Belfast, Birmingham and Buenos Aires – PART 2

Part II of my trip through major cities beginning with B took me back home to Birmingham. Friday consisted of a four hour rehearsal with the CBSO prior to Saturday’s performance at Artsfest, Birmingham’s free arts festival, which annually takes place over the second weekend in September. The CBSO and I usually give an outdoor concert on the Saturday evening which culminates in a fireworks finale.
These concerts are great fun. The audience often number into the thousands and they cheer and applaud very enthusiastically, often after a little lubrication of the throat! It is one of our chances every year to perform to the Birmingham public for free and showcase the orchestras’ talents as well as thank them for their support throughout the year. The orchestra also use it as a chance to advertise the upcoming season and highlight some of the programmes the CBSO will be performing. A great idea and one I think has been successful over the years.
This leads me however to discuss the ‘fireworks concert format’ and the pitfalls within for the conductor. As I said at the end of my previous post, I really do believe it to be almost a conducting ‘exam’! I shall explain why…
Let us take the programme we did this year. Here it is in full,
Beethoven – Egmont Ov.
Dukas – The Sorcerors Apprentice
Barry – Goldfinger
Barry – Diamonds are forever
Puccini – Doretta’s song from ‘La Rondine’ (Soprano – Maureen Brathwaite)
Prokofiev – Wedding and Troika from ‘Lte Kije Suite’
Sibelius – Finlandia
Tchaikovsky – Waltz from ‘Swan Lake’
Puccini – El lucevan el stelle from ‘Tosca’ (Tenor – Joseph Guyton)
Puccini – ‘O soave fanciulla’ from La Boheme
Berlioz – ‘Un Bal’ from Symphonie Fantastique
Mussorgsky – The Great Gate of Kiev from ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’
Wagner – The Ride of the Valkyries
Great music to conduct and much fun to be had! But let’s look at it again and see where the problems might lie.
Firstly, just learning all of this takes quite a lot of time, if you do not know all of it already, of course! But even if you do know it, it is always worth spending a little time reminding yourself of how it goes, where the problem corners might be etc. Often with this particular concert the programme is not finalised until quite late, usually down to the fireworks company, which means that you have to learn it all at a fast pace, which is never ideal.
Secondly having absorbed it all, the rehearsal period is often quite short. I am lucky with the CBSO in that I now get a rehearsal the day before and then a small rehearsal on the stage on the day of the concert. This is necessary as in previous years we have lost up to 90 minutes of rehearsal time due to weather or the stage not being built! But even with this luxury, one has to have clear gestures regarding balance and tempo as often there is simply not the time to stop and talk about it. And regarding balance, we move on to the third point…
From my seat in the Second Violins I have often watched conductors (who shall remain nameless!) painstakingly balance the CBSO, often trying to produce “ethereal” and “magical” effects that quite frankly are never going to be heard! Whether you are playing to 3000 enthusiastic Brummies in Centenary Square or 10000 revellers in the back garden of a stately home, two things have to be considered. Firstly you are playing outside, usually in a glorified tent and secondly, the orchestra will be amplified and it highly likely the sound engineer’s last gig was with a rock band! In an ideal world the conductor should have the time to go out and listen to the sound quality and make suggestions to the sound engineer about balance but it is very unlikely. And when the fireworks start, all they are going to do is turn it up to eleven!

I remember one CBSO conductor giggling during the 1812 Overture as he couldn’t hear anything, and vividly remember trying to play the ‘Danse Sacrale’ from The Rite of Spring with Simon Rattle as a fireworks company showed off their entire catalogue all at once!
I am not saying you shouldn’t balance the orchestra at all, that would be foolish. What I am saying is that you need to be ready to change dynamics and balances depending on the level of pyrotechnic mayhem and sound quality you encounter on stage. For instance, the amplification for Artsfest usually comprises of many microphones individually placed near the Wind, Brass and Percussion and one big mic over the Strings. This of course is far from ideal and leads to having to make some subtle changes. The start of Dukas’ Sorcerors Apprentice has a pp string pizzicato followed by multi divisi violins. Great in Symphony Hall but these notes will not be heard unless you ask them to play louder. Likewise with our two great soloists from Birmingham Opera – a friend who had gone out to listen told me the orchestra could not be heard whenever they sang as the sound guy had turned them up and us down!
And then finally, there is the element of the unexpected. What do you do when the stage is not built yet, how do you handle a situation where the sun is blazing into “the tent” and varnish is starting to melt? When do you stop playing because the rain is now blowing into the tent? These are all situations I have faced and last Saturday the latter was the problem. It rained so hard during the Dukas (yes, ironic timing!) that I was conducting whilst watching Artsfest and CBSO managers having very earnest discussions just offstage, waiting for a signal. As it happens, the rain abated and we carried on.
All of this brings me to my final point. It is this very type of concert that most up-and-coming conductors get offered (or a Family concert which has as much repertoire and different styles of music but at least indoors!) as a first gig with an orchestra. And in so many ways, they are the hardest concerts you ever do! They are exciting and exhilarating yet challenging and frightening. I wouldn’t miss them for the world but they are the equivalent of a conducting exam. 
I understand why orchestras do this – they want to try a new conductor they have heard about and want to see him in action. The conductor wants to work with new orchestras and hopes he can show them his qualities and attributes during the time he has with them. In many ways the conductor could show an awful lot more of his skills and passion for music if they had been booked for a normal “Overture, Concerto, Symphony” concert in the luxury of the concert hall but often this could be a risk the orchestra are not willing to take. They hope to see enough potential in a new conductor from one of these concerts and then maybe book them for something more prestigious.
The drawback for the conductor is that if you are good at,
  1. Managing the time efficiently
  2. Being clear with your gestures so as to balance and get your point across without need for long diatribes and lectures to the band
  3. Coping with any problems that might arise and doing so with a smile on your face
then there is a real danger you will be pigeonholed as being the man they turn to for their ‘conducting exam concerts’ and never quite get to the next stage. Whilst it is great that orchestras can feel they can turn to you for these qualities, most conductors want to be inside conducting those great orchestras without fear of rain, pyrotechnic displays or sound engineers!

Here is a clip of the end of our concert last week.

Thanks for reading and, as usual, all comments are welcome.
Next time, Buenos Aires!
Mike
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