For once my bandmates at The Filthy Spectacula spare me writing up, and you reading my purple prose upon, this last weekend’s serving of gigs (I’ve skipped over our headline appearance at Coventry’s inaugural steampunk convivial, sorry). I’ll let Lord Harold tell it his way instead … read on!
Monthly Archives: May 2018
A little while back I wrote about recording some viola music in the impressively resonant acoustic of All Hallows’ Church, Twickenham. At that point, for various reasons, my excursion into the under-occupied territory of swing viola was the only product ready to be opened up to the public.
However, it’s now time to present the real purpose of the session: a complementary pair of art music pieces, essentially an online portfolio for my current point of arrival in that sphere. First up, a complete solo; and while I’m all for clarity of sound in Baroque music, I think that acoustic really lends extra fullness and presence to a sound that, particularly playing an octave above where the music was originally written, could sound a little lonely.
You can watch it too if you like, though fans of my storming round the stage (and audience) rock solos may be disappointed that I’m being a fairly restrained classical player in this instance:
The real showpiece though (both for a handful of really virtuosic passages, and for pushing the intensity of expression that is probably my single greatest strength in ‘classical’ music) is this fairly obscure Romantic character showpiece. Big thanks to Connor Fogel for playing piano (and contributing at least 50% of the flamboyance and sartorial elegance, which is rare for my pianists!), and to Clive Turner for recording, filming and editing.
These are also moving into the demos linked from my Playing page, until something else moves the game on again …
Enjoy and let me know what you think!
Back in the game
Saturday 12 May lunchtime saw Kindred Spirit playing at Richmond May Fair. It was the first full band outing since the 23rd of March, which is a while. I was slightly rusty on a couple of arrangements, but we made a good sound and were able to preview I think 4 tracks of the upcoming album (second half of which is being worked up towards recording at present).
However, it was a much more notable return to form that evening for The Filthy Spectacula. Our set at Maui Waui’s Pirate Ball (yes really!) was our first since late January, and the first ever with new bass monster Bullring Bryce (aka Warwick Preece). It was a good audience and a rocking gig – but I think I’ve forgotten how to pace myself for a 1-hour Filthy set, and was exhausted, sweaty and shaking by the end!
And to complete the set, on Thursday 17th I did my first busking set in a little while too. That was also a bit more tiring than I remembered (I think my right arm had got used to not playing long stretches of Irish fast fiddle tunes), and I had a couple of unexpected memory blanks, but it was generally a good start back to a routine I want to keep up.
So getting into the swing – gigs with both bands, festivals, summer events, busking. Also some other things which I will update you with in future posts! Hope to see you on the neverending tour …
In the middle of the recent live playing marathon, it was gratifying to finally get to hear a public version of Tom Pugh’s (aka rosputin) electronic track ‘Henry’s Tune’.
We collaborated on this pretty substantially, sending back and forth arrangement ideas, demo overdubs and revised mixes before going into a studio (Rubix, whose house engineer and tracking room did an excellent job) together to record what seemed like innumerable sections, parts, improvised solos and overdubs (at one point I had 5 different parts going on, across viola and violin, all of which were double-tracked!).
I think the finished product is a fascinating piece of work. All the string lines are written and played by me on acoustic instruments, though some have been shuffled around, sampled and reassembled or processed to a greater or lesser extent as the mix and production settled in. Everything else on the track is looped and mixed from samples and keyboards in the usual way for this genre by Tom – though it’s now so integrated it can be hard to tell which some parts are! It was a fun project to work on, something new to say I can competently do – and an experience I’d be happy to repeat, if any producers out there fancy collaborating on something!
… only on camera.
Between my first rehearsal and concert on the project in my last post, I spent an evening at All Hallows’ Church, Twickenham, using their impressive acoustic and satisfyingly decorative interior to bolster viola performances to the cameras and mikes of Clive Turner (to whom my massive thanks for recording promo material for two of my projects lately!). I started off by wrestling to deliver the best possible take of the Prelude to Bach’s suite in C major (originally for cello), before being joined by the adaptable and impressively technically fluent Connor Fogel on piano for the impassioned Romantic lament that is in danger of becoming my viola calling card, Henri Vieuxtemps‘s Elégie. We finished off by taking the opportunity to record a jazz standard: ‘Blue Skies’. If a trend for jazz viola ever gets going, I want it on record that I was there first!
