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Archives for November 2007

Faking it

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra | 13:34 UK time, Thursday, 15 November 2007

You might have seen at the top of our web-site that our web-weaver has suggested that you have a look at my Prague blog. Don't. It's a tangential rant, like most of my stuff, and it won't give you a good picture of what was actually a very nice trip. You see, we've got to be truthful. The photographs sum up the trip well enough – drool over those. After the recent BBC scandals about vote rigging and all that stuff, and heads rolling, we (the band!) have now had the official lecture about being truthful and never, ever, risking misleading our honoured public. Yeah, I'm for that, and I didn't need telling.

Back to Prague. My highlight was playing Martinů's The Butterfly that Stamped (hey, that's two blogs in a row that I've had a chance use the " ů " thingummy). "The butterfly that what?" I hear you mutter. As did the audience, because none of them knew it, or when it had finished and it was time to clap. Important topical question: "Is it 'misleading our public' when we break the ice and surreptitiously start the clapping?" Are we breaking the code of practice? This ballet is an early composition, full of beautiful oriental pastiche (that's the posh word for 'fake'), based on a Kipling Just So story that you might just know, all about how Solomon and a butterfly tricked and lied (don't say the word) their way to getting their noisome wives to cut the carping. Solomon had 1000 wives, but he only had eyes for Balkis (and we all know what 'eyes' is a euphemism for), so I reckon that the other 999 of his wives had good reason to be a tad restless. Martinů was always one of my favourites. I think he's like Vivaldi: everything he wrote seems full of life, always engaging, always emotionally wide ranging, never labouring a point, full of honest craftsmanship – and they both wrote lots. He was stuck up among the bells in a church tower for the first twelve years of his life, so maybe he had his own special perspective on things. I was inspired by records of his 'cello music by Czech players such as Saša Večtomov. It's a funny feeling sitting on a stage where my heroes have played, digging my 'cello spike into the same floor. Going to Prague drew me back to times when I was immersing myself in Slav music, desperately searching for records, particularly of Martinů or Janáček. Trying to winkle music out from behind the iron curtain was an adventure in itself. There were funny little specialist record shops in London, and Devoy records here in Glasgow. Nowadays, with the advent of Amazon, I don't have to go up dodgy alleyways in Soho, I can email shops up virtual dodgy alleyways anywhere in the world and a few days later my heart's desire comes flying through my letter box. All a bit unreal, really.

Did you come to our 'Hear and Now' gig in the Fruit Market, with music by Andriessen and Martland? The first piece by Andriessen, Dances, was a beautiful set of songs. The second half was his M is for Man, Music, Mozart accompanying a film by Greenaway. We weren't needed for that, but having been told that the music was beautiful I thought I might stay behind and enjoy it with a beer – not that the Fruit Market sells any honest real ale. I saw a couple of snippets during rehearsal. One was a very nice scene with stark naked female ballet dancers doing nice bouncy things and the other was a stark naked male dancer bending over, legs wide apart, with the camera behind him mere inches from his anus – I wasn't sure if this was art or a bad case of Tourettes and I didn't hang around to discover (if that's a suitable phrase in this context). Well, the Fruit Market is a sort of dodgy alleyway. That scene was certainly what we players might call an 'exposed passage'. Call me a grumpy old square. The other piece was Martland's Hard Times. Two reviews gave us a slating for sub-standard playing in this, but graciously went on to suggest that the music might have been the real problem. Most players, including yours truly, had put masses of homework into trying to get on top those notes. Martland (he of the shorts and T shirt) came in and made lots of hortatory noises, amongst which were comments about it not being an exam and that we should just enjoy ourselves. Think what it feels like: you're about to play an exposed passage (the notational type) in front a live audience with no chance of retakes, you've had no choice about the music to be played or how much rehearsal time has been allocated, you know that, even if you personally managed to nail it in rehearsal, because of the intrinsic difficulties and unreasonableness of the writing some of the group, including yourself, are statistically likely to fall off it, and at best it is extremely unlikely to sound good. Keep smiling and look confident.....?......those of us who haven't got a wind instrument stuck in our face. An interesting balance of several factors is needed for these types of technical difficulties. A quartet was moaning at Beethoven that his music was unplayable, and he admonished them with the comment that his music was for a future generation. Casals himself declared that the torrents of notes for 'cello and bass, in the storm scene of Beethoven 6, are unplayable – the hand cannot cover the given distance in the time, let alone fit all the notes in on the way. When Wagner brought his music to London the players complained about unplayable bits, and he just assured them he only wanted a general effect. Janáček wrote completely unplayable passages for various instruments. There's a priceless bit in the solo part of Delius' cello concerto where he shows that he hadn't a clue how a string instrument works. I could mention hundreds of examples. Ultimately the question is, "when do we know that the music is worth the effort?" How do you 'fake' it if it is not a passage that can be improved by hours of repetitive practise, or you haven't got enough hours to do that practise? And will anyone notice.....? Does it matter what the hell I play in the middle of some contemporary improvisatory cochlea crunching stramash - even if I play 'God Save the Queen'? Perhaps, with a lifetime's experience behind me, I should write a manual of fakes for the 'cello repertory. But would the new squeaky clean BBC code of practice allow me to do that while I am still contracted to them? Come along and join in our new community orchestra, Merchant Sinfonia, and I'll show you a few fakes – and maybe a few hints on how to get things right. Should be fun.

Anthony Sayer

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