Saturday 22 July saw one of my more memorable freelance engagements of recent months (lots of the band gigs have been memorable to varying extents and in variously pleasurable, painful or both ways). The performance was an opera gala concert at the Longhope Estate in Hampshire, by the Strand Chamber Orchestra with four soloists. I had been asked into it by oboeist and cellist Flick Cliffe, with whom I had played Mendelssohn’s Elijah (for the third time as a pro in less than four years) a couple of weeks earlier. I was very puzzled to then not find her name in either section of the orchestra list; it eventually her transpired her role was Assistant Conductor, though I regret to say that the practical application of this would have been better described as Assistant to the Conductor, or simply Orchestra Manager. This is not in any way a complaint about Jeremy Walker’s conducting (he is currently studying the craft at postgraduate level at the Moscow Conservatoire after all!), merely about peculiar terminology.
There had been two rehearsals the weekend before which I was forced to miss by the Filthy Spectacula’s furthest gig northwards to date – a steampunk festival just outside Durham. The first rehearsal I made it to was the afternoon before the concert. It rapidly emerged that I was not the only one with clashing commitments leading to incomplete rehearsal attendance. In fact, this is a general trend I’ve noticed with scratch ensembles, particularly ones having a high proportion of students among the players: the law of diminishing returns sets in very heavily after about one and a half rehearsals. Have just one rehearsal on the day of the concert, and almost everyone will be there. Have two rehearsals, one further in advance, and you will still get the vast majority of the players in both, though the first one will be noticeably thinner than full forces. Have three or four rehearsals, and you will spend all of them that are not on the day rehearsing half an orchestra (or rather various different selections of about half the players), only getting everyone together on concert day.
A seating list had been sent out in advance (invaluable for string players to know whether they need to practice the high notes in upper divided passages, or ensure they are prepared for the inevitable rapid page-turns at some point), and I dutifully sat myself in my appointed place at no. 3 of 5 (directly behind the section leader). When we were evidently moving towards starting to play and I was still in splendid isolation, I followed orchestral convention by moving as far forward as possible without changing side – so in this case, one seat forward to the principal leader chair, expecting to move back again once its rightful occupant appeared. She did not, but the other three violas did over time, and settled themselves around me. We were eventually to discover that Anastasia Sofina, intended principal viola, had slipped on some smashed eggs in a supermarket and broken her wrist, causing a temporary but inflexible cessation of her playing – which might be comical if it wasn’t roughly the violist’s equivalent of a pianist going skating, falling and having all his fingers skated over. In any case, I seized the chance at a break in rehearsal to point out that I wasn’t allocated the seat I was in (with its corresponding responsibilities for leading, not following, at entries and for fixing bowings (the latter not being one of my favourite areas of musical norms)), had no strong attachment to it (it’s not like it came with a pay rise!) and was quite happy for someone else to lead if they wished. Somewhat to my surprise, general popular vote (of three) was to keep me where I was. Maybe no one else wanted the responsibility …
Gala concerts like these generally include very little recitative. As I remember, we did just one extended section of it, an accompanied recitative (meaning at a minimum that all the strings are involved, rather than just continuo) leading into a Mozart aria. However, the bel canto and later opera styles expect fairly dauntless application of rubato, not least in slowing up dramatically to insert improvised or pseudo-improvised miniature cadenzas – something which in bel canto sensu strictu seems to happen at every cadence. The result is a significant test of orchestral cohesion, in which the conductor is probably the only one who has sheet music to follow for what the singer is doing (vocal cues are usually only provided in parts for recitatives) even if she or he isn’t improvising, and so the section principals have to follow the conductor’s beat and their sense of harmonic progression and their part’s place within it, and the rest of the players do the same plus following the section leader, if their principal is alert and physically mobile enough (while sitting down, reading sheet music, playing and not knocking into anyone else on an inevitably crowded stage!) to give cues which are perceptible and early enough to be useful. Attempting to keep a beat, or play with head buried in the part rather than the traditional one eye each on the conductor, the section leader and the music (perhaps a fourth eye on the soloist where there is one), is doomed to failure to stay with the rest of the ensemble.
In any case, in the course of the day before rehearsal, my initial desk partner before a further reshuffle of seating once everyone who (it transpired) was going to arrive had done so, was confessedly struggling with the one accompanied recitative we were playing. It was a somewhat unusually tricky one: most recitative is accompanied by either stab chords or held chords, in either case requiring no real sense of pulse until the singer has concluded a phrase, so the conductor can follow the singer’s progress in more or less natural speech rhythm through the notional rhythmic notation which allows everybody to keep together, merely emphasising the points at which a chord (or the end of one) is needed. However, in this case there were several interjections of a little melodic motif lasting approximately one and two half beats, and therefore requiring a uniform sense of pulse across the strings; all the more so as it is scored for the violins in parallel thirds with the violas divided in the same thirds an octave below. Nowhere to hide in that texture.
