The People We Play for Are Sipping on Champagne

Unlike, say, rock-and-roll bands, classical musicians in a quartet are not required to exhibit personalities as they perform. A tuxedoed homogeneity and a serious sameness of expression will do nicely, thank you.

If the performers feel passionately or not about the music, have aches and pains of a physical or existential nature, harbor resentments toward each other, or guesstimate tax returns while sleepwalking through the Köchel Concerto No. 525 or “Memories” from Cats, we couldn’t care less. As we brunch in a North County bistro or fork wedding cake onto our plates at the reception, the music might be wallpaper, the musicians, potted ferns. If it’s a rock group, we think we want a little flamboyance and character with our 4/4 time, but aren’t Keith Richards, Ron Wood, and Charlie Watts really the same person when you get right down to it?

Well up the winding reaches of Soledad Mountain Road, four very different people have come together on a sultry August night to share wine, lasagna, the sunset, and their skills as musicians. Forty-one-year-old Ken Jerahian plays first violin; 42-year-old Sarah Agler provides vocals and second violin; Gordon Grubbs, 35, contributes cello, while Karen Childress-Evans, 45, provides viola and musical direction for Pacifica Strings, one of San Diego’s few long-lived string quartets.

Grubbs, a lean, bespectacled black man, wears shorts, a dark polo shirt, socks, and dress shoes. He seems to be the comedian of the group, yet the most elusive and private. As the musicians tune (that four-note sawing and occasional skirling associated with clearing one’s throat and fanning oneself with the program before the house lights dim), Grubbs, originally from Wichita, Kansas, is rattling off personal and musical jokes in a shorthand recognizable only to his fellow quartet members. Childress-Evans is the quickest to laugh, while Agler chuckles silently and Jerahian beams with pleasure. Grubbs is speaking so quickly, those outside the musical circle are at a loss as to what’s so funny.

Grubbs teaches music for a living and performs professionally whenever possible, often without the other quartet members and frequently in Mexico — La Paz, Mazatlán, and Ensenada, for example.

Jerahian is dressed in a white, button-down collared shirt, Levi’s, and sneakers. His two leg braces (a legacy from childhood polio) rest against a wall near his chair. The first violinist, with his thick, black hair streaked with traces of gray, deep-set, smiling dark eyes, and shoe-brush Armenian mustache has the appearance of a benevolent Uncle Joe Stalin. An electronics technician during the day, repairing such devices as TVs, stereos, VCRs, and video game players, Jerahian has been playing violin since he was seven years old. He holds a BA in music from University of San Diego.

Jerahian has played “in most of the local orchestras — uh, Jolla Civic, USD orchestra. From the age of 13 to 25, I played with the San Diego Youth Symphony.”

Grubbs and Childress-Evans are searching for misplaced sheet music to a Bach piece they’ll perform at an upcoming wedding. The violist is a petite, attractive blonde wearing a red blouse, a grey-and-red checked skirt, and red shoes. She finds the piece and sets it on her stand: “Air” by J.S. Bach. Childress-Evans plays a few tentative notes. She is accompanied immediately by four-year-old Sean Agler, who contributes a wheezing musical non sequitur on his child-size starter violin. His brother, two-year-old Nicky Agler, is offstage (that is, in his bedroom, not in the living room where the action is), crying operatically. Evidently, he has inherited his mother’s lung capacity, diaphragm control, and tonal dexterity.

Discussion of which Mozart pieces to perform (“Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”), whether or not to include the Pachelbel Canon (“yeah, we have to”), Handel’s “Water Music,” the “Quartet versions of 2, 3, and 6,” “Hawaiian Wedding Song,” “Wind Beneath My Wings,” “The Vivaldi” (“Four Seasons”), “Trumpet Voluntary” (the Clarke), and/or “that wedding thing by the guy from Peter, Paul and Mary” (“There Is Love”) resolves with a tentative list and the decision to run through Bach’s “Air.”

The piece is processional. The words “stately” or “courtly” are hard to avoid. Grubbs’s cello marks time with a descending scale of slow octaves beginning in the key of C. Jerahian and Agler sustain a middle C in unison and then part ways in a harmonic pavane away from the tonic note that grows increasingly complex and flows into A major and then D major scales — a pattern thoroughly familiar to audiences of a thousand popular love songs. Pacifica Strings render the piece with a grace and soulfulness I don’t usually associate with Bach, thinking of his music more in terms of prancing, mathematical, clockwork patterns than a slow ballet of emotion.

