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Redwood Violin debuts with student orchestra

by Diane Peterson, The Press Democrat, May 14, 2021

When the Young People’s Chamber Orchestra presents their prerecorded virtual concert at 7 p.m. Saturday, there will be lots of unusual music on the program by little-known composers, including a woman contemporary of Mozart’s, two Black composers and an arrangement of Scott Joplin’s last published work, “Magnetic Rag.”

But a unique piece will highlight a trio of local talents, brought together by serendipity, for the debut performance of the Redwood Violin, a one-of-a-kind fiddle created by luthier Andrew Carruthers of Santa Rosa.

Through the curves and acoustics of the Redwood Violin, Carruthers has tried to paint a portrait of Sonoma County, paying tribute to its redwood forests and apple orchards, its talented artists and crafts people. His vision for the instrument is to embody the principles of the Go Local movement, with as much of it as possible made either by himself or another local artist, from local materials.

“It’s a way to show, especially in this pandemic, that you don’t need all this exterior commerce,” he said. “The only non-local things are the strings and the steel for a few metal parts. Everything else grew out of the ground right here. That’s kind of an amazing thought.”

Although he normally sells his hand-carved instruments to serious music students across the country, the internationally known luthier decided to use the Redwood Violin to promote local music education programs, such as the Santa Rosa Symphony Institute for Music Education, the umbrella organization of the Young People’s Chamber Orchestra.

Aaron Westman, music director for the Young People’s Chamber Orchestra, served as the glue that joined the three collaborators: luthier, violinist and composer. In the video recording of the concert, the Redwood Violin is played by the orchestra’s gifted co-concertmaster, Aeden Seaver of Petaluma, who is premiering a short but alluring work by the orchestra’s 17-year-old cellist, Gwendolyn Thalia Przyjazna of Cotati.

It doesn’t get much more local than that.

Przyjazna’s spirited and energetic piece, Concertina for Violin and Strings, is just 4 minutes long but covers a lot of emotional ground, from the strings’ quiet chorale in the beginning to the entrance of the violin, which climbs into the upper register for a brief climax, then settles back down. The piece ends with a wistful, dreamy chord. The performance marks the first time Przyjazna will have a work she’s composed performed in public.

“It ends in a really reflective mood,” Przyjazna said. “The last chord says, ‘I’m glad this happened, but I’m a little sad that it’s over now.’”

Westman was pleasantly surprised by the resulting recording.

“There are a couple of moments that gave me goose bumps,” he said. “To see all these pieces come together this year, when we couldn’t even play a live concert … the kids are really inspiring.”

A “soaring, ecstatic melody”
When she started writing the piece back in April 2020, initially for viola and piano, Przyjazna was feeling nostalgic for her life before the pandemic. Making and writing music helped her cope with the emotional toll of the past year.

“One morning, I just woke up and I had a soaring, ecstatic melody in my head,” she said. “The piece is optimistic and strong and speaks to the fact that I never stopped creating music.”

Przyjazna wrote most of the piece in one morning, she said. She added the violin cadenza after Westman asked her to arrange it for the Young People’s Chamber Orchestra, which is made up of violins, violas, cellos and bass.

“I think arranging it was actually harder than writing the original,” she said. “Suddenly I had five different instruments instead of just piano to write for, and I learned I can’t translate every note directly.”

A season like no other
When the Young People’s Chamber Orchestra started meeting last October, Credo High School junior Aeden Seaver had returned to the group after taking a break.

Even before the Redwood Violin entered the picture, Westman said he already had Seaver in mind as the soloist for Przyjazna’s piece.

“He’s very expressive and physically a great violinist,” Westman said. “He gets a big, bold, bright sound. He reminds me of a professional colleague of mine who is a wonderful, natural musician.”

Seaver started playing the violin at age 6 and has performed with various Santa Rosa Symphony youth orchestras since he was 11. After taking an American Music class at Credo High, he has also started to play jazz, blues and rock on his acoustic and electric violins. He also busks on the sidewalks of downtown Petaluma with a friend who plays the flute.

“I like the role that music and the violin play in my life,” he said. “It’s good stress relief … and I like playing with my friends in different groups.”

Both Seaver and Przyjazna went to Carruthers’ studio on April 9 for the handoff of the Redwood Violin, which by then had all of its finishing touches, including pegs made by wood turner Kalia Kliban of Sebastopol and a bridge cut by Mick Loveland of Loveland Violin Shop in Santa Rosa.

