Last September when the Civic orchestra met to commence the season, I was a combination of nerves and excitement — not sure just what this year would bring. The meeting began with a message from Yo-Yo Ma, bringing us all to silence. His warm voice welcomed us to the season, after which he promptly set out his vision for our year, outlining three components key to a successful performance: content, communication, and reception. Yo-Yo professed that, in his experience, “only when the three are truly joined does live performance become the gratifying experience we love.” And with this, he set us on our orchestral journey. In anticipation of our concert with Yo-Yo on Monday, I’ll use this blog to explore his reflections on these three ideas and how the Civic has put them to use.
1. “Content is your engagement with the composer and the essence of the music.”
Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral, has been our lab this year. Rich in bird calls, babbling brooks, and thunderclaps, each movement begins with a somewhat narrative title. Respectively these are:
Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country
Scene at the brook
Happy gathering of country folk
Shepherds’ song; cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm
In addition to Beethoven’s titles, Yo-Yo and the Civic came up with our own words to describe the music. Pencilled in above the beginning of different movements I have written: “open, expansive, tranquil; Fluidity, warmth, ease; Rustic, frolic, beer; Nervous, sinister, powerful; and calm, reflective, awe-some.” In one rehearsal Yo-Yo asked us to visualize our parts. Are we a fish in the brook? A bird looking down at the scene? Are we the water itself?
Depth, as Yo-Yo described it, is “to know a tradition deeply.” Members of the Civic have studied our craft from a very young age, and each bring a great deal of individual knowledge about the tradition of performing Beethoven’s music. In addition, we have spent this year listening to a slew of recordings while studying our handy mini-scores, practicing the piece in tiny chamber-group settings, and even performing the piece with several different interpretations. All of this has helped shaped our understanding of the content of Beethoven’s Pastoral, but sheer knowledge is not enough.
2. “Communication is your translation of that content as you play.”
When performing a work of solo Bach, score analysis and technical ability are enough to communicate an artist’s interpretation. An orchestra, however, doesn’t function like a collective of soloists, each bringing his or her own translation to the rehearsals. An orchestra serves the conductor’s translation. In a conductorless orchestra, this is obviously not possible. Up until this last week, Civic have been led by either Maestro Colnot, Yo-Yo Ma, or Sean Kubota, Maestro Muti’s conducting apprentice, but those guides have let go the hand of the orchestra. In our concert next week, the translation will be our own.
You might be thinking that this sounds really hard. We are sixty individuals with different ideas about not just a short passage, but a five-movement symphony. Our ability to communicate in a productive and collegial way will determine how successfully we work - and thus perform - in congress. (Who would have expected instruction in government from a cellist?)
Becoming hyper-aware of physical movement has been key to playing conductorless. Instead of slightly raising our eyes to view a singular figure at the center of the orchestra, we have to look across the entire orchestra and exaggerate our movement. This seems a simple enough solution, but seldom do we push through the entire symphony without things fraying a bit.
Yo-Yo’s solution to the problem of simultaneously reading the score and each other’s body language: memorize the score. Right. Of course. Playing Beethoven’s 6th Symphony at a high level is never easy. Playing without a conductor is tricky, but do-able. Playing without music, however, threatens to stack the odds against us. At this point, I cannot say for sure where our music will be on Monday — in our instrument cases, on the ground, or on a lowered stand.
Which brings me to flexibility. In his message, Yo-Yo said “flexibility is your ability to assess other’s skills and values, rapidly distilling the essential ingredients to create a successful performance.” Playing standing up, sitting down, cross-legged, inside a hall, outside on a river, with or without music on our stands (pretty much anything besides with our hands tied, please!), we have experimented to see what it is that will help us to communicate this piece as a whole.
The end-goal of this process is to know the piece more intimately and to bring it to life for our audience. The point is not to have the piece memorized, but to use the exercise of memorization to help us internalize the piece. Crazy practice techniques aside, the true test will be to see if the communication we’ve built with each other is just as strong with the audience.
3.“Reception is listening and assessing to see if the original intention has been conveyed.”
Yo-Yo is an icon to us all because of his interest in reception. It’s not his pedigree or his flawless playing, but his empathy that makes us love him. This year he has sought not to teach the Civic better technique, but to show us this empathy, this special relationship that’s possible between both among performers and between the orchestra and its audience. On Monday, it is more important for the Civic to have a meaningful exchange with our audience than to give a glossy performance. In Yo-Yo’s words, it’s about “passing it on,” which he defines as “the ability to convey all that you treasure —ideas, emotions, and spirit— through music, transferring and inspiring that same spirit in others.”
As I sat listening to this message back in September, I was surrounded by strangers, not knowing what lay ahead. I don’t know what exactly will happen on Monday, but I’ll be sitting with my friends and trusted colleagues, ready for anything.