Jinju - Laura Larson Flute CD Cover
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Knitting in the Pit

Welcome back to my blog. It’s a new year and we have a new government in the USA as of today. It was a sad day for me to watch as the most respected (and respectful) president in recent times flew off to his new life as a private citizen. I’m not saying he was the most popular, but it is generally agreed that he and his classy wife imbued the White House with respect and a scandal-free eight years.

I try to stay away from political commentary on this blog about playing music in the pit of an opera house but this post will be as far as I go in that direction.

My topic today concerns knitting in the pit. I mentioned it in a previous post as one of my pastimes while sitting through long dialogues during shows or during intermissions. I am currently in the pit playing Phantom of the Opera and there is no time to knit during that show but I have been using every other available moment to knit for what has become known as “The Pussyhat Project”.

I just read about the Pussyhat Project five days ago in the newspaper and have so far knitted six hats, all in some shade of pink for women to wear at a Women’s March tomorrow, January 21, 2017. The first two I made were sent off to my cousin in Washington, D.C. where she and a friend will wear them in solidarity during the march. There are also sister marches for those who can’t make it to D.C. I have signed up to participate in the one in Detroit, on the campus of Wayne State University, where I and a few friends will wear my remaining pussyhats.

You may ask, “What is a pussyhat?” or “What is the Women’s March all about?”

At this point you could just google it as both topics are all over the internet, but I will try to explain my take on it. I first heard about the Women’s March on Washington when it was getting organized and wished I could attend but would be in the middle of the Phantom run so forgot about it. The idea of a peaceful march in Washington the day after the presidential inauguration to show solidarity among women, minorities, immigrants, LGBT and other marginalized groups who don’t want to see their hard-fought battles for equality taken away kindled in me a desire to do more than sit by the sidelines and watch as others participated in what could be a landmark demonstration for human rights.

Then on Monday I read about the Pussyhat Project (I think the play on words should be clear for anyone who watches the news without me going into graphic detail), which was started by a couple of women who like to knit and wanted to use their craft to make a statement at the Women’s March in D.C. They started knitting pink hats with cat-like ears and invited other knitters to do the same and to send the hats to Washington to show that women are united in protecting their rights. They hope to see a sea of pink marching through the nation’s capital. As a knitter I knew that this was a way I could be at the Washington march in spirit even though I cannot physically attend.

Eventually a few sister marches sprung up in other cities but when I checked the links there were none close by until about a week ago, when I found one in Detroit that was in the morning. Great! Now I can participate in a sister march and still make it to the two performances of Phantom on Saturday. When I announced on Facebook that I just signed up to participate, a couple friends contacted me to say they wanted to go, too. One is even going to make a sign and is planning to shout slogans.

I won’t be carrying a sign or shouting slogans but I will be carrying on a ‘soft’ protest by wearing my pussyhat.

FRIDAY, JULY 1, 2016

Mimi's Backstory

Michigan Opera Theater is on summer break so here is one from the archives:

October 17, 2015

I am sitting in the orchestra pit on opening night of Puccini’s La Bohème, the all-time favorite opera of so many opera fans, contemplating the timeless and tragic love story. As a piccolo player, I have long stretches of time during performances when I rest with nothing to play. Sometimes (during rehearsals only) I catch up on my reading, check my email or just close my eyes and listen to the beautiful music. The story of La Bohème is very familiar to me and on this occasion, perhaps the sixth or seventh production of this opera that I’ve played over the years, I let my mind wander. I wonder about the back story of the characters and challenge myself to imagine Mimi’s past. Is she really so guileless?

At the beginning of the opera we meet four poor and carefree young men living together in a Paris garret apartment in the 1830’s. They are idealistic artiste types (a poet, a painter, a philosopher and a musician) who can’t afford to pay the rent. Next we meet Mimi, the quintessential sympathetic operatic heroine suffering from tuberculosis, who also lives in the building. She and Rodolpho, the poor poet, are forced together by chance when her candle is extinguished by a draft on the stairs. His friends have all gone out on the town and are waiting for him. Mimi knocks on the door to get a light for her candle, they each sing an aria, are obviously attracted to each other, then go out to join his friends at the café. Of course they fall in love,



Haydn’s Farewell and Carmina Burana

The Flint Symphony Orchestra recently concluded its 99th season with a stunner – Carmina Burana. As magnificent a musical experience as Carmina is, the night was also tinged with a bittersweet sadness. The orchestra began the concert with Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, a tribute to our retiring president, Paul Torre. In case you don’t know why this piece has the nickname “Farewell”, it is traditional to perform it as the composer intended, with musicians leaving the stage in random order throughout the final movement. Only two violinists are left onstage at the end. Haydn composed this as a hint to his employer because the musicians hadn’t had a break in a long time and they wanted to go home to visit their families. It worked! Prince Esterhazy gave the musicians their vacation.

