The Mighty Berlioz

Today’s the day.  I’ve been waiting for this for a LONG time.  I did have a little kinda sorta second-hand brush with this a few years ago with the Highlands Wind Symphony.  I can’t count it for reals though.  So today it’s the real deal.  The genuine article.  From his pen direct to my baton…

I’m conducting my first original Hector Berlioz piece with an orchestra.  Namely, his ‘Marche Troyenne’ and the Highlands Chamber Orchestra.

With Berlioz as a whole, I feel like it’s going to be a life-long journey.  Conducting increasingly complex works of his as my conducting career progresses and as my skill and technique mature.  I do have a bit of a hit list of works of his and in [mostly] no particular order:

  • Overture to Benvenuto Cellini (the first Berlioz I played in the Ottawa Youth Orchestra)
  • Hungarian March from Damnation of Faust (the second Berlioz in OYO)
  • Roméo et Juliette
  • Le Corsaire overture
  • Waverley overture
  • Les Francs-Juges overtures
  • Symphonie Fantastique
  • Te deum
  • Requiem (maybe this one should be last with its HUGE proportions)
  • Love duet between Dido and Aeneas from Les Troyens – ‘Nuit d’ivresse et d’extase infinie!’

So I’m starting with the Trojan March — not terribly difficult, or at least not insurmountable parts (notably, strings); the tuba part isn’t totally scary; there aren’t two tubas required; the tempo isn’t super nuts and in cut time; the rhythms aren’t full of syncopations.  And it can be pulled off with a smaller orchestra.  In other words, the Highlands Chamber Orchestra will do its magic with it.

It’s from Berlioz’ epic opera, Les Troyens.  Like – 4 CDs kind of epic.  Like – a performance starts at 5pm and, with various intermissions, it ends around 10pm.  It’s big and not often performed.  The Trojan March appears in various forms and orchestrations throughout the opera and represents the people of Troy and their leader Aeneas as they leave Troy, find Carthage (and Dido) and eventually leave there for Italy and Rome.

I do have a challenge with this:  how to not make this sound marchy and clunky.  I do love a challenge.

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Starting Season Four with the HCO

Here I am mostly through Summer 2015 and really looking forwards to the 2015-16 season coming up with the Highlands Chamber Orchestra.  We’re having a read-through at my place this coming Sunday – hopefully a decent turnout despite Summer holidays.

Last month, I settled on a draft program for the November 21st concert.  We’ve been sticking with a Pops feel with lighter music and this year the theme is “Haliburton 150” with Canadian, British and American music:

  • Canada:  Fall Fair by Godfrey Ridout
  • Canada:  Canada by Bobby Gimby (orch: Milton Barnes)
  • Canada:  Snowbird by Gene Maclellan (i.e. of Anne Murray fame)
  • Canada:  Beachcombers Theme by Robert Hales
  • America:  Variations on a Shaker Melody by Aaron Copland
  • America:  In October, from Suite no.1 by Edward McDowell
  • America:  Ashokan Farewell by Jay Ungar
  • Britain:  Nimrod from the ‘Enigma Variations’ by Edward Elgar
  • Britain:  Suite from ‘Pirates of Penzance’ by Arthur Sullivan
  • Britain:  Suite from ‘James Bond: You Only Live Twice’ by John Barry

Quite a swath of music there.  I’m looking forward to conducting every one of these for each their particular reason … ‘Fall Fair’ because I’ve played it twice in other orchestras, so it will be nice to experience it from the podium.  ‘In October’ because it’s from a 3-disk set of American orchestral music that Collin bought on a whim from iTunes years ago and I’ve always love it.  ‘Nimrod’ because it’s an emotional powerhouse of a piece and it’ll be my second time conducting it with the HCO.

The last time I blogged I mentioned getting Rhapsody in Blue in the mail — so long ago.  What a fun piece that was.  Lauren McInnis play it beautifully and the audience was roaring.  So much has happened since then … more reason to catch up soon.

