A Blast from the Past| Part Two
Stravinsky and Strauss
Since my last post, I have been going through the video archive of the NRK that feature the Oslo Philharmonic of my era (1983 -1998) and was able to come up with several that were of more than passing interest to me. The archive included videos from 1984; 1985; 1986; 1987; 1988; 1989; 1993; 1994, and 1996.
The two videos that I will be discussing and sharing in this post date from the year 1987 which, as I have said in an earlier blog post, was a pivotal year in the orchestra’s musical development. In addition to our recording and touring and the loss of a well-liked colleague and friend, the orchestra was in the middle of a five- year period in which the noted composer/conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen was the orchestra’s principal guest conductor. If memory serves me well, he started conducting us when he was in his very about twenty-nine, and by the time he was thirty-one, he had agreed to this five -year period as principal guest conductor.
The first of the two videos – both live TV performances from the regular subscription concert series – took place in early June of 1987, and featured Igor Stravinsky’s monumental ballet “Le Sacre du Printemps”. The other performance dates from November 1, 1987 and the featured work is Richard Strauss’ epic tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathusthra”. This last performance took place just a few days before we left on our first USA tour.
As I no doubt mentioned earlier, it is both interesting and strange to observe one’s performance after a nearly thirty- year passage of time. Interesting to see how one sounded and looked back then (as well as the orchestra), and strange to note that many of those performing on this particular concert performance are either retired, or in many cases have passed on to the next life. In the case if the Stravinsky, it was both heartening and poignant to see my late colleague and friend Per Melsæter giving of his best in the percussion section, now knowing that he had not much time left. (He died in August 1987, and is still very much missed by those who knew him.) Our principal clarinetist at the time, Eric Andressen, is seen in both videos playing his very formidable best, and at the same time it is a little spooky to realize while watching that he would pass away in August of 1991.
On a more objective note, it is interesting to see how the orchestra and venue looked at the time, and note with surprise how well the video and sound have stood the test of time.
Stravinsky – Le Sacre du Printemps – My very first crack at it
The June1987 concert and broadcast of Le Sacre was my very first encounter with work on a professional basis. I had been familiar with the work since I played percussion in a reading rehearsal back in college and had heard all the horror stories concerning the work’s difficulties as well as having had the chance to see several performances of the work in concert. I must admit that I was as nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof, but I struggled hard to keep that in check, both during the rehearsals and the concerts. The Stravinsky is not an easy work, and anyone who says it is (and the real professionals do not) is living in cloud cuckoo land. When it was first presented back one hundred and three years ago, it was considered nearly unplayable and orchestras struggled for years with it, but over time, due to musicians gaining familiarity with the works rhythmic (and harmonic) complexities. The work has been performed often enough in concert version, that it has gained the status of a pop tune, but any musician that underestimates the work’s difficulties, does so at his or her peril.
The timpani part can be performed by one player if necessary, but it is in actuality written for two players. Most orchestras employ the second player only for the second part, “The Sacrifice.” In the first part , “The Adoration of The Earth”, the first player can and in most cases plays it all, including the parts using the high b natural on the piccolo timpani. However, he must surrender the piccolo timpani to player two for the second part, and that would entail (in the case of the Oslo Konserthus stage) a minor scene change in the short pause between the parts. Consequently, my assistant and I decided that he would do all the parts involving the piccolo timpani in both parts. I would have the normal four drum set-up – 23 inch; 25 inch; 28 inch and 31 inch Hingers, and he (Trygve) would have the 20 inch Hinger; 26 inch; 29 inch, and 31 inch Lights – the largest being the Continental Chain. This served two purposes – it avoided a timpani swap, and gave Trygve something challenging to do instead of sitting for nearly twenty minutes without anything meaningful to do. I feel that it is important to keep one’s assistant meaningfully employed if at possible, and this did not involve any loss of face, as there is more than enough work for the both of us – and enough chances to be a hero (or get the blame) to go around.
For mallets, I used Hinger wood shafted and some of the aluminum, as did my colleague. The heads on the Hingers and Lights were the hazy Remos, although I was becoming unhappy with the heads on the upper two Hingers. In the event, the performance came off well, although – and this is said in hindsight (which is better than foresight) – I could have relaxed a bit more. In Part Two, I was pushing a little bit, and it could have used a little more gravitas at points, but all in all, a successful performance. If I am not mistaken, this was also Esa-Pekka’s first crack at the work as well. He conducted it masterfully. Here’s the link. Enjoy!
Also Sprach Zarathusthra
In early November of 1987, Esa-Pekka Salonen returned to the orchestra to conduct us in a performance of Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathusthra”. This was shortly before the orchestra was set to depart for the United States for it’s first tour in fourteen years. As you can see from the video, I had made some changes to the Hingers. For some time, I had been unhappy with the Remo heads, particularly on the smaller drums. I had already made preparations to buy the necessary materials to convert the drums to the use of calf skin, but that wouldn’t happen until we bought the skins, rims, etc. on tour. As a stopgap measure, I followed Dan Hinger’s advice to keep the hazies on the lower drums and equip the upper drums with clear. At first I was skeptical, but after actually making the changes, I was satisfied with the results. For mallets, I used a series of bamboo-shafted mallets crafted for me by Harry Teahan, whose name in these blog posts should by now be familiar to many readers.
In watching and listening to the videos, I am surprised and impressed at the sound I produced with the Teahans. The concert venue is notoriously lacking in bass (and mid-range as well). However, one would never know it with those mallets. Also, I was experimenting with the opening triplets at the time, and after concluding the opening roll, played them with the right hand, making the crescendo and playing the last two with both hands. It came off rather well at the time, but when I played it that way in later years for Mariss Jansons, he preferred me to play it hand-to- hand as is the norm today. Another thing that I do in the opening minute and a half or so, is play the C-C -G as an e-C-G, finding it more effective and more exciting. I must have had an adrenaline rush during the concert, because I really come in there like a ton of bricks. My colleague in the trombone section and I had a friendly discussion after the event about that and we both came to conclusion that while it was exciting in the event, future performances would benefit by just a touch more discretion. (It startled the heck out of them at the concert, as it was totally unexpected.) After listening to it and looking at it, I conclude that they were right. I was a little too enthusiastic at that point.
The rest of the performance is very good, and here is the link for your enjoyment.
P.S. I just viewed it again, and even though I now agree that it was a bit over the top, it was interesting and it did work.