Monday, 11 June 2012

Playing a concert on one rehearsal

Last month, I was asked to play a concert with the North Downs Sinfonia. They don't happen to have any regular horns at the moment, and so they had to bring in extras from outside. I was asked to play 1st horn for the concert. The programme was very nice: Weber's Overture Euryanthe, Grieg's Piano Concerto, and Beethoven's 2nd Symphony.

But I and the other horns couldn't get to any of the rehearsals before the day of the concert, so we had just the one rehearsal on the day the concert itself. Amongst freelance pros and also among the better amateurs who deputise in each others' orchestras, this is a fairly common occurrence. The only unusual aspect of this concert is that it isn't all that common for a deputy to be called in to play 1st.

If you are going to do a concert on such little rehearsal, then you owe it to the rest of the orchestra to be as well prepared as possible. Ideally, you should already know the pieces and so not need much rehearsal anyway. In this case, this was true for me for two out of the three pieces, I've played both the Beethoven and the Grieg before.

But whether or not you've played the pieces before, you still need to prepare. If at all possible, get hold of the parts ahead of time. You can get the orchestra to post them to you, or if the pieces are out of copyright, you can go to the IMSLP website and download the part if it is available. You then have a listen to a recording of the piece while looking at your part, so you can identify any tricky &/or exposed bits. Mark these as you listen. They are then your priorities for practice prior to the concert.

Just as important, listening through the piece while looking at your part will get you used to hearing it and knowing where you come in. For instance, if you have a long rest during which 2 or 3 rehearsal letters go past, you should see if you can note a change in orchestration. Maybe the flutes have a solo entry at letter "B", the trombones at letter "C". Note that down in the part, it means that you will be able to reset your counting in case you have miscounted during a long rest. This is always possible with a piece you're less familiar with.But more generally, if you know how the music sounds you can be much more confident of your entries.

The third vitally important point is that pieces have "corners", places where there is a pause, a break, or a change of tempo. Many such corners have been established by tradition and aren't written into parts, and so you need to be able to anticipate what the conductor will do. You can't guarantee that the conductor will follow tradition in exactly the same way as happens in the recording, but at least you will be able to work out a number of places where you need to watch carefully to see what the conductor is doing, and so avoid wasting rehearsal time by being the one person who carries on when the rest of the orchestra has stopped!

If you're playing 1st, or if you're playing another part with any exposed solos, you need not only to ensure that you have the relevant notes well-practiced, but you also have to form a view ahead of time on what expression you're going to put in: what articulation, dynamics and rubato. This may of course need to be adapted on the day, depending for instance on whether the conductor is going at the speed you expected. But if you do something that is fairly appropriate and convincing on the first run through, the conductor is likely to be so grateful that he will leave it as it is rather than attempt to get you to change it, and will instead go on to rehearse something else that needs more work.

If the parts aren't all that difficult then preparing by listening to recordings is generally more useful than preparing by practicing. If basically you know how to play the notes then the most important issue is making sure you know when your entries are. That's done by listening.

These days, with electronic copies of much of the orchestral repertoire so easily available, there is usually no excuse for turning up and sightreading your way through the one rehearsal before a concert. You're greatly appreciated if you come prepared.

This kind of concert is great experience if you're a student aspiring to be a pro. You should take every possible chance of getting standard repertoire under your belt. But remember, if you're hoping to become a pro, then coming prepared isn't merely appreciated, it's an absolute necessity. Even with the most obscure amateur performance, you never know who may be in the audience or in the orchestra. For instance, it's not uncommon for the admin staff of the professional orchestras to be amateur players. You absolutely don't want to mess up a concert where one of the violins happens to be in charge of the extras list for a professional orchestra! Treat every concert as if it is an audition for a bigger gig.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Beecham on rehearsing

I've just come across this quote from Sir Thomas Beecham on rehearsing. If only more conductors could rehearse his way!

There's only one way to rehearse an orchestral piece, which is what I do. I take either a Mozart symphony or a Strauss tone poem. I play the whole thing through beginning to end without a stop. The whole blessed thing. The orchestra makes a few mistakes, naturally. I play through a second time. The orchestra makes no mistakes. I then just take a few little difficult parts. I pinpoint them, I emphasize them, I repeat those three or four times - I'm ready for performance.

What does the young conductor do, who will never profit by anybody else's experience, thanks to his unconquerable egotism and innate stupidity? He will take a first class orchestra, and after playing twenty bars he will stop, and he begins educating them - fancy educating a body of people like the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra! They already know the damn piece ten times better than he does. He gives us one more twenty bars, stops, starts educating, teaching them. That's why he wants six rehearsals, and that's why I can do with two!

The point of course is that we mainly get better in rehearsals by playing the piece, not by listening while we are told how we should have played the piece. It works at the amateur level as well, though there may be more in the way of errors that need to be cleaned up after the play-through. But even at an amateur level, people learn faster through actually being able to play the piece!

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Choosing concert programmes

Choosing a programme for an amateur orchestral concert is a considerable art. There are quite a few things that need to be considered.

First you need to think of the numbers and quality of the players you have. Are they capable of playing a specific piece? If they aren't, there's no point in programming it. You can stretch the players, but you mustn't break them.

Then there's the question of cost. Is the music expensive to hire? Does the piece require additional players of obscure instruments who will need to be brought in (and probably paid)? That a piece is expensive to put on isn't necessarily a bar, but there is a limit to how many expensive concerts an amateur orchestra can afford.

Then there's the question of whether the programme is likely to attract an audience. Each individual orchestra will have its own audience and you should be looking to know their tastes, and to some degree cater for them. There is a fine balance between giving them what they know and like, and introducing them to something they don't know but might like.

