David Sumbler’s Weblog [2]

April 28, 2009 at 8:57 am (David Sumbler's Weblog, Music) (, , , , , , , , )

John Hull as Solor & Keiko Amemori as Nikiya in La Bayadére (Photo: Bill Cooper)

John Hull as Solor & Keiko Amemori as Nikiya in La Bayadére (Photo: Bill Cooper)

Last time I wrote we had not yet started the spring tour.  Now we have already done five weeks touring, performing the Mixed Programme and Swan Lake.

The Mixed Programme really was mixed for the orchestra.  One of the pieces, A Simple Man, was an old favourite for some of us who have been in the orchestra for a number of years – four of us actually took part in the first performances as well as the recent ones.  Copland‘s wonderful Appalachian Spring (the music for Angels in the Architecture) was new for us as an orchestra, although almost everyone knew it and had

Keiko Amemori in Angels in the Architecture (Photo: Bill Cooper)

Keiko Amemori in Angels in the Architecture (Photo: Bill Cooper)

played it before elsewhere.  La Bayadère, on the other hand, despite being the oldest of the three pieces by far, was known to hardly any of the orchestra members.  The style of the music, though, was immediately familiar to those of us who can recall performing NBT’s production of Don Quixote.  Both pieces were written by the 19th century Russian composer, Minkus.

Mention of A Simple Man reminds me of something that happened when the show was still fairly new, in the late 1980’s.  Princess Margaret was Patron of NBT at the time, and sometimes used to come to performances at the Theatre Royal in Bath.  She would stay with her friend Jeremy Fry, who lived at a nearby village – in a converted brewery!  Usually there would be a party at his place after one of the evening performances.

Workers - A Simple Man (Photo: Bill Cooper)

It was in the early stages of one of these parties, when many of the guests had still to arrive, that I noticed a lady standing on her own at the opposite end of the room from where most of us were gathered in a huddle.  Being a sociable sort of person I decided to go and talk to her.  She had her back to me as I approached so I did not immediately recognize who she was.  It was only after a few moments of conversation that I realized I was talking to Princess Margaret.  I asked her if she had enjoyed A Simple Man.  In true diplomatic fashion she did not give me an answer, but asked what my opinion was.  I told her that I thought that the music was very good, but that I had not yet been able to see what was happening on stage.  She suggested that this must make it difficult to play, since I would not know exactly what mood we were trying to convey when I have a solo.  (I thought this was extremely perceptive of her.)

The funny thing was that nobody else would come near us, probably doubtful whether it was right just to come up and talk to her, even at an informal party.  Equally, I hardly felt I could abandon her to go and talk to somebody else, so our conversation went on for a very long time, before I (or she) was rescued by her friend asking her to come and take her place in the kitchen for the meal.  Even then, she refused to go the first time she was asked, and he had to come back and ask her a second time!

Back to the present.  After five performances in Leeds of the Mixed Programme, we had Swan Lake to prepare.  This was a revival of a show that we last performed just a few years ago.  We had six hours rehearsal for the orchestra, followed by two dress rehearsals with the whole company.

Scene From Swan Lake (Photo: Bill Cooper)

This production of Swan Lake (the fourth that NBT has done in the years that I have been in the orchestra) is somewhat unusual, not just in some of the details of the scenario, but also in the selection of music.  All of the music is by Tchaikovsky, but as well as a lot of the original music for Swan Lake, we also include parts of his 3rd orchestral suite and one movement of the 5th symphony.  The latter starts with a massive horn solo.  When we did the show a few years ago our principal horn player was John Thornton, who always played the solo beautifully.  Soon after we had stopped touring Swan Lake John left to go to the Hallé Orchestra.  He spent a few years there, but recently decided that he would like to rejoin the NBT Orchestra – just in time, as it happens, for the revival of Swan Lake.

Swans - Swan Lake (Photo: Bill Cooper)In a symphony orchestra the principal horn would only have to play that solo for one performance, or possibly two or three concerts in a week.  Few could do it flawlessly seven or eight times a week, week after week, but John can manage it!  We really are very lucky to have him.

Musicians in ballet orchestras have mixed feelings about Swan Lake.  On the one hand, we all recognize that it is one of the finest ballet scores ever written, with probably the most brilliant musical ending of any.  The reason for the mixed feelings is that it is also just about the most exhausting piece to play of any – particularly the last few pages, where everybody is playing high and loud for ages.  This is doubly, or perhaps quadruply true for us, because we are such a small orchestra (only a couple of dozen of us).  Swan Lake ideally needs an orchestra three or four times as big.  But we are used to trying to make ourselves sound several times our true size: most people, even colleagues from other orchestras, who have heard the NBT orchestra without knowing its size are astonished when they find out how few of us there actually are.

Now we are about to revive Wuthering Heights, followed a couple of weeks later by Romeo & Juliet.  Next time I write, I’ll let you know a bit about how it is going from the orchestra’s point of view.

Juliet and Paris from Romeo & Juliet (Photo: Merlin Hendy)

Juliet and Paris from Romeo & Juliet (Photo: Merlin Hendy)

Juliet Wuthering Heights (Photo: HANSON)

Wuthering Heights (Photo: HANSON)

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