Thursday, 22 October 2009

Playing for one of the greats

I thought I would balance the previous article about a bad experience with a conductor, with one of my very best experiences of working under one of the greats.

I've been a regular participant in the Rehearsal Orchestra for many years. They run several weekend courses during the year, and a week-long residential course in Edinburgh during the Edinburgh International Music Festival. The participants are a mixture of college-level music students and good amateurs, with regular London pros as the paid principals of each of the string sections. For the one- and two-day weekend courses, they intensively rehearse a really big work and then put on an informal performance of it (they call it an "open rehearsal") at the end, and friends and relations are invited to come and listen.

One weekend in December 2001 was very special because the orchestra's patron, Sir Simon Rattle, had agreed to conduct a course.

He was in London that month conducting Parsifal at the Royal Opera. It is about the most exhausting thing to do, the opera lasts about 5 hours. As a rest from that on his Sunday off, he came to coach us for a day on Bruckner's 9th symphony - not a small work by any means!

I was playing first horn, so there was plenty to do. Bruckner wrote a lot of notes for the horn, and this piece requires 8 of them - and it seems like he uses them all most of the time!

Simon Rattle was lovely. The first thing he said when he stepped onto the rostrum was how wonderful and nostalgic it was to be back. (He played percussion in the Rehearsal Orchestra when he was about 14, and says he learned a lot from it.) He did everything possible to put a large number of very nervous and overawed amateur musicians at their ease.

Even so, I spent the first 45 minutes as nervous as anything, and at that point I gave myself a good talking to, and told myself. "Jonathan, there is absolutely zero chance of Simon coming up to you in the break and saying 'Jonathan, you're just the person I need to join the horn section in the Berlin Philharmonic!', and even if he did, you would turn him down, because you long ago decided against a musical career. So nothing depends on this except your own enjoyment of it."

And with that, I decided just to go for the notes and entries, and if I split an occasional one, then at least I'm trying to make it sound good and musical. And it worked. I felt myself relax and my tone opened out.

It is fascinating to watch a real master of his art at work. He spent most of the first hour or so working mainly with the strings. Normally wind players more or less fall asleep when the conductor is working with the strings, but not this time. It was riveting seeing how he took their sound apart, and then gradually, one technique at a time, he built the tone into what he wanted specifically for this composer and this piece. Pizzicatos with the fleshiest available part of the thumb or finger. Tremolando only after nearly a full length of bow. Wider vibrato than they had ever used before. Lots of bow. Very specific instructions as to when to use the heel of the bow and when to use the tip. At one point called out "Anyone found not playing at the heel at this point will be taken out and shot!"

Immediately after the first forte entry of the heavy brass, he stopped the whole orchestra and turned to them.

"Brass, that was a wonderful noise! Absolutely perfect for Shostakovich. And I don't want ever in my life to hear it again in a Bruckner symphony. The sound has to be rich and round without the slightest hint of a cuivré to it. Let's try it again."

I turned to the other horns and whispered down the line. "Horns, that means us as well!"

It wasn't just the techniques he was asking for, but he made it clear what he wanted in terms of the overall breadth & warmth of the sound. At one point he said "In this passage, I want the biggest, fattest tone you can manage. I want a full Orson Welles of a sound. Maybe even 7/8ths of a Marlon Brando." There were references to The Simpsons. "Imagine you are Bart Simpson having to write lines on the blackboard. Write 100 times 'I will not diminuendo on the down bow in Bruckner'."

At one point, he said "The main purpose of the conductor is to make himself unnecessary. You're now going to prove that. You mustn't rely on me and the beat, you have to listen to each other. Just to show you can, I'm going to start you off here, and you carry on without me." He started us off and then folded his arms, and grinned evilly at us, managing cues simply by looking at the relevant person and raising his right eyebrow. And we listened to each other, and we stayed together. After a minute or so, he stopped us and said "You know, conducting is one of the great fake professions..."

By listening to him working with the strings, it became clear to me the sort of tone and style he wanted from the horns as well, so my listening to him working with them hopefully saved him the bother of telling me. At one point he said to the orchestra (just after I had played something not quite in time). "You have to count and listen. I am not going to do anything as mundane as beat time just to make it easier for you to put semiquavers in the right place, I've more important things to do with the music." Sure enough, we did count, and we did listen, and we did (mostly) get the semiquavers right.

And in the course of the first hour or so, he transformed the tone and sound of the orchestra from what we were in fact (a pretty good amateur group) into a sound that to my ears would not have disgraced a regional professional orchestra.

He had some nice stories as well. He said that on one occasion when he was a student, he was coming into the Festival Hall to listen to Sir Georg Solti rehearse a Bruckner symphony with a major orchestra. He was just outside the door when he heard Solti screaming something at the orchestra. He opened the door and heard Solti absolutely apoplectic with rage shouting "TRANQVILLITY!!! AT ZIS POINT VE MUST HAF TRANQVILLITY!!!"

It's hard to describe the complete feeling of confidence that working with a master can bring to you (once you overcome the terror of his reputation!) Normally, with an amateur orchestra, the conductor is expected to keep a clear beat, and make sure that he looks at you and gives you a cue if you have a solo entry. You tend to get nervous if that doesn't happen. Somehow though, with Simon Rattle, I felt perfectly confident making solo entries without a cue, without much of a beat, and while he was looking very pointedly at the double-basses, right over on the opposite side of the orchestra. I don't know how he does it, but it works!

In the third movement, there are some passages which are just the 8 horns (or rather, 4 horns and 4 Wagner tubas. Horns 5-8 change instruments for the last movement) and almost nothing else apart from quiet strings, with first horn taking the tune. It was wonderful being able to let the tune soar out over the top of all that rich sound.

Talking to the other players over a drink afterwards, everyone was walking on air. The curious thing was that, every person I spoke to seemed to be convinced that in the informal concert at the end, Simon Rattle seemed always to be looking at them personally for the entire duration!

This is what playing for a great conductor can be like. People who can instil this kind of confidence in their players can completely transform a performance through the sheer force of their personality. This is what conducting should be.


  1. Wonderful, wonderful post. I'm a sucker for anecdotes because they get at the psychology of it all, which interests me as much as the music. And the Solti story made me laugh out loud, which is always a plus.

  2. You don't know me but tonight I was watching Rattle conduct on television. I'm the conductor of a decent amateur orchestra, but I was really intrigued by the magic of the sound, the unity of the players' technique and by how little Rattle seemed to be doing to keep it together. And yet they somehow seemed to be eating out of his hand. So I googled "Simon Rattle beat time" - and up came this delightful post, which has given me so much insight. You've helped to remind me that it is every bit as important to connect with the musicians as people as to have insightful things to say about the music. My next rehearsal will be better as a result of your post. Thank you!

  3. I just got home from a rehearsal to find this wonderful comment. Thank you!

    It is comments like this which make writing the blog a huge pleasure, knowing that from time to time someone may read an article and gain something from it. It makes me feel that I'm on the right track with my own music making.