I’m keeping my powder dry on the ‘art music’ recordings that were the real purpose of this session. However, for some fun after the end of the Bank Holiday weekend, here’s our version of Irving Berlin, keeping things uncomplicated and spontaneous:
And for office multitaskers, there is an audio-only version too:
Let me know what you think! Massive thanks to Clive and Connor in particular, and watch this space for more serious (if not downright intellectual and tragic) music from this session …
In C (minor)
A week ago (Sunday 30th) I presented myself at an imposing pile of stone and brick on Victoria Embankment, feeling as out of place as I always do in London’s financial district (walking from Bank Tube station, down Threadneedle Street to Liverpool Street station, for instance through the high-earning office types rushing from one meeting to another, the restaurants and outfitters that could swallow my bank balance in one gulp, the immaculately polished career women – and the homeless so established as to be practically able to claim squatters’ right). I was there to bolster the viola section of the JP Morgan Symphony Orchestra for a final two rehearsals leading up to a concert.
Workplace music-making is not that unusual. Many offices, including Oxfam’s British headquarters when I was working there, have community-style choirs that meet on a lunchbreak; my last in-house employer, Oxford University Press, had a choir that was more like a small choral society, with whom I sang Rossini’s Stabat Mater among other things, and a chamber orchestra was launched there just as I was leaving, which with tentative management backing seems to be becoming a considerable success in a short space of time.
Running to a whole symphony orchestra is rather rarer however, even if Morgan Chase must have a very large and well-educated workforce in London to draw from (and let’s face it, good amateur classical musicians are generally university educated and of white-collar origins). Unsurprisingly, a number (I’m unsure how large) of regular members are in fact not employees, but I was impressed to be able to guess from communications about invoicing that we two additional violas and the harpist were probably the only hired bumpers for this concert – either that or the only ones who had not played with the orchestra before, in its four concerts of existence.
This counts as remarkable both because there are always a lot of specific requirements for an orchestra, but also because the programme for this concert was demanding on forces. We opened with the prelude to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and followed it with two symphonies: Schubert’s fourth, and Brahms’s first. Of those, the only one that could be described as at all for chamber orchestra is the Schubert (for essentially Classical orchestral forces, like most of his work).
Orchestra programming varies greatly in its coherence; some people and organisations plan meticulously thematically or biographically connected concerts, others pick pieces either without much reference to each other or for deliberate contrast. This concert raised all sorts of interesting musical ideas by being united around a key centre. Wagner is not much given to staying in one tonality, but the Meistersinger Prelude is both to a comedy and seeking to evoke a somewhat antique atmosphere, and so besides featuring a fugal section and a gavotte-like theme that clearly evokes truly light comic opera, it starts and ends at least in an undeniable C major. Both symphonies, on the other hand, are in C minor.
This last fact may seem to tend away from a key unity – especially as C major tended to be used in the Classical and into the Romantic as a rather straightforward, unsophisticated key, much used with trumpets and timpani, tending to monumental vigour but little complexity; whereas C minor, at three flats, was towards the traditionally melancholy extreme of regularly used keys until the mid-nineteenth century. However, by the late Classical there was an already developing tradition of ending minor-key symphonies in the tonic major, in a sort of greatly extended tierce de Picardie that could last for anything from a coda to the entire last movement. This became much solidified by Beethoven’s monumental influence over the writing of symphonies in particular for decades after his death; the major key last movement (excluding perhaps the introduction) approach becoming linked with the struggle from darkness to light symphonic model found in two of his most-revered symphonies, the fifth (itself in C minor) and the ninth.
All the pieces in the programme, then, finished in the same C major (the Schubert, composed halfway between the premieres of Beethoven 5 and 9, probably shares influences with them rather than being directly influenced in its key scheme by the Fifth). We know Beethoven’s influence on Brahms, especially as symphonist, amounted to the distressing; he put off writing (or at least completing and releasing) a symphony until middle aged for fear of comparisons with the composer he was already often likened to, and then chose to overtly embrace the similarity in his first symphony, particularly echoing the Ninth, which had become venerated as a sort of untouchable pinnacle of symphony writing over the intervening decades.
