Stevie Wonder's March 29 concert at Target Center had many memorable moments — and one of the most memorable was when the music legend asked the members of his local string section whether any of them wanted to stand up and improvise a solo.
One bow went up: that of violinist Jill Olson Moser.
Later that week, Moser came to the Classical MPR studios to talk about the experience of soloing with Stevie — and about her busy life as a freelance musician.
First things first: did you know that you were going to have an opportunity to solo during Stevie Wonder's show?
When I showed up that day, I had no idea. We do a lot of these kind of gigs with big names and you show up and you know you can't just go up and talk to them: it's kind of a formal situation. Usually we [hired musicians] stay pretty low-key throughout. This is the first time there's been anything this off-script happen.
Before the rehearsal, it was run by me by the guy who was kind of handling us throughout the day; he said, "Occasionally, Stevie likes to do some jamming stuff, and he sometimes asks a string player to play. Would you be okay with that?"
I paused and said, "Sure, that would be fine."
He told me the name of the song that it would be a part of, and so I dutifully pulled up YouTube and listened to it, and I thought, okay, maybe he'll ask me to play along on a violin part on a chorus or something like that. So we went to the rehearsal, we played the other songs that we had charts for, and then [Stevie Wonder] dismissed us [until the performance]. So I pulled the music director over and said, "I heard there might be something else with some improv."
[The music director] was very, very vague, and not interested in giving me any details. He said, "Oh, okay, that'll be fine."
I said, "What can you tell me about it?"
He said, "Well, it'll be in C-sharp."
I said, "C-sharp major? C-sharp minor? Fast? Slow?"
He said, "Well, it'll be in C-sharp, it'll be kind of bluesy."
So that was all I knew, and then going into the show, when that number came up, it was in C. So I spent the first few verses thinking, huh, this isn't in C-sharp, that's a relief. It's much easier to improvise in C than in C-sharp. Then the last verse goes up to C-sharp, and then they just went off on this big jam session! At some point the music director leaned over and said, "Oh, they've gone off into other things, so there's not time," and I kind of breathed a sigh of parallel relief and disappointment. Then it kind of circled back, and the kind of jam session that it turned into was much less structured than I expected it to be and much more free-form, which was kind of fun.
Were you surprised that no one else took the opportunity?
No. It hadn't been discussed that it might be so free-form. I don't know if it always is. I have a feeling that those musicians that travel together and do this same thing night after night...I have a feeling that it's probably very different everywhere, and so maybe it hasn't even come up that there are other places that make the offer.
I wouldn't be surprised if other people might have had they had some forewarning, but I think one does need a little bit of time to just mentally prepare oneself, because that's so far afield from what we typically do at a gig like that. Even being able to guarantee that you can stand up without knocking your mic off your instrument or without getting your earphones hung up under your heels...we're very comfortable sitting behind our music stand and stuff like that. Maybe if it hadn't been so off-the-cuff.
And with just 13,000 or so people watching...
Oh my God, there were a lot of people there.
Were you pleased with how your solo went?
I think so. It's so in the moment, and clearly nothing that I could plan or have an idea in advance for...I think in hindsight, realizing that will be a singular experience in my lifetime, and thinking, oh, man, wouldn't it be so great if there had been two or three nights, and the first one you can have some ideas about what you might like to do...but I think that's where the day-to-day life of the classical musician is so different from that of the jazz musician or the rock musician, where there are so many more opportunities to do that — and with that, probably, a little bit more comfort and elasticity in that experience.
Were you a big Stevie Wonder fan before this?
I've known his music all of my life. He's so iconic, and his music has shaped so much of music. One thing that strikes me as funny is that in the fall, Motown: The Musical came through town and I played for that. There are a number of Stevie Wonder songs in that Broadway show, and I really enjoyed playing all of that music in that setting, but now I'm thinking, gosh — a few months ago I had no idea that I would get to play this music with the actual Stevie Wonder in a few months. So it's pretty surreal.
How much notice do you have, typically, before a show like that?
Often they'll be on the calendar weeks or a couple of months in advance. The contractor for this gig, Rebecca Arons, was kind of notified about it but wasn't able to hire musicians right away because they have to get the contract and everything in place before they can commit. This one was a little drawn-out, and maybe because of his profile a little stickier in the contracting end of it. So she notified us weeks in advance, I would guess, and then probably a week ahead of time sent us a file with some PDFs of the pieces that we would be playing — which sometimes happens, sometimes doesn't. Then, earlier in the day we'll have some rehearsal time. I think we only had about 40 minutes to rehearse for Stevie Wonder; sometimes it'll be a few hours.
