Magazine article Opera Canada

Of Orchestras and Alchemy: What Does It Take for a Group of Independent Musicians to Become a Tight-Knit Band That Can Play Mozart and Wagner Back to Back-And Even Night to Night? Lydia Perovic Sat in on the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra's Winter Season to Find Out

Magazine article Opera Canada

Of Orchestras and Alchemy: What Does It Take for a Group of Independent Musicians to Become a Tight-Knit Band That Can Play Mozart and Wagner Back to Back-And Even Night to Night? Lydia Perovic Sat in on the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra's Winter Season to Find Out

Article excerpt

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 Canadian Opera Company 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 room for my chair--and for this Peter Sellars/Bill Viola production, many of the woodwinds and brass have to move to the upper rings of the opera house and then return after their 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, the 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. The cor anglais belongs to the oboe family, and anglais stands for "angled" rather than anything related to the English, Young 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."

An outsider in the pit will inevitably be swept away by the force of the orchestral playing, but how do the musicians handle the intensity? Do they ever become immune? Do they always stay conscious of the job at hand? 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 COC Music Director (and Tristan conductor) 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, says principal bassoon Eric Hall: "To be so engrossed that you stop consciously analyzing--being intuitive as opposed to reactive. 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,' 'It 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," says Hall, "1 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."

Principal horn Joan Watson also emphasises 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 port my a particular thing, and I love that as a musician because it really pushes your technique. How do you play 'night for example. You have to really think about articulation, and color and balance. …

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