Practice makes perfect

More WAM ethnography:

Brass players enjoy, even flaunt, their hooligan image (more “licence to deviate from behavioural norms”)—or at least, UK brass players in a befuddled heyday from the 1960s to the 1990s, still an ongoing hangover today.

Becoming a musician (or indeed a household Daoist) is about far more than “learning the dots”; aspiring musicians also look to the lifestyles of their role models. The intoxicant du jour changes—Chinese shawm players have moved from opium to amphetamines, for instance. But both in jazz and WAM, many musos have learned to their cost that adopting the, um, recreational pastimes of Charlie Parker or John Wilbraham doesn’t necessarily help them play the way their heroes  did.

The trumpeter John Wilbraham (“Jumbo”) was legendary. This is a beautiful site well worth exploring—an insider’s ethnography. I came across him when he was trumpet tutor for the NYO, and later in the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

There are also some fine stories on this site, not least about two of my most admired conductors (more maestro-baiting):

“The one thing we do know about Bach for certain, is that he didn’t want it to sound fucking awful!” —John Wilbraham to John Eliot Gardiner.

(a succinct critique of the Early Music movement?), and

“If I’d wanted to play in front of a clown, I’d have joined the fucking circus.” —John Wilbraham to Gennadi Rozhdestvensky.

Learning to perform—in any tradition!—requires endless hours of practice (again, it’s the stories about jazzers, rather than WAM musos, that inspire me here). There’s another famous story, which strangely I haven’t yet found among all the online anecdotes:

Before Mahler 5 at the Proms, a music critic was having a drink in the 99, favoured hostelry of Prom-goers. He watched in amazement as Jumbo downed pint after pint, and then picked up his trumpet case to stagger off to the gig. Expecting the worst, the critic took his place in the audience. The symphony opens with a scary exposed trumpet solo, and is challenging throughout. Jumbo played the whole symphony perfectly.

After the concert the critic returns to the pub, to find Jumbo already propped up at the bar, more pints lined up. He walks up to him and says,
“You must excuse me, Mr Wilbraham, but may I ask how you manage to play so perfectly when you’re pissed?”
“It’sh perfectly simple,” Jumbo smiles back at him conspiratorially, “I practice pissed!”

Stories like this belong to the treasury of orchestral myth-making.

A fine turn of phrase

Further to my old theme of our irredeemably modern ears (and here), Simon Rattle,* on one of his early early-music outings with the Age of Enlightenment, was rehearsing Mozart with the band.

After one finely polished phrase, he stopped us and said admiringly, “Wow! I’ve been waiting all my life to hear it played like that! … Anyway, now I’ve heard it, I don’t like it—can you just play it normally, please?!”

 

*As a stammerer, I hesitate (sic) to call him Sir Simon Rattle. As in the (real) line from a waggish Radio 3 announcer:

That was Sir Simon Rattle conducting Brahms’s 4th symphony. Next week’s guest conductor is M-M-Mark Elder.

The late great Hugh Maguire

Hugh Maguire (1926–2013) managed to combine his work as leader of orchestras with making some fine chamber music. I share my admiration for his playing with far more distinguished pupils of his. As he caressed the strings lovingly, his way of turning a phrase was irresistible.

In the NYO another important kind of education for me was pub sessions where he and flautist Norman Knight would swap indiscreet orchestral stories over copious G&Ts.

Blessed with a brilliant Irish sense of humour, Hugh could be both charming and tough with conductors. It was he who told me the Hermann Scherchen story.

He appears all too rarely on youtube, but here’s his wonderful 1964 recording of Scheherazade (Rimsky-Korsakov, not the equally ravishing Ravel version) with Pierre Monteux and the LSO:

BTW, Monteux (1875–1964) had conducted the premières of Petrushka, The Rite of spring, and Daphnis and Chloe—just imagine! That recording was his last, in his final year.

Pete Hanson, heir to Hugh’s own spirit, recalls his account of a scary moment during the Scheherazade sessions:

Towards the end of a day’s recording, Monteux turned to him after the first take of the finale, with its ethereal high harmonics, and said “Come on Maguire, get it right!”

