Civic Orchestra bassist Will Riley Robbins was part of Yo-Yo Ma’s “artistic challenge" to the Civic Orchestra during the 2012-13 season: to perform Beethoven 6 without a conductor, from memory.
There I was, slouching near the front row of Orchestra Hall in one of those plushy red-velvet seats positively fuming as details of the 2013 artistic challenge were presented to members of the Civic Orchestra. Yo-Yo stood there and took questions, sympathetic to our concerns. But I didn’t want to hear it— I was furious. I’m not going to memorize Beethoven 6. And that was that (cue five-year-old temper tantrum).
Why didn’t I want to memorize this symphony? Because I thought it was weak, a placid study in between the scary C minor 5th (bum bum bum bummmmmm!) and the dynamic A Major 7th. For all the countryside flora it tries to evoke, Beethoven 6 itself is a wilted, minimalist piece of bruised lettuce, sandwiched between delicious Schwarzwälder Schinken (Symphony #7) and Blutwurst (Symphony #5); you know, two seriously rockin’ symphonies. (See Beethoven’s Symphonic Sandwich.) #6 is not REAL Beethoven— just old produce. I would have settled for any other Beethoven symphony (except perhaps #9… that really seems impossibly difficult to memorize… or maybe #8, its just kind of an oddball, no?) Ok fine, most other Beethoven symphonies! I wanted to stand up and shout, “Not 6, right guys? This is a no-brainer: give me #3, or the charming #2, let’s all play #7 again… Hell, I’d even play #1— Just not the Pastoral, come on it’s so boring.”
As upset as I was about the choice of piece to be memorized and performed unconducted, I was much more upset about the actual memorization. I distinctly remember feeling as though I, the great Will Robbins, had the time, wherewithal and energy to memorize the piece, but I didn’t want to be the only one. In short— I didn’t trust others in the orchestra to do the work. I was being selfish (flashback to five-year-old tantrum - I hope no one was seriously hurt?). I allowed this selfishness to consume me for much of the early process of the Artistic Challenge. Sure, I was inspired when we worked with Yo-Yo (it’s literally impossible not to feel this way around him), but these meetings were unfortunately few and far between. Yo-Yo felt like Civic’s cool uncle. We only saw him around holidays or graduations. Sometimes he’d write us encouraging letters or pose for a photo that would receive a kajillion likes on Facebook and several ‘No way man, that’s so awesome!’ or ‘!!!!!!’ comments. Aside from those boosts, we were largely on our own.
In April, I had to miss a Beethoven rehearsal for a tour in Europe. When I returned, I begged to continue to be a part of the orchestra, to stay on with the project. At this point I’d already done a good deal of score study, listened to 17 different recordings all the way through, could play the first three movements from memory, and was now comfortable enough with the rest of the people in the orchestra that I wanted to keep playing. Unfortunately the policy laid out in the beginning of the project was that no person could miss any rehearsal for any reason. Period. I hate the rules. It wasn’t until I was “kicked out” of the project that I really began to identify with and take ownership of this symphony. Tell me I can’t do something and I’ll work twice as hard to outdo your highest expectations. I’m such a little boy.
I begrudgingly agreed to stay on as a pair of ears during the conductor-less rehearsals, and seriously, thank God I didn’t walk away; there I was, again slouched in one of those plushy red-