In between rehearsals

It’s been now five days now since the last rehearsal, as we didn’t rehearse on Easter. That’s a day longer than usual. We come back this afternoon for the last three rehearsals before opening the doors to the public. Crunch time. I thought I’d reflect a little on what goes through the mind in the last lengthy gap between rehearsals, with the concert now so near, and something of the trajectory that got us here.

In the pro orchestra world, which I inhabited for a number of years, the rehearsal schedule is highly compressed. The order of the day is to get the maximum results in the minimal amount of time. In my days with the New Jersey Symphony, rehearsals for a Thursday night subscription concert would begin on Tuesday, with morning and afternoon rehearsals on Tuesday and Wednesday, and a dress Thursday morning. There is no time for reflection or significant experimentation in a schedule like that. Conductor and players come Tuesday morning with things already honed to a fine edge, and the working of details and building the broader sweep happen pretty much simultaneously. The conductor’s reflections on how the piece is shaped all come before the downbeat. Things move fast. Time is money, and there’s never enough of either! But it’s doable, if the conductor knows what s/he wants, and the orchestra musicians are sharp pros (like the NJSO). All work from a platform of many years of experience.

It’s a wholly different rhythm in a university setting, particularly one where most in the orchestra are not concentrating on performance, or even music generally. In an early post I spoke of the first steps as seeing the architecture of the work from a distance. Then over the next weeks (PUO works on a five-week cycle) you attend to the bricks, mortar, wiring, insulation, carpentry. That platform of experience is not there, the young musicians are doing so many things for the first time. We go note-by-note, honing the details, tightening the screws, and getting help from those who do have that experience.

But a shift must happen now as we approach the performance, and the negotiation of that shift is the conductor’s responsibility. We must go back to a higher altitude and see the thing as a whole again. The details must be there still, but now they have to fit into a coherent unity. Detail work is now maybe 10% of the rehearsal. The rest is getting the feel of what it will be like to perform, getting comfortable with the length, and how a piece this long must be paced. As for the actual conductor’s conception, inevitably what happens in the many rehearsals, as strong and less strong tendencies emerge, result in decisions that will affect the conductor’s idea of how the piece goes, or can go successfully. I try to use the weekend before, and the time between rehearsals leading up to the performance, to put all of that knowledge into play, in real time. A bit of the monk in me emerges, Bodhidharma in his cave, sitting before the wall (or score), probing for the Truth! Keep the eyes open! What is it?

So we arrive at today, Monday, a 4:30 call at which we’ll run better than half the symphony. Daunting. And exciting.

OK, back to my cave!