Seaver was able to practice on the new instrument for 10 days before debuting it in a recording session on April 19 at the Phoenix Theatre in Petaluma.

“From what I could hear, it really sounded so professional, even thought it wasn’t made from the ‘best’ materials around the world,” Seaver said. “It was bright and clear compared to my instrument and had less background noise and more potential for the actual playing to come through.”

Carruthers, who was initially afraid the violin would not be up to snuff, said he was happy it turned out as well as any of his other string instruments, which have been sourced from traditional materials from around the world
“I’m known for making instruments with clarity and balance,” he said. “It’s a Stradivari model, basically, and it has the characteristics of my version of that model.”

“Underrepresented … and great!”
For the concert this weekend, the roughly 15 members of the Young People’s Chamber Orchestra will be talking live on Zoom, introducing each piece in the program, which they prerecorded in April.

“I will talk a little at the beginning, and at some point we will introduce the Redwood Violin,” Westman said. “And I will record a video with Andy, and we will talk about our original conversation, when we said ‘Let’s make this happen.’”

In summer of 2020, Westman first met with Carruthers to chat about another project. During that meeting, the luthier shared his dream of making a violin out of only locally sourced materials and using it to bring the community together. Westman was immediately supportive.

“Since the 16th century, instrument makers have been sourcing the best materials from around the world,” Westman said. “That has always been the thing. … I just thought that it was an awesome idea and so unusual (to make an all-local violin).”

Westman brought the idea of the Redwood Violin to the education department of the Santa Rosa Symphony, and everybody loved it. So Westman held his first meeting of the Young People’s Chamber Orchestra outdoors last fall at the luthier’s studio.

“I thought, ‘Let’s kick this off and introduce the kids to the concept and give them some background on violin-making,’” Westman said. “Then we rehearsed in his backyard.”

Getting the support of the Santa Rosa Symphony was a key factor in motivating Carruthers to dig in and start the daunting project. He started carving out the back, front and sides of the violin in January 2021. Over the course of the next few months, he spent nearly an equal amount of time documenting the project in writing and in videos he learned how to make and edit.

“It helped a lot just to have an establishment, like the orchestra, embrace the idea,” Carruthers said. “And it made a focus for the story as well. This whole thing is partly the violin, but it’s mostly about the story.”
The streaming concert on Saturday evening will feature works that the Young People’s Chamber Orchestra has been rehearsing all year, but it’s not a run-of-the-mill repertoire. Westman wanted his players to be exposed to music from relatively obscure composers from a diverse background, hence the concert’s title, “Underrepresented … and great!”

“We play so little of the music that’s ever been written, just a tiny percentage of that,” Westman said. “We miss out on variety and diversity when we are in that mentality that great and perfect music is the best.”

For the program, Seaver recorded another violin solo, “Mother and Child” by William Grant Still, a well-known Black American composer of the 20th century. For this piece, the violinist will play his own instrument.

Another work, a keyboard concerto by Mozart’s contemporary Marianne von Martinez, will feature a guest appearance by Santa Rosa Symphony Music Director Francesco Lecce-Chong on the harpsichord.

Lecce-Chong said he’s excited about the Redwood Violin project and is following it as it develops alongside the symphony’s youth programs. But he also plans to include the Redwood Violin in the Santa Rosa Symphony’s programming next season.

“It’s a wonderful, local story,” he said. “I wasn’t going to let an opportunity like that pass by.”

Meanwhile, Carruthers is updating his website to reflect the transition from “Made Local” to “Played Local.” He is lending the violin out to any local musician who would like to play on it, provided they can produce a video of their performance that he will post.

“I’m going to loan it out and get as much creative things happening around it as possible and hopefully collaborations with other people,” he said. “I want all genres and all abilities. I really want to encourage people about making music.”

North Bay Letterpress in Sebastopol has made him a bound book, where he can list everyone who has played on the violin, starting with Seaven.
Then in March 2022, after a year of lending out the instrument, Carruthers will donate the violin to the Santa Rosa Symphony Institute for Music Education, and the book will then log every student from the youth orchestras who will play the violin.
Meanwhile, he plans to raise money for a Mendocino bow maker to create a local bow to go with the violin.

And he’s reaching out to local bands which already perform with violinists to give the Redwood Violin its time in the sun during a song or two of their set.
“Mads Tolling will play it at a winery up here,” he said. “If people are following it, it’s going to tell people there’s all kind of music out there, and maybe you would like to see it.”

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56

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