Well, one of them anyway. This from a lovely **** review by Fringe Opera of the Hashtag Anna Bolena, focusing on the bits of any relevance to my orchestra leading:
The photo doesn’t come close to doing justice to how much the place looks like a cross between a Bram Stoker character’s living room and the interior of Jules Verne’s Nautilus. Nor does it let you realise quite how little room there was, although I can tell you the shot was taken from behind the bar and those two bottles of lager peeping into the frame are on top of it. We were playing in a corner of the floor (well, Mr. E was partway up some steps – he isn’t that tall) and I was often closer to some of the audience, or indeed the bar staff, than the rest of the band. Which is an improvement for my health chances I think. When someone wanted to get past between the band and the end of the bar I had to curb my dancing-while-playing and retreat more or less on top of Lord Harold’s drums.
This was a very DIY gig in a very small space well off our beaten track. And as we watched the rain stream down earlier in the evening we had serious doubts about how it was going to go.
We needn’t have worried. By the time we took to the ‘stage’, er, corner, Brighton’s faithful, steampunk geared up and not, had crowded in in what felt like dangerous numbers (like I say, the Yellow Book is very small!). By the time we finished, the atmosphere was hot, sweaty and hyperactive and the masses were putting more into our music than we were. So much so that we ended our set and did an encore. And then got called back to the stage by what sounded like the whole bar chanting the knees-up ending tag (reprised at the end of encores) to set opener ‘World Famous Extravaganza’. And did the whole song again. And stretched out the ending. And sold merch and posed for selfies and accepted extravagant compliments from violin-playing young women (er might have been just me) … and vodka -soaked cherries from the landlady …
Brighton we salute you! We will be back! (First on 5 June – google ‘End Times Festival’ and put it in your iCalendars … )
I’m no stranger to choral singing, though we have a somewhat off-and-on relationship; more one of those casual friendships where you meet up every once in a while but don’t get resentful if you don’t hear from the other person.
However, so much of my choral experience has been outside of the standard Anglican parish tradition that I think this afternoon was actually (subject to memory lapses) the first time I have ever sung in a robed choir. You can imagine I was a little self-conscious about what I was doing with my feet processing out …
It was a fairly straightforward dep job, covering the bass scholar of St Matthew’s Bayswater for a Good Friday reflective service punctuated by four or so A&M hymns and the same number of (short, continuo semi-accompanied) anthems. But to be honest, on getting recruited about 10pm last night, about 45 minutes rehearsal and one to a part, with how much choral singing I have (or haven’t) done lately, I’m quite happy enough to have got through that to everyone’s expressed satisfaction! And it’s always nice to sing some vocal polyphony, even if little snippets (here of Weelkes, with some lovely miniature imitation, and intermittently startlingly chromatic Schutz).
Another day, another gig; it’s all good for the soul, the skills and the pocket. Onwards and upwards (or, in conventional way of holding a map, downwards) to Brighton tomorrow!
… in Opera Land, never to be confused with Classical Music Country:
A great evening’s music – marvellous principals, chorus and orchestra and Donizetti at his finest.
Saturday night’s Anna Bolena with Hashtag Opera Co. No footage of this I’m afraid – yet: it was filmed but I haven’t got my grubby self-promoting hands on the results so far.
At all but three and a half hours of music (excluding interval!), this might just be the longest gig I’ve ever played. It certainly felt like an endurance event for all concerned!
Which didn’t stop Rochelle Hart, in the title role, setting new standards of theatricality for a concert performance, as well as maintaining superb musical ones. The principal violin seat (mine this time) is, depending on how you look at it, an excellent one for view of the soloists or a terrible one for risk of distraction … Very special mentions to tenor John Upperton (battling a stinking cold manfully), conductor Fred Platt (it’s been weird not being in email contact several times a day!) and the full cast, chorus and orchestra.
I’m certainly not going to claim my performance, or the ensemble, was flawless. But I think it’s fair to say we carried a (literally) capacity audience with us every step of the way, no mean testament to the music or to their attention spans!
… well, three demo videos already showed up at once, but here is another video! Very much not a carefully-produced showreel, this is live from a hot, sweaty, busy, lairy St Patrick’s night gig Thursday gone in Ealing, me and Wulf Forrester-Barker getting our folk on … before I had the ‘Drowsy Maggie’ speeding-up competition with that loud guy jigging in the crowd, but after someone danced / fell backwards into a speaker stand and knocked it over on top of the main band’s guitarist. (I think he’s fine. I think.)
Footage from Razzberry Jam‘s live Periscope stream of the night; thanks to them for letting me use it and my brother Richard Ash for capturing the whole thing off the stream! I might put up some video of us all together soon …
Personal first for me – this gig will be livecast on Periscope. So if you want to hear me ranging from Irish trad drinking-song fiddle to Thin Lizzy twin-lead riffs and back to hyperspeed jigs and reels, and you’re not actually going out for Paddy’s, go to Periscope and follow @razzberryjamuk!
A single musically and thematically integrated (well, reasonably coherent and connected anyway) musical work, being given a professional one-off performance (involving about 50 people, both instrumentalists and vocalists) to a paying audience (capacity a couple of hundred or so). How far through rehearsals and preparation would you expect them to be a lunchtime a week before the performance date?
Your answer will depend a lot on your experience and expectations of professional classical musicians. As it happens though, how about just about to start sight-reading the parts in almost all cases?
I spent Saturday afternoon and evening rehearsing Donizetti’s Anna Bolena with Fred Platt and the next iteration of the Hashtag Opera Orchestra. We spent something like 6 hours playing, which sounds a lot until I reveal that
(a) the opera will probably take, at my estimate, 3 hours to perform (excluding interval)
(b) we only have two other rehearsals, and this was the only one without the singers to be considered as well.
I was hitting the ground running in one sense – I’d had the part for 48 hours, played through it all once, bowed it provisionally, read through the full score as downloadable from Petrucci and listened to the whole thing on Spotify. But I am leading and I was more pleasantly surprised than anything else when some of the other violinists mentioned having listened to large chunks of the opera before turning up. I certainly know, having helped hand them out in the rehearsal, that hardly any of the parts were distributed in advance!
But in another sense we did hit the ground running anyway. It’s a fairly compact orchestra (we’re using a slightly reduced orchestration that takes the brass parts down to five, plus double woodwind, a handful of dramatic-effect percussion and, in our instance, a lean 11-piece string section), and a tight-knit work in general – there are only 7 non-chorus roles, for instance, and despite set pieces such as a hunt scene and some crowd and military bustle in the finale this is mostly a drama of individuals talking to each other, even if they are of the social level of the actual and prospective royal family and they spend a lot of time discussing their own or each other’s deaths. There is a certain amount of blast and bombast but it illustrates internal, rather than external, desperate struggle – more an operatic version of something like Othello, where all the military conflict takes place offstage and we only see interpersonal drama played out, or even perhaps Ibsen, than the Hollywood blockbuster approach of much later 19th-century drama.
Nowhere for anyone to hide in terms of sheer volume then, and something very similar in the compositional style. Writing around 1830, Donizetti is certainly not shying away from some of the rapid shifts of key or use of aggressive dissonance characteristic of Romantic composition as it was well established in instrumental music by this point; but I hear a substantial reference back to, if not perhaps the Classical style itself, certainly the transitional work of, say, earlier Schubert. Which involves thin textures, a lot of silence in individual parts or the whole ensemble, a lot of organic flexibility of speed (even when the soloists aren’t producing their frequent vocal cadenzas) and quite a lot of subtlety of expression – a general frequent need for ‘lightness’, however that plays out (and without wishing to underplay the hammered dominant seventh chords in semiquavers that mark particularly sobering moments!). It’s a style that requires close ensemble, sympathetic listening (balance is crucial, and often complex) and the right performance manner – one not necessarily a lot of musicians’ ‘default setting’ outside the early music specialism.
All of which makes it incredibly impressive to me that not only did we play through the vast majority of the orchestral parts yesterday, but my perspective from the leader’s chair was of general command of the technical aspects of the music (usually quite enough for a sight-read of so much material; I admit I need to get to grips with some fast, high passages for precision) and also of real ensemble gel and stylistic capture. It sounded like the real deal, and we still have half the rehearsals (roughly) to go.
So if you don’t have plans for Saturday (19th), I do urge you to take a trip (and a jumper) down to Clapham Common and hear the finished article. Based on the form so far, we should reach the finishing line in style (if perhaps slightly out of breath and hard-worked!).
This afternoon I’m sitting adding pencil marks to a violin 1 part for Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. Not part of my usual orchestral playing preparation, but part of taking my role as ‘leader’ seriously.
So, the logical question once ‘What are conductors for?’ has been got out of the way: What do (orchestra) leaders do? (Besides walk on after the rest of the orchestra has tuned, get their own round of applause and shake hands with the conductor at the end, which is all an audience will ever get as noticeable indications of their having a different role to any other player.)
I’m played with some leaders who’ve seemed rather puzzled by this question themselves, and have been apparently engaged in justifying their special status in the programme design by interrupting rehearsals to micro-manage the playing technique of the strings (upper or entire), regardless of the schedule being pursued by the conductor. And others, strong in the early-20th-century legacy of uniform bowing for everything, take it upon themselves to carefully pencil in complete revisions to the composer’s / editor’s phrasing and expect the string section to copy them up and follow them.
Depending on circumstances, there can be an element of just wanting another person on the non-musical management team, and I’ve certainly been involved in fixing players and helping promote on this performance. (Speaking of which, buy your tickets now! It would be unwise, based on sales to date and previous Hashtag performances, to assume you’ll be able to get any on the door.)
There are a lot of musical chiefs on an opera – conductor, a good half a dozen vocal soloists who may well have quite well-established and carefully developed ideas about style and delivery, and that’s without the possibility of a separate chorusmaster or a répétiteur. Under the circumstances and most comparable ones (concerti, for instance), the last thing I think I should be doing as leader is throwing extra aesthetic preferences into the mix. Despite the name, I see ‘leading’ in this context (and most, actually) as more a process of middle-management – sorting out some of the tricky corners of the sheet music (where the part is ambiguous, or requires further annotation to be readily playable or be effective in the particular context) and acting as a first line of defence for string technical queries rather than passing everything up to the conductor (who, after all, may or may not be a string player – not that the winds and percussion get a specialist question resolver of their own, of course). Perhaps a certain amount of visual re-emphasis of entries (not that you really need that with a smallish, good orchestra and a good conductor.) But it’s a process of facilitation and to a large extent non-intrusion rather than metaphorical seeking to spray my territorial stamp around all the performance’s edges.
if when you come along a week Saturday you’ll see a performance that has achieved an amazing amount of musical cohesion given the orchestra only have three rehearsals; and one that is musically cohesive. But not one that shows the development of a context-invariable ‘Martin Ash style’ or throws spotlight onto me as a musical shaping force. In fact I’ll probably even forego that separate bow at the start.
So I pulled this pocketful of dirtyness out of the vaults for Saturday’s debut gig with Kindred Spirit, not having used it for something like 3 years. Yes, rock guitarists, it is a metal guitar fuzz pedal! However, since a lot of violin register is about the same as heavy guitar soloing range (who really plays screaming solos on the bottom three strings?), and since blunt effects like this sound pretty similar regardless of the timbre of the note fed into them, it requires surprisingly little tweaking to be a reasonable effect on an amplified violin. Basically, I set the EQ somewhat oddly (an upper-mid notch but probably more top end than most guitarists would use – violin can go about an octave higher than a conventional guitar remember), keep the amount of distortion fairly well down so it’s more in the realms of very gritty overdrive than total overboard metal fuzzcloud, and go.
Of course, it will still get more effective with practical use and trial-and-error refinement. For reasons which are beyond my knowledge of electroacoustics, the distorted sound is more given to feeding back through monitors than the clean one at the same volume level – but I need to stick to my guns and not turn the volume down on the pedal, otherwise the distorted sound (logically used for aggressive rock violin solos and lead lines) is quieter than the default clean one …
It’s likely that other stompboxes will be given a tryout at some point, with Kindred Spirit at least. I have my eye on a genuine overdrive to bridge the gap between this and clean (possibly letting me set this a bit further ‘out’ and use it more sparingly by the same token), and would be interested in a standalone reverb unit so I can alter that as an effect (think Chicago blues where it’s in the guitar amp, rather than making the whole band sound like they’re playing in a big hard-surfaced room) between songs without having to reach the PA mixer.
As I always seem to sign off these posts, watch this space …
Saturday night was my first gig with Elaine Samuels’ Kindred Spirit outfit. And first up to gig happened to be the duo incarnation, meaning it was just me and Elaine’s vocals and guitar tackling a fairly blue collar outer West London pub.
Well, most importantly the little black dog loved us almost as much as my girlfriend loved him. I really should have taken some pictures. Duke, here’s to you mate.
But all in all this was what I would call a successful bar gig. They’re not easy – the crowd haven’t often chosen to be there because there’s live music, and the brief is basically to keep them there longer than they would otherwise stay (so they spend more at the bar – basic economics here). They can be really good, crowded, good-naturedly uninhibited events, but not everyone responds to any given treatment. It’s more frequent with open mike nights, for more objectively good reasons, but there has been the odd bloke most past evenings who pops his head round the door, sees live music going on, pauses and retreats back out into the night.
Flexibility can often be the key, and that’s certainly where some of my originals bands have fallen down in the past. Here, we played progressively looser with the setlist towards the end of the evening, emphasising the dancealong folky numbers as that’s what the loudest drunks were enjoying the most … also the only gig I’ve been requested ‘Happy Birthday’ twice, once without details and once ‘in a country & western style’ (that was fun!), I think for the same guy each time!
Our calendar is pretty full, so if you want to see this lineup again we’re at the Hope in Richmond on 1 April (no joke!), and the full prog-folk five-piece headline FourPlay mini-festival on 9 April in Bracknell (book now to avoid disappointment). Come and check us out!