Well, the first of our subscription concert weekends is done, and I’m left curiously unaffected. Maybe it’s always been this way – it’s just the range of emotions that I go through during the process of rehearsing and performing that has changed as the job has changed.
When I first came here in 1995, I had played in three different college/conservatory orchestras (University of Puget Sound, University of Maryland, Peabody Conservatory), one youth orchestra (Tacoma Youth Symphony), and three regional professional orchestras (Tacoma Symphony, Fairfax Symphony, Maryland Symphony). Plus two summers and Tanglewood Music Center in the Berkshires of Massachusetts and three summers at the National Orchestral Institute in the Washington, D.C. area.
So, while I wasn’t completely inexperienced, I was still green by major professional orchestra standards. I didn’t earn a salary in my previous jobs, they were freelance gigs with some tenure provisions, and they paid by the rehearsal and concert (known in industry parlance as a “service”). And the amount of repertoire that they would perform in a season might encompass 15 to 20 works, rather than the 60 or more that we learn each season here at the OSO.
In any event, I spent a lot of time listening to new pieces that were coming up, studying scores if time allowed, and practicing my ass off to make sure that I was prepared for the first rehearsal. The speed with which the orchestra seemed to polish new programs was astonishing to me! Just four rehearsals in the span of a week, and we were ready to perform. Contrast this with college orchestras, where an entire semester can be spent learning a single program, or summer festivals, where there are often twice as many rehearsals in the same amount of time. The atmosphere in rehearsals was generally very relaxed. Jimmy was not a taskmaster. He generally allowed the orchestra to find its own way to the final version that he wanted, and was very non-threatening. This has its good points and bad, the performances were often much more expansive and relaxed, but at the expense of ensemble precision, intonation, and any real sense of urgency. Still, there are some performances that I remember very much to this day as being very satisfying and enjoyable.
Much has changed in the intervening 11 seasons between then and now. It would have been unthinkable to present Also Sprach Zarathustra on the opening concert of the season and to expect much in the way of virtuosity when I first arrived. Now, however, the Strauss came together as well or better than the Heldenleben which ended last season. Clearly, the orchestra is sounding very good – technically speaking. We’re executing what our music director wants us to execute, and we’re doing it better with each passing year. However, I miss an element that I have always prized when working with my favorite conductors, and that is the element of give and take. I love it when the orchestra as a whole, or a section of the orchestra, is able to play something in “their” way and have the conductor integrate it into their vision, meeting half-way or at some other hard to define point in the interpretive spectrum. As good as we sound right now, I feel like we’re never able to just pull the cork and let the genie out of the bottle, so to speak, like we were able to do last season with Itzhak, and several seasons ago with Yakov Kreizburg.
I worry, because as things stand, we can achieve excellent technical performances with Carlos, but when someone with less technical command of the stick comes in, we’ve lost some of our ability to think on our own – it takes a rehearsal or two, if ever, for some of the self-confidence to come back. In seasons past, we’ve been encouraged by Carlos to not be “so nervous” at the first concerts of a series, to play out more and be more assertive. I find this hard to do, however, when during rehearsals the most common comment is “no” and the unspoken edict is “do it my way”, rather than something a bit more open and collaborative.
Do I regret any of the changes that have happened over the past three seasons? No, not at all. But I do think that there must be a way to have the best of both worlds as the relationship between the orchestra and our music director continues. I hope that it continues to deepen and grow, and that as the constitution of the orchestra’s membership continues to change, we find and regain some of our confidence in our experience and musiciality.