This article is one of a series by former BSO violinist and former Utah Symphony associate concertmaster Gerald Elias—who continues to play with the BSO at Tanglewood and on tour—examining a variety of on-the-job challenges faced by orchestral violinists.
It is generally acknowledged that the violins, particularly the first violins, play the most notes of any orchestral instrument. This is not intended to disparage the noble efforts of the contrabassoon, piccolo, or triangle. We all have our essential role to play. Nevertheless, it’s true. Even a non-musician can attest to that simply by lifting a first violin part and then, let’s say, a third trombone part, and feel which is heavier. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred it will be, you guessed it, the violin. It’s not at all unusual for a first violin part in a big nineteenth- or twentieth-century symphonic work to stretch for twenty or thirty pages, or even a forty page behemoth like Mahler’s Fifth.
Here’s some easy division. Forty pages, eighty minutes—the approximate duration of Mahler Fifth. Twenty page turns, meaning a page turn on an average every four minutes! And when you take away the half-hour Adagietto, which is only a few pages long, it’s almost a page turn a minute. But do you, as an astute audience member, ever even notice that? Smoke and mirrors? Is it magic, right in front of your eyes?
Not really. It’s a combined, concerted effort by the composer, publisher, orchestra library, and finally the page turner to make page turning essentially invisible. Let’s take each of those contributors one at a time.
When you go to a performance of a Mahler symphony you see a massive number of musicians on stage. (His Symphony No. 8, “A Symphony of a Thousand,” really pushes that envelope.) Yet if you look—and listen—closely you’ll notice that much of the time there are only a handful musicians playing. It is very rare indeed when everyone plays at the same time. Those precious moments are usually reserved for the occasional, hall-shaking climax. In fact, one interesting experiment you might want to try as a listener is, at any given moment, to identify every instrument that is being played. The discipline of this experiment might well enhance your experience and appreciation of the music, as it opens the window to the miraculously varied rainbow of orchestral colors a great composer has at his disposal. A side benefit for the musicians as a result of composers’ selective use of instrumentation is that it gives each musician an opportunity to rest from time to time, and although the composer’s objective might have been a purely musical one, it really does provide a moment, albeit usually a brief one, for string players to relax both mentally and physically. The musical term for this rest is, appropriately, a rest.
Since reputable music publishers have an understanding of performers’ needs, whenever possible they format the music to place a rest at the bottom of the right hand page. This enables the musician, who we can safely assume needs both hands to play his/her instrument, to be able to turn the page without interrupting the music. Most of the time, from Bach to Bernstein, this system works effectively.
There are times though, when composers aren’t so cooperative; when, for instance the violin part requires constant playing of eighth notes or sixteenth notes (i.e. the fast stuff) for several minutes without surcease. In this case, for example in some Schubert or Bruckner symphonies, it’s impossible to fit enough notes on a single page in order to get to the next rest. This is where having a great orchestra library staff, such as the one the BSO can boast of, is a blessing. We will often find that the page-turning dilemma has been resolved by the library having photocopied a portion of the next page up to the point there finally is a rest, and appending it onto the page that has all the fast stuff.
What happens, though, when there are no rests at all on the horizon? When you simply have to keep playing nonstop from the bottom right of one page to the top left of the next? It does happen from time to time, and that’s where the skill of the page turner is paramount. There is no page-turning course in music conservatories, though after having played with countless stand partners over the past forty years I sometimes wish there was. Because even when there is a rest at the bottom of the page, there is an art to knowing the right time to turn it. Some page turners, anxious to jump back into the fray, turn prematurely, leaving their stand partners high and dry, trying to recall the music that everyone else seems to be playing. Other page turners, believing they’re being good Samaritans by enabling you to see every last note before turning, wait for the final split second to turn the page. But unless you’ve memorized the music at the top left of every page, this can be extremely stressful. I had one stand partner many years ago, who shall remain nameless (including the orchestra), who is a sensational violinist and fine musician. For some reason, he gave the distinct impression that turning a page was either a leisure activity (when he was in a good mood) or an imposition on his time (when he was in a bad mood). As we’d approach the bottom of the page, he’d look curiously at the music, as if he’d never seen the bottom of a page before, stretch a bit, put his violin down, take another casual look at the music, consider the options, nonchalantly turn the page, make sure the music was nicely centered on the stand, and resume playing.
The key, obviously, is to know your stand partner’s strengths. For example, I’m much better at being able to “memorize” the music at the bottom of the page while my stand partner turns it than I am at predicting what’s going to appear before me on the next. So, I’m happiest when the page gets turned sooner rather than later. In either case, though, a quick turn of page is almost always a good idea. When I’m the outside player on the stand (i.e. the non-page turner) my only role in all this is to make sure my violin is out of the way in order to give my partner ample elbow room (literally) to turn the page efficiently. I’ve had some stand partners for whom I’ve turned pages who kept the scroll of their violins so close to the music—either because of eyesight or security issues—that I had to become a veritable contortionist in order to reach underneath his violin and across the stand, grab the lower right hand corner of the music in a split second, turn the page, and reestablish my playing position without whacking my stand partner’s fiddle or even interfering with his/her ability to see the music.
Sometimes I envy those triangle players.
Gerald Elias is the author of the six-part Daniel Jacobus mystery series (including two audio books) and of “Symphonies & Scorpions,” which relives via stories and photos the BSO’s history-making 1979 concert tour to China and its return in 2014. An expanded version of his 2017 BSO essay, “War & Peace. And Music,” which is included in “Symphonies & Scorpions,” recently served as the basis for a TEDSaltLakeCity2019 performance. He has also recently released a children’s story, “Maestro, the Potbellied Pig,” and “…an eclectic anthology of 28 short mysteries to chill the warmest heart.”