Reflections on Center Stage Strings’ First Year

June 21, 2010 – Three Rivers, California

I. Eleven Weeks

About four months ago I got a call from Bill Haxton.  He was excited about something. He had met a visitor to Three Rivers outside Sierra Subs, an engaging young woman, who told him that some months earlier her parents had moved to Three Rivers, and she was visiting them.  It was her first time seeing our town, and she was interested to learn about it and its people.

At some point in the conversation, quite by chance, she mentioned she played the violin.  “Really!” said Bill.  They then had quite an animated conversation about the Concert on the Grass, and Bill expressed our eagerness to welcome her to our town and have her perhaps participate in our annual Fall outdoor concert.  They exchanged contact information and resolved to stay in touch.

A day or two later Bill sent me an email with an internet link.  It was to a YouTube video of this same woman playing a beautiful violin solo with a symphony orchestra. Bill implored me, “You simply must hear her!”  He was right.  And since then, some of these YouTube links have been making the rounds in Three Rivers, and now, everyone knows her name, she is Danielle Belen.

Subsequently Bill and Anne invited some folks to their house for dinner to meet Danielle’s husband, Ryan Vaughn, and her parents, Rudy and Deniese Nesmith.  The conversation centered on an idea that Danielle had gotten, based in part on her warm welcome by Bill and other people in town.  What if Three Rivers were to host a summer music camp for extraordinary students, the kind of students that she taught at The Colburn School in Los Angeles? What would it look like? What would it take to make it happen? How much would it cost? Where could it take place, what facilities were available? What pianos were available? How many people might attend a concert or two? Lots and lots of questions were thrown about, and possibilities considered.

If one sets out to throw a week-long festival that includes intense schooling for nine students; four concerts and an open-to-the-public master class with one of the finest music teachers in the world; that presents some of the top professional and student talent in classical music West of the Mississippi, many of whom have international schedules in place; in a town of two thousand people who would form the core of the audiences; was it possible, and if so, how long would it take to do all the work to make it happen?

The answers to those questions were unknown until last week. It turns out that if a few people with maniacal energy and commitment to making something happen pool their efforts, and they get a tremendous amount of help from scores of volunteers, and they catch a few breaks along the way, they can create Center Stage Strings music camp in eleven weeks!

Danielle had the vision, and handled the artistic and educational elements.  It is a measure of the admiration and respect that she commands from her colleagues at The Colburn School that she was able to enlist the eager participation of Professor Robert Lipsett, pianist Jennie Jung, and cellist Diego Miralles.  Timing was so important, and two student stars who performed during the camp week left the day after their performances, Will Hagen to begin studies at Juilliard with Itzhak Perlman, and Simone Porter to Singapore to play in an international competition for violin prodigies.

Bill Haxton became the local producer/manager/promoter, working eighteen-hour days for eleven weeks, to make sure that people in town appreciated the opportunity that this emerging event represented, culturally and eventually economically.  He worked tirelessly on the major issues, such as what facilities would work and were available.  What people in town could provide financial support. What skills were needed at critical points in the process, and what people had those skills and how could they be motivated to help?  And he worked on the thousands of details that are required to throw such an event.

Along the way Bill realized that there needed to be a local organization to work in tandem with Center Stage Strings, as a way for the town to embrace and support the venture.  And that entity could also support other performance venues, such as Concert on the Grass.  What emerged is a new asset to the town in promoting the arts.  He called it the Three Rivers Performing Arts Institute (TRPAI).  There is so much momentum now from the first CSS music camp and the creation of TRPAI that Bill is already planning a series of winter chamber music concerts, provided by TRPAI, and hosted by the Community Presbyterian Church.

There is no way to adequately thank all those in Three Rivers who helped make this past week possible.  Every single person who touched this event in any way was generous in their support.  While the Community Presbyterian Church became the eventual home of this year’s event, All the local clergy were helpful and open to providing facilities and resources, and it is a great reminder of how much religious organizations can and do support education and the cultural lives of the communities in which they exist.

Pastor Arlin Talley and Community Presbyterian made their entire facility available for the entire week of the camp–eleven practice rooms, two teaching rooms, and all three pianos; the kitchen and dining room in Harrison Hall; Pastor Talley’s conference room (where Danielle gave her daily lessons); and the entire sanctuary where the congregation worships on Sunday.  The church allowed Center Stage Strings and Three Rivers Performing Arts Institute to disassemble the sanctuary’s pulpit, to modify the lighting and sound system, and to build a stage extension and rearrange the choir area to suit the needs of the venue for performances. All this generosity was truly heartwarming, and made the camp possible.

