by Lyle York, June 2009
Before the Pacifica Chapter even had a name, the first issue of a Viola da Gamba Society of America chapter newsletter was written and distributed by Peter Ballinger in January 1988. The first membership list, published January 1989, contained 35 playing members and 10 newsletter-only members. In 1990 we had 62 members; this year, there are 55.
The nascent Bay Area chapter announced the formation of an Executive Committee of Julie Jeffrey and Todd Wetherwax, Music Co-Directors; Lee MeRae, President; Lois Nisbet, Treasurer; and Peter Ballinger, Secretary. Members at Large were AI Roper, John Mark, and Margriet Wetherwax. These people stood for actual election the following September and were formally elected in 1989. Thus began a tradition in which those nominated usually end up running unopposed and being elected. But the chapter by-laws, which mandate written voting of the membership, including an option for write-ins, are always meticulously obeyed. Our chapter presidents have been Lee McRae, Peter Ballinger, John Mark, Dalton Cantey, Julie Jeffrey, and Ellen Farwell.
Chapter by-laws were drawn up and approved by the membership in March 1989. At the same meeting, a contest was announced to name the chapter. Peter Ballinger won the contest by a vote of those present: the chapter would be named Pacifica.
The Fresno annual North-South weekend workshop had already been going strong for many years, usually organized by Walter Unterberg of Van Nuys. In later years the Pacifica chapter and the Viols West chapter of Southern California alternated responsibility for organizing the weekend.
The Pacifica chapter began holding regular masterclasses or workshops with professionals. The first two were Sarah Cunningham and Judith Davidoff. In 1989, the Canadian gambist Peggie Sampson led a workshop at Mills College, and Mary Springfels conducted one in June 1989 in San Leandro. Over the years other out-of-town guests included Wendy Gillespie, Lucy Bardo, Larry Dreyfuss, Tina Chancey, Margriet Tindemans, Lisa Terry, and Gail Ann Schroeder. John Dornenburg conducts annual workshops at Stanford. Over the years, our playing meetings became known simply as “playdays.” We have so many excellent local coaches (Rebekah Ahrendt, Joanna Blendulf, Amy Brodo, Marie Dalby, John Dornenburg, Peter Hallifax, Goerge Houle, Yayoi Isaacson – now of Washington, D.C.–Julie Jeffrey, Shira Kammen, Steve Lehning, Luciana Lombardi, David Morris, Farley Pearce, Elisabeth Reed, William Skeen, Lynn Tetenbaum, Roy Whelden) that now nearly all of our playdays are lead by a local professional.
In those early days, chapter meetings took the form of business meetings combined with playing sessions. Members sent in cards in advance of the meetings with their viol sizes and playing levels, and a chapter officer (Julie Jeffrey for many years, then John Mark) formed compatible playing groups for the day. This system has changed technologically, but not in its essential form, over 20 years. Starting in August 1989, a schedule of monthly playdays was published for the upcoming year. In November 1989, Treasurer Dalton Cantey produced the first formal budget report and plan for the following year. Nearly every newsletter contained the admonition: “Please return your reply cards as soon as possible!”
In late 1989, the chapter still had no permanent playday venue; each was held at a high school, a church or a member’s home. The first meeting at Zion Lutheran Church in Oakland was held in March 1991. The following meeting was also held there, exchange for a group’s volunteering to play at the Mother’s Day Sunday service. Thus began a mutually happy association that has lasted until today. Not every meeting since was held at the church: May 1993 was held at a church in Reno, with additional hosting by Pamela Dallas and Natalie Sera; and there were several meetings in Carmel, hosted by Corliss and Herb Myers.
Every other year, the Pacifica chapter involves itself in the Berkeley Early Music Festival. John Mark takes charge of our booth -situated next to the VdGSA booth–at the Exhibition portion of the festival, near the instrument makers, bow makers and music publishers. We distribute flyers about the viol and the chapter, try to recruit new players, and sometimes have fun playing duets, trios or quartets to pass the hours. Some of our members have taken part in the Fringe concerts during the festival.
In September 1988, Lee MeRe proposed forming an Education Committee, since all present agreed that there were not enough young people playing the viol. Her constant gentle urging produced a Youth Project begun in September 2003, when Elisabeth Reed began coaching four middle-school Bay Area students. The four girls learned on viols rented from the chapter, and the Board voted to subsidize the students’ lessons. The project produced a fine consort. David Morris, and then Marie Dalby, later took on the coaching of the young players. The consort experienced some turnover, but some members are still being coached by Marie. The foursome performed at a Family Day concert at the 2004 Berkeley Festival and Exhibition, and at our playday in December of that year.
The chapter members’ overall playing level has risen steadily over the years partly due to our educational playdays. Also adding to our number and our accomplishment quotient was a series of viol classes. In 1989 and 1990, John Dornenburg taught evening viol consort classes at MusicSources, sponsored by SFEMS. Julie Jeffrey taught viol consort classes through SFEMS in 1997, and both Julie and John coached amateur consorts privately in subsequent years. In the course of planning for a class for beginners in 1991, John put out a request for “loaner” instruments. A collection began to grow. This, it turned out, was the beginning of the chapter’s viol rental program, which flourishes to this day, managed by John Mark.
