This Friday I’m conducting the winds of the English Symphony Orchestra in a program of wind ensemble masterpieces by Hans Gál, Mozart and Dvorák. You should come- it’s going to be fantastic!
It’s no secret I’m a cellist, so I have grown up outside the wind ensemble tradition (although the wonderful Dvorák Wind Serenade actually has a significant cello part, which I’ve played many times). In spite of this, I absolutely LOVE (love!!!!!) conducting wind ensembles.
I still remember the first time I conducted an all-wind group. It was the Stravinsky Octet for Winds. WOW! The differences between conducting winds and strings are very striking to someone who has grown up playing in and conducting groups that always include string players. Wind players are fundamentally different to string players. Wind players learn their music. They make very few counting mistakes and almost never play a wrong note. They play together- AT THE SAME TIME!!!!! It’s as if they really care that chords start and finish in an organized manner, and, in spite of the ridiculous and seemingly irreconcilable differences in sound characteristics between the different instruments, they seem to be able to come to agreement not only on when to begin notes, but how to begin them. This kind of clarity, precision and professionalism is not something one encounters often in the presence of string players.
I love conducting winds and I love the repertoire. Granted, there are not as many A-list masterpieces for winds as there are for string ensembles or orchestras (you know you have a serious repertoire shortage when you hear people describe any work by Percy Grainger as a masterpiece), but the twenty or so greatest wind ensemble works are among the most rewarding pieces to study and perform I can think of. Mozart’s Gran Partita? Stravinsky Symphonies of Wind Instruments? Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum? Hartmann Symphony no. 5? These are GREAT pieces.
Messiaen’s Et exspecto. I will conduct it for beer with any group good enough to play it.
So, every time I conduct a wind concert, I have an absolute blast and I find myself thinking that I wish I could do it more often. There should be more wind concerts. So many more people have experience of playing wind instruments- surely you would think this would all translate into a huge audience for professional wind ensembles. An audience as big and enthusiastic as that for orchestras?
Well, no. How many wind ensembles played at the Proms this year? You guessed it! Why?
Well, depth of repertoire is an issue, but the body of good music for winds has expanded hugely over the last 50 years as wind conductors have made heroic efforts to commission new works from all kinds of leading composers. Someday, we’ll have enough wonderful music for winds that we’ll never have to pretend that some of “those” pieces by Grainger and Holst are actually any good.
The answer came to me today as I was making lunch for the kids. I thought it might be a good time to listen to a recording the Dvorák Wind Serenade- one can always learn from listening. I found a live performance directed from the sarrusophone by one of the nation’s leading wind virtuosos (I’m not saying which nation!). I figured a wind virtuoso’s expertise was just the thing I, as a cellist, needed to take in as I get ready to do the piece again (I’ve conducted it four or five times and played it a good 15).
Now, I love the Dvorák Serenade the way bankers love money. The mere thought of the piece makes me smile. There’s not a bar, not a chord that I don’t adore, that isn’t infused with happy memories of playing this warm-hearted, beautifully-crafted and richly-inspired music with friends and colleagues.
And yet, but the midpoint of the first movement today, I found myself fantasizing about chewing my own left arm off. There may even be teeth marks just below the shoulder where I made a start before hitting the mute button. Here I was listening to one of my favourite pieces, flawlessly played, and I was DYING of boredom.
Wondering why there is no wind version of the Berlin Philharmonic? Well, other than a perfectly understandable fear among the public that going to a wind concert will expose them to the risk of hearing Percy Grainger’s music, the likelihood of being bored to tears has got to be a prime concern for the average ticket-buyer.
Why was I so bored? Well, I suppose the title of this blog post gives a hint. Like too many (but by no means all!) wind performances, the whole thing was one big shapeless mass of mezzo-forte. The sound was about as varied as a bowl of old oatmeal. I found myself waiting for the next printed subito forte just so I could groan in outrage when they continued prancing along with their smug, self-satisfied reduction of Dvorak’s affectionate masterpiece to high-class aural wallpaper. Something inside me snapped. Coming after two mind-numbingly bland and precious recordings of the Harmoniemusik from Mozart’s Don Giovanni (I mean really- how can anyone make Don Giovanni, DON GIOFREEKINGVANNI, boring in any medium?!?!?!), I decided something had to be said.
How does this happen? How is it that a group of professional musicians can give a televised performance of a great work that is all basically one dynamic? Surely, an ensemble that has players using double and single reads, horns and (in the case of the Dvorak) bows to make their sound can’t actually achieve a completely one-dimensional, characterless sound? Well, the sad fact is that a clarinet playing mezzo forte doesn’t sound all that different from an oboe or a horn playing mezzo forte. And all those cello pianissimi? Mezzo forte.
