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First rehearsal

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 leads the orchestra through first readings

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.


  1. Dan Wittmayer says:

    You are always improvising with your right hand while playing in an ensemble! This new insight into the spontaneity of early music surprised me. Do other members of the orchestra have room for “leaps of fantasy”, too?

    • HI Dan,
      The lack of improvisation in music after 1750 is the exception in Western music history. Music before that date relied on it and of course, Jazz performance is all about improvisation and elaboration of material. Bit by bit 18th century composers stopped trusting performers to elaborate their scores and they become more and more specific. The French are probably the earliest to become finicky about this–even in the early 18th and late 17th century. Couperin and Leclair tell us not to add anything and that they have worked very hard to produce a work complete in all its details. Bach was criticized for writing out his ornaments so comprehensively (but what a great lesson he gives in elaboration). Handel rarely wrote out his ornaments and we are lucky to have a few arias and harpsichord works with examples on how he gussied up his music in performance. But in most cases, a fine performance Baroque music must include a wise performer’s elaboration. Good taste, good style, this has to be studied so we don’t use Duke Ellington riffs in a Corelli score!

      Continuo playing, what I do, is different. Here, the right hand was never written out when the harpsichordist or lute player or organist were in an accompanying roles. The chords are delineated in the bass with figures and we use them. The details of our right hand can change as needed within the context of the correct harmony. We are able to be sensitive to the needs of singers or violinists. And we can respond to the flights of fancy of a soloist by, at times, echoing those flights.

  2. “Good taste, good style, this has to be studied so we don’t use Duke Ellington riffs in a Corelli score!” Ooh, but how much fun that would be! Thanks for the glimpse behind-the-scenes.

  3. Dan Wittmayer says:

    Where would we be today, musically, without the proprietary auteurs of the Enlightenment Period, i.e.- Bach as the consummate teacher? At least, now we have methods of recording the ephemeral flights of fancy of the performers. So much genius is lost to us because of not having been present at a historic performance. What was a Handel “jam” really like?
    I’m loving this dialog!

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