In a sense, this veneration for Beethoven’s symphonies has never stopped, though the presence of great late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century symphonies in the repertoire has surely moderated it in the musical community as a whole. In that sense then, the musical world and the world of C minor and major inhabited by Brahms and Wagner is familiar and comprehensible to the modern musician. Schubert’s fourth symphony, I think, less so. Written as the Classical era was giving way to the Romantic, I am not sure its soundworld was thoroughly understood by everyone playing it on this occasion.
It is a mistake to simply label Schubert as a Romantic composer, while Beethoven is Classical, then transitional and then unique, and Hummel (say) is a Classical holdover. He was writing almost as early as Beethoven, and while he pushes modulation, length of movements and attitudes to emotion to decidedly nineteenth-century lengths, there are other aspects that require a classical approach. His orchestration and textures (down to the kind of string patterning used in accompaniments) are often resolutely eighteenth-century; his fifth symphony requires no larger forces than Mozart’s 40th (and therefore less than Mozart’s last). He also simply must be remembered to have been working mostly before even Beethoven’s transition to the new approach had been finalised; and he is much less given to pushing the boundaries of his players (or their instruments). Even in this C minor symphony, subtitled (though I would not like to say by whom) ‘Tragic’, there is no fff, no Presto and few of Beethoven’s characteristic sfz markings; and the third movement is (in character and structure as well as name) a Menuetto rather than a Scherzo. Schubert’s players had the expectation of having Classical music put in front of them – and I rather fancy that Schubert, less of the driven idiosyncrat than Beethoven, wrote with the expectation that his music would be played as if it was solidly within the tradition, and found other ways of producing a subversive (‘progressive’?) overall musical result.
The concert itself intrigued me almost as much as the programme. Fully-fledged concerts by workplace ensembles that I have been involved with have tended to be rather extramural affairs; they may be partly underwritten by the employer, and there is almost certain to be branding on the programme, but that is often it – external venue, no explicit representation of the firm at the event, logistics organised as it were by the ensemble rather than the company.
This concert took place at Southwark Cathedral – so external certainly. However, it was much more made a part of the corporate activity of JP Morgan than I had expected from other experiences. I hasten to clarify that I do not mean it paid into the bank’s coffers! indeed, entry was free, and there must have been significant expenditure from someone’s budget involved. However, the ushers were volunteers from the workforce, rather than the cathedral’s body of volunteers or whatever friends the orchestra committee could tempt into the job. And the music was preceded firstly by a welcome from the Dean which (I think on instruction, this being an unusual feature) laid out connections between the cathedral and both the US and the City financial sector; secondly, by a speech from the (I approximate the technical title) Senior Management Sponsor of J P Morgan Music (they apparently also have two choirs, have run chamber concerts and are about to launch a rock band … ); and thirdly by some words from the chair of the bank’s racial diversity resource group, which latter had apparently collaborated on putting on the concert. The management sponsor returned at the end to deliver a lengthy (because laudably inclusive) but heartfelt set of thank-yous. Pains were taken by both corporate speakers to link the putting on of this orchestral concert with corporate ideals, ethos, values and so on; which, whether actual reasons for the activity or applied post hoc to something people just wanted to do, was either way interesting. In terms of the wider company engagement (besides the stewards and the extra hours put in by the security staff managing out-of-hours rehearsals in company offices!), it maybe should not be difficult to get people into a free concert, but it requires a little more to fill a cathedral to standing room only, which this did; and the enthusiasm of the applause after a well-played, but long and emotionally demanding, programme of music plus several orations suggests an element of inside job to me. Apparently wealthy patronage of the arts is not dead, and I shall withhold my ironic self-employed amusement at being told (not personally of course, but sincerely) ‘if you’re not part of a corporate diversity resource group, I urge you to join one because it’s important for everyone’…
Four days’ Outcry
Somewhere roundabout the last day of Calamity Jane (see two posts ago), I managed to successfully apply for a project booking with Outcry Ensemble. This I consider a bit of a feather in my cap, since their players are mostly recent conservatoire graduates and the ensemble bills itself as a springboard for professional classical music careers.
I think the original spur to this was probably being booked to perform at Temple Church on the Thursday evening (we’re now up to 10 days ago; I had a very different performance the Thursday following!). However, the orchestra had decided to bolster this with performing the same programme the night before at St John’s Notting Hill, where they are resident. Rehearsals were the two evenings before that, so I went effectively straight into this from the Lincolnshire concert, with 48 hours from showing up to get performance-ready.
