Diary of an Orchestrator, April 6: Harp Concerto Notes I

11:55 p.m. Been a very long day, filled with intense personal commitments. Still, there was time for my career, which never stops. Even at my most distracted, it’s always humming along, like that train that I can hear passing by about a mile from window, rippling the soundwaves with its churning as it bites off a pensive, detuned chord.

First things first: coming back from a strawberry waffle breakfast (which frankly looked like a piece of lingerie), there was a package from Amazon waiting on the doorstep: my camera, which I purchased two days ago. I opened the box, took a very brief look at the instructions, and then plugged it into the wall to charge. There it is, sitting over on that piece of exercise equipment in my room, fully charged and ready to roll. Funny how as my career has gotten more and more focused in on the essentials of orchestration for live musicians (and the education thereof), the tech-obsession has pretty much departed – that curiosity that wants to operate every function, examine every feature, and experiment with every use of a new piece of equipment. 

I’ve reached the point where I want some very simple interface design from which I can develop expertise if needed, and that’s it. The sole purpose now for any piece of gear is: to help me catch up. Catch up with the present jobs that I’ve taken on, catch up with the plans I’d made and the person I’d planned to be years ago, and catch up from the unavoidable delays that I’ve brought on myself by not seeing clearly enough. And I’ve gotten past the desire to own equipment for its own sake, like instruments to hang on the wall and never play, just look at.

This camera is going to really help with my orchestration course. Up to now, I’ve shot several hours with a very cheap yet effective camera, whose main problem is a bit of noise in the corners of my dramatic lighting schemes. Now I’ve got a full HD 1080 camera with much better resolution and functions. But the two main factors – it was as cheap as I could go for the quality, and I can also plug the charger into a New Zealand wall socket.

The second order of business today was orchestral notes. When you’re starting out, always record your rehearsals, and write down notes for the conductor. Sometimes you’ll be asked for suggestions on the spot. I recommend that not going overboard with these. Pick the most essential things that you feel should be fixed, and try to put things in the most respectful way. “The trombones are flat at section A” will not win you any friends – but the request “Can we tune the chord at A?” shows that you’re listening, and care about getting the orchestra to sound their best.

Then take your rehearsal recording home, listen to it once or twice, and refine your list of notes. Once again, don’t go overboard. Two pages should be your limit. Don’t write any essays. Then e-mail your notes to the conductor so that they’re aware of things that could be fixed in future rehearsals.

Over the next few entries, I’m going to share the notes I typed up today, and focus in on one or two bits that are worth discussing in detail. For this diary entry, let’s start with the general comments…

First, I really appreciate the fine work you’ve done with these players so far, in making my piece as clear as possible. These notes are really just some basic feedback about places where some tightening might be needed, but I’m sure you’re already aware of most of these points anyway. I’m happy to go over some of them in more detail when we meet on Tuesday.

Though I saw four horns playing the Elgar, I got the sense that the third player was missing  – one of the horn players talked to me during the break, and I think she said that one of players wasn’t there (I might be mixing this up). A few important connective phrases are carried by that part, which I didn’t hear last Tuesday. Just bringing it up in case the player was actually there, but was having trouble with the part.

Also hard to get a sense of the sound without the violas, but as I’ve read in the e-mails, there will be a section next week, so that’s all fine. Ditto for the percussion, which has as much of a textural as rhythmic approach; but I’m sure the numbers will be at strength next week as well.

I’ve touched bases with Karim about the issue of when the trombones should play solo or unison. Here is the final list of bars where a single player is indicated:

M.I bars 7-11, 74-75, 254-257 (unis. on beat 3 of 257). Bars 153-158 will become trombones “soli.”

M.II bars 65-68

M.III bars 64-66

So first, a lesson in courtesy. I’m thanking the conductor for the work he’s put in so far. That’s something he’s truly owed, because it’s obvious to everyone that this piece is not ideal for the ensemble, yet the musicians and the director are each putting in a serious effort anyway. Furthermore, I’m pointing out indirectly that I’m not able to give a better assessment of the true state of the piece because of missing musicians. I understand, though, that this situation should sort itself out by next Tuesday.

The meat of this excerpt is really the last part, where I discuss the trombones. To rewind a bit here: when the concerto was first commissioned, I told my soloist that I was going to score for a smaller orchestra, to help keep the solo part audible. She asked me to include a part for bass trombone, as she wanted a friend in the orchestra to be part of her performance. I willingly complied, as I needed a bass for the horn quartet that were my sole brass instruments. As I scored the piece, I felt this was an ideal brass sound for a small orchestra, as the bass trombone could have a more cutting low sound than tuba, and yet support the horns without smothering them if I did it right.

However, I was told after the rehearsals started that the bass trombone player had brought in the principal trombone to help out. The result was that at the last rehearsal, I heard the two players play unison throughout most of the piece. It wasn’t quite what I wanted, particularly in passages where I’d indicated a solo. If doubled trombones stand out in a lower line, and aren’t in nearly dead-on in tune with each other, then the effect is rather unfortunate. However, if both trombones are supporting a tutti, or doubling a bass line with strings and winds, then a mild spreading of pitch gets absorbed (unless the trombones are dominating the line). Also, there were a few rather delicate horn harmonies that I wanted a single trombonist to underpin. Thus, my little list above. One change I made – during a blustery section of the first movement, I felt the crashing sound of both bones would sound  terrific, where I’d indicated a “solo.” This part is now “soli.”

Tomorrow: tweaking my sprawling mess of a first movement.

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