From the Orchestra Library

The sharp fall off in blog posts here at Vftp over the Summer has been one symptom of the fact I’ve been mostly on the road and away from my desk for months on end. Given that I’ve had little or no time to write for most of that time, it’s no wonder I’ve done fairly little reading as well. As I’ve worked my way through the blogroll, which I hope to update soon, I’ve been a bit saddened to see that many of my favorite blogs have gone really quiet- possibly permanently.

I suppose it is in the nature of most blogs to have a life-span- how many times can I say “Mahler good- Hannah Montana bad”  before it gets boring to me and the reader? Still, I’ve come to believe in the value of the medium and desperately want to see a continuing wealth of conversation and comment. I suppose I can help this by trying to read and comment on those blogs I wish to support- comments are crack for bloggers, doubly so when they come from your peers.

Meanwhile, there are some new blogs out there well worth reading. Among the very best, and most essential for every single young conductor out there, is that by Dallas Symphony librarian Karen Schnackenberg, aptly names “From the Orchestra Library.” I’m serious- if you’re a conductor, you have to know what she’s telling you. For simple etiquette, you can’t miss out on “The Call to the Stage”

Nothing good ever comes of a conductor calling a librarian to the stage.

Really.  Nothing good at all.

Before you get all over me with the reasons why you think this tactic might be necessary – please hear me out.

There is rarely anything so important, or so simple, that it can be solved by the orchestra librarian’s mere appearance onstage during a rehearsal.  Most things that a conductor wants to change require the librarian to have physical control of the parts or score in question, and for some amount of time.  There is nothing we can actually DO at that exact moment unless the rehearsal is being stopped and time is being given to pull the parts and score to make revisions.  Believe me, if we could walk out there, wiggle our noses and magically fix something like Samantha in “Bewitched” nothing would make us happier.

The Call to the Stage is usually used to draw attention to something that is wrong or that a conductor wants changed in the  parts or score.  I’ll even go so far as to say it is often designed to draw attention, and leave it at that.  Whatever the motive, it’s probably an unconscious one on the part of the conductor, but the only thing calling a librarian to the stage accomplishes is creating the impression in front of 100 people that the librarian is at fault for something.  And they may be.  Or they may not be.  But a public airing of any issues doesn’t help anyone.  Think about it:

1)       The librarian gets called out, via the conductor’s emissary or over the stage monitor.

2)      The librarian comes to the stage, and the rehearsal is stopped.

3)      Some instruction is given to the librarian such as “We need to add the horns to the trumpet line at D” or “I want the strings to turn pages in a different spot” or “There is an error in the flute part” or, even, “the bowings in the second violins don’t match the firsts”……or 1000 other examples.

4)      The librarian says something like “Okay, I’ll take care of it at break or after rehearsal.”

5)      The librarian leaves the stage.

6)      The rehearsal resumes.

Nothing has happened now, except to waste everyone’s time and cause the orchestra to wonder why this wasn’t taken care of beforehand. 

Fellow Mahlerites will want to read her post on parts for Mahler 1

On the second classical program the orchestra will give the world premiere of Christopher Theofanidis’ new cello concerto followed by Mahler Symphony No. 1.   This symphony has a less-complicated and confusing publishing history than the composer’s 5th (see post from July 12) and, therefore, is a more straight-forward music preparation project.  In a way.

By that, I mean an orchestra is safe to buy the most recent Kalmus printing of scores and parts (no need to rent anything), correct the errors, mark the parts, and it is good to go.  Although Mahler made profound changes in this work early on, eventually omitting the original Blumine second movement, and then continued revising it for more than another decade, there were only two publications of it in his lifetime.  The Kalmus edition that is available for sale these days is a reprint of the second and final version.  (The older Kalmus edition is NOT, and is quite different, so don’t get them mixed up!)

But don’t assume this is a short or easy marking project; you certainly can’t just buy the set, mark in some bowings and put it on the stands.  Remember what I said a few sentences ago about errors?  Lots of errors.  Between the various errata lists that MOLA librarians have created and other sources, there are between 750-1000 errors to fix in both the scores and parts.  We have been though our set in great detail two different times, so we have double and triple checked things, fixed all of those errors and any others we found along the way (because you always do find more).  We have used the set for a few performances and it is in good shape to use again.  This is a relief, because on top of everything else, having to correct Mahler 1 again would clearly have put us back a few months. And on Mahler 5

A few words about Mahler symphonies from the library perspective:  not everything is always as it seems.

