SLSO Violinist Lisa Chong Talks About Performing Steve Reich's "Violin Phase" Tonight

Categories: Story Outtakes

When Nick Jonas put RFT music editor Annie Zaleski on the spot after his Pageant performance to ask her for an in-person critique, he crossed the standardized boundary between music journalist and music maker. I recently had a similar experience with St. Louis Symphony Orchestra violinist Lisa Chong. While writing about her upcoming rendition of Steve Reich's "Violin Phase" in last week's RFT, I unintentionally intimidated Chong with words like "demanding" and "daunting." In an email simply titled "whoa," she wrote to me, "Oh no! Now the expectations seem so high!" After a week of phone tag, I spoke with Chong to clear the air. (By the way, the show is tonight -- and very sold out.)

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What do Jeff Spicoli and the SLSO have in common?

Ryan Wasoba: I hope my article didn't freak you out.
Lisa Chong: No, it actually helped me get on track, because the things you said about the piece are true. I had to learn endurance. I had to learn how to zone in and consciously play the phrase like it was a tuneful melody, but then I also had to go on autopilot to hear where I am in the song. You really have to switch modes from being like a soloist and being a collaborator, from blocking stuff out and opening your ears back up to make sure you haven't gone too far.

Now that you've had time to rehearse, are you enjoying the challenge?
It's not as uncomfortable as it once was, it seemed impossible before because first of all, it's just me playing, even on the backing track. So it's even harder because I instinctually want to play with that person, with myelf. Other violinists are coming up to me at work saying, "I can't believe you're doing that, I looked at it and I can't do it." If I would have known, maybe I would have been scared, but I thought it'd be really cool to play along to three of myself. I thought it'd be hilarious.

Has this changed your opinion on Steve Reich?
I used to think Reich's music, or minimalism in general, was a rhythmic thing that was too brainy for me, but it's really rewarding. It's endlessly rewarding, it gives a lot back to you. At first, I was thinking "What's the quickest way I can get this learned?" And then it turns out I don't want to make it quick.

You said (SLSO conductor) David Robertson helped you get through the piece?
I can't think of anybody in the universe who could interpret Reich better than David Robertson. There is one specific phase of the piece I was struggling with and he actually conducted me through it. He did the concentrating for me so I could just visually watch him. It was sort of like a magic trick, it was like a miracle. Pulling this off took a lot of trust in Steve Reich and trust in my own autopilot rather than making the music happen on my own accord.

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Lisa Chong of the SLSO

That's pretty deep, really.
Yeah, it gets very West Coast new-agey. Robertson and I are both from California and we've been joking, like, "You've gotta just get in the groove, dude." I actually think of Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. When I'm doing "Violin Phase" I'm Sean Penn with long hair rather than some Asian symphony violinist. That gets me away from being too aggressive about it.

I know SLSO is pretty diverse, but it doesn't seem like it gets this conceptual very often.
It really is sort of meta, like you do have to think of the big picture and the tiniest increment at the same time. It weirded me out because Robertson said "Wait till your second performance, you'll have so much more crazy insight" and I thought, "I have to do this again!?"

Wow, I hope you can survive another one.
I hope so. I did build up some strength in my fingers. At first, doing the same thing over and over again made me want to die, but now I guess I really am becoming some sort of Olympian like you said in the paper. It's sort of become about letting go, like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. Now I can do the piece and have a conversation at the same time.

So, are you playing "Violin Phase" while you're talking to me right now?
No, but I'm actually thinking about it in my head! I guess I could try to play it now but I'm driving so that wouldn't be the best idea.

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