Monday, 23 September 2013

Choosing concert programmes revisited

Last year I wrote a blog post on the issues involved in choosing concert programmes for amateur orchestras. I'm now involved in advising and helping choose programmes for both the orchestras I'm a member of.

The process this summer of working out the programmes for the Amati Orchestra was interesting, and I think it is a good example of amateur orchestra programming done right. The programme went through a number of drafts and I think it is worthwhile to describe how we worked at it.

The players had been canvassed for their ideas and we used as many of them as were practicable. As it is still a fairly new orchestra, they have a policy for the time being to play only out-of-copyright music in order to economise on music hire fees. That's OK, there's lots of good, popular, playing music that is out of copyright, easily enough to fill three concerts!

I had had discussions over a drink after rehearsals with the conductor on my philosophy of choosing programmes, that there are a number of things a good concert programme for an amateur orchestra must contain.
  • In order to bring in the audience, it must contain at least one disgustingly popular piece, or at least a piece by a disgustingly popular composer which the audience might mistake for the disgustingly popular piece they know.
  • In order to maintain the interest of the players, most of the programme has to be enjoyable to rehearse.
  • We can have an obscure or experimental piece in a programme, so long as the majority of the pieces are more mainstream.
  • If there is going to be a concerto in the programme, there have to be some good tunes in the purely orchestral pieces.
  • We need to avoid as far as possible a programme which requires extra players (e.g. additional wind, harps or percussion) for only one piece, especially one of the shorter pieces. So there is a need to check the instrumentation of the pieces to see that there aren't any serious mismatches.
  • The programme needs to be hard enough to stretch the players but not so hard that they despair of getting the pieces to concert standard in time.
Our conductor had no problem in agreeing with all of this. His first draft for our 2013-14 programme was sent out by email to the committee and a few selected senior players, with an invitation for comments. The whole process was managed by email over a week or so.

This was the first draft.

Strauss: Overture Die Fledermaus
Grieg: Peer Gynt Suite No. 2
Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture
Elgar: Enigma Variations

Weber: Oberon Overture
Delius: In a Summer Garden
Smetana: Sarka from Ma Vlast
Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 1

Mussorgsky: Night on Bare Mountain
Dvorak: Cello Concerto
Berlioz: Sinfonie Fantastique

The conductor is keen to do some Rachmaninov this season, Rachmaninov comes out of copyright in Europe at the end of 2013. I think he would have preferred to put in the 2nd symphony (which is better known) rather than the 1st, but I had warned him that the 2nd symphony has the cellos divisi into four parts at one point, and we needed to ensure that we had a larger cello section before we could do it justice.

Overall I felt that this was a pretty good programme. We have a good soloist lined up to play the Dvorak Cello Concerto. My main concern (shared with others) was that Sinfonie Fantastique is a bit hard and requires too many extra instruments. It needs 4 bassoons(!). The clarinets both need to have a C clarinet and the 1st would also need an Eb clarinet - absolutely vital for the Witches' Sabbath, the solo simply can't be played transposed on a Bb clarinet. We would need 2 tubas, 2 harps, 2 sets of timpani and lots of other percussion with at least 4 percussionists. At one point in In The Countryside there are 4 timpani rolls going on at the same time. Hiring in the extra players and instruments might be a bit expensive.

The conductor regretfully decided that these concerns were valid, so there was some discussion as to what to put in its place. Pictures at an Exhibition was proposed but discarded as being too difficult for the time being. Then there was a suggestion that the summer concert should be a programme of summery music, particularly (though not necessarily exclusively) concerning an English summer. This idea was greeted with enthusiasm.

This led to the conductor's 2nd draft.

Strauss: Overture Die Fledermaus
Smetana: Sarka from Ma Vlast
Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture
Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 “From the New World”

Weber: Oberon Overture
Dvorak: Cello Concerto
Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 1

Elgar: Cockaigne Overture
Delius: In a Summer Garden
Butterworth: Banks of Green Willow
Butterworth: Shropshire Lad
Debussy: Prelude a l’apres midi d’un faune
Elgar: Enigma Variations

That looked to be a great improvement. The autumn concert contains two big popular pieces. The spring concert has the Rachmaninov as something very enjoyable to rehearse alongside the concerto.

