Aftermath: Takemitsu
26 May 2011
Inside the Classics

Back in late April and early May, I wrote a few posts about this trio for flute, viola, and harp by Toru Takemitsu that I was getting ready to play on the orchestra’s chamber music series at the MacPhail Center. We seem to have attracted a lot of new readers since then, and you’re welcome to go back and read the whole saga if you like (here, here, and here,) but here’s a summary:

1) Takemitsu wrote amazingly cool, frequently ethereal music that, especially in his later years, was designed to take awaythe idea of feeling an internal pulse, and instead allow the music to encircle the listener like clouds.

2) This is nice for the listener, but hard on the performers, who still have to stay together somehow without the normal assist of an audible beat.

3) Takemitsu also liked writing a lot of complex “extended techniques,” and the practical result is that reading his music is not unlike reading Ulysses. You recognize the language, but deciphering the text and what you’re meant to do with it takes a lot of time and effort.

4) Even after several weeks of working on my own (with both viola and pencil in hand,) I still wasn’t entirely sure how Greg, Kathy, and I were going to pull this piece off without a conductor.

Around the time I wrote my last whiny little post on the subject, one of our regular commenters, who goes by WBS, chimed in with some excellent questions that I promised to answer. And now that our performance of the Takemitsu is in the books, I’ll try to do that. Here’s WBS:

I can’t help wondering how the rehearsals work when you have something so difficult and unfamiliar. It seems that someone will have to know the composer and piece well enough to say when it is working or otherwise. Maybe that is the case already. Is the give and take in a chamber music rehearsal different for this kind of piece than, say, for something by Beethoven?

Okay, so first things first. Rehearsals for a complex piece that takes you outside normal chamber music practices can go a lot of different directions, and many of those directions can be pretty irritating if you’re not careful. Chamber music is the ultimate democracy: four players in a string quartet = four equal voices, for better or for worse. Deadlocked at 2 to 2 over whether that passagework in the violins should be on or off the string? You’re gonna stay deadlocked until you hash it all out and somebody changes his/her vote. And then you’ll move on to the next moment of conflict. There are plenty of musicians who thrive in conditions like this. I am not among them.

WARNING: This is hilarious, but contains strong language.

I actually felt as if Greg, Kathy, and I were at a distinct advantage as we gathered for our first couple of rehearsals. I work with these musicians every day in the orchestra, and I knew for a fact that both of them would arrive at our first rehearsal not only knowing their own parts cold, but with a fully functioning plan for how to deal with the more complex rhythmic “clouds” Takemitsu had laid out for us. Because that’s what orchestral players do – we prepare like mad on our own time, with the intention of solving as many problems as possible before the first rehearsal. Disagreements in a string quartet setting can linger and be revisited day after day if you really want to, but disagreements in an orchestra rehearsal can linger for about 20 seconds before the rest of the orchestra is totally annoyed and just wants a final decision.

The advantage of transferring that mindset to a chamber music setting is that, in most cases, potential disagreements get set aside before they even develop. As the three of us proceeded haltingly through our first reading of the Takemitsu, our conversations after grinding to an unintended halt tended to go mainly like this:

Sam: “…oh, wait, I thought you had 32nds there…”

Kathy: “Yeah, I do, only I was waiting for the flute pickup.”

Greg: “My pickup? Oh, so I’ll cue that, then?”

Sam: “Great.”

Kathy: “Fine. Let’s start at ‘B’.”

Romantic? No. Efficient? Yes. Another characteristic of orchestra musicians is that, on the whole, we tend not to like a lot of flowery talk about what the music Means. The nature of what we do and our necessary fealty to someone else’s artistic point of view causes us to be fairly literal about music. (One of my very favorite viola teachers, a prominent orchestral player herself, used to translate every overly wordy speech by a conductor into some combination of the words “louder,” “softer,” “faster,” and “slower.” And 90% of the time, she was right that those were the only words really necessary.)

In a chamber music setting, this pragmatic sort of mindset means that the player who has just pointed out that she has the running 16th notes and should therefore set the tempo for this section cannot be trumped by another player wanting to “articulate the warmth” in his part. (Hat tip for “articulate the warmth” to Juilliard violist Isabel Hagen, the girl in the video above.) The goal is to avoid stepping on each other’s musical toes, trust the other players in the ensemble to do their jobs as you expect them to trust you to do yours, and find the most efficient route to a well-coordinated performance.

(For the record, I should be clear that not all orchestral musicians like to work this way. Some prefer to throw off the orchestral shackles as often as possible and really dig deeply into the issue of whether Brahms intended the anacrusis to the second theme of his third piano quartet to convey an atmosphere of mystery, or one of dark and forbidden love. I will never understand these people, but I’m glad it makes them happy.)

The upshot of all this is that, with about four diligent rehearsals under our belts, our Takemitsu came together pretty nicely. We each added a few personal touches, made a few executive decisions on whether or not certain instructions from the composer might benefit from a slight tweak, and then met at MacPhail a couple of days before the performance to run straight through the trio a couple of times just to be sure we hadn’t missed anything.

The performance wasn’t reviewed, to my knowledge, so I can’t offer you an objective view on how we did. But the audience was very warm, and seemed fairly riveted while we were playing, so that’s a good sign. And while the pre-rehearsal prep was a bit on the intensive side, I was right when I said in my first post on the subject that it would turn out to be worth it. Takemitsu pretty much always is, in my experience.

<April 2020>

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