And then there is the question of whether the orchestra will enjoy rehearsing the piece. This is not a trivial consideration. For an amateur orchestra, a significant number of people in the audience will be friends and relatives of the players coming along to support them. The players are the orchestra's sales force. If the players don't have confidence in the programme, they aren't going to work hard to get their friends to come along to the concert.

When I'm involved in helping to choose a programme for an orchestral concert, I work on the principle that for most amateur orchestral concerts, every programme should contain at least one disgustingly popular work. In Britain, that generally means a piece in the Classic FM Hall of Fame Top 300, or a piece that could easily be mistaken for something on the list (for instance one of Tchaikovksy's first three symphonies instead of one of his last three). This piece is what will actually get people into the hall. Then you have a bit more freedom with the rest of the programme. You can pick some works that are a bit less familiar. You can pick a concerto, you can pick something modern (perhaps even commissioned by the orchestra). There is plenty of room for creativity provided you remember that people have to persuaded to come, and you want them to enjoy it enough that they will want to come back next time.

My thoughts along these lines have been triggered by disagreements I've had with the conductor of one of the orchestras I'm a member of.

Our spring concert consisted of the following:

Schumann: Overture Hermann and Dorothea
John Woolrich: The Theatre Represents a Garden - Night
Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 (Eroica)

The Eroica is fine. It's an undeniably great work, it is popular, it is playable, albeit challenging in places. The problem was with the other two pieces.

The Schumann overture is not well known, and having played it, I can see why. It's what I would call one of his "justly neglected" works. It's worth a very occasional airing, but it's not good enough ever to become particularly popular and isn't all that enjoyable to rehearse - the same gloomy tune repeated over and again with bits of La Marseillaise interspersed occasionally. I've never played it before and I have no great desire ever to play it again.

John Woolrich is a favourite of our conductor. He's a living British composer. I had never heard of him before, and specifically never heard of this piece. It is passages of Mozart (mainly taken from uncompleted fragments of works) tacked together with odd time signatures and somewhat abrupt transitions between subjects. My feeling was that if we wanted to play something that sounded like Mozart, we could actually have played some Mozart. The frequent changes of speed and of time signature made the piece difficult to rehearse. The effect achieved wasn't really worth the effort involved.

I don't mind musical experiments. I like them. I accept that not all experiments will work, and if you try an experiment that doesn't work, you learn from it and move on. But two obscure or experimental pieces in the same programme in my view was one too many. I certainly didn't feel that I wanted to bring all my friends to the concert, and I suspect that others in the orchestra felt the same. The audience was down by almost half on our usual numbers.

The programme for the orchestra's summer concert will be as follows

Rossini: Overture Il Turco in Italia
Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No. 2
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto

In my view, this programme breaks the rule of making sure that most of what you put on will be enjoyable to rehearse. The Tchaikovsky is undeniably a great work. But it is a concerto, so the soloist has most of the good tunes, and much of what the orchestra plays is relatively uninteresting accompaniment. For a professional orchestra, this doesn't matter so much - they are paid to turn up and play whatever is put in front of them. But for an amateur orchestra, the players won't turn up if they don't enjoy rehearsals.

The Rossini is fine, it's not one of his best-known overtures, but it is tuneful and pleasant enough. But it only 9 or 10 minutes long, it isn't going to occupy much time in rehearsal.

The Schoenberg is another problem. The composer's name frightens audiences, he is synonymous with difficult tuneless atonal music. He invented serialism, a musical system based on the ultimate democratic principle that every semitone in a chromatic scale is as important as every other semitone, and should be heard as often in a piece. The problem with this idea is that our ears aren't democratic, and like consonant harmonies better than overly frequent dissonances. As it happens, the Chamber Symphony No. 2 isn't one of his atonal pieces, but it isn't the most tuneful thing in the world. Moreover it does have some odd harmonies and some difficult transitions of speed. It is going to be a problem to rehearse.

I think that this programme again is going to have trouble attracting an audience and gaining the confidence of the players. The conductor told me that he felt that the Schoenberg was an excellent training piece for the orchestra, and that they would improve musically as a group by playing it. My view is that the orchestra exists to play music to audiences, and there's not much much point in playing to an empty hall even if what we play turns out to be a musical triumph.

And it is so unnecessary. The orchestra had a unique opportunity to play the Tchaikovsky with a bright young soloist who is taking up a post in Germany in the autumn. That's fine, the programme could have been built round that. The Rossini was fine with it. But having all but 10 minutes of the programme containing pieces that don't have much in the way of orchestral tunes is in my view the wrong way to programme an amateur concert. So, you don't have a long concerto and a long experimental or obscurely difficult piece in the same concert, it's a step too far. The situation could have been resolved really easily by programming the Schoenberg some other time, and putting a Mozart or Haydn symphony in, or if you wanted to be a bit more modern and ambitious, perhaps Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1 "Classical", which is very lively, contains some very enjoyable tunes and is scored for much the same group of instruments. I could without much effort think of 15 or 20 other pieces that could have filled that gap quite satisfactorily.

But with the Schoenberg I foresee another poor audience. I've also decided I don't want to spend a second consecutive unenjoyable term rehearsing a programme I don't have confidence in. I play music to enjoy it. I've discussed the issue with the conductor, he's not budging. I don't think it is fair on the orchestra for me to pick and choose which programmes I'll play, so I've decided to leave.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Any horns in Hillingdon?

If you're a horn player, you live in Hillingdon or anywhere in west London or thereabouts, and want to join an orchestra, please let me know by emailing me at The Hillingdon Philharmonic Orchestra needs you!