Archive for January, 2009

Why one should go to every single service

January 28, 2009

…aside from that’s how to get paid, of course.

I missed the rehearsal last Thursday afternoon on account of having to leave town for a day. So of course that was the rehearsal that my colleagues will be talking about for the next decade or so.

On the agenda was the Chopin first concerto with a Canadian pianist by the name of Louis Lortie. The conductor was Vasily Petrenko, our guest for the week. The only thing out of the ordinary was the orchestral accompaniment.

A few years ago we commissioned Paul Chihara to re-arrange the accompaniment for a performance we did with Bill Wolfram. As most orchestra musicians know, Chopin’s version is massively tedious to play (and, to my mind, to listen to as well). He only wrote a handful of works for anything except solo piano, so it’s not surprising that his writing for orchestra is undistinguished. I remember the Chihara version (which changes not a note in the piano part, by the way) as an improvement, at least from the point of view of getting from one end to the other without dying either of boredom or of pain.

Back to Thursday. It was an open rehearsal, with a number of donors invited to attend. As well, Paul Chihara was in the audience, having flown in from LA for the occasion. The rehearsal began with a run-through of the first movement. Then things began to go off the rails with  Lortie standing up and telling the orchestra: “I have an announcement.”

Indeed he did. Reportedly, his announcement (delivered, I’m told, in a very accusatory tone at a group of people whose only sin was to play what was on their stands) was that he, Louis Lortie, had been engaged to perform the Chopin first concerto, that this was not the Chopin first concerto, that we (!?) were free to find another pianist to play what was not the Chopin first concerto, but that, if we (!?) were to do that, of course we (!?) would still have to pay him. He also made it clear that he was not aware in advance that we (!?)  were not going to be doing the Chopin first concerto. Petrenko, rather surprised at this turn of events, suggested the orchestra take a break.

When the orchestra returned, there was a different set of parts on the stand, Chihara had headed back to the airport, and the principal strings had a homework bowing assignment to occupy their previously free evening.

I am told that his assertion that he was unaware that we (!?)  were not doing the Chopin first concerto was not entirely accurate, although it does appear that he was not aware of the existence of the Chihara arrangement until his arrival in Milwaukee.

I can understand why someone might object to an alternate version of the accompaniment of a concerto that he/she was engaged to perform. It shows a certain insensitivity to the suffering of others to insist on the original Chopin parts, but I don’t expect pianists to get that playing a string instrument can hurt.

What I can’t understand is choosing to make a fuss about it in front of the orchestra’s donors, or blaming the whole thing on the orchestra. Did he think that he was on tour with Orpheus? Did he think that the money to pay his fee was coming from the Society for the Preservation of Lousy Original Orchestrations rather than from the people who were out in the hall listening? Did he think that the number of orchestras looking for piano soloists is greater than the number of piano soloists looking for orchestras? Did he think he was living in pianist nirvana?

It sounded very reminiscent of the old joke (slightly re-worked for this occasion): what’s the difference between God and a piano soloist? God doesn’t think he can play the piano.

Your daily factoid

January 21, 2009

We have another guest conductor this week; this one a very young and extremely talented Russian by the name of Vasily Petrenko. It’s actually his second round with us; I believe we were his American debut in the fall of 2006 (the performance we did of the Grieg Peer Gynt became our first download for sale with a conductor other than our music director, and our second binaural recording.)

This time, the big piece was supposed to be the Tchaikowsky Manfred, but apparently management got a little nervous about ticket sales and changed it to Scheherazade. As someone who’s salary comes in part from ticket sales, I’m not going to claim it was a bad call, although it would have been fun to do the Manfred.

But I learned something this morning as a result of the program change. We were working on the second movement and Petrenko was coaching the second trombone on how he wanted the big solo to go, when he stopped and told us why Rimsky-Korsakov wrote all those big soli for 2nd trombone. (This is apparently a legendary, but true, story in the musical community of St. Petersburg, where Petrenko did most of his schooling.)

The 2nd trombone of Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestra in St. Petersburg was a member of the Romanov family, although distant enough to avoid meeting the same unfortunate fate as befell the Tsar and his immediate family. This meant that, whenever the 2nd trombone had a solo, and got a solo bow from the conductor at the end of the piece – the entire audience had to stand up as well.

I guess that beats playing Stars and Stripes at the end of every concert (especially for a Russian orchestra, of course). But I hope it’s not an indication that, at our upcoming audition for assistant principal viola, I’m going to have to do some quick online genealogical research on the finalists. I’ll bet that 1st trombonist spent most of his career in a complete snit.

A humbling profession

January 19, 2009

We just had a week that reminded me every day of just how hard it is to get things right in an orchestra.

