“Ours not to reason why…”
I’m going to let you in on some trade secrets.
We played a concert tonight at the Frauenkirche in Dresden. It’s very rare for the Boston Symphony to play in anything other than a real concert hall, and we (the musicians) were never really told why we were playing in this cathedral and not the city’s concert hall. I did hear secondhand that it was because Jan Vogler, the fine cello soloist on the program, is also the director of a concert series, and all the concerts take place in the Frauenkirche. It also would explain the somewhat whimsical choice of Max Bruch’s “Kol Nidrei” to proceed Mahler Ninth, though he did perform it beautifully with a gorgeous tone.
Not that I have anything against religion. It’s a nice thing. But a symphony orchestra playing in a church is always asking for trouble. Or to put it in a more positive way: for challenges. Especially in this particular cathedral. The Frauenkirche has a fascinating history of its own. It was reduced to rubble during Allied bombing during the war, and the fact that it was rebuilt at all is almost a miracle. It’s now equally a place for concerts and worship.
The basic design of the interior is not unlike Royal Albert Hall in London: a vast, tall cylinder. One difference is, as massive as the Frauenkirche is, it could fit into Royal Albert like a Russian matryoshka doll. Another difference is the altar extension of the cathedral outside the cylinder’s perimeter. The way the orchestra had to be configured for this concert was to have the strings sitting inside the cylinder, nose to nose with the front row of the audience. Then, behind the altar wall and above the strings were the winds; and behind them, against the wall of statues of golden cherubim were the live golden cherubim of BSO brass and percussion players. The distance from the conductor to the timpani seemed half the length of a football field.
So just by the configuration alone you can begin to understand the probl…challenges of playing together. The main difficulty, though, were the acoustics. Buildings of that shape, made of stone (as this was), make sound echo marvelously unpredictable ways. Sitting so far apart from front to back, echoes take different amounts of time to reverberate and bounce off of different walls. The result from where I was sitting (it would be different for everyone) was that the strings sounded quite strong, as did the brass, who were sitting against the back wall. The winds, caught in the middle, were the odd men out.
Here’s the challenge: by the end of our one-hour rehearsal, we not only needed to solve the problems, we needed to sound as if we had been playing in this place for years in order to make a convincing show of things. So these are some of the things we had to adjust:
- In general, strings and brass can take it easy; woodwinds have to play a little louder.
- Whoever’s playing the main thematic material, play out; if not, play less. (Easier said than done–in Mahler Ninth it’s often difficult to know which is which.)
- Play with a little more articulation. That means more consonants at the beginning of notes, so we hear entrances and rhythm with clarity.
- Slightly slower tempos. This is the conductor’s call and it prevents harmonies from piling up on each other, which creates a cacophony of sound and makes it difficult to hear each other. Things can fall apart, as they did at the beginning of the rehearsal. Even with that in mind, the last note of the third movement, for example, echoed for a good ten seconds after we played it.
- Brass and percussion players have to be on the front edge of the beat, because they’re so far away from the front of the stage it takes extra time to reach the strings. At the same time, the string players have to recognize that the conductor is bringing the brass players along and not them, so they have to lay back.
In other words, it can be a real crap shoot. And be aware that these calculations are being made every split second by every individual musician on the stage. But that’s what musicians in major symphony orchestras get paid to do, and I have to say how much I admire these musicians, and Maestro Nelsons as well, for being able to pull it off with such elan.