Of course, wind instruments do offer some amusing acoustic challenges in terms of dynamics. The flutes and oboes sit next to each other in orchestra. Of course they do- the two instruments are totally incompatible. The flutes can’t play loud in their low register, the oboes can’t play soft in theirs. Clarinets, who sit behind the flutes and oboes (so that they can smirk judgmentally at their colleagues’ lack of dynamic control) can play infinitely soft and terrifyingly loud (which reminds me- when did the bass clarinet surpass the trombones as the loudest instrument ever invented?), so I can only assume that playing an entire Dvorák Serenade mf is their way of mocking their less flexible colleagues. Bassoons really don’t seem to do dynamics at all, but one is so pleased any time they’re not a whole-tone sharp that we don’t dare get greedy. They’re trying, that’s the important thing. Horns can achieve a breath-taking range of dynamics, colours and articulations—so much so that they’re able to play in both woodwind and brass ensembles, an astounding feat of versatility. Unfortunately, most horn players seem unable to remember what constitutes “brass mode” and “woodwind mood” and often seem to end up blasting away in Mozart woodwind pieces and tooting delicately in Bruckner symphonies.
In orchestra, players often have to project over huge string sections, so an expert flutist will learn to belt out a solo marked piano with a lot of power but with a very sweet sound. It’s loud in terms of decibels, but soft in terms of character. This is exactly right. On the other hand, there are plenty of times in orchestral repertoire when the winds don’t all have the melody, the strings aren’t messing everything up, and piano or pianissimo really means piano or pianissimo. There are even times when composers clearly want players to achieve something dynamically against the grain of their instrument’s acoustical properties. Dvorak often writes low, soft, sustained, exposed parts for the 2nd oboe. The most famous example is the second movement of his cello concerto, where the poor second oboist is left hung out to dry while the first clarinet gets to astound the audience with his/her effortless artistry in dispatching one of the most beautiful melodies ever written (to make it worse, Dvorak has the principal oboist, who could have offered his/her colleague a bit of cover, and the second clarinettist, who could have played the same part effortlessly, sitting idle, smirking in judgment). Professional second oboists spend years agonizing over this short passage. I’m told there is great and mysterious reed maker living 20 days hike into the remotest mountains of Tibet who only makes reeds for this passage. Ask any good second oboist- a 20 day hike for a reed that can make this passage manageable is time well spent.
A conductor has to accept that there are some situations in which one has to be realistic about how big a dynamic range you can ask for, but, by and large, I’ve found that wind sections of all levels of ability can do far more with dynamics than most people think, and if you don’t ask, you don’t get. If you ask nicely, listen to their concerns, and respect that they do have to deliver under pressure, one finds that almost anything is possible. Trust is key. Your colleagues have to trust that you really have valid and well considered reasons for wanting the piano‘s softer than the forte’s (can you think of any?), and you have to trust that when the musicians say they’re really, really giving it their all and can’t physically play any softer, that they’re telling the truth and not just being lazy.
Of course, there can be push back (especially once your colleagues figure out if you’re a pianist or a string player). I once had the principal flutist of a fine professional orchestra in the USA say to his music director after my first rehearsal “Wow, this guy sure does want our piano‘s soft. Does he know what he’s doing?” Thank heavens, my colleague said “yes,” and the next rehearsal was better. There are, sadly, wind players whose (non-)dynamic approach seems to be carved in granite, but with patience and charm, even they sometimes can be persuaded to try new things. I once cajoled a flutist into dropping below fortissimo for the first time in many decades. The trumpets came up to me after rehearsal to say how lovely it was to be able to hear themselves at last. The secret to my success in that scenario? Honest answer- I don’t know. Some days you eat the bear, and some days…
After all, what bigger musical crime can there be than to bore our audience to death? It’s far better to risk the occasional sqwawk or cack, than to have your public conclude that listening to the Dvorak Wind Serenade is the most boring way to spend 25 minutes ever created. Achieving a truly enormous dynamic range in all kinds of styles and registers on the sarrusophone may be difficult, but overcoming difficulty is supposed to be what we do. If I taught sarrusophone, I’d damn well make sure my students had the softest low C of any sarrusophone players in the country, not tell them throughout their formative years “don’t try to play too soft, you might squeak.” At the end of the day, if human beings can learn to play the cello in thumb position (I still remember the pain the first time I tried it in in a lesson), get through airports without committing violent crimes and unravel the mysteries of sub-atomic particles, surely we can offer the universe a realization of Dvorak’s lovely Serenade that would enable the interested listener to guess where the great man wrote “p” and where he wrote “f.”
Next time I have to get my left-arm sowed back on, I’m comin’ for you and namin’ names, Mr. fancy-pants sarrusophone virtuoso.
PS- Apologies to any Grainger fans out there. Please don’t take my humorously-intended remarks to heart. I’ll spare you all the half page of spanking jokes I was going to make at his expense.That would really whip up a lot of bad feeling.