Carla and Harold Birston look through Harold's book of elementary violin solos

Carla and Harold Birston look through Harold's book of elementary violin solos

Strings keeping busy

Youth ensemble celebrates a reunion with guest baritone Alexander Dobson, and publication of Harold Birston's Excursions for Violin

There’s a double reason to celebrate for the Semiahmoo Strings Orchestra.

The first is the upcoming reunion with a notable guest performer of past seasons, acclaimed Canadian baritone Alexander Dobson, for a performance of a Robert Schumann master work, the song cycle Dichterliebe, or Poet’s Love, conducted by ensemble founder Carla Birston this Friday (April 19) at 7:30 p.m. at Mount Olive Lutheran Church, 2350 148 St.

The second is the publication of a Semiahmoo Strings-inspired, and tested, book of beginner pieces for young violinists, by Carla’s husband, Harold, gifted composer and arranger and cello instructor (and sometimes keyboardist) for the group.

Excursions for the Violin, published by the Frederick Harris Music Co. is a collection of 21 of the pieces that Harold has been developing over the past decade for students.

It also typifies the imagination and dedication that have helped make the Strings the outstanding training ground for youth musicians it has been for almost 25 years.

What could be a very dry series of simple, limited pitch melodies to help students familiarize themselves with each string of the instrument, becomes, in Harold’s hands, a series of cleverly harmonized pieces for solo violin and piano that are both fun to play and enjoyable to listen to as music (Harold, it should be noted, is also frequently commissioned these days to arrange pieces for the Royal Conservatory).

Titles are fun, too (The Old Jalopy, Brazilian Breeze, Chorus of Soldiers, Townspeople, Matadors, Elephants and other Miscellaneous Opera Characters are a few examples) and, instead of the mind-numbing folk melodies that used to be a staple of young players, they have a chance to gain confidence on violin by playing everything from marches to a samba, a country ballad, a Viennese waltz and a jazzy blues piece.

The publishers only asked for a few changes, he said – mainly a simplification of the piano accompaniments so that most teachers could manage them.

“I spent the last summer toning them down,” he said. “I took out the odd ninth here and there, but I did try to keep the harmonies interesting.”

The other component of what makes the Semiahmoo Strings great – the opportunity and inspiration to approach professional playing  standards while working with recognized professional performers – will be abundantly manifest in Friday’s concert.

Not only will the Strings provide the musical setting for Dobson’s sensitive and expressive voice on the Schumann pieces – all settings of poetry by Heinrich Heine – but it will also tackle the rich melodies and subtle effects of Russian composer Alexander Borodin’s Second String Quartet.

Also on the program will be a set of songs from Schubert’s Schwanengesang – also settings of Heine’s poetry – sung by Dobson and accompanied by the Strings.

The Strings role in support of Dobson is just as challenging as a concerto, Carla noted.

“They all have to meld together – they have to learn not to be soloists,” she said. “It’s a great exercise in listening and accompanying.”

The other challenge, she acknowledged, has been rehearsing separately from Dobson, who lives in Montreal, without being able to confer in detail on tempos and dynamics of phrasing and attack.

But Dobson has helped by flying out to the West Coast early with his young son –  the same age as the Strings’ youngest players – just for the concert. The pair also joined the Strings for some important bonding time at their annual Camp Charis retreat last weekend.

“He’s so fabulous with the kids – he’s much more patient than I am, ” Carla laughed.

“He’s a great role model for them – he’s a cool guy and such as serious musician at the same time.”

The Strings’ even younger feeder group, the Demi-Semiahmoo Strings, will be featured in Handel’s Minuet from the Overture to Berenice and Saint-Saens ever-popular Danse Macabre.


Tickets for the concert ($18, $10 seniors and students) are available at Tapestry Music –  which also sells Excursions for the Violin – or by calling 604-538-1460.



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