16 Feb 2012
Inside the Classics

Wow, have I really gone a week between posts? I knew I was getting behind, but honestly, it feels like I haven’t had time to take a breath in about a month, and there’s no letup in sight. In addition to the frantic scramble Judd and I are going through trying to craft the right narrative for the first half of Acadia‘s premiere concerts (and get it done in time for librarian Valerie Little to put together those beautiful individual excerpt books of hers,) this is an absolutely wall-to-wall stretch of weeks for the entire orchestra. Huge piles of repertoire, a seemingly endless parade of rehearsals and concerts, and the constant necessity of turning on a dime to face the next challenge.

I know that the way an orchestra schedules its time might seem like a mundane topic, but I think it’s worth getting into a bit, because the pace of work we’re facing down this month isn’t just an anomaly – it’s a reflection of the way that major orchestras may be changing the way they do business.

For most of the dozen years that I’ve been in the Minnesota Orchestra, there was a somewhat predictable flow to the work schedule. In weeks during which we were playing a standard classical subscription concert, that core repertoire – say, a curtain-raiser, a concerto, and a symphony or something else substantial – was all we rehearsed and performed. We’d rehearse for two or three days, then give three or four performances of the program. During non-subscription weeks, we’d usually play an assortment of programs – some children’s concerts, some pops, and maybe some Inside the Classics. There was more repertoire to be learned and rehearsed in less time during those weeks, but that gets factored in by our artistic planning team – no one would ever think of programming Ein Heldenleben on a children’s concert that only gets one rehearsal.

Those non-subscription weeks are pretty much the same today as they’ve always been – scheduled to the hilt, but with an eye towards playability. But the weeks when we play our core repertoire for our core audience, well – those have been getting steadily more chaotic and less predictable. And the reason, I gather, is that rather than simply doing things the way they’ve always been done and expecting the world to beat a path to our door, the orchestra’s leadership team has decided to try as many different programming ideas as can fit into the schedule, and to position ourselves to be able to react quickly to what our audiences like and dislike.

So a subscription concert that would have gotten four performances simply out of habit several years ago might now get only three, or even two, if we have past sales data suggesting that a full week of performances might result in a lot of empty seats. After all, Orchestra Hall seats nearly 2500 people, and not every program that we think is worth putting on is going to be able to attract 10,000 paying customers over the course of a weekend. There’s a lot to do in the Cities, we’re hardly the only game in town, and filling the hall twice is empirically better than not filling it four times, right?

But here’s the thing: we, the musicians of the orchestra, are salaried employees. We’re not paid by the hour, we’re paid by the week. So when you subtract a concert or two from the schedule, you wind up with some blank space that you can fill with something else, and you can do it without paying us an extra dime! (And just to be clear, this is exactly the way that we musicians by and large like things. Fatigue issues aside, we live to play our instruments, and the security of a weekly paycheck is what makes symphonic work in the Midwest attractive to players who might otherwise never have considered leaving the big musical centers like New York and LA.)

But of course, when you plug something else into the schedule, that something else won’t just be a concert. It’ll need rehearsal time, as well, and plenty of practice time for every individual member of the ensemble, since you’ll be piling extra repertoire into a week that used to be limited to preparation for our core concerts. So it requires not only a huge commitment of time and effort from every player involved, but a real flexibility of mindset as well. That muscle memory that we rely on to carry us through a program of familiar repertoire can go right out the window if we’re working on three other programs at the same time, so you can’t afford to lose your focus for even a moment.

I’ll give you a for instance. We’re currently in the middle of a three-week run of classical subscription concerts, the type of weeks that used to be generally isolated from all other repertoire. But here’s what we’ve been doing under our new model:

Last week: Talented young conductor James Gaffigan was in town to lead Tchaikovsky’s 6th, and principal cello Tony Ross was our soloist for Prokofiev’s fiendishly difficult Sinfonia-Concertante. That program got the usual four rehearsals, and three performances. But on Thursday, our morning Coffee Concert was followed by a full rehearsal with Courtney Lewis on the podium for a program scheduled to be performed the following week. Unusual, but not a huge addition to the schedule, all things considered.

This week: Andrew Litton’s here to conduct Shostakovich’s massive 7th symphony, as well as Prokofiev’s 2nd violin concerto with the dazzling Vadim Gluzman. But before we even got started with all of that, Andrew jetted into town a day early to lead us in a side-by-side rehearsal of Richard Strauss’s Suite from Der Rosenkavalier with the University of Minnesota student orchestra. Rosenkavalier is one of the biggest and most challenging works in the canon, and no one wants to be caught sight reading something that massive while sitting next to a student musician who might just look up to you, so that day alone was a big extra requiring lots of individual prep work.

Beginning yesterday morning, we powered through two exhausting days of double rehearsals with Andrew for the main concerts of the week. We’re done with those now, and tomorrow morning is the first of our two performances of that program. We’ll have a luxurious afternoon/evening off following Thursday’s Coffee Concert, but then we’ll be back in rehearsal on Friday, with Courtney leading us in preparation for the same concert we started working on a week ago. Friday night, it’s back to Andrew and the Russians.

Then, on Saturday night, Courtney will lead our inaugural concert at the Minneapolis Convention Center, where we’ll be spending our 2012-13 season. The rep is super meaty: Strauss’s Don Juan, Elgar’s Enigma Variations, Barber’s Adagio, and Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite. Courtney, ever the master of time management on the podium, will have had a total of just under 4 hours rehearsal time to get that lot ready.

Next week: After a Sunday off to recharge our batteries, we’ll be back to work on Monday morning, but this time, we’ll be rehearsing an almost frighteningly ambitious program which will mark Courtney’s subscription concert debut with us. We’ll have our usual four rehearsals, but this time, the first concert we’ll play after we’re done rehearsing won’t be that program at all, but a repeat of the Convention Center preview concert on Wednesday night.

Just over 13 hours after that concert ends, we’ll be back at Orchestra Hall for Courtney’s big debut at 11am Thursday. We’ll take a quick lunch break when we’re done with that performance, then reconvene to rehearse yet another program for Saturday night (still with Courtney conducting, assuming he’s able to stand upright at that point.) The Saturday concert is one of those new programming ideas I mentioned – we’re calling it Symphony in 60, and it’s designed to be a fun but substantial night out for folks who like the idea of getting to know the orchestra, but aren’t up for a full two-hour extravaganza.

Once we’re done with that concert on Saturday night, we’ll sleep hard and fast, then race back to the hall for a Sunday matinee of Courtney’s subscription program, which at that point we won’t have played together for 72 hours, but which will have to sound as if we’ve only just that minute finished rehearsing it.

I could go on – the next week boasts six Young People’s Concerts and two completely separate pops shows, there’s a Florida tour the week after with Osmo and Midori (and a frightening lack of rehearsal time,) and on and on. But of course, this is what makes us professional musicians: showing up and getting it right, no matter how jam-packed the schedule, is our job. And it’s a job that we take an immense amount of pride in doing well.

But… yeah. That’s why I haven’t been blogging much. Sorry about that. I think I’ll have a free hour or so this weekend, though, so maybe I can stockpile a few posts for future use. And if not, well, heck, buy a ticket to one of those myriad concerts I mentioned up above, and I’ll be happy to talk your ear off in person instead.

<February 2020>

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