First Full Rehearsal

Rehearsal starts with the last movement from the entrance of the chorus. We have the last chord of the off-stage brass and flute, then they’re in. The first section is not yet spectacularly good- at a couple of key moments, the altos are dropping their pitch quite a bit and by the end they’ve pulled the whole thing quite flat. It’s the first thing many of the import players have played, so things aren’t really blending and locking, but the basic sound of the band is very exciting. Run through finished we go back and work through section by section again. Most of it improves very quickly, but a few bits are still shaky for pitch. Musically the ending quickly becomes what it should be, although balance will be a problem.

Since Pendleton is such a small population center, we always have to work to find enough singers for things. Not for us the glories of waiting lists that big-city symphony choirs always seem to have. This unfortunate circumstance means that we really have to work by consensus, because singers vote with their feet around here. Ever since our first read through with the choir, I’ve had a number of regular choral singers complain that they don’t like the idea of only singing at the end of a piece- they think we should only do pieces where the chorus sings in everything. I honestly find this attitude appalling- when a singer walks, he or she is showing the ultimate lack of respect for the people he or she sings with. We always do fine in the end because we have a core of singers who are completely dedicated to what they do, but it bothers me no end that others feed off them like parasites, trying to pick only those projects that suffiently inflame their egos. In any case, I’ve tried repeatedly to answer the specific questions about the Mahler from those who don’t yet know it, quoting Adrian Partington, the wonderful director of the BBC National Chorus of Wales, that Mahler 2 is the “summit of choral singing,” and that they will love it. As we go to break and dismiss the choir, I can see that people finally believe me- the choir is dancing their way off stage. It’s good to see. Still a lot of work for them to do- keeping the pitch up is such an issue in the opening, and they’re farther away from me than they have ever been, which makes the problems of looking up more severe than ever. Projection is also a challenge- there’s a lot of orchestra between them and the audience, and with the strings so far out on the extension, the chorus can’t easily compete with that level of immediacy.

After they leave we work through the finale from the beginning with the orchestra alone. There are so many new musicians onstage that pencils are flying everywhere as they update bowings, mark in details we’ve already worked on and note what I am doing where. There is so much to cover in this movement alone- lots of transitions, lots of textures, lots of notes. The video monitor seatup had failed today- the relay died on us just before the rehearsal started so we had to do the offstage music with the players onstage. Actually, that may have been a good thing, as it meant we could rehearse it a bit without the long delays of communicating back and forth where we are starting and what we need to do differently. The last two offstage sections are, by far, the most problematic places in the piece.

Finally, we spend the last half-hour on the second movement. It’s a beast in many ways, yet it seems that, as with many pieces, it’s the easiest stuff that gives us the most trouble. The first theme is generally accompanied by a little walking bass line, played pizzicato in the lower cellos and basses, and it’s a devil getting the pizz to settle in to the laid-back groove of the main melody. It only takes one player playing too loudly or too far on the front of the beat to destroy the mood, and players that rush tend to be players that play too loudly. The second theme is a pain in another way- I wish Mahler had used a slightly different description than “spring bogen” for the bow stroke. If the players let the bow bounce too far from the string, it can become very percussive and harsh, surely not what he wanted, and our hall tends to exaggerate that kind of issue.. Over and over we keep reminding that even a micro-millimeter off the string counts as off the string. As with the cello/bass pizz, it only takes one player doing the wrong stroke to ruin this bit.

We’re done for the night at 9:35- some of us have been going since the preparatory orchestra left town this morning at 8:30. Nevertheless, duty calls and it’s off to the Rainbow- our legendary rodeo bar- for a quick drink. Once there, everyone seems in high spirits- I’d say the mood is more like a summer festival than a regular gig.

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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.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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