So much of what we do as an orchestra takes place on stage in front of a paying audience that we as musicians sometimes forget that the majority of our daily activities are actually a mystery to non-performers. Most people will never attend a rehearsal, never see us as a group in casual dress, never sit in on a planning session or a union meeting. And while orchestras have been working hard over the last decade or so to improve what you might call backstage access in the name of fostering closer ties between musicians and the communities that sustain us, there are simply aspects of the business that outsiders will never be a part of. And that’s fine, since most of those aspects are the really boring ones. (Honestly, they are. I could write a 10,000 word blog post about the fact that the American Federation of Musicians tossed out basically its entire leadership team
at the union’s annual conference this past week, but believe me, your eyes would glaze over by word 50.) But there are a few of our more, shall we say, exclusive activities that would probably be really fascinating to people who take more than a passing interest in music. Auditions, say. I’ve written about them
before, and every once in a great while, we find a way to let a journalist just far enough
into the process to give the public a glimpse
, but by and large, they’re a pretty private experience. Another corner of our world that you’re pretty much entirely excluded from is the one or two weeks
every year that we spend playing small chunks of music over and over and over again, in the name of putting together a polished recording. We happen to work, at the moment with one of the world’s most exacting producers, Rob Suff, and his team from the Swedish label BIS
. They usually roll into town a few days before we start a recording project, in time to listen to us perform the works we’ll be playing in concert. During this period, they’re virtually invisible, and have no say in what approach Osmo and the orchestra take to the music. But once the audiences are gone and the recording begins, Rob becomes almost like a second music director. I mention this because an excellent behind-the-scenes write-up
of our most recent recording sessions, completed just two weeks ago, just popped up on BlogCritics.org. Author Ilona Oltuski not only watched and listened to the sometimes agonizingly slow process of getting a piece down on disc, she interviewed a number of the principals about their role in the proceedings: Masterminding the musical process, Suff must incorporate all of a conductor’s skills, making him somewhat of a co-conductor. He explained, “I call the finished product of the recording a ‘hyper-performance,’ since it establishes a reality that goes beyond the expectation one has when attending a live concert performance. For a successful recording, the tension has to be built up at any given moment, in order to be able to captivate the ever-dwindling attention span of the listener. It is all about creating a perfect balance at an extended energy level.”
Hm. Never thought of it that way. The other interesting aspect of the article is the moment, which seems to occur in nearly every behind-the-scenes piece about orchestras, when the author’s illusions of musicians motivated purely by innocent love of art run smack into the reality that what we’re doing is a job, and music a business… Keeping track of time through all the stops and re-starts, the orchestra operation manager and her assistant had their eyes firmly fixed on the clock. It deeply impacted my vision of the orchestral world, when, in the midst of an utmost exciting re-take, the operations manager started counting downwards from ten, so as to warn the producer that time was running out and everything had to come to a halt in seconds — artistic perfection, to be immortalized for posterity, versus the orchestra musicians’ right to have their meal break…
It’s a pretty turn of phrase, that, and yes, it tends to be a shock to outsiders’ systems to see a rehearsal, or a recording session, be stopped mid-phrase because the clock ran out. But the reality is that we stop and start mid-phrase all the time, and it doesn’t have the least bit of impact on how much we care or don’t care about what we’re doing. What observers are really shocked by is the notion that we allow such bourgeois considerations as time and fatigue to govern how long it takes us to prepare a piece of music. Well, we do, and I’ve always been a little annoyed at people who are offended by that, in the same way that I’m annoyed at people who write long, flowery essays about how their love of sport was stolen from them when they found out that some baseball players took steroids. Anyway, Oltuski also got some extensive access to the real star of these recording sessions, pianist Yevgeny Sudbin, and he comes up with some of the most satisfying descriptions in the article: The element of spontaneity in a recording situation is, of course, harder to come by after the third take, but there is an element of perfectionisms, which can be satisfied to a much higher degree. You can bring out certain musical ideas and try them – time permitting – until you get them right. Of course, it can be a challenging process to go through tidbits of music, starting and stopping to get one little detail just right. But nothing compares to the glorious moment of getting a first edit in your hands and to be really satisfied with the result.
He’s not wrong about that. I’ll never forget the feeling of getting my first chance to listen to a CD I’d played on (it was a recording of Copland’s 3rd Symphony
, plus Appalachian Spring
that we made under Eiji Oue back in 2000.) And the moment when I heard the crackling energy of our first BIS recording
with Osmo was the moment when I really knew that the chemistry between this orchestra and this music director could lead to some spectacular things. No offense to Rob and his team, though, but I’ll take a concert week over a week in the studio anytime. As Sudbin said elsewhere in the article, something just always seems to be missing when there’s no audience.