Orchestra is Alchemy: a Sneak Preview of the Article on the COC Orchestra

This long article about the Canadian Opera Company orchestra is coming in the spring issue of the magazine Opera Canada. I worked a lot on it, spoke with about a dozen people, sat in on rehearsals, and had a grand old time in the process. Here’s a teaser.

the coc orchestraHow does a group of independent musicians become a band of brothers and sisters, take to a conductor, simultaneously master two as stylistically disparate operas as Tristan and La Clemenza di Tito and play them back-to-back, all the while accepting that in the opera the stage always takes precedence and that if all goes well, the audience will barely notice them? Lydia Perović follows the COC orchestra musicians and conductors in rehearsal, performance and in their less formal moments to find out.

The third act of Tristan und Isolde is starting with the dark moan of the lower strings. It’s hour four and the lights are losing some of their lustre, but the atmosphere in the COC orchestra pit is that of a party going very strong very late, with adrenalin and lucidity in abundant supply. The orchestra is in its augmented, Wagnerian version, with most sections doubled – there’s barely any room for my chair — and for this Sellars/Viola production, many of the woodwinds and brass are moving to the upper rings and returning after the solos. Soon the house and the pit will darken, and the sombre strings quiet down for the cor anglais solo.

Although impossible to tell from the audience, the sound is coming from the fifth ring staircase, behind a closed door, where Lesley Young (COC’s second oboe) is alone with her thoughts. I learn this in the weeks that follow, when I meet her and other members of the orchestra for interviews. Cor anglais belongs to the oboe family, and anglais stands for ‘angled’ rather than anything related to the English, she explains. It’s a fifth below the oboe, has a darker, lower sound, and a different reed. Why did Wagner like it so much? “It has the melancholy tone built into it. It’s the same range as the cello, another good Romantic instrument with a dark, yearning voice.” What goes through her mind while she’s playing the Tristan solo up on the fifth ring? “That is a very personal question,” she laughs. “I can tell you that I reach inside, and play straight from my heart. It’s a very sad solo, very beautiful. I play it differently each time. We are different every day, our moods are different… and the reed changes, it’s affected by humidity and temperature.”

The outsider who finds herself in the pit will inevitably be swept away by the force of the orchestral playing, but how do the musicians handle the intensity, I wondered. Do they ever become immune, do they always stay conscious of the job at hand? Lesley Young is adamant: “You don’t ever become immune to music.” Even if you’re making it? “Especially if you’re making it. You can’t help being swept up.” Permanent alertness is what distinguishes the rehearsal from the performance, explains Johannes Debus. “In performance, you have to let it go. You have to risk getting yourself into a musical high. If your awareness is in the way of music-making, then something is wrong.” Suspending observation and letting something else take over is actually the goal, argues Eric Hall, principal bassoon: “To be so engrossed that you stop consciously analyzing – being intuitive as opposed to reactive… I did experience that myself, when the performance goes so well you can’t remember to think, oh that G sharp is really sharp, I didn’t quite make that attack with the principal clarinet, seems that was a tiny bit behind the violins but I’m not sure… you’re not making all those judgment calls along the way, you’re just being involved in playing the music.”

This experience has pedagogical value, too. “When I teach, I tell my kids, when that happens, try to remember what it felt like, and try to recreate the feeling next time — you can’t really recreate sitting, breathing, fingers and all that, but you can recreate the feeling of calmness or whatever you were thinking about. That feeling brings everything into line. Also, think about what the piece is about, the emotional context of the composer. That will focus you in,” concludes Hall. Principal horn Joan Watson also emphasizes the importance of thinking beyond the technical minutiae. “Both of our conductors have been talking in rehearsals about the story and the feelings and the colours… Most of the conversation is about how you can portray a particular thing, and I love that as a musician, because that really pushes your technique. Okay, how do you play night, for example. You have to really think about articulation, and colour and balance… it’s great.” Concertmaster Marie Berard remembers Kaija Saariaho’s Amour de loin last year as an interesting case in point. “She uses all the instruments in very specific ways that are restrictive. Our role is very small—important, but reduced. We do the one pattern of things, so you end up doing very little of what you love to do. But the soundscape that she creates was incredible. I found myself during that opera thinking all kinds of bizarre things; things would pop up in my mind from the past; maybe because there was more room for that, I was not focused on having to do something difficult.”

This zone of contemplation, as both the musicians and the conductors attest, always rests on the large amount of work preceding it. After the originally contracted Tristan conductor withdrew for health reasons, Johannes Debus abandoned his Clemenza and took over the Wagner and the young Israeli conductor Daniel Cohen was asked to take Debus’s post. Neither has conducted their assigned work before, and Cohen had only ten days to prepare. “I spent ten sleepless days,” he recollects. “You learn the score, but developing an interpretation is a different thing.” The closer he got to know the score, the stranger the opera looked. “It doesn’t function like any other Mozart opera… it’s almost closer to Handel and Gluck. It’s a weird animal, it behaves as an opera seria but then it has all these elements that don’t belong to that style… it’s a style in itself.” He may have started the first rehearsal with the COC orchestra worried, but it ended up being a very happy event. “They turned out to have a very live and energetic approach to music, almost in the historically-informed or baroque way. It was the perfect orchestra for this opera: they have both lightness and agility and the heaviness and very clear characterization that you need for some of the bigger numbers. There was only the question of finding the right tone, and that can be exhausting labour, but they were completely on board the whole time, always positive, always willing to go the extra mile. And that is never taken for granted in our world.”

Johannes Debus was, meanwhile, working on his first Tristan

[Full article in Opera Canada, Spring 2013. A PDF of the scanned pages will be linked here.]

5 thoughts on “Orchestra is Alchemy: a Sneak Preview of the Article on the COC Orchestra

  1. What a great piece, and likewise, look forward to the full article! So glad you were able to get these very detailed replies from the orchestra members – they do a lot to give us an insight into their process. I think there’s a lot of good advice here for any musician – singers included – with regards to getting past the actual music-making. Despite your comment that much of the audience may be unaware of the musicians in the pit – at most COC performances, the orchestra often gets the biggest ovation, so I think (really hope!) they are appreciated.

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