October 24, 2011

The Mahler experience (from the back)


That was pretty much my reaction as I was leaving the stage after performing the Mahler 2 concert last Saturday night to a sold out house in Kodak Hall. It's hard in my 25+ years playing in the trumpet section of the RPO to remember very many houses that were quite that full or quite that enthusiastic! The ovation lasted over ten minutes, and as Maestro Remmereit asked each section of the orchestra to stand, the audience roared with a cheer usually only reserved for the famous soloist of the evening. It was a very exciting moment for the musicians in the orchestra that we will not soon forget.

As I was leaving for the night, I thought about how different my experience of Mahler 2 was from those out in the audience. This is something that most people don't think about when they come to hear the RPO, but I've heard mentioned often when we get visitors in rehearsals who sit in the back with the trumpets:

"Wow, this doesn't sound like the RPO at all!"

No, it doesn't. Not from my chair!

And if you were in my chair last week for the Mahler, and turned around, do you know what you would have seen? Trombones. Lots of trombones, up on a riser, pointed straight at you. Usually we sit next to the trombones in one line, so this was a different setup than normal, made necessary by the sheer numbers of musicians that had to fit on the stage.

Let me make one thing exceedingly clear at this point- I love the trombone, it is an awesome piece of acoustical engineering, and is (I believe that has been proven with a decibel meter) the loudest brass instrument in the orchestra. It can also be breathtakingly beautiful at a soft dynamic, especially in a chorale, like in Brahms 1, or yes, Mahler 2. I love the sound, it's a great instrument, and our trombone section is populated with really nice people- not an axe murderer in the bunch. Mahler 2 uses 4 trombones and tuba (that's one more trombone than usual) and in our case we used another bass trombone as our extra, bringing our total to 2 tenor trombones (the regular ones) and 2 bass trombones (bigger, and they would argue, better.)

My chair was more or less centered between these two bass trombones (let's call them Andy and Jeff), sort of an acoustical sweet spot of armageddon. The sound was at once completely awe inspiring, and completely debilitating! When I went to play my own part during the loudest passages of the Mahler in the first rehearsal all I could hear (and feel) was the bass trombone parts. I could have written their parts down from memory after a few passes, and I knew which was Jeff and which was Andy, but couldn't really tell which one was me- how loud was I playing? What was the quality of my sound? To be honest, I sometimes couldn't tell what notes I was playing, I was completely baffled! I could sort of hear the other trumpets, and maybe a hint of percussion off in the distance, but no strings, no winds, no horns, etc. You get the picture! It was a challenge. My world pretty much consisted of me, Mahler, Jeff, and Andy. My wife was jealous, she wanted in, but she was over in the violin section. I had no idea that she existed or was playing at all.

As the week went on, I think my brain adjusted to the new sound and started to filter out the trumpet sound from the trombone sound a bit, and I began to have a little more success. I felt like I could hear my colleagues in the trumpet section a bit more, which improved our blend and intonation. I didn't want to wear ear plugs, which does happen on occasion when things are just too loud to bear or one is concerned about hearing loss, as I didn't feel I was at that point. But if you think about it, there are several instruments in the orchestra besides trumpet and trombone that can be incredibly loud, especially at close range, like the piccolo, snare drum, timpani, cymbals, french horns (if you end up behind them), etc., all packed in a very close space on the stage. We all try to work together and be sensitive to each other, but sometimes the music demands something at a dramatically loud volume, and you've got to protect your ears. (My most intense experience in recent times besides the Mahler was last year's rehearsal for the opera Pagliacci. The Italian tenor stood up right behind me during the rehearsal because of a lack of space at the front of the room, and as soon as he began to sing I knew I was in trouble. His voice, which was huge and beautiful from a safe distance (around 100 yards), was so piercing at point blank range that I had to double over with my fingers in my ears (not the most elegant way to react to an opera singer) until a compassionate and prepared colleague (in the trombone section, actually) passed me some ear plugs before I passed out.)

Anyway, I felt like the sound situation in the Mahler got better as the week progressed, and the concerts continued to improve, so it worked out in the end. But, to get back to my earlier point about how things sound different from the back of the orchestra: In the final climax of the last movement of the Mahler, the 200 members of the chorus who were seated at the front of the hall dramatically stood up, turned around to face the audience and sang their hearts out while the entire orchestra joined in at full power.

The picture of this happening (photo: Kyle Schwab) is incredibly inspiring and exciting. From my seat, however, not only did I not see the choir as they stood up, I couldn't hear them *at all* with 8 trumpets, 4 trombones, 9 horns and a tuba in my immediate vicinity! I can imagine that the choir sounded great, but I *know* that the trombones sounded great, because I was the first one to hear them- they only got their sound to the audience by first getting it through me! And a great sound it was. . .

1 comment:

Julie Signitzer said...

As a long standing member of the fully professional Cayuga Chamber Orchestra in Ithaca, I was shocked to hear of the RPO plan to expand into our home town. As every orchestra struggles to survive the current recession it is mind boggling to me that a neighboring professional organization could be so thoughtless as to come into our community and undermine our support base without discussing this with the already exisitng and very long standing organization. Many of the members of CCO are on the faculty of the mentioned colleges and we have a very successful education and outreach program.
Julie Signitzer, violinist