First off, let me say that I am so happy to be starting up again. I haven’t sat in an orchestra since December 21st, and I hadn’t played any “real” music that wasn’t holiday related since November. So it was a pleasure to reconvene with my colleagues this weekend and play some good old Beethoven and Haydn. We did some very nice things. Some beautiful things, really - the trio of the symphony, or the second movement of the concerto, to name a couple. However.
You know that anxiety dream you get, where it’s curtain time and everyone is pushing you out there and you are the leading lady but you don’t actually know the aria, or the blocking, and actually you don’t even know how to sing because you are really an oboist, but the audience is all there and they are waiting for you?
That’s how it felt today when our string players had to perform Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge on two rehearsals. Coming into the weekend, I didn’t know about this monster of a work or grasp the challenge that lay ahead for them. I don’t have a great knowledge of string chamber music, but I have been given to understand that this piece is legendary in its difficulty. Having now heard the performance, I can say that I’ve never been more relieved to be offstage.
It wasn’t fair. It really wasn’t. Our musicians are professionals. They deserved the time to work on a piece that difficult. They deserved a fighting chance to perform it well. They evidently weren’t given that chance.
I felt under-rehearsed, too, but the pieces I was playing were harmless enough. I was angry about the situation, and I listened critically as we were performing today, and yes, there were spots. Transitions that juddered and hesitated. Attacks and releases between the winds and brasses which did not line up quite precisely. An occasional patch of rough intonation. Articulations that differed between strings and winds. We were aware of these things, and we were trying, but it is not possible to catch every detail the first time. Our cohesion kept getting better, but there wasn’t enough time to really produce anything we could be proud of. It was just all right.
The South Bend Symphony is having a rough patch. We have had so many services contractually cut in the past few years that it is not at all the orchestra I was proud to win a job in 6 years ago. It’s not as lucrative a job, certainly, but that’s not my worry - money always comes from somewhere. Unfortunately, it’s often not as strong a musical experience. I am surrounded by wonderful colleagues, great musicians whom I am honored to work with. But when we consistently have to scrape concerts together by the skin of our teeth, and when weeks or months pass without us even meeting, so that we forget how to play together, we inevitably lose cohesion. We lose that magical connection - that in-the-moment effortlessness - that comes from knowing each other's playing. Every time we get together now we have to relearn how to get along musically, and it takes time. Time that we don’t have because our rehearsals have been cut.
This musical slippage is something I feared, and wrote about a year or so ago. Things have worsened since then. My hope - and I am always hopeful - is that this is the bottom. We have more concerts coming up in the spring than we had in the fall. More of those concerts involve interesting, fun music. Our Performance Opportunities Committee, which I served on throughout the past year, came up with a number of interesting ideas to engage the community, add services back into our contract, and build new audiences. Some of these might begin as early as next season. Perhaps as the economy begins to recover… oh, never mind. Now I’m just fantasizing aimlessly.
Meanwhile, we meet tomorrow to rehearse for our MLK day concert, and the music is on the whole very new, which I love, and very technical, which is also fun, although it has been eating up my practice sessions for a week now. We have three whole rehearsals for it, so at least someone is thinking. Every time we appear in front of an audience we should be at our best, but the audience for Monday night’s concert will be a broader one than usual. People who attend no other symphonic event in the year will be there, and they should walk away with a strongly positive impression. That is always our job, regardless of our personal disappointments.