Thursday, January 26, 2012

Berlin, Teil 5: Auf der Bühne der Philharmonie!!!

Just this view from the stage was a special privilege.
Back in 2007 when I was studying in Berlin I attended a concert at the Philharmonie. It was the Berliner Philharmoniker and Seiji Ozawa playing Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 1. As I didn't want to pay full price I went there early to line up for a standing-only ticket. Next to me in the standing area was a very nice Austrian girl. Practicing my German. we chatted for a little, and I told her I was a amateur cellist. Before saying goodbye for the evening, she said to me that maybe someday I'll be on that stage instead of watching from the audience. I remember my response was something like, "probably not."

5 January 2012 was our big day.

After a somewhat disappointing set of concerts at the Wald-Oberschule I made sure I got a good night of sleep. In addition to our concert we would also have a morning rehearsal, both at the Philharmonie.

The view from my seat on the Philharmonie stage.
I have to admit I have never been a fan of the how the Philharmonie looks, both on the inside and outside, but it is a special place regardless. There was a palpable sense of awe and excitement among the orchestra as we went into the hall via the artist's entrance. In these rooms and corridors backstage Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan, Claudio name it, just about anyone who is anybody in classical music has been here. Before settling in for rehearsal many orchestra members eagerly took pictures of themselves and their colleagues on stage.

During our morning rehearsal we ran through our whole program and for some pieces, desperately tried to ask as many questions as possible about places which were still unclear and uncertain. We didn't go through the Barefoot Songs in their entirety to save the singer's voice. We did run through the symphony, and we nearly train-wrecked around rehearsal 10, which was not a good feeling going into the performance.

That afternoon I took it easy as I became progressively more nervous. In the evening, through a strong wind I got to the Philharmonie with plenty of time to spare. In the backstage area there was a sandwich buffet and most of the musicians were chatting with each other and scarfing down just enough food that they would need for the concert. As the concert approached I was so nervous that I began to question my decision for why I volunteered to be the section leader on the Barefoot Songs, when my stand partner was probably a better choice.

From what I remember in American orchestras it is a little more common to see some members of the orchestra warming up on stage before the performance. In Europe this practice is rare. I was hoping to warm up on stage a bit before the concert, to get used to sitting on stage again, this time with people sitting in the audience. The stage was empty, and we were to stay backstage until given the call to go on.

Partly because of nerves and partly because of just being ignorant, I waiting in backstage right before the concert. In the minutes before taking stage, this area was populated with violinists. I continued to sit in this part of backstage, seated and trying to keep my fingers warm. About 5 minutes before taking the stage, a rather worried member of the cello section came by and, after seeing me, breathed a sigh of relief. All the other cellists were waiting in backstage left, wondering where I was.

Right around the stage door there is a digital clock, a TV screen showing what is taking place on stage, and a speaker. A voice came over the speaker instructing us to take the stage. This is what the cellists in the Berlin Philharmonic hear every week. Walking out on stage I noticed that the hall was nearly completely full. I was expecting this, as in the days leading up to the concert word was getting around through the orchestra that the hall was just about sold out.

Before beginning the Barefoot Songs the Swedish ambassador in Berlin gave a greeting speech to the audience. Although interesting and a sales-pitch for Pettersson, I was really nervous and just sitting on stage without playing was not helping.

The Barefoot Songs went well enough, and I was able to play my short solo fairly satisfactorily without passing out. I don't think I can say much more about the performance of this piece because I was just too nervous to pay attention to much else.

With the first piece aside I felt relieved that I was no longer in a leadership position for the rest of the concert. The rest of the orchestra took their places for the symphony, practically doubling the number of people on stage. Considering the near train-wreck we had in the morning playing the same piece, I was a little wary, a feeling probably shared by everyone else.

Then something amazing happened.

We started playing. The beautiful, painful, endless melody began to float through the amazing acoustic which is the Philharmonie. I felt this energy, this concentration, this focus which I had never felt before, in this orchestra or anywhere else. We moved through transitions and arrival points, and played through them better than we ever had. As the music progressed, we were really making music--not just playing notes, but really bringing this music to life.

