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How do you do what you do, man?

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BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra | 10:34 UK time, Monday, 24 August 2009

Mark O'Keeffe

OK this is my first blog ever.... I don't even know what 'blog' means but since everyone seems to be writing one, I thought I should also have a go. The first three letters 'blo' almost completes the word 'blow', which is what I do in the SSO....blow the trumpet. There has been a lot of blowing recently in this year's BBC Proms, pieces by Ravel, Stravinsky, Beethoven and Glass. Also, the new cello concerto by Unsuk Chin performed brilliantly by Alban Gerhardt two weeks ago. The concerto grew on me throughout the rehearsals....was it the supremely impressive virtuosity of Alban, the atmosphere created by our audience within the space which is The Royal Albert Hall during the 'silences' (see Anthony's blog,) or was it because I'm fascinated by contemporary music of any sort? Maybe all of the above and more. To some, I'm sure it represented hard work to listen to as well as to play, which reminds me of a Russian conductor who performed at Wexford Opera Festival several years ago. On his second visit to the festival, at the first rehearsal he announced to the orchestra in his limited vocabulary, "last year, good music, good time.....this year, good time!"

Prommers always know how to have a good time. To us on stage, they are a sea of faces; they sit, they stand, (on the higher levels of the hall, some even lie down on the floor, absorbing the sounds wafting from below). Some rest against the balustrades, head tilting here, shoulder against a pillar there, or with head firmly planted in a programme, intent on soaking up every last detail and nuance of the phrase being played at that very moment....oh the intensity!

I remember my first encounter with the BBC Proms in 1997....Shostakovich 1st Symphony, and I will never forget that exhilarating, yet terrifying feeling of playing to some six thousand faces, all hanging on every note we played (not to mention the radio audience). It was too much for me I think, and I suffered with nerves every year for the next five or six, until one day...EUREKA!....a friend of mine, and regular Prommer quipped "you know, it doesn't matter what you play at the Proms, the audience will always love it anyway". My God he's right, I thought....why have I been putting myself through this torture every year, being terrified almost to the point of not being able to breathe in or out? Dry inside of mouth, wet lips, sweaty, trembling hands, and self-doubt....all the things you never get when doing all those long hours of practice in the living room!

Another friend of mine, a fabulous jazz trumpet player recently asked me in his broad Glaswegian accent "how do you do what you do, man? After an initial confused look on my face, he explained that he found it intriguing that seventy or eighty players in one room can play to a particularly exacting standard at any one time. I couldn't give him a straight answer....all I could muster was "well, how do you do...what YOU do?" We wrangled over the finer points of playing in small groups versus large ensembles for a while, but ended up dusting off the leitmotifs and jazz riffs, deciding to respect each other's point of view, and then just got on with the music-making at the time.

So then 'how do we' becomes 'WHY do we?' We all have our own reasons I guess, but I'd like to believe that my reason is simply this; I love music.
During every season of Proms we face new challenges, be they technical, musical, mental, physical, spiritual or maybe just how the hell are we going to get to the pub before closing-time after a late-night Prom! This season is no different, although for me, having reached the age of 40 in June, the challenges seem to be getting more physical (which reminds me, The Great Scottish Run - that's 13 miles - is just over a week away...GULP!).

This week sees the very welcome return of Donald Runnicles (our new Principal Conductor who will perform with us Richard Strauss's - Symphonia Domestica, Mozart - Piano Concerto 20 and John Adams - Slonimsky's Earbox.

Nicolas Slonimsky's "Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns" has been referred to as "a mind-bending book filled with harmonic morsels for the curious and self-motivated musician." According to legend, John Coltrane used Slonimsky's thesaurus to practice from during the period that Kind of Blue was recorded b Miles Davis. I love the quote I found on the internet which reads "one note of caution, it offers no suggestion for technical proficiency or fingering in how to play these scales and patterns, you will have to figure that out by yourself. But that will allow you the maximum joy of self-discovery as you portage your way through these pages to your ultimate musical destination."
The model for Slonimsky's Earbox was the exploding first few moments of Stravisnky's symphonic poem, Le Chant du Rossignol (The Song of the Nightingale). The way Stravinsky's orchestra bursts out in a brilliant eruption of colours, shapes and sounds, and also his use of modal scales, were some of the attractions held by John Adams.
Slonimsky's Earbox was composed in 1995 on a commission from two orchestras: the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester and the Oregon Symphony in Portland, Oregon. The work is dedicated to Kent Nagano, conductor, long-time friend and a constant supporter of the music of Adams. Nagano conducted the world premiere in September of 1996 in the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester.. The American premiere was conducted by James de Preist, who also presented the work the following year with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

That's the groundwork laid down for the concert, so now it's time to get our hands dirty and get stuck in.

What about 'when do we do what we do?' Check us out on Wednesday August 26th in action in Royal Albert Hall when Donald will take us all on that exhilarating, yet terrifying rollercoaster journey from the mind-bending scales of John Adams to the turbulence of family life in the so-called Domestic Symphony. Bring it on man.

Mark O'Keeffe


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