Down to work

One of my basic conducting philosophies is that one should give the players at least two opportunities to play without fear of being corrected or interrupted- two chances where they can be absolutely fearless and take risks. For me, those are the first rehearsal and the concert(s). The concert is, hopefully, a lot more polished, but I know that often orchestra musicians feel like they shine the most the night we read something (I often felt that in my playing days). You’re free to take risks, and, even in a major band, you’re allowed the odd miss, which (of course!) means you sometimes miss less.   After a slightly nervy beginning for some of the players, I would say the read through more or less lived up to that goal. Certainly, I think most of the musicians who hadn’t played it before were much more relaxed at the end of the evening. Mahler writes so fantastically indiomatically that his music always ends up being more playable than one expects. M2 is somewhat problematic to read as there are so many metric shifts and modulations (Elliot Carter did not invent metric modulation!) that pencils are flying all night writing in what is in two or in four or in one- that one distraction makes it somewhat harder to enjoy the reading in the same way you would a reading of a Beethoven or Brahms symphony.

  Now, on to our first working rehearsal… Tonight we have all our offstage horns in town from Walla Walla, Washington, so we focus on the Finale. Although technically challenging, much of the last movement is more forgiving than, say, the second and third movements. We work from the great C Major outburst at the end of the exposition (figure 11) through the development to the end. Once one gets into the main F minor development section (figure 14 for you Mahler nuts out there), half the battle is getting the strings to use less bow and stay in the lower half, especially the violins until you’ve finished the destruction of the world. Overall, it progresses well, my only real frustration is in having to repeat a number of things I said at the read through about when I go into two or one or four. This is kind of a pet peeve of mine, as it is something that %85 of the orchestra doesn’t need to be told once, they can tell by watching, and that %13 of the orchestra only need to hear once, but that %2 percent of the orchestra seem to need to hear many, many times. Unfortunately, a Mahler symphony in which %2 of the players are playing at half or twice the tempo is not a satisfying musical experience for anyone… In my experience, these ratios are exactly the same at every orchestra, everywhere in the world. 

  One last logistical worry remains- one of our horns, who I was always reluctant to engage because of his track record as an unrepentant flake, has not sent in his contract or answered our emails. Peter, who is our acting first horn while our regular principal is pregnant (apparently it is better to stick to low horn when you are expecting… the things one learns doing this), and I have a chat about alternate part assignments and finding a replacement. We agree to set a final deadline to hear from the guy, before making the switch. It’s somewhat touchy as the player in question directs another orchestra in the region (you would think he would know better!) and we sometimes need to work with him on player recruitment. Peter and I decide to try and engage another player no matter what- we can use her as an assistant if the guy shows. I would bet my mother’s pension he’s a no-show.    We end the rehearsal with some slow work on the third movement. I talked through the symphony with Leonard Slatkin last month and he had some sage advice “Everyone thinks the first movement will be really hard, but it’s not that bad, then everyone thinks the second movement won’t be so bad, but it is extremely hard. Then you get to the third movement, which everyone expects to be difficult, and really is- actually worse than they think.” He’s right, but he also told me that, once the notes are learned and the players start to feel the swing of the tempo, it suddenly more-or-less sorts itself out. By the end of the night we’re nowhere near there, but at least I can see what he meant.     

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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