Next year, Danielle is planning for a considerable expansion of the music camp experience, from one week to two weeks, and from nine to twenty students.  Will we be ready?  It seemed that while there was much intense planning in advance of this year’s camp, with great care taken for the logistics, the comfort, security and of safety of the students, there was considerable improvisation required on a daily if not hourly basis, as events unfolded.  The goal of Center Stage Strings and Three Rivers Performing Arts Institute is to gather all the feedback that is possible from people involved, and to systematize those things that can be, from everything that was learned from the first year, as we all know that it is reasonable to assume that next year’s event will present its own share of new issues that will require improvisation.

Bill is a dreamer, and a strategic thinker.  When you want something important to happen, that’s what’s required. We’re all lucky to share in his orbit.  His plan is to build a modern performing arts facility that will be the pride of our town.  We’re a lot closer to that dream than we were eleven weeks ago.

I. Danielle’s Dream

There are more exquisite memories from the recent Center Stage Strings music camp than can ever be recounted in a few brief paragraphs in a letter to the Commonwealth.  That said, Thursday night’s concert will always hold a special place in my heart, and gave me an epiphany into the magic that occurred in our town last week.

Many of us have had the opportunity to hear Danielle Belen play the violin now in our brief acquaintance with her.  Some of us watched her numerous astounding YouTube videos with world-famous orchestras.  Some of us have been privileged to hear her in intimate gatherings in Three Rivers homes.  Quite a few people were amazed by her at Greg and Laurie Schwaller’s annual outdoor solstice event known as “Brats ‘n’ Brew” when she brought out her three-hundred-year-old instrument and braved the mosquitoes to bring us un-accompanied Bach.  Then last week’s concerts gave us the culmination of three months of preparation for the premiere season of her nascent school.

Tuesday’s performance by Will Hagen with Jennie Jung collaborating on the piano sent a high-voltage shock through the community.  We heard one of Professor Robert Lipsett’s top students at the Colburn School in Los Angeles perform virtuosic and soulful music on a par with the best musicians in the world. How could this be happening in our tiny foothill community of two thousand people?  We’re not New York, we’re not Los Angeles, we’re not London or Rome.  How was it even possible?  But aside from that, what brave soul would be willing to take the stage after that stellar beginning?  What could possibly follow that initial concert that could compel our attention and devotion?

It turned out that Danielle had more surprises for us.  Three more students from Colburn School, Simone Porter, age 13, Erin Dennis, age 18, and Cameron Mittleman, age 13, delivered top-notch renderings of  popular classical chamber music, with the able assistance of Jennie Jung on piano and Diego Miralles on cello.  All the performers collaborated to produce a rich and satisfying experience.

Simone is another budding international star who can be seen on YouTube, and she astounded us with a passionate and technically accomplished presentation of the famous Carmen Fantasy, Op. 25, by Pablo de Sarasate as the concert finale.  Once again, the juxtaposition of this world-class talented violinist performing within arm’s reach of the mostly local audience provided its own peculiar source of amazement.

However, for me, the performance that brought a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes was not the flashiest of the evening.  Right before Simone’s Carmen, Danielle joined Jennie and Cameron in a performance of the Largo from J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor.  This beautiful piece is not a show-stopper.  Yet, with Bach, what can seem less technically difficult to the listener can provide challenging issues for the performer. When there are fewer notes, each one carries more import, and any deficiencies in execution are more exposed.  Many performers will tell you that performing slower music with more subtlety can be more nerve-racking than playing the fast and furious variety.

The performers took the stage, Cameron, this small, slight young fellow, carefully dressed in concert black, his curly hair drawn back in a tight pony tail, and his mentor and teacher, Danielle, tall and strong, beautiful in her formal concert dress.

They began.  Cameron had the first note.  It was a long note, with just the barest of soft chords in the piano for support.  It was an exquisitely beautiful note, and the notes that proceeded were as well.  And when I looked at Cameron’s face, there was the story of how he did it.  He had a look of earnestness about him that has stayed with me days later. You could imagine the years of toil, the thousands of repetitions that were required in combination with his natural talent to produce such wonderful sound.  And he projected emotion from his young face, a strong love of the music, of his role in producing it in collaboration with the others, and a strong commitment to doing it as well as it could be done.

