The same, but different

Reflections on APO – The Professionals

I’ve been trying to process the sensory overload of APO – The Professionals over the last few days, since Saturday’s concert in front of a small but highly appreciative audience at the Hexagon. It was the culmination of many hours of APO members’ voluntary work, backed up by the generosity of APO’s supporters, realised in glorious musical terms by an orchestra of freelance professional musicians. If you’re completely new to the premise of the project, you can find a more detailed summary here.

I think everyone who was present in the hall felt the emotional significance of having live orchestral music back in Reading for the first time since the pandemic started. And on a personal level, it was a day when I ticked off a ‘bucket list’ item, by conducting a professional orchestra for the first time. More on that later.

As much as an act of catharsis for my overloaded synapses as anything else, here’s some observations about the event.

Universal musical motivation

One of the objectives of APO has always been to show that ‘classical’ music can be enjoyed by anyone. Most people agree that as an art form, the classical genre has a problem with accessibility. The reasons for this are far too varied and complex to go into detail here, and I don’t subscribe to the notion that classical music is somehow on life support and needs total reinvention to avoid it becoming an irrelevance.

However, a love of classical or orchestral music doesn’t come immediately to a lot of people, due to various barriers, so we do have to work on breaking those down for the simple reason that we want to share the joy of it with as many people as possible. Doing so enhances the pleasure of performing and deepens the emotional depth of the music making. In this respect, there is no difference between APO’s regular leisure-time (often called ‘amateur’) musicians and the professionals that took the stage at the Hexagon on Saturday. The underlying passion is the same.

Classical music costs money

As a non-professional ensemble, APO only needs to make enough money to fund our musical activities. I say ‘only’ because the more ambitious the project, the more simply breaking even can be a challenge. For professional musicians, the financial imperative goes further: it puts food on the table and a roof over their heads.

One of the barriers to accessing classical music I’m referring to above is the perception that it is expensive. Indeed, £22 (actually £20 without the commission fee for the box office) is not a small amount of money for a ticket. But then neither is £25 to see Reading FC men’s team play at home, nor £35 for a swim and a meal at the excellent Thames Lido, nor even £11.75 to see the latest Bond film this weekend (this doesn’t include the inevitable pic ‘n mix bill!).

We engaged 55 musicians on Saturday, almost all of whom were paid at Musicians Union casual orchestral rates (two very kindly waived their fee, as though they’re professional musicians who’ve worked with APO, they have other stable income and wished for their fees to go into the pot for the other musicians). In addition to distance and travel expenses and porterage for transporting large or heavy instruments, the average fee (they vary depending on different roles in the orchestra – section leaders/principals, etc.) was around £165 for a 3-hour rehearsal and 2-hour concert. When you consider the level of training and skill that goes into getting to a professional standard, where you can pitch up and play a tricky programme like that on so little rehearsal, it doesn’t seem very much.

Of course, multiply it by 53 and add travel from various parts of the country (we tried to source local players where we could, but pleasingly there is more work for musicians starting to come through) and, well, you can do the maths. And don’t forget there’s a venue to pay for, too. Thanks to the support of Reading Borough Council and the flexibility of Reading Arts, the Hexagon was made available to us at a very reasonable rate for such a large venue, but it still costs a fair amount.

Baiting the classical hook

Perception of cost is actually perception of value, which comes from engagement with what’s being offered. Those of us who love classical music may remember what first attracted us to the art form. Maybe it was involvement in music making as a child growing up. For me it was eleven years as a chorister, combined with learning with the best and most patient piano teacher on the planet. These activities, to a highly sensitive child who was picked on at school for being a ‘cry baby’, meant I had an outlet for my emotions and a safe space for expressing them.

But interestingly, even though I learned oboe from the age of 11 and found myself not terrible at it, I didn’t really engage with orchestral music until near the end of my A Levels. Even after this, I simply didn’t understand Sibelius’s Second Symphony when I sat in the second oboe chair as a Reading Youth Orchestra rookie at the start of my gap year, aged 18, either technically or musically. Yet two years later I was making my conducting debut with my university chamber orchestra. I had become hooked quickly, but it took a long time for me to take the bait.