At the Flint concert, after everyone but the final two violinists left the stage and gathered in the wings, Paul was brought up to the front of the stage. One by one, we each gave him a flower and a hug or words of appreciation for his many years of service to the orchestra, then sat in our chairs as the final presentations and speeches were made.

After intermission we joined forces with soloists, the Flint Festival Chorus and the Ann Arbor Youth Chorale to perform a fitting conclusion to the season – Carmina Burana by Carl Orff. In 1935 Orff came across the collection of dozens of secular songs from the Thirteenth Century which had been discovered in 1803 ...



Kay Ragsdale and her Flutes

It is with a heavy heart that I offer this tribute in memorium to one of the kindest and most generous people that I have known. Kay Ragsdale was a fine person and excellent flutist who loved her work and was happy to share her joy in her flute collection with anyone who was interested. It was more than a flute collection to her; it was a way of life. For every ethnic flute she owned she sought out a master to teach her the ways of the instrument. She learned not only how to play the flutes with their respective traditional techniques, but also their history and folklore. I will always cherish the time I spent with her, remembering her generous spirit, infectious laugh and amazing knowledge about flutes and cultures of the world.

This is a transcript of a lecture demonstration given by Kay Ragsdale, the flutist who travels with the Gazelle Tour of The Lion King. She has a magnificent collection of ethnic flutes from all over the world, as well as novelty flutes from different cultures and fascinating stories to go with the instruments. Not all the flutes she owns are played in the show. The Lion King flute book requires fifteen instruments (that’s a lot of doubling!) but she transports about 80 flutes in the instrument truck, some as back-ups in case a bamboo flute develops a crack, and some she carries with her so she can give demonstrations to groups in the cities where the show is playing. She offered to give a demonstration in Detroit when the show was at the opera house in 2008 and what follows are highlights from a transcription of the lecture she gave to the lucky few who were assembled there.

Kay also offered to any flute student the chance to sit with her during a show and experience The Lion King from the pit, an opportunity that two of my students took. It was a unique ... << READ MORE >>

SUNDAY, APRIL 10, 2016

Ah, Verdi!

It's that time of year again, opera lovers - Verdi at Michigan Opera Theater. This time it's an opera we've never done before: Macbeth. Verdi was a fan of Shakespeare and transcribed a number of his plays for the opera stage, a feat for which we will always be grateful. Who can imagine life without Otello and Falstaff? 2016 is a special year for Shakespeare because it's the 400th anniversary of his death. He has influenced the English language in profound ways too numerous to count. Let's just say that our language would be very different if it hadn't been for Shakespeare.

MOT has just completed our sitzprobe (a German term meaning seated rehearsal, when the orchestra and singers have their first rehearsal together, generally with the orchestra in the pit and the singers sitting (sitz) on stage) for Macbeth, an early Verdi opera which premiered after Nabucco but before his other big blockbusters, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata. Aida, Otello and Falstaff were yet to come. The music of Macbeth is unmistakably


MONDAY, MARCH 21, 2016

Happy Birthday Johann Sebastian Bach!

Today was J.S. Bach's 331st birthday and I celebrated with two friends from the Flint Symphony, violinist, Lorrie Gunn and cellist, Judy Vander Weg. We have the distinction of being the first registered chamber music group in Michigan to perform the music of J.S. Bach under the auspices of Bach in the Subways, a movement which is catching on all over the world to introduce the music of J.S. Bach to people who wouldn't normally come into contact with it.

"Wait a minute," you might say, "Michigan doesn't have any subways." And you would be right. According to Dale Henderson, the founder of Bach in the Subways, you don't have to play Bach in a subway system to participate in this worldwide celebration. Bach in the Subways began in New York City's subways


MONDAY, MARCH 21, 2016

A View from the Pit

The final weekend performances of MOT’s production of Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land were held at a very interesting venue, the Heinz Prechter Educational and Performing Arts Center in Taylor, MI. It’s the first time the company has presented there and, according to CEO Wayne Brown’s opening remarks, it won’t be the last.

