All right, I confess, it’s been a shamefully long time since my last blog post. Only a few days shy of two months in fact, which I’m pretty confident if I went through the archive would turn out to be the longest gap since I started using this as the blog of a pro musician ‘shop window’ site.
This shouldn’t be taken as meaning I’ve been musically inactive. Far from it. In fact, since blogging gets done when I have some time and energy that feels like I can safely spare it, often I write nothing when gigging most busily and catch up in the next quiet period.
Summer is always busy for my rock bands at least, what with festivals, steampunk conventions, events like beer festivals and food festivals that like having some folky / ‘acoustic’ music going on, etc., and I have done two gigs each in several of the last few weekends. However, I’ve also been through one of the periodic peaks of my frustratingly difficult-to-break cycle of gradually taking on more and more commitments (these days this includes publishing work, and music whether really work in the earning sense or not), until eventually I wear myself out and am forced to make cutbacks to keep going. Pulling out of a rather lucrative medium-term publishing project because I just couldn’t keep spending 10 hours a week on it unless I wanted to seriously sacrifice music practice and so playing standard was one of the most leap-of-faith decisions I’ve made since going freelance 18 months ago. I can confirm the rent has always been paid so far, and I still have a positive bank balance.
There has also been a more purely personal set of drivers behind my prolonged absence from the blogosphere. I’m not going to go into much detail here – this is in my eyes a professional rather than personal diary – but suffice it to say I am now single for the first time since 2015 and belatedly having my first experience of living in an all-musician house, in a London suburb I had never even heard of before coming here to view the room. The emotional impact has been as you will probably expect (especially coupled with my ongoing poor mental health), and so much as phoning my parents or emailing old and dear friends has been so difficult as to often not happen, let alone trying to document my professional achievements in a public forum.
So, all of that said, where was I?
Saturday 30th June saw me illustrating, again, the virtues of sustained networking on the off-chance. Back when I was living in Oxford and doing some orchestral concerts for little more than pocket change, I played in the Mozart flute and harp concerto, and had an interesting albeit fairly brief conversation with harp soloist Jenny Vereker about the piece and changes in harp construction (and their impact on which things are easy or difficult, as well as possible or impossible). I added her as a friend on Facebook afterwards but thought little of it and had little or no contact with her on there – which is not unusual; my tally of Facebook ‘friends’ is now somewhere northwards of four times what Roger Dunbar theorises is the maximum number of people with which a human can maintain meaningful relationships (around 150 if memory serves me rightly).
It was therefore a total surprise to get an out-of-the-blue phone call from Charlie Vereker, Jenny’s husband. He was fixing some extras for an amateur orchestra concert; could I swell the ranks of the viola section, for a fee of course? Little did I know, until the conversation proceeded, that my once and future music colleague and greatest professional champion Graeme Hollingdale regularly plays trombone (like Charlie, though as a hired hand rather than a subs-paying member) with this orchestra, and he and Jenny had apparently been singing my praises and pushing my blog posts under Charlie’s nose for ages.
First time round I was busy on the concert date; second time Charlie tried me I was available, and so played the end of June concert. It was in one of those boarding schools that are so huge they have genuine named roads within their grounds and you can easily get lost and end up using Google Maps on your phone to try and work out where somewhere on-site you’ve heard mentioned might be (and quite possibly decide it looks too far away to be worth walking to). I think it was half-term; certainly very few people were in evidence bar the orchestra and audience (the latter surprisingly large, especially for a venue inevitably not in the middle of any town). The programme was an ambitious one: Kabalevsky’s Colas Breugnon overture (chiefly just very fast, and with some quite long consecutive rests for the strings, unused to such things, to count through); Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto; and Stravinsky’s ballet score Petrushka.
