Archive for the ‘Orchestra life’ Category

Notes to young conductors

March 26, 2009

Us old farts sitting in front of you really do want you to succeed. And our definitions of success are not so different from yours. The major difference is that, while we want the orchestra to sound good every bit as you want it to, we also value efficiency (which is not quite the same as saying we’d like to the get the hell out of here as soon as possible, although that’s generally true as well). And, of course, we also have our ideas about how the music should go, and can’t help getting annoyed when a conductor has different ones and insists on them – especially one who really hasn’t earned his/her maestro/a stripes yet.

So remember that, while authority is granted, respect is earned, and pay attention to your elders, even if they’re sitting in front of you, bound by the terms of the labor agreement to do what you tell them to.

Conductors should be seen and not heard

Conducting is physical, not verbal. The perfect conductor would say nothing between “Good morning” and “see you tomorrow.” Every word you say is essentially an admission of failure, generally yours.

OK, so no conductor is perfect. But, if you have to talk, don’t use 500 words when five will do. Tell me what the problem is as concisely as possibly and let me fix it. I don’t need to know why it’s a problem (I can guess that) or that it’s wonderful except for the problem, or multiple rephrasings of the nature of the problem so as not to hurt my feelings. I need to know what the problem is and whether it’s fixed.

And please don’t enlighten us with your insights into the music, or your characterizations of the composer’s intentions, or anything else unless you’re really, really good. And, because you’re a young conductor, you’re not that good. You’re standing up there to conduct, not to lecture.

Don’t let us guess what instrument you play

If you’re a pianist, please don’t spend any time telling the poor pianist how to play the piano. If you’re a wind player, keep your insights about breathing to yourself. If you were as good as the people in front of you, you’d probably have an orchestra job. And it’s boring as hell to sit in a sectional for another section. All you’re going to do is to is convince us  that you don’t know anything about our instruments. We probably suspected that – but why spend time confirming it?

Keep your interpretive insights to yourself

As a young conductor, 9 out of the 10 really good ideas you have regarding phrasing and pacing will be stinkers. Even worse, you won’t know which of them might be the one good one in the pack.

So concentrate on getting what the composer wrote out of the orchestra. Not only is that plenty hard on its own, but until you’ve grown up and are able to recognize when you have a good idea, that’ll produce better results. And when you have grown up, you’ll find that you like the composer’s ideas better than yours anyway.

Don’t tell us we’re wonderful

We know when we play well. We assume that young conductors don’t know anything, so we’re not going to believe you anyway. Orchestra musicians like to be treated with respect, but obsequiousness is not respect. It’s manipulation, and orchestra musicians get enough of that already. It also looks like you’re trying to be liked; a surefire way not to be.

Update: by an odd coincidence, I bought a book this morning (for $1) at my library’s coffeeshop/library deaquisition outlet called On and Off the Record, a collection of writings by and about the great British record producer Walter Legge. In is there is a chapter about Herbert von Karajan, whose career was intertwined with Legge’s to a remarkable degree. He quotes von Karajan as saying about rehearsing:

If I don’t raise my voice, they’ll listen to what I say, and the less I speak, the more important each word is.

So follow his advice, even if you don’t want to follow mine, and you too might leave an estate estimated to be in the hundreds of millions.


Henry Shaw, RIP

March 16, 2009

Word came over the weekend that Henry Shaw died on Sunday, March 8, 2009, at the age of 90.

His day job was as a violinist with the Cincinnati Symphony, retiring from the orchestra in 1985 after a 47-year tenure. I knew him only as the longest-serving editor of Senza Sordino in ICSOM’s history, and I only knew him through the pages of the 61 issues that he edited and produced.

One of my projects, when I became one of his many successors in 1994, was to produce a complete index of all issues of Senza to date. That project showed me just what a contribution Henry had made to ICSOM. Tom Hall, Henry’s immediate successor when he stepped down as editor in 1982, described him as “our greatest editor” and went on to say that Not only did he serve the longest, he was the first to write some truly important editorials, including ‘The Winds of Change’ and ‘Our Decibel Dilemma.’ The first members of an ICSOM Hall of Fame should be George Zazofsky (ICSOM’s first Chair) and Henry Shaw.”

All of the issues that Henry edited and produced (Volumes 11-20) are available for download on the ICSOM website. They’re interesting as historical documents, of course. But what I find impressive about them – especially as a former editor myself – is the consistency of quality, tone, and reliability. And every one of those issues was produced in close collaboration with a printer using hot-lead typesetting. I can’t imagine producing 61 issues under those conditions, one after the other, at the level Henry did. He must have been a remarkable man.

Reality intrudes

February 14, 2009

The entertainment business has traditionally separated itself from real life; the fundamental axiom is, after all, “the show must go on.” So it’s a shock when the show can’t go on. Yesterday provided a sad example.

The Chuck Mangione band was scheduled to play a concert with the Buffalo Philharmonic on Friday night. Thursday night, two members of the band, Coleman Mellett (guitar) and Gerry Niewood (saxophone/flute), were on Continental flight 4307 from Newark, which crashed into a Buffalo suburb with no survivors.

Given how ubiquitous air travel is in our business, it is remarkable that so few musicians have been killed in commercial air accidents. The last I can recall was William Kapell, who was killed in a crash in the hills above Stanford University (near San Francisco) while returning from Australia. A few years before that, the French violinist Ginette Neveu was killed in the crash of an Air France flight in the Azores.

Very sad news.

(update: on a rather macabre note, there is a website about the crash in which Kapell died. The crash site is now contained in an open space preserve and there is still wreckage in the woods.)

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.

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.

Pissing off the patrons

December 11, 2008

Holly Mulcahy (who drives up from Chicago to play with us occasionally) wrote an article worth reading at The Partial Observer. She called it “How to alienate your audience in 10 easy steps: Musicians” to distinguish it from her first article, which was a tutorial on the same subject for conductors.

Some of what she writes about is stuff that clearly shouldn’t happen on any stage anywhere (checking email during performances, which is flat-out illegal in my band), complaining to audience members about not being paid enough, dressing badly, smirking when one’s colleagues screw up, and the like. It would be nice if this kind of stuff went without saying for adult professional musicians, but sometimes it doesn’t. I try to behave myself on stage, but I couldn’t plead absolutely innocent to any of the above save checking email during a concert. Of course, given that I sit up front and right under the conductor’s nose, that would be stupid as well as rude. (more…)

Oom pah pah

December 10, 2008

I showed up at work yesterday morning only to find out that, once again, I had forgotten to get myself off – somehow, anyhow – of a service containing waltzes. I have nothing against the waltz form in and of itself, but it’s been many years since I could get through the viola part of an entire waltz without serious pain. (more…)

One of those weeks

June 15, 2008

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. (more…)

Eddie Blitz, RIP

April 23, 2008

Edouard Marquis Blitz, a cellist with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra
for 27 years (and one of its first members), died on April 15, 2008 at
the age of 85.


Honeymoon over Milwaukee

April 20, 2008

We’ve just completed one of the more unusual introductions of a new
Music Director in American orchestral history. First of all, it is a
little different to have a new Music Director conduct his/her first
concerts after being appointed – but I’ve harped on that enough, and
there are good and sufficient reasons why that happened here and why it
was the right thing to do.