Part 2 of my report on AYO’s 2014 NMC.
Alexander Orchestra repertoire week 2:
Sergei Rachmaninov The Youth Symphony
Johannes Brahms Symphony No. 2
I adore Brahms. My perception of him as a composer, and as a person, changes every time I hear a new recording of his compositions. Which makes me curious to always investigate further. I remember the first composition I played by Brahms. It was an Intermezzo for piano that was required for an eisteddfod. I was put off straight away by how the music looked on the page. Nevertheless, I pursued with much help from my teacher who did her best to convey the complexities to my then 15 year old self. I came to enjoy the piece immensely and believed that I was communicating the troubled emotion rather well. However, the eisteddfod adjudicator did not agree, saying “you need to play less like a little sunny girl from Queensland and more like an ugly old man who’s had more than three major disappointments in his life”. Those words stung, and I turned my back on Brahms for quite a while. My sore spot with Brahms was healed however, when I went to the QLD Conservatorium to study my B.Mus and heard wonderful sonatas for clarinet, violin, and piano.
The only prior orchestral playing experience I had of Brahms was his Symphony No. 3 a few years ago with the Second Queensland Youth Orchestra. I had been waiting excitedly in anticipation during the first week of NMC to play through Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. The Hopkins Orchestra had played Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in the previous week’s concert. Their performance was exhilarating and dramatic. Alexandre Bloch conducted from memory and his active stage presence looked almost choreographed. I think it’s fair to say that when the Alexander Orchestra sat down for the first Brahms rehearsals, we were expecting to prepare for an even more grandiose presentation. This did not happen.
Richard Gill walked into our first rehearsal where we were seated and eager to sink our teeth into the Symphony. However, Richard sat on his conductor’s chair and spoke about what was to come. He praised the Hopkins Orchestra performance, but said we would not take a similar approach. He would not just rehearse with us - he would educate and challenge us. Which he certainly did.
Rehearsals were intense - much more intense than the Copland. The Copland was physically draining, but the Brahms required more depth, more thinking. Richard frequently stopped to ask questions, probe our observations, and encourage comprehensive listening. It was the most superb example of theory and practical elements put together to enhance the performance. Richard spent rehearsal time discussing with us how the Symphony movements connect with one another to give a better overall experience of the composition.
In the fourth day of rehearsals, Richard said the most conflicting statement I have heard based on my 16 years of musical education: ‘Brahms is a classical composer’. This sent my head spinning! Speechless, I turned to the people around me. Yet, no one looked phased. All my life, I had read and believed strongly that Brahms was a romantic composer. Richard went on to say we would perform this piece with a classical interpretation. He demonstrated by conducting us through a transition passage where he made a dramatic deceleration into the new section - even though there was no such instruction to. When asked who in the orchestra thought that was musically appropriate, most people responded with yes. Even I thought despite the instruction not being printed on the page, many recordings have very romantic interpretations like that. Richard admitted that from the 60s/70s, such an interpretation was stylistically normal. However, he encouraged us to honour the score and incorporate classical techniques. At NMC were a few classical and baroque specialists who showed us the hierarchy of the music and how to communicate that via articulation, phrasing, dynamics and ensemble balance. I’m still unsure of how I feel about Richard’s statement, particularly after reading this interview where he talks about Brahms’ influence in the romantic era: http://www.canberratimes.com.au/entertainment/music/nurturing-seeks-to-enlighten-20131231-304gl.html. I have, though, taken away a greater trust in playing what is on the page, and to not succumb to a romantic interpretation in the hope it will delight the audience more.
When it came to the performance, we did not present an edge-of-the-seat rendition and certain parts weren’t perfectly polished, but everyone in that orchestra was a better musician than at the start of the week. We were richer in knowledge by ‘learning how to learn’ so to speak, and have the ability to take those musical processes with us to our next orchestral engagement. This, I believe, is what NMC strives to achieve. In my opinion, we all have Richard Gill to thank for that.
A little bit about Richard…
Before NMC, I had never met Richard Gill in person. His name was in every major music publication, yet none of them had done real justice to him. We all came to cherish Richard’s speeches which uplifted and united us. He has the most amazing memory (memorising everyone’s name in the orchestra by the end of the first rehearsal) and surprisingly communicates with pop culture references and modern ‘lingo’. See my favourite quote by Richard at the end of this post. To wrap up, Richard is passionate, selfless, and totally committed to a composer’s intentions and the education of young Australians.
Viva la Richard Gill!!
“Even Brahms knew he was using clever compositional techniques and said ‘Ich bin totes cool.’”
-Richard Gill, 2014 National Music Camp