My only concern was with the summer concert. I've played  Cockaigne,  Prelude a l’apres midi d’un faune and Enigma before, and I know that all three pieces are pretty difficult. Although Enigma is programmed as a symphony, in fact it is a series of fairly short movements and so there is much less repetition and recapitulation than in most symphonies, so it will take up more rehearsal time in proportion to its length. Cockaigne is just plain hard, and the Debussy is rhythmically very complex and intricate. I felt that this was one difficult piece too many, and so I suggested dropping Cockaigne and inserting Nielsen's Overture Helios instead. The overture represents a Greek summer's day from sunrise to sunset. It's not as hard, but is rewarding to play, and is about the same length as Cockaigne. (It also happens to have a very striking horn quartet at the start, which is a factor which didn't influence me at all. Of course not! Who could possibly think such a thing?)

And that is what we finally agreed on. Every concert has at least one piece that audiences are likely to recognise and look forward to hearing. There are some great tunes there for everybody to play, and we have calibrated the overall difficulty so that we can do all the pieces justice.

I think that is an excellent outcome, and I'm looking forward to the new season. As it happens, I've played most of the pieces before, but I don't mind that. I've played so much of the repertoire that it's very rare for me to play a concert where I haven't played at least half the pieces before.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Questions from a composer

A few days ago, I had an email out of the blue from composer Christopher Moore. He had read my blog, and he told me it had helped him score better for horn players. In order to write even better for the horn, he had a series of questions he wanted to ask me.

I was vastly flattered, and am always happy to help composers write better for the horn. So I was more than ready to offer answers to as many questions as he might have. He agreed that I could publish the Q&A, so here it is in full.

01. What are your favorite horns(brands) to use? and why?
I use an Alexander Model 103 F/Bb full double. I bought it when I was 18 on the recommendation of my horn teacher Douglas Moore, who in his day was principal horn of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. At that age, I wasn't old enough or experienced enough to work out for myself what was a good horn for me, but his recommendation has worked out very well. I've been playing this particular horn now for 33 years, and I see no reason to change.

Because I've played the same horn for so long, I'm not particularly knowledgeable about the characteristics of different brands of horns. All I know is that the Alex and I suit each other very well. But it's my view that how you play the horn, both technically and musically, matters far more than the specific brand of horn you play, and that it is worth taking time to get used to a specific instrument unless it is showing obvious tuning or mechanical defects.

02. What are your favorite pieces to play solo or group?
For solo concertos, I regard the Mozart and Richard Strauss concertos as being the definitive solo pieces for the horn. The four Mozarts and Strauss 1 are all recognisably of a type. Strauss 2 is something quite different. I had to learn Strauss 2 at music college, but I didn't actually like it at the time, particularly the first movement that seemed to meander around without actually going anywhere.

But a few years ago, I got the opportunity to play Richard Strauss's two late Sonatinas for wind, "From an Invalid's Workshop", and "The Happy Workshop", written around the same time as the 2nd concerto. And through listening to and playing these, I gained insights into the structure and style of the concerto. In the meantime I had also played much Brahms, Mahler, Wagner and Shostakovich which also formed the musical landscape of Strauss's late years, and that also helped me understand the piece. Now, 30 years after I first learned Strauss 2, I think that I could finally make a convincing performance of it, in the unlikely event that the opportunity arose for me.

The other solo piece for horn I have a particular liking for is Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. Having several short movements, it shows off the different aspects of the horn to wonderful and dramatic effect. My personal copy of the horn part still has markings put in by my teacher, who as he was writing them said to me "This is how Britten told me to play it". He performed the piece more than once under Britten's baton.

In terms of chamber music involving the horn, there is much to enjoy: for instance the Beethoven Septet and Schubert Octet, the Mozart wind serenades. In a completely different vein are wind quintets by Ibert (Trois Pieces Breves) and Milhaud (La cheminée du roi René), which require a great delicacy of touch unlike almost any other horn music.

By the way, wind quintets are almost guaranteed to give horn players an inferiority complex. The horn is less agile than the woodwind instruments that make up the rest of the group, the horn's tone is distinctive and so there is nowhere to hide, cracked notes are horribly prominent, and with only five instruments in the group, there are fewer opportunities to rest, while on the other hand you have to play delicately in order not to overwhelm the other instruments in such a small group. Wind quintet playing is extremely hard work for a horn player!

As for orchestral music, there is so much to choose from, but I'll mention just a a couple of pieces that use horn ensembles to startling effect. The most famous is the Scherzo from Beethoven's Eroica symphony. But this is not as unique and original as many people might think. It has definite precursors in Haydn's Symphony No. 31 "Hornsignal" and Mozart's Divertimento in D, K131. Both are well worth a listen if you are not familiar with them. Then there is of course the Schumann Konzertstuck for 4 horns and orchestra.

