Thursday, February 21, 2013

In the Box

In the Box

Touring With the Beethoven Violin Concerto

We made a tour last month. It included stops in Bloomington, Indiana (where we had a residency at Indiana University), Naples and Sarasota, Florida and a residency in Miami.

Among the several pieces we performed was the Beethoven Violin Concerto. Our soloist was Joshua Bell.  I thoroughly enjoyed playing the piece with him.  We performed it eight times during the tour.  Each time he  offered a performance of refined beauty.  He performed his own cadenzas, making small changes to the ones in the third movement each night.

There have been some interesting developments in Joshua Bell's career recently.  He is now the leader of the Academy of St. Martin-In-The Fields. In an interview he describes his role as part-conductor, part-concertmaster.  He sits in the concertmaster's position, playing and conducting.

This role should be natural for him because, as a soloist, he's not shy about giving suggestions and demonstrating when he wants a change in interpretation. Bell also moves and gestures a lot when he plays, so showing what he wants physically should be easy for him when he's conducting and playing.

Small digression: I remember performing this piece with Joseph Silverstein when I was with the Hartford Symphony. He also adopted the double role as conductor and soloist.  However, he moved very little when playing, so it was not easy for us to play together.  He would cue the woodwinds by raising one eyebrow, the rest of his body not moving at all.  Fortunately, Silverstein has big bushy eyebrows!

Back to Bell:  He has just made his first recording with his new orchestra -- Beethoven's Symphonies #4 and #7.

The other career development is the premiere of a documentary about his violin, The Return of the Violin.  Bell plays on a 1713 Stradivarius, the "Huberman", named for a previous owner, Bronislaw Huberman.  I encourage you to seek out this movie, because the violin has a gripping and fascinating history.

In the Box

This is a term I use to describe a situation in which an orchestral musician is put in a very tight musical space by a conductor.  It occurs during a difficult passage that's made even more difficult by the conductor and/or by the player. It applies to a piece which is performed several times over a long period.

My Box

Among the beauties of the first bassoon part to the Beethoven Violin Concerto is this short passage at the end of the first movement.  After the violin cadenza, the strings enter with pizzicato as the violin softly plays the second theme of the movement. The bassoon enters softly, intoning the theme that first introduced the solo entrance of the violin at the beginning of the movement:

Although the solos are marked "pp", the bassoon is the main voice.  Since Beethoven never wrote different dynamics for each part in the score and, instead, just wrote one general dynamic for all voices at any part in a score, it's up to the player or conductor to balance the part.  Thus, understanding your role in the score is important. 

In this situation it's clear:  you have the solo.  So, I like to play this out just a bit so there's a leading presence to the line.

Our conductor, Franz Welser-Mรถst, however, likes this passage to be played as soft as possible.  I knew this from playing this with him in the past, but wanted to see if this time, he'd let me play it out a bit.

As I started in on the first one I saw the palm of his hand go out towards me (sometimes known as the Heisman -- after the trophy).  Too loud!!

And here is when I made a big mistake!  I let my frustration get the best of me.  When I came in again after the bar rest, I played this solo in a sub-tone -- ridiculously soft.  And I absolutely nailed it, managing the difficult D - F# slur well, keeping all the notes smooth, soft and in tune with a good legato.

His reaction?  A big thumbs up and a smile!  Now I was stuck!  For all eight performances if I even hinted at playing it a bit louder his hand was at the ready.  I would have to play this solo at "ppp" every time.

I was "in the box".

Some Better Solutions

I hear other players around me handle this situation effectively quite often and should have known better.
  • Just taking a shade off the dynamic might have gotten the job done and not left me nearly sucking in air while playing for the eight-performance run.
  • Playing with less vibrato or less shape to the line might have worked, too.  It could have given the line a more placid shape and sound.
  • Using a mute fingering or two (the D and the F# in particular)might have given Franz what he wanted while allowing me a modicum of comfort when playing this part. However, I'm pretty much against using mute fingerings for a solo.
In order to get through the solos each night at "ppp" I had to be sure I was as relaxed as possible before entering.  I checked the reed tip opening to make sure it was right and that there was no water in the reed before starting. I was careful to focus on breath support and good embouchure when starting the D and making a good slur up to the F#.  My fundamentals had to be just right!

All the same, I was left wondering every night during the cadenza whether or not my reed was going to work when the solos came at that extreme dynamic.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed this post; especially your comments about 'the box.' Glimpses into TCO rehearsals are always great!