Saturday, August 29, 2015

Musicians and Mistakes

My first experience with how classical musicians regard mistakes in performance was when I was singing in the choir for a performance of Handel's Judas Maccabaeus in undergraduate music school. As is usual, the choir was placed behind the orchestra and I was right behind the brass section. As I recall, there was a particularly nasty solo for the French horn in one aria and in rehearsal the player had cacked a couple of times. "Cack", by the way is a perfectly decent word which means "to incorrectly play a note by hitting a partial other than the one intended." In the concert the French horn player also missed one of the first notes. After the aria was over he reached in his pocket and took out a ten-dollar bill which he placed on the music stand of the trumpet player sitting next to him. Heh!

So that's one way musicians view performance errors: as a way to win some beer money. Via Slipped Disc, here are some remarks from Rory Jeffes, managing director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra:
Musicians often have enormous reticence in communicating concerns about others’ performance levels to colleagues. Sometimes in a rehearsal (and hopefully only in a rehearsal!) someone will make a huge mistake or wrong entry – and there isn’t a twitch or eyebrow raised across the orchestra. Nothing. The sense is ‘they know they made the mistake – they don’t need me to point it out’. One of our senior musicians told me when he first worked at the back of a string section in one of the major London orchestras a horn player made a loud mistake and our musician turned round to look at the culprit. ‘What the hell are you looking at sonny?’ was the response. They never spoke again.
Certainly different from my experience! I had to learn how to play the mandolin from scratch in a few weeks once for a solo in Don Giovanni and in one of the performances I hit the wrong fret and skated into the right note from below. Afterwards one of the trombone players (who were sitting behind me) asked me if that was a blues arrangement. Ho, ho, ho. But no, players normally don't react to one another's mistakes during the concert. Why would they?

Most of the talk about mistakes focuses on the players, but conductors can also make mistakes. In fact, some of them are known for it. I heard from one orchestral musician that in the parts for the Beethoven Symphony No. 5 that they used there was written the injunction "Don't Look Up!" That is, in this particular passage, don't look at the conductor who is sure to be beating it wrong.

Some conductors are very poor accompanists for soloists in concertos and I remember one vivid example. Pepe Romero was playing the A major Concerto by Mauro Giuliani (which he virtually owns) with an unnamed orchestra and made the point of cutting the conductor dead. He and the conductor entered, as per normal protocol, with Pepe in the lead. He shook the hand of the concertmaster and settled himself in his chair. Adjusted his footstool. Winked at the oboist as he checked his tuning with her "A". Looked around the hall. Smiled at some cute girls in the first row. Settled himself in his chair again. Crossed his arms on the upper bout of the guitar (there is a long orchestral introduction). Then, finally, nodded to the conductor that he can start the piece. And he did all this without once looking at the conductor. A magnificent example of how to trim one down to size.

It can get ugly sometimes. A conductor once took a dislike to the principal trumpet player and assembled clips from concert tapes of every time he cacked and used them to get him fired. It didn't help that the trumpet player was the ex- of the principal French horn player and they were on such bad terms that the trumpet section refused to tune with the French horn section.

But on the whole, symphony orchestras are composed of a bunch of intelligent, hard-working people with a good sense of humor. So, usually, it is a pretty good place to make music. And if you win the occasional bet at the French horn player's expense, well, why not?

The French horn is a very difficult instrument and it is especially tricky to get the first few notes of a solo without cacking:

But some can do it. This is the great English horn player Dennis Brain with the Mozart Horn Concerto No. 1. The Philharmonia Orchestra is conducted by Herbert von Karajan:


Rickard Dahl said...

Impressive that you've learned the mandolin in just a few weeks. I guess a guitarist learning mandolin can be compared to a pianist learning to play on harpsichord (or maybe even on organ). The differences are not huge since the instruments belong in the same group.

Bryan Townsend said...

What made it possible was that it is a very small part: just one page! The two things that gave me a headache were that the mandolin is tuned in 5ths like a violin which makes reading awkward if you are used to the guitar (tuned in 4ths mostly) and that it is so tiny! In the upper positions my fingers were wider than the distance between the frets.

Christine Lacroix said...

Do you think that being forced to make that effort, to adapt to the mandolin, subsequently had any impact on your guitar playing?

Bryan Townsend said...

Naah. I just spent a few weeks playing mandolin. I spent quite a few months playing lute, which had a bigger impact, though just on my sense of timbre. Spent even more months playing piano, which seems to have had no impact at all, except for a vague feeling of unease. Spent quite a few months playing flute and taking singing lessons. But the most time, apart from classical guitar, was spent playing electric bass guitar and electric six string and singing in my teens.

Christine Lacroix said...

Isn't it interesting how musicians are comfortable with and attracted to one instrument over another?The French cellist Gautier Capucon started with the violin and hated it.

I've been continuing what you said to do, that is compare different versions of the same piece. I think maybe I've found an example of what you were talking about when you said some performers interpret the piece as if they were putting light through a colored glass. Would you say that the first version is like that? The musician is putting more of his own feeling into the piece where in the second case it's more in line with the composer's context and intentions?