You have to have really good sight-reading chops. A big part of that specific piece of a freelancer's puzzle really requires that. Orchestral stuff, you have a lot more time to learn that repertoire. But this stuff, you have to be pretty quick on your feet.
Typically, is the artist himself or herself there, or is it just the music director running you through the paces?
It really depends, but a lot of times what you'll see is that you'll meet with the music director and maybe you'll spend a half-hour, 45 minutes marking through stuff and then the band will gradually fill in. If the artist is going to be there, it's going to maybe be for the last 15-20 minutes: they'll be checking sound levels and just pulling everything together at the end of that time.
What are some of the other memorable experiences you've had as a freelance musician?
Over this past year I've started working with STRINGenius to do some recording with Prince, which is definitely a highlight &8212; when I listen to those tracks, I can't believe that what I'm hearing, I'm actually a part of. It's just kind of mind-blowing.
I do a lot of work with the Minnesota Orchestra and the Minnesota Opera, which is a wonderful foundation for the rest of the work.
With live performance, you never quite know what's going to happen. I think different artists handle it differently. Idina Menzel was here, and she had a terrible throat infection but she was not going to cancel and she was not going to postpone: she muscled through the show and used her charm and her humor to really pull it off, and I don't think anyone in the audience was disappointed for that experience, but it certainly wasn't what any of us expected coming in. That involved some last-minute changes in the setlist to skip over things that didn't feel comfortable for her at that time.
To go back to the beginning, tell me about your background.
I grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska — which was really a fantastic place for growing up. I had a wonderful musical community to grow up in as a Suzuki violin kid. I started when I was two, and had a lot of performing opportunities. I think it was a great community in terms of providing those opportunities.
You think of the east coast and the kids who are excelling going off and doing youth orchestra in Boston or New York — these huge communities — and the prep schools, and growing up in Nebraska I certainly was a long way from that, but when I think of what I do now and when I glance back to those formative years, what I would do typically as a middle school and high school kid is on a weekend night, go hear the symphony or the chamber orchestra or a visiting string quartet play at the University of Nebraska campus, and then I would walk a couple of blocks and hear great local music. The band scene there was, and still is, just incredibly rich, and in high school I had a rock band that I sang in and played violin in.
So I think that what I'm doing now is such a reflection of that in that as passionate as I always felt about classical music, there was always this other side of me that would, in a music conservatory, almost seem kind of rebellious: to be passionate about non-classical music too, and to love making up and improvising and doing things that are less mainstream in the training that we get as classical musicians.
How did you end up coming to Minnesota?
Well, I went to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and as I was finishing up my undergrad there, I was looking at different graduate schools, and I ended up moving here to study with Jorja Fleezanis, who was the concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra at that point. So I moved here and figured I would just be here for a couple of years, doing grad school and then moving on. I did leave for a couple of years, but I gravitated back and started subbing with the Minnesota Orchestra — that was really the mainstay, and kind of an addictive experience, because the Orchestra is out of this world. I credit it for so much of my growth as a violinist and as a musician.
I think that as a musician, the way we listen affects our musicianship more than anything: the way that we hear and what we do with what we hear, how we internalize it, how that influences the way that we play. So those formative years of playing with the Orchestra, and hearing that incredible sound and the attention to detail and the nuance and the control that they have was really addictive and hard to walk away from.
Coming out of college I assumed that my destiny would be to get on the audition circuit for a full-time orchestra job and just stay that path with some grit and stubbornness until that fell into place. I did do that for a number of years, but as time passed, it is an all-consuming endeavor to take those auditions. The level of preparation necessary is completely consuming, and after doing that for a few years, I was having to make decisions about what orchestras I wanted to audition for, what cities that would subsequently have me move to, and I was getting pickier and pickier about the level of orchestra that I wanted to play with — being spoiled by Minnesota — and also coming to terms with, "I've been doing this for a number of years, and if I was going to win a job in the Boston Symphony or the New York Phil, I would probably be having different luck in these auditions."
I just made the decision that this was the music community that I wanted to set my roots down in.
And you're now a full-time freelance musician. It sounds like you keep busy!
It is really busy! I'm very, very happy that it's busy right now. There have certainly been slower periods, but very happily, both of the orchestras in town are back to work and doing incredible programming, and I'm lucky enough to get to do a lot of that playing with the Minnesota Orchestra.
The freelance pool here is so deep. That the community can support as many interesting projects as there are going on — [for example] Liquid Music, and what Mischa Santora is doing with the Minneapolis Music Company — all of this happening in the Midwest, and in a metro of this size, is pretty amazing.