Now compare that privileged upbringing to the exposure to any kind of music children get in educational settings, these days. Teachers and organisations like Reading Youth Orchestra and Berkshire Maestros do their best with budgets that have continued to shrink. The ideology behind the marginalisation of arts education (or even the arts in general) is, again, too big a subject to cover here. Needless to say, the end result isn’t just insufficient bait to attract children and adults to the classical hook: it’s a lack of hook, line and pole.

The pro-am ecosystem

In a recent Proms broadcast, a concert promoter said (I’m paraphrasing), ‘You have to have the top musicians performing if you want to attract people to classical music.’ I heartily disagree.

Leisure-time musicians don’t only form a large chunk of the potential audience for professional music-making, they’re a crucial part of generating audience for it. How many people have come through the door of an ‘amateur’ concert due to the sheer enthusiasm of family and friends taking part who’ve encouraged them to come? For some who have, it simply won’t be their thing and that’s just fine, but I’ve lost count of people who’ve expressed their surprise at the amazing sound of a live symphony orchestra and have developed a love for it. One of the drawbacks of being the conductor is that you don’t get to see their faces light up!

Another perception problem for classical music is the notion that it’s only for the ‘elite’ or ‘educated’. Some of this is historical baggage. Concert dress is an example. Some orchestras dress up in formal evening wear, including white tie and tails. This is traditional because classical music was, to an extent, something that was only for the upper classes. The musicians were servants and had to wear the attire of their employers. I personally don’t have a problem with maintaining this tradition. It’s fun to dress up! But the drawback of this is that some people think it’s not for them (which is why I generally don’t wear tails, anymore – even one person being put off is too high a price to pay for dressing up). Some snobbishness is more recent and real, however, like the precious notion that one should only clap at certain times, rather than in response to the way the music moves you, leading to awkward silences at the exciting conclusion of rip-roaring first movements and, conversely, awkward ripples of applause in the stillness of a tragic silence, as people try to follow daft ‘rules’.

The idea that only elite professional musicians can attract people to classical music is another form of snobbery, as well as being inaccurate. But mercifully, it’s only the preserve of a very few professional musicians. Most recognise the vital role that leisure-time groups play. And what’s more, leisure-time groups also provide work for pros, too. Not usually in the form of Saturday’s whole orchestra, but where gaps need filling in the ranks of non-pro bands.

A programme for pros

So if leisure-time groups do such a good job in the classical ecosystem, what do pro bands contribute to the symbiosis? It’s here I get to reflect a little on that bucket list item. It’s an itch I’ve wanted to scratch for a long time. What would it be like to conduct a professional orchestra? A few people have asked me what it was like and I’m happy to share my thoughts. But before that, I should explain about the programme, as that is a key component of how the experience turned out.

Combining pieces into a programme that has a cohesive structure is always a challenge, but this time I had a little more leeway. And this was because of the first major difference between regular APO and conducting the pros: there are some pieces that you simply can’t touch with an amateur orchestra – at least if you want to put on an acceptable performance that is satisfying for both the audience and the players. That said, I had very little rehearsal time – just 2hrs 45mins with the full orchestra, and a 1-hour string sectional (that attracted an extra payment, of course) before that.

I was also limited by the size and composition of the orchestra. We figured that we had raised enough in the crowdfunder for an orchestra of double wind, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, harp, percussion and a string section of around 36 players. This is the bare minimum for a lot of romantic/20th century music, much of which requires triple wind (three players per section, rather than two) and an appropriately enlarged string section.

