The Rehearsal Orchestra is a band unlike any I will write about this year. They exist solely to rehearse works of varying style during weekend or one-day courses in London, as well as a longer residential course in Edinburgh at summertime, when the repertoire list gets somewhat longer.
I'd never done a course before but my attention had been caught by two weekends on this year's programme, both of which conducted by Lev Parikian – good egg, mate and bloody fine conductor. This one was dedicated solely to Mahler's 9th symphony.
I think I like Mahler 9. I like 1, I can't stand 2. 3 has its obvious plusses as a trombonist but overall is a bit much. I don't know 4. 5 is wonderful but 6 is his masterpiece. 7 is the other one I don't know and 8 is just impractical. One thing that all Mahler's symphonies have is their fiendish difficulty. I think this makes for rewarding music in 5 and 6, but as for 9 I think I remain unconvinced. There are many wonderful moments in it, mostly in the first movement but also in the last and it can't be denied that it has a profound effect on many listeners. I think it was Peter Stark
that said that to conduct Mahler 9 well at all one had to be at least 45 years old. Maybe the same goes for appreciating it as a listener.
I'd played the piece once before, with I Maestri (who I will have to blog about, I've decided) and it was a horrible experience. Opportunities to play the piece come rarely to an amateur so I wanted to use this session to get the repertoire under my belt and get my lips seriously back in shape, while also deriving some musical pleasure from the whole experience.
Mission accomplished, I'm pleased to say. My lip held up well and by the time of the open rehearsal on Sunday evening I think I had the piece under my fingers quite nicely. I was rather impressed with the standard of the orchestra, actually. I think this is one of those courses that really pulls in the applications, so Lev can afford to cherry pick, Yet I suppose he has to balance a desire to get the best available players to do the course with a tacit obligation to reward loyalty. The RO has a board of management, made up of people who I suppose would like to be guaranteed a place. Many players seemed very familiar with each other from the outset, so there may well be a core of players involved in many of the courses. I'd like to know how he goes about it, and indeed how much say he has in who is and isn't offered a place.
There are a few things that I noticed or that happened over the weekend that I feel are worthy of mention.
First up, I felt no little trepidation when, just before the first session on Saturday afternoon, I saw a chap wearing a black sweater upon which he'd the following words printed:
"MUSICIANS DUET BETTER"
It is this kind of humour which makes me want to run away. From everything. I recall a conversation upon which I eavesdropped when attending a British Trombone Society
event (sshhhhh…..) at the Royal Academy of Music in February 2008. A young attendee had found himself sat next to a more mature attendee who had an alto trombone with him for the morning's Massed Blow (which I quite deliberately missed). The youngster asked an innocent question, along the lines of how long had this chap been playing the alto. The response was nuclear.
"I like to say I've been an ALTOHOLIC for 15 years!!"
This was followed by unreciprocated mirth and quite possibly counselling.
The second thing I picked up on was something gleaned from a conversation with Steve, a French Horn player who, as a mate of Lev's has helped out Brent on several occasions. We were chatting about the cricket, actually. Steve was using his mobile to red the Guardian's over-by-over commentary on the England v South Africa test when his principal said "Come on, it's Mahler 9. Turn it off."
Now, look. I know that it isn't the most professional-looking thing, using a mobile in rehearsal. And Steve was happy to follow his section leader's wishes, but I think, like me, he was most puzzled as to the emphasis of the request. The truth of the matter is that it's not great behaviour whatever the music (note: this is already MASSIVELY hypocritical) but why get so pompous about Mahler 9? Is it one of those pieces which people (amateurs particularly susceptible to this I think) put on a pedestal? Beethoven 5 probably gets the same treatment, and of course Tchaik 6, like Mahler 9, ends with a slow movement and is all about death. Does this mean they are more worthy of our respect and deference?
Finally, Caroline Stockmann, who, I believe, is the new money person on the Rehearsal Orchestra board told us some startling information about what it takes to run such an organisation. My £47 course fee barely scratched the surface of what it costs for me to be at the course. My place was subsidised by a further £75. Students pay less to attend. this means that their subsidy was £115. From what I can make out, the orchestra has a small group of generous benefactors for support, as well as funding from the Arts Council. It is envisaged that this will prove insufficient to guarantee the orchestra a long-term future.
This is a huge issue nowadays in ALL arts, professional or amateur. In this case, I'm still trying to work out how everything costs so much. I don't think music hire is as costly as it might be, as the open rehearsal that concludes each course is not classed as a public performance. Lev needs paying, and the string section leaders need paying. Percussion hire is certainly very costly, and I don't think this weekend's venues would have come cheaply either. But there were about 90 people on the course, only about 10 or 15 of whom were students, I reckon. Let's say that the orchestra fees bring in about £4,200 or so. The extra subsidy signals a cost of over £10,000 per course. How?
It would be interesting to know. I'm happy to say that Caroline looks eager to muck in and help the orchestra better meet their financial challenges. I just hope she has luck as well as determination and ability on her side.
Money troubles will rear their ugly heads again, don't you worry.
Addendum: Jonathan Burton, he of the sweater slogan mentioned above, and who played contra bassoon over the weekend, wrote a nice little piece about the weekend here