Diary of an Orchestrator, April 9: Harp Concerto Rehearsal 2

6:52 p.m. I’m typing this at an internet cafe just a few blocks down from the rehearsal site, where I’ll shove off to in a few minutes. But first, I thought I’d write down a few words about the conductor/soloist meeting I just attended.

It was over in Century City, a couple miles down the same Olympic Boulevard that’s bustling outside the window as I type. I remember this whole area as being pretty sleepy, with a few big markets, some open fields, and little businesses and houses back in the 1960’s. Poor little Santa Monica! I can see why my home-boy Robert Redford is grousing so much. I remember when six blocks from the beach was a grid of little bungalows, without even sidewalks – just grass up to the drain. No longer.

Anyway, that area of Century City was the same as ever: upscale but unpretentious homes, the kind of place that you’d expect a successful doctor to be living, as indeed the conductor of LADSO would naturally be. But this doctor is also an excellent, sensitive director, with the ability to guide an orchestra carefully along with a soloist. And my soloist is now also a doctor, as of 4 days ago! I’m so proud of her. Christina played through her part, sounding glittering and lush. She is such a superb harpist – and yet extremely practical. Nerves of steel, that one. I feel extremely fortunate.

While Christina was playing, I turned on my new video camera, ostensibly to “test the audio.” While I promised not to upload it directly to YouTube, I may edit part of the audio and upload it to the Orchestration Online Facebook page, so the group can get a preview. The rendition she did of the cadenza was almost note-perfect, pretty amazing as I didn’t spare the technique there.

I found a couple of mistakes in the score. In one place, the justification was so tight that the bass clef jumped back a bit from the end of the bar. But correcting this just meant that Christina was now repeating a string too soon, an effect called “stomping on the note” (please refer to January’s Daily Orchestration Tips). So I changed the offending C-flat to an A-flat and all was well. But I was really surprised at how we’d worked out nearly every detail, and now Christina could just let the music do its thing.

The main work of the meeting was between the conductor and Christina, in sorting entrances and tempo changes. I only had a couple of important notes for C – one a rhythmic correction, the other a place where she was inadvertently dropping one of the beam groups. I remember doing that while working on Ravel’s Scarbo as a teenaged piano student. I wonder if that’s tunnel vision or double vision, when a musician looks at repeating beam groups and unconsciously edits them out?

Agh, I can’t type with music like this in the background! I should have gotten those noice-canceling headphones I saw in the catalog site last month. And it’s quarter past now. I’ll type a few more impressions during the rehearsal if I get a chance, and then some more tonight before zonking.

8:30 p.m. I’m in the Jerry and Ann Moss Theatre at the New Roads School. The orchestra has run the harp concerto with Christina, and once again, she sounded terrific. Still some problems with sections of the orchestra dropping a bar or a beat here and there, but nothing too serious. The biggest problems are that a.) some of the more delicate textures have not been worked through enough to sound haunting; and b.) some of the strong dynamics are being over-interpreted. It helps that Christina has a great big sound – she always has sounded clear and clean in all the concerts I’ve heard.

As the opening started to roll again, I once again heard the great big hole left by the lack of third hornage. There were several places in movement one where I gave crucial connective phrasing to the third horn, and it’s frustrating not to hear them. What’s most important is the intro section, where the bass trombone solo overlaps into horn III, who then gives her phrase to horn I. Here is where the center didn’t hold. The trombone didn’t start strong, horn III wasn’t there, and then horn I came in at the end with no continuity from which to flow. Right at the end of the first movement, the third horn player shows up. But then the conductor moved right on to movement two. I’ll have a quick chat with him in a minute, when the orchestra breaks. One thing is for sure – I’ll be up late tonight, writing out more notes! I’ll share some of them when I get home.

10:38 p.m. Oh man, I’m tired. This day must end. Time is running out. I’ll be on the road tomorrow all day, going out to the Mojave Desert to look after some family property (if anything orchestral occurs to me on the drive, I’ll mention it in the nightly diary posting). So I can’t find the energy to listen to the entire recording and take notes. But the conductor has promised to catch up with me on Thursday morning, and we’ll hash things out then.

For now, I want to quickly write down a few obvious things while they’re fresh in my mind.

  • reduce volume in accompaniment tuttis
  • flutes are playing far too loud, especially flute I – p is sounding mf
  • softer winds needed during the very wispy bits (I feel like asking them each to stuff a kerchief in the business end of their instruments)
  • the opening section of movement 1 needs to be fine-tuned for all players
  • Christina is getting slightly lost coming out of the tutti, and is feeling rushed
  • basses and timpani are getting lost in some key areas in movts 1 & 3

That ought to do it for now. We did figure out what was wrong in the winds soli + harp theme in movt 3 – the clarinet was rushing their part. So that’s sorted.

While helping Christina get her harp into her SUV, I saw the underside of the harp revealed. What is actually inside that opening? The pedal mechanism, running up into the column. With the now-finely-honed instincts of a man desperately trying to finish a sprawling audiovisual orchestration course in less than one year, I whipped out my camera and took a photo of it.

One last P.S. – out of the blue, the principle clarinet player asked me to recast the clarinets as A’s instead of B-flat’s. Luckily for her, my expected plans changed, so that there was just exactly the window of time needed to take all separate Sibelius files, transpose them each up a semitone, change the names of the files and instruments on the pages, export them all as PDFs, and make them into new master files. That clarinet player now owes me a big one (as this would have been so much easier to sort out when the parts were distributed to the players a few weeks ago). That’s okay. Maybe she can play some C clarinet for my orchestration course (she’s got a very nice one with no intonation problems).

Tomorrow: whatever occurs to me as I’m staring out at mile after mile of Joshua trees and saguaro cacti. And now, thank Euterpe and her sisters, to bed.

Thomas Goss is a professional composer and orchestrator with an international roster of clients. He has worked with such talents as Billy Ocean, Melanie C, Sharon Corr, and Nikki Yanofsky. His compositions, orchestrations, and crossover arrangements have been performed by such ensembles as Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and San Francisco Symphony Chamber Ensemble.

Thomas lives and works in Wellington, New Zealand, with his wife Erica and son Charlie, and one very unappreciative cat.

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