Agler, Jerahian, Grubbs, and Childress-Evans indeed seem to be sculpting “air.”

Sarah Agler is a round woman with a ready laugh and a smile behind large-framed glasses. She wears a blue floral print dress to her ankles. When she stands to sing, one might envision her in a horned Viking helmet and armor breastplate; when she opens her mouth, she can break your heart. As a violinist she is superb, which raises the question: why second violin? The answer is that everyone in the quartet is very, very good and someone has to play the second violin parts. The term “second fiddle” is clearly a misnomer here since what Agler plays is hardly less accomplished than the first violin parts — merely different, harmonic, contrapuntal, and without which the center would not hold.

Agler has been playing since the age of eight and received a bachelor’s degree in violin from the University of Nevada in Reno, followed by a master’s in voice performance from Indiana University.

“I didn’t tell anybody I was a violinist for eight years,” the musician-singer and mother of two says. “I was only singing. But there was more of a need for violinists than sopranos. I did a lot of moving around, performing in operas.” Agler moved to San Diego in 1984 and won first place in the Met (San Diego Metropolitan Opera) auditions in 1986. Agler met Childress-Evans while playing with the Grossmont Symphony.

Karen Childress-Evans started playing violin in the fourth grade in Yakima, Washington. “I had a wonderful teacher there,” she says. “This woman started off a whole bunch of violinists, and I realized right off I wasn’t going to be able to sit first chair so I decided I would start off with viola.” She laughs; the quartet members find this funny as well. “No,” she says, protesting the unlikeliness of the situation. “It’s true. I decided to play the viola because I wanted to go to All Northwest and All State and All City. And if you’re just one of several violins…” She trails off. “And I wanted to go to all of them and I did. It was a wonderful experience.”

The 45-year-old Pacifica Strings director also plays with the La Jolla Symphony. She got her undergraduate degree in music at Washington State University and her graduate work at Western Washington State University in music education. “It was a double major,” she explains, “a music degree and an education degree. Up until this year I taught strings for 24 years. I teach in the La Mesa–Spring Valley School District, and I teach at Parkway Middle School. Several years ago, I went back and got my degree in social science so I can teach other subjects. They decided to take me out of strings and put me in social science for this year, and that broke my heart. So I decided to go back and proceed with my doctorate in educational leadership. I decided that since I can’t do what I love the most, and that’s teach strings, I’m gonna go be a principal and I’m gonna hire Gordon and Sarah and Ken.” This concept is met with much laughter and approval from her prospective employees.

“Fabulous!” Grubbs chuckles.

“I’m serious,” says Childress-Evans. “I wouldn’t have anybody else teaching my cellos. It will be the School of the New Century.”

“We go back,” she continues, “maybe ten years — well, a good seven or eight, but not in this incarnation. I found Sarah through an ad. We got Ken involved. We had another cellist at that time, and Ken brought Gordon into it. As Sarah says, this is our best group. Do we like each other? I like each other.” She chuckles at her grammatical negligence. “Gordon is kind of a pain in the butt, you know, but…” Again she trails off, joined by four-way laughter.

The rehearsal resumes.

“You’re gonna do the four,” Childress-Evans says to Jerahian about the “Ave Maria.”

“Actually, they should both do it,” says Grubbs. “You should both play in D.”

The violin and viola carve a five-note figure, which climbs half a step in key every time the phrase is completed. Beneath them, the cello sustains single-root notes anchoring the violin’s counterpoint to Agler’s slow, true soprano. “Ave Maree-eeeyaaahhhh.” The five-note figure falters as Childress-Evans and Jerahian tumble their notes onto each other in slightly separate tempos. The effect is supposed to be a flowing one but instead is that of a lurching vehicle with mismatched tires.

“It sounds as if this is a difficult piece to pull off,” I suggest.

“It is, but we have the skills,” laughs Childress-Evans. “Believe it or not.”

“We may have left them someplace,” says Grubbs, “but we have the skills.”

“Isn’t there something like three or four verses to this thing?” asks Jerahian.

“Yeah, but we’re not gonna do ’em,” announces the violist, and the others laugh with relief.

“Yeah, let’s not,” says Agler.