Tchaik 4 with Orchestra Toronto

We’re on to the next rehearsal schedule for Orchestra Toronto and the main piece on the program is Tchaikovsky’s 4th symphony. This is a powerhouse piece for brass, even with us only really involved in the first and last movements. Sure, there’s some cute stuff in the third movement for all brass (except for tuba), but it’s nothing compared to the power in the opening and closing.
I got familiar with this symphony because it was prominently featured in the audition list for the Montreal Symphony. There are countless important licks for tuba here and just about all of them are double- or triple-forte!! So when I saw the draft for this year’s program last year I got really excited. I printed the part off the Internet and started getting familiar with it. Oh, I almost forgot, I have snippets of the part in my excerpts book and I had considered playing them for my audition to the GGS a few years ago.
So I was super excited to get back to OT rehearsals after the holidays. The first two rehearsals were good. We read through the outer movements really slowly. Especially the first one. Between the counterpoint and the emphasis away from the downbeat, it’s not a cinch to put together.
More importantly, I was looking forward to the big brass sectional of the season. This would be our second year at it. Last season, we had a sectional for Holst’s Planets and Ravel’s La Valse. Trumpeter Guy Few was our coach and he was fantastic. This year, we had some trouble booking someone in advance because many were busy on that Thursday night. We finally confirmed with Rupert Price, principal trombone with the Windsor Symphony. That night, just this past Thursday, we spent 2.5 hours on Tchaik 4. He had some great advice on articulation, style and interpretation. All which made it easier for me to play. It was fantastic to get his view on the piece, and the brass section sounded fantastic with he suggestions. I’m sure my ears took a hit in that boomy room, but I loved every minute of it. I’m looking forward to hearing it all put together next week with the rest of the orchestra.
In terms of my musical career, the opportunity to play Tchaik 4 is very important to me. In the world of community orchestras, I might not have another chance to play in a good number of years. I’m definitely happy with the brass section we have right now. We have some recent additions from UofT who are contribution a lot to the brass section and we’re all gelling well. We’re going to bring the house down on this one!

2012 Year in Review

It’s the final day of 2012. I’ve been thinking about this blog entry for a number of weeks now. How would I sum it up? Then this morning, a friend on Facebook put up this status:

In 2012 well I learned a lot. lost a lot. gained a lot. Must say hardest year to date but I’m still smiling happy new year everyone and a happy 2013 to all!

Nailed it! Continue reading

Franck – Morceau Symphonique

My first impression of this piece? BO-RING. Yeah, that’s two syllables. It’s definitely not a challenging piece for the fingers. It’s slow but high. And mostly unison with all the trombones except for a few chord hits and the last two bars.

The challenge: embouchure. Thank gawd most of the part for low brass is fortissimo. Lots of chance to breath in and let it all out! The only problem is the amount of waiting time until the first high entry. And until the next major entry. Here’s the opening spot (apart from a lonely little 8th-note ‘A’ earlier):

The tempo is pretty slow and the movement of the low brass melody is pretty deliberate.  Liszt does stuff like this too from my own personal listening experience.  Big awkward melody lines.  But the more I listen to them, the more poised and grand they sound.

So – it’s loud.  That’s the easy part if you’re taking in enough air and moving it out just as quick.  The hard part with this lick is getting the pick-up A accurately.  Practice – practice -practice.  Also, after playing this high, I found, using a tuner to keep me honest, the ending A of this melody was too high.

This motif repeats two bars later in the key of C with the same scale degrees – i.e. a tone down.  Then a snippet of the melody (last bar + pick-up) in Bb minor and again in C# minor (down to the bottom of the staff – not back up high – which was something to get used to, especially when the conductor wanted to practice this whole section over and over:  embouchure goes numb from the high range when it’s not used to it).  Then there’s this:

The fortissimo leading up to this is pretty loud anyhow and should be held back a little in order to give room for this, but in-play with a strong trombone section, this can be really loud.  The key is judging as you go to make sure this fortississimo is louder than what you just played.  I found it tricky to make sure I played this with a sustained dynamic (no diminuendo) and suddenly play mezzo-forte.  Wind is flying through your instrument at ‘fff‘ and suddenly slowing down for ‘mf‘ isn’t as easy as it seems.  And for what it’s worth, you could easily drop to piano and not hurt the interpretation.

