Comparing Bald Mountains

Mussorgsky_ Night On the Bald Mountain, Giulini vs. Hubad vs. Dorati vs. Ormandy vs. Reiner vs. Mitropoulos (Compare 6 Versions)As a follow up to yesterday’s Night on Bald Mountain post, I found an album today on iTunes (Canada) that contains 6 recordings of Bald Mountain! Yass!  Perfect for comparative listening to get inspiration from great conductors and great orchestras.

Included on that album is a recording by the Slovenian National Opera Orchestra & the Slovenian National Opera Chorus conducted by Samo Hubad.  The internet is pretty amazing.  It would likely be Mussorgky’s operatic version from 1880.  It certainly shows how Rimsky-Korsakov’s edition of it from 1886 (5 years after Mussorgsky’s death) is virtually a composition of his own based on his colleague’s.  At least something it has survived despite not being publicly performed during his lifetime.  I wonder where it would be right now if it wasn’t for, arguably, Stokowski’s use of it in Disney’s Fantasia.

Wrap-up on the first season of the Highlands Chamber Orchestra

I think the highlight of my last 6 months has been the Highlands Chamber Orchestra.  We performed in November to some great reviews.  The musicians were completely pumped! At the after-concert gathering, we were talking huge plans for concerts to come!

So, we took December off and I started planning rep for the Spring concert.  There was a lot of back-and-forth with board members about difficulty of parts, but we eventually settled on a draft list of pieces and started rehearsals in January.  The program included:

  • Julius Caesar Overture (Schumann)
  • Symphony 5, 2nd movement (Beethoven)
  • Symphony 39, 1st movement (Mozart)
  • March of the Three Kings, from ‘Christus’ (Liszt)
  • Il pastor fido, selections (Handel)
  • two Toréadors pieces from Carman (Bizet)
  • Rosamunde Overture (Schubert)
  • plus … ‘Nessun dorma’ by Puccini with Chris Chumbley as the soloist

We scratched and honked through the first month or two and things started to come together.  We eventually figured out that the program was too long and would likely have to cut something.  We reduced the number of selections from ‘Il pastor fido’ first – the high horn parts were a killer!  Liszt, Beethoven and Mozart were looking iffy come April.  I was really really hoping to not cut the Liszt because, first, we paid for it, and second, it was going to be a cornerstone of the first half.  Third, though, it’s a favourite piece of mine.  I really really love it.

Beethoven was looking rough though, because there were often key woodwind players missing from rehearsals – just luck of the draw with Winter vacations and random absences.  It sounded really thin and frail most of the time.  Mozart was so-so too — the string parts are tough.  “Too many notes!”, said someone in the movie Amadeus.  By the end, we shelved Mozart.  It just wasn’t working (but we’ll revive it for next Spring).

Come May, we doubled up the rehearsals – Fridays and Saturdays.  That was seriously fun!  Everyone was on board with it and we knew there would be some absences (Highlands Summer Festival rehearsals were starting up too), but at least we doubled our chances of getting people out – especially our oboist from Fenelon Falls.  She had a decent way to drive for rehearsals.

In mid-May, two weeks before the concert, I figured it was a good time to play through pieces non-stop.  At some point, you need to start doing that to make sure the pieces hold together.  You also get a good idea of the complete musical ‘thought’ of the piece hearing it from start to finish.  So we started that particular rehearsal with the ‘Julius Caesar Overture’ and we read the piece from top to bottom, no stopping.  At the end, we applauded ourselves.  No foolin’ — outright applause.  And then we rehearsed the Rosamunde – again, no stopping and with the tempo up some.  It sounded great.  I had goosebumps in the middle of it and smiled from ear to ear.  The orchestra had made a huge leap from the week before.  It was so obvious to my ears.

In performance, the orchestra played so well.  All those extra rehearsals paid off!  I think the only misses were the second half of the March of the Three Kings, and the chaconne from ‘Il pastor fido’.  Highlights for me where Julius Caesar, the Carmen pieces (I did a little ‘hell ya!’ at the end of them) and Rosamunde — PLUS ‘Nessun dorma’.  Chris was bang-on for it!  It was beautiful!

I have to say though, the first half of March of the Three Kings was a thing of beauty.  I was tearing up a little in the section where it goes into a cut-time pulse.  Tuning was good, balance was good … everything had come together for it.

