English as a Foreign Language
22 Feb 2012
Inside the Classics

So, as previously mentioned, Courtney is making his subscription concert debut with us this week, and we’ve spent the last two days rehearsing his program, which consists of a lovely piano concerto we’ve all played many times, and two absolutely insane English works that none of us have ever seen in our lives.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. According to our library, this orchestra played Elgar’s In the South in the mid-1990s, so obviously a few dozen current musicians have seen it before. And even Walton’s first symphony has technically appeared before on a Minnesota Orchestra program – someone said maybe in the early 1980s? But the fact remains that these are two immensely challenging, physically demanding pieces that we absolutely do not have in our fingers. (I’ve talked about the concept of having a piece “in your fingers” before – it basically just means that the muscle memory that was installed into your personal computer when you first learned it or last played it has largely stuck with you, making it easier to play the same piece again later.)

Interestingly, though, Courtney was telling me yesterday that, while orchestras on the other side of the Atlantic also consider the Walton a tough piece to play, it’s absolutely core standard rep in the UK, the same way Mahler symphonies and Strauss tone poems are core repertoire. Everyone plays it, so the muscle memory is deeply engrained for most musicians shortly after their careers begin. That doesn’t mean it becomes easy, exactly – just that it’s difficult in a highly familiar way. Strauss’s Don Juan, which we’re also playing this week, is a hugely difficult piece, but we play it all the time, study it in school, and prep it for literally every orchestra audition we ever take, so it doesn’t take much for a group of well-trained musicians to throw together a passable performance.

But Walton isn’t Strauss, and we’re not an English orchestra, so this week has been a chaotic marathon of personal practice, frantic rehearsal, and eternal patience from Courtney as we struggle to master the symphony, and contend with a seemingly endless parade of pages like this:

click for full size

And that’s not the half of it. The viola part to this symphony is some 48 pages long. (By comparison, Brahms’s 4th is 16 pages. Mozart’s Haffner Symphony is 6.) The scherzo (marked Presto with malice) is insanely fast, never takes a breath, and includes a treacherous collection of 5/4 bars just waiting to trip you up. And the first movement contains some string writing that I can only describe as aggressively awkward.

Don’t get me wrong – I like the piece. (Or, at least, I like what I’ve had time to listen to as my part whizzes by.) I’m glad we’re playing it, and it’s not the hardest thing I’ve tackled this year. It just always amazes me how much we in the orchestra world depend on the familiarity of much of the music we play to get us through the week-in, week-out demands of our job. And how quickly our comfort level can fall away when we face a big pile of new-to-me music.

Anyway, we’ve still got one more rehearsal to tighten things up (and I’ve probably got another hour or two at my practice stand to go yet tonight) before Courtney’s big debut on Thursday. With any luck, it’ll all come out sounding like we’ve been playing Walton’s first our whole lives. But you might want to be on the lookout for musicians looking just a little more stressed than we usually do, or maybe throwing the occasional double take at the parts on our stands. You have got your tickets, right?

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