When you think about it, isn’t it amazing that a group of musicians can ever play together in a symphonic setting? Honestly, having all those different instruments, from tuba to tympani, with all those methods of sound production, from blowing to plucking, situated across either a vast resonant expanse of stage or a subterranean pit does not exactly make for a cohesive product out of the gate. Couple this disparity in instrument size, style, and location with having to watch a guy on a box with a little white stick, and it’s a wonder that we ever play one thing together.
The very phenomenon of cohesive ensemble is impressive enough in a group that regularly rehearses and performs together, but it is evident even in cobbled together freelance groups made up of musicians who first met each other only minutes before the downbeat. How is it that we’ve been programmed to anticipate and react to the directorial nuances of conductors that we’ve never before met, in a group that has never worked together, playing in a hall that nobody’s played in before, covering music that no one’s performed before?
Really, isn’t it amazing that we can even play one chord together, let alone a full program of symphonic music?
I just wrapped up a very amusing week of work with a foreign touring ballet company. One of my colleagues quite aptly described the conductor for this ballet company as a cross between Robert De Niro and Harpo Marx. He definitely had the De Niro look, down to the facial and hand gestures–I was worried that he might pull out a pistol and shoot any musicians making wrong entrances. He spoke no English, however, so (like Harpo Marx) he was forced to conduct us and make adjustments using pantomime and facial gestures. Unfortunately, most of the facial gestures seemed to convey “I want to pull out a pistol and shoot you, you imbecilic American quasi-musicians”, which made for quite a tense working environment.
A translator was present for the rehearsals, but she unfortunately seemed not to understand any musical terminology. He would stop the orchestra, shaking his head and spouting off long strings of angry-sounding Slavic speech, gesturing at the musicians, pointing at his baton, at his chest, and at the trumpets, waving his hands in the air before pointing at the score and glowering at the brass.
The translator then said, “uh…..he says….not so much trumpets.”
Hmmm…..it sure seemed like he said a lot more than that! Maybe the language barrier spared us all an angry conductor tirade.
One move he repeatedly made was completely unmistakable. He would stop the orchestra, then point at himself…then his stick…then himself again, waving the stick for emphasis.
A five year old would be able to understand this move:
I’m in charge! My tempo!
Many conductors I’ve chatted with have humorously pointed out that, while waving a little white stick may be recognized as a position of authority in a traditional ensemble, that stick actually produces no sound on its own. Conductors soar or crash based on the efforts of their ensemble, and no amount of dirty looks or angry gesticulations can sway an ensemble if it doesn’t want to be swayed.
A great degree of ensemble flexibility is required from ballet orchestras, and trying to get a large ensemble to be fleet on its feet with tempo changes can be like making elephants dance–possible, but a lot of work with undependable and often disastrous results. Throw in the language barrier and you’ve got a frightening cauldron of potential disaster.
Our first performance (preceded by two rehearsals the previous day plus a dress rehearsal earlier that afternoon) went off quite well. Our conductor pointed to his stick, his chest, and his stick (my tempo!) a few times, but we navigated the many meter changes and tempo fluctuations quite well. At one point, a brass cue was misinterpreted and the ensemble tripped all over itself. He continued conducting but gave the brass a prolonged (20-30 second) glower that would make even hardened criminals shift around uneasily.
We then had two days off, kind of a long stretch for this kind of show. While a company that rehearses and performs regularly might not notice the time delay between services, freelance groups tend to suffer under such extended schedule breaks. Tempos become hazy (was that in two or four?) and melodies tend to fade from the memory as musicians cram three, four, or five other gigs into the break in schedule.
I joked with some of the other musicians about what we might be in store for after the long break. We laughed in a good-natured but also slightly nervous manner–this was the kind of situation that would either go off flawlessly or crash and burn.
It seemed like we were headed down the flawless path up through the fist two acts. While we might have been a little shakier than opening night in terms of tempo recall and cleanliness of ensemble, we were basically firing on all cylinders.
Then came the third act.
The curtain came up prematurely at the top of this final act, and our conductor looked confusedly at the stage, seemingly unsure of what to do next. All of a sudden, a severe-looking ‘den mother’ of a woman ran out from the wings and shouted, “Maestro, maestro!”
Startled, the conductor started the act.
The audience started laughing!
This is actually the second time I have seen a ballet audience laugh at the orchestra (not with them but actually at them). Little did I know that the third time I would witness this in my career was coming up in just a few short minutes!
That wacky start to the act seemed to throw everything a little off-kilter. At one point, the conductor started a movement too soon and, realizing his mistake, began frantically waving at the musicians, finally banging on his stand to stop the music. This kind of panicked reaction was a little incongruous with the happy-go-lucky music from this lighthearted ballet, and I couldn’t help but think of an angry dad in sweat pants screaming at he other team for a grade school tiny tots soccer game, with the orchestra musicians playing the role of bewildered eight-year-olds looking uncomprehendingly at the raging grown-up on the sidelines.Finally, one of those classic ‘is he in two or four’ moments came along, derailing the entire orchestra. If orchestra musicians ever stop to wonder if a conductor is in two or four at any point in a concert, bad things are about to happen, because about half of the musicians will decide that he’s in two and the other half will decide that he’s in four. The result is usually amusing but unsalvageable chaos.
The orchestra train catastrophically derailed, forcing the conductor to wave his hands and stop. Ever try to start an orchestra in the middle of a phrase (mid-performance, no less!) without being able to speak their language? Not easy!
For the second time that evening, the audience started laughing….at us!
The “I’d shoot you all if only I’d brought my pistol” look remained on the conductor’s face for the remainder of the concert. He threw his baton on the stand the moment we concluded the last chord, waved his hands frustratingly at the concertmaster, and stormed out of the pit.
We orchestra musicians all had that look of a dog who’s peed on the carpet and knows that he just did a very bad thing, trying to avoid eye contact with each other as we shuffled out of the pit, eyes downcast and spirits trampled.
Our final performance was the very next day, and the collective chagrin of the previous evening had been replaced by a newfound determination to right the wrongs of the last performance and finish the week with a bang. We coasted through the tempo and meter changes like a well-oiled machine, the conductor smiling and applauding us at the end of most numbers.
As the spot where we had derailed the previous performance neared, tension was evident both on the podium and throughout the ensemble. Would we bomb it again? Not a chance! We nailed it, and the conductor smiled, looking more like De Niro from Meet the Parents than Taxi Driver.