North Coast Journal


Humboldt ahoy!

by Miv Schaaf

[photo of chamber workshop participants]HUMBOLDT! THAT ONE WORD PUTS FIRE IN THE EYE of any serious amateur chamber musician. It's the high point of the summer chamber music workshop season that starts in June at Montana State University, then wanders west, north and south through Bellingham, Wash.; Ashland, Ore.; Arcata, the home of Humboldt State University; Chico, San Juan Capistrano and San Diego. Some intrepid players journey joyously from one place to another all summer long, counting it not an exhausting workout but a prime vacation.

After a long, hot drive from Pasadena you are in Oakland, casting a wistful glance west, wondering if you would not have a better time just spending your vacation in San Francisco after all.

Steeling yourself, you point north and then comes the wine country, beautiful, would be nice to vacation here, and then the redwoods. Here are the redwoods and under the redwoods there are those tall ferns, so aggressively primeval, and under those tall ferns are smaller fragile ferns and under those are the mosses one could spend a happy lifetime studying.

Suddenly there's Humboldt Bay and the mud flats and the gulls soaring seaward in the cool gray air. Misting, raining -- you are in a different country; you can breathe the wet air, wear sweaters, and feel rugged and outdoorsy.

Maybe a vacation in Eureka would be a better idea. There are the docks and those marvelous old Victorian houses and you should investigate why they are so elegantly painted in quiet pastels and have not given in to the more garish, decorator-driven colors of the San Francisco ones. Interesting little shops, too. And, best of all, the mud flats. Why, the mysteries of the mud flats alone would be a joyous week's vacation.

On north to Humboldt State University, which has a healthy surround of redwoods itself and compulsory mist and gulls. Before you have unloaded the car, as you register for your dorm room, what happens? A frenzy takes over. Here it is, barely 8 o'clock in the evening, people milling around with violin, viola, cello cases, ready to squeeze in three or four hours of quartet playing before the workshop starts in the morning.

Unaccountably, this fever rages unabated all week. It is not enough to have assigned morning and afternoon sessions every day. No, you can cram in extra free-lance playing with other mad musicians at the lunch and dinner hours -- who needs food? -- and from 8 to 10 in the morning, from 10 to midnight. Somehow all this work is fun; chamber music is.

Henry Fagin is not the world's best violinist, but he is a veteran workshop player and is also, shall we say, somewhat unpredictable. At the last concert, which is pretty solemn because no one wants to leave, his string group started soberly enough with a modern discordant piece. Somehow it turned into a saccharine waltz with 16-measure rests allowing the cello and viola players to don garden hats and dance, and then degenerated into "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles," impelling the slim blonde flute player, in green Peter Pan knickers, to dance about blowing soap bubbles while some of Henry's hidden cohorts released balloons.

Friday at noon we left for Pasadena but only got as far as Eureka where Dan Gurney, another cello player, took us out on his sailboat to see the mud flats.

I was not social; I did not talk. I lay on my stomach, hung over the side, nose practically touching the water, staring down. You could not stare down very far, for the water was brown and flat and reflective. But if you looked and waited, you would see dark weeds, bits of branches and jellyfish. Baby ones, rising to the surface as though just born -- their incredibly delicate balloons, like bubbles of clear blue glass, rising, lifting. Such fragile, fleeting bubbles floating on either side of the hull -- fanciful fairy things like those the flute players had blown.

I could not say which I enjoyed most -- the week drowned in chamber music or those hours of silence on the mud flats.


This was Schaaf's first workshop in 1982 before moving to Humboldt in 1989. Schaaf wrote for the Los Angeles Times for 15 years.

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