I was reading a post by CK Dexter Haven in his excellent blog All is Yar about Sir Simon Rattle conducting the LA Phil last week, when I was titillated by a side comment he made about a very obvious error on the part of a principal wind player some years back. It made me think about the tightrope that is performing live in front of an audience, and how slender and elusive that rope can be on occasion.
Some nights, I go on stage and I think to myself “this is going to be a rough night for me”. Sometimes that ends up being true, but more often, once the performance begins, I’m hyper aware and end up being on top of things. More often, it’s when I go onstage in a semi-blasé state that is a real warning bell, especially if the opening work bolts right out of the starting gate.
You never know what the problem is going to be. Sometimes I’ll be in a thorny section and find myself thinking about what kind of bourbons the hotel bar next store serves and then I’m totally out of sync – usually this takes place during a slow movement or a long period of rests, so it’s not too damaging. Other times, if it’s an intricate passage that involves playing off of another section (like the Copland Short Symphony we did last week), there might be a bit of a correction that needs to be made if the other section is a bit early or late, or a bit faster or slower. The need to be “right” is a very dangerous one, because there is an objective “right” and “wrong” as compared to the score, in terms of rhythm (and pitch, etc.), but if the majority of the ensemble or the leading voice is “wrong”, then being “right” doesn’t improve the situation, it makes it much, much worse. That’s why being a good chamber musician is so important, especially in the absence of an alert and capable presence on the podium.
That being said, some of the most dangerous conductors are those who don’t inspire confidence. They generally are barely in control of the music at best, and though they might not make a mistake in rehearsal, one is constantly on guard that they might bite the big one in the concert setting. I’d much rather have someone bad who I can ignore for the entire concert (known as a LUFU: Look Up, F**k Up) than someone who is barely competent who might lull me into a false sense of complacency that will be shattered when the shit hits the fan. They make you look and then make you wish you hadn’t – d’oh!
Anyway, playing in an orchestra is a lot like they describe combat: long periods of tedium punctuated by short periods of sheer terror (although I wouldn’t say ‘tedium’, I’d say ‘blithe ignorance’). And you never know when the terror will strike.