How the conducting course went

Here are a few random details and thoughts from a sleepy mind. Maybe they can get less random later, with a bit of editing.

The format

Similar to a typical concert day, but with tutoring:

  • Afternoon rehearsal
  • REALLY GOOD MEAL🙂
  • Short evening concert

The music

  • A Haydn motet with dramatic orchestral accompaniment. I don’t have a note of the title with me, but it includes the word insana (Choir and orchestra)
  • Mozart, Ave Verum Corpus (Choir and orchestra)
  • A short symphony by J C Bach (not J S Bach; a descendent who wrote early classical music) (Orchestra only)
  • J S Bach cantata Jesu, meine Freude (Choir and harpsichord; we didn’t play)
  • Fauré, Requiem (Choir, organ and orchestra)

The orchestra

Small. If we’d all played in everything, it would have consisted of

  • 5 violins
  • 4 violas
  • 4 cellos
  • 1 double bass
  • 2 horns
  • 2 oboes
  • Timps
  • Harp
  • Organ

But in fact the instruments required varied quite a lot from piece to piece; in particular, there are two versions of Fauré’s Requiem, both beloved of viola players, and the one we used is for a highly unusual combination involving full viola and cello sections and just one, solo, violin–who was me. Furthermore the violin only plays in two out of the seven movements. This brings its own special stresses–see below.

The players were a mixture: some students from the course, and some outside players like me. One of the oboe players was someone I used to know from work some years ago, which was nice. And some familiar faces from previous occasions were missing, because of holidays and so on. But you can’t have everything…

The rehearsal

In the rehearsal, the student conductors took turns to conduct a movement of one of the pieces, which they would then be conducting in the evening concert. They had been allocated strict time slots, to ensure everyone had a fair go; all managed to make good use of their rehearsal time. The conducting tutor made comments as necessary. The more accomplished students were given the more difficult movements or pieces to conduct, and this had been done well–there weren’t any moments of terror as to whether the conductor would manage to do what was required. (Or at least, no terror on the part of the players.)

It’s hard to say much about the tutoring aspect since it was mostly small last-minute detail, though we did do one exercise which comes up every so often: the orchestra is asked to try to rush, and the conductor has to try to slow us down. There are techniques for doing this, which are quite difficult to rush against. But this was an orchestra of quite experienced players, and on this occasion we won😉

The format was slightly different from previous years; previously we’ve had an orchestra-only session in the morning, then an afternoon session with the singers present, then a late-afternoon concert. The orchestra-only session has been the one where conductors and players were most relaxed, and where there was most opportunity to give feedback to the conductors. This time the rehearsal felt very like a dress rehearsal with a looming concert deadline, meaning that it was more like the normal experience of getting ready for a concert. So we were better-behaved than we might otherwise have been😉

The Fauré was the first piece to be reherased, which was actually quite uncomfortable: I had to sit through several movements of the piece, rather than play and get warmed up, and then play my solos “cold”. Unsurprisingly, I was much happier with how I played the solos in the concert than at the beginning of the rehearsal. But people made nice comments afterwards, so that was OK.

The singers

There was a large choir consisting of people who were there for the singing part of the course. I always have trouble estimating numbers of people, and usually get it too low, but my guess is around sixty people. And it was good singing–I think the people who go on this course are similar to the ones who go to chamber music weeks for string players and so on: amateurs who take their music seriously and who look forward to an event where they can do it well🙂

The soloists were also very good. I’m extremely critical of most solo singers, especially the ones with very operatic vibrato. Well there wasn’t any of that: just good, musical singing with a nice tone (and some vibrato, yes–but tastefully used and never excessive). One of the highlights of the Requiem concert was the singing of the soprano soloist in the Pie Jesu, which was superb. Everybody told her so too, which is good🙂

The concert

This was enjoyable. And unusual (for our parts of it) in that the orchestra faced away from the audience, so that the conductors faced the audience… but this was presumably for the very good reason that actually, the audience consisted mainly of

  • the large choir mentioned above
  • conductors who were awaiting their turn at conducting.

Actually the only negative feature of the concert was the hot weather. Unfortunately we (the orchestra) didn’t get ourselves organised enough in time to decide unanimously to play without jackets, which I for one would have found much more comfortable. (I don’t like being too hot, and neither am I happy about dripping sweat onto the violin…) So at the beginning I thought I was going to have quite a lot of difficulty playing. But fortunately, the temperature fell to a more manageable level as the evening progressed.

But every time I play for this event I wonder what it must be like for the conductors who are also singing–they will sing in the choir for part of a piece, then come to the front to conduct the next part. How on earth do you sing in a relaxed way, knowing that in a few moments it will be YOUR turn to hold the performance together?

We got a break from playing while one of the groups sang the Bach cantata. It was quite an ambitious one, full of complicated counterpoint which they sang well.

And at no point during the concert was I worried that any of the conductors might not cope–the playing all felt safe. The only alarming moment was when the one who started the Haydn motet off launched into it at a speed which I think was considerably faster than he’d intended… but everyone survived and it was certainly dramatic😉

The different format this year meant that I didn’t hear some of the groups singing that I have done before–in particular I’ve looked forward to hearing the Advanced Singers performing quite difficult unaccompanied songs to a high standard. Sadly we were there on Friday for the accompanied singing, and they would be performing on the Saturday. But still, a very enjoyable event.

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