Wednesday, December 17, 2014

From the Wings, by Eleanor Long

Rehearsal for Rite of Spring— musicians as far as the eye can see
I’m writing this on Sunday, December 7, the day after our second Masterworks concert at the Flynn Center.  It was an exhilarating performance from beginning to end!  The last time the VSO played The Rite of Spring, in 1986, I was in the oboe section (sitting next to my ex-husband).  Nearly 30 years later, I was backstage instead—more comfortable in every regard, but equally thrilled.  And this time around, although I couldn’t take pride in nailing the second oboe part, I could take responsibility for the 88 awesome musicians who occupied every square inch of the Flynn stage.
I started contracting players last spring, basically as soon as we decided to program Rite.  The instrumentation is way larger than a normal full orchestra, and I didn’t dare wait until fall to get commitments from key players and topnotch extras.  Luckily, everyone is dying to play Rite of Spring, whether it’s their first time or their fifth, so it was not a hard sell.  I actually had a couple substitute musicians contact me to say they’d heard through the grapevine that we were planning to do Rite and hoped they might be asked to play.  I polled the orchestra at rehearsal, and found out that 20 were “Rite of Spring virgins.”  (We did NOT sacrifice them Saturday night!) 

I continued chipping away at openings until late October, by which point I had finally hired the entire supersized ensemble:  five flutes (including 2 piccolos and an alto flute); 3 oboes and 2 English horns; 5 clarinets (2 Bb, 1 Eb, and 2 bass); 3 bassoons and 2 contrabassoons; 8 horns (including 2 Wagner tuben); 3 trumpets plus a bass trumpet and a piccolo trumpet; 4 trombones; 2 tubas; 4 percussionists; 2 timpanists (playing 9 drums); as well as a large complement of strings. 

You know me, I’m all about the numbers.  Funnily enough, in the orchestra we had 11 new players (VSO virgins), and there were 11 players who were in the orchestra back in 1986.  We had a record number of hosts (45) for out-of-towners.  Mercifully, there were only two music scares.  Principal tuba and English horn hadn’t gotten their music by two weeks after I sent it, precipitating a double panic attack.  Our principal oboist Nancy Dimock saved the day by having a copy of the English horn part in her personal library and knowing a friend who had the tuba part.  Both sets of music did eventually arrive, by the way (evidently having taken the scenic route), so we won’t incur any rental penalties. 

Tony Princiotti was as excited as anyone about presenting Rite, and strategized preparations with military precision.  He produced a rehearsal schedule planned out to the minute, an extensive errata sheet (mistakes he found in the score), and an exhaustive document specifying tempos.  He let the orchestra know that he would not be conducting the “re-barred” version of the piece, but the original as Stravinsky wrote it.  (Serge Koussevitzky simplified the complex meter changes to enable him to conduct the Boston Symphony with more standard beat patterns!)  We had several conversations about the stage set-up, and he fielded numerous arcane questions from musicians, like this one from principal percussionist Tom Toner: 

“I was just having one last listen to Rite before rehearsal tomorrow and noticed something.  In my score and on the Cleveland/Boulez recording the bass drum part one bar before 118 is on eighth notes 2, 4, 6, and 8 (with winds, brass, and upper strings), but my part has it on 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9 with a downbeat eighth on 118, making it parallel to what happens one before 105.  Which is it?”

Rehearsals at the Elley-Long Center were a delicious spectator sport.  Tony was in rare form, sprinkling in such comments as, “This spot is like a gravity-defying mudslide;” “If there’s a melody, that’s it;”  “Try to avoid coalescing;” “It’s amazing how much can go on in your mind during a 16th rest.” The magic prevailed despite my being able to hear a trumpet student down the hall practicing Sleigh Ride.

After the concert, our principal trumpet, Mark Emery, sent me an email saying he thought the performance went really well. “The extreme demands of the music and its popularity seem to lift any group to a higher level.”  I would agree that that happened in 1986 and again last night.