Conducting through a mental Bloch

Tonight’s rehearsal promises plenty of challenges, but others await that I have not foreseen. Our work in the first rehearsal on Thursday had convinced me that we needed a lot more time on the Bloch. Fortunately, we don’t have to stick with a pre-announced rehearsal schedule (although I try to still stick to what I’ve told people), so there’s no reason not to move the Bloch up as early as possible.

No reason, that is, except that we have two other huge pieces to cover. On top of that, there are other concerns. Tonight is our first rehearsal with all of the brass and the oboes, and our only other rehearsal is on the afternoon of the concert. That means that if I don’t want to wreck the brass section’s chops for the concert, any ensemble work I want to do with them has to be done tonight.

Of course, I’m predictably excited that we have indeed engaged Harry Bell on 3rd horn. He sounds fine, but he doesn’t look at all like a Viking, and I’m pretty sure he eats no yak. It seems a bit cruel to start a horn section that has never played a chord together on the opening of Tchaik 4, but we have no choice. That’s not something we can do on Saturday. Finding the right emotional tone, and good intonation, for that opening is trickier than you’d think- the horns need to be terrifying, which means they should sound effortlessly powerful, not like 4 human beings who are struggling to play as loud as they can. It’s a classic example of backing off a bit and getting a more powerful effect, but not backing off so much that it sounds less than apocalyptic.

With the whole brass choir, the main issue is also one of finding a section sound- Tchaik 4 is a funny piece, in that there are almost no brass solos (on the other hand, think of the great horn solos in Tchaik 2 and 5). Instead, everything is section work- it’s a piece that benefits from section continuity, something missing this week. James, our principal trumpet, has spent his summer on long tone work and sounds HUGE, but this means we have to either get the others to step it up or have him back it off a bit. Again, except for the absolute climaxes of the piece, you never want it to sound like everyone is playing as loudly as they can- the brass should sound like they crush the wee mortals at anytime, not like this is all they’ve got. If the audience can see the veins popping out of the side of the neck, the players are too close to their max.

We barely have time for about 2/3rds of the 1st mvt, a partial run of the 2nd mvt so the soloists (oboe and bassoon) get a shot at it and bits of the Scherzo, followed bit a tap dance through the finale. We’ve done the main part of the Scherzo in sectionals, but the Trio is difficult and scary for the wind, and, to my surprise, the brass keep slowing down in their bit. Remembering well that tempo problems are usually the conductor’s fault I try a couple of beats, as well as mentioning the issue, but it’s still sluggish. There’s also one of those “counting things” that we all dread- these happen at even the best orchestras and sometimes all you can do is give someone a week off, but that’s not an option here. Then, I look up, and it’s time for a break- no Dvorak tonight. How scary is that.

Having fought our way through the first two movements of Bloch last night, we start with the 3rd tonight. It’s beautiful stuff, and has the advantage of being less sectional than the first two movements, but it’s VERY slow and still needs flexibility. Throughout much of the movement, there is a nasty ostinato of very slow triplets and very slow off-beat triplets. Until people understand what is going on, the on-the-beat people tend to wait for the off-beat people, making the “slow” into the “stopped.” On the other hand, some folks want to play the triplets at the universal tempo, getting miles ahead.


Then, there’s the finale- a rollicking Danse Chinoise, full of pentatonic melodies and splashy percussion touches, but it’s also tricky in spots, mostly making the tempo relationships work. Feeling rather annoyed with myself, I’m realizing that some of how I’d thought this would work doesn’t, so there’s nothing for it but to try things differently- beating in 1 instead of 2 or taking this a bit slower than I’d thought we would.  However, much of the movement is a summing up of ideas and themes from the rest of the piece, so at least we’re encountering familiar material.

Even starting the piece early, it’s getting late as we go back to start the first movement for the 2nd time. It’s going faster than day one, but not much. I think we’re all tired, but it’s just not hanging together, and people sound tentative. Part of this may have to do with how it’s written- Bloch scored the piece with a HUGE orchestra but with a viola in mind, so the parts are mostly written in pp and p. I start suggesting we take things up a notch and play out- Parry has a huge sound, and we don’t have a huge string section. This helps give some structure and clarity to what is going on, thank goodness. Still, the clock runs out on us before we can quite finish the 1st mvt.

I’ve seen the band pull some things off in my day, but I’m getting really worried. In 2 rehearsals, we’ve been unable to get through the whole piece either time. Heck- we can’t even seem to get through the first movement in less than 45 minutes. Maybe part of that is me stopping for things like balance and articulation that we can let slide in a concert, but is there any way we can actually play through the whole 40 minute beast in concert in 24 hours?

We have a 2 hour rehearsal the next day, in which we’ll have to do whatever we’re going to do with the Dvorak and its 10-page horn parts, cover as much Tchaik as possible and get this Bloch ready for prime time. I’m feeling tired, beaten and bloody. I worked hard on this piece and feel like it is kicking my ass on every level, and with so much starting and stopping, I’m no longer even sure whether it works or I like it anymore.

Parry, who has played like a god all night, is all smiles afterwards, which gives me hope. Still, I’m just about ready to collapse…

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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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1 comment on “Conducting through a mental Bloch”

  1. Steve Bass

    I still feel “tired, beaten and bloody” from Bloch. And my chops haven’t yet recovered. Still, I wish we had one more whack at it. I know that I could have done better and others likely feel the same way.

    I like that you’ve posted pictures on the website. My favorite, which you didn’t include, is of the Republican headquarters in Pendelton. There was a sign that said “Palin VP ’08” with smaller type at the the bottom that said “oh yeah, and that Grumpy Old Man too … if we must.”

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