Rehearsals are an interesting animal. Maybe this is because they are run by conductors, who are very interesting animals, while they are largely inflicted upon orchestral musicians, who are very, very interesting animals.
When I started with the OSO, we did four rehearsals per classical series concert with then music director James DePriest. Jimmy’s way of rehearsing was ideal for the orchestra we had then, and for his style of leadership. He would begin by reading down the major piece on the program, only stopping if there was a train wreck, playing every movement until we’d read through the entire work. Then, he’d go back and talk about place where he’d be doing a different beat pattern than we might have expected, rehearse for ensemble, maybe a little bit of intonation work, and then we’d go back and play the whole thing all over again, top to bottom. Concertos were rehearsed similarly, often on the next to last rehearsal, with a run-through on the dress. By the end of four rehearsals, much of the orchestra was ready to chew off their own leg in order to get out of there. Concerts were generally a repeat of the rehearsals with very little deviation. With an orchestra that wasn’t at the time very flexible, especially in the strings, it made for good, safe concerts.
When we hired Carlos Kalmar, we added an additional rehearsal, making it a total of five for each classical subscription concert. In the beginning of his tenure, he would often work on the beginning of a work for half of a rehearsal. I remember this taking place with a couple of pieces in particular: Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony and the Overture to Handel’s Water Music. He was working on refining the strings’ approach to the classical and baroque style, making the sound more supple and transparent. He would work with the winds on intonation and balance, not stopping until the sound was to his liking.
As the years have drawn on, the rehearsal process has come to a middle ground between Jimmy’s come-as-you-are approach and Carlos’ scorched earth approach. We often play the larger works straight through in order to get a feel for his approach to the entire piece, then go back and work smaller sections, often not running the piece again until the dress rehearsal. This isn’t even a given, we’ve had concerts where we’re playing the piece in its entirety for the first time since the first run through, four or five days earlier. Interpretations, or at least variations on the primary interpretive approach now vary widely from what we might have done in rehearsal. The orchestra has become more alert, responsive and able to take risks if Carlos gets a wild hair in his nether regions (as opposed to his usual wild hair on his head!).
The funny thing is, with guest conductors in particular, you can do either of these approaches, and if the chemistry isn’t right, the results just don’t gel. We’ve played concerts where we’ve only rehearsed by playing through over and over, and the concert ends up being stale on the first night, getting more and more lethargic as each nightly repetition. There are some weeks when I feel sincerely sorry for the Salem audience and the cheap retread concerts that they’re forced to endure from us (luckily, that is much, much less common than in the years of yore).
On the other hand, sometimes we get through five exhaustive rehearsals and feel like we’ve never really seen the music or played through the piece before (and that latter if definitely a possibility). The first concert can be an absolutely tension-laced affair, with strange mishaps occurring all over the stage. The subsequent concerts do calm down, but it never feels really comfortable.
It all incumbent on the conductor to maintain the razor’s edge balance between keeping the music fresh while also making sure that it is well prepared and that the orchestra feels confident and rested going into a difficult and stressful concert run. The primary way to do this is to keep the rehearsals paced well. Keeping track of how much time you have to go, planning in advance what you will probably have to rehearse, and what can be left for the concert stage and allowed to be spontaneous.
When I was at the Peabody Conservatory, I played in the conducting lab orchestra. This was an orchestra which was payed under the work/study program to provide for the conducting majors to learn and conduct repertoire with a live orchestra. I saw them being told how to better show dynamics, tempi, and transitions. They were also taught how to follow soloists and conduct complicated mixed meters. But never once did I see one of them taken to task for taking too much time with a particular section, or to little with another. There seemed to be no formal training for how to plan and pace a rehearsal. Now, to be fair, this might have taken place at the “post mortem” class session, but it would have been nice to have seen it addressed in front of the orchestra.
It’s amazing how many conductors just run out of time – then you’re just left with that sinking feeling of “well, we’ll see how it goes at the concert”. You become a fatalist after too many of these. You always know when you’re in the hands of an experienced professional orchestra conductor: they run rehearsals like the Swiss train system, and you are always left with the feeling that you know the music well enough to be confident how it will go, but there is still that frisson of anticipation over what will happen at the concerts.