Saturday, October 23
Rehearsals begin at the Eastman School of Music
We meet early in the morning for our first rehearsals. I drove in from Pittsburgh the day before and caught a full night’s sleep, but other members of the group aren’t so lucky. Cellist Mariel Roberts played a concert in New York City the night before and took an overnight train from Grand Central. Clarinetist Isabel Kim drove in from New Jersey—she set out on the six-hour drive at 3:00 a.m. the same morning.
Returning to Eastman is, for me, always energizing. For a few moments at certain times of day, the school’s main hall is swarmed with people, fast-walkers in belted coats with instrument cases slung over their shoulders. For ten minutes or so in the mid-afternoon, it seems that everyone is scrambling to their next class, rehearsal, or meeting at once—coffee in one hand, scores tucked under an arm, a pencil behind the ear. Then, just as suddenly, the halls clear out. Now, the feeling in the building’s common spaces is that these same quick-moving people are holed up in offices and practice rooms laboring patiently, intently. More than that, the sense is that good work is getting done, that exciting projects are being advanced.
The BroadBand is one such labor of love, a project that on the one hand requires an enormous commitment of time and energy—but on the other promises an experience that is worth twice the work. What’s better than performing with these old friends, participating in the premieres of exciting new works, traveling internationally?
It is so nice to see everyone in the group again. Most of us have graduated since we started working with the BroadBand, so this tour has the feel of a reunion. We spend the first ten minutes of rehearsal catching up, exchanging hugs, sipping coffee. Everyone looks different, but not much.
Sunday, October 24
We begin to work in earnest on some of the most difficult works on the program—progress is slow and steady. Working with conductor Juan Trigos is a pleasure and a challenge, because the man is very particular. Most conductors are, of course, but Juan requires that the details in the score are not just casually observed, but that they are each made special. In short, he is one of those conductors who might stop every three measures during rehearsal. “But I must insist,” he apologizes.
And it’s true, playing the marked dynamic is one thing—mimicking the character that it implies is another entirely. As a composer himself, Juan has special insight into the quality of sound and the variety of character suggested by the limited contours of a score. It may be that most experienced musicians are familiar with this effort—the job of seeking out the whole proposed by the ensemble of particulars in a score—but I began to learn its importance in my first rehearsals with Juan. He is constantly demanding greater sensitivity, more variety, clearer intention. He intuits exactly the sound, the attitude, precisely the quality of this minute gesture, that broad phrase, or the whole of the composer’s work. I have learned a great deal from my work with him.
Monday, October 25 and Tuesday October, 26
Two days’ break
We get a few precious days off. Even without rehearsals, it is hard to find the time to practice everything on the program. Still, what practice I can fit in supersedes the dozens of projects I’ve dropped momentarily in favor of the tour. The textbooks I brought with me remain untouched in the bottom of my suitcase, along with a handful of scores I thought I’d comb through during my “down time” on the trip.
I do prepare the first post in this series, and writing about these projects proves to be an interesting challenge. I also receive our first video from Reed Nisson, a filmmaker and student at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Reed will join the group on our trip—ultimately, he will produce a short film about the tour. His work is a pleasant surprise—he has a way of transforming the most mundane events into special, bright, kinetic happenings in film. Spaces I had thought were ugly—the rehearsal rooms at Eastman, for example, their cold light—are almost unrecognizable in Reed’s footage, in which they all take on an inviting glow.
Wednesday, October 27
Midpoint of the rehearsal period
Before our two-day break, we read through our repertoire quickly—now, we need to deal with the details. Some of us meet in sectionals outside of rehearsal to take a closer look at our parts. Five Memos, Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez’s newest piece for Pierrot ensemble plus percussion, makes a number of demands on every player—virtually instantaneous changes in register, dynamic, or character, erratic accents, shrill outbursts. On top of that, it’s unbelievably fast, and full of irregular grooves that are tricky to piece together. The challenge is not only to play all of the right notes in time, not only to play all of the marked dynamics, not only to obey the indicated articulation markings, but also to phrase each monstrous lick the same way that your neighbor does. In my case, I couldn’t have asked for better neighbors. Other members of the group are fantastic players and careful listeners. In our sectional on the piece, they attend to the tiniest details, devise creative solutions to musical problems, move and breathe like experienced chamber musicians—so preparing the piece is a satisfying challenge.
