Monday, December 12, 2011

Berlioz and his Symphonie Fantastique

Two nights ago, the Hartt Symphony Orchestra performed Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, and it was an unexpected thrill. Why? Because, a few days earlier, we were anything but ready. One might chalk it up to the hectic lives of students and their busy schedules at the end of a semester. But I can remember some fine performances with other orchestras where things went down to the wire. I am hesitant to praise my students too strongly, because I fear they may carry the belief that waiting until the last minute to properly prepare one's part leads to a more exciting performance.

Meryl Streep once said, "Sometimes under-preparation is very good, because it instills fear, and fear is galvanizing. It makes you break out of yourself. If you're prepared, then you think you're ready, and if you think you're ready, then you're not ready."

A few years ago, a snowstorm forced the Hartford Symphony to move a concert to the following evening. Because the guest artist (the fine cellist, Julie Albers, playing Stephen Albert's Cello concerto) had a previously scheduled engagement in Princeton, the orchestra had to fill her spot with a musical selection that would be performed without rehearsal.

Since it was Valentine's Day (Prokofiev's ballet music to Romeo and Juliet was already slated for the second half), I put Tchaikovsky's Overture-Fantasy to Romeo and Juliet in place of the Albert concerto. To this day, whenever the subject comes up with my friend, Leonid Sigal (concertmaster of the HSO), he resolutely maintains that it was the best performance of the Tchaikovsky he's ever done. High praise, coming from a Russian artist who has played this work many, many times.

Was it really that good? And if so, was the excellence of our performance in part due to the fact that every player was sitting on the edge of his/her seat, ready for any cue that would come his/her way? Certainly. Meryl Streep would have loved it. [Hmm -- after practicing the violin 6 hours a day for a month (in preparation for her role in "Music from the Heart"), maybe she could have joined us.]


But Tchaikovsky' Romeo and Juliet is not nearly as difficult as Symphonie Fantastique, which always sounds like a wild ride no matter how much rehearsal time has gone into it. As well as my students played it, I will always wonder -- could it have been better? Maybe, maybe not.

Several years ago, the great Polish conductor, Jerzy Semkow, conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony in Rachmaninoff's Symphony no. 2. The first rehearsal was unforgettable, on-the-edge-of-your-seat stuff. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the subsequent rehearsals and performances had none of the energy and vigor of the initial playthrough. But the audience did not know what I knew: before that first rehearsal, the orchestra had spent all morning recording short popular melodies with Itzahk Perlman, violinist, and John Williams, conductor ("Cinema Serenade"). When you've spent hours and hours playing (and replaying) little bonbons from Yentl, Out of Africa, and Il Postino, you can hardly wait to sink your teeth into a big piece of meat like Rachmaninoff. And so, later that day, when Semkow -- a favorite of the orchestra who had not been in Pittsburgh for a long time -- ascended the podium, the orchestra took on the persona of an uncaged lion, and the playing was electric. But by the end of the week, the orchestra was more than ready, and the effect was stultifying.

There are other entertainers who would agree with Meryl Streep. Bill Cosby hates to rehearse, but one cannot deny the brilliance of his standup comedy, or his work on television. In preparation for a film, Dame Judi Dench does not like to memorize her script. And yet, on the screen -- whether as 'M' in James Bond or as Hecuba in Hamlet -- she delivers her lines like she owns them, as if she has written them herself.

The late Carlos Kleiber, regarded by many to be the best conductor of the late 20th century, performed in a manner that suggested he was making it up as he went along. During the latter part of his career, his public appearances were few and far between, as he demanded extraordinary amounts of rehearsal time that few orchestras would give him. Perhaps the essence of his disarming spontaneity was supported by the high level of preparation he required from his players.

Who is to know, really, what is best?
I just hope my students don't wait until the last minute to practice.

1 comment:

Quodlibet said...

Hi Edward,

It's wonderful to see the "From the Podim" icon light up in my blog reader! I'm so glad you are finding time to write again. I enjoy your essays and always come away with something important to think about for my own music-making. The anecdotes are valuable - they are too easily lost to history unless they are recorded.

Sarah