I'm lucky in that I have had a professional quality of training on the horn, but I chose not to become a professional player. As a result, there is almost nothing in amateur music making that frightens me. There are just three pieces I have performed publicly that are exceptions to that: the Schumann Konzertstuck and the two Strauss wind sonatinas. They are seriously hard!

03. I usually use Wagner and Mendelssohn for auditions. Any other compositions you think will better access a players skills?
All the Mahler symphonies have extremely prominent horn parts, but the 1st horn part of the 2nd movement of the 4th symphony and the obligato horn part in the 3rd movement of the 5th symphony are particular challenges, not just technically but also musically.

The solo from the slow movement of Tchaikovsky's 5th symphony is also a major challenge. The solo is a difficult in technical and endurance terms because of its length, but more importantly it is a major musical challenge. The player has to decide how the phrases are going to be shaped, where exactly the climax of each phrase will be, and the subtle changes in speed and articulation which transform it into great music rather than a mere succession of notes. There is no single right way to play it, but it is very easy to find a wrong way!

A similar kind of musical challenge is the 1st horn solo towards the end of the 1st movement of Brahms 2nd symphony. Technically this is not so hard, but there are significant changes of mood as you progress through the solo, and so the horn player again has important musical decisions to make when deciding how to play it.

You may realise from this that I am more interested in phrasing and producing a convincing musical performance than in extremes of technical ability. Orchestras for the most part have no use for a horn player who can rattle off super-high notes but can't play Brahms 2 with a good tone and rounded phrasing.

If you want an audition passage that will test a player's upper range under pressure, then the solo from the 1st movement of Shostakovich's 5th Symphony is a good test, as is the solo in the 1st movement of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G. Anybody can blast out high notes fortissimo, but both these solos require the high register to be controlled with a beautiful tone played relatively softly. This is much harder.

04. When you play new pieces (unpublished works)--if you can't take the work home--...Does it make rehearsals difficult/time consuming?
A little, but not unduly. In Britain at least, professional musicians and the better amateurs are all pretty good sightreaders. So unless the piece is technically difficult or rhythmically complex to an unreasonable degree, then the notes can be mastered without too much trouble. Then it becomes a matter for the conductor (for orchestral pieces) or the group as a whole (for chamber works) to decide how they want to coordinate phrasing, tempo changes and other musical issues. That can't be worked out in private practice, it has to be done in rehearsal.

In Britain, there is a group called the Rehearsal Orchestra which has now been running for over 50 years. They are a training orchestra and specialise in doing music courses where the rehearsals are as close to British professional conditions as you will get without actually being in a professional orchestra. Probably something approaching half of Britain's professional musicians have played in the Rehearsal Orchestra in their younger days. Commonly, the orchestra will take a large orchestral work, rehearse it for one or two days of a weekend and then give an informal performance of it at the end of the course. They can be very ambitious in their repertoire, on one occasion I remember playing Strauss' Ein Heldenleben and Bartok's Kossuth in the same weekend. Their first weekend course in 2014 will be Strauss' Sinfonia Domestica. There's no opportunity to take parts home and practice between rehearsals, it just has to be got right immediately. So in Britain at least, there is no great issue with playing new or unfamiliar music. People just put the notes on their stands and get on with playing them.

I understand that the music education systems in some other countries put less emphasis on sightreading and efficient rehearsal technique, and so new music takes longer to assimilate, but there is nothing inevitable about this if the musicians have the right skills. I've been told that the horn players of the London Symphony Orchestra have something of a macho determination never to take parts home to practice, but instead they take pride in just being to play excellently just on the rehearsals. I don't know whether this story is literally true, but it does express the kind of pride that British musicians have in being able to achieve excellent results on minimal preparation.

Even among amateur musicians, it is not uncommon for an amateur orchestra to be strengthened by "extras" coming in for just the final rehearsal on the day of the concert to fill in any gaps among the orchestra's regular players. I have played innumerable concerts of this type. You arrive, you rehearse, you mark in the part any corners that you need to be particularly careful of, and you perform. Any tricky bit has to be taken care of with a few minutes practice during the break between the rehearsal and concert.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Coordinated Breathing

Mahler's 4th symphony was in the programme for a concert I did during the summer. At the end of the first half of one of the evening rehearsals, as we were stopping for a coffee break, I asked the second horn to stay back for a moment before we got our coffee so we could work out some coordinating breathing points for a horn 1 & 2 duet passage in the 3rd movement (14 bars after 11 if you want to look it up).