As the piece progressed my attention turned to Danielle. Her face told another part of the story.  Cameron was constantly watching her for cues on how things were going, what needed to happen, open to guidance from his teacher, looking for anything that two people can communicate without words.  And Danielle at times was smiling, beaming affirmation, at times looked concerned, perhaps urging caution, and sometimes it seemed, making very slight gestures with her bow, as if directing the performance as a conductor does with her baton.

The two violinists played many of the same notes, in the contrapuntal style of the eighteenth century, one playing a melody, the other echoing the same a measure or two later.  Sometimes Danielle led, sometimes Cameron did. It was fascinating to compare the different renditions by teacher and pupil.

It was the most vivid experience of artistic mentoring I have ever seen.  Up to that point I knew with my brain that Danielle was a teacher, because she said so, and she has all these students.  But in those brief moments on stage with Cameron, playing Bach, I knew with my heart that she is a teacher, and a very fine one.

What combination of talent, abilities, and intelligence leads to being not only a great violinist, as Danielle is, but also a great teacher?  And how does one learn to do it?  And how does one teach the art of teaching if one is a great teacher?  Watching Professor Lipsett and Danielle working with their students and each other last week, we are witnessing an extremely rare and wondrous process, the nurturing and development of gifted students, but also the development of a fine teacher.  Professor Lipsett has so many famous performing artists that he has guided to greatness, his legacy as a teacher is unparalleled.  But possibly an additional legacy is emerging, his nurturing of Danielle Belen as a new star in the world of music education.

II. Jennie Jung, Collaborative Artist

Leading up to the Center Stage Strings music camp I had the opportunity to spend some time with pianist Jennie Jung.  My role was to accompany her around the town of Three Rivers to try out some grand pianos that were potential candidates for use in the music camp.

As we prepared for the journey, Jennie realized that she had not brought any sheet music with her from Los Angeles, and that it would have been very useful to have some available for testing the pianos.  This was quite surpising to me at first.  I struggle to read music, so I carry around a small repertoire in my head.  As a professional accompanist she plays so much different music that the reverse is true: She doesn’t have time to memorize the music, and simply reads it from the page with great proficiency.  It made sense once I thought about it.  So, I gathered together some of my favorite piano music for her to use, and off we went.

The first piano was at the Community Presbyterian Church.  I had assumed that Jennie would look over what I had brought and pick something of her choosing for the test.  However, she asked me what I wanted her to play.  Trying to conceal my surprise, I eagerly presented her with the Schubert Sonata in B-flat, D. 960.  A difficult work by any standard, I have spent a couple of hundred hours over the past few years working on this piece.  I’m able to play parts of it now, and I just skip over the parts that are beyond my ability.  She looked quite intently at the page as her fingers moved over the keys, and I couldn’t detect that she ever looked at her hands, even as the music required her hands to leave the keyboard and jump to a new position many notes away.  She said, “Yes, this is a beautiful piece. I haven’t heard it in many years.”  Implied was that she never actually played it herself.  Yet, on this first reading, she rendered it flawlessly, and with considerable subtlety, and perfect timing.

As Jennie tried different pianos, I observed another phenomenon.  Occasionally she would be playing, and suddenly stop. Then she would play a few scales in the area of the keyboard where she had detected a problem with the piano.  Unconcerned at that point with what notes were on the written page, she was focused only on the action of the piano keys, and was carefully measuring the variation of force required to sound the different notes. Then she would return to the written music, and applying her measurements, play the passage again with much better results.  Again, an incomprehensible skill, but there it was.

The result of her testing that day led to the Community Presbyterian Church, under the direction of Pastor Arlin Talley, making a significant investment in the regulation of their beautiful Kawai grand piano, and is yet another example of their extreme generosity in support of the music camp.  The work was done by Tulare County’s dean of piano tuners, master technician Charles Hansen of Porterville.  Mr. Hansen transformed an instrument with wonderful potential but in great need of maintenance into a gem that served the event quite well, and will provide years of service to the Church.

When one reads Jennie’s curriculum vitae on the Center Stage Strings website it gives one a clear picture of how accomplished and respected she is internationally in the world of classical music performance.  But for all that, actually watching her and listening to her in the casual setting of trying out a piano was for me equally awe-inspiring.  But this was just a portent of what was to come, the actual music camp experience.

Almost any time a soloist on any instrument performs, they require the help of a pianist, traditionally known as an accompanist.  A newer term, which extends a greater respect and appreciation for what that person does on the piano, is collaboration artist.  And Jennie is one of the finest there is.  For performer after performer all through the week of music camp, she played literally tens of thousands of notes over many hours of rehearsal and during the concerts–difficult music by the greatest masters of music composition–constantly supporting various-sized ensembles, and many virtuoso solos, constantly adjusting to the interpretive decisions and sometimes instantaneous instincts of the string players who were in the limelight.

