My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Chamber Music x 20 - musings about performing with an orchestra

I have always wondered what it would be like to perform a concerto with an orchestra.
I have always wondered if I could play a concerto with an orchestra.

Now I  know!

I had one of the most thrilling experiences of my life this past Saturday, performing a piano concerto with the New River Valley Symphony Orchestra.  Still pumped full of adrenaline and raw excitement, I have many thoughts about the whole experience and I want to share them here with the hope that some small part of this post will mean something to someone else out there.  So here goes...

There's nothing wrong with taking the initiative, putting myself on the line, and asking for something that I want; I just have to be ready for whatever the answer is going to be.  I knew that someday I wanted to play a concerto with an orchestra; I respect the conductor of the NRVSO, Jim Glazebrook, his love for the students in the orchestra, and his sensitivity to soloists performing with the group; I admire the Virginia Tech students that participate in the ensemble for their commitment in spite of their busy social and academic lives; and I knew that Jim was familiar with my playing and that he didn't disapprove of my musicality.  My thought was, "If I don't create this opportunity for myself, I might not ever get the chance again."  I often think that many of us crave recognition so much that we end up shooting ourselves in the foot; we want to be so good at what we do that people are standing in line, waiting to ask us to perform with them.  But the fact is that those people that make those decisions are busy people and they are inundated with talented people all the time.  It doesn't matter how good one is, there are always plenty of others.  Not being asked to do something special doesn't necessarily mean that one isn't good enough or talented enough.

Playing with an orchestra is just as exhilarating as I thought it would be.  I am crazy about chamber music because I love interacting with other musicians;  I love the interplay of personalities that can express themselves in a musical way;  I love the fact that I can inspire another musician to shape a phrase differently and vice versa simply by handing off the music to one another in a certain way.  This interaction is not very different than playing with an intimate group of 3 or 4 others.  When I was rehearsing and performing with the NRSV I felt like it was playing chamber music, only with a lot more people.  I loved being able to look up and watch whoever had the leading line or those prodding motives that Beethoven was so good at writing.  And these interactions consumed me so much, I didn't even have a chance to get nervous, even when I had a tiny memory slip - gasp! - in the first movement.  

Speaking of memory slips...

I was shown, yet again, how quirky our brains can be.  So I already mentioned that I had a memory slip.  It occurred in a spot where I hadn't previously had any problems - of course, right?  For about 24 hours I was completely baffled about what had happened but then I had a flashback and couldn't stop myself from laughing.  Right before the part where I lost my place, there is a terribly difficult sixteenth-note passage that has parallel 4ths in the right hand and wide jumps in the left hand which are also sixteenth-notes.  The orchestra just accompanies with quarter notes but because of their presence there is not an option to sneak a little time in order to make the passage more playable.  In rehearsal, I was unable to perform the music correctly and I became terribly frustrated.  The day of the concert I decided that I was going to do it - I was going to at least fake the passage well-enough that it sounded sort of correct.  So what happened?  When we got to that spot, I focused all of my energy into those sixteenths and I actually surprised myself by playing it quite accurately.  I was so in shock, I promptly forget where I was in the music and found myself utterly confused for a few moments.  Pretty funny, really!  

It was definitely worth it to rent the 9-foot Steinway from Richmond, Virginia.  There are probably still some naysayers out there, but that's fine by me.  To summarize the situation for those of you that didn't read my earlier blog post, Virginia Tech does not own a good concert grand piano.  The piano that is in Burruss Auditorium, where this concert was held, is really horrible.  The auditorium and stage are cavernous, the piano is tiny and was built in World War II when the bass strings couldn't be manufactured out of correct metal.  The piano apparently still has those original strings.  As soon as pianists in the area found out I would be playing in that hall, I heard nothing but negative things.  I decided that's not what I wanted for my first concerto performance and especially for this incredible piece of music that has a breathtakingly beautiful piano part.  So my husband and I rented a 9 foot Steinway from the closest piano dealership, located in Richmond, Virginia.  It was so worth it.  I am so glad we did it.  In my mind, it just had to be done.  And I think other folks felt that way too.  After the dress rehearsal, the concertmistress came up to me and gave me a big hug to thank me for the piano.  And another orchestra member commented on that earlier blog post, saying "I can't imagine accompanying you with anything less." I had similar reactions from others as well.   I felt that having that piano to perform on allowed me to convey my love for this music and for the experience in a more obvious way.  

I am glad I chose to play with the music.  I had the entire concerto memorized but I decided that I would feel more comfortable with the music up on stage with me - the music rack was off the piano and the music was mostly hidden so that it wouldn't be distracting.  I am so glad I did this, especially because I had that quirky little memory slip near the beginning.  I haven't heard any negative comments about this decision and I'm grateful for that.  It allowed me to enjoy the experience from beginning to end.

It was thrilling to be able to be part of the orchestra for the rest of the performance.  I realize not everyone could do this, but I was able to play cello in the orchestra for the remainder of the concert.  It gave me more of a chance to feel like a member of their community, allowed me to burn off some of the adrenaline post-concerto performance, and also was a lot of fun!  It's been years since I've been able to play in an orchestra and it was just as thrilling as ever.  

I can pull off playing a concerto with orchestra and I would do it again, without a second thought!  I don't think I need to explain this point.  But I would add that if anyone is in need of a pianist for a concerto performance, do keep me in mind.  I have been bitten by the concerto bug ;-)

Female performers should be sure to pack safety pins with them to take to the performance.  Funny scenario from Saturday night.  Twenty minutes before the start of the performance I was alone in my dressing room when I put on my new crimson silk gown.  I had it shortened a few weeks ago, I tried it on when I got it back from the alteration place but when I put on the gown, a mostly strapless dress, and it proceeded to slip right down to my waist.  Somehow I had managed to lose enough weight in the previous weeks that it no longer stay up!  Another incident that is funny in retrospect, but not so funny at the time.  Thankfully I was able to get a hold of two safety pins (thanks dear husband!) but there was still one side that decided to keep slipping down during the performance.  It wasn't serious enough to distract me but I can assure you, my mother, sitting in the audience, was not amused!  

Phew!  I guess that's a long list of thoughts.  I imagine there are even more but I'll stop there for now.  In summary, last Saturday night was absolutely thrilling!  Many thanks to everyone that made the evening possible, especially James Glazebrook, conductor of the NRSVO, and all of the musicians in the orchestra.  Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!


  1. Great stuff Erica and nice to read that you were so engaged with the whole process that you played the cello in the second half. Most soloists are in the pub by then (for which I really can't blame them). As a conductor I make it my business to collaborate with people like you - those who appreciate what a special thing it is to work with an orchestra and who understand that the process is a collaboration of equals, not a chance to show how wonderful they are.
    Shame you're on the wrong continent, really... :-)

  2. Thanks for the comment. And I would be happy to fly to another continent if that meant I had another chance to perform with orchestra ;-)