Monday, July 6, 2009

A Swing and A Hit for Violinist

A Swing and A Hit for Violinist
Musician Plays Instrument Crafted From Baseball Bat

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 4, 2009

"I just decided, 'Well, let's see if I can make one,' " says Glenn Donnellan, a violinist with the National Symphony Orchestra. "I thought it would be cool to say to the kids, 'Hey, you can make your own.' "

The object in question is an electric violin made out of a baseball bat. And the answer is, Yes, he could.

Just in time for the Fourth of July, Donnellan posted to YouTube a video of himself playing the national anthem on his electric baseball-bat-violin. He didn't necessarily mean the clip for wide circulation. He put it up because a friend with contacts in the Washington Nationals front office wanted to show it to his bosses and ask about having Donnellan play the national anthem for a game. But there are no secrets on YouTube. By Friday, the video had racked up a respectable 1,600-plus views, and some enthusiastic comments. "Totally bat-ass!" one viewer wrote.

Donnellan made his bat-violin when the orchestra was preparing to go to Arkansas this spring for the 19th of its annual American residencies, which offer concerts and outreach programs in areas of the country that may not be well served with classical music. He was looking for an instrument to use in a children's concert; he had done the same program in D.C. with more standard electric fiddles, but he had only borrowed those instruments and couldn't take them on tour.

Not everyone might have come up with his solution, which required hours backstage at the Kennedy Center, using the stagehands' drill press to make holes in a baseball bat. "It's tricky to drill a hole in the handle," he observes. "If you use a small enough bit, it wants to drift." He adds, "You'll see how [the bat-violin] is kind of crude at the bottom."

On the contrary, the video is downright elegant -- both for the instrument, narrow and compact, and for the playing, executed with cool aplomb. It's certainly not your typical classical-music approach to the national anthem. There are overtones of Jimi Hendrix in the reverberant electronic sound, though the arrangement is actually Donnellan's own. (The video appears on YouTube as a "video response" to Hendrix, but Donnellan says that was an accident; new to the site, he randomly clicked a lot of different links when his post first went up.)

Donnellan has been with the NSO since 1997; his violinist wife, Jan Chung, frequently plays with the orchestra, too. (They have two children: Adrian, 8, and Katherine, 6.) On his own time, Donnellan tries his hand at fiddling and experimenting with jazz. "Jamming with a guitarist on 'Hotel California' at the California Congressional offices on the Hill, and with kids playing the Blues in Mississippi were some of the most fun and memorable musical experiences I've had," he writes in a follow-up e-mail. "In terms of playing outside the classical box, I think that if you can feel it, you can play it."

The instrument had immediate resonance in Arkansas. Iván Fischer, the NSO's principal conductor, happened to see Donnellan playing it backstage and immediately had to try it out. Now, Fischer wants one of his own. "I just haven't had time to make one," says Donnellan.