Hugh too could be as down-to-earth as his playing was sublime. Here’s Pete again, with a couple of choice comments received during lessons:

“You sound great, Pete, all the shapes and feelings are there—but you’ve got to play all the notes!”

“Pete, even if your strings are out, you must play in tune! Just do it wit’ your fingers!”

Nor is the play of fag-ash on ancient instrument the exclusive province of Li ManshanYet again, Carson has a beautiful description (Last night’s fun, p.54):

So I remember fiddle-players with cigarettes poised between two fingers of their bow-hand, and the ash would wave and sprinkle across their trouser-knees; or the cigarette that drooped between a player’s lips would let drop a little grub of ash into an f-hole of a fiddle, where it disintegrated as it crashed into the ersatz “Stradivari” label. The knees were dusted off, someone rosined up, and a fitful shaft of sunlight would illuminate the dust-motes like a dissolute snowstorm souvenir.

Even better, Hugh really was playing a Strad—like the first fiddler in Mick Hoy’s story.

Yet more conducting

In the Rozhdestvensky film, I like his solution (from 22’29”) to the perennial problem posed by the opening of the Symphonie fantastique: “I simply invited them to begin” and then let them get on with it.

Which reminds me, a noted baroque conductor was rehearsing the opening of a slow aria in the Matthew Passion. One of the wind players suggested he might try subdividing:
“Could you give us 7–8 into it?”
Conductor, indignantly: “I didn’t get where I am today by giving 7–8!”

I didn’t get where I am today by… soon became another musos’ snowclone.

And here’s Larson’s take on conducting.

 

Conducting

We musos may be critical of conductors (cf. Norman Lebrecht, The maestro myth: great conductors in pursuit of power), but don’t get me wrong, we deeply admire great ones—such as Boulez, Tennstedt, Gardiner, Rattle (unlikely bedfellows…).

Apart from Boulez, another highlight of depping regularly with the BBC Symphony Orchestra was working for Rozhdestvensky.

Gennadi Rozhdestvensky—conductor or conjuror is a wonderful film:

In a work that otherwise requires little imaginative filming, do watch the wonderful scene from from 32’40”—the traffic cop Marcel Mehala should take a bow too.

Believing in a kind of spontaneous combustion, and trusting his players to match his own mastery, taking risks together, Rozhdestvensky is renowned for his aversion to rehearsal—greater still than that of orchestras. Once, turning up for the first of a couple of whole days’ scheduled rehearsals for a fiendishly difficult and unfamiliar modern piece, he conducted the first few bars and then told the band, “Good, see you at the concert”. In a rare reversal of the musos’ “It’ll be all right on the night” philosophy, the leader took him to one side and asked him if he wouldn’t mind just playing through it once first.

His gestures are by turn minimal and flamboyant. Doing Petrushka, it was as if we were all composing it, living it, together with him.

And the Scriabin piano concerto with Viktoria Postnikova was exquisite too:

Money money money

The term emoluments is suddenly enjoying a dubious revival with a clause in the US constitution that is among many currently battening down the hatches.

The term, while not constantly on the lips of the rap generation, evokes fond memories from my days studying Tang history.

True, this is scant consolation for the current Destruction of Civilization As We Know It.

Another namby-pamby term used in academia that always makes me giggle is honorarium. But since I very occasionally get one, I mustn’t bite the hand that feeds me.

Musos are more straight-talking. One day our Mozart recording sessions in St John’s Smith square were interrupted by deafening building work outside. Reluctant to send us all home, the conductor discussed with the record company whether they might offer the workmen some kind of bribe to knock it off. Meanwhile the orchestra, aware that we would still have to be paid even if the session had to be called off, wondered whether we might make them a better offer to get them to keep going.

This was around the time of a dispute between a certain conductor and the brass players about overtime. A trumpet player (legendary for many touring exploits besides) put their case with the classic remark,

It’s not the principle, it’s the money!

This actually goes back at least to Eisenhower in 1959.