The last two line of music have just a few minor things to consider.

(nb. that pianissimo is the ONLY quiet note in this piece.  lol)

That first fortississimo ‘A’ in bar 3 feels a tad too loud.  Like maybe it should have been a plain old forte to lead up to the second ‘A’.  In general guidelines of interpretation, the 4th beat get lots of emphasis here because it’s the end of a phrase.  The first note of the next bar also gets a lot of emphasis because it’s the start of the motif.  What to do with that little ‘A’ pickup?  I found it hard to find it in my embouchure in early practicing so I needed to work on its accuracy.  It would often be an accidental F#.

Surprisingly, I was finding the ‘E’ (last bar, first line, and four from the end) hard to center.  First, with the trombones in rehearsal, but I was blaming that on bass trombone playing an A just above me.  The interval of a 4th felt like a dissonance that made the ‘E’ hard to place. But even at home – after playing ‘ff‘ on V-I-V of D major, it was hard to play the tonic of ii.  My embouchure was not expecting that ‘E’.  Repetition at home has solved that – again, for me, it was the act of making my lips used to the physical requirements.

Finally, the last three bars – it sounds a little like a cheesy high school band piece ending with the pick-up-after-pick-up layering from low to high culminating in the final pickup to the second-last bar.  I’ve put in an ‘fp‘ and crescendo in the third last bar to let the other entrances shine through and then full ‘ff‘ for the last hit.  Resonating just a hair after the final cutoff is a thing of beauty for the ears – bass overtones cover up minor tuning issues.

For the record, here is a recording with Daniel Barenboim and the Orchestre de Paris – at a decent speed too (the first clip from above starts at 5:50):

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You know a funny thing that happened in rehearsal for Morceau Symphonique?  One night, none of the trombones made it.  It was just me and I knew this ahead of time.  I was not going to give up the chance to test myself with this tough part alone.  No safety-in-numbers crutch.  Just me playing ‘ff‘.  I nailed just about all of it!  So much that the principal oboe came and introduced himself at the break.  That was honestly really touching, and some fantastic validation of what I was doing: mainly dynamics, I think, but more than that. It’s performance passion.

I was really trying to projection a heavenly ‘redemption’. Heralding some profound good news. I put myself ‘out there’ – high and loud. I find this to be such an essential element of performance, but it takes a long time or racked-up performance hours to be able to do this. To put yourself on the line takes confidence but when you do it, the audience can feel it.  Always play like there’s a hall full of people listening (and wishing you all levels of success).

Milestones

I have NEVER played better in my life!

How’s that for an opener? I really do though! I’ve been practicing the excerpt from Copéllia by Deslibes — the Masurka. It’s some fancy finger work at a reasonable speed. D major on the Eb tuba too. Yesterday I started playing it without stopping or fumbling. Things like that make me yell “YEAH” in all caps. Sometimes “F*CK YEAH”. It just feels so good reaching milestones like that.

I had another today: on my C, pedal D flat at fortissimo is starting to get some nice brassy edge to it. YEAH!

But I also finally got a start to the Bach solo I need to do on the C. Wowsa! Lots of bars with endless 16th notes. This book (Bach for the Tuba, vol.2) is for the tuba. Should I be able to play this stuff without breathing?!? Apparently, yes. I’m making quick progress, but it sure does feel like a kick in the pants. How perfectly do I need to play all this music?

For a school audition, they want more to get a feel for your technique for placement. For a job, they’re gonna pick the one, single best person. Currently, I think there are some excerpts that could sink me. Some of them though, I’m REALLY good at. I’m also really liking my sound lately. Big and bold! That’s gonna be a factor, for sure.

And then I wonder why my first orchestral audition is Montreal. If not the top, then one of the top three orchestras in Canada. Gotta start somewhere though, right? And being Montreal, it’s totally pushing me to go all the way! I think I’m going to kick some butt in Montreal!