Fickle Magic

I’ve had a number of questions in the olde mailbag the last few weeks. I’m sorry to keep you waiting, but I do love hearing from you, so please keep them coming.

Today, “G” asks-  

Hi Ken,

I hope you don’t mind a question from an amateur and (even worse) a choir member.  One thing that I’ve noticed through the years is that all too frequently the ‘peak performance’ ends up being the final rehearsal before the real performance.  It’s so frustrating to receive accolades after a performance with the knowledge that they didn’t hear the very best performance that could have been.

Is that ‘typical’ for the orchestras that you conduct?  What do you do to make the performance the ‘peak’ performance? 

We had an incredible rehearsal of Handel’s Messiah with the________ Symphony on Monday night, and an adequate performance last night.

Well, part of me wants to simply lie, and say that I’ve never, ever conducted a concert that was not as good as the dress rehearsal.

Unfortunately, what “G” describes is so common that I don’t think anyone would believe me if I claimed that.

Evgeny Mravinsky, the legendary conductor of the Lenningrad Philharmonic, was not a fan of concerts in his later years, and often turned them over to his assistants, preferring the intimacy and control of the rehearsal environment. In the EMI documentary about his life, a  number of players talk about experiences in rehearsals that were so shattering, so overpowering that Mravinsky knew it could never be that good in the concert, so he simply didn’t conduct the concert. On one level, it bothered the musicians that he abandoned them when they went before the public, but they also recognized that, like many geniuses, he had his quirks. On balance, I think they felt that it was their privilege to be a part of those moments in the rehearsals.

I couldn’t imagine abandoning my colleagues in the orchestra for a concert, but then again, I’m neither as old nor as famous as he was. However, I have many times had the feeling in a rehearsal that something so magical was happening that the concert could never equal it. Frankly, some music is more suited for an empty hall than a full one anyway- sometimes playing into a silent, empty space is ideal. Much as I always want the audience to experience our very best, I also recognize that these moments are our privilege as musicians.

That said, I think most conductors try to save a little something in the rehearsals, and to not “push” too hard in a dress rehearsal. Sometimes that works, sometimes it backfired. I used to assist a well-known conductor who had taken holding back in rehearsals way too far- the musicians loved him as a person and a performer, but the lack of energy in rehearsals was a very sore point. On the other hand, as we all know, sometimes, when you back off, you get more- whether it is playing or conducting. You can step back a bit in a Bruckner symphony then gradually realize that something momentous is building, and you have to decide whether to pop the balloon or not. Don’t pop the balloon- chances are you’ll just ruin the rehearsal and not help the concert.

If a concert fails to take flight on the same metaphysical level as a rehearsal, that’s one thing, and I can live with it. Frustrating as it is, if someone gets nervous, I can understand that too- we’re all human. What makes me CRAZY, however, is when the level of basic concentration between rehearsal and concert falls off. The same thing often happens after opening night of an opera or on the middle performance of a 3 night subscription run. Everyone is so relieved to survive that first run-through that they just don’t mentally prepare as well for the next one. This may happen, but it shouldn’t, and one should feel bad, and it’s not okay when it happens. 

The other thing to remember is that you may not be the best judge of how your performance, or that of the entire group, is coming off. I recently came across this excellent blog post from my fello CCM-er Alban Gerhardt, written after his performance in my home town of Madison.

I just finished playing another Elgar performance in the very charming little city of Madison – I think it wasn’t a bad performance, but somehow I didn’t feel the closest of all connections with the audience; there was quite some coughing in the first minutes of the piece, and I guess it’s my upbringing to look for the blame in myself. I didn’t manage to engage them and draw them in with what I had to say with the music which resulted in the fact that they weren’t quite with me.What can one do if one realizes that? Start throwing some antics at them? No way, bad idea, even though it might do the trick, but I tried to just give as much intensity and emotion as I could to make the coughers be silent, and maybe I am wrong, but I think it worked later on.

Alban seemed rather cross with himself that he wasn’t able to create more of an atmosphere and dispel the coughs in the auditorium from the first note. I sympathize with the frustration at the coughing- I sometimes feel like I’m conducting in a flu ward, and it does bother me. However, Alban seemed to feel that he’d somehow not been able to connect to the  audience, when the comments on that post show that he’d made a profound impact on the audience and the musicians.

I heard the Saturday performance. I admit I was not prepared for what I heard, because I’ve never much liked the Elgar concerto (or much of Elgar’s other orchestral music — it seems to meander so), and I’d already heard it four times in the last two years. No, what I heard was something completely unexpected. The intensity of your performance brought the work into focus for me, and my attention was riveted throughout. You may have changed my opinion of the work.

Most of the time, thank goodness, I’d say performances I’m in go to another and better level than the rehearsals, and that everyone in the band recognizes that. However, if the concert doesn’t exceed the rehearsal by orders of magnitude, I’ll find that members of the orchestra are usually quite divided about which one was better. Likewise with multiple performances, although I would say that the first performance of three or four tends to always be remembered as the best. Often, I can go back to the recordings of a run and see that each concert got better. They get better because you learn so much from each performance, but the more you learn the more you expect. By the last performance, you know it so well and expect so much, that you might not enjoy it at all, BUT, it might sound amazing to the audience, so don’t throw in the towel.

In fact, it’s important to remember to trust that the music is more powerful than your performance of it. A good piece of advice I got from older conductors early on was not to try to push every concert to be “great,” because pushing can cause people to make mistakes or simply strangle the music. I believe in the wisdom of that advice, but, like Alban, I often find myself giving it everything I’ve got onstage then coming off feeling like it wasn’t enough. To say that it’s more important that the audience loved it than whether I did is too simple and neat.

I think that at the end of the day, you have to accept that sometimes, your best work goes unheard by the public, and you have to live with the knowledge that only you and your colleagues experienced it, but also, that sometimes, you’re not going to enjoy your own best performances at all. I vividly remember my second concert with the GRSO- we were doing Haydn 104, and I spent the whole performance mad at myself, the audience and the musicians. Things didn’t sound in tune, didn’t sound together, the balances felt wrong, the audience was coughing. By the end, I was in a FOUL mood, in spite of it being joyful music. As soon as the applause died off, my friend Ed, who was about the most cultured and knowledgeable musician in the orchestra, came knocking on my door- “man- that was the best the orchestra has ever played!” he said.  Further conversations convinced me we’d had a little triumph, but one that I hadn’t enjoyed one bit- at least until people started telling me how great it was.

BTW- The review of Alban’s concert had one of the funniest headlines I’ve ever seen- “Cellist Alban Gerhardt finds the sadness with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.”

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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

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2 comments on “Fickle Magic”

  1. Paul H. Muller

    I play in a college orchestra and I have experienced both the “best perfromance was the rehearsal” and “best performance was the performance” phenomena. Here is what I think affects the outcome on this, especially on the amateur level:

    1. A full dress rehearsal the day before the preformance, especially if its a big, demanding piece, takes a lot out of the players and to have to come back the next day and do it all again is sometimes too much. A day between usually keeps the rehearsal fresh in your mind but you are physically rested. I once absolutely ruined my part (trumpet section) in a Mahler symphony this way.

    2. Change in acoustics. When we rehearse in one place and perform in another, everything changes for the players. All your cues are now coming from a different direction and at a different volume. The seating arrangement might be different and in any case a hall full of people has a different sound than when empty at rehearsal.

    3. “Performance Miracles” seem to occur with problematic pieces because even during the dress rehearsal the conductor is stopping and starting, trying to get the last bugs out. The players see nothing but a train wreck coming and we all keep low, not wanting to add to the conductor’s anxiety. I have played where the final performance was the first time the piece was run through in its entirety but when there are no interruptions the piece starts to flow, breathing a little and everyone suddenly “gets it”.

    I suppose you would expect professionals to be above a lot of this – and they have the advantage of usually rehearsing in the same accoustics as they perform – but maybe others can add to this list.

  2. liz garnett

    Paul’s comment resonates with what I was thinking when I read this: the performance-as-anticlimax experiences are more likely to happen when the dress rehearsal attempts to pre-shadow the complete concert performance. Depending on the experience level of the ensemble and their familiarity with the music, I have two strategies I use to avoid this situation:

    1. With an experienced ensemble and/or deep familiarity with the repertoire, I’ll deliberately leave some movements unfinished in the dress run. Particularly effective to stop just before the ensemble’s favourite bits, indeed 😉 The point is to have the ensemble approach the performance with a sense of *desire*, rather than satisfy their musical needs before the audience gets there.

    2. With a group that really needs to connect with every note before the performance, I’ll run everything, but not in the right order. That way, the emotional trajectory of the complete concert will come as fresh experience, that the ensemble encounters at the same moment as the audience.

    But I also really like Kenneth’s point that the performers’ impression of the relative effectiveness of performances doesn’t always match the audience’s response. Important that we remember that one…

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

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