Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Notes on conducting the CCO

by John Rowehl

1. Choosing the piece

It was quite helpful to be given a few pieces from which to choose (two C. P. E. Bach sinfonias, the Dvorak “Nocturne,” and a Mozart divertissement), given that I know so little of the orchestral repertoire, and know even less about what would be appropriate for an ensemble of the CCO’s ability. The C. P. E. Bach Sinfonia in D (W 183/1) appealed to me for various reasons – length, degree of complexity, musical material – but as it turns out, it also made for a nice complement to the rest of the program (the Mozart concerto for violin and viola, and the Bartok “Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta”).

2. Learning the piece

Though it’s full of little surprises and twists, the Sinfonia in D is not a terribly complicated or difficult piece; indeed, it is largely sight-readable for the conductor. Even so, at Chris’s suggestion, I aimed to memorize it. My initial attempts proved to be not very successful, and with hindsight I think that may have been because I was trying to memorize too much at once. I think I might have been more successful if I’d started with basic elements – e.g., phrase structure – and then gradually layered on other details (harmonic structure, individual parts). Even so, I did eventually commit most of the work to memory, though not to the level of knowing every note in every part.

3. Rehearsing the piece

When I began rehearsing the piece, I acknowledged to the players that this was my first experience conducting an orchestra and that I hoped to learn a lot from them. I shared with them that because I’ve performed a lot of Baroque and early Classical music as a singer (with professional period-instrument orchestras) and have also played several C. P. E. Bach flute and keyboard works, I was quite comfortable with the style of the music, but might need their help in translating my musical suggestions into their language as string players.

At the first couple of rehearsals, we worked primarily on articulation and phrasing. In their initial readings, the players tended to employ a fat, romantic sound, they had difficulty backing off unaccented notes, and they resisted the extremes in Bach’s dynamic markings. To address the last of these problems, I consulted with Annette Richards about the reliability of the dynamic and phrase markings in the Durand score. (I was already suspicious of the phrase markings, because all four of the recordings of the piece I’d heard departed from them considerably, generally in the direction of less phrased, more detached playing.) Annette confirmed my suspicions about the phrase markings and advised me to use the recordings as a guide and alter the markings in the score. But she thought that the dynamic markings were likely to be Bach’s, because he is known to have been very precise about the dynamic markings in his works for keyboard. Annette also felt that the “wildness” of the markings in this piece (e.g., sudden dynamic changes, liberal use of sforzandi, particularly in the 1st and 3rd movements) was entirely compatible with Bach’s style. Armed with this musicological support, I returned to rehearsal with the aim of eliciting a wider range of dynamics from the players. We largely succeeded in this, though not without a considerable amount of prodding and positive feedback from me.

I also found the players to be somewhat stiff physically, in a way that I think impaired their ability to capture the right affect for the music. For example, in the second movement, a slow minuet, it was not at all possible to read the desired strong-weak-weak articulation from the way the players moved (or rather, didn’t move) when they played, and I believe it was no coincidence that the ensemble was ragged. When I asked them all actually to move into the first beat as if they were about to take a step in a dance, the articulation and ensemble both improved dramatically. I continued to emphasize physical expressiveness in subsequent rehearsals, but it never felt as if this became natural for the players.

Once we were playing in a manner that seemed to me more stylistically appropriate, we began to play through larger sections of the piece, whole movements. The virtuosity of the violin parts forced us to remain under tempo in the first movement for a while. And I found that retention of the stylistic suggestions was not terrific from rehearsal to rehearsal. Every week, I needed to remind them anew about strong-weak articulation and ask that they go for more extremes in dynamics. Nonetheless, we began to make some progress.

At the beginning of one rehearsal (about halfway through the rehearsal cycle), Aara Edwards gave a demonstration of baroque playing style, using period instruments. Aara prepared well, and created an interesting exercise using a passage from the first movement to illustrate the quasi-melodic role the bass line can play in creating forward motion. She had them all play the bass line on their own instruments, as if it were a melody. And then she had them return to their own part but listen for its relation to the bass line. The timing of the demonstration was useful, as it occurred on a day when I was delayed in getting from my seminar to rehearsal, but – to be frank – I’m not sure it was of much use or interest to the students. They listened politely, but I couldn’t see evidence that the demonstration greatly affected their playing.