“I went to a wedding,” Jerahian recalls, “and a band was singing this, and in the second verse the guy’s voice broke, started cracking. I felt terrible for the guy.” He looks through his sheet music. “This says, ‘From Walter Scott’s “Lady in the Lake.”’ Which one is this?” asks the teacher/violist.

“This is the Schubert,” Agler explains. “I sang them both for her [their employer for the upcoming wedding], and she liked this one better. And this is easier for us to play.”

“Should we do this smoother? More legato?” asks Grubb. “Or maybe even, well, some kind of a brushstroke? Somewhere in between? As long as we stay together…”

“Let’s just do it smooth,” Childress-Evans suggests, and that seems to be the final word on the matter.

Another run-through and someone is striking sharp notes, though it is not apparent, at least to me, who it is.

“Sorry,” says the squinting violist, “I can’t read this.” Her sheet music is a Xerox copy; the musical text has shrunk and blurred.

Later, one member of the quartet will express dissatisfaction with Childress-Evans’s organization and handling of the sheet music.

“In terms of what music means to me in my life, that has changed over the years,” says Jerahian, the first violinist and former technician with Maxwell Laboratories. “When you do things for a living, sometimes it gets to be a grind, and you don’t enjoy it. Music now for me is just relaxation and enjoyment. I don’t use it to make a full-time living.

“I don’t know if anybody’s flat-out put it in an article, but the arts have never really been supported in San Diego,” Jerahian says. “The plays, the Old Globe, are too expensive, and there’s a lack of support for the San Diego Symphony. It’s not a poor town either; they can afford it, but their priorities go into other areas. We [the quartet] all have other jobs and don’t have time to get together as often as we’d like.”

When asked, Jerahian says his mother most influenced the violinist’s nascent career.

“She used to play the piano, nothing amazing, but she had an incredible love of music, especially the violin. I had three sisters who were all trained on the piano, so I was the one who got the violin. To be honest with you, I don’t really think I had a desire at first to play the violin. I was inspired by my mother. At one point it was a toss-up between electrical engineering and music, and I just so happened to go into music, not only because of my love of music, but I also received a music scholarship to the University of San Diego, where I went to school. It was a good opportunity to get an education and 99 percent of it was paid for, so I went that route. USD isn’t really a topnotch school for majoring in music; it’s good for minoring in music; it’s good for teachers; and throughout it’s a very good education, but nothing like a music conservatory.”

Was childhood polio a factor in learning the violin, the hours of being forced to be sedentary?

“I was in second grade,” Jerahian remembers. “It was just before my first music lesson. I was one of those rare cases that contracted it from the vaccine. So, yeah, music was a good thing for me to pursue full-time because you’re sitting and all that, but believe it or not, I actually feel better mobile — sitting is what really kills me. People see me on crutches and right away they say, ‘Hey, do you want a chair?’ while my back is screaming, ‘No!’

“Actually, string players develop all these ailments, so even if you’re okay when you start out…” Jerahian laughs. “They develop all kinds of problems with their shoulders. It’s very taxing on your body. Especially violin or viola because of the awkward position you hold your instrument. I don’t think cellists are as affected. One woman I know of in the San Diego Symphony had to give up playing after years because of all kinds of major problems. It affected her arms especially.”

Has Pacifica Strings ever toured?

“No. We really haven’t [played] outside of San Diego. What’s popular right now is your coffee shops. That seems to be the big thing, where a lot of San Diego’s music is happening. I’m trying to break into those coffee shops...,” Jerahian laughs, realizing that what he said sounds illegal, “...with classical music, I mean, which doesn’t seem to be that prevalent in these coffee shops.”

Jerahian and Grubbs will perform as a duet at A Better World this fall, and he hopes to appear there eventually with the entire quartet. “I don’t think there’s that much money in it, but it’s good for the publicity end of it — to play and advertise what you do, get the word out.”

Does Jerahian remember the first piece of music he heard as a kid that turned him on and set him on his course?

“Yeah, probably a lot of people’s favorite and that’s the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in D or D minor, I forgot which.”

What kind of music does Pacifica Strings perform best?