I wanted music by living composers, at least one piece by a female composer and at least one piece by a minority ethnic composer, because I think that’s important (again, another subject to delve into in another post, sometime). And several crowdfunder backers had donated to a level that entitled them to choose a work (with guidance from me!). Here’s what we ended up with:

Max Charles Davies is a composer APO has worked with many times before. I’d played in the first performance of Moving Hues, in Cardiff, in a non-pro band conducted by my teacher. We’d found it quite difficult, but not impossible, so it felt like the kind of piece the pros would be able to put together in a brief rehearsal. When Max very kindly agreed to revise it, in his own time, for the bigger orchestral forces available, I was delighted. What a great piece with which to open the concert.

The Fauré was programmed in response to a piece chosen by one of our crowdfunder backers, who wanted some ‘Bombastic Beethoven’. The Leonore No.3 overture is very hard (more on this below). It’s also very dramatic, so the Pelléas et Mélisande suite was the perfect foil and also relatively straightforward to put together.

The second half opened with Jessie Montgomery’s Starburst. This fulfilled my desire to have music by a female composer and music by a minority ethnic composer. But just as importantly, it fulfilled my desire to open the second half with a fantastic, fizzy piece to get us going again after the interval.

The Delius is one of my favourite pieces and was programmed after the horrific knife attacks in Forbury Gardens. In the opera the intermezzo The Walk to the Paradise Garden comes from, the ‘Paradise Garden’ is a pub. The piece covers a scene change before the tragic finale of the opera, so it felt appropriate to programme this wonderfully moving work as a response to the awful tragedy, where three regulars from a local pub were enjoying the tranquillity of Forbury Gardens before their lives were so tragically cut short.

Then, something celebratory, in the form of four of Dvořák’s virtuosic Slavonic Dances. As well as being a perfect finale to the concert, these would provide a significant conducting challenge. And although they’re very hard for the orchestra, I figured that most of the freelance professionals would have played them many times before.

Finally, an encore chosen by one of the crowdfunder backers. As revealed on the night, the couple in question love the film Brassed Off, so we played the final gallop from Rossini’s overture to William Tell. It was a great feeling to hear the audience rumble and chortle with approval when the trumpets fired up their opening fanfare!

Putting it all together

I didn’t mention to the players that I’d never conducted a pro band before the rehearsal. A few friendly faces in the orchestra knew, but I didn’t want to lose the confidence of any of the players who didn’t, nor get any special treatment. I’m pretty sure that for the players it was the same as working for any conductor that was new to them. As a scratch band of freelancers, they’re used to working with different players and conductors and it takes time to develop the ‘Extra Sensory Perception’, as one player put it, that you develop from playing in a regular ensemble. Plus, for many of the musicians it was their first concert in 18 months, in a venue which is quite tricky to play in (the acoustic means it’s hard to hear anyone other than yourself), playing in a socially-distanced configuration.

The most important musician for the conductor is the leader, and I was delighted when I had a phone conversation with Julian Azkoul around a month ago, regarding this vital position. Julian had been recommended and I didn’t know him personally. When we spoke he was kind and enthusiastic, but even better he immediately challenged me on some of the programming choices, managing my expectations about what could be achieved in the time available. I had been planning to do the whole of the William Tell Overture, for example. That would not only have been overkill, but would have put intolerable pressure on our already tight rehearsal time. Julian also put in a tremendous amount of work in before the day preparing working bowings for the music to save time in rehearsal, in between preparing for and fulfilling engagements with the Hallé Orchestra and his own ensemble, the United Strings of Europe, whom you should definitely check out.

Julian’s contribution was such an important success factor in the project. On the day, his calmness helped me, as well as his guidance on musical matters and ways that I could help everyone make the music more effective. All of this was done in such a respectful manner, something reflected in the demeanour and attitude of all the players. I have heard horror stories about young and inexperienced conductors being ‘taken apart’ by professional orchestras. I’m not ‘young’ (well, I am by conductor standards, I guess) and as a conductor I’ve had lots of experience conducting non-professionals, but standing up in front of professionals, many of whom have years and years of experience, was daunting. I needn’t have worried.

