Sunday, July 22, 2018

Tips for Concerto Players

This blog certainly does not lean towards populism, despite the occasional post on Kanye West, but this post is aimed at an even smaller readership than normal! I like to pass on whatever little nuggets of wisdom I have accumulated in fifty years of being a musician. Some of them are of wide application, but others are not. Tips for concerto players are in the latter category. How many guitarists play concertos with orchestra in an average year? We can get a very rough idea from looking at how many performances of the Concierto de Aranjuez are scheduled. Here is a helpful website. What would be your guess? I was ready to say around one hundred, but after looking at the Rodrigo website, it looks like it might be around two hundred! Every small orchestra in the known world seems to have scheduled a performance. I would really like to know the names of the guitarists, but that is not shown on the Rodrigo website.

So if there are around two hundred performances of the most-played guitar concerto annually, then one might guess that the total number of guitar concerto performances would be no more than three or four hundred as I suspect that all the other concerto performances put together would not exceed the number of performances of the Aranjuez, the archetypal guitar concerto. Who is playing all these concerts? Not my new favorite, Marcin Dylla, who only has fourteen concerts listed on his website for the year, none of them with orchestra. Pepe Romero is getting on in years, but still does a respectable number of concerto performances. His website lists what look to be three or four concerto engagements this year. Ana Vidovic lists five concerto performances, three of the Aranjuez, on her website. Manuel Barrueco's healthy concert schedule includes six concerto performances, all of the Aranjuez! Eliot Fisk's website lists just one Aranjuez performance, in Massachusetts, but I see it was in October of 2017.

So how many guitarists are there in the world out there on the concerto circuit? Not very damn many! But what the heck, I'm going to do a post of advice for prospective concerto players anyway, directed to all those guitarists who would like to be out there playing concertos.

Playing as a soloist with orchestral accompaniment is really the zenith of one's career as a classical musician. The challenges, technical, musical and even logistical, are formidable. But so are the rewards, not least because the fee for a concerto performance is the largest you are likely to receive. What are my particular credentials in this area? I have actually played quite a few concertos, not always with a large orchestra as some are better suited to a small orchestra and a couple were with just piano accompaniment, but still in a public concert. Here are the ones I recall:

  • Karl Kohaut, Concerto for Lute (my transcription)
  • Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto in D for Lute
  • Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Concerto in D
  • Joaquin Rodrigo, Fantasia para un Gentilhombre
  • Joaquin Rodrigo, Concierto de Aranjuez
  • Heitor Villa-Lobos, Guitar Concerto
I also learned a couple of others, ones by Manuel Ponce and Leo Brouwer, for example, that I did not get the opportunity to perform. Most of my work was done on my own as you don't learn a lot about concerto playing from teachers who have never played one! But I did spend one summer studying the Aranjuez with Pepe Romero in Salzburg: that was of inestimable value and a lot of what I have to say was learned from him.

When you are playing a concerto you are in reality an ensemble musician and one thing that I learned from Pepe is to rehearse facing the orchestra. They are curious about you and this is an excellent way of establishing a rapport with the musicians. In a lot of concertos, including especially the Aranjuez, there are interchanges with soloists in the orchestra that you can cement by rehearsing facing towards your fellow musicians, rather than away from. I'm thinking of those great staccato passages in the first movement of the Aranjuez that you share with the bassoon and the brilliant passage in thirds in the last movement that are echoed by two muted trumpets. You might share your intention with conductor in case he has an issue with it. On one occasion this practice caused me difficulties in the performance. When we got to the third movement and I was playing the guitar solo that introduces the movement (again, the Aranjuez) I suddenly noticed in the background the conductor furiously conducting all the measures of rest (which alternate between 2/4 and 3/4) for the orchestra. Very distracting! I hadn't noticed it in rehearsal because I was looking at the guitar neck and away from him. But in the concert, facing the audience, he was in the immediate background. So watch out for that!

But the more you make a connection with the conductor and the orchestra, the better. The soloist who just drops in, plays his virtuosic passages, and leaves, is not likely to give the most musical performance. The audience will also enjoy a good interaction between you and the musicians. Of all the guitarists I have seen play concertos, either in person or in video clips, the ones that have the best rapport with the orchestra are Pepe Romero and John Williams. Not too surprising, really.

Your rapport with the conductor is also very important. You should know the orchestral score as well as your own part and be prepared to share ideas with the conductor, if he asks. You can help him out sometimes in passages where the orchestra comes in after a big solo. Pepe suggested to me that after this one big scale in the last movement of the Aranjuez, you should really give the conductor a nod so he will know for sure where the downbeat is going to fall.

Regarding more mundane questions, be sure you know what the dress code for soloists is with each orchestra. Sometimes there is a lot of leeway, others there is not! Be aware.

Now for some more universal advice: practice slowly! I used to be friends with a French horn player who told me that when he was with the Dallas Symphony and Pepe was playing a concerto with them (guess which one) he passed by his dressing room and heard him practicing the first movement with a metronome. At one-quarter tempo! I have heard a very similar story regarding John Williams. These guys have very solid, reliable technique because they maintain it. Practicing at one-quarter speed is certainly not necessary if you are playing the Spanish Romance or other bon-bons. But if you are playing a big challenging concerto I seriously recommend it. When I was studying in Salzburg I went out to this little building in back of the residence that was divided up into several little practice rooms to go over the Aranjuez first movement that I was due to play for Pepe in the morning. On my way in I passed a room where a violinist was practicing. It sounded like he was playing this one brief passage in thirds from the cadenza to the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto over and over again. Slowly. So I went on, did my work, which consisted of playing the first movement a few times at quarter tempo. A couple of hours later, when I was on my way out I passed the same studio and guess what, the same student was still playing that same passage...

Virtuosity takes a lot of work.

For our envoi, let's listen to a performance of the Aranjuez with Pepe Romero:

Nobody does the rasgueado better.


Steven Watson said...

This was an insightful post, thanks. I recall Charles Rosen writing that he practised very difficult passages while reading detective fiction -- the aim being to make his playing essentially automatic. Maybe you have to be a real pro to do this, because I found the task made my play guitar clumsy and reduced my reading level to that of a nine year old, even when playing extraordinarily slowly.

Bryan Townsend said...

I hadn't heard that Rosen anecdote! But there is a similar comment from Glenn Gould who liked to practice tricky passages with a vacuum cleaner running under the piano so he couldn't hear anything, but just focus on the finger movement.