Finally, the last post in this blog series has arrived! Since returning from Iowa in March, I have been frantically juggling three major composition projects, two major recitals/performances, and the mundane busywork of music school. But UM's last day of finals was last week, so I have time now to write about the final step in the premiere process: rehearsals!
When I first sent Robert McConnell the parts and score to The Bells, there was no recording in existence for him to listen to as he looked over the score, except the lousy MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) file that Finale synthesises for me. And lousy is generous. It is often so bad that people prefer to listen to nothing instead of MIDI. This means that, unlike a piece like Beethoven 5 or La Mer, any standard repertoire, where you can listen to 50 different recordings and begin to understand the soul of the piece, Bob had no resource to understand the score, except his musical intuition, and me. We talked together quite a bit before the orchestra ever saw the music, discussing potential problem areas and general phrasing/shaping ideas.
But our theories only go so far, and when the music finally gets on the players' stands, many things get completely rethought. After the first rehearsal, Bob sent me recordings, and we talked over them extensively, discussing anything he or I wasn't happy with, and figuring out what needed to be addressed early on and what could wait until I was actually in the room. This was the basic gameplan for the first rehearsals: Record, Listen, Discuss. We talked about me Skyping in at one point, but decided there was too much room for technical issues to be a good use of time.
Once I was in Iowa, the process changed drastically. I had a score for the piece, and as the orchestra would rehearse, I would sit in the back of the hall, where the sound was best, and take notes. I would mark things that were too loud or soft for the balance I wanted, places where the style was wrong (i.e. too sharp, or too smooth), and places where I wanted to change what had been written originally. This last category was the smallest, as it is a nightmare for the orchestra if I change everything once they have the music and are practicing, but some things could be changed easily.
During pauses in the rehearsal, I would be able to make a few comments. Of course there were many things that I wanted to address, even during the dress rehearsal, but in consideration of everyone's time, it was important to prioritize. Also, orchestra ettiquite demands that the conductor always be in change, so I couldn't just derail the rehearsal to change something I wanted. When they had finished a section, if I had comments, I would call out "Hey, Bob!" and talk directly to him "The trombones are too loud at letter F" rather than to the players. This way he could implement my comments however he wanted. It may seem like a roundabout way of addresing a simple issue, but it maintains a stable rehearsal dynamic that helps everyone feel comfortable.
After each rehearsal, Bob and I would sit down and talk through the entire score, and during this time I could address everything I wanted, and we would discuss whether or not to mention them or let the players deal with them on their own, as well as compromising on many sections where we had different views. I would keep a list of things that were not worth spending rehearsal time on, and talk to individual players before or after rehearsals about them.
Another big part of the rehearsal process was experimentation. Mostly for percussion instruments, but also occasionally for strings or brass. For example, the piece calls for two large, unpitched bells, and I experimented for hours with the percussionists to come up with a sound I liked. Eventually, we ended up using two different lengths of signpost, hung from a frame and struck with a variety of hammers. Also, I asked for an anvil at the end of the third movement (Brazen Bells), and as anvils typically weigh a few hundred pounds, a substitute was necessary. We settled on a motorcycle brake drum, struck with a ten-pound hammer right on the axle mount. Experiments like this didn't usually happen during rehearsal, except for the final choice. With the anvil, we had narrowed our options down to two different objects, and we ran the section of music where the anvil comes in twice, once with each object, to figure out which worked best.
By the end of the dress rehearsal, everyone (the orchestra, Bob, and I) felt comfortable with the music. This made for a very confident and moving first performance. But the rehearsal process was very important in determining the success of the first concert; if I had demanded too much, or if Bob was too unclear on his interpretation of the music, it could have trainwrecked very easily. Having a good balance of addressing issues and giving compliments was important, and talking through EVERYTHING with Bob was also crucial to a smooth rehearsal flow.
As this is the final post in the SEISO Residency series, I think it is fitting to close with a recording of The Bells. Here is the recording of Movement 2, Silver Bells, recorded in the Iowa Weslyan Chapel Auditorium on Sunday, March 19th.