This week we played more music in the "fate" theme; some new, some old. Our conductor for the week was Marin Alsop, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s new Music Director. She and I have a connection that goes back to the days when I played in the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, when she came to conduct our Halloween concert there. I think it was the first venture into that arena by the orchestra and it became a hit quickly with both the musicians and the patrons. Suffice it to say that the creativity that goes into music-making carries over into costume ideas, from a duck giving the tuning note, to the concertmaster with horns (not the brass kind). I remember a large bass trunk being rolled out to the front of the stage and out popping "Count" Alsop (a fitting nickname for a conductor, but she’s so much more). I think that the situation played into her strong suit (her incredible wit and sense of humor) and her abilities lent a huge sense of musical credibility to the night. We posed for a picture together and to this day are bonded by the experience.
The first piece on the program this week was about a witch hunt. Sounds a little Halloween-like, but really happened. The title of the piece was "The Confession of Isobel Gowdie", and the sounds were very descriptive…..viola glisses sounding like sobs and moans, trumpets chorales calling up images of the church, etc. Both of these things were demonstrated by example before the performance began. There was a really bizarre effect in the horn section that I never really learned the reason for, which nonetheless had plenty of imagery. In music we have what are called "grace" notes; notes that appear in smaller font than the main notes of the bar that are meant to be played quickly in a way that ornaments the music but keeps the flow of time moving along steadily. MacMillan wrote grace notes in several measures in the horn parts that challenged the sensibilities of the whole grace note concept.
First off, the typical grace note is either one or two notes played as a flip just before the principal note….the main thing to be decided is whether the intent of the composer was to have the grace notes played on the beat, or before the beat. Secondly, the groups of grace notes were in clumps of 5, 6, 7, 9 or 11, and in a nearly random pattern covering up to 2-1/2 octaves of range. Our section’s assumption was that the grace notes were to be played as quickly as possible, and when we asked Marin Alsop about the placement she said, "vomit ON the beat!". By the time the dress rehearsal came along I personally could judge how effectively I was playing my part by how much the clarinet section was laughing (the more laughter, the closer I was coming to the printed part). After the show four of my W. Virginia University horn students echoed the PSO horns’ feeling that the effect was quite Tarzan-esque (cue: Carol Burnette). I wonder what that effect was supposed to be………if I find out, I’ll let you know.