Thursday, October 28
We work for the first time with soprano Tony Arnold, marimbist Michael Burritt, pianist Cristina Valdes, harpsichordist Josephine Gaeffke, and guitarist Dieter Hennings. Hennings is featured on Juan’s Ricercare VI for guitar and chamber orchestra. Based on the harmonies of the Cuban son, the piece has an aggressive, driving feel. Solos in the oboe, flute, and clarinet require players to engage in intent chamber music with the soloist; later, in an orchestral tutti, the ensemble is driven by pealing bells in the percussion section. I especially relish playing Juan’s characteristic piccolo parts—they are brutal, shrill, and demanding. I love the ending of the Ricercare, which crashes to a halt after biting piccolo line doubled by the piano. Guitarist Dieter Hennings is an old friend and an amazing performer—he always brings an intense, swaggering attitude to the piece.
Juan’s newest work, Sinfonía No. 2, has an entirely different feel. Its sentimental middle section requires extreme pitch bends and wide, slow vibrato in solos in the clarinet, English horn, flute, and trombone. These are tricks that Juan has used to great effect in other pieces of his I have performed—his opera, DeCachetitoRaspado, closes with a similar lazy oscillation in the muted trombone. It’s truly beautiful.
Friday, October 29
With the send-off concert only a few days away, we have precious little rehearsal time left. Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon’s works require special care, as they demand impeccable rhythm and the illusion of ease. We are preparing three of his works, including the premiere of his newest, Pluck. Pound. Peel. for chamber orchestra with solo harpsichord, soprano, and guitar. We will also perform his miniature opera, NiñoPolilla, and two songs from his cantata, Comala.
Each of these pieces features soprano Tony Arnold extensively. An experienced singer of contemporary music, Tony is a performer whose sensitivity and presence I deeply admire. Her voice is beautiful, clear, and powerful—but just as often it is delicate and articulate. An amazing chamber musician, she adapts her voice to each new context without hesitation—she complements the vibraphone here, the bass clarinet there, next the muted trumpet. More than that, her diction is rich and full of expression—she delivers the meaning of the text at the level of each consonant. I learn so much about a score from her interpretation.
More than other works on the program, Ricardo’s up-tempo pieces require unflinching and precise rhythm—only without the heaviness that comes from trying too hard. Their intricate orchestration makes them fun to play and they are persistent in their catchiness. But his slower songs for soprano are universal favorites, unselfconscious, beautiful miniatures that open up onto vast silences. No matter the circumstances—the audience, my mood, my performance, the number of times I’ve heard or performed El Mar, Tarde, and Vacío—these more tender pieces always have the effect of obliterating my ego, quieting my mind. I’m aware that this sounds hyperbolic, but I wish there was some other way to describe the special, tense silence that precedes the applause at the close of El Mar. I think that part of the feeling is an acute disappointment that the piece is over—there, it just ended a half a second ago, and I’m already wishing I could experience it again. Perhaps that’s a better way of putting it—Ricardo’s pieces are excruciating in their brevity.
Saturday, October 30
At the end of a week of hard work, we feel we deserve a little break. After a ten-minute debate about whether anyone is up for a few drinks before heading home, we get to the bar only to realize that everyone else there is celebrating Halloween. Oh, yeah, Halloween—it had slipped my mind. On top of that, it’s karaoke night. We shout at each other over a guy in a wig singing Ozzy tunes.
Sunday, October 31
A send-off concert at Eastman
The concert in Eastman’s large ensemble rehearsal space attracts a standing-room-only crowd. The program features the world premieres of Trigos’s SinfoníaNo. 2, Baljinder Sekhon’s Fanfare, and Zohn-Muldoon’s Pluck. Pound. Peel. Five Memos by Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, Rounders by Michael Burritt, and Roundelay by Bob Morris complete the program.
The get-together after the concert doesn’t last long. At first there’s big talk of a real celebration—after a beer or two, violinist Hanna Hurwitz loses gracefully to Dieter Hennings at a game of darts. Then the conversation changes; I talk to more than one member of the group who still hasn’t finished packing. Nothing kills a party like realizing you need to do your laundry—right now, before you run out of hours in the night. It starts snowing big soggy flakes. I’m tired, but I still appreciate that there has never been a better time to catch a flight to Mexico.