Joint play-ins with the local American Recorder Society chapter were arranged in 1989, and with the Mid-Peninsula Recorder Orchestra from *91 to *93. The newsletter reported that, to attend the chapter meeting/playing session of October 21, 1989, four days after the Loma Prieta quake, “23 intrepid gambists braved the weather and disrupted freeways to enter Stanford’s Braun Music Center.” This sangfroid would be seen again 10 years later, when every single Bay Area gambist survived the Y2K panic of 1999-2000.
The chapter has enjoyed a useful and entertaining newsletter for 20 years. Its editors have been Peter Ballinger, Oliver Iberien, Lyle York, and Julie Morrisett. High points include a learned and feisty attack by George Houle (May 1993) on the film Tous les matins du monde, which obsessed the early music world that year. (Some local viol players called it “that movie” in an irritated tone. The soundtrack was exquisitely played by Jordi Savall, but the hand of Gerard Depardieu on the fingerboard did not even try to imitate the music. And George’s main thrust was that the movie’s characterizations of Saint-Colombe and Marais were completely unsupported by facts.)
Peter Ballinger produced several excellent concert reviews. John Mark contributed an occasional column called Fretting whose subjects included how to tune in a noisy environment; adjusting pitch while playing; and achieving better tuning by splitting or moving frets. Oliver Iberien interviewed Lynn Tetenbaum when she moved to Oakland, and Peter Ballinger on the 10* anniversary of PRB Productions in 1998. In December 1999, the newsletter editors Oliver Iberien and Lyle York produced a useful pullout guide to Bay Area teachers, sources for repairs and strings, renting or buying a viol, organizations, and tips on flying with viols. This was before 9/11 changed all our strategies.)
A tradition was begun by Oliver Iberien, and continued by Lyle York and Julie Morrisett, of producing an April Fools Day newsletter. Deathless features included an ad for Viol for Dummies by Julie Jeffrey; a fictitious account of Thomas Jefferson’s viol playing; a tell-all interview with Violone Barbie, the VdGSA’s yearly auction item and a heck of a player, though she has to play violone because her knees don’t bend; and news of the establishment of L’Ecole des Chiens de la Viole (the “Good Dog” Viol School), complete with photos of dogs playing with excellent technique, considering they have no thumbs.
Lyle York’s description of the Yukimi Kambe Consort, and other performers, at the 2000 Conclave in Portland listed some new sounds from the viol: soprano saxophone, electric guitar feedback, sitar arpeggio, pebble skipping on water, big stone plopping into water, bow waving in air, etc. Kathryn Derksen wrote about playing Marais in a civil war zone in Uganda. April 1, 2003 featured the entries in a limerick contest, won by Ellen Farwell, followed by a haiku contest, which had several winners.
As technology marched on, the Pacifica chapter did its best to keep up. Helen Tyrrell created a web page in 1998 and maintains it to this day. By 2003, half of the members were replying to John Mark via email, instead of postcards, regarding the upcoming playday. We changed the venerable postcard system to email or phone. We added Membership List Coordinator to our list of Board functions, and the job went to Roy Whelden, who in addition to playing excellent viol understands cyberspace. As of this year, the newsletter is produced exclusively online by editor Julie Morrisett. No one has yet figured out how we can use Twitter.
In June 2006, Mary Elliott organized the first annual Pacifica Play-In Party/Concert, at which members play for each other and close friends. This has become an annual tradition. Programs have included the youth viol group, solos with harpsichord, viol consort with kantele, viol/cello duos, voices with viols, and many other combinations.
The structure of our monthly coached playdays has evolved over the years. In December 2002, then Coaching Liaison Mary Elliott distributed a questionnaire to the members asking what they valued most about playdays, what changes they might suggest to the structure, and which coaches were most popular. The Board started encouraging players to take part in public coaching at the playdays, with some success. Usually a group would volunteer to play a piece it had worked on in the morning for all assembled, to the benefit of all.
In 2004, Mary Elliott created a catalog of the entire Pacifica library of sheet music that members can use at playdays. The catalog was later updated by Ricardo Hofer and is being maintained by Ricardo and John Mark, who also drew up a list of rules for use of the library.
The North-South Fresno viol meet was cancelled for good in 2007, partly, we in Pacifica would like to think, due to the success of our playing activities here at home. There is so much to do here in the Bay Area that Fresno lost some of its allure. But some still miss the association with players from Southern California and Reno, and the pool at the Picadilly Inn.
At Board meetings in January and April of this year, Marie Dalby and Josh Lee, relative newcomers to the area, attended to talk about their experience with community outreach a longtime goal of our organization. Marie and Josh are young, skilled viol players who are also active in the VdGSA and active locally as teachers and boosters of the viol. Josh especially racked up a great deal of experience with outreach before moving to the Bay Area.
Over our last 10 years as a chapter, various consort groups have presented demonstration concerts at local schools. But for the first time we now have a concrete proposal before the Board to invest $1,000 in local audience development and enhanced gamba literacy. The proposal plans for three school programs in 2009-2010.
Two members of the outreach committee devoted to planning for our future in the community are Marie and Josh, and the other two are Lee McRae and Julie Jeffrey, who co-founded Pacifica in 1988.
Creative members from the past are now working for the future. A beautiful circle has