For this purpose the ensemble were a string orchestra, plus two trumpet soloists for a new commission of which more anon. Besides that, the programme was a Mozart divertimento, Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, and the Tchaikovsky string serenade. The Mozart and Tchaik both contain beautiful and well-known music, and some dizzyingly fast passages that are not extremely difficult of themselves but I was still having some difficulty reading, let alone playing, clearly at the ambitious (though not inappropriate) tempi by Wednesday night.
Britten’s composition may be opus 10 and his first to attract significant attention, but it has the intricate challenges of both musicianship and string-specific technique that I have come to expect from the composer (playing Les Illuminations last year, for example): there are false harmonics, extremely rapid ‘quasi guitar’ chord strumming, some calls for playing on a specific string that leave the left hand a very long way round the instrument, and a fugue which divides even the second violins (where I was playing, to my surprise – there must have been an oversupply of violists) into a solo and two other divisi, with entries moving around all twelve key-centres and almost all rhythmic starting-points possible in a fast 12/8.
The new commission, by Ben Gaunt, who I recommend researching, was entitled The Trumpet Fists of St Nicholas and drew inspiration from the parody rituals of ‘boy bishop’ festivities (essentially a medieval, Catholic, specifically ecclesiastical variation on the lords of misrule / authority subverted form of limited mockery of power) and from some recorded instances of fisticuffs over heretical theology at early church councils! Significant use was made at key points – particularly the beginning and the end – of sounds that exist on the border between notes and white noise: drawing the bow across the bridge, drumming fingers on the body of the instrument, vocal ‘sss’ and ‘tktktk’ noises, and climactic calls for freely improvised bursts of notes within a given pitch range. The parodic element was partly expressed through one of the trumpets using 20s jazz style muted growls and wahs to attention-grabbing effect. I tend to be of the opinion, however, that the measure of a contemporary composer’s successful artistry is not their ability to produce ‘experimental’ effects, but their ability to integrate them with well-handled more traditional music; the principle that you should know the rules to break them consciously. And here, the counterpoint (sometimes literally) to the parodic and violent elements, representing perhaps the original ceremonies being subverted, was a vein of modal-sounding speech-rhythmic harmony that could easily have passed for a homophonic chant-based passage in a late Renaissance mass setting – a sign of a composer who has done his homework, so to speak.
Ironically, if I leave aside my own playing (which I flatter myself was much more controlled in the second concert), the Wednesday night may have been the better event. St John’s has a fairly uncluttered layout and only a moderately reverberant acoustic, which corresponded well to the clarity of a medium-sized (23 players) string orchestra and to the sense of community of a concert played in all black, with spoken introductions and most players standing (also, interestingly for a programme with no specialist early music intentions, with violins split right and left and lower instruments in between, rather than a clockwise scale of descending pitch – an arrangement which seems to be ever more popular). Said sense of connection was helped by a relatively small nave with an impressively numerous audience for a midweek evening (then again, maybe avoiding competition is the thing).
Temple Church is so called because it serves the Middle and Inner (I think) Temples, two of the Inns of Court which were historically the only places to train and qualify in English law, of one of which all English barristers are at least nominally still members, and which still house a great many law students and great legal minds. I had not ventured into the Inns of Court before (had not really realised they still existed, my knowledge of them being primarily from Victorian novels), and I would say my impression is that of an Oxford college writ large – an old-established Oxford college before almost all of them started charging for entry. There are the same imposing courtyards as main tool of layout, the same sense that one is in an institution and may be told to leave at any point, the same surprising degree of being cut off from the bustle just outside (the bustle more emphatic here, as I reached the Temples virtually directly from the Strand at late rush hour), the same iron-fenced gardens for the use of members only – and the same risk of finding oneself still inside after the public gates, even on what appear to be roads, have been locked and one in unsure how to find a useable exit!
