One of those weeks

Sometimes being an orchestra musician can feel like being a priest who has lost his faith in God. For me, this was one of those weeks.

It looked OK on paper – a subscription set with a young and promising guest conductor (assumed to be on our short list until Edo was appointed Music Director) and a piece that I’ve always enjoyed (Shostakovich 5). There was also a Mendelssohn piano concerto (which I thought would likely be tolerable) and Les Preludes.

But it never came together for me, or for most of my colleagues either, from what I could tell. It’s late in the year, of course. Most orchestras have finished their subscription seasons by now, which is why the League of American Orchestras convention is happening this week. We have yet another subscription concert to go. And it’s been a rather exhausting year emotionally for the orchestra, due in part to hiring a new music director. While most everyone is very pleased with Edo’s appointment, there’s a lot of tension around the subject of a new boss, especially one that’s not well-known to the orchestra.

In addition, we’ve had a lot of weather in the upper Midwest, and while we’ve been spared the kinds of scenes that are on the national news, we do have some colleagues who have had to deal with flooding. We have a lovely river that flows through Milwaukee and the northern suburbs, and we have a few members who live right on the river. This week they found themselves living in the river.

So, for whatever reason, the orchestra didn’t seem to be in the mood for this week. I know I wasn’t. But it’s still distressing to be working on a piece that’s always worked for me in the past but that is leaving me numb this time. And the orchestra was clearly distracted this week – lots of noise during rehearsals, which is really uncharacteristic of this band, and stuff that we can play in our sleep not coming together.

Fortunately the Mendelssohn concerto turned out to save the concert. The pianist, Arnaldo Cohen, has been here before; he rescued a performance of the first Brahms concerto a couple of years ago when our scheduled soloist bowed out at the very last minute. He’s a wonderful musician, and comes across as a completely class act. And he really nailed this piece. Last night the audience wouldn’t let him go (which is a highly unusual reaction to a performance of a Mendelssohn piano concert) and he played a Brazilian-sounding encore, which brought down the house.

And then the Lizst went well, and the Shostakovich went better (at least last night) than it showed signs of going earlier in the week. I found myself wishing for less interpretation by conductor and individual musicians than was there. There’s an old saying in aeronautical engineering to the effect that the most useful thing a designer can add to an airplane is more lightness. Most often the most useful thing a performance can add to a performance is more semplice. But there’s a lot of temptation to be overcome to be able to do that.

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