Tuesday afternoon, dress rehearsal. We run Le Marteau Sans Maitre (“The Hammer Without a Master”) one final time before the concert. It feels good, almost the best yet, but there are a few problems with stage lighting shining in players’ eyes, the conductor’s shadows are appearing on his score; you can tell that everyone wants any possible distraction out of the way so they can concentrate entirely on the job at hand. We try putting a microphone on the guitar so that it can carry a bit more weight without having to dig in so much, but that’s quickly abandoned when the natural sound in a hall as perfect as this proves superior. A suggestion that the percussion in the 2nd movement be toned down just a touch, enough for the pizzicato viola to be heard more distinctly, makes those passages blend better. And that’s it, we’re off to dinner and the concert begins in 1 ½ hours.
The Boulez piece is last on the program, right after intermission. As the concert begins, I find a place in the outer lounge to warm up and look over my part one last time. Wade Culbreath, the xylorimba player, sits down and reminds me that it’s been ten years since we last played Boulez together, with the man himself conducting.
It’s been decided that the players will take their seats onstage during intermission and tune, warm up and make any adjustments. Actually, I prefer that to making an entrance just before playing, as it allows you to get more comfortable in your chair and adjust to the atmosphere of the hall. Before you know it, Alexander and Janna Baty, the vocal soloist, are entering to the eager applause of the audience. Alexander looks around, sees that everyone is ready and gives the downbeat. It’s a surreal experience having lived with Le Marteau Sans Maitre for two months, now finally performing it in public for the first time.
The sound is clear, Alexander is intensely focused yet very relaxed, the lines leap from the instruments and we’re caught in the moment, where everything we worked so hard for is coming to fruition. I’m hearing new interplay, a playful give-and-take and everyone is shaping their phrases beautifully. The odd time signatures and constant tempo changes feel as natural as much simpler music, and when the movement is over I think to myself, that…was…really…good. The guitar doesn’t play the second or third movements so I have a chance to relax and enjoy everyone else.
By the middle of the piece I realize that it’s getting even better, but now is no time to start relaxing. There are potential minefields throughout the entire work, and I make a glaring mistake that I hope no one but the seven other people onstage notice. The final movement is one of the hardest and longest of the set, but it comes off perfectly as the flute and gongs slowly fade away. We’re thrilled, even quietly giddy, and contentedly relieved. Alexander drops his arms slowly and the audience breaks out into applause. An excited crowd who knows this piece or at least appreciates its difficulty brings Alexander out for four ovations and he gives us each a bow.
Two days later, in the Los Angeles Times, music critic Mark Swed writes:
“These players have just about mastered the masterless hammer. If they remained a step away from transcending the hammer…this was still an effective performance, even a remarkable one. I’d be surprised if there are symphony orchestra musicians anywhere who could better tame this wild beast.”
Our long journey with Boulez is over…for now.
L to r: Wade Culbreath, xylorimba; Nicholas Stoup, percussion; Dana Hansen, viola; Janna Baty, vocalist; Alexander Mickelthwate, conductor; Anne Diener Zentner, alto flute; Paul Viapiano, guitar; Kenneth McGrath, vibraphone. Photo by Jeff Neville.
January 21, 2006 | Link to this entry
Rehearsal five was scheduled for Friday the 13th. A bad omen? Not at all… at this rehearsal, we met Janna Baty, the wonderful alto soloist who would take this wild ride with us. We ran the movements Janna sings in and we were finally able to hear a more complete version of what we’d been practicing.
Rehearsals six and seven happened over the next two days. They seemed to fly by quickly as we hunkered down and worked on many of the piece’s problem measures. Alexander’s rehearsal technique is extremely efficient and he moves fast. He’ll stop in the middle of a passage that doesn’t quite work yet and call out the measure where he’ll begin again, and the downbeat comes almost immediately. The page is so dense with music and penciled notes to myself, that it’s hard to find the measure numbers quickly, but somehow you do it. Comments, suggestions and questions are constantly exchanged between the players and the conductor. In a small group like this, it makes for a lively rehearsal, getting much done in a short amount of time, whereas in an orchestra setting it would be chaos. I’m both drained and exhilarated by the end of each 2 ½-hour period.
This afternoon, rehearsal eight began with a difficult excerpt from the ninth movement. I’m still having trouble with a few measures, even though I’ve marked them up. I make a note to myself to look at these tonight after I get home and make sure that the fingering and the rhythm become deeply engraved in my mind and physical memory. There are so many musical figures that have huge leaps in them, taking my fingers from one end of the fret board to the other. They go by in an instant, and no matter how I position myself I have to look away from the conductor and down at the guitar for a fleeting moment, hoping that I won’t miss a beat. In most of the music that we’re used to playing and hearing, this wouldn’t ever be a problem, but here we’re working in a near musical vacuum with nothing to hang onto.
