Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Berlin, Teil 1: day to day stuff

Looking at the orchestra roster I knew that there were several Finns (actually 9) coming to this camp, so there was a pretty good chance I would run into at least one of them waiting for the plane. Turns out there were three of them on the same flight, so we started talking. It became quickly clear that I was, to put it frankly, quite a bit older than them.

One of the first nerve-wracking things I experienced during this trip was how my cello would do in the hold of the airplane. At least in my experience, I have never checked in a bag on a flight and had it returned to me in the same condition. In Helsinki I checked in my cello, packed in a specially rented case, because I really did not want to buy another ticket, which is often what cellists have to do. I was assured by the person who lent me the case that he has never had any problems, and that I shouldn’t worry. After arriving in Berlin my heart was beating faster than is comfortable, anxiously waiting to see what kind of condition my cello would arrive in. Fortunately, the cello made it without any problems, along with the rest of my things, and thereafter the Finns and I began heading into the city.

Most of the tutti rehearsals took place here.
I have traveled to Berlin many times, and I have yet to experience riding into the city on an airport bus that was not packed to capacity. This time was no different, but it was noticeably more difficult trying to find a standing spot in the bus along with a cello and a suitcase. After the final stop we dragged our suitcases and respective instruments to the hotel.

Before arriving at the camp I was told that the musicians would be rooming together, with about 4-6 musicians/room. As a light sleeper and someone who has not rehearsed for 6+ hours a day in over a decade (and needed my beauty-sleep), I requested a single room, which was kindly granted to me.

The next day, 27 December, was the first official day of orchestra activities. Most of the musicians had arrived at the hotel by this point. The music and public transit passes were distributed. Walking through the hallway of the hotel I was confronted by the cacophony of different musicians working on their respective excerpts—a sound I had not heard (and missed!) in years. I had a great time rehearsing Pettersson in a hotel room filled with other Finns—imagine two violins, two violas, and two cellos playing the introduction to the Symphony No. 8!

Most of our rehearsals, including the first one, took place in the Ferenc-Fricsay Saal in the RBB (Radio Berlin-Brandenburg) building. This is where the Deutsches-Sinfonie Orchester Berlin regularly rehearses. Just being in here was exciting to me, as this is the same space where Kent Nagano and Ingo Metzmacher, among others, would rehearse.

Getting ready for the first rehearsal.
Before the first note was played, our conductor, Andreas Peer Kaehler, gave us a few words of greeting and what to expect from this first rehearsal. He aptly described the first run-through as like a trip to the dentist: unpleasant, but necessary. He told us to bear in mind that no matter how bad we might sound now, we had to imagine how we would sound in 10 days, on the stage of the Philharmonie. 

I actually thought the first rehearsal wasn’t bad at all; everything we played was entirely recognizable despite all the missed notes and misplaced entrances. This rehearsal also reassured me that my level was appropriate for the orchestra. We also had several cellists in our section who were clearly better than me, which was also a good sign—if I was the strongest cellist in the section we’d be in trouble! That night I was unable to sleep at all, I was so high from playing again in an orchestra of this level, and to be playing Pettersson…

The next day we had mostly sectional rehearsals in a family/youth facility called FEZ. A little bit of harsh reality struck me this day. Being short on sleep I did not have much patience for anything, and our first sectionals, which were run without a professional tutor (he would come later in the evening) were unfocused and inefficient. Some language barriers were also present, which were an additional source of frustration. Eventually, we started to buckle down and by the time our tutor arrived in the evening, we were doing fairly well.

The view from my seat.
On our third full day the orchestra was treated to the dress rehearsal of the Berliner Philharmoniker’s New Year’s Eve program, led by Simon Rattle. For many of the orchestra members it was the first time in the Philharmonie and the first time hearing the BPO live. This is an orchestra and a hall that never fails to amaze. For many of us, being in this sacred space of classical music before our performance was energizing and motivating.

In the days leading up to New Year’s Eve we had more sectionals and occasionally the strings would play together. The music slowly began to come together and our confidence gradually increased accordingly.

Some colleagues of mine who had celebrated New Year’s Eve in Berlin before told me to be prepared for a war zone. Although nobody is throwing live ordnance at you which can produce shrapnel, walking out of a crowded tram and having two lit firecrackers thrown at you is startling for the uninitiated. Regardless, this was actually a very nice New Year’s, spent with people I had just met days earlier but who quickly became my friends and colleagues.

On New Year’s Day we had a more relaxed schedule; one rehearsal for people playing in the Barefoot Songs followed by a concert of chamber/solo music put on by members of the orchestra. I was amazed at how talented these musicians were, despite some of them being barely old enough to drive or purchase alcohol.

In the days leading up to our first concert the orchestra began to rehearse regularly tutti. In my experience, with youth/amateur orchestras, there is usually a sense of dread in the day or so before the first performance of any given program. I would say about 60-70% of the time the orchestra plays amazing well during the concert, surpassing expectations, and the rest of time the concert goes about as poorly as one fears.

I’ll talk about the concerts in an upcoming entry, but next time I’ll talk a little about the challenges of performing Pettersson.

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