Many musical works – for instance, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto – begin delicately: easing you in gently to the fireworks that will later appear (and how…). Some – like Mozart’s 25th Symphony – punch at full, syncopated pelt from the opening notes. Thus, this blog will do, too: launching on Angel of the North-sized wings and a very forthright orison!
So, no introductions – except to say “Welcome!” – and that I hope you will stay with us: as David, Artistic Director of Orchestra of the Swan, and I, Stephen, its freshly-anointed Writer in Residence, try our very best to develop a conversation around some of the background, backstage goings-on, that may not readily be apparent from the concerts (or even their associated pre-concert talks).
So it is that I find myself on the back row of the audience seating, behind the cellos and basses, utterly immersed in a glorious sound I have not heard for many a year: the wonderful harmonic mayhem of double-reed squeaks; tuba bursts; bassoon scales; horn fanfares; timpani taps, and string tunings that are so redolent of a professional orchestra preparing to zoom off into an intensive three-hour rehearsal… – beginning with that very Mozart.
That this music moves one even in short bursts (those horn-calls; the soaring oboes; the lightning strikes of violins; the unsettling basslines) surprised me. But the insight gained from David’s gentle instructions, narrative asides, and sung emphases (mostly to do with feeling, rather than method (although there are occasional demonstrations, from a former life, of bowing technique…)) – as well as an ongoing dialogue with members of the orchestra (this is a democracy of friends) – adds a layer of interest and knowledge that, reflectively, I hope can also be achieved on these pages.
I had forgotten how such simple, astute comments (albeit accompanied by copious pencilled marks) can make such noticeable changes to the orchestra’s tone. But there is mutual admiration and acknowledgment all-round – and it shows; or, should I say, it sounds…. “Are we happy? If you’re happy, I’m happy! Let’s move on to the finale!”
What also amazed me was how much can be achieved in so short a time. Because these are such intelligent, inclusive musicians (there are many hugs on arrival, and questions about family and friends; as well as much laughter…) – with talent in obvious abundance – all those involved know that the spontaneity of that night’s performance will, need not be faked. I truly believe that much of the concert could be performed without such rehearsal: such is the avid attention paid to David’s various smiles; expressive body language and gestures.
Additional players appear – as if beckoned invisibly – for a change to the larger orchestra required by Shostakovich’s fabulous Hamlet suite (op.32a); and chair- and position-shuffling is accomplished with a minimum of fuss. (Paolo – the orchestra’s Marketing Manager – is always on hand, to assist; as is Orchestra Manager, Charlotte; and Lisa, Development Co-ordinator. The teamwork is fluent and flawless.)
Even David’s conducting style becomes more ‘Soviet’, crisper. Then – after we all grinned at the thump of the bass drum… – delicate and contained for the following bassoon solo; he leans into the orchestra almost furtively. As they join in, gradually, he rises from his stool, reclining away as the volume grows (and then inclines, again, as it recedes). Later, his movements will reflect the growing lyricism. A joy to behold!
Concentration on (and repetition of) the necessary moments of spiky precision that this score necessitates – as well as on those glorious, contrasting “warm, sumptuous, espressivo” melodies – pays instant dividends. Delicacy is achieved with a raising of eyebrows and a twinkling of eyes. Control from all quarters is simply a beautiful miracle to behold; and some complex, dynamic movements seem to simply materialize out of thin air! Others necessitate mini, sectional confabs. But it never takes long for the wished-for results to solidify. There is so much preparation hidden even here, immersed in the heat of practice.
And then it gets really serious. We have a break – an opportunity to relax; or to stay on stage, and repeat those tricky bits. Also, Tamsin – tonight’s soloist in the Tchaikovsky; and OOTS Associate Artist – arrives; and brings yet another smile to the assembly of collegiate happiness; as well as the unique, stunning, soul-piercing sound of that 1721 ex-Fenyves Stradivarius violin, repeating phrases of the concerto as plangent, almost ferocious, warm-up exercises. Hugs and waved hellos, here, too. She is at home – just another member of the ensemble – such is her familiarity with the orchestra.
And then, with just a few breaks for fine-tuning, for tweaks of style and phrasing, I am treated to a private performance (and three-quarters) – complete with cadenzas (so easily skipped in rehearsal). Tamsin’s commitment is complete: playing and observing her collaborators with pleasure and passion. That she can resume at any point from memory (with, perhaps, a sidelong glance at David’s full score…) is just another minor miracle – on top of all the others that this afternoon brings. Her concentration is supreme, unbreakable (and her face is moulded into an expression of intensity to match those heart-rending sounds…). The communication between all involved is yet again extraordinary.
This is hard work – please don’t be mistaken… – and so much is achieved in such a small space. But there is such elation at its heart that it is labour of the most rewarding kind.
Yesterday was amazing, I felt really privileged to be standing next to Tamsin.
– David, Artistic Director