As a performance venue, this church might have suited Tallis better than a piece referencing his sound-world, or than Mozart’s exceptionally lucid string writing (the divertimenti are probably so called to always enable them to straddle chamber and orchestral performance). The acoustic was much longer and richer – gorgeous for some things, but requiring a holding back of tempo in some places and just occasionally making it difficult to lock into a collective tempo. More to the point though, Temple Church is one of those places which seems to have become almost as much museum as place of worship (there were large interpretive panels on the wall beyond which the choral foundation do their work outside of services, narrating ‘Templars” involvement in twentieth-century geopolitics), and we players found ourselves distributed around a rather complicated altar area which had probably always had an ornamental rather than functional number of pillars, to which had been added display cases containing a pair of historic statues. The net result was that, from the back of the short second violin column, I could see most of my fellow players and the conductor, but almost none of the audience. They also had about double the size space to distribute themselves around compared to the previous night’s, and I fancy there were slightly fewer of them. The result was a peculiar feeling of almost playing in a different room, as if for a recording or broadcast. This may well have helped with calming nerves over tackling a difficult programme I had found stressful over the previous three days of the project, while conscious of being tired from my long run of performances; but it did lend something slightly dissatisfying to the performance for me, though I cannot fault the audience’s appreciation (except that they were not sure Ben Gaunt’s piece had finished till the conductor turned round, which I think shows less than the maximum possible engagement / attention – it has a perfectly clear if abrupt ending).
In any case, that performance brought me through to a whole two days off from music other than private lessons and practice – leading to the material for more blog posts.
Not content with two consecutive musical theatre pit runs, I followed up Calamity Jane by travelling to the further reaches of Lincolnshire (massive vote of thanks to Andrew for driving!) for a Sunday evening choral society concert. I’m never sure why there aren’t more of these by the way – or if everyone wants an early night before work on Monday (those of you normal people that work a set 5 days a week!), start at 6:30 rather than 7:30 or have a Sunday afternoon concert, which I’ve come across a few amateur orchestras doing but hardly anyone else. It surely can’t really be anyone’s interests to concentrate all musical performances on two evenings in seven.
This was my third concert among the ranks of the Lincolnshire Chamber Orchestra. It’s an interesting outfit in its own right – a freelance professional orchestra operating more or less as they usually do, at professional pay scales but with no fixed seats or contracted permanent members; players are fixed for each performance, though mostly from pools of regulars with ever more porous edges if large forces are required, a particular date has competition or people just don’t want to play one particular engagement. However, it has no musical director and as far as I am aware has never put on a concert in its own name. Instead, it exists as an orchestra for hire, doing choral society concerts and big cathedral / church services as requested regionally – and despite costing probably double to triple what could be achieved by hiring good amateurs, instrumental teachers and so on directly at semi-pro rates, it has built up quite a thriving business at it.
The event this time was a concert with Louth Choral Society, and it was an interesting mixture. The forces had clearly largely been dictated by the major work, Fauré’s Requiem, which made up the second half. This was being played in the earlier (more or less original, though the work went through several incarnations under the composer’s direct eye) orchestration; which calls for choir, vocal soloists, organ, French horns, solo violin and sections of violas, cellos and double basses. This is the only concert I have played (and there are not likely to be many others, certainly unless they are swayed by the same repertoire) at which viola players outnumbered violins 8 to 1!
I was surprised to find that this version has only been available for general performance since something like the 1970s, when John Rutter edited it from manuscript for Oxford University Press (Fauré produced a more conventionally orchestrated version once the piece’s reputation became sufficient to justify publication) – surprised because it now bids fair to overtake the full orchestra arrangement as the standard performing version. Even with a fairly small body of strings (we were 8 violas, 4 cellos and 1 bass), the effect is of course a darkness of timbre relative to a normal string section that is appropriately sombre – and perhaps curious given in general Fauré’s Requiem is renowned as one filled with hope, approaching death far more with heaven in mind than judgment or damnation.