There were a few impediments to rehearsing that are perhaps worth mentioning. (1) We lost ground over Spring Break, since people pretty clearly didn’t even look at their parts for two weeks, which negligence was readily apparent at the first post-break rehearsal. (2) We lost small, but not insignificant, chunks of rehearsal time to the Bartók on several occasions, because the Bartók routinely needed 5 or 10 more minutes than it had been allotted. (3) Finally, we never had the full complement of players (strings, winds, horns) until the actual performance

4. Performing the piece

The dress rehearsal for the Bach was 1:00-2:30 pm the day of the concert, ending just half an hour before the concert’s start. Given that we’d had adequate rehearsal time over the previous weeks, it should have been unproblematic to run the dress rehearsal just before the concert. But the rehearsal was surprisingly ragged. In particular, the violins had trouble holding back tempo in the first movement. My guess was that this was due primarily to the players’ being anxious about the Bartók, a piece that had them justifiably terrified, and I did not want to increase their anxiety by making too big a deal out of the rushing. Neither, though, did I want the performance to be ragged. I chose to take a slightly slower tempo for the first movement – and I showed more beats, especially with the left hand, than I would have liked to.

From my perspective – hardly an objective one, to be sure – the performance came off reasonably well. There were the splats one typically gets from amateur horn players, and there was still some rushing in the violins (especially the 2nds), but the energy of the piece felt good. As is typical of amateur ensembles, they were not quite as daring with expressive gestures in performance as they’d been in rehearsal, but I think they were expressive enough to make the gestures read.

5. Developing my conducting skills

My chief objectives for this independent study were:

(1) to gain some experience working with an orchestra.
This objective was achieved, not only through my own conducting of the C. P. E. Bach group, but also in closely observing Chris’s work on the Bartók (and on the Bach, Elgar, and Vaughan Williams in the first concert of the semester). Given that I’ve spent so little time with orchestras, it was quite helpful for me just to sit in the orchestra and hear its sounds from the inside, so that I could get a better sense of how things would sound from the podium.

(2) to learn conducting technique from Chris.
This objective, too, was achieved – largely through direct coaching, but also through observation. If I had the semester to do over again, I would start taping my rehearsals earlier in the process and analyzing them with Chris. That I didn’t was due partly to logistics and partly to my own emotional ambivalence at having to watch myself on tape. Watching myself turned out to be both much less painful and much more helpful than I’d expected (as helpful as conducting for Chris in his office); in particular, it showed me how much as I was doing (especially with my left hand) that I wasn’t even aware of..
I think that in my effort to make my gestures more efficient, and to convey as much as possible with the baton, I’ve put myself in a transitional stage that feels a little awkward. I’m censoring modes of expressivity that previously felt natural without yet having completely transferred what I wish to express to the baton. But I can tell already that the effort will pay dividends, because it’s forcing me to make more conscious choices about my conducting gestures.

(3) to learn score preparation and the reading/ear-training skills that support it.
I made pretty good progress at learning new clefs (the tenor, alto, and soprano C clefs), which was useful for reading the viola and horn parts in the Bach. I made some – albeit less – progress in identifying heard intervals quickly. I expect to make more progress on this skill in the summer, when I’ve arranged for a partner to play material for me. And, in any case, because the Bach was completely tonal and quite straightforward harmonically, I was not especially disadvantaged by the current state of my aural skills; they were sufficient for the purpose at hand.
As I mentioned in section 2, above, my method for learning and memorizing the score was probably not as efficient or productive as it could have been, at first. It might have been useful if Chris had had me do with the Bach some of the basic steps he showed me with the Brahms Requiem at the end of the semester (e.g., number all measures, identify repetitions and near-repetitions, create a phrase map, create a harmonic map). Understanding the phrase and harmonic structure is something I tend to do intuitively, but being forced to be explicit (and thorough and detailed) about it would make for good training and discipline.

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