Salome wrap-up

There seem to be a lot of Salome performances happening. The Met Opera
Orchestra just did the last scene in concert with Deborah Voight at Carnegie Hall, while
the Royal Opera House in London is about to start a very
well-publicized run, leading the Guardian to run a good article about
the opera.

Our final performance was on Sunday afternoon in the face of a
threatened blizzard (which turned out to be about an inch of snow).
Evidently I hadn’t had enough, because I found myself listening to a
recording on Monday.

It sounded a lot different than what I had been experiencing in the pit. First of all I could hear the singers all of the time. I could hear the fiddles and, oddly enough, the percussion a lot better on the recording (our percussion section had been banished to the trap room for taking up too much room).

But I suspect the biggest difference came from listening differently. The process of learning an orchestral part in an unfamiliar piece is a lot like cramming for an exam. The goal is less mastery of the entire subject (or, in our case, score) than it is learning what’s important to know to pass the exam. In practice, this means that a lot of what one hears during rehearsal and performance is processed less as music than as landmarks or cues. What we try to figure out is what other parts we fit into and what we need to hear to come in correctly. It literally didn’t occur to me until hearing the recording on Monday that the first two bars were actually the Salome leifmotif; what they were for me were two empty bars with wind parts that I had to count correctly to come in on the third bar. It was something of a shock to hear them without worrying about counting, and they sounded quite a bit stranger that way.

I played in a full-time string quartet (the Orford Quartet) before coming to Milwaukee. The goal for a quartet in rehearsing really is mastery of the score, and it was wonderful to have the time to do that. But there were times we had to work more quickly. We did all the Beethoven quartets in three weekends, for example. The other guys in the quartet had recorded the entire cycle (two of them had recorded it twice), so rehearsal for them was just reminding themselves of what they already knew. For me, it was like cramming for fifteen exams. The guys were very impressed by how well I managed. I wasn’t; it was just like preparing for orchestra concerts on inadequate rehearsal, and I’d spent my whole career doing that.

What’s really odd is that I have almost no memory of actually playing most of the quartets. We toured two Beethoven quartets that year, which meant we spent a lot of time rehearsing them, and those I remember playing. But the ones I crammed for didn’t make much of an impression. That’s probably why Salome seemed so unfamiliar to me even though we’d done it ten years ago.

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