The conductor happened to walk past as we were marking up the parts. I think he was rather surprised that we would co-ordinate breathing in this way. He's a string player, he's entirely used to the idea of co-ordinating bowing in string sections. But I don't think it had ever properly occurred to him that the wind would at times need to co-ordinate breathing.

Much the same principles apply of course. It is just that the breathing isn't so visible as bows moving up and down in unison.

This autumn, the same orchestra is playing Dvorak's New World Symphony. We'll may also need to co-ordinate the breathing at the opening of the slow movement, not just between the horns, but with the heavy brass as well.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Sexual abuse in music schools

Child sex abuse is more normally the topic of my other blog, where I have been working to address the child sex abuse scandal at Ealing Abbey and St Benedict's School.

But this unpleasant topic has now spilled over into the world of music and music teaching, with the conviction of Michael Brewer a former teacher at the prestigious Chetham's School of Music in Manchester, of a series of sexual assaults against a former pupil Frances Andrade. Tragically Frances Andrade committed suicide after giving evidence at the trial, something kept from the jury until after they had given their verdict.

In developments which are depressingly familiar to me as they mirror so many other cases I know of, in the publicity following the trial it has emerged that there are several other teachers or former teachers at Chetham's and at the Royal Northern College of Music who are under investigation. (Chetham's takes children up to the age of 18, RNCM teaches college-age students. As both are in Manchester, many teachers teach at both institutions.)

And worse still, it has emerged that Michael Brewer resigned from Chetham's after the then headmaster, Peter Hullah, disturbed Brewer and a pupil in Brewer’s office ‘when the choirmaster had the girl’s top off’. That resignation, supposedly on health grounds, allowed Brewer to leave without there being any investigation, and so allowed Brewer to continue to work with children, particularly as director of the National Youth Choirs. In fact, Brewer continued to work with NYC even after he had been arrested for the indecent assault on Frances Andrade, though the NYC did at least ensure that Brewer was not permitted to be alone with any student under the age of 16.

One of Britain's leading composers Michael Berkeley has this week said in the Guardian that he understood the conditions under which abuse could flourish at a music school.

"What is important to understand is the extreme vulnerability of a pupils … for whom the teacher may be some sort of guru … There is a huge responsibility attached to that."
The same was true for young dancers, "who have to delve deeply into their psychosexual makeup" and may transfer emotions on to their teachers.

Berkeley has has suggested that it should be an "absolute rule" that teachers should not have sex with their students – even if the student is over 18. He went on to suggest that if educational institutions, from colleges to universities, could not enforce such a rule, then one has to start thinking about legislation.

It seems to me that music schools and music colleges are particularly vulnerable to this issue, partly given the emotional aspect of making music, the hothouse atmosphere of intensively training children from a very young age, the almost universal practice (in Britain at least) of instrumental teaching in one-on-one lessons with a single pupil at a time, and the fact that teaching instrumental music at times inevitable involves the teacher touching the pupil in order to obtain correct hand and body positions for playing the instrument.

In fact, the new Principal of the RNCM Linda Merrick has suggested in the Guardian that one-on-one music tuition may need to be abolished.

Because of the high emotions involved in music making, it has to be recognised that the pupils themselves may form strong crushes on their teachers, and that there is scope for trouble even if they are not reciprocated.

Clearly, the first priority has to be to ensure that children are protected. Child sex abuse is a loathsome crime and all practicable measures to deter and prevent is must obviously be made. But we must also recognise that many good honest teachers who have dedicated their lives to music are now also feeling intensely vulnerable lest an unfounded allegation be made against them.

Chetham's is where there is a current scandal. But I doubt very much that it is unique, even among music schools. It is very likely that similar stories will eventually emerge from other music schools, in Britain or elsewhere.

And that means that the entire worldwide tradition of how we teach music may come into question. What changes do we need to make in specialist music education such that the welfare of the students is assured while maintaining the standard of the teaching provided?

Some parts of the answer are obvious. For instance, it is clear that all allegations of sexual abuse have to be passed immediately to the authorities, whether or not a teacher voluntarily resigns. If this has to be made mandatory because schools too often don't report voluntarily, then so be it. There also has to be greater awareness of the issue both among staff and students, and perhaps training for music teachers in music schools on how to conduct themselves in a way that reduces the risk of inappropriate behaviour or even of mistaken perceptions of inappropriate behaviour.

But it may be the more is also needed, and Linda Merrick's questioning of the future of one-on-one tuition needs to be part of this debate.

This is an unpleasant and uncomfortable topic. But it is going to have to be faced by everybody who cares about music and music education.