Over the months, I can hear how particular people are improving in their playing – it’s sort of like they are my little family and I’m seeing them grow up.  And they are giving me great feedback too – sometimes specific and sometimes I just absorb commentary from our rehearsals and I adopt new techniques or evolve ones I already have.  And I get lots of great compliments from spouses and the general public at our concerts.  Everyone is loving this – and so am I!

So, like I said, HCO’s been the highlight of the first 6 months of my 2013.  Now to plan for music for the Fall session – we’re doing a Pops Concert!

Tchaik 4

I need to stop apologizing for late posts…. it’s been a weird 6 months for me, emotionally and spiritually.  But let me get to the subject at hand:  Tchaik 4.

Back in January and February earlier this year, Orchestra Toronto worked on Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony.  It was my first time performing it.  It was the ‘biggest’ piece of the performance season for me.  But, for a change vs. previous years, I had very little prep to do for it.  Why?  Because it was a piece for various auditions.

Back when I auditioned for the GGS in Toronto, I prep’d it as an option but ultimately didn’t use it.  I also prep’d it for the Montreal Symphony audition last year, but as you know, didn’t go.  So I was already well-prepared for it when it came time to rehearsing it with Orchestra Toronto.  We also had a brass sectional for it with trombonist Rupert Price (Windsor Symphony).  Finally, I had a lesson on it with Mark Tetreault (Toronto Symphony). This was my first time meeting Mark in person.  What a fantastic guy!  He was really encouraging and said some really nice things about my playing.  He gave me some great pointers about the bits I needed help on.  Darn it!  I wish I had taken notes right afterwards … like maybe blogging about it.  oy!  But I do remember playing too loudly.  I like to look at it as trying too hard.  Still I *KNOW* I play a lot louder when I get with the trombone.  Alex, on bass, produces a lot of source.  Seriously a lot.

Specifically though, I do remember working on this section with Mark:


I was heavily emphasizing the dotted 8th note – i.e. the syncopation.  Mark suggested letting the dotted 8th be the ‘rebound’ (my word) off the emphasis of the note before it – i.e. the on-beat.  This instant led me to not trying as hard (also with his suggestion) and the lick practically played itself.  He also suggested playing the dotted 8th’s shorter and let them ring on their own.  Again, less work, but also more time to breath.  What difference all that made!  There was also this lick:


… and this one …

tchaik-4-fourth-mvt-snippet1Both presented similar challenges for me – the leap to a high Db (on my C tuba).  I was naturally emphasizing the upper note, which put a lot of pressure on its accuracy, which I was worried about.  Mark suggested the opposite – emphasize the lower note.  The tessitura of the upper Db will make it shine on its own.  This improved the phrasing, but he also suggested practicing with a slur from the F to the Db.  I threw that into the category of “practice the long stuff short and the short stuff long”.  It really does work.  Such simple things made my part much easier to play.  Thank you Mark!

Come concert day, I was really relaxed.  I think we played it really well.  I was super happy with my own performance.  All that preparation over a few years made it cinch to play.

Next season:  Tchaik 5!  😀

Product Review: Winter Lip Care for Brass Musicians

It’s January.  It’s cold.  It’s dry.  The time of year that many brass musicians in my climate are struggling to maintain lips in good working condition.  I don’t know what it was, but overnight from De 31 to Jan 1 my lips were on fire and started cracking.  I quickly reached for a product I bought a year earlier:  Chop Saver Gold.  It was doing an “ok” job, but then I thought of asking around on Facebook about what other people use.  Then I thought of blogging a review about them.  Here we go!  (I’ll be expanding this post as I try out more products, so return now and then to check for updates) Continue reading

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

Tuning from within and from without

First, only barely on topic, I have to say that I love using the term “without” as the opposite of “within”.  What I’m really writing about though is a difference in the perception of tuning from within the ensemble and from the conductor’s and audience’s points of view.  In an ensemble I’m in, I’m playing alongside a relatively beginner trombonist.  Musicians love to play in harmony.  Dissonance is best served as making consonance sound even better.  Grinding chords feel fantastic when they are followed by the sweetness of resolution. Continue reading

Why do we kack?

