January 17, 2012 at 2 PM
The Atlas Performing Arts Center
We are about to play the music. This is the first rehearsal. We are in our places and tuned up. Loretta O’Sullivan makes sure her cello strings are exact with the harpsichord’s—A, D, G and C. She hands that A to the violins who toss it over to the violas. The winds come last and the orchestra plays an E flat major chord so that each one of us is in harmony with the first notes of the first aria. We are ready to make this Monsigny score come to life.
Against the studio room walls (painted the most recent incarnation of institutional green) lean valises and instrument cases. There is a table of snacks and water, always refreshed by our orchestra manager, Nancy Snider. Nancy, who plays cello in the band, was hard to read at first. Was she a disciplinarian? Though threateningly efficient, we found out that she really protects us. She is a mother grizzly and we know that when we need a break, she will make sure we have it. There are understandings as to how long we must work each day and she is clear that we must arrive on time and go home in good time. This may not seem so very important but musicians tend to want to work until they drop. If we fall prey to this we can’t pace our energy so that the music is best served. Nancy is the ideal manager who conserves as well as focuses the Ensemble.
On this first day, some of us are weary from long drives or train rides or flights. We come from many corners of the country but we are all eager to play the opening measures of the first aria, the singers will come tomorrow and today we only work on our instrumental roles. Our relationship with the music begins with these few notes played as an ensemble. The character of the piece reveals itself as we play into the aria and we look for moments that we love (we hope there are many), places that require our attention, and phrases that allow us to call upon our artistry.
Ryan Brown, our conductor and artistic director of Opera Lafayette has a strong sense of what he wants yet he counts on all of us to bring our commitment, experience and our understanding of 18th century French style. The orchestra players in Opera Lafayette are remarkable. All of us have active careers as soloists or chamber musicians. Any issue of performance practice (how a trill should be played, or a phrase lilted) while foreign territory for most orchestras is home turf for us. And as any fine orchestra, work hard to make the music come to life. John Feeney, our bass player, has told me that he listens to every section of the orchestra as he plays. He gets cues from the cellos, oboes, violins, flutes, and he adjusts his playing accordingly. Loretta, the first chair cello is aware of every instrument playing the bass line and has come to me during breaks to draw my attention to an instant where I am not in solidarity with the section—shape up Andy! Washington McClain, the oboist, will not tolerate an E flat chord that isn’t in tune. Claire Jolivet, the concertmaster, listens for the effectiveness of the bowing that she has notated in order to make any changes as we all get to know the piece better. I listen to the music all around me and begin to find places where my right hand, the one that is always improvised when playing harpsichord in ensemble music, can take slight leaps of fantasy, adding some energy to the sound of the orchestra. If there is a particularly beautiful harmony, the chord I play can have more notes, be rolled longer—squeeze out the beauty of it.
From now until the tour is over, until we have played Versailles and celebrated all our efforts, ALL our efforts will be this piece, Le Roi et le fermier.