I tend to pride myself on a sort of musical sense of direction, being able to keep place in harmony and rhythm by ear with or without visual cues and at times almost literally enacting the cliché about early and/or intimate orchestral music being really chamber music, as far as rubato and certain other things go. This can be particularly useful in concerti! Soloist rubato and orchestral colla parte playing are expected parts of concerto performance, at least in anything composed after about 1810, and (depending always on individuals, including what liberties the soloist takes and how consistent they are from one play through to the next), the section leader or conductor may or may not be any better at sticking with the soloist through them than me; conductors can end up at a particular disadvantage if, as is quite common, the soloist is behind them and so most of the orchestra can see the soloist but the conductor cannot.
Rachmaninov, however, writing in the 20th century in a decidedly post-Brahms musical environment, and one in which having a baton conductor in addition to the pianist could be taken for granted, is not necessarily going to make life straightforward by writing music that is as it were rhythmically aligned. Often phrases start and end across each other, or there are in effect two or more pulses going on at the same time, and so on. The result is the ‘trust in me’ approach to orchestral playing; rather than necessarily making sense of their own parts and feeling their way around the jigsaw fit of the ensemble and the piece, cross-checking against the soloist’s playing in particular, the orchestral performers are obliged to follow the conductor’s beat and cues and the exact letter of the part, sometimes at the expense of what feels right, in ‘blind’ faith that everything is supposed to fit together that way and the result will be musically successful. It’s excellent discipline, and obviously has potential to achieve very complex and immersive musical effects that would otherwise be more or less impossible in terms of live performance; conversely it’s almost exactly the opposite of what’s required to perform Classical and early Romantic music well. It can be useful in highly polyphonic writing such as Bach or Byrd though, where sometimes it feels like the only guarantee is that if you are playing the same thing as someone else at the same time then one of you is in the wrong place!
I played the (in)famous Rite of Spring at a study / taster day last year, and discovered just how difficult it is, both in terms of technique and counting / rhythm. Well, for the violas anyway; I suspect it’s even worse for some other instruments. It was therefore with near horror that I discovered, doing some casual research not long in advance, that Petrushka was written on a sudden inspiration between the initial suggestion of the Rite and its actual composition. Not only is Petrushka substantially longer, I was performing it to a paying audience on one afternoon rehearsal in which a very substantial piano concerto also had to be fitted together with the soloist, and had to justify (at least to myself) being paid for my playing of it.
Thankfully Petrushka is not the Rite. Its subject matter is a folk tale which mixes animated puppets, jealousy, death and ghosts in a manner which recalls the original ethnographic Brothers Grimm-collected stories (before they were bowdlerised for Victorian English children, or rather parents). The puppet theatre aspect, and various episodes seemingly introduced largely for their relatively conventional balletic potential such as a dancing bear which arrives and is chased off again without contributing anything to the rest of the plot, incline Stravinsky towards more regularly rhythmic music than the orgiastic, shamanic dynamic of Rite of Spring. Also, where the slightly later piece was apparently made deliberately difficult to play, so that individual players and ensemble would be rather more rough and insecure than the usual high polish of an early twentieth century orchestra, there seems to be no similar goal of ‘distancing techniques’ involved in Petrushka. Not that this prevents Stravinsky from engaging in some startling rhythmic / thematic overlays (I believe there is one section where, simultaneously, some instruments are playing a slowish 3/4 waltz and others are playing in 4 beats to a bar – with bars of equal length), or indulging in severe technical demands such as a climactic first trumpet part rising to pitches (and at a volume) of which Maynard Ferguson would have approved. The trumpets being sat more or less behind the violas in many orchestral concerts (the trombones were even closer to me this time), I was particularly aware of the latter!
Further illustration of how music obeys the six degrees of separation rule to extremes (coupled with the irrelevance of genre labels for most jobbing freelancers): in the interval of this concert, Graeme (playing trombone in this orchestral concert) and I (playing viola this time) discussed a theatre show for which he will be playing double bass and bass guitar, and I had been approached shortly before to play violin, in a combo seeking to span orchestral, big-band crooner jazz and 60s beat-pop soundworlds. More of that anon!