“In my opinion [the wedding pieces] are the most rotten stuff. That doesn’t comprise any of what we really do except maybe during the ceremony. Those are little pieces that are stuck in for a candle-lighting, or we’ll do the Pachelbel Canon during a processional and maybe we’ll do some upbeat light classical for the recessional. A lot of people want the traditional, so we let them have it. I would say our best stuff is light classical in the vein of ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ or Haydn. When you get into some of your Beethoven or Brahms, that’s more like ‘sit and listen’ — it’s real deep. That’s not the kind of thing we usually play at a wedding reception. Schubert is kind of on the lighter side, and Schumann. We don’t do a lot of baroque-type stuff. As you heard, we occasionally do Bach, we’ll do the Brandenburg No. 3. We also do things like Scott Joplin rags.”

Also in the Pacific Strings repertoire are such unlikely numbers as “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers, “Wind Beneath My Wings” (if you insist), and the Andrews Sisters’ “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”

“We do those things very well,” Jerahian says. “We’ll maybe do some of them at A Better World. But I’m not really super fond of contemporary music; that’s just always the way I’ve been.

“Most of the people we play for are sipping on champagne, getting ready for dinner after the wedding, so the light classical is fine. It’s usually pretty understandable to people. The heaviest we’ll get is Beethoven, and we tend not to do too much Beethoven.”

Does Jerahian find that the audience as a rule will ignore the quartet? Comment on the music? Look over the musician’s shoulders? Could he characterize a general reaction to the music of Pacifica Strings?

“Maybe you can throw this into words and make it somehow that nobody’s offended,” Jerahian laughs; his mustache widens, his eyes narrow. “I would say that in general the people that can least afford us are definitely the most appreciative. They’re the ones that struggle to get the money to have our group, and they are the ones who are the most complimentary and supportive and come up and say, ‘You guys sound great’ or give us requests.

“To be honest with you, I can think of at least two or three instances playing in La Jolla and here around Soledad Mountain Road where we’ve been stuck in a corner and nobody even said a word to us. We were there for the scenery; it was the elite thing to do. That was fine. We got paid very well. At one job, even though there was a large buffet and tons of food, we were not invited to eat. I’ve learned to make sure you get something to eat during the breaks.” Jerahian laughs again, but at himself, not his thoughtless employers. “A job is a job, and I don’t stipulate in the contract that we have to be fed, but sometimes we have a three-and-a-half- or four-hour job and we don’t get a chance to duck out and get something to eat. About 80 percent of the time we are invited to eat. We never push ourselves on anyone, though.”

How affordable is the quartet?

“For a basic wedding we charge $300, and that involves music while people are arriving, say 15, 20 minutes. We play the whole ceremony, which is about 20 minutes to a half-hour. We’ll play as people are walking out of the church. Then we’ll play as they head for the champagne and hors d’oeuvres, which is another 15 minutes. So they get roughly an hour or hour and 15 minutes’ worth of music for $300. We add on for every additional hour, so it comes out to between $300 and $500. For a full, blow-out wedding where we play a three-hour reception, it’s $500.”

How is Jerahian’s relationship with the other musicians? His response is primarily about Gordon Grubbs. “He also plays harp, you know? He went to a music conservatory and he’s a very...,” Jerahian pauses, “…talented cellist. It’s kind of a bummer he doesn’t have a driver’s license, so somebody has to pick him up, and that kind of makes it hard. His cello playing makes up for the inconvenience, and he’s a good friend, a good guy.

“We had another cellist, but you’ve got to really want to do it. You’ve got to have four people that really want to play who don’t bitch and complain. Whiners, you know? People to whom you have to say, ‘I’ll pay you extra if you play 15 minutes more,’ and they say, ‘No, I’ve got to leave.’ It’s not like they’re really committed to it. It’s like, bam, and they’re out of there — give-me-the-money-and-run kind of thing. Everybody wants to be paid and everything, but at the same time, you’ve got to be diplomatic about it.”

The sun is setting out to sea through a shredded marine layer and shadows spread through the Aglers’ wooded backyard. Lights are turned on in the living room as the members of the quartet take their seats. The smell of lasagna and tobacco (from Agler’s husband’s pipe) fills the house, along with the famous 18 opening notes of Mozart’s “A Little Night Music.” Pacifica Strings begin the piece spontaneously, smiling and nodding at each other with satisfaction and amusement that the same selection was on everyone’s mind as darkness fell.

The centuries are erased and Mozart’s music feels as relevant as it was 200 years ago, as relevant as the moment, the summer night. ■
John Brizzolara

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