Tuesday, 2 November 2010

An all Russian concert

In October, I played the first concert of the season with Hillingdon Philharmonic. Obviously a brass player has got at the committee, because we had a very brass-heavy programme of Russian music: Shostakovich's Festive Overture, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (the Ravel orchestration), and Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony.

It got complicated some time before the concert. The other regular horn player in the orchestra dropped out as he had an RAF Association Band concert the same evening, so I had to draft in extras from neighbouring orchestras. Even that didn't go smoothly, one of the players I booked had to drop out because she had sliced open and seriously injured a finger in her left hand. But even so, we had a good strong section.

I've known Pictures for a long time, I first played it at about the age of 15 in the Norfolk County Youth Orchestra, so I knew that it requires some odd instruments. Fortunately my daughter Katie plays the alto saxophone, needed for "Il vecchio castello", so she was booked for the concert, and played her solo very well! (I'm biased of course, I would say that, but it happens also to be true.)

I also knew that the tuba solo in the "Bydlo" movement goes impossibly high by tuba standards - it reaches a G# above middle C, which is ridiculous writing for a tuba.  Tuba players normally bring along a tenor tuba or euphonium to play that movement. I remember a time many years ago playing the piece with the Norwich Philharmonic, and the tuba player booked for the concert didn't know about the solo, and simply couldn't play that high and hadn't brought a tenor tuba along. So I mentioned this to the relevant committee member and suggested that they check whether our regular tuba player had a euphonium he could play for that movement. He didn't, so we booked a euphonium player from a local brass band specifically for that movement, and I wrote out the tuba part for the movement transposed into Bb basso in treble clef, which is the normal brass band notation for a Bb euphonium. Written out that way, the top note of the part is a written Bb above the treble stave. That's pretty high even for a euphonium.

As for the horns, I decided as soon as the programme was announced that this would absolutely need five horns, that I would need an assistant. Sometimes you can manage without, but not for a programme with this much sustained heavy work for the brass. Apart from me, all the horns were extras brought in for the day, so I was free to arrange the horns as I thought fit. I played 1st for everything, but I arranged for everybody else to swap round between the two halves of the concert, mainly so that nobody would have to "bump" (be the assistant 1st horn) for the whole concert, and also so that nobody would have to cope with playing the high 3rd horn part for the whole evening. In amateur orchestras, I find that a bit of swapping round of parts helps maintain the interest for everybody.

For this concert, especially as we had an afternoon rehearsal on the same day, I knew I would have to pace myself. The big solo in the second movement of the Tchaikovsky was in the second half of the concert, and there were big brass chorale finales to both the Shostakovich and Mussorgsky - the Great Gate of Kiev at the end of Pictures is a real lip-shredder. So I decided to make as much use of the bumper as possible. More or less anything loud and tutti I simply handed over to the assistant to play. For instance, I left almost the whole of "The Great Gate of Kiev" to the assistant, just playing an occasional 4 bars to give her lip a chance to recover.

Even with this pacing, including leaving significant chunks of the Tchaikovsky first movement to the assistant, I found that my lip was more tired than I would have liked when I got to the big solo in the Tchaikovsky. No individual bit of the solo is technically unduly difficult, but put together it is very challenging for two reasons. The first is that it does go on for quite a long time, and so your technique and endurance have to be up to the job of making the end sound as impressive as the start. The second and more important challenge is that you have to fill a wide expressive range. The solo has to sound beautiful - romantic, relaxed at times, more urgent at others. It has to sound continuous even though you have to take breaths from time to time. And it has to sound effortless, as if the encumbrance of actually having to extract sound from the instrument is a mere triviality.

An important aspect of the solo is that Tchaikovsky has been quite detailed in his markings, for dynamics, articulation, phrasing and changes of tempo. For instance, there is one ascending scale passage where for the first five notes are marked mezzo staccato with dots and slurs, but the last three notes have dashes instead. It's a deliberate change and you have to reflect it with much fuller note lengths and more legato tonguing. And if you do that, the effect is romantic and magical!

Also there are stringendos, rubatos and a tempo marks, so the speed gets pulled around quite a bit. For all practical purposes this is a horn concerto for a few minutes, so the conductor will follow you whatever you do. So you have to decide how much you are going to change speed and precisely when. Remember that although you are solo and the conductor has to follow you, you can make it easier by making your tempo changes smooth and gradual so he can conduct in a way so that the speed changes don't flummox the rest of the orchestra. But most important is that you have to decide on the shape of the solos - where exactly are the climaxes, how will I reach them, how much do I do in terms of speed and dynamic variation? Where will I breathe so you can achieve all this? What am I trying to say here?

This requires practice at home. You don't want to be improvising this at the orchestra rehearsal. The rehearsal should merely involve making minor tweaks that occur to you as a result of hearing it with live orchestral accompaniment. Every note of the solo is deserving of thought as to how it will be played, and if you are going to wring the maximum expressiveness out of it, some at least of the notes will be a bit risky. Such is life as a horn player.

My daughter Katie doesn't often play saxophone in an orchestra, most of her orchestral playing has been on the cello. So she isn't all that used to having a situation where the conductor cues you, and if you don't play, nothing happens because nobody else is doubling you! She told me afterwards that she finds that a bit unnerving. Welcome to my world! Orchestral wind players just have to learn to deal with it.

1 comment:

  1. Wish I could have been there.

    Great writing in this post. Particularly liked, "And it has to sound effortless, as if the encumbrance of actually having to extract sound from the instrument is a mere triviality." Something else to add to the musicality file.