A rehearsal moment….

We had a very interesting moment tonight in rehearsal with the Surrey Mozart Players- I’m curious if anyone besides me even noticed it….

We were rehearsing the Saint-Saens 2nd Cello Concerto for the first time with our soloist, Parry Karp. Parry is a rare cellist who plays concertos like a full-time soloist (and has played a huge range of repertoire), but doesn’t look at the world through the eyes of many a soloist- he’s a quarter player, recitalist, teacher and chamber musician.

Tonight we were running through each movement with him and got to the coda of the last movement of the concerto, which sounds quite straightforward but is full of rather nasty syncopations. After crashing through to the end in the run-through I suggested we try it about half tempo with just the orchestra, which helped a bit. Then, Parry offered to play along at half-tempo.

That was the interesting moment!

Now this may sound like a simple and reasonable suggestion, but the sheer sanity of the idea astounded me, because this is something that just never happens in rehearsals. How many times in my life as a conductor, cover conductor or cellist have I been in situations where all the problems on stage could be solved by going through it slowly with the soloist? Hundreds! Thousands!

The thing is, it is almost never done. On the rare occasion I’ve seen it tried it has been socially awkward and has usually led to the soloist not playing very well, or looking rather put out, but that’s really only a couple of times I’ve ever seen it attempted. I can think of a rare incidents with soloists where I’ve said before a rehearsal (perhaps with a student orchestra or a community orchestra) something to the effect of “can we just run the 2nd movement a little tiny bit under tempo today because they can’t quite make that speed yet,” and that’s almost always been accepted with a look of pained tolerance rather than supportive enthusiasm, but that’s nothing like doing something at half speed.

Anyway- we did it slowly with him, and it really helped. How many concerti have I seen done with the greatest orchestras where something really could have been fixed by doing that?

I understand the mindset- the orchestra wishes to present the soloist with a perfect product and visa versa, so both sides sort out their problems separately. Parry comes in as a world-class quartet player- quartets play slowly in rehearsals together all the time. He sees the orchestra as colleagues. We do it slowly with him, it sounds great, we pick it up to tempo and it’s quite transformed….

I know this must sound silly to people who haven’t witnessed this themselves. You must be thinking “Woods is making this up. I’m sure soloists and orchestras rehearse together in all sorts of ways, or they’re just so good that they don’t do this because they don’t need to” I promise…. so many times….  where five minutes of this would have made all the difference, and……. well….. you know the rest…..

c. 2007 Kenneth Woods

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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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2 comments on “A rehearsal moment….”

  1. composerbastard

    I think its a matter of $$$ – that union clock keeps ticking and everyone should be on a level where this kind of cold metronome work is not an option.

    The other thing rthat comes to mind is physical memory. Doesnt playing slower make it harder

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi CB-

    I actually disagree with you on this one- often a few minutes slow work is by far the fastest way of fixing something. In a union band, you presume everyone can play their part perfectly, but I’m talking about a problem of ensemble that may be inherent in the music- that and “interpretation” are why we have rehearsals.

    The muscle memory issue is more complicated, but we’re all taught as instrumentalists to practice slowly. Delay always made her students practice everything at 40, so they should be able to do so with an orchestra in those rare occasions when it could help. We can all remember lessons where our teachers told us to play something slowly and we couldn’t. What did our teachers always say? “Aha, see– you haven’t practiced it properly yet….”

    I’m not advocating this as a way of praciticing everything, but just saying it’s a tool in the kit that would be very useful to have available a couple of times a year when you need it.


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