After the excerpt, we dive right in and play the entire 35-minute piece from beginning to end. Twice. There is no stopping for mistakes and no one to guide you if you drift off course. Despite a few flubs here and there, I make it through all right and once again make notes for my practice session at home later tonight. Alexander points out a very subtle part where the xylorimba plays a single note between two of mine. The notes happen in the blink of an eye but it gives me another point to orient myself. I’m hearing counterpoint and inner lines that are having a conversation with my guitar. This is that moment of discovery I’ve been waiting for. Le Marteau Sans Maitre’s vocabulary has become less a foreign language and more like an old friend who has come to visit for a few weeks.
January 16, 2006 | Link to this entry
…and the layers start to fall away until you start to grasp some meaning, grace and beauty…
I wrote those words last night, as I was getting ready for our fourth rehearsal, which was this afternoon, and they came back to haunt me. Some passages were easier and I could feel a flow to them, but others remained shut tight, like locks that wouldn’t yield to any password, at least not any password I was able to provide. It seems that just as soon as you iron out difficulties in one section, another passage rears up. The changing time signatures, almost every bar, and the subdivisions delineated by those signatures are only part of the key, and the conductor underlines them clearly. Putting the correct notes in the right places, which many times are in odd groupings over the aforementioned time signatures are another part. Sometimes the physicality of the written notes, jumping from one register to another in wide leaps, makes you drag the time ever so slightly. Or sometimes not so slightly…as in, you were plain wrong.
The latest Boulez recording is an almost perfect, at least to my ears, performance. The recording quality and musical sensitivity are extraordinary. The guitarist, Marie-Therese Ghirardi, shades each note with such beautiful tone quality and individuality without ever wavering from the written part. I heard that Esa-Pekka Salonen was at a recent-ish performance where Boulez and his ensemble played the piece and was knocked out by the tightness of the group. He supposedly asked Boulez how many times they had performed it. One hundred and forty times, Boulez said. One hundred and forty times! We have nine rehearsals and one performance…
Back on Friday for number five…
January 10, 2006 | Link to this entry
New music, the current term in use for contemporary classical music, can be very difficult for listeners and players alike. For uninitiated listeners, the varied unfamiliar styles can appear as a disconnect which their ears never resolve. Many players can have the same experience depending upon their background and experiences. A musician playing in a new music group has the advantage of being able to hear and play a piece multiple times within a short time span during the rehearsal process.
A piece of new music doesn’t always present itself upon first listen. Sometimes it needs repeated hearings to more fully understand what the composer intends or the effect it’s supposed to have on the listener. Many times for the musician, new music can be very difficult to play, fully taxing the limits of the player’s abilities. It’s easy for both the listener and the player to dismiss new work when it offers so many challenges, but the reward can be great for those who take the time to study and unravel its mysteries.
For next Tuesday’s performance of Boulez’s Le Marteau Sans Maitre, our group of six musicians has nine scheduled rehearsals, of which we have had three so far. Before we started the group rehearsals, we each had a private meeting with Alexander Mickelthwate, the conductor. In preparation for that meeting, I downloaded the piece from iTunes and listened whenever I had the chance, just to let it soak in and become familiar with the musical vocabulary. Shortly after that, I picked up the music and took a quick look through it to make note of any trouble spots. Well, the whole thing is a trouble spot! The guitar part is a thirty-two page monster full of unusual and unfamiliar note groupings and extremely complex rhythms, many at lightning fast tempos. Of course, every instrument in the piece has the same challenges, and I knew I had my work cut out for me. I would be spending December (and the first two weeks of the new year) in the proverbial “woodshed”.
I thought that my meeting with Alexander on December 13th went decently enough, though I wish I had more time to prepare. He’s a relaxed, friendly musician and an excellent conductor who had done an extraordinary amount of preparation for this piece. I was semi-comfortable with the first and fourth movements (there’s no guitar in the second or third movements), so he just started conducting and I played. Occasionally I’d have a question concerning how he was going to beat a particular measure or how to phrase a particularly difficult subdivision, and I’d write it into the music along with other helpful notes. After the fourth movement I told him that I wasn’t totally comfortable with the rest of the piece yet, so we forged ahead at a slower pace and tempo, mostly taking note of beat patterns. It was an exhilarating afternoon and I felt I had enough information to continue practicing on my own until the first group rehearsal three weeks later.
Last week, on our first day, we had a double rehearsal and one more the next day. It gave the group a chance to really latch into the work and start to make sense and shape of it. The give-and-take between the musicians and the conductor was healthy and the camaraderie amongst everyone felt good. There were a lot of eye-opening moments where you could see exactly how your part fit in with the others. It also gave me a chance to see where more work needed to be done on my own.
So I’ve been practicing several hours a day since last week, trying to make the music feel as natural and unforced as possible. It’s coming along well, but sometimes it feels like walking a tightrope. Being able to live with a piece like this for so long lets you get inside the composer’s head, or as close as you can possibly get. It unfolds slowly and the layers start to fall away until you start to grasp some meaning, grace and beauty from all the notes…and that is a great feeling. I wish that all listeners had the time to be able to take the same journey, to understand and appreciate a difficult piece.
January 9, 2006 | Link to this entry