The musical language of Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine is often commented on as similar to the Requiem, despite its composition being decades earlier. It does not seem coincidental that John Rutter had arranged and OUP published the version we were using, for almost exactly the same forces as the Requiem! Both were also notable for involving navigating truly heroic quantities of flats – the ‘black notes’ tendency of some organists and pianists being here apparently illustrated by a tendency to about six (especially in the home key of the Cantique). This is of course most difficult to keep track of, not in passages in the home key, but in chromatic sections where there may be so many naturals, or sharps, and changes within a bar back to the flats of the key signature that you lose track of what should be flat when there is not an accidental in front of it …
There were two pieces in this programme derived from musical material better known in its original form. One constituted the only other contribution of the strings as a body (including myself) to the concert – an Agnus Dei for children’s choir and SATB constructed by Bizet out of the popular Intermezzo from his L’Arlesienne music, which had for this event been orchestrated for the forces otherwise available. The other was a particularly peculiar piece of work – an Ave Maria Massenet derived from the Meditation from his opera Thais (the only work of his almost anyone, including myself, can name). The original piece is of course a violin solo, originally with orchestra but very often played with a piano reduction as a recital piece. Here, the solo soprano took over parts of the original violin line, with organ and harp providing accompaniment; a solo violin sometimes provided accompanying material, and sometimes the original violin line while the soprano had rests or a new melody wrapped around the original. The overall music is more or less bar for bar identical to the Meditation. It is evidently a challenge to the singer (here a teenage girl from the church’s choral foundation, singing it admirably) and probably highly effective if approached in ignorance of the violin piece; unfortunately listening to it as someone who knows the Meditation well (I regularly play it when busking) all too easily tends to become a sort of musicological parlour game of tracing what has been changed or not!
One other chamber piece allowed the choir some rest (they needed it – I do not think I have seen a choral society put themselves through as extensive and demanding a programme!); Howells’ early setting of Psalm 137 (By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, etc), written while he was prevented by poor health from active service in WW1 and scored for baritone, violin, cello and organ. This was completely new to me, and remarkable. To say one exactly enjoys a work of profound pain and anger is perhaps both oversimplified and misdirected; but I found it an excellent piece, retaining enough accessibility to not end up in the dustbin of gratuitous experimentalism while using the expanded possibilities of modernist (in)harmony and (a)tonalism to push expressiveness beyond conventional limits. Well worth looking up.
The final piece of the first half was in many ways the key element of the concert, and one in strikingly positive contrast to the (all too frequently accurate) image of choral societies as ageing groups of singers with slowly declining voices, treading a gradually shrinking circuit of warhorse repertoire with constantly diminishing vigour. At some point previously, a long-serving contralto in the choir had died, leaving in her will a sum of money to commission a new piece for the choir (and by the sounds of it some substantial notes on the desired characteristics of the piece). The society had considered and approached a recent Cambridge organ scholar who had performed at the church with the commission – one Owain Park, whose website reveals him to be all of 25.
The result, with much consideration for the bequeather’s known personality, is a substantial set of six songs for choir and piano, texts selected by the composer, and two piano interludes, which the composer conducted as an almost continuous musical experience. I was struck by not just the assurance (which could, carpingly, be thought to mean arrogance – not here) but also the taste and judgment of Park’s writing, direction and indeed spoken introduction (something I think ‘classical’ concerts would still benefit from more of – especially if it reduces the audience’s temptation to read printed programme notes during the music!). Certainly this could only have been written in the postmodern era, if there is such a thing. The pianist had clearly worked closely with the composer, and had to navigate some technically demanding as well as witty and sensitive writing. The choir were put through work that is rarely required of large amateur choirs, notably singing against some very non-triadic chromatic clusters and entering from silence, as well as some solos from within the choir and extremes of dynamics – and coped admirably. Compositionally, there was a great deal of ‘non-traditional’ musical language – but it remained language, used coherently and systematically rather than at random, and with caution enough to be non-aggressive to the listener (at least a reasonably open-minded and musically wide-ranging one such as myself!), appropriately to a set of texts weighted towards nature poetry and a work seeming particularly shadowed by the remarkable poet Emily Dickinson, while being in no danger of the somewhat saccharine streak of sentimentalism that bedevils a significant amount of lesser contemporary choral music. All power to Owain Park’s elbow, say I – but next time, write something the violas can join in with!
It’s not coincidence that I’ve yet to play in the pit for any of the really jazz-linked inter-war Broadway musicals (Gershwin, Hammerstein, Berlin etc.). If they have string parts at all, they are usually entirely dispensable or at least easily adequately covered by a keys 2 player; and in general (though perhaps not in the case of my recent pit work), the tendency is to am-dram societies being strapped for cash and finding ways of cutting their bands if possible, since they can’t usually get adequate players for free or much less than the current going rate.