It is impossible to overstate the challenge to a professional pianist of constantly playing different instruments, sometimes many different ones in the same day.  The player is expected to perform at the highest level of musicality on a series of instruments no two of which work or sound quite the same. Even one instrument can change over the course of a day, depending on the temperature and humidity.  Aside from the musicianship, just the strength required of a professional collaborative pianist is daunting. (See IV below, About Pianos, for more details.)

After a long week of many hours of rehearsal and performance in which Jennie was a constant presence, the faculty concert Thursday night tested her endurance.  I was sitting where I could not see Jennie’s hands.  Instead, I watched her face, and thought about her intense focus on the printed score. During slow soft passages, she sounded sublime. And for the faster and louder places, as torrents of notes filled the hall, all played with power and finesse, all with generous emotional content, all providing the secure support that the string players must have for them to succeed, I was simply in awe.  There were times when she seemed almost in a trance, as if time stood still, and she had all the time in the world to execute her work properly, instead of the actual microseconds available.

At the conclusion of last week’s major event, she confided to me that a few hours before the final concert she was practicing on a small upright piano with a very light action, and that after a week of constant playing, even with that piano, her hands and arms felt heavy and tired, and she couldn’t imagine that she would be able to play at all on the performance grand in the sanctuary that night.  But then during the concert, adrenaline kicked in, and she forgot all about it.

III. Diego Miralles, cellist and Chamber Music Instructor

Many who appreciate classical music believe that the highest evolution of the art is chamber music.  Here you have just a few players who paint the sound canvas that might otherwise require a hundred or more players in a symphony orchestra.  And with just a few players involved, everyone’s level of responsibility for a successful performance is enormous.  Therefore, playing chamber music is a vital part of the education of every aspiring soloist.

In putting together the faculty for Center Stage Strings Music Camp, Danielle Belen needed to fill many roles with very few people.  Her students are some of the most talented in the world. To nurture that level of talent, only the best of the best will do. Fortunately, Diego Miralles was available for chamber music instructor.

Diego is not only a seasoned professional performer of classical music, including numerous performances all over the world, he also has a significant career and connections to the popular and jazz music scene, and has toured and/or recorded with the likes of Andrea Bocelli, Frank Sinatra Jr., Rod Stewart, Barry Manilow, Tony Bennett, Stevie Wonder and Christina Aguilera.  Then there is his collaboration with Yo Yo Ma on leading edge experimental multi-media live performance of modern classical music.

Diego’s rare combination of talent, skill, and extensive experience performing and collaborating with the top musicians of our time enables him to provide the superior level of instruction that will be the hallmark of this emerging institution.

Behind the scenes, Diego worked with the students, sharing his hard-won experience and perspective on how chamber music is done.  Then as each performance was presented to the public, he was there on stage with his cello, and the pupils were elevated for a few minutes to full collaborators with all the attendant pressure and responsibility to make it all work.  What a golden opportunity for these young people.

When one sees professional musicians tackle some of the finest repertoire in the world, such as the Brahms Trio Op. 8 and the Beethoven Trio Op. 70 that were presented by the faculty on Saturday night’s concert, one wonders how it is even possible to perform like that.  But in addition, thoughts creep in about what life is like for such people?  Is there time for anything else?  The answer will be as varied as the individuals, of course, but in Diego’s case, there are some surprising turns.

At one point he became quite interested in industrial design, and secured a degree in it, even as he continued building his career in music.  I spoke with him briefly about that aspect of his work, and was fascinated to learn that at one point, he was involved in the design of an electric car, and that he sees an important link between such design activity and many of the significant issues facing humanity, as we strive to develop sustainability, improve the quality of living, end pollution and war, and heal our relationship to Mother Earth.

However, eventually Diego decided to focus on the music. This brief note from his website ( tells more of the story:

“His performance skills have broadened over the years to also include conducting.  His conducting studies began while in high school and continued under the tutelage of George Mester, the director of the Pasadena Symphony and also with Maxim Eshkenazy, the assistant director of the world renowned Pacific Symphony.  Diego has recently earned the title of Music Director of the West Coast Chamber Orchestra in Santa Barbara.  He often performs solo with the orchestra and has held the position of principal cellist of WCCO for many years.”

So, classical music and industrial design… Is there a link?  Much later on Diego collaborates with Yo Yo Ma on the aforementioned multimedia project, and you wonder: Don’t all these disciplines meld together and produce exciting and unexpected artistic expression in the right person?  There is no doubt that it is the case with Diego.

