Married to music and to each other are Emily Cole and James Shields. Cole, who has a bacholor degree in music from the University of Texas at Austin and a masters from University of North Texas, has been a member of the Oregon Symphony’s violin section since 2011. Shields, who has a bachelor degree in music from The Julliard School and a masters from the University of New Mexico, started in 2016 as the orchestra’s principal clarinetist.
Both are very involved in Portland’s music scene as members of 45th Parallel Universe, and perform with Fear No Music (of which Shields is a member), Third Angle New Music, and others (see my review of the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival). On top of that, Cole is the artistic and planning lead for the Portland Summer Ensembles, and Shields is the co-artistic director for Chatter, a year-around chamber music series in Albuquerque.
On October 19 and 20 they will both perform in Third Angle’s “Big Reveal” concert at the OMSI Kendall Planetarium. Because they maintain busy schedules, I caught up with them via a split Zoom call. Emily was in Minneapolis, where she was performing in a piano trio, and then going to Iowa for a performance of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with the Wartburg Community Symphony in Waverly. James was getting ready to fly to Albuquerque for Chatter concerts.
Oregon Arts Watch: Emily, I know that your mom, Linda Cole, is a member of the Seattle Symphony. Did you start playing violin because of her?
Emily Cole: I did, but I don’t think that my mom wanted to push me into playing the violin. My parents got me started with piano lessons but that was the only thing that they expected of me. I heard her practice and heard her with the orchestra. Other members of my family played violin, and we had several violins in our house. When I was eight, I asked her a couple of times if I could take lessons, and she decided to teach me. So, she was my first teacher. After a year or so, I transitioned to one of her colleagues. She always helped me at home and continues to give excellent advice.
OAW: You never thought of playing a clarinet?
EC: There were people in my family who played other instruments, but I was most interested in the violin. I really wanted to play in the violin section of an orchestra. I love the sound of the violin.
OAW: So, James, how did you come to learn the clarinet?
James Shields: It’s kind of funny because my dad was a violinist. I grew up in Austin, Texas, and started on the violin but hated it because it was too hard. I quit violin twice: once in the second grade, even after taking lessons, then in fifth grade. That’s when I was in the school orchestra and sat in the back of the section and was kind of a class clown.
I was more interested in the clarinet. I had seen it in a book and asked about it. I started with clarinet in the sixth-grade band, and I liked it and stuck with it.
OAW: Did you meet as members of the Oregon Symphony, or did you meet earlier at a music camp or festival?
EC: We met at the orchestra, but we have several mutual friends. So I knew of James peripherally before I ever met him.
OAW: James, I recall seeing you play a huge contrabass clarinet in a Chamber Music Northwest concert. How many clarinets do you own?
JS: I have everything from a bass clarinet to an E-flat clarinet, plus a basset horn, which is an oddity in the clarinet world. I probably have too many clarinets. But I don’t own a contrabass clarinet.
I snoop around Ebay now and then to see if I can find a cheap contrabass clarinet. It doesn’t come up in the repertoire all that often.
OAW: Emily, do you have one violin primarily?
EC: Yes, but I have several different bows. There are two bows that I alternate between. For me, it’s the weight of the bow and how heavy or light it is – how the weight is distributed over the stick. Little tiny variations make a difference. Over the weekend, for the Beethoven Triple Concerto, I’ll use a bow that is a little heavier. That heaviness helps to activate the sound of the instrument and project the sound. With the Oregon Symphony, though, I play with a bow that was two grams lighter. The lighter bow enables me to move around and play with more fleetness with the violin section.
OAW: James, I recall the Brahms concert with the Oregon Symphony and you had to switch back and forth clarinets. Do you have to learn different fingerings?
JS: No, the fingerings are all very similar, if not completely identical. It is all the same but just in a different key: the B♭ clarinet versus the A clarinet, for instance. You have to get used to the distance between the physical keys on the clarinet body. You develop a muscle memory for it. The tricky part involves how you blow the different instruments. You develop a skill for switching between instruments.
All orchestral players use B♭ and A clarinets, maybe a C clarinet occasionally, and all these instruments use the same mouthpiece and reed, so you’ll often see clarinetists switching their mouthpiece from one to the other – even during the same piece of music.
Things get trickier when you are performing on clarinets that use a different mouthpiece and reed, because changing gears takes much more finesse. Some players prefer not to switch between bass clarinet and B♭ clarinet, or E♭ clarinet and A clarinet, for instance. These instruments are not only radically different in size, but require their own mouthpiece and reed. Personally, I think it’s a fun challenge to play lots of different clarinets, and I think it even benefits my Bb-clarinet playing to be flexible in that way, but it can sometimes be a hassle!
OAW: When you are both at home, do you have different practice rooms?
EC: We have different stations in the house. James’ station is a little more fixed than mine. He has to have access to his various mouthpieces. There is more paraphernalia associated with his practice sessions than mine. Sometimes I’ll practice in our living room. But if I need to shut everything out, I’ll practice in our laundry room. I am more mobile in that way.
OAW: James, how long have you been involved with Chatter?
JS: I think that it is thirteen or fourteen years. That series started from humble beginnings. We called it the Church of Beethoven and passed around a basket at concerts for donations. It has grown up a lot, and now Chatter is an institution is Albuquerque and Sante Fe. It’s all chamber music, using from one to twenty players, and it goes all year long. We do a concert every Sunday morning in Albuquerque and concerts the second and forth Saturday of the month in Santa Fe. We have a Friday night series once a month that is more contemporary and informal, with beer and wine. We are pretty close to a hundred concerts a year now.
OAW: Tell us more about the pieces you will play for the Third Angle concert.
EC: There are two pieces on the Third Angle program that are string-quartet-only pieces. One is by Jerod Tate, an Indigenous composer and member of the Chickasaw nation, and the other is by Gabriel Kahane, who lives in Portland and is the chair of the Oregon Symphony’s Creative Alliance.
I’m super excited to do the Tate piece, Pisachi. We are hoping to have a session with him via Zoom so that he can hear us and give us some feedback. Kahane’s piece is his String Quartet No. 1. It was premiered by the Attacca Quartet via livestream during Covid. All of the movements were inspired by paintings of Paul Klee. There’s a little quote from his album Magnificent Bird in the piece.
JS: The program has a clarinet and strings piece called Nervous Systems, by Chris Cerrone. It is a co-commission by Third Angle and Chatter and a group from Australia called the Omega Ensemble and Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra, which is based in L.A.
Nervous Systems is a clarinet quintet – clarinet and quartet. I’ve roped Emily into many clarinet quintets, ranging from Mozart to wild contemporary pieces, like the quintet from Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg. There will be more clarinet quintets that we premiere together in the future.
The concert will also have a piece for solo clarinet, Three Smiles for Tracy, by Adolphus Hailstork, that I’ll play. I’ve never done it before.
OAW: Is there much literature for clarinet and violin as a duo?
JS: There’s not much out there for just violin and clarinet. Georg Friedrich Fuchs wrote several pieces.
EC: We made attempts to mine the violin and clarinet literature during Covid, and we read through all of the Fuchs duos. We did find a duo by Swedish composer Anders Hillborg and recorded it for the Oregon Symphony’s “Essential Sounds” video series in 2020.
But we are not limited to pieces written for our specific instrumentation. We can play transcriptions and arrangements. So there’s a lot of chamber music for us to play!