So Calamity Jane is the nearest I’ve come to doing that style of show, and it was an interesting experience from a purely instrumental and ensemble point of view. The music mostly dates from the 1953 film, with the orchestration we were using for the stage version (almost certainly the original stage / pit adaptation or at least publication) copyrighted 1962. However, much of it felt like it could have dated from back in the 40s or earlier. The instrumentation was basically a medium-sized jazz band slightly expanded: two alto saxes (doubling clarinets) and one tenor (doubling flute); two trumpets, trombone; piano, string bass and drums (doubling various other percussion including timpani, xylophone and glockenspiel); and then a string section.
Initially, I was hired to replace someone who had pulled out of doing one of the three violin parts. However, the ‘viola’ in my email signature and CV gave the game away about doubling, and the MD and fixer then realised there was actually a full viola part in the set (this very unusual in more recent musicals certainly, and especially with violins A, B and C, unless as a double with the bottom violin part). The arrangement was arrived at that I would use both instruments, the MD selecting which part he felt was more important for a particular number as a whole. I was therefore spared the changes of instrument in a few bars’ rest so beloved of pit reed parts; but after experimenting with lots of photocopies, had to live with swapping between the two pads according to carefully prepared instructions as well as passing instruments and bows on and off my violin/viola stand (someday I must see if it’s possible to get a double stand, especially if I find myself doing more live doubling).
Some interesting things were revealed by this. Firstly, I am sure the MD’s judgment of musical importance was excellent; and he had me playing viola (which the original plan was not to bother with) for probably something like three-quarters of the show, only returning to the violin I was originally recruited for in relatively few numbers. Secondly, the single viola part actually contained implicit divisi, with numerous passages that could maybe be played as double stops but would certainly be inadvisable to try. The cellist (sat next to me) was faced with the same. This suggests, in the relative luxury of big professional theatres, big professional budgets before TV really put the squeeze on live entertainment, and conversely the absence of realistic pit miking, a string section of, I would think, at a minimum four violins (two on A, one each on B and C which are often in unison with each other but usually separate from A), two violas, two cellos and double bass (the swapping between double bass as lowest string part and as popular music bassline suggests a single player) – which then looks considerably more ‘orchestral’ than the usual present-day approach of one per part (or less!) and using amplification to fix the balance with the other instruments if necessary.
Musically, there is a lot of jazz-like music in Jane (not least, though far from only, in the several numbers which are performed within the action, and in which the 19th-century vaudeville for which the setting would naturally call seems to have been largely updated to 1920s jazz and hokum). However, the Wild West setting inevitably means a lot of country-ish music too (it isn’t really focused enough, and/or I’m not expert enough, to determine whether it’s supposed to ape old time, bluegrass or country & western – just lots of woodblock shuffle, the occasional rhythmic fiddle figure driving texture, and use of two or three chords!), which is a slightly curious mélange. Interestingly present: choice of keys clearly derived from the jazz tradition of picking based on Eb and Bb instruments, then favouring more ‘mellow’ flatter keys over ‘brighter’ sharp ones – over half the show must be in concert Eb or Ab. Interestingly absent: the frequent semitone rises in key (there was one I think!) and upward effectively unmeasured string runs to climaxes which I think of as hallmarks of American musical theatre writing, but had perhaps not yet become established by this date. Or were simply not wanted within this particular musical idiom (but I think probably the former).
The orchestration of the strings suggested a somewhat horn-centred approach, despite the size string section implied. There were several sections where the violas doubled the cellos an octave up (usually in prominent bass lines in the classical sense), seemingly for lack of a better idea; and a few where they doubled at pitch, which is a surprisingly arresting effect on first hearing, because the cello is inevitably therefore quite high in its range and the viola quite low, and so there is an impression of the cello playing above the viola even though this is not the case (it is a relatively common texture in chamber music of course). I’m not entirely sure the orchestrator put those passages in with an awareness of how the timbres would come out, however. Finally, several passages either had the same line moving from tenor sax to viola as horns and strings interchanged material, or in tuttis had them simply in unison. A certain amount of similarity between the instruments (certainly if the tenor is played a little less aggressively) had struck me before, but it’s interesting to find professional orchestration practice tending to bear it out. The concept of using string quintet (with two violas) in place of a normal big-band sax section (two altos, two tenors, bari) remains intriguing …