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.