Letting the arms do the talking

In terms of the conducting and rehearsing, I strived to say as little as possible to enable us to play more (encouraged by second violin Raye, who’d expressed this as a virtue of her favourite conductors during our pre-recorded pre-concert talk). This was especially important given the limited rehearsal time. It’s always the case that the second play through is better than the first, but the difference was more pronounced with the pros. If the ensemble wasn’t quite working at the same tempo, or with the same articulation, or some other detail, it was invariably fine at the next time of asking, without me having to say anything.

In the string sectional, we spent forty minutes learning the 3-minute long ‘Starburst’, a piece full of funky cross-rhythms and changes in time signature. It was coming together quite well, when Julian suggested we just go a little slower, not for rehearsal purposes, but because the cross-rhythms would be more effective. I agreed to try it and it was like a switch had flicked. Everything fitted together so much better and the piece sounded more fizzy and exciting than it had at the faster tempo. I wonder if I managed to keep to this tempo in the performance, later? As I discussed with Julian after the rehearsal, sometimes adrenalin warps your perception of how fast the music is going. I certainly remember the performance being fantastic!

We then worked on the Presto finale of the Leonore No.3 overture. This is in all the string orchestral excerpt books and is often used in orchestral auditions. It’s a fiendish sequence of fast descending scales, each time resetting to the top of the scale in a different part of the bar, starting with the first violins, with the second violins, violas and finally cellos and basses joining in canon. Not only are the notes difficult, getting each section in on time in the canon and staying together has tripped up many a professional orchestra. I was in awe of how quickly everyone worked out the notes and the ensemble challenges. And just like so many times when non-pros are struggling with notes, we started rehearsing it under tempo and built it up. All I had to really do was provide a consistent beat. And in the performance, the strings absolutely nailed it. I think that was probably the biggest ‘wow’ moment of the whole concert for me – I felt so excited!

Instinctive music making

The main rehearsal started with the Fauré. This, and later the Delius, required very little rehearsal, partly because the notes are simpler and the professional players’ tuning is more instinctive. The style is all marked out in the pieces, with clear dynamics, phrasing, articulation etc. But there is a lot of unwritten music to be made, some of which I consciously encouraged with the way I was conducting, but a lot of which needed no invitation from me – the players just did beautiful stuff instinctively!

One thing that was really hard to work on was balance. I mentioned above how the players can only really hear themselves at the Hexagon. From the podium, all I could really hear was the front desks of the strings. Anything further away, like the double basses, woodwind and brass, was harder to hear. The horns and percussion were easier to hear as, to an extent, their sound reflected off the back wall of the stage. Fortunately, I had a little team of ears in the auditorium, including APO’s assistant MD, Mel, who helped me check the balance and reassured me that it was coming across well, with just the occasional tweak needed.

It was partly the difficulty in discerning balance that made the Beethoven the hardest piece to rehearse and conduct. There’s also so much room for interpretation of style, particularly in terms of articulation. I could have done with another 30 minutes’ rehearsal on it to be really satisfied, but again so much was sorted out just through playing through. We didn’t have time to play it through twice, but the bits we did play again helped me realise that I was perhaps being a little too accommodating with my beat, at times. I’ve become accustomed to not just ploughing on with a beat when APO drags, especially when early in the rehearsal process when people are sight-reading, as otherwise some people come with you and some don’t and the whole thing just falls apart. I’d found that quiet passages were tending to drag in the first play through, especially where the music instinctively felt calmer, but didn’t do anything about it and probably ended up causing it to drag even more. I found I could be more assertive with the beat and the pro players would respond. If ensemble was lost, it would usually only be for a brief second and wouldn’t happen the next time. This is simply a matter of how much brain capacity it takes for the pros to play the notes and manage their instruments, versus the amount available for listening and awareness (of my beat and the ‘ESP’ amongst the players mentioned above). It’s not that ‘regular’ APO players aren’t good musicians; it’s simply a question of technical proficiency and experience.

