A humbling profession

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.


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