Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Belfast, Birmingham and Buenos Aires - PART 2

Part II of my trip through major cities beginning with B took me back home to Birmingham. Friday consisted of a four hour rehearsal with the CBSO prior to Saturday’s performance at Artsfest, Birmingham’s free arts festival, which annually takes place over the second weekend in September. The CBSO and I usually give an outdoor concert on the Saturday evening which culminates in a fireworks finale.

These concerts are great fun. The audience often number into the thousands and they cheer and applaud very enthusiastically, often after a little lubrication of the throat! It is one of our chances every year to perform to the Birmingham public for free and showcase the orchestras’ talents as well as thank them for their support throughout the year. The orchestra also use it as a chance to advertise the upcoming season and highlight some of the programmes the CBSO will be performing. A great idea and one I think has been successful over the years.

This leads me however to discuss the ‘fireworks concert format’ and the pitfalls within for the conductor. As I said at the end of my previous post, I really do believe it to be almost a conducting ‘exam’! I shall explain why...

Let us take the programme we did this year. Here it is in full,

Beethoven – Egmont Ov.
Dukas – The Sorcerors Apprentice
Barry – Goldfinger
Barry – Diamonds are forever
Puccini – Doretta’s song from ‘La Rondine’ (Soprano – Maureen Brathwaite)
Prokofiev – Wedding and Troika from ‘Lte Kije Suite’
Sibelius – Finlandia
Tchaikovsky – Waltz from ‘Swan Lake’
Puccini – El lucevan el stelle from ‘Tosca’ (Tenor – Joseph Guyton)
Puccini - ‘O soave fanciulla’ from La Boheme
Berlioz - 'Un Bal' from Symphonie Fantastique
Mussorgsky – The Great Gate of Kiev from ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’
Wagner – The Ride of the Valkyries

Great music to conduct and much fun to be had! But let’s look at it again and see where the problems might lie.

Firstly, just learning all of this takes quite a lot of time, if you do not know all of it already, of course! But even if you do know it, it is always worth spending a little time reminding yourself of how it goes, where the problem corners might be etc. Often with this particular concert the programme is not finalised until quite late, usually down to the fireworks company, which means that you have to learn it all at a fast pace, which is never ideal.

Secondly having absorbed it all, the rehearsal period is often quite short. I am lucky with the CBSO in that I now get a rehearsal the day before and then a small rehearsal on the stage on the day of the concert. This is necessary as in previous years we have lost up to 90 minutes of rehearsal time due to weather or the stage not being built! But even with this luxury, one has to have clear gestures regarding balance and tempo as often there is simply not the time to stop and talk about it. And regarding balance, we move on to the third point...

From my seat in the Second Violins I have often watched conductors (who shall remain nameless!) painstakingly balance the CBSO, often trying to produce “ethereal” and “magical” effects that quite frankly are never going to be heard! Whether you are playing to 3000 enthusiastic Brummies in Centenary Square or 10000 revellers in the back garden of a stately home, two things have to be considered. Firstly you are playing outside, usually in a glorified tent and secondly, the orchestra will be amplified and it highly likely the sound engineer’s last gig was with a rock band! In an ideal world the conductor should have the time to go out and listen to the sound quality and make suggestions to the sound engineer about balance but it is very unlikely. And when the fireworks start, all they are going to do is turn it up to eleven!

I remember one CBSO conductor giggling during the 1812 Overture as he couldn’t hear anything, and vividly remember trying to play the ‘Danse Sacrale’ from The Rite of Spring with Simon Rattle as a fireworks company showed off their entire catalogue all at once!

I am not saying you shouldn’t balance the orchestra at all, that would be foolish. What I am saying is that you need to be ready to change dynamics and balances depending on the level of pyrotechnic mayhem and sound quality you encounter on stage. For instance, the amplification for Artsfest usually comprises of many microphones individually placed near the Wind, Brass and Percussion and one big mic over the Strings. This of course is far from ideal and leads to having to make some subtle changes. The start of Dukas’ Sorcerors Apprentice has a pp string pizzicato followed by multi divisi violins. Great in Symphony Hall but these notes will not be heard unless you ask them to play louder. Likewise with our two great soloists from Birmingham Opera – a friend who had gone out to listen told me the orchestra could not be heard whenever they sang as the sound guy had turned them up and us down!