It was a slightly schizophrenic program; the first half was a Haydn symphony (No. 73 in D; La Chasse) and two Mozart horn concerti with our principal horn, Bill Barnewitz (who did a wonderful, wonderful job with both, and then unaccountably took the rest of the concert off). The second half was “something completely different,” to quote from the Pythons, and was all Ravel – Ma Mere l’Oye and La Valse. The conductor was a favorite of my orchestra’s from previous appearances, Gilbert Varga.

I remember hearing how hard Haydn quarters were before I joined a quartet and got to experience the phenomenon first-hand. One of our tour pieces, while I was with the Orford Quartet, was the Haydn Rider quartet. It was the only piece we did that needed five minutes of touch-up immediately before we went out to play it – every single time we played it. Otherwise pitch was a mess, as we discovered the first couple times we did it.

Haydn symphonies are like that too, although the problems lie more in ensemble than pitch. It got OK by the end of the week, but the first rehearsal was as big a mess as this orchestra is capable of making. There are lots of really difficult pieces in the repertoire that are oddly forgiving of individual error or sloppiness. While nothing in a Haydn symphony is all that challenging for any individual musician, there is almost no room for individual imperfection if it’s to sound acceptable, much less really good.

I have very mixed feelings about Ravel. There is Ravel I love – Le Tombeau de Couperin in particular. And there is Ravel I really don’t like. Unfortunately, La Valse is at the top of that list. I can’t help feeling that the piece is a far-from-loving view of Germanic culture from someone who not only didn’t quite get it, but really didn’t want to. Of course he had spent several years of his life being shot at by Germans, so a certain lack of sympathy on his part was understandable. But it still seems to me the equivalent of a biography of Metternich written by Jean Marat (minus the time travel, of course.)

What I find completely unforgivable, though, is his hatred for principal violists. There’s not a viola solo in all Ravel (OK, I’ll exclude the quartet) that isn’t a minefield. The one in Ma Mere l’Oye is particularly hazardous. I’ve played it more times than I’ve played just about any other solo in the literature (thanks mostly to kiddie concerts) and it still scares me to death.

This week I went three rounds with it, and was doing fine until the last night, when I nailed the octave unison with the concertmaster, got the solo measure two bars later as well as I’ve ever done it, and, while feeling very proud of myself, had a brain fart on the last measure (another octave unison with the concertmaster). I had just discovered a completely new way to screw up that solo.

The solo in La Valse is just about as detestable. It’s this lovely lyrical line, in octave unison with the solo cello, that starts with a sustained high D and involves several nasty shifts over the course of about three seconds. Ironically, it’s then echoed by the solo violin playing in first position, only having to slide up to a beautiful natural harmonic, leaving the violist with a bad taste in his/her mouth and a sense of innate inferiority.

Some violist must have stomped on his toy soldiers.

Why unions?

January 18, 2009

Obviously members of labor unions have no monopoly on skill or bravery. But it’s worth noting that virtually every person involved in the amazing salvation of 155 people from almost inevitable catastrophe in the Hudson River the other day was a union member.

Maybe there is some real merit to this strange (and increasingly un-American) idea of paying people well, providing them with some job security, and investing in their skills. I’ll bet none of the 150 passengers on that US Air flight will never again think that concessions demanded of pilots and flight attendants by their airlines might be a good idea.

Memento homo, quod cinis es, et in cinerem reverteris

January 5, 2009

One of my year-end tasks recently has been to compile a list for Polyphonic of those in our field who have gone on to that great orchestra in the sky where waltzes are banned, violinists never use too much bow, brass players don’t blast, and the music director doesn’t think it’s all about her.

This year the task seemed a little more melancholy than usual. Of the 45 on the list, four were people I knew and liked and another was someone in our chorus who no doubt I passed many times backstage. About half of the list were people over the age of 65, which seemed like a low proportion, given what I know of mortality tables. But only 5 deaths were of people under the age of 50. Sadly, three of those were suicides and one was a homicide. Three seems like a high figure to me, given the US suicide rate of roughly 1 per every 1,000 population. But it’s likely more a statistical artifact than a trend. Having two homicides amongst the 45 is truly shocking, but given that the US homicide rate is a fraction of the suicide rate, has to be an anomaly.

On the other hand, many on the list had led long and productive lives and had outlived the mortality tables by making it into their 80s and 90s (and, in 2 cases, 100s). And, as a vivid example to me of what a small world this is, there was only one people on the list who I could be sure didn’t know someone I also knew. Two degrees of separation from so many people of different ages and locations is a remarkable testimonial of how intimate our field really is.

Here’s a link to a William Byrd motet on the text of the title, which is better known in its English translation. Likely because of not having written anything for orchestra (as there really weren’t any orchestras in the 16th century) Byrd is outside of many orchestra musicians’ experience, which is unfortunate. For me he’s one of the Top Five. This motet is a good illustration of what makes his music so special.