Saturday, 31 December 2011

Mendelssohn Nocturne

On November 12th, Hillingdon Philharmonic played a concert - 3 movements from Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream (the Overture, Scherzo and Nocturne), Bruch's 1st Violin Concerto and Beethoven's 4th Symphony.

Bob Paxman, former owner of Paxman Musical Instruments, Britain's leading manufacturer and seller of French horns, died during the summer after a short illness. Paxmans have put up a tribute to him on their website. Bob was a regular member of our audience at Hillingdon, and would always come round and say "hello" and "well done" to the horns after the concert. This was our first concert after his death, and Stuart, our other regular horn, suggested it would be good to dedicate the Nocturne to Bob, since it is mostly a horn solo. I thought that was a wonderful idea, and so Stuart arranged with the conductor and the chairman that there would be a short announcement at the start of the concert about Bob Paxman and his connection with the orchestra, and how the Nocturne was being dedicated to his memory.

So, I played the solo and made it sound as beautiful as I knew how, to show the audience what a wonderful instrument the horn is and how much horn players need good instrument makers in order to produce those beautiful sounds. At the end, Stuart put his hand on my shoulder and quietly said "Bob would have enjoyed that."

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Strauss at Brent

I've been horrifically busy since the last week of October, with work, a huge eruption of publicity on the child protection issues I've been dealing with over on my other blog, and with three concerts that I took part in in November. So this blog has been rather neglected, as far as writing about music is concerned I've had to restrict myself to making an occasional comment over on Lyle Sanford's Music Therapy blog.

But I have been meaning to write for some time about the concert on 9th November at St John's Wood Church, which the Brent Symphony orchestra incredibly kindly dedicated to the memory of my parents. I played the solo horn part in Strauss 1, and my sister Joanna played solo violin in Tchaikovsky's Sérénade Mélancolique.

With everything that had been else that had been going on in my life, my practice schedule was shot to hell. I had been intended to play the Strauss from memory, but in the end regretfully decided that I shouldn't take the risk. Playing the music from memory looks very impressive, but I take the view that the sound and expression of the performance is the most important thing, and that I was more interested in making it a good musical experience for the audience than showing off my memory skills. So to allow me to avoid stressing about the notes and give the most possible brainpower to the music, I decided to have the music available, on a stand in front of me but fairly low down, where I could refer to it if I needed to but where it wouldn't get in the way of the audience seeing me. It was a compromise that worked. As an orchestral musician by long experience, I have a prejudice towards thinking that memorisation of pieces is a greatly overrated skill!

At the first rehearsal with the orchestra, a couple of weeks before the concert, we discovered that the tempo was dragging. It was only after the rehearsal that I twigged what was going on. I was being an orchestral musician, and I was following the conductor's beat. But he was being a good conductor and listening out for what the soloist was doing. And so we were both following each other and getting progressively slower and slower!

This was a problem easily solved. At the other rehearsal, on the day of the concert, I deliberately turned more away from the conductor and towards the audience, and decided just to set the speed for myself and leave it to the conductor to catch me. By turning away, the conductor's beat was no longer in my eye, only just visible in the extreme corner of my vision, and so the temptation to revert to orchestral beat-following technique was minimised. Also, in the time between the two rehearsals I had put together a few thought on how I intended taking the piece, and emailed them off to the conductor Lev Parikian. These are the points I wrote

1st movement, maybe just a tiny bit faster than we took on Wednesday. I think that was mainly my fault - a lifetime's habits as an orchestral player means that I stick to the conductor's beat. I'll try and lead a bit more.

Opening cadenza: while I will pull the tempo about, the last 2 minims will be in strict tempo, so you can beat those and I'll match you.

After that, the first movement is pretty much in strict tempo. I'll be doing expression by means of articulation and dynamics.

2nd movement, again maybe a tad faster. If I feel it's a bit slow to start, I'll push it on a bit at my second entry, 6 bars before un poco accelerando.

The countermelodies in the clarinet and bassoon can come out as much as you wish - they are 20 feet further from the audience, and it's an additional item of interest in what would otherwise be a straightforward and slightly boring repetition of the tune.

Initial tempo for the last movement was fine.

At the 4/4 section where the cadenza comes back, I will pull back quite a bit at the un poco calando.

Lots of rubato at Mit freiem Vortrag. I'd like to start the rit a bar earlier than written and pull back the tempo a lot by the time we get to the Lento.

The poco piu mosso will be a little bit faster than the rest of the movement, but not very much. I think it is more important that the notes can be heard than that the audience are terribly impressed with it appearing to be taken at meltdown speed. Very little if any rall at the end, only the minimum necessary for me to accent the last 4 notes.

Lev briefly wrote back saying that was really useful. And by and large that is how we took it in rehearsal. I was really fantastically pleased with how the rehearsal went. Everything seemed to gel. A horn in my hand, a fine orchestra behind me, a nice resonant church acoustic, and Richard Strauss. Heaven!

It was such heaven that I probably pushed it a bit harder than was entirely wise in the rehearsal, and so my lip was a bit tired towards the end of the performance. Not enough that any of the audience would have noticed, but just enough to feel a bit uncomfortable. As an amateur musician I get so few chances to play a solo with orchestra. Lesson learned, I'll know better next time, if and when next time arrives.

