It’s official- I now know someone in every orchestra from another orchestra….
Fresh on the heels of meeting a first oboist from the Kelvin Ensemble playing 2nd in the Lancashire Chamber Orchestra, I arrived at the rehearsal today at the Gulf Coast Symphony and the principal violist was the same guy who played principal viola for the Texas Festival Orchestra at Round top this summer when we did Appalachian Spring. That’s good news, too, as he’s a fine player and a nice guy.
We started with a string sectional- there’s so much detail in Elgar’s music to cover, but I was immediately encouraged by both the level and the attitude of the musicians. Starting with a string sectional is a pretty good idea, but there’s always the danger that one will waste a moment or two explaining something that becomes obvious when the brass and percussion show up, and I did fall into that trap twice. Fortunately, what I said wasn’t complete b.s. and it only wasted maybe 30 seconds of time, but I do hate even a wasted second in rehearsals.
Every composer has their own way of notating things- Elgar is unique in that his notation is just about the most literal of any major composer. There are a handful of misprints and small copying errors, but other than that, the main job for me in an early rehearsal of mature Elgar is to encourage everyone to read the ink very literally- not to try to match other sections (like Mahler, he writes lots of independent dynamics, so one can really go badly wrong trying to match the section next to you) and to play exactly the articulation he asks for. If he wants you to shorten a note, he tells you, unlike Beethoven, Dvorak or Berlioz who can be maddeningly inconsistent about note lengths.
The string sectional flew right by- I didn’t get to work on the slow movement of the Elgar, but otherwise, we managed to cover what needed covering. Then, after a short dinner break, we were on to the tutti rehearsal.
Given that almost nobody in the band had played Elgar 1 before, I thought the best thing was to play through from beginning to end without stopping, then have a break. In the end, we had to stop 3 times, but just for tiny counting problems. For a first reading, it went well- the main issues were those pesky articulations and the need to not let complexity slow us down.
Still, a cold reading of a huge piece like that is exhausting, so, after 4 movements and exactly one hour, we took a break, then returned for 40 minutes of spots. This gave us a chance to work on balancing things- Elgar’s orchestration is pretty flawless (I’d actually posit that he was the best orchestrator that ever lived), but sometimes his markings for trumpets seem a bit heavy-handed on modern instruments instead of the lighter axes of his time. We had enough time to clarify and tighten up quite a bit of the first two movements and the Finale, which puts us in pretty good shape. To their credit, the brass quickly adjusted where needed- I’m letting them play pretty big much of the time, so hopefully we’re all happy. Where we need some time now is on the slow movement- the heart of the piece and the most challenging and sophisticated music on the program.
Finally, we read the Wasps Overture, which is lovely and refreshingly light and straightforward after the density of the Elgar. I was content just to bash through it once and let everyone go 15 minutes early.
All in all, it was a rewarding day. The orchestra is miles better than I dared to hope- younger and hungrier and more diverse and multi-cultural than one might think for this part of the US. These are exciting times, when regional orchestras are filled with talented and accomplished young musicians from all over the world, especially, it seems, from Latin America, Eastern Europe and all over the US and Canada, who can play anything and have a huge passion for their work. The mixture of ages and backgrounds makes for a vibrant band.
Looking forward to the rest of the week.