I was sitting on the plane yesterday on the way back from Portland with my friend, the wonderful violinist, Carla Moore. She was reading “The End of Early Music” by Bruce Haynes. I had read a lot of this very fascinating book, but not the chapter she shared with me yesterday. It was about the effect of the appearance of the conductor on the music scene in the 18th century. Haynes’ supposition is that it is conductors who decided that rehearsing is important. Perhaps, according to him, it would be more authentic to show up at an orchestra rehearsal of 18th, and even 19th century music with your own part learned and then just “jam” with the other players- no “maestro” necessary. Apparently, before conductors, that is what orchestras did.
It was interesting to think about this on our way back from a very eventful week with Portland Baroque Orchestra. Almost nothing went as planned from the first day forward. First, we were supposed to have had Richard Egarr as our conductor for the week, but he had to cancel at the last minute. Fortunately, our regular Artistic Director, Monica Huggett was able to step in, which meant that suddenly we had a leader from the concert master position, as opposed to one from the podium.
The program was all Classical — Haydn, Mozart and CPE Bach (I played the A Major Cello Concerto). It is no small feat to lead this kind of music from the concert master position, because when there are the wind instruments in a row in back of the strings, the chance of entrances not being together increases greatly, not least because of the geographical distances between the players. A conductor can easily unify all the elements by standing toward the orchestra as a common visual focal point, taking full responsibility for entrances, overall shaping, dynamics, etc. Somehow Monica, whose innate sense of phrasing never ceases to amaze me, was able to find that perfect balance of leading and letting others lead as well, or find each other by following, leading, or just listening intensely. She was able to do this while playing the violin and not standing up in front of us. She was “one of us,” so to speak. It became a thrilling combination of chamber music and orchestral playing.
The weather made for yet more excitement. The first concert was canceled due to a blizzard. (This was not altogether an unappreciated day of practice and rest.) The next day (Saturday) we did two concerts in a row, which for me was quite the physical challenge, as I was not only playing in the orchestral pieces, but performing the concerto. By the time Sunday came around, I was feeling that sense of relief and preparedness that often precedes a last performance, when we got the alert on our cell phones that all Portland residents were required to stay indoors due to the ice storm. That meant that there was no third performance, just a strange, disorienting day inside watching the winter Olympics and eating chocolate.
My Portland trip had some other unexpected events. As Carla and I were grocery shopping on our second snowy night there, we witnessed a strange accident that left a motorcyclist lying on the pavement in the middle of a busy street. While we assisted at the accident scene, our rental car was broken into and my knapsack was stolen.
Fortunately, later that odd and cold night, I got an email on my phone from a stranger who had found my knapsack minus the iPad. Grateful for my datebook, checkbook, and this stranger’s kindness, I offered him a ticket to one of Saturday’s concerts. Thinking he would never make it there in the storm, I was pleasantly surprised to meet this young man, originally from Oakland — a mental health worker in Portland — in a suit and tie. After my concerto he came up to the stage and introduced himself, telling me he had also found a wallet that week that he had managed to return to the owner.
Music, like life, is filled with unexpected improvisation. At any given moment in a performance, anything can happen. Another musician can try a different timing, or introduce a new dynamic, and if everyone is listening and can stay open to spontaneity, the music can take flight.
P.S., While in Portland, I was interviewed at their All Classical Radio station. I will be posting that soon so you can hear it.
P.P.S., That gorgeous featured image is from Portland Baroque Orchestra’s website.Share on Facebook