I’ve lost count of the the number of times I’ve heard a pop song on the radio followed by listeners saying, “Is that it? I could have written that!” The simplicity of the form (that’s why it’s so catchy!) can sometimes make it sound obvious, almost like you’ve heard it before. I heard a story once about Sir Paul McCartney who when he first wrote the famous song, Yesterday, thought the melody so familiar that someone must have already written it. It’s not just music either. Without a doubt, every time I visit the Rothko paintings at the Tate Modern in London, the audience is split. One group will be standing in quite contemplation, staring deep beyond the picture, awaiting the vibrant red canvas to give up its secrets. The other half will walk past and say something along the lines of, “Well...it’s just a red square isn’t it? I mean...I could have done that!”
But they didn’t. Lets be honest, thinking of a great idea immediately after you’ve seen the same idea which had been previously thought up by someone else...well, it’s not a hard won skill is it? The wheel? Well, I coulda thought of that...
This week has been one of those times where a complex idea was deemed to be easy, and something which looked so simple on paper was probably the most challenging moment of my week. If we don’t include concentrating on the music whilst the extraordinary Barbara Hannigan sang and danced a few feet away from me…
2015 hasn’t so much started with a bang, but with a rattle. Simon Rattle. He brought some unfamiliar repertoire and wasn’t afraid to use it. Last weekend we performed Schumann’s ‘neglected masterpiece’ Das Parodies und die Peri.
Whoah there just a minute! Did he say neglected masterpiece? Isn’t that just arts doublespeak for “I’ve got nothing to say about the core repertoire so I’ll churn out this second rate load of cobblers with an interesting backstory and pass it off as a misunderstood work of genius” ? Well...sometimes yes, but not in this case. Apparently performed to within an inch of it’s life when it was written, it fell out of favour sometime around the turn of the 20th century and isn’t performed that often anymore. Rattle has become a bit of a champion of the work and with a stellar cast of singers showed just what wonderful music was contained within (despite the, quite frankly, weird quasi religious libretto).
Oratorios and operas are always something I find tricky in the orchestra. The number of tempo and key changes mean that one can never relax, the landscape is constantly shifting. What at first seems like a simple run of semi breves on the page, turns out to have a ridiculous tempo marking which ensures your eyes scan the page as fast as possible. In rehearsal, Schumann’s habit of writing fast music using slow note values caught us out on more than one occasion. Once the tempo had been found, then it was time to stop playing note for note, holding on with your fingertips, and play a phrase- we were encouraged to think horizontally not vertically musically speaking. It was interesting to see the way Rattle used the rehearsals to familiarise the orchestra with the music, and then each following rehearsal, more and more layers were built up. I wondered what the Rothko watchers would have made of it.
There are many tricky passages in the piece for me personally but the hardest was what may look on paper as the simplest
Doesn’t look much does it? But the tempo is very slow. The dynamic gets quieter throughout and the softness of the solo voice is such that every one of those E’s, without care, can sound like a dagger slashing through the orchestra. The two previous bars before each note look exactly the same, albeit an octave lower, in first the clarinet and then the oboe. By the time I make my entrance, the clarinet has determined the dynamic, the oboe the relative pitch and I just have to fit in. Looks simple? - took at least 10 years off my life. It’s still on BBC iPlayer is you want to listen.
The second programme of the week included Webern, Berg, Ligeti and Stravinsky. A very interesting programme for audience and orchestra alike. The Ligeti gave us all a chance to let our hair down apart from the sensational Barbara Hannigan who put her hair up in bunches and chewed gum. There’s not much point in describing the piece so best you watch a version where she sings and conducts it herself!
After her breathtaking performance, the stage was rearranged for the Rite of Spring. Every time I play the piece I find it hard to believe that it’s over 100 years old. You’ve all read the same old things about a riot at the first performance and the fact that the players couldn’t play it at all because it was so hard I’m sure. The other thing that gets repeated constantly is that nowadays, everyone can play it. Youth orchestras churn it out with one hand behind their backs (the other hand texting presumably), professional orchestras don’t even rehearse it (too busy chasing session), the Bolivars throw their instruments around in it (whatdaya mean they don’t do that anymore?…) The subtext is that players are now so good the Rite no longer produces the same feelings of fear in players - this kind of music just isn’t really that hard any more.
This is nonsense. I mean if you really think that, then maybe you should sit next to the principal bassoon for the first twenty bars and then reconsider. And that’s just the first bit, before anyone else joins in, as soon as that happens, those polyrhythms seem to have a mind of their own. It’s like a complicated jigsaw. It is possible to finish it by shoving pieces in the wrong place, but when everything is where it should be it sounds extraordinary. So if you think we can all just play it, then you should know that the wind and brass had to wait a little longer for the tea break as the opening sounded “a little too impressionistic.”
The end section where the metre changes every bar - 2/8 - 3/8 - 2/16 - 4/16 - 5/16 is as hard as it sounds and just doesn’t get any easier. Unlike the Rothko pictures, it looks complicated and it sounds complicated, so much so that I have heard that some conductors in the past wrote parts out for the players that enabled them to conduct in 4/4. Don’t let anyone tell you that this is easy, it isn’t. Look at the complexity of the metre alone and then notice that all sections of the orchestra have different rhythms within that structure and then think that over 100 players have to fit together all under the control of one conductor… the possibilities for disaster are endless. The Schumann sounded beautiful with wonderful simplicity at times, the Stravinsky sounded primal and animalistic with multiple layers of complexity. Both pieces worlds apart but both demand huge amounts of concentration and skill. Appearances are often deceptive.
As Simon walked across the orchestra to congratulate the woodwind section at the end of the concert, he smiled at our sweaty brows and bruised, puffy lips. The first two weeks back playing after Christmas playing such demanding repertoire had taken their toll. He drummed his fingers on his lips and pointed at us looking slightly sympathetic.
“You guys lips look like Mick Jagger after all that!”
Ha! Unlike the Rolling Stones, this week, I have found enormous satisfaction.
This is my personal blog. All views are my own and are not endorsed by any of the organisations I work for.