I told some members of the cello section that I was addicted to Ritter Sport.
From my point of view, as we nailed section after section which had plagued us in rehearsals, my focus and concentration just increased, and an incredible high just came over me. I was feeling a sense of joy greater than any I had ever experienced playing cello in an orchestra.

As the movement drew to a close, with fluttering trumpets and bone-chilling xylophone, we maintained our focus as the music began to die away. After a respectful silence, applause filled the hall. I looked at my colleagues and friends around me, an ear-to-ear grin pasted on my face, and we looked at each other knowing that that was the best we had ever played that piece. The high that I felt lasted well into the evening.

I am sure that if/when I hear the recording of our performance, I'll find a few things which we missed--some ensemble issues here, maybe some interesting intonation there. However, it doesn't matter. I really had the time of my life.

Thanks guys!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Berlin, Teil 4: Petterssons Musik--nicht für Kinder?!

On this entry I'll be talking about the potential dangers of playing Pettersson to children.

While waiting for our concert to start at the Wald-Oberschule, I was wandering through the hallways and saw a bulletin board full of drawings made by students at the school. Above the drawings was a title which roughly translates to "Painting to music--impressions on Pettersson's Symphony No. 1." Being the Pettersson geek that I am, I found it a little surprising that these school kids were listening to the reconstruction of this symphony, just released on BIS a few months before. Needing clarification, I contacted the school music teacher who told me that it was actually the first part of the Symphony No. 8 that they listened to. You can see that some corrections were made to the title.

Looking at these pictures I felt disturbed, among other reactions, but also inspired and moved. I don't know how old these kids are, but if you look carefully at at some of the drawings you will see something which suggests level 7. I also have no idea what kind of music training these kids have, and what kinds of music they are receptive to, but many of these drawings, despite some of them being a little shocking, really capture the essence of Pettersson's music and the many messages it carries.

I hope you "enjoy" these drawings as much as I have, and I would love to hear what your reactions are as well!

Well, there is violence in Pettersson's music.

Above: lovers separating. Below: death by hanging (a suicide?) on a barren, lifeless tree, in a desolate landscape.

One of my favorites. The man at the bottom left says "That is such a long path." The angel says he can do it, the devil says he cannot. At the end of the path is the summit and the sun.

A lonely boat on a stormy sea of tears. Another favorite of mine.

A lot of things you will find in Pettersson's music. Trauer: grief, Spannung: strain, Gefahr: danger, Tod: death. 

Heartbreak. But heartbreak brought on by human hands?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Berlin, Teil 3: Pre-Philharmonie concerts

We had a total of three concerts: an Erlebnis-Konzert ("experience concert") at the RBB, a school concert, and our final concert in the Philharmonie. Here I'll be talking about the first two concerts.

The Erlebnis-Konzert took place on 3 January. We played through our entire program in the rehearsal hall at the RBB, all dressed up and with an audience of about 30 or so invited guests, sitting in various sections of the orchestra. As this was our first chance to play through everything, without stopping, there was certainly a slight sense of nervousness throughout the orchestra. For my part, given how difficult the music was, I did have that slight sense of dread that things might not go too well.

On the day of this concert we had a full day of rehearsals, at least 6 hours total if not more. By the time we had our dinner break before the concert I was exhausted. I tried to relax as much as possible while I could, but by the time I was warming up before the concert, all the relevant muscles had tightened up, and I was actually too tired to do much at all.

Before starting the concert AP Kähler gave a spoken introduction on Pettersson to the audience, extremely interesting to me of course but perhaps a little too long for those in the orchestra who couldn't understand German. Unfortunately, during this time, sitting in my chair with cello ready, I just tightened up even more. Consequently, during our first piece, the Barefoot Songs, I was really nervous. The fact that I had a tiny little solo didn't help. Anyway, the after the songs I relaxed a bit, and the symphony went fairly well. 

