Monday, December 19, 2011

A good performance can only come from a good start

At the dress rehearsal for a performance of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, and then again at the warmup two days later, I had the winds play the opening two bars several times. They were probably scratching their heads: "Why is the conductor having us play these 13 notes over and over again, when there are so many other spots that still need touching up?" Of course, they were right. But, reminded of two past events with another masterwork -- one told, one experienced -- I thought the better of it, and stuck to my guns.

Someone told me a great Leonard Bernstein story that sounded like vintage Lenny. (No, I never met the man, but many of my colleagues and friends were fortunate to study with him, and hearing them recount their stories has given me great vicarious pleasure.) One went like this: after a party that went on all night, Bernstein -- cigarette in one hand and a glass of scotch in the other -- went to his desk in preparation for a rehearsal later that morning of Tchaikovsky's Symphony no. 6, "Pathetique."

He opened his score to the first page.

The music opens with contrabassi, playing an open fifth, E and B. A solo bassoon enters, meandering within that fifth like an inchworm -- up two steps, down a step; then again, up two steps, down one. Again, a third time. It's as if, after months and months of deep sleep, a grizzly bear is slowly waking up. Or maybe it's Tchaikovsky himself, unable to find the key of relief that will unlock him from yet another debilitating depression.

This is hypnotic music, in a world of its own, and it had cast a spell on Bernstein, for he never turned the page. He sat and studied the score for over an hour, but he never strayed from those opening bars. For Bernstein, the whole world of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique was in that solo bassoon and the low strings.

When I was a conducting student at Yale, the six or seven students would share a concert at the end of the year, with four of us dividing up the symphony on the second half. Our teacher, Mr. Mueller, usually gave me the finale -- my first year, it was Beethoven's Seventh Symphony; a couple of years later, we did Symphony no. 3, "Eroica." But when we did Tchaikovsky's Symphony no. 6, I was given the first movement. (He said the first movement was nicht für Kinder -- a William Steinberg phrase that he oft-quoted -- but somebody had to do it.) After the performance of the Tchaikovsky, speaking of the climax in the development, Mr. Mueller criticized me for being 'too Catholic, not enough Russian Orthodox.' Like many of his pedagogical urgings, it took me years to figure out what he had meant.

But what I won't ever forget was how the symphony began. The opening fifth in the basses was compressed, making it sound more like a tri-tone (sometimes known as L'intervallo del diavolo). It was awful. To make matters worse, a cellist seated near the basses started to giggle. Things soon got out of control. Any hope for the music to dramatically unfold over the next twenty minutes was ruined. It shook me to the core of my being. The way our curriculum was set up, we had one concert a year in which to shine, and this was my moment. Think of an ice skater who, in some national or international event, opens with triple axle and falls to the ice. That's how I felt at the time. Why go on?

I asked Mr. Mueller what he would have done, given the same situation, if he would have started over again. He said yes.
And so I resolved, from that day forward, if something did not begin well, I would stop and take it over again, from the top.

Ten years later with the Pacific Symphny Institute Orchestra, the solo trumpet kicked the first few notes of his solo in Ravel's orchestration to Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. The trumpeter was a brilliant player, but also ultra-sensitive, and I knew that continuing would likely diminish him, as well as the performance. So I wheeled around, cheerfully said to the audience, "we're going to try that again!" Yes, we. Because I took a measure of the blame. If a player does not play his best, it's possible, maybe even likely, that there was something I could have done to help him play it better. (The late great conductor, Calvin Simmons, who opened his first concert as music director of the Oakland Symphony with Mussorgsky's Pictures, was luckier than I. He bounded on stage, took a bow without the orchestra, and as he came out of his bow, turned around to give a downbeat to the solo trumpet. I knew Simmons had caught the trumpeter off guard, but he played it brilliantly nonetheless.)

And so, we started Pictures once again. And this time, the trumpet solo was perfect. He nailed it. And it set a postive tone for the entire piece.

That's why, years later, I had the Hartt students play the opening bars of Symphonie Fantastique over and over again. In my mind, I was setting them up for success. The first two bars are undeniably difficult, and Berlioz's exacting dynamic directions . . .

begin softly, gradually increase the volume, and then, at the end of the crescendo play the next bar suddenly softer still, attacking it accurately and together, and then hold it, in perfect intonation

. . . are often shortchanged. After they played it correctly once, I had them do it again, and again still, so that their success was habit-forming.

Sure enough, in the performance, the winds played these two bars beautifully, which set the tone for what would be an exhilarating performance. All's well that begins well.

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