There have been a couple of threads in the last six months about why classical musicians perform with the music in front of them. Please, allow me to tell you about last night’s little gig that almost didn’t happen…
In ways, it was no big whoop, but in other ways, it was huge. Last night was “The Feast of the Founding Master” at University of Toronto’s Massey College, the Founding Master being the late Robertson Davies. While Robertson Davies was still Master of the college, this was traditionaly an occasion where he would read a ghost story written specially for the day, and it would often feature musical performances chosen to reflect Mr. Davies appreciation of the both the rarefied and the popular. Since he stepped down as Master, and especially since his death, the Feast has come to be a celebration of him.
I have had the honour of performing with the Talisker Players many times, including their inaugural concert in 1999. They started out as a string quartet that wanted to specialize in vocal chamber music, and have branched out into an ensemble that commissions and encourages composers to write for various small instrumental ensembles. The focus of their concerts is also interesting - rather than concentrate on the instrumental resources and program the concert based solely on what musicians are playing, they select repertoire based on the connections between the poetry as well as the composers, so that there is a literary theme to their concerts.
The Talisker Players have had a close association with Massey College for a number of years now, and one of the many benefits of that association has been the generous use of the music room of the Master’s Lodging for our rehearsals. Because of the Master’s generosity, what might otherwise be a casual, one-off evening gig or gigette has become an important evening where the professional musicians want to perform at their absolute best for an appreciative audience.
There’s the background. For last night’s performance, we were to do selections from “Ellis Portal”, a collection of poems by Rex Devrell, music composed by Andrew Ager, all to do with various aspects of the city of Toronto and its night life. The piece had been written for Talisker Players - string quartet with clarinet/bass clarinet, Soprano and Baritone. It had been premiered by one baritone, GD, and it appears on the recent, soon to be released recording, sung by yet another baritone, AD, (AD and I are both on the recording, but I sang a different piece.) who has recently moved back to Montréal. So I got gigged in to sing for last night’s performance. No biggie; but when we sat down to compare schedules, we discovered that there was no way for us to rehearse before the actual day. I was the only new guy - the quartet, the clarinetist and the soprano had all done the recording earlier this summer. So, I had the music, which I learned on my own, and we would put the piece together for the first time at 5:30, with the performances after dinner somewhere around 8:30 or 9. Nerve-wracking, but we could do it.
Then, at around 5:20 or so, the cellist and I are wondering why we’re the only ones there when we find out the 2nd violinist has fallen down the steps on her way into the subway. She hit her head rather badly, and is in the emergency ward awaiting triage for stitches.
What follows is a frantic mix of concern for her and figuring out who can take her place on such short notice. Most folks who have the ability do it are already working, as about 10 phone calls confirm. Someone who plays in another quartet (coincidentally, with the cellist and the 2nd violinist) is free that evening. She jumps in a cab, rushes to the college and is ready to go by 7. The music is collected from the hospital (!), and we run through everything once without a 2nd violin. It went well, but Og! it sounded like there was something missing. We grab a quick bite, new 2nd violinist arrives and we have time to run through everything twice before we hit the stage.
So here’s the point of my post - because of the marvelous invention of notation, we are able to do this. Consider music as a graph, with pitch marked vertically and time marked horizontally. Because of the time signature, we can tell where the other players are in time by counting, even when they aren’t playing. Because of the combination of playing the note you see and listening to the notes everyone else is playing, you can create complex sounds together without a visual awareness of what the others are playing. It truly is one of the most remarkable accomplishments of human ingenuity, to be able to combine different sounds at different times into a fluid, coherent unity.
If we weren’t all reading from the music , this scenario could only have resulted in canceling the performance. The instrumentalists read from parts, mind you - there are too many page turns in a full score to be able to read and play at the same time. The clarinetist has only his part in front of him, the violinist likewise. The singers have full scores for two reasons - one, we have our hands free and can turn pages easily. Two, unless we have perfect pitch, we can only find and tune our notes in relation to what we hear. Therefore, we have to be able to look at what we’re hearing to determine our place in it. An ‘E’ is a very different note to find in an FMaj7 than an E Major chord, for example.
The performance went remarkably well, as it turned out. Not perfect - we all had tiny glitches that more rehearsal could probably have ironed out, but well. Worthy of our best efforts, and worthy of the man we were all honouring. I wouldn’t want to do that sort of thing on a regular basis - the stress would send me to an early grave! But it’s moments like that when I contemplate the impressive depths of this strange accomplishment that we call music, and the incredible things we can do when we work together toward a common goal.
And that’s what’s buzzing around my mind on this Saint Cecelia’s Day.