Highlands Chamber Orchestra’s First Concert

Nearly two weeks ago, the still-brand-new Highlands Chamber Orchestra put on its first full concert! I was humbled to be chosen as their Music Director and it’s been an amazing ride for three months.
The first few rehearsals were surprising, if can be that honest. Pieces started sounding really good quite early on, especially Finlandia and The Great Gate of Kiev. We cut a piece by Liszt early on and nearly cut Peer Gynt after that. Doubt was setting into the orchestras board, including me, of our success at a concert. But we decided to give it ‘two more weeks’. To our shock, Peer Gynt came together really nicely. We could then spend time fine tuning it.
Also on the program was a double concerto for clarinet and viola by Bruch. What an amazing learning experience for us all!! Suddenly I wasn’t in charge. As a developing conductor, learning as I go, this was a surprise. Joking aside, conductors need some ego and confidence to lead an orchestra and shape a piece exactly the way they want it. Throw in not one, but two concerto soloists and we play a subservient role to their interpretation. And the orchestras role is changed too. They played it beautifully!! The strings to be so cognizant of playing ‘under’ the soloists, and the upper winds to be so patient to play in the tuttis only. The horns though had the interesting role of being pure harmonic background along with the bassoons. They had to achieve that delicate balance between ‘horn’ and ‘string’ sound.
The opening Finlandia was amazing!! The best they’d played it: dark, passionate, energetic and rousingly patriotic. It was probably my favourite piece of the night. The double concerto went surprisingly well too with the orchestra responding very well to tempo fluctuations that happen in concerto performances. Everyone was watching and listening. After a performance of a Schubert string quartet and a Brahms trio, we closed the first half with Elgar’s Nimrod. We had a running gag going in rehearsals where each week we played it slower than the last. We didn’t beat our record at the concert, but boy it felt great. I love conducting that one without a baton: it feels so good from my finger tips to my core.
The second second half contained some really challenging material, especially for the winds. Despite this, the orchestra still played very well. Peer Gynt had so many great moments, including the ending, and the Trisch-Trasch Polka practically played itself. The Great Gate of Kiev was amazing as well: the ending was so majestic and grand. It was a fantastic ending to the concert.
We were all riding a HUGE high after the concert. It was such an amazing accomplishment for everyone, and was really enjoyed by the audience. I don’t know if I could gush enough about how well itwent. No exaggeration.
No there’s talk about collaborations with choirs, a Summer Festival performance and an Opera Extravaganza evening. I’ve already submitted a draft program for the spring, which includes some baroque, classical and big romantic numbers. We’re already looking forward to the next concert.

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?

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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.

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).

The start of a new season

A new concert season is well underway and I’ve finally got a minute, or weekend even, to post as update. As usual, there’s lots going on: a few gigs already, including the best Highlands Swing Band gig ever at Camp Wanakita. The chemistry and the acoustics were undeniable!! Blam!!

But the big thing new for me is conducting the new Highlands Chamber Orchestra! Wow. It’s a lot of fun! Glen Carter conducted the inaugural concert in the spring and now I’ve got the reigns. It’s such a fantastic musical and learning experience for me. We’re performing Finlandia, the Great Gate of Kiev (from Pictures at an Exhibition, Tushmalov’s version), Peer Gynt and a double concerto by Bruch for clarinet and viola. The concert is November 18th in Haliburton village.

Finally, Orchestra Toronto has expanded their season this year to include two additional concert which are repeats of the first and third programs. The year’s highlight for me is Tchaik 4 in February (and one of the repeated concerts which is great). For the first concert, I’m included in a piece call Morceau Symphonique from Franck’s Rédemption. Not a blockbuster, for sure, but a catchy tune and a chance to play some high stuff on my Eb – in unison with trombones. I’m going to post a separate entry on that piece alone as part of my series of rep for tuba. Keep an eye out for that in the next few days.

Oh — a final thought on Montréal: I was genuinely shocked to find out the Canadian audition yielded no winner. It’s gone international. I could have continued to practice for it! Lol

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!

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!

First Montreal and Now Regina

Ever since seeing the announcement for the Montreal Symphony, I’ve been on practicing overdrive. I’m up earlier in the mornings to get some tuba time in. Not necessarily every morning but lots of them. I’ve got the rep list for Montreal in a tab on my desktop browser and on my iPhone to check the bars I need to prepare. I’m swapping days between the Eb and the C. There’s A LOT of rep to work on, including a Bach flute solo transcribed for tuba and the slow movement of the Vaughan Williams. And orchestral stuff I’ve never touched before. And some I’ve not heard before. Continue reading