Still running substantially in arrears – 14th and 15th July I was back towards old stamping ground, though actually a bit south of Oxford itself, with a group of mostly more local string players and a soprano, rehearsing and performing Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, Britten’s Les Illuminations and Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra.
If you’re thinking the only one of those you’ve heard of is the Elgar, that’s hardly surprising and there are reasons. The Tippett and Britten are generally the preserve of professional performers with a certain amount of charitable / government arts funding behind them; written within a couple of years of each other during the second world war, they are somewhat demanding of the audience and much more heavily so of the players (and singer, and conductor!). Classical aficionados of certain stripes will definitely be drawn by them, but they don’t pull in a general audience in the way even that Holst’s Planets or The Rite of Spring might (and yes, I have seen both done by amateur orchestras, though it’s certainly rare!).
The Britten poses most of the challenges that might be expected from the composer and that are specific to strings and voice (this being the item with the soprano soloist): some very rapid and very high writing, chromaticism and dissonance (though perhaps less of that than popularly associated with Modernist art music), and a certain amount of advanced technique, mostly harmonics. For the singer, a big range, some truly terrifying pitching and the requirement to project difficult writing over a lot of accompanying noise.
The Tippet is to some extent more intriguing as a playing experience, and in a sense less conventional. Unusually for a piece under the ‘concerto for orchestra’ title, there is little really virtuosic writing in most of the parts (though the violas, of which I was one, do have to reach some unusually high notes here and there!). The first and last movements (of three) are mostly built around rhythmic shifts and rearrangements within a constant speed. The first is mostly in what be called 4/4, but with the 8 quavers grouped every way conceivable: 2 groups of 4, 3+3+2 (the classic ‘Latin’ pulse), 3+2+3 … some sections of 3+3+2 stretch out briefly into a couple of bars of 6/8 followed by one of 2/4. These rhythms are often laid on top of each other in different parts, making locking everything together both crucial and difficult. The last movement gains its initial impetus from shifting back and forth between 3/4 and 6/8 (a less rigidly alternating version of the ‘America’ effect, for West Side Story fans), but carries on in later sections to take the same quaver movement into sections mingling 4/4, 3/4 and 2/4. The middle, slow, movement, in total contrast, is rhythmically quite consistent and relatively straightforward, and seems to gain most of its impetus from chromatic, dissonant, yet lyrical multi-part fugues.
In all of this there is an additional challenge: the ‘double’ string orchestra of the title. The strings are grouped here as two full orchestras, each of the usual 1st and 2nd violins, violas, cellos and double basses. That means ten sections scored (mostly) fully independently, and with the numbers generally available to today’s performers, only a handful of players per part; we had one double bass per orchestra and two of most other things, with a couple of violin sections stretching to three. Even with a conductor, therefore, the demands of ensemble playing are almost those of twentieth-century chamber music, since there is hardly anyone else to follow!
Both pieces did convey an interesting indication of the size string section considered normal for professional orchestras when they were written (c. 1940), however. The Britten has one section of the viola part marked ‘first 3 desks only’ – in other words, 6 players should play that section, and therefore there should ideally be significantly more than 6 violas altogether. Ultimately similarly, there is a passage in the Tippett where the orchestra 2 viola part (mine), and I think several others, are marked ‘first desk only’ – suggesting at least 4 violists per orchestra. The implication of this, with usual rules of thumb for proportioning string sections, is a minimum total line-up of:
12 1st violins
10 2nd violins
4 double basses
When I was in county youth orchestra (with, obviously, extra players more or less free and in fact some pressure to open up more places rather than fewer), we had up to 14 players on each violin part and that was considered very big. I have played with amateur orchestras that had one section or another bigger than the above (usually cellos or 2nd violins), but usually where the ensemble was very inclusive on standard! Interestingly, though, a couple of days after this concert, I was flipping through a book of essays by Steve Reich, and came across a very short one on the makeup of orchestras (I forget the date but it must have been at least a couple of decades later than Britten and Tippett’s scores). In this, he stated calmly that the standard forces for a US pro orchestra were 18 first violins with other sections in proportion, and recommended to composers that they consider cutting this to 12 firsts and so forth, describing this as more like a classical orchestra (in the strict sense, meaning roughly late eighteenth century). For the record, when I have played classical music with ensembles trying to do it sympathetically and without pressure to include every member of a larger group, it has tended to be with four or at most six violinists per part, and of course fewer of the lower strings, probably down to a single double bass – and this was about the size we had for the Tippett and Britten.
The curious thing about that last statement is that, particularly for the Tippett, it seemed appropriate – revealing, in a sense, the dense construction and tightly interwoven individual lines, particularly the rhythmic criss-crossing, given bowed strings do not have massive amounts of attack in the sound, rather than obscuring them in a large wash. Perhaps Reich’s suggestions, too, did not go further because cutting one third of the string section seemed quite radical enough. In any case, the general challenge for the musicians I work with tends to be the reverse – mustering enough strings to handle the music, or often to balance wind forces which are dictated by the orchestration, while keeping costs and the amount of persuading that has to be done down by not going any larger than that; and for the players, working effectively at just on tipping point of not having enough (perhaps particularly when I’m in the viola section!).
In any case, to drag myself back from an unintended essay on orchestration and performance practice, this was a challenging concert (one that stretched the conductor’s technique too!) but one I’m very glad to have done and I think we can call an artistic success. It was followed immediately by two days in a recording studio working on something much more modern again, in some senses even more avant-garde, and certainly in places no less challenging. Tune in next time for write-up on that …