Said desk partner was (I think still is!) a current conservatoire student. I was utterly taken aback (given I have never studied at a conservatoire, but opera and especially oratorio have featured heavily in my lower-end pro playing) to find she didn’t think she’d played recitative accompaniment before at all. Given the significant divergence from most purely orchestral music, and even many concerti, where watching the conductor’s every beat for tempo variation is only really necessary at fairly infrequent strategic points, this seems a bit of an educational neglect.
Almost all of the orchestra were taking a charter coach from (appropriately enough) just off the Strand to the performance location. The first problem with that arrangement occurred when the coach had still not shown up by the scheduled departure time. It eventually transpired he had gone to the wrong road; to speed matters up, a few dozen musicians lugging instruments, music stands, formal clothing, etc etc footed it a couple of hundred yards downhill to a more easily accessible pick-up point.
I discovered during the journey that a similar project had been undertaken at the same venue the previous year; with the difference that an entire opera had been staged, with the orchestra and cast taking up residence on the estate for a long weekend of rehearsal and arriving in dribs and drabs in cars rather than as a coach party. Seemingly, this had not led anyone to warn that getting a coach up to the house might not be as straightforward as a satnav made it look. A small difference in distance led the navigation to confidently direct us down a single track road overhung with trees which looked like our passage might cost them significant branches. Barely had we finished turning into this road (after much prevarication) when we encountered two cars coming the other way. We were eventually forced to reverse back onto the slightly more major road from whence we had come, then perform a three-point turn and demi-circumnavigate the substantial country estate in order to find a slightly longer (slightly before the detour) but much clearer and rather flatter route in. Suffice to say this delayed lunch and final rehearsal perceptibly.
The estate is still inhabited by its landed family, and still possesses a substantial tract of land of its own besides whatever farmland and so on further afield may still belong to it. The family (including about half a dozen dogs from lurcher to sheepdog, which were very polite but very apt to attempt appropriating the meals of anyone sitting on the ground) live in the manor house, a largely brick-built Georgian-looking affair quite large enough for Jane Austen level of society purposes, but not particularly grand as country seats go. What I think must have been a kitchen garden has been converted into an outdoor performance venue; a natural more or less amphitheatre shape can have I would guess somewhere between 100 and 200 chairs set out on it for audience, with stone walls around the rear tending to reflect sound back so there is less of an outdoor ‘vanishing sound’ acoustic (which would certainly be punishing for singers with orchestral accompaniment). This converges on a stage that was rather larger than we really needed, with fully controlled stage lighting, and a not insubstantial orchestra pit in front of it (not used, as not a staged performance this year). However, the entire stage was open to the sky; usually a high risk for being rained upon in an English summer, but in July of this year in the middle of a prolonged and spectacular heatwave, more inclining to sunstroke. Some beer garden-type umbrellas were placed (not least in a bid to keep the harp in tune!), but did not succeed in overcoming the rigours of a male black tie dress code. At least the women had been instructed formal in bright colours, allowing the possibility of a little more ventilation than my one, wool, dinner suit.
The invited audience had their first half very early, before heading off to devastate picnic hampers on the other side of the house (while the orchestra were fed buffet-style inside and sought out places around the performance space to consume their spoils), for which they were allowed the surely generous timespan of an hour and a half. Sadly it appears to be true that the longer a break of any sort is, the more it will overrun; and doubly so when almost all the people involved know each other and have alcoholic inducement to relaxed expansiveness. The orchestra had all been sat down on stage, and had pointedly retuned, several minutes since while the audience stood around chatting or were still making a leisurely way back from the picnic regions.
In former days of less respect for the art form, the function of an opera overture was to indicate the imminent commencement of a performance, and to precipitate the audience’s settling down to watch and listen. It also needed to last long enough for them to make their way to their own seats from wherever they may have been socialising at the time. These days, an overture is expected to be part of the performance, and so does not begin until the audience are duly seated, silent and non-disruptive of the music.
The great advantage of the older-fashioned approach is that it leaves control with the performers, rather than the audience! The second half was to begin with, functioning more or less as an entr’acte, the polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Playing the same piece earlier the same week in a hall really rather too small and hard-acousticked for a symphony orchestra playing anything, the tendency of the trumpets and trombones right behind me to deliver all their entries enthusiastically fortissimo accelerando had me taking the unusual step of plugging both ears in an orchestral context. This time, I couldn’t help feeling that its courtly vigour would have made a good job of summoning the stragglers into place for the second half. Sadly, Jeremy was not to be seen until the audience did settle themselves of themselves, and my classical rebelliousness stopped (only just) short of trying to persuade Flick to take to the rostrum and matters into her own hands.
Delays and heat notwithstanding, this was an exceptionally well-received concert (and one that stands out for supplying travel and two meals as part of the package, in sad contrast to so many rock band engagements) and one that I enjoyed doing – even if at one point I took an unexpected solo when none of my colleagues ‘made’ a particular entry. Better that than an unexpected solo due to my being in the wrong place! Nonetheless, I will personally trade the return of a certain frequency of rain for being let off playing a full concert in black tie in over 30 degrees …