I think there were sixteen members of the family in the audience. As far as I can remember, it was the largest assembly of family members for any event other then weddings and funerals since my grandparents had a party for their golden wedding anniversary over 30 years ago. They came from as far afield as Glasgow and Southampton. For the first time in years (apart from weddings & funerals), all six of the grandchilden of my Grandma and Grandad West were present. It was a tremendous support having them there.

And the concert went magnificently well. The orchestra started with Schubert's Rosamunde Overture. Then Joanna went on and played the Tchaikovsky absolutely beautifully. She's recently got hold of a magnificent old violin, and in her hands the warmth of its tone completely filled the church.

Then I had to go on. It had been agreed beforehand that I would say a few words about the two charities the concert was in aid of, the Thyroid Eye Disease Charitable Trust and the Alzheimer's Society, and their connection with my parents. And then we had an A to tune to and we were off into the concerto.

And I was really pleased with how it went. If I want to be hypercritical, yes, one or two notes were cracked. But none of the top Bbs, they came out clear as a bell, and I felt that they weren't sounding strained in any way, the acoustic of the hall was supporting me well. And I I got fairly well into a "flow" state where I felt able to become the music, without having to worry much about the notes. Although the music was on the stand in front of me, I barely looked at it. In the first movement the tone was singing out over the orchestra, I was getting the dynamic range I wanted, the slurs were coming smoothly.

I've always found the first part of the slow movement more difficult than the notes would suggest. In performance, the movements follow on after each other without a break, so there isn't all that much time to catch you breath and rest your lip during the orchestral interlude at the end of the first movement before you're off again. The first part of the slow movement is a bit of a test of endurance and smoothness - you want it all to remain fairly quiet because of the need for the contrast with the second theme, but you daren't risk any of the notes not actually sounding, and it still all needs to sound over the admittedly very quiet accompaniment an also of course appear to be effortless. Audiences have no idea how much work goes into making music sound effortless! But I had to increase the effort and concerntation to make sure it all went well.

And then there is the second theme. With a crescendo from the orchestra, you burst out into major key and a truly heroic mode. I took it almost loudest I could make it without the tone turning brassy. I kept a bit in reserve so I could I add just a bit of brassy edge along with additional volume for the G natural at the climax. And then it all winds down quite quickly to a recapitulation of the first theme.

There's one great advantage to Strauss 1 which Lev mentioned at the end of the performance. It doesn't outstay its welcome. Some violin concertos have a slow movement that is as long as the whole of Strauss 1. They wallow. The music is undoubtedly wonderful, but sometimes you wish there could be a little less of it. Not so with the slow movement here. First theme, repetition with countermelodies, second theme, recapitulation, and you're done. Just as well, because then there is the third movement...

The third movement is a wonderful romp. Although it has heroic moments in it, for the most part the words to describe the mood are playful and relaxed. There's lots of expression you can put into the dynamic markings, lots of play into the quavers and smooth relaxation into the slower tunes. You let the flutes through in their little countermelody.. And the tension gradually rises until you break out into the final cadenza "Mit freiem Vortrag", at which point you are in full heroic mode again.

Then the danger is that you run away with yourself in the final passage. It goes faster than the rest of the moment, but it is all too easy to let it run away from you. So even while I was enjoying the cadenza to the max, a voice was whispering in the back o my head "not too fast in the next bit, don't let it get away from you!".

The whole of the last section is essentially one long crescendo.No dynamic mark is given at the start, and even though it is marked con bravura, it needs to start no louder than a solid soloistic mp. Then you can start each phrase progressively one notch louder until you get to a climax with the top Bb. Then you drop down to p again, and then do a much faster crescendo all over again to the end.

And it all went to plan. I didn't overspeed in the last passage. and I got to the end with a great flourish!

I probably lost a pound or so in the course of the performance, just from sweat and nerves. Playing a solo concerto in front of the orchestra is decidedly a different proposition from playing a solo passage from within the orchestra. You are far more exposed, far more on show. You're also standing which is somewhat unfamiliar (though less so for me because I always stand when I practice at home).

But I'm very pleased with how it went. I think that I did justice to the music, and the audience seemed to enjoy it. It was a wonderful way to honour and remember my parents. I think they would have approved.

My playing for the evening was over, but the orchestra's wasn't even half done. They had Bruckner 4 to play after the break. and they did exceedingly well. Although the piece has only 4 horn parts, they used six horns, bumpers on the 1st and 3rd parts, and they made a glorious sound all together with the heavy brass.. At the end I went up to them and shook all their hands and congratulated them. Bruckner is very hard work for the horns.

Lessons to learn. No matter how well a performance goes, there's always something you can take from it with the aim of making it even better next time. Next time I would want a less disrupted practice schedule prior to doing a concerto, and I would go a bit easier in the final rehearsal to conserve my strength for the concert. As a soloist I need to lead rather then follow the conductor, and to remember to do that from the very start of the first rehearsal. There's always something you can hope to do better next time.