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End of the path to Bohortha ...

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Michael Zev Gordon Michael Zev Gordon | 17:20 UK Time, Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Picture of countryside nera Bohortha
Composer Michael Zev Gordon has allowed readers to follow every step of the compositional journey leading to the BBC Symphony Orchestra's world premiere of his orchestral work, 'Bohortha'. Michael signs off his series of blogs now with a searingly honest and exceptionally revealing  'before' and 'after' view of the premiere...
Bohortha in rehearsal
It’s been a long time coming. I’m just out of rehearsal with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste. I finished Bohortha back at the end of March, because teaching duties called, and also because I knew that the preparation of parts would take much longer than predicted – and I didn’t, for once, want to be rushing.

And suddenly, it is the sand speeding up as it runs out of the hour-glass, or as it appears to – and finally, after all this time of composing and preparation, I am at the point of meeting those who will bring it out into the light of day; and finally at the point of finding out if what I hear really matches up to what I imagined.

Discussions with musicians are always pragmatic in part: do the page turns work, is there a sharp missing in the horn part, does the pause need to be a bit longer to allow the flautist to change to the alto flute? But I actually greatly enjoy this side of it: the things that must be done as a professional to make the making of music work!

And there are further basic practical things to consider: can you hear the bassoon solo at this point, does the celeste colour the strings in the right way, does the percussion cut through precisely as it should, or ought the dynamic be changed to make it more effective?

There are always things to hone further: turns of phrase that don’t make the impact you hope they will; pacing that seems too pacey or too slack; a climax point that seems to underwhelm. And as I reflect now – and will continue to – there are places in Bohortha that could be altered.

But what came through today with force – unexpected force I have to say – was the sheer sound of the orchestra: the marvellous thing of 100 or so musicians playing together. My work resonated, it ‘spoke’, the big picture was clear – well at least for me.

And it felt a privilege to have conductor and orchestra putting their energy, intellectual, emotional and physical into my piece. I slaved for many months at the piano, at the desk – alone. Finally, there they were: those that complete the music, those that breathe life into it.

Bohortha in performance

Well, I guess it’s the day after the night before – when, after all the build-up, one inevitably falls back to earth. But I have to say it was such an enjoyable and uplifting experience that I’m still floating...

In the afternoon’s dress rehearsal, though, it was rather different: the music felt unsettled. And I began to doubt what I’d done – had I set the tempi too fast? Were the movements out of kilter? Why did the brass not come through as they should do at certain places? And then my nerves built up because of the pre-concert talk. Of course one wants to put across the piece, the ideas, the hopes for it. But an hour-and-a-half before the first performance is a time of utmost vulnerability – just when I prefer to stay quiet.

Then suddenly the talk was upon me – and I met my interlocutor, whom I hadn’t seen for 12 years, and I calmed down – and it became a pleasure, a release of tension. And family and friends appeared as I sat after it, having a sandwich in the café – and the event was no longer just a public one but a personal one too. And so into the hall, and the strong sense of how intimate the Barbican can feel, as well as grand: the orchestra all packs in, they feel close.

What happens to my state with a first performance? Well, generally I simply cannot listen to the music properly. I hear, but cannot listen – it blurs, it bends strangely. But something else happened last night, and it’s rare. And that was from the first down-beat of Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s baton, I knew it was going to be okay. It all resonated again, just as it had on the previous day’s rehearsal. The music was settled, balanced. The right feeling was coming out, the sounds shone.

And so I could do what I rarely can: I could properly focus on the piece. And as much as listening, I watched. A concert is about sound – of course. But a live event is perhaps almost as much about seeing people making the music: the effort, the energy, the touch, the … feeling.

Afterwards many came up to me with kind words, audience and performers. It’s a great moment, especially when the players are generous with their words. And my children were delighted – and then told me how I have to learn to bow better!

And me? I’m a hard critic: I will continue to think about the lengths of the musical sections, about the gap between intention and realization. But that is what drives me on to the next piece – to try to improve, to try to refine further.  And at the same time, I think I can say that something was realized here, something achieved. If Mahler’s Rückertlieder, which followed my piece in the concert, remains for me like a holy grail of refinement and emotion, I felt not totally dwarfed by it. I felt that writing this work for orchestra had released a newly rich palette of colours, emotional and sonic, in my music. I felt that I had made something that could excite and soothe, that had its own sound-world, its own integrity.

It’s a special thing to see so many people working together to put across one’s work. It was an exceptional evening.



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