And then finally, there is the element of the unexpected. What do you do when the stage is not built yet, how do you handle a situation where the sun is blazing into “the tent” and varnish is starting to melt? When do you stop playing because the rain is now blowing into the tent? These are all situations I have faced and last Saturday the latter was the problem. It rained so hard during the Dukas (yes, ironic timing!) that I was conducting whilst watching Artsfest and CBSO managers having very earnest discussions just offstage, waiting for a signal. As it happens, the rain abated and we carried on.

All of this brings me to my final point. It is this very type of concert that most up-and-coming conductors get offered (or a Family concert which has as much repertoire and different styles of music but at least indoors!) as a first gig with an orchestra. And in so many ways, they are the hardest concerts you ever do! They are exciting and exhilarating yet challenging and frightening. I wouldn’t miss them for the world but they are the equivalent of a conducting exam. 

I understand why orchestras do this – they want to try a new conductor they have heard about and want to see him in action. The conductor wants to work with new orchestras and hopes he can show them his qualities and attributes during the time he has with them. In many ways the conductor could show an awful lot more of his skills and passion for music if they had been booked for a normal “Overture, Concerto, Symphony” concert in the luxury of the concert hall but often this could be a risk the orchestra are not willing to take. They hope to see enough potential in a new conductor from one of these concerts and then maybe book them for something more prestigious.

The drawback for the conductor is that if you are good at,
  1. Managing the time efficiently
  2. Being clear with your gestures so as to balance and get your point across without need for long diatribes and lectures to the band
  3. Coping with any problems that might arise and doing so with a smile on your face
then there is a real danger you will be pigeonholed as being the man they turn to for their ‘conducting exam concerts’ and never quite get to the next stage. Whilst it is great that orchestras can feel they can turn to you for these qualities, most conductors want to be inside conducting those great orchestras without fear of rain, pyrotechnic displays or sound engineers!

Here is a clip of the end of our concert last week.

Thanks for reading and, as usual, all comments are welcome.
Next time, Buenos Aires!


Friday, 16 September 2011

Belfast, Birmingham & Buenos Aires - PART 1

The life of a conductor can often be a varied one, especially when one is starting out on a career. Not many fledgling conductors have the luxury of jetting into an orchestra, performing a concert(s) consisting of overture, concerto and symphony, and then jetting off to the next venue and doing much the same again with a new group of musicians. The fledgling conductor often finds that he has to take on many different types of project and be ready to adapt to any situation.

As luck would have it, over the last 10 days I have had three distinctly different projects to handle. This post will deal with my trip to Belfast to conduct the Ulster Orchestra for two days – but hot on its heels will be my thoughts on conducting in Birmingham and Buenos Aires. Three different cities, orchestras and projects, each with their own problems, solutions and joys.

This was the third time I had worked with the Ulster Orchestra but, barring one rehearsal day 18 months previous, the first time I had worked with them in their home, the Ulster Hall.

The first time I worked with UO was in January 2009, at a time when the Ulster Hall was being refurbished and the orchestra was rehearsing in many different venues around Belfast. During my stay I chatted to several players, usually over a pint of ‘the black stuff’, who almost unanimously agreed that they couldn’t wait to get back ‘home’ and play in the Ulster Hall again.

Well, two and a half years on and they are firmly back home and what a home it is! A conventional shoe box shaped hall with a really clear, bright and lively acoustic which, during the ‘dark days’ of playing in converted churches and other all-purpose venues, they must indeed have longed for!

Having said that, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t any acoustic ‘anomalies’, but I will come to those later.
The lions’ share of the project was to rehearse/record Nielsen Symphony No.2, The Four Temperaments. This really was a joy for me – one of my favourite symphonies and one I had conducted a lot before. The first task on Day 1 was to rehearse the orchestra in readiness for the following days recording session. We were allotted 4 hours to record both the Nielsen and the incidental music and overture from Weber’s Turandot. This means everything needs to be rehearsed and in order so that during the sessions we can all focus on getting the best performance in the short time available.

