fontainebleau Music Festivals and is routinely invited to the Open Chamber Music session at the IMS Prussia Cove in Cornwall, UK. She performs with acclaimed guitarist Rupert Boyd, with whom she toured Australia in 2013. Among other accolades and awards, she has won the Rutenberg Chamber Music Competition and Mannes College's James E. Hughes Award. Comfortable performing a variety of genres, Laura is a member of the cello and percussion quartet Break of Reality with whom she has given hundreds of concerts and educational workshops across the country and whose recorded music has a reach of millions worldwide. She has appeared on the David Letterman and Conan O'Brien late-night shows, as well as the Today Show and the View, and at the US Open, New York Fashion Week, and in Johannesburg, South Africa with legendary rap artist Nas. As an educator, Laura routinely gives masterclasses from the elementary to the collegiate level, and has served on the faculty of Opus 118 Harlem School of Music (through which she founded the first-ever cello program at New York's PS 129) and the New York Summer Music Festival. Her debut CD with the Sono Luminus label is set for release in 2016.
Photo by Rodger Kingston
Q: Did you like practicing when you were a child, or did your parents have to nag you? If they nagged you, are you glad they did?
SARAH: I can't say that practicing was my most favorite activity as a child and I do recall there may have been some gentle reminding from mom and dad (ok . . . nagging)! I always knew, however, that deep down playing the violin was something that I loved doing and didn't want to quit, even if I would threaten to.
Q: How old is the cello?
LAURA: The cello was made in 1994 in Taos, NM.
Q: What do you most enjoy about performing?
LAURA: As I get older, I find I have more and more gratitude for the fact that I am able to do this for a living. When I am on stage, no matter how big or small the concert, I try to find a moment to be thankful for the music that I am playing and for the audience that came out. I love being able to share many types of music with audiences all around the world.
Q: How do you control the music pace across the iPad? You never swiped your iPads - how does that work? Do they follow along as you play?
SARAH: We each have a set of foot pedals on the floor connected through bluetooth that we use to turn the pages. One pedal turns the pages forwards, and the other turns them backwards, so no swiping needed! I believe it is possible to set an automatic page turn, but I think that would be according to a silent metronome counting the measures which makes me nervous . . . I'd much rather be in control of when the next page is going to come up!
Q: In the other arts, sculpture, painting, literature, pop, what turns you on?
SARAH: I have always had a fascination for the artist M.C. Escher. As far as literature, I'm currently indulging in Amy Poehler's autobiography, Yes Please and recently finished Tina Fey's autobiography Bossy Pants. It's fascinating to me to learn the stories of other performing artists and how they came to be.
Q: Tell us about the point of your endpin!
LAURA: My endpin was installed by the maker of my cello, David Caron. There are two different ends, a sharp point and a dull end, which once upon a time had a rubber tip on it. The rubber has fallen off, so I only use the sharp point these days!
Q: Do your fingers still get sore when you practice or play a very long time?
SARAH: I have developed calluses on my left hand fingertips that allow me to play for long periods of time, but if I play for too many hours, I will definitely feel it!
Q: If you weren't professional musicians, what other careers might you have pursued?
LAURA: Both my parents are writers, and I love to write myself. I might have tried to be a writer or editor of some sort.
SARAH: I've always had an interest in all kinds of design, especially interior design, so I could see myself in that field.
Q: In the Gliere and some of the other pieces, there was quite a bit of bowing on the fingerboard. Could you describe what effect you were trying to produce?
LAURA: The effect is called "flautando." When you play over the fingerboard, it produces a softer, more whispering sound than when you play closer to the bridge. In the Gliere, I was using that effect so that Sarah's beautiful melody could be heard!
Q: What are a few films you saw in the past year that you particularly liked and was the music the draw for you?
SARAH: My two favorite movies this past year were probably Inside Out and Spy! I don't particularly remember the music being a draw for me, but music from a movie that has always stayed with me was from The Tree of Life. I remember that music having quite an impact on my watching experience.
Q: When did you realize you could make it as a musician? Worst gig ever? Dream gig of the future? Nobody was asking a string quintet to play Radiohead. Nutty idea. Talk about that. You must have a ton of good stories . . .
LAURA: I don't think I knew for sure I could make it as a musician until I actually started doing it. I earned my Masters degree in 2006, and dove right into the freelancing world. I got a part-time teaching job right away and started a chamber group with other musicians I had met in grad school. Those activities got me started, and things have just evolved from there. The worst gig I remember is playing an outdoor wedding many years ago in a gazebo in the middle of a cornfield in the middle of what was basically a hurricane. There were constant, chilly wind gusts, and our music stands weren't standing up for more than a few seconds at a time. Our bows were being pulled off the strings by the wind. I can't imagine the guests were all that comfortable either! My dream gig is to play a recital in Paris. It's my favorite city, besides NYC! Re: Radiohead. I think it is a band that lends itself well to being covered by classical musicians and instruments, and we're certainly not the only ones to have done it. I will say, however, that when we performed on the Stradivarius instrument collection at the Library of Congress, we performed one of our Radiohead arrangements that involved hitting the instruments with spoons and pens (with permission of course!). I think we may have been the only people to play those instruments in that way.
