Monday, 17 August 2009

Chamber music and watching each other

I've just come back from a week of music-making up at the Edinburgh Fringe. The concerts were very enjoyable though the audiences were disappointingly small.

I was playing in St Clements Wind Ensemble, and we played a mixture of wind quintets and larger pieces.

For the larger pieces we mostly used a conductor, except for the Mozart Serenade in C minor which is rhythmically sufficiently straightforward not to need one. For the quintets we mostly didn't use a conductor, except for the Ligeti Bagatelles, which is extremely complex. If you get asked to play this, ask for the part ahead of time, listen to a recording, and don't accept at all unless you can reliably slur a 5th up to a piano top C.

One delightful piece we played was Swansea Town, a set of 8 folk tune variations by Gordon Jacob. Each variation was in a different style and often at a different speed. We had a variety of time signatures - 4/4. 6/8, 2/4, 5/4, 3/4 and one variation that had alternate bars in 2/3 and 3/4.

With a piece like this, the key to success (or at least to staying together!) is how you manage the transitions from one variation to the next. We worked out who should lead us off at the start, and then we worked out who had the tune (or alternatively the fastest moving part) at the start of each variation. That person was given the job of acting as leader for that transition, and waved his or her instrument to indicate the new beat. Everyone else had the job of watching the leader for that moment to ensure that we all stayed together.

There were also occasions where it was important that two particular instruments came in together. For instance, in a short bridge passage between two variations, the horn and clarinet made an entry together while nothing else is happening apart from a held note on the flute. So we marked our parts to remind ourselves to look at each other at that point.

The Mozart Serenade in C minor is a lovely piece - a staple of the wind ensemble repertoire. The instrumentation is a pair each of oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons. The same sort of technique is used to ensure we all stay together. The first oboe most usually leads off, though on one or two occasions it is the first clarinet.

As a horn player you are rarely leading, instead you are normally doing what you do in an orchestra - blending into the middle of the harmony. In the absence of the conductor, you have to do two things. One is that you have to listen extra carefully to what is going on, and second you have keep in sight in the corner of your eye whoever has the lead (usually first oboe or first clarinet) and make sure that you are following whatever they do, and keeping up with whatever they signal about pauses and or changes of speed.

In other words, you have to follow the conductor, just as in an orchestra, but the conducting duties get spread around the group. Even if no particular transition is imminent, keeping an eye on whoever has the tune is still a good idea. They may well want to do some slight rubato or expressive phrasing, and it is so much easier on them if they know the rest of the group is watching and will catch any temporary changes of speed.

When rehearsing chamber music like this, one of the important things to do at any transition is to decide who is leading at that point. You agree together how the transition will be done, e.g. how long a pause will be, or what a new speed will be. The designated leader then takes the responsibility of signalling the change, usually by waving the instrument in some discernible way. And the rest of the the group have to look and follow.

At a transition, mark in your part who is leading and therefore who you need to look at. If you are leading, then mark that in as well, so you remember to give the indications that everyone else is relying on.

The other key point about chamber music is that there is usually only one instrument with the tune. If you can't hear the tune clearly, you are too loud, even if marked forte. The horn can easily drown the other instruments in a quintet if you put your mind to it, and being the only brass instrument in the group you have a distinctive sound that comes through very easily. So except when you have a solo, all the dynamics need to be scaled down by one or two notches. So for instance a passage marked f should generally get about the same volume you would play mp in an orchestra. In the whole set of our concerts last week, there were really only two points at which I felt at liberty to let rip. One was a glissando to a top A in the first movement of Ibert's Trois pièces brèves, and the other was the end of one of the Ligeti Bagatelles where the last two or three bars have the horn marked fffz. For everything else, even where the horn was quite prominent, I was always calculating the volume appropriate to my part's place in the group.

This does lead to challenges. It means that you have to often play very quietly in the upper register, with all the dangers of clams that entails. Of course, you practice as as much as you can to minimize them, but don't lose sleep over an occasional one. The odd clam will be forgiven, playing too loud so you unbalance the ensemble will not. If you do that you simply won't get asked back.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic Corno da Caccia -