Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello: Markos Sifnios, Marika Papagika and the Greek Cello

Marika Papagika

I wish I had more information about Markos Sifnios, but as there is only been a recent resurgence of interest in his collaborator Marika Papagika and I’m not in a position to be doing extensive research into her career in the US during the earlier part of the 20th century (yet).

I had first come across Sifnios’ work when I found this wonderful youtube video (see below) of a tune called Smyrneiko Minore (Smyrnaean Air) which, given the date (1919) here (if it is correct) would coincide with Papagika’s first recording in the states with Victor Records.

There is a brief snippet about Sifnios’ collaboration with Papagika at the Wikipedia entry which I can’t really verify or attest to the truth of though interesting in its own right:

Cellist Markos Sifneos [sic] collaborated with Marika Papagika on at least 24 separate occasions. Aside from Kostas, he is her most frequent collaborator, and was one of the few people to play cello on Greek recordings before World War II. There are no records of him recording with anyone except the Papagikas as Cello was not an acceptable instrument for Greek music at the time.

So I came across this video and though I had already known about Marika Papagika I knew nothing about the fact she had a cellist in her Greek band.  So that was something of a revelation.  I doubt cellos were typically a part of traditional or folk Greek ensembles as the above quote seems to indicate, and more than likely, as is the case with Klezmer and other folk music ensembles (and “pick-up” bands in general) Sifnios and his cello just happened to be at her disposal.   But what this also says is that Sifnios could be considered one of the first “Alternative Cellists” in the US (if not the world).

Continue reading “Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello: Markos Sifnios, Marika Papagika and the Greek Cello”

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“The Cello in Britain: A Technical and Social History”

Mel Bay - Celtic Groove for cello duet
Mel Bay has a whole range of traditional tunes arranged for cello and cello duos including the Celtic Groove collection above

The titled of this blog post is an article published by Brenda Neece in The Galpin Society Journal (Volume 56, June, 2003).  I had downloaded it some time ago (JSTOR is my friend!) but in between lessons yesterday I decided to skim the contents.  Some very interesting tidbits here, and I had already learned a bit about some of the usage of the cello in Scottish folk music through an article written by Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas in the Strings Magazine.  In particular, the opening two paragraphs:

In Scotland, the fiddle and cello reigned supreme as the dance band of choice in the golden age of Scottish music and dance—the second half of the 18th century and even well into the 19th.The famous dance fiddler Niel Gow (1727–1807), the doyen of Scottish fiddlers, was in great demand to play for village dances and society balls often with his brother Donald on cello. There are eyewitness accounts of the dancers having to leave the ballroom because of the excitement created by the musicians.

Scottish music publishers did a thriving business printing collections of reels, jigs, strathspeys, and other dance tunes that included not only the melody, but also a bass line for the cello, or “bowed bass” as it was known. The written bass line was often quite rudimentary, serving only as a guide; as the publishers often assumed that cellists would prefer to improvise their own accompaniments.

really intrigued me.

Brenda Neece’s article

the Scottish fiddle tradition may provide a clue about the function of this system. In this tradition, boys seem to have learned to play the bass fiddle first-even though it might have been cumbersome for a child, it had the simplest parts-and then they moved up to the treble. By learning the easiest part first, a player could perform in a group earlier in his training, and thus gain the most performance experience possible. Some bass players then reversed the process and, after learning the tunes on the fiddle, played them on the bass fiddle.  Such a pedagogical tradition might help explain some of the unusual fingerings in early cello treatises.

The author goes on to explain how many of the early 18th century cello treatises in Britain included what we would normally associate with violin fingerings. Continue reading ““The Cello in Britain: A Technical and Social History””

Changing US Demographics and Classical Music

The title here could just as easily have read “Changing US Demographics and Music” but it is the title of a blog that Ramon Ricker had posted some time ago.  Mainly the realization that the population on the streets of Amsterdam looke nothing like the audience he was seeing at a Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra concert (they were playing Mahler 6).

The most relevant quote, as this relates to what I’ve started to blog about regarding my mission and performing for underserved audiences. follows:

As we waited for the concert to start, I looked around the hall and noticed that the patrons didn’t look like any of the people we were seeing on the street. The concertgoers were stereotypical “Dutch people,” in my mind—good sized with mostly fair complexions. But the people on the Amsterdam streets were much more diverse. There were many more dark-skinned people—I suppose from Turkey and elsewhere in the Middle East. I thought to myself, “The people in the streets can’t be listening to European classical music. I’m not hearing it anyplace out here. The demographic of Amsterdam must be changing. But if it continues to change who will be coming to these concerts in 50 years?”

Now, scroll over to US orchestras? In my mind it’s the same as the Amsterdam example. As I look out at the audience at a Rochester Philharmonic concert, the attendees don’t look the same as the general population of Rochester. I ask myself, “Why were US orchestras formed in the first place?” My guess is that the population was predominately of European descent at that time, and they probably wanted to experience or recreate the culture of their homeland. It felt natural to them.

Thinking about the well-documented changing demographic of the US towards greater numbers of citizens with other than European (read: white) ancestry, I can’t believe that this population, in 50 years or probably less, will want to sit in a concert hall and listen to Mahler. It’s not in their DNA or culture. And that’s not a put down. They also don’t get exposure to this music in schools. If I keep going along this line of thinking, I don’t see a bright future for “classical” music in general or US orchestras in particular. Sure this music will be with us, but will professional musicians be able to make a living playing it? That’s already difficult to do today in all but the largest US cities.

Continue reading “Changing US Demographics and Classical Music”

Tuesday Rehearsal Reflections: River City Klezmer Band

I’m posting this now as I may or may not be back in time tonight to finish a post before midnight.  If you folks hadn’t noticed I am attempting to blog once a day–more for the discipline than anything else, but also because I have been really inspired by Eric Edberg‘s (one of my former cello teachers and someone who I still consider a mentor–at least he’s still teaching me things even to this day!).  As an aside-if you haven’t been following Eric’s Sabbatical adventures in New York City–you should!  Some really neat and interesting things happening there an I envy him his time being spent there!

You folks now know what I do on Mondays, Tuesdays are a little different.  I’m usually giving private lessons at IU Southeast to college students as well as kids enrolled in the IU Southeast Arts Institute (which is primarily for k-12 ages), but as I also teach lessons on Wednesdays I’ll wait till tomorrow to blog about this experience (which will be interestingly difficult as the privacy of students is always an issue!).

But what I do want to blog about is that Tuesday nights are also a rehearsal night for me.

Every first and third Tuesdays I make the journey across the river to Louisville, Kentucky to the Jewish Community Center of Louisville to rehearse with the River City Klezmer Band from 7:30-9:00 pm.  This is an amateur group of folks at various level of abilities and stages of musical ability.  Very few of the group are professional musicians and as we often say before our shows the whole idea of Klezmer is to bring together whatever musicians happen to be there to play Klezmer music. Continue reading “Tuesday Rehearsal Reflections: River City Klezmer Band”