The following day we gave two short concerts at the Wald-Oberschule (Wald Upper school) in West Berlin. Although I am all for music in schools and introducing this great music to new audiences, there were several challenges. First of all, one could not expect an acoustic even remotely similar to the Philharmonie, or the RBB for that matter. We played in the school cafeteria, which had a stage, and the acoustic was, to put it bluntly, dry. My ability to concentrate was minimal, having slept poorly the night before, being so wired from our concert the night before. Pictures were being taken of us non-stop as we were playing, with flash, so I found it very distracting that at consistent but unpredictable intervals my music would flash white (you can see the some of the pictures of us here). Finally, there was a sizable portion of the audience from each concert that just did not stop talking.  It wasn't so bad during the first concert, where there were younger kids most likely talking out of excitement and curiosity. The second concert (where we played the symphony) was for teenagers, and I think those who were talking non-stop could have cared less about the music. I did not play well that day, and I think our performance overall could have been better as well.

I'll post one more entry about the dangers of playing Pettersson for children, before writing my last entry in this series, about our concert in the Philharmonie.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Berlin, Teil 2: The challenges of performing Pettersson

The Pettersson component (the most important part) of this program comprised of Andreas Peer Kähler's own arrangement of 6 Barefoot Songs and the first part of the Symphony No. 8. As most of you are aware, Pettersson's orchestral music makes extreme demands on the mental, physical, and emotional stamina of both conductor and players (and perhaps even of the audience as well). Given this fact, there are probably only a handful of Pettersson's orchestral works which can be reasonably put together by a youth orchestra. In my opinion, these works are Symphonies No. 5, 7, 8, 11, and the Symphonic Movement. With this orchestra, Kähler has performed all of the above except the second part of the Symphony No. 8 and the Symphonic Movement.

Unlike the rather excessively orchestrated Dorati arrangements of the Barefoot Songs, Kähler's version is much closer to the spirit of the original, using a medium-sized string orchestra with just a handful of wind players. I found this to be quite effective and moving. Accordingly, this work posed few technical challenges to the orchestra, although one had to pay close attention nevertheless to follow the singer and conductor. I had a very small solo in song 23, but I was nevertheless sweating bullets in the Philharmonie before I had to play it.

The original version of this program consisted of the Symphony No. 7. Several weeks before the first rehearsal it was changed to the Songs and the first part of the Symphony No. 8. In my opinion, we should have left out Till Eulenspiegel and played the entire symphony, but that was not for me to decide. Nevertheless, I agree with Kähler's opinion that this arrangement allows the audience and orchestra to sample a larger section of Pettersson's oeuvre, from the very simple songs written as a young man to the vast, conflicted canvas that is the Symphony No. 8.

For the cellos at least, the technical challenges of the symphony are not huge. Probably the most overt issue is how Pettersson moves rather quickly between simple accompanimental figures in the cello's low to mid register and sudden shifts to the high-soprano range (treble clef with ledger lines!). Fortunately the doublings helped us out in this regard, but it did take some practice to get comfortable with this. In the first half there is a three-part divisi for the cellos, where the top line takes the melody in the cello stratosphere. I practiced this section quite a bit, but the way the divisi worked out I did not get to play the top line in concert!

In the first half of this part the cellos were often part of the soft bed of harmony which supports the beautiful, unending melody above. Even though the notes themselves were not difficult, I often found myself having to concentrate quite a bit here, as getting the intonation just right was not always trivial. When Pettersson introduces subtle dissonances into these harmonies, the pitches really have to be spot on.

For the upper strings the challenges were more apparent. Although the long opening melody is not technically difficult, trying to make it sing and sound unending did not happen right away. Some pitches are held onto for a while, and in the early rehearsals it was not uncommon to hear counting mistakes. In the second half of this movement, when the melody comes back but is surrounded by the stormy orchestra, we spent quite a bit of time drilling the violas on their skittering upward runs.

We had an excellent percussion section and it did not take much time for them to get into Pettersson's particular idiom. In the early going there were some issues with keeping track of playing those repeated rhythms for long stretches of time, and lining everything up in those massive percussion storms in the second half.

Other than these specific examples, I think the main issues for us were unfamiliarity with the music and style, and feeling comfortable in one's place during the dense tutti passages. Although during some of the rehearsals I did not have a good feeling about how things were going, the performance in the Philharmonie went incredibly well (more later!).

As a Pettersson fanatic I would regularly ask members of the orchestra their opinions on this music. One violist told me that she liked the music, but even just playing one movement of this symphony was emotionally exhausting. Absolutely correct.

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.