My first impression was favorable. It looks like a very new performing arts hall but I was told it’s been there for a number of years. As I drove in from Northline Rd. the architecture of the building welcomed me with open arms and the glass façade gave an inviting effect. Inside the back stage area was spacious and clean – unbelievably so. Someone provided signs directing us to the pit which was so << READ MORE >>


A Freelancer's Feast

A freelancer’s life is cyclical; it’s nice to have steady work but it rarely works out that way. It’s usually a feast or famine situation. As a musician in the southeast Michigan area, my summers are for relaxing, golf and gardening, maybe a bit of travel, teaching workshops and an occasional concert or wedding gig. It’s easy to go without playing my flute for a few days to a few weeks. Similarly, January and February are slow times when the natural hibernation season coincides with time to rest and reflect. Preparation for the coming profusion of work is not far off. Teaching is the one steady income during these times of famine.

During Autumn and Spring it’s a different story. This year the feast came a bit early, mid-February to be exact, when I played the touring Broadway show, Cinderella (eight shows a week for two weeks) in addition to regular teaching and a student recital thrown in on the one night off. As soon as Cinderella closed, rehearsals began for Michigan Opera Theater’s production of Aaron Copland’s opera, The Tender Land. Chamber Music at the Scarab Club, in cooperation with MOT, << READ MORE >>


Cinderella's Pit

"Cinderella" February 16-28 at the Detroit Opera House

The orchestra pit for the national tour of Cinderella has become my home away from home these last two weeks. We’re in there for eight magical shows a week so most of us have carved out our own personal space amongst the music stands and lights, microphones and cables, video and audio monitors, cases and cameras. It can be a hazardous place to walk; it’s dark in the pit, there are wires and cables everywhere and we could hit our heads on the conductor’s camera hanging from under the stage. We have been very lucky so far, in part because the company has marked off some of these areas with bright green duct tape and, with only fourteen musicians in the pit, we have a lot more room than usual.

When you’re at work six days a week the tendency is to camp out in your space. It’s very clear where my space is. In addition to the flute stands for my various instruments (flute, piccolo and alto flute), I keep a water bottle and tea cup, heating pad for when the air conditioning is on, instrument cozies to keep the flutes warm and protected when I leave the << READ MORE >>


In the Pit of a Touring Broadway Show

Occasionally the musicians in the pit of the Detroit Opera House are called upon to play for touring companies of Broadway shows and, less frequently, one of the woodwind books includes strictly flute doubles, meaning that whoever plays that book only has to play flute, piccolo, sometimes alto flute and, at times, recorder. Usually the woodwind books include instruments that most legit flute players don’t play, like saxophone and clarinet. I have fond memories of playing shows such as Man of La Mancha, Carousel, Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, Music Man and Phantom of the Opera, to name a few.

In the days before electronic keyboards there used to be full orchestras in the pit but now the shows usually travel with a conductor, two keyboard players who round out the orchestra with sampled sounds of strings, harp, oboe, bassoon and whatever else they need, one doubling as assistant conductor (so the conductor can have one show off out of 8 shows per week), and, depending on the show, possibly a trumpet player, guitarist or percussionist. In Lion King, for example (my favorite show) < < READ MORE >>



The Harpist and the Bride

Earlier this week I attended the Local 5 (Detroit) Musician’s Union annual 30/50 party. Last year was the first year I qualified to attend because I had finally been a member of Local 5 for 30 years. It is hard to believe it’s been that long. It has actually been longer than that for me because I was a member of Miami’s union for about ten years before that, so I may qualify for a 50-year membership in ten years. When you reach these milestones, it gives you pause for reflection. It also gives you a chance to see old friends. In some cases conversations take up right where they left off last year at the same gathering.

This is what happened when I sat next to the same person two years in a row, a harpist who has a son around the same age as my son. We were commiserating last year about our children and revisited that conversation briefly this year, too. Then the discussion at our table turned to more professional talk and my harpist friend told of a recent Facebook message she received from a woman who remembered that she had played at her wedding 20 years ago. The woman related that her husband had died ten years ago, both of her parents had passed away in the last few years < < READ MORE >>


Playing Piccolo in the Opera Orchestra

May 17, 2015

I'm excited to post my first blog post here today. It has taken me since last May to get around to it, so that explains the discrepancy in dates. Well, here it goes! I hope you like it.

How many people can say they love their job? I count myself among the lucky ones who are absolutely enthralled with what they do. When I go to work all the cares of the world melt away and I am transported to a place where my heart is filled with beauty. I don’t go there alone, either. Fifty or so of my colleagues in the pit and another group < < READ MORE >>

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