By Stephanie Eslake, TSO News
Violin Stories is the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra’s latest educational offering. Ames, David, and Gibson are the starring characters of this video series – but you’ll be surprised to learn that each of these names refers not to a person, but a violin inspired by real-life instruments.
It’s a striking visual series that combines gorgeous pen and ink drawings with classical arrangements and new Australian music. But these resources took time to produce, and came to life through extensive creative collaboration. Visual artist Mardi McSullea was inspired by historic architecture and fashion; writer Jennifer Compton spent time researching violins throughout history. Australian composer Jessica Wells arranged handpicked classical music – then wrote her own themes to link each work together. And it was all recorded with ensemble players and soloists of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.
In this story, we take you backstage with three of the creators behind this project, and uncover the mysteries and magic that became Violin Stories.
Finding inspiration in true musical tales
TSO Learning and Engagement Executive Jennifer Compton (who you might recall from Join In resources such as Recorder Lift Off and UKE BOX) is the mastermind behind Violin Stories. She conceptualised the series, wrote the script, handpicked the music, and provided the narration – a process spanning the past few years.
Jenny confesses she came up with the concept for Violin Stories for her own enjoyment. Then she realised that enjoyment could be shared, so she discussed the idea with the TSO. Her first drafts arose after watching and reading intriguing true stories about instruments throughout history.
The documentary Orchestra of Exiles sent Jenny down the rabbit hole of googling Bronisław Huberman, a Polish violinist who helped save a thousand people during the Holocaust; he is known as the “Oskar Schindler of musicians”. But his violin was stolen – first in Vienna, after which it was quickly recovered; then in 1936 during a fundraising tour, and from there it was lost for 50 years. Today, the Gibson Stradivarius in question is in the trusted possession of violinist-conductor Joshua Bell. This extraordinary story laid the foundations for the story: The Amazing Tale of Gibson.
Italy’s Guarneri family of luthiers would spark the idea for David the Lopsided Violin. Jenny read about a Guarneri violin that had been produced with faults; her original narrative linked this fact with another real violin named ‘David’ Guarneri del Gesu, which was designed in 1742 and in recent years has been performed by San Francisco Symphony concertmaster Alexander Barantschik.
The story A Forever Person for Ames is connected to comparatively modern history. The Ames, Totenberg Stradivarius was stolen from Polish-American Roman Totenberg in the 1980s, and returned to the family after the centenarian’s death in 2012. Jenny says: “I found it heartbreaking that Roman Totenberg died before the violin was returned, and I began searching for more information about this violin. Before I knew it, I had written A Forever Person for Ames.”
Handpicking the music
Though they are based in the genre of historical fiction, each of the Violin Stories are nevertheless educational: they shed light on the true history behind famous stringed instruments, as well as culture and society over the eras. As Jenny explains, “each story unfolds in chronological date order across hundreds of years, so the stories cover the evolution of the chamber ensemble, string orchestra, and the symphony orchestra”.
Like the string players and fellow music lovers watching Violin Stories, Jenny also has an interest in classical works for these instrument configurations. Joining the Sydney Symphony Orchestra flute section at just 18 years of age, Jenny went on to forge an impressive career as a performer and arts administrator with a variety of orchestras. And through her educational role with the TSO, Jenny has helped build the careers of many early career composers – all while developing projects that bring classical and new Australian music to the fore. So naturally, the process of selecting the music that would help tell these Violin Stories was an enjoyable one – but also a process she was driven to get right.
“Playing and listening to classical music has always been an emotional experience for me, so I loved finding just the right music to support the emotion of each of my stories,” Jenny says.
“The stories offer an opportunity for children and adults to connect to their own emotions and feelings, and I hope that the sweet and generous nature of each violin character reminds listeners how important it is to engage with others from a place of empathy and compassion.”
Jenny selected music that would tie into these ideas, choosing pieces for “dramatic impact or emotional impact”. She engaged Australian composer Jessica Wells to craft original compositions as well as arrangements of existing music that would accompany initial audio recordings. Later, Mardi would design a visual representation of these narratives.
New music to connect us to the past
Jessica has taken part in previous TSO educational initiatives: her orchestral work Zodiac Animalia features in TUNE IN, and she was a tutor for the prestigious Australian Composers’ School in 2017 and 2018. (In April 2023, she will lead the first-ever workshop for film score composition to be presented by ACS.) Still, she describes Violin Stories as “an artistic challenge” because of the unique way it tackles different artistic mediums.
“The ‘stories’ can work as audio-only podcasts, concert works with narrator, educational play-along scores for string students, and then the added bonus of the stunning artworks to create engaging videos bring it to another level,” Jessica says.