Q: Do either of you teach lessons?
LAURA: I do teach lessons! I used to do more, but my schedule got a little crazy. I love teaching though--it makes you think about your own instrument and playing in a very analytical, fundamental way.
SARAH: I also teach! I currently only have a few students also due to the scheduling challenge. Touring and teaching often don't go well together. It is something I miss a lot and hope to do more of in the future. Luckily, when I tour with SYBARITE5, we often visit schools to perform outreach concerts, give masterclasses and workshops so I still get my teaching fix!
Q: What do you do in terms of calming your nerves before a performance?
SARAH: By smiling! Ok, I know it's not that simple, but I think it's important to keep a positive mindset before a performance. Focus on the things you're excited about playing rather than the tricky hard passages that may seem terrifying. You will be in a good mindset, which will most likely translate into a good performance. Our minds are more powerful than we think and the good news is, we have a lot of control over them! I had a friend once tell me that when I start to feel very nervous, I should smile and THEN think of something funny! Just the act of smiling makes our brains think we are happy.
Q: When playing modern music as a group, how can you tell when one of you is just making things up?
LAURA: With most of our repertoire, we really know the pieces well! We can tell immediately if something is being faked or made up on the spot, but it's likely that the audience can't!
Q: What age did you start playing the violin? What age did you start playing the cello?
LAURA: I started when I was 9.
SARAH: I started shortly after my 4th birthday.
Q: Why is nearly every American musical performance amplified, even in small rooms?
SARAH: I think that strings are more prominent in a wider variety of genres than they have been in the past (pop, rock'n roll, jazz, etc). Oftentimes amplification is required simply to be heard due to the volume of the other instruments involved. If one is playing an electric violin then amplification is required for the instrument to make any sound, similar to an electric guitar. I'd say that the majority of the shows I play are actually acoustic which is how I prefer to play, but it does depend on the genre being performed. My reason for amplification in Jessica Meyer's piece 'Getting Home. . . I Must Be' was actually necessary for the purposes of using the loop pedal machine.
Q: How do you feel when you don't play for a couple of days or even longer?
LAURA: I do not enjoy being away from my instrument for very long. I become antsy and have physical urges to play it. I know that sometimes a few days off is good for the body, especially if I've been playing a lot, but it's hard to do it! I have separation anxiety.
Q: Do you have a CD out? Do you have any music on iTunes?
SARAH: The quintet we play in, SYBARITE5, has two CD's out, both available on iTunes: "Everything In Its Right Place" and "Disturb the Silence". I don't currently have a CD out, but I'm in the beginning planning stages of a solo violin album which I hope to start recording in the next year.
LAURA: I have a CD coming out April 29 on the Sono Luminus label that will also be available on iTunes. It's called "First Day" and contains 7 beautiful works for cello and piano, and one solo cello work. I also sing a little on the album.
Q: I love your music and enthusiasm. How do you get the stamina to play with such energy? Does your arm get tired of playing during a concert?
SARAH: Thank you! As musicians, we are just like athletes and with personal practicing and rehearsals we condition ourselves to play for long periods of time. I also work out regularly and have a stretching regime that helps maintain my muscle strength, agility and endurance.
Q: Are there times when you are overpowered by emotion from the music you are playing? In private or during a performance? Tell about a time.
LAURA: Soon after the tsunami in Japan, I was asked to perform in a benefit concert for the relief effort, playing the beautiful slow movement from Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, arranged for solo cello and orchestra. It's a deeply moving piece of music even when not being performed in the wake of a tragedy, so the two together made it an extremely emotional experience.
Q: Do you each have your own practice room and where do you practice with SYBARITE5?
LAURA: My "practice room" is my studio apartment! I share it with my husband, a classical guitarist. Somehow we manage to both practice at home without getting in each others' way. I think it has to do with our busy, and different, schedules. SYBARITE5 rehearses in several locations around the city, including at the members' homes.
SARAH: Oh how I wish I had a designated practice room! My studio apartment is my main practice space. My apartment building also has a rehearsal studio in the basement that I can reserve occasionally.
Q: Why 4 pedals on the music control for the violin?
SARAH: The two foot pedals I used while reading music on the iPad were for turning my pages, one pedal for forwards and one for backwards. The other two pedals were on the loop pedal machine which I used only for Jessica Meyer's piece to activate and control the loop.
Q: What/who inspired each of you musically to pursue your instruments at a professional level?
LAURA: My biggest influence early on was Jacqueline du Pre. She was such an authentically passionate musician. You could hear her commitment in every note. I learned the Elgar cello concerto because of her.
SARAH: Growing up in a household filled with classical music, I heard recordings of many professional violinists. I remember Itzhak Perlman being the first professional violinist I was familiar with and being completely fascinated by him. When it came time to start thinking about pursuing a career in music, I am very grateful for an incredibly inspiring teacher I had in high school, Irina Muresanu. She opened my eyes to playing violin in away I had never experienced and encouraged me to pursue musical professionally.
