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)

Permalink Leave a Comment

David Sumbler’s Weblog

February 19, 2009 at 1:00 pm (Artist's News, General Information, Music, Tour News) (, , , , , , , , , )

David Sumbler, principal flute player

David Sumbler, principal flute player

David Sumbler, principal flute player, has performed with the Northern Ballet Theatre Orchestra for over 20 years. In his new blog David gives an insight into the life and work of the Orchestra, both on and off tour.


I’m sure most of you have been following the fascinating blogs written by Hannah and Rym. Well, now you are going to have the chance to find out what the Orchestra has been up to as well.


As the Company is not yet on tour, I thought I would begin by telling you a little bit about how the Orchestra works, and what the musicians’ lives are like.


At the moment the dancers are, I am sure, working very hard to learn the productions for the forthcoming tour. But the Orchestra only starts rehearsing for the Mixed Programme on Monday 23 February, just 3 days before opening night!


On Monday we will have 6 hours rehearsal in a church in Brighouse, just for the Orchestra, and 9 hours the following day. The first time that dancers and Orchestra try things over together is at the dress rehearsal at Leeds Grand Theatre on Wednesday afternoon. Up until then, the dancers will only have heard the music played on the piano, or perhaps on a recording. We have a second dress rehearsal in the evening, and then we open the show on the Thursday afternoon. Now you know why people talk about first night nerves!


As I said, the dancers don’t get to hear the music live until a day or so before the opening night. We, on the other hand, sometimes never see the dancing at all (although the conductor will have been to some of the rehearsals). This is because being in the Orchestra pit it is difficult or impossible for us to see the stage, especially for the brass and percussion who are sometimes actually underneath the stage. It all depends on the theatre and where you are sitting in the pit.


We don’t work full time for NBT: we are freelance musicians. It would not make much sense for NBT to put us on full-time salaries, when they only need us for about half the year. At the same time, they don’t want to have a rag-bag of musicians sight-reading the show at every new venue. So we have a you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours arrangement: the Company agrees who it wants in the Orchestra and offers the work to us; we accept as much of the work as we can, although there may be occasions when particular players are not available. In this way, NBT gets the players it wants most of the time without the expense of paying retaining fees, and the musicians have about six months work in the year which they can fairly count on, but can still keep up other professional connections so that they are not out of work for the rest of the year.


So, if you have ever looked into the pit and noticed that, for instance, a bassoonist called Paul looks suspiciously like a woman, it is most likely that Paul was not available and a “dep” (deputy) has been booked instead. All of our deps are excellent players who work with us frequently and are as much part of the team as those of us who are there the rest of the time.


You might be wondering what sort of work the musicians do when they are not working for NBT. Mostly it is freelance work with other Orchestras: various NBT Orchestra members work regularly for the Hallé, BBC Philharmonic, Royal Philharmonic and other such orchestras. There are also TV and film sessions. Most also do some individual teaching of their instrument, either privately or in a music college or school. People also do concerts of chamber music, solo recitals and suchlike.


Personally, I used to do all of the above, as well as working as a music examiner, adjudicator, composer, arranger, editor, accompanist and repetiteur. I have even played the piano for rehearsals and ballet class for NBT in the dim, distant past. Now, from choice, I do little paid work other than working for NBT. This is because, as the oldest member of the Orchestra (although not the longest serving) I decided that it was time I just did the things I really enjoy doing, and so far as work was concerned, that meant playing for NBT.


And why do I enjoy working for the Company so much? Certainly because of the music and the dance (even though I often can’t see it!) but it is also because of the people I work with. This is even more important than it would be in a normal job, because since we are staying away from home for a week at a time, we tend to spend much of our free time with our colleagues, so they need to be good friends too.


So that’s a little bit about the background of the Orchestra and the way we work. Next time I write we shall have begun the spring tour, so I shall tell you something about life when we are actually working for NBT!

Permalink Leave a Comment