Jessica’s own illustrious background is in concert and screen music – a combination useful to a project like Violin Stories. The series contains excerpts of classical music, while Jessica composed “underscores” that link these pieces together.
“Violin Stories combines many elements of music that I love: classical music greats, fascinating historical stories about music, and film-score like underscores that underpin an emotional narrative,” Jessica says.
These underscores also bring an extra dynamic to the spoken narrative, with particular words and phrases becoming musical cues.
“The timings were absolutely crucial, so I approached the work from a screen music angle, using [mock-up] recordings of Jenny’s voice reading the script to compose under, chopping and moving phrases around to make them fit the music perfectly,” she says.
“Just like a film director, Jenny would send me back notes for revisions, until we hit on the perfect version.”
One example of Jessica’s music lining up with the narrative was in A Forever Person for Ames.
“I used sound effects with the ensemble to depict a modern police station - using a glissando-sliding violin in the distance as a police siren, and a snare drum for a typewriter, with busy random pizzicatos for the chit-chat of voices in the busy room.”
Jessica worked with musicians from the TSO – oboe, clarinet, bassoon, a string quartet, and percussion – to play her original arrangements of music that would depict the various times and places. Versions of Rule Britannia, America the Beautiful, French military music, and Mozart’s Requiem all help spin the magic of “the diverse locations inhabited by Ames the violin”.
“In ‘Dies Irae’ [from Requiem], I gave the choral parts to the woodwinds, the strings taking on the orchestral backing, and Gary Wain playing a large floor tom covered with a cloth to emulate the timpani. This was effective for a dramatic part of the story where the violin is stolen from backstage!”
TSO Principal Horn Greg Stephens conducted this TSO ensemble through the recording process, which spanned 2021-22. One of the most demanding roles was for TSO Concertmaster Emma McGrath, who in just two days recorded a variety of concerto excerpts, playing the solo parts in The Amazing Tale of Gibson and balancing these sessions with her regular TSO performance schedule.
After the music audio was recorded and edited for each story, Jenny and the Violin Stories sound engineer and audio producer Don Bate would team up with Tasmanian actor Jane Longhurst to record the story narration. Don then edited the music bed and narration recording together.
Video editor Brad Harris would later work with Mardi and Jenny to create each visual presentation using the digitised images of Mardi's illustrations.
“These days – recording the narrations and creating the visual presentations – were possibly the most intense days of the entire process, but no blood was spilled!” Jenny laughs.
Violin Stories also features separate play-along arrangements for those wishing to interact with the stories. For these, Jenny provided Nara Dennis with the same scores she had given to Jessica Wells, but Nara crafted new arrangements as a standalone project: they don’t accompany the videos, but are instead sets of scores for string ensemble that are available for sale through TSO House.
Painting a historical picture
Jessica was excited to watch the way her music would line up with the visuals once Violin Stories were completed. The videos feature Mardi’s stunning pen and ink drawings, which Jessica believes “illustrates the history of these violins and the musical landscapes from which they came”.
“Mardi has captured historical figures in their appropriate costume, the cities and buildings where people gathered to play and listen to music together, and the emotional moments where despair sinks in, and triumph blossoms.”
When Mardi started working on Violin Stories, she was most interested in the way the violin itself is the protagonist.
“The violin refuses to be cast as an inanimate object of solely monetary value and prestige, but asserts a responsive voice as an observer and unique time traveller,” Mardi explains.
“My intention throughout has been to create ‘scenes’ where the viewer of any age might slip into the story, whether mundane or highly theatrical – a little like entering a diorama animated by the music, and where the individual might rest long enough to fall in time with the image.”
While Jenny researched the history behind the violin stories, Mardi researched the “interiors of grand music rooms in aristocratic and stately homes; walled gardens and country estates; concert venues and green rooms”. She explored the archives of libraries and the internet to dig up old photos and programs, postcards, books and art magazines to find era-appropriate styles.
“Costume, hair styles, military uniforms, luthier’s tools, music stands, traveling cases and violin cases of different periods all have their place,” she says, also noting the way these icons can signify social class.
“Politics and power can be read in the music, dress code, and architecture.” However, Mardi observed a “tender intimacy between violin and violinist that seemed to occur far from centres of power in gardens or the land”.
The collaboration between Jenny, Jessica, Mardi, Don, Brad, and musicians of the TSO all serve to remind us that “an orchestra is not an island, it is very much part of its community”, in the words of Jenny.
“The TSO has always taken the areas of education and community engagement seriously and understands that activities generated in these areas can make a lasting contribution to the wellbeing of our community.”