The weekend before last, 30-31 March, was largely made up of two orchestral concerts (and respective rehearsals) as far as I was concerned. They were very different, and yet shared some surprising (or perhaps not that surprising, once you think about it) similarities.
First up, and by far the more important in my musical biography, playing with Jeremy Backhouse, Vivace Chorus and Brandenburg Sinfonia at Dorking Halls. Now this wasn’t the first time I had played with a freelance professional orchestra (past concerts with Kent Sinfonia and Lincolnshire Chamber Orchestra fall squarely into that category, besides some borderline student/early-career pro ensembles); but it was the first time I had done so with a London one, and the first time of being booked for a professional ensemble as such through diary service MAS. So there was potentially a fair bit riding on the gig reputation and career-wise, besides a significant fee.
(A note on professional orchestras, in case of confusion: professional orchestras as we know them, including all the ones anyone outside the business has actually heard of, are referred to in fixing as ‘contract’ orchestras. Working with them is like a fairly ordinary job; you have a defined role, are assumed to play all the rehearsals and concerts to which your role is relevant unless you take holiday, etc. Freelance orchestras still pay (in general) union-agreed rates to all players, and have a frequently recurring core of musicians, but no one is actually bound to do every concert or guaranteed to be asked to do every one. Instead, self-employed players (hence ‘freelance orchestra’) are contracted on a concert by concert basis, usually from semi-fixed lists of preferred players but including filling out the ranks with others if they run out of list for a given performance.)
I had only been booked for this Saturday concert on the Wednesday; and the Thursday had been spent doing the Rugby School gig (see previous post), which meant I basically had a day and a half to prepare for this job. Preparation involving borrowing a tailcoat and an evening-dress waistcoat (I am so glad of living with two male pro musicians! Also of Oxford’s exam dress code meaning I already own a white bow tie); and doing some preliminary work on the music. I had been offered the choice between two Brandenburg Sinfonia concerts, only one of which had a known programme; I went with ‘better the devil you know’, only to eventually find I had turned down playing an evening of Mozart in much nearer-by Streatham! Instead, I went to Dorking and played Howells’ Sir Patrick Spens (a substantial setting of the Scots ballad for solo baritone, choir and orchestra; early, not well-known and somewhat more aggressively modernist than his more famous choral compositions); Britten’s Four Sea Interludes (orchestra only; famous for being difficult in various ways, and like the Howells I hadn’t played them before); and Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony (two solo singers, choir, orchestra; has definite tricky sections and is a fairly monumental piece; I had played it before but only on 2nd violin). Spotify at least supplied me with recordings of all three; Westminster Music Library, a fantastic resource I hadn’t previously discovered, has a score of the Britten (which is far too well within copyright to be worth googling for scans of, even for private practice); but no written copy of the Howells could I find. So I was still going to be doing a lot of work on the Saturday afternoon.
Few concert venues really have enough space to fit in a symphony orchestra and a large chorus; and while Vivace are not the hundreds-strong Northern choral societies or enormous combined Three Choirs Festival forces of Victorian legend, they are certainly on the larger end of the choruses I’ve played for. Them and us on the stage of Dorking Halls was not a very comfortable fit; positively crowded in fact. I had been booked to play #4 viola (of a rather undersized section, relative to winds and violins, of 4); but #2 pulled out at last minute, his even more last minute replacement didn’t make it to the rehearsal till a little while in, and with one thing and another I got bumped forward one to partnering the principal viola. At which point I was practically under conductor Jeremy Backhouse’s nose, literally in danger of thwacking the vocal soloists leaning forward for page-turns, and (when not relying on my own counting and listening) endeavouring to follow someone sat essentially beside me, without taking my eyes off the music and conductor of course! This is fairly standard orchestral stuff, but may be less predictable if you haven’t played in a symphony orchestra … Also, I imagine white tie and tails would be great for a cold medieval (or Neo-Gothic) church in winter, but it’s stifling in a concert hall with theatre-type lighting on an unseasonably warm March day with about 150 people on the platform.
It’s also an unsurprising consequence of there having been two Brandenburg Sinfonias out that evening (by the way, this is not an uncommon or considered unethical practice, lest it be thought I’m condemning it) that the orchestra were a little more freelance, so to speak, than would otherwise have been the case; that many fewer of them had played together frequently before, and so there was that bit more difficulty gelling in one rehearsal under an unfamiliar conductor and with an unfamiliar choir.
Ironically, we all had over 2 hours to kill (and I’m afraid there is not very much to do or anywhere very much to go in Dorking late afternoon on a Saturday; even the cafés were mostly shut) between the rehearsal and concert. I did use a fair bit of that time for green room practice, but it is easy to say that it could have been more beneficial to the players’ confidence at least to have spent some of it rehearsing. However, things are rarely as straightforward as they seem. Singers, in particular, usually wish to minimise rehearsal on the day and maximise the gap between rehearsal and performance so as to have their voices in as good shape as possible in the concert. And on the other hand, if you have hired a professional orchestra, then it is no longer a safe option to ask them to indulge you in an extra half-hour’s rehearsal without paying overtime. Three hours is a standard session; union scale rises thereafter and is of course (and reasonably) considerably higher if you want a second rehearsal, or for one of them not to be on the same day as the concert (basically because musicians are definitely compensated for having to travel to work, as most of them do substantially most of the time). So, with budgets tight for all the arts, even generally subsidy-privileged classical music (and even with large choir subs coming in every concert, though most amateur ensembles lose money on all their concerts), it’s hardly surprising if 3 hours in the afternoon is what you get regardless of the difficulty of the programme.
In a spirit of cautious self-assessment, I’m only going to commit myself to saying that I never got thoroughly lost in the concert, started and finished with everybody else, and I don’t think I struggled more than the average. The odds are that given a similar chance again I would do better, if only because the odds are that the music would be easier to play!
Had I been booked well in advance by Brandenburg Sinfonia for the Saturday, I admit I would probably have pulled out of playing with St Bart’s Orchestra on the Sunday in order to give myself a recovery day. However, it didn’t feel right to do that on four days’ notice when I knew violins and violas had already been cancelling, so I stifled my yawns and stuck with it.
This was bumping an amateur section, moving from the high-level uniform of white tie to the standard-crossing one of all black (confusingly, black tie seems to be exclusively espoused by amateur orchestras and scratch ensembles accompanying amateur choirs) and from mid-20th-century repertoire to, mostly, early 19th (Mendelssohn and a late Haydn symphony, with a premiere confusing matters). The main point of similarity is that there were numerous extras supporting the amateur regulars (in the strings particularly), and so they and the soloist in Mendelssohn’s first piano concerto were being integrated in one rehearsal on the day. And the budget this orchestra possesses certainly does not run to getting extra players for additional rehearsal, or giving them strong incentives to look at / listen to the music in advance … Once again, three hours was avowedly tight and I did some practice between rehearsal and concert (mistakes are so much more obvious in Haydn and Mendelssohn than most music from the late Romantics on!); though this time I think I had ironed out pretty much all the technical problems by the concert. But the addition to my fatigue from the Sunday’s work was much smaller than the load inflicted by the Saturday’s!
I did yet another orchestral concert the following weekend (last Saturday), and I have another choral society performance coming up this Sunday. However, in between I have a wedding to play for with Miracle Cure and have been recording with Finezza Strings, so watch this space for different musical exploits as wedding season starts springing!