Listening to musicians in Orchestra Toronto, I wonder:  why do brass players kack and crack notes?  Why are we the ones most prone to these mistakes?

Noru, the first clarinetist, plays so beautifully.  Danielle too (second) – I can’t recall the last time they squawked a note.  Bassoons, flutes, oboes too.  They are all reliably good musicians.  Or are they playing reliably good types of instruments?

Continue reading

Fernandez – Batuque

This is an intense piece.  It’s subtitle “Danza di negri” – which would be a little racist to literally translate it as “Blacks’ Dance”.  It’s tribal and driving and becomes more frantic near the end.  It’s pretty exciting to play, despite not being a really interesting part for tuba.  Here are the opening lines and 100% of the variety of notes played:

The entrance at rehearsal 2 is tuba with trumpets.  The accented low ‘C’ is practically a solo.  Trombones only join in at rehearsal 3 with a repeat of section.  And notice the jump to ‘ff‘.  Don’t give it all up just yet, but be pretty liberal about volume and articulation.  ‘Allegro pesante’ is the header here and the articulation can stand to be on the rougher, more aggressive, side.  In other words, don’t be timid.  And don’t slow down.

Here’s the next section:

The pencil mark of ‘ff‘ after rehearsal 10 is not mine, but it’s true (bass trombone has it pencilled in too).  Combine that with the accent marks and that bar really rips!  Put in context with the bars that follow which are an octave lower (IMHO, the mid-range where the tuba has less impact) and no accent marks.  I let lose in this bar with at least ‘fff’ and very aggressive articulation and Maestra Lisboa has not called me out on it.  I know she wants passion and raw energy from us in this piece.

As you approach to rehearsal 12, articulation gets smoother while not slowing down.  Pairing those two up is a difficult urge to resist.

Final bits – not shown here is the ending — repeated 8th-note low ‘C’s with accelerando.

Quantity vs. Quality

With the Montreal audition coming up, I’m practicing like a fiend!  When I’m not practicing, I think that I should be.  I know that there’s a physical limit, but where is it?  One night a few weeks ago, I suddenly stopped practicing because I felt a pinch in my upper lip – I was afraid I had split it and there’d be blood.  I had already practiced for a few hours and I was getting hungry, so it was good timing.

I’m hyper-sensitive these days about practicing.  A page which I follow on Facebook linked to this article about how many hours a day one should practice.  Sometime I do go through many repetitions of a section or lick.  Usually for one of two reasons (though aften both):

  1. I need to commit the fingering sequence to memory
  2. I need to commit the embouchure sequence to memory

I’ll hack at it for a while until it reaches some minor level of stability, then I start to really work:  after nearly each iteration I ask myself how I can improve it?  are there obvious trouble spots?  should I back up a few steps and slow it down?  should I “zoom in” on a particular interval or bar and pay it some special attention?

I’m also trying to rotate my practice rep too.  To start, last month, I had a decent part of the rep at my finger tips, so I started with that.  I recently ordered and received more tuba rep books and replenished my printer ink to print more parts.  I’ve got LOTS to work on now.  So, I’m making a point of hitting the new stuff and only glancing over old stuff just to keep it semi-fresh.  When I’m off work for the next three weeks, I think I may have to create a schedule so that I don’t neglect any parts and be surprised come Aug 5th in Montreal.

This blog post by Andrew Hitz has also been on my mind:  extremes as early as possible each day.  He’s right — give it a week and wow!  Today, I noticed that my pianissimo is getting more “issimo”.  That’s hella quiet.  Not to mention my louds.  The trick is find the centre of each note in order to find that sweet spot where fortissimo really jumps to the next level.

Finally – one last thought:  if you’re not practicing right now for that audition, it’s very likely that someone else is.  That can be a little obsessive.  I’m going to try my best and for me that includes taking three weeks off work to prepare.  I already planned on taking a few weeks off to practice the RVW concerto.  Montreal is a big jump for a tubist in my position – I’m not making a leap from a smaller full-time orchestra.  I don’t have a degree.  I don’t have a regular private teacher.  That’s a lot of negative, eh?  Here’s what I AM:

  • dedicated
  • driven
  • inquisitive
  • disciplined
  • musical
  • smart
  • talented
  • experienced

Hell ya!