Diego performs on a Montagnana model cello made in 1997 by his brother, world-renowned luthier, Mario Miralles.

Diego is also married and the father of two beautiful children, Ava and Marco, who were with him and his wife at this year’s camp, with Ava, who plays the violin, participating in the camp.  For recreation, Diego is an avid hang glider pilot, and enjoys visiting beautiful places in his motor home.

IV. About Pianos

It’s impossible here to cover all aspects of piano construction. But consider just the part that transforms the player’s efforts into sound, known as the action.  It is a machine that contains thousands of parts, mostly made of wood, felt and leather, and quite a number of small steel springs.

When the player presses down a key, they are pushing down on a lever which actuates a complex mechanism that pushes a small wooden felt-covered hammer up at the strings.  Just before the hammer strikes, a part of the mechanism releases the hard physical connection of various levers so that when the hammer strikes it can then fall back down, allowing the string to vibrate freely.  The hammers are being literally thrown at the strings, and the force of the playing determines the velocity of the hammer head as it swings upward, and that velocity times the weight of the hammer determines the force with which the hammer strikes the strings, and hence the loudness of the note. The hammers vary in size from the largest at the bottom to the smallest at the top of the piano, as more hammer is required to play the more massive bass strings than the lighter treble strings.

At the keytops, which is the part that a pianist most cares about, the weight required to press down the keys also varies, with more weight at the bottom than the top.  The goal of piano technicians who regulate this mechanism is to adjust it so that the force required is as consistent as possible.  Technicians use small weights to measure how much force is required to push the keys down.

I watched Chuck Hansen one day do this. He put a brass weight–a small cylinder about three-quarters of an inch in diameter by an inch tall–with what he thought was close to the right weight on a keytop near the middle of the keyboard.  Nothing happened. Then he added little brass wafers, some about a gram each, others mere slivers of a gram, and tapped lightly on the piano casing to encourage the key to fall.  After several additions, the key gently and silently fell down.

“There,” he whispered. “Sixty grams. That’s pretty heavy.  You know, there’s no way to get it perfect, as there are thousands of parts, all with friction, and that’s an important component of what we’re measuring here, not just the weight of the hammers and lead weights in the keys, and the ratios of all the dimensions of the hammer shanks, keys, wippens, and so forth, but I try to make it even from top to bottom, and I like something around 53 or 54 grams in the bass, tapering down to maybe around 47 grams at the top.” I was just stunned at the precision required, and imagined the years of study and practice that are required for someone to become a fine piano technician. Yet, it seems fitting that it would be thus, as the object of the techician’s attention, the piano, is a work of craftsmanship, engineering, and artistry.

Suppose that it requires sixty grams of force to depress the key.  If the player played ten thousand notes, that would translate to about thirteen hundred pounds.  However, that is not a true measure, because it does not account for actually making any sound.  To play a loud note, the player would apply many times sixty grams to get the desired effect.  What happens to all that extra force? When the key reaches the bottom of its travel, the keybed pushes back against the player with equal force, and for an instant the player is pushing with many pounds.  Think about going to the gym and lifting some weights.  A person might have a barbell with twenty pounds on it, and do some curls, maybe twenty repetitions.  That person lifted 400 pounds.  A pianist might exert the equivalent of lifting thousands of pounds playing a major work, but the individual lifts are small.

There are many stories about pianists who have to play hundreds and perhaps even thousands of different pianos under very trying conditions.  According to legend, the famous Bach specialist Glenn Gould finally gave up live concertizing in his early thirties because he dreaded having to play on so many different instruments.  He then spent many happy years in the recording studio, playing only his own pianos, of which he had a few, all Steinways, carefully regulated and tuned by one technician who worked with him his entire life.  I recently read that he also pleaded with his technician over the course of many years to make the action lighter.

Vladimir Horowitz had his Steinway concert grand piano moved from his twenty-eighth floor apartment in Manhattan all over the world wherever he played.  And I remember hearing somewhere that the famous jazz pianist Oscar Peterson has two Bosendorfer pianos that he has moved in a leap-frog fashion from one venue to the next when he is on tour so that when he arrives at his next destination, his trusted friend and accomplice, Bosendorfer I or Bosendorfer II, is there to greet him.

Ken Elias

One Response to “Reflections on Center Stage Strings’ First Year”

  1. 1 Reflections on Center Stage Strings’ 1st year! « Danielle Belen’s Blog

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