Q: How did you come to like the works of Ravel - right away or did you become familiar more gradually?
LAURA: The first piece of Ravel's that I fell in love with was his string quartet. I listened to the Emerson String Quartet's recording of it incessantly throughout my high school years. From there, I also came to obsess over some of his orchestral works, namely "Pavane" and "Le Tombeau de Couperin." Later I developed a deep relationship with his piano trio, which I have now performed many times.
Q: To overcome your nerves, which person in the audience are you picturing in their underwear?
SARAH: I prefer to think of the audience as a bunch of cabbage heads (no offense)!
Q: What do you enjoy doing when you are not playing music?
LAURA: There are not many hours when I am not doing something related to music, but I have recently developed an interest in cooking, and also love going to the gym.
Q: How would your life be different if music vanished from it? What would be missing?
SARAH: One of my favorite things about being a musician is the universal ability to connect to people regardless of their age, mental state or the language they speak. Music can be a healer, an educator and a communicator. I would miss that dearly if music wasn't a part of my life, though I can imagine I would find another way to connect to people through some kind of outreach.
Q: What brought SYBARITE5 together?
LAURA: The group formed at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado, and began as a fun, pickup group that would play music on the streets of Aspen for money. The eclectic repertoire was developed because of the need to keep passersby interested and entertained. Over time the group developed into the professional ensemble it is today, and the eclecticism is one of the most important components of our group.
Q: Who is Sarah's favorite brother?
SARAH: I think I will get in trouble if I don't answer this carefully. Definitely the ever-so-smart and wise, Eric Whitney :)
Q: Do you have to build up calluses in order to play either instrument?
LAURA: Yes, I definitely have calluses from the cello on my all my left fingertips, as well as a funny looking bumpy callus on my thumb from playing in "thumb position" (we use the side of our thumb when we play up high on the cello). If I don't practice for a little while, the calluses go away and building them back up is sometimes a little painful!
Q: How many hours do you practice each day?
SARAH: As a touring musician it's very hard to be consistent about the amount I practice each day. In an ideal world, I would love to practice 4 - 5 hours a day. In a practical world, I'm very happy if I get 2 - 3 hours done.
Q: What was the most fun piece of music you have played for an audience and where did you play it? Tell us the story.
LAURA: For SYBARITE5's Carnegie Hall debut in 2012, we performed a piece written for us by our friend Francis Schwarts called "Caliban's Dance." There were many theatrical elements to it, including "silent screams" and moving around imitating seaweed. By the end everyone except for me was at the front of the stage getting the audience to clap. It was so much fun!
Q: Is the voice of the violin a human voice?
SARAH: Definitely! I often sing in my head (or out loud when I'm practicing!) how I'd like something to sound before I play it.
Q: So what was your second most amazing experience traveling around the world playing for many audiences?
LAURA: This past year I went to the United Arab Emirates, and played concerts in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. I had never been to that part of the world, and it was exciting to share music there.
Q: What piece that is technically easy is the most difficult musically to play?
SARAH: I actually believe that technique and musicality function together. You can't support a musical idea without using the proper technique to execute it. So that being said, I don't think a piece like that exists!
Q: In your opinion what are the top 3 orchestras playing in the world today?
LAURA: I will be honest and say I have not heard many orchestras live in recent years, but I'd say Berlin, Vienna and Cleveland!
Q: Do you compose?
LAURA: I composed one piece, a cello duo. I hope to write more in the future, but I think I would have to force myself at first.
SARAH: When I was in grade school I used to write pieces on the piano. (oftentimes as a way to procrastinate my violin practice!) I have also written one jazz tune called "Mysterblues" that was an assigment in a big band jazz class I took in grad school. Composing has not been a big part of my life recently, but I do hope to do more of in the future.
Q: Tell us a story!
SARAH: I often get asked if I've ever broken a string during performance. The answer is no BUT I do have a story involving a broken string. I was at summer camp orchestra concert and must have been in middle school. The concertmaster had just walked out and while we were tuning, one of my strings snapped! Normally, I woudn't have worried too much about having a broken string in a full violin section, but I was sitting principal second violin and knew I had solos that required all four strings intact! When the conductor walked out and motioned the orchestra to stand, I bolted to the back of my section in a panic and (politely, maybe involuntarily) exchanged instruments with a player of the last stand! Luckily, it was a friend of mine and he was happy to help me out.
LAURA: Let me preface this by saying that my mother has always been (and still is) extremely helpful and supportive of my life as a cellist. However, accidents happen--when I was 9 years old, my mom accidentally ran over my cello with her car. I had put it behind the car because I was too small to lift it into the trunk. It didn't make it into the trunk, and as she tried to back out of the driveway we kept hearing bumps and scraping sounds. She got out of the car and discovered it was my cello! Luckily it was able to be repaired, but I had to miss my lesson that day.