At this point I must say that rehearse/record is not the ‘ideal’ way to make a recording! I have sat in countless recording sessions, of all types, and there better ways. Ideally one would like to make a ‘live’ recording in the concert hall of your choosing after having performed the piece many times previously over an intense period. This is the way that many of Sir Simon Rattle’s later recordings with the CBSO were done and is the preferred way of the CBSO to record under our new Music Director, Andris Nelsons. I don’t care what you say, something happens in a concert that never really happens in the artificial conditions of a studio recording. Of course, unless you have a record company ready to go, and willing to record the repertoire you programme ( or vice versa ), this way of recording is a luxury that rarely happens.

The next best option is to record in a ‘studio’ ( often a concert hall ) after having performed the piece in concert. Many great recordings are made that way and the luxury here is that the rehearsing is already done, the piece has been performed, many mistakes are ironed out and many interpretive ideas have been tried and tested by conductor and performer alike. There is also often many more hours allotted to get the thing ‘in the can’. The conductor has more chance to go and listen to takes during the session time or overnight, the recording engineer has more time to get just the right balance and quality of sound. The orchestra is less pushed for time, meaning more breaks between takes, getting less tired and being able to produce better results. I don’t know an orchestral player who doesn’t go to one of these sessions armed with a book, newspaper or iPhone loaded with games, such is the amount of time sitting around!

Finally we come to the ‘rehearse/record’. It is the least favourable of all the scenarios but sometimes time and money insist that it is the only option. The great thing about the orchestral player, and one I think the UK is proud to be probably the best at, is that they know the game! They know we have 4 hours to make a recording of a 30 minute symphony and 20 minutes of incidental music and to make it sound as good as scenario 1. And true to form, the UO did just that – during the many takes we made they kept their levels of concentration up to the highest degree with a friendly yet professional manner and we got the job done.

As I mentioned, the recording process did throw up a couple of acoustic anomalies. Because of the way the stage is built, the brass are up quite high over the strings and as the hall is so responsive, it can be quite difficult to balance the orchestra correctly in many passages. It has to be said that Mr Nielsen doesn’t help – in the early stages of his career he often just marks the entire orchestra fff which leads to having to mark the brass down. The problem is that they can only go down in dynamic so far before they feel they can’t play freely or even at times feel like they are not wanted! This couldn’t be further from the truth yet due to the halls layout we did have to be careful. The flipside to this is that in many acoustics the Woodwind struggle to be heard – not in the Ulster Hall. They come over clear and clean with any trace of needing to force their sound. When I went to listen to some takes during lunch, both Marie Claire, the BBC producer for this project, and myself agreed that the balance was clear and that the orchestra were sounding very well over the speakers. Let’s hope that transmits over the airwaves when the BBC use these recordings sometime later this year.

Going back to different types of recording, one ‘throw away’ comment from a player really got me thinking about the process, attitudes and approaches to rehearse/record. This player said,

“It’s only a studio recording, not a CD!”

As I said, a ‘throw away’ comment. But it left me bristling inside because, for me, it was more than that. This was my chance to get down on tape my interpretation of a well-known symphony with a top-class orchestra and it meant the world to me! I am a firm believer in the fact that a recording can only ever be a snapshot of your musical thoughts on a work – a thought frozen in time as, later in life, my thoughts on Nielsen 2 are bound to be different. But at the moment, that is how I believe it should go and I was taking it very seriously.

So should there be a difference between a ‘studio recording’ and a recording for commercial release? No, not in my eyes. Every time we make a sound we are there to be judged technically, musically, interpretively etc.
It wasn’t a comment I took to my heart – I am used to the ways of the hardened UK orchestral player! But it did lead to the formation of this post and thoughts on recordings....

Next time (and probably quite soon as I have a lot of free time here in Argentina!) a look at another aspect of an up and coming conductors career – the outdoor fireworks concert OR, as I like to call them, the conducting exam!

As usual, all comments welcome, good or otherwise!

Until the next time, I'm off for a rehearsal and then one of these - cannot wait!

Mike Seal