Although probably most librarians realize this (so please forgive the tutorial), it may bear repeating for those just getting started professionally (not only librarians, but also players, conductors and administrators).  Mahler made lots of changes in the symphonies during his lifetime, and editors have added their opinions, so one must proceed with caution when acquiring the parts.  If your conductor or artistic administrator says you are doing Mahler Symphony No. 5, for example, your first question needs to be “Which version?” If your conductor says “the critical edition” then you need to get a rental quote from C.F. Peters and tell your administrator.  If your administrator then says “but I looked in the Kalmus catalogue and you can buy it for much less” then your response is “only the original version is available for purchase and the conductor wants to do the critical edition which is still under copyright and a rental.”  Your administrator may then reply “Aren’t they basically the same thing, and can’t we just buy the Kalmus and make the changes? We have to save money.”

Your answer at this point must include the following:  “NO. They are very different, that would be considered a copyright violation, and if you want to save the money and buy the older version, then the conductor will have to use the same score and that is not what he/she wants to do. “

For the record, I don’t know of a conductor who would ever agree to do the original version of this particular work.  The critical edition incorporates Mahler’s own changes made fairly soon after the original edition was first published.  These were his wishes. It is one situation in which the money needs to be spent if an orchestra is going to enter the arena of performing such a major work and represent the composer’s artistic intent accurately.  Kind of the cost of doing business.  My vote (and most conductors’ votes) would be that if you aren’t going to do the correct version, don’t do the piece.  Of course, librarians don’t get a vote, so I digress.

To complicate matters there are now three critical edition scores done by different editors and published by Peters: the 1964 edited by Ratz, 1988 by Füssl, and 2002 by Kubik.  So you have to find out which of the critical edition scores the conductor is using on top of it.  (If you aren’t sure, fax or scan score pages or send full scores around to compare, but always know exactly what the conductor is using.  ALWAYS.) There are enough editorial differences that the conductor will be expecting to hear what is in front of him/her and some of the changes are definitely noticeable.  Many conductors want to perform the latest edition of any work, but some do not. People can get very heated about what they believe to be the correct editorial decisions and why — I know, as geeky as it sounds, it’s true. (One of our MOLA conferences in recent years brought in leading editors for a panel discussion and you would have thought we were trying to solve global warming.)

A sad confession- When OES did Mahler 5 last year, we did it using the Kalmus parts. I had repeatedly begged for the new Critical edition edited by Kubik, the math got the best of me. We could hire another 3 string player for what the rental would have cost us. At least I could comfort myself with the knowledge that the Kalmus represents a version by Mahler, just not his final one. With that in mind, we accepted all differences between that and the final version as legitimate and made no effort to correct those. We used a set borrowed from a distinguished American music festival, but the parts had not been proof-read to MOLA standards, and we couldn’t begin to make up for that. Instead, we tried just to fix wrong notes and rhythms- the most basic form of editorial triage. In the end (remember these parts had already been used) we found something like 60 wrong notes in 3 rehearsals. There are a lot of differences between life in a major orchestra and a regional one, but the library may be the biggest difference, and the most frustrating one for a conductor.

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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 “From the Orchestra Library”

  1. Greg Austin

    Very interesting post and articles, thanks for the link, Ken. One of our orchestras did Mahler 5 years ago, and I wish I knew now which edition we used because I can’t remember, but I would suspect, given the budget, that we did the Kalmus original.

    And on the “librarian stage call” I agree completely, and this has happened many times in my group (and we’ve also been through three or four librarians). One in particular that was memorable–we were doing a Vaughan-Williams symphony (I’m sorry I can’t remember which–I’m afraid it wasn’t memorable, at least the way we did it), and at the read-through we got to the last whole page of our music, and the music in the conductor’s score had already ended. The conductor had no idea what we were playing for what would have amounted to probably fifteen more pages of full score. The librarian gets called out and gets a quiet but angry reaming from the conductor in front of the orchestra.
    I always wondered truly whose fault that was; where the major breakdown in communication occurred. I’m not sure I yet understand whose responsibility that was–but I’m going to guess here that the conductor told the librarian which score she was using, and he should have inferred from that which set of parts to rent, or should she have told him which set to get? At the time, I thought it was curious that our conductor did not know what parts we had, especially since we were doing a work that apparently had wildly differing versions (plus, as a youth orchestra conductor with no middle man between me, the music, and the players, it seemed like an easy thing to check). It doesn’t seem wise in any situation like this to take anything for granted, i.e. “I tell the librarian I’m doing ‘x’ score, and they will automatically rent ‘x’ parts and I won’t need to double-check or worry about it.”

  2. Zoltan

    Then perhaps this is the right place to mention (while I’m getting an update of the blogs I follow), that I like the new style of VftP (content was never an issue anyway)!

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