So Sunday’s job was an unusual one.
Firstly, because who ever (unless they land work doing Anglican church / cathedral services) gets paid to do music on a Sunday?
Secondly, because I bagged it at less than 24 hours’ notice, carrying out the admin on my way to the previous day’s rehearsal (and concert) and in the rehearsal break. This marks, incidentally, the first time in many months I’ve actually got hired for anything through Encore.
Thirdly, because the job was actually just a rehearsal. Genuinely, the principal viola of high-standard amateur group the Ernest Read Symphony Orchestra looked at his lists of regulars and apologies and concluded he might well be on his own that day. When your day’s rehearsal is 6 hours (10-1 + 2-5) and you only do a couple of those before the day of the concert, it perhaps makes sense to not leave your section that small (at least being able to observe divisi markings is useful for a symphony orchestra!); but it is a mark of dedication to your hobby to pay up out of your own pocket to bump your section.
So I showed up in Camden and had the unusual pleasure, for a dep / freelancer, of being able to play a fairly full day without the pressure of a concert in a few hours, and of being able to go through a programme in more detail than is usually allowed me (after all, my ‘standard orchestral model’ has only half this amount of rehearsal before the concert; here, I was there for double that and the orchestra are going on to rehearse for as long and a half again before they perform. The difference in level of detail is striking).
Much of the programme was fairly familiar stuff presenting fairly few challenges. Although the advantage of working with a slightly more generous rehearsal schedule and, critically, a good professional conductor (Tim Redmond, I find on doing a swift bit of web research, with whom I was very impressed indeed) is that regardless of the ‘difficulty’ of the material, you can actually work on polishing things that would otherwise be acceptable but less than ideal, and on getting performance flair rather than just getting it right. These are the things sacrificed by the shoestring performance economy.
Nonetheless, not that much to report on a couple of Williams film themes, William Tell (except that ricochet bowing on viola is something I can’t remember being asked for before), the Swan Lake Scène, a pops suite from West Side Story (not Bernstein’s own Symphonic Dances, which would have kept us all very occupied!) and a lovely little bit of orchestrated Debussy. The particular meat of the day for me was getting to look in a certain amount of detail at the inevitable but challenging choice for a programme themed on transport and motion: Honegger’s Pacific 231.
At first listen, let alone first play through, this can seem like a sort of rhythmically programmatic version of those orchestral crescendi in ‘A Day in the Life’: discordant groaning noises made to speed up and slow down like the steam train doing a short run that it is intended to depict. There is actually so much more, structurally, to it than that, and what I loved about Redmond’s approach was that it was geared to bringing out the structure, the patterning and therefore the sense that the piece makes, so that you can put it back together as something other than aggressive noises with carefully built in accelerando and rallentando.
In order to do that, you have to know this very complex score, for a large orchestra, inside out. The simple bit is pulling out the unisons in busy textures: ‘Right, we will now have the violas, second clarinet, second trombone, third trumpet and second horn at bar x – who are all playing the same part.’ (I’m ad-libbing the part list there, but not completely – that represents roughly the combinations involved in one instance.) And if you think spotting who’s playing the same part on a conductor’s score is easy, remember if that list above was real it involves three different clefs and three different transpositions.
There is more, however. Is canon getting lost in surrounding texture? Play the canon entries resynchronised so they are in unison, before putting the piece back together (incidentally, credit to the orchestra for getting this concept first time – I have seen this tried elsewhere and the players utterly fail to grasp that the desired result is for them to start playing at the same time from a different point in the score to the section next to them). Does something sound like arbitrary chromaticism when it’s actually made up of two perfectly lucid sets of material overlaid – just that they happen to be in different keys? Separate the section into the two tonalities to rehearse them separately (this is a real claim on careful advance organisation – no way you can decide to find all the parts in concert E flat minor on the hoof).
The result is that something which simply induces a near-panic to start with (argh! all the notes! must just play next note! and watch conductor’s beat! and survive to the next rest!), and sounds just as inchoate, becomes comprehensible to the players – and I have a firm belief that if music has a comprehensible shape to its players, then that comprehensibility can be communicated to an open-minded (though only an open-minded) audience too. Which is always an important consideration when programming a ‘difficult’ piece like this in an amateur orchestra concert where the audience will almost certainly not come either to hear that work or with any familiarity with it. Oddly, by the way, I was played it in school curricular music lessons as an example of programme music, and therefore suffer from an assumption that everyone with a musical background hears the title and vaguely goes ‘Oh yes, the one about the steam train that gets faster and then slower.’ This assumption is demonstrably wrong from Sunday’s experience.
All in all, the mildly unusual experience of a paying job that was not massively stressful, and it is very easy to argue was good for me as a musician. And given the way it tipped it down round here on Sunday, a much better way of earning the day’s bread than trying to find somewhere dry to busk!