With the exception of Starburst, which we’d had 40 minutes of sectional on, and Moving Hues, all the pieces were fairly well known. Only one player had played Moving Hues before, and I had been sat two seats away from her in that performance! So to put together a brand new piece in about 20 minutes was a scary prospect. Programming this as the concert opener was possibly a little ambitious and the performance was ‘seat of the pants’ stuff, but again it’s a testament to the professionalism of the players that it came across really well and attracted a lot of positive comments. One thing that I found simultaneously difficult and pleasing about the lack of rehearsal time was that with so much going on in the piece, my ears were drawn to what I perceived needed ‘looking after’. I probably didn’t pay enough attention to other parts of the texture and perhaps that meant that some of the shaping of the slower music and beautiful wind solos could have been more sympathetically accompanied by me. Maybe I’m being hard on myself!

We finished the rehearsal with the Dvořák and Rossini. I had texted my conducting teacher about how to start the first and last of the Slavonic Dances. Each have three fast beats in a bar, conducted in a beat of one bar at a time. However, the music is in the form of a ‘hemiola’, a rhythmic device where every two bars of three beats is organised into 3 x 2 beats. This means the music goes ‘across’ the conductor’s beat. I wanted to know whether my upbeat should be a whole bar or the equivalent of one of the three ‘hemiola’ beats. I’d studied various professional conductors on videos and they all did it differently! Huw advised me to give a whole bar, which I’d practised endlessly at home to try and make it clear. He suggested it might be one of those ‘repertoire’ pieces where it’s easier for the players to play it than the conductor to conduct it – and thus probably easier for them to ignore the conductor! My worst fears were realised in the rehearsal when everyone set off at different speeds, but within a couple of bars it settled down. I stopped, half-joked that everyone had probably set off at the tempo of the last time they’d played it (in different orchestras) and tried again. This time, it was spot on, and this was reflected in the performance.

The Slavonic Dances are challenging to conduct because there’s so much in the way of changes of tempo and character to manage. Again, I had to put a lot of faith in the musicians, but had realised that I could absolutely do this, by this stage in the rehearsals, as we usually only had to play something once, or at most briefly talk about it, for it to sink in. One of my gripes at regular APO is that I have to repeat performance instructions many times. Or that we get something right one day, then the next we’ve forgotten it and reverted to the wrong way of doing it. Again, this is a simple matter of capacity. I’ve amazed both by regular APO and the professionals’ capacity – the former given that they have ‘regular’ jobs that take up a lot of mental capacity and limit time for practice, the latter that they can achieve so much in such little rehearsal time.

Another similarity is that both raise their game for the performance. I was a trifle worried about the Dvořák after the rehearsal. Because of the sheer amount of pulling around in the music, it was still a little ragged in places, but it was much, much more tight in the concert. This increased my confidence to go for the musical detail and not play it safe. I started to enjoy myself and get ‘in the zone’, being braver with my gestures and pulling the tempo around, each time with the players responding, like magic. So this is what it’s like to conduct a professional orchestra!

The final analysis

The audience response was lovely. Whatever rough edges there were probably weren’t all that noticeable. Hopefully the pro players were happy with their day’s work. Their drive and passion for getting the best out of the music was so powerful. And that’s not to say that the ‘regular’ APO doesn’t have the same motivation. In many ways, achieving what we do with musicians who have so much else going on in their lives is an even more impressive feat. But I’m full of admiration for the pros’ skill and musicianship, and for the fact that they’ve dedicated their lives and made huge sacrifices to reaching a level that allows them to pull together a programme so quickly, and take on pieces that non-pros can’t get near. As the last 18 months has shown us, they’ve taken a more perilous, uncertain path in the name of their art – I’m so glad we’ve been able to support them through this project.

What a great experience – one I shall treasure the memory of, as I doubt I’ll get another chance. I hope the professionals felt a little of the special bond shared by the ‘regular’ APO family, whom I can’t wait to get back in front of again, hopefully very soon.