Monday, April 14, 2008

Pre-Concert Triage

So you arrive for a brief final rehearsal of your piece just before the concert and things do not go well. What are you going to do? It could have just been a bad rehearsal. It happens. It could have been the only rehearsal. It happens. It could have been your piece. It happens.

There will be time later to establish precisely what happened and try to find a permanent fix, but it doesn't matter now: you have to take responsibility for your piece and have to decide quickly whether to go on with the performance or not, and if you go on, you have to determine if there is at least something that can be corrected or improved before the performance.

If you are the composer, you are in your rights to withdraw the piece if you feel either the composition has failed or the organizers and/or performers have given insufficient rehearsal. This has to be balanced against the interests of an audience which has expanded time, energy, and perhaps some money in coming to the concert as well as against your -- always diplomatic -- relationship to the musicians and/or organizers. What, precisely, to announce publicly about a withdrawn piece is also a diplomatic matter. I have heard composers or organizers announce that a piece has been withdrawn due to insufficient rehearsal or lack of resources but, for whatever reason, I have yet to hear a composer announce the withdrawal of a piece from a concert due to unsatisfactory composition. (Composers do withdraw -- whether to revise or to bury -- pieces from our catalogs with some frequency, however).

An interesting compromise was offered once by Lou Harrison, who let an underprepared performance go on, but announced from the stage that it was a rehearsal and not a performance. The audience, players, and the composer were satisfied with this and the rehearsal, as it turns out, went splendidly.

If you do decide to let a piece go forward, my experience has been that it's very useful to choose one global feature of the piece for all of the players to focus upon, and allow the remaining aspects of the performance to hang onto the coattails of that feature. This feature could be simply establishing some landmarks or signs to make sure that no one gets lost, or taking tempi up or down a notch, or an agreement about dynamic levels, or fine-tuning initial and final chords a bit (hint: in major triads, either get the major third a bit narrower, or allow the third to fade out faster than the tonic and fifth; in ensemble with piano or other equal tempered instruments, drop the third from all but the initial attack in sustained sounds).

What I have personally found that works well is to get ensembles to play attacks and releases with greater accuracy and to play with conviction regardless of errors. A ensemble sound with a sharp beginning, a committed sustain, and a sharp ending will do wonders for an overall performance, no matter precisely which sounds are played. At least a suggestion of polish will be lent to the performance as well as your piece.

Sometimes, I've found it useful or necessary to communicate directly with individual members of a ensemble before a performance. This is often just to encourage them over some matter that has clearly been discouraging. This is best done privately and discretely and finding the right mix of praise and suggestion is a question of sensitivity and, to be honest, not all composers are all that sensitive. But rest assured, the moment directly before a concert is one for confidence building and not one for brutal critique.

Finally, you can change your piece. If you're the composer, you can change any of your pieces until the moment you, personally, start decomposing. If you are performing the piece yourself, you have license to change it during a performance, even if your "revisions" would sound like "errors" when played by anyone else. If others are performing, you can allow them to drop sections or movements that are not working or you can simplify things -- dropping notes into more comfortable octaves, for example. You can even muck things up a bit more, adding noises and notes, if that's the desired effect. As Morton Feldman would have put it, you can always add that cowbell. I am fairly brutal about my own pieces, but I can usually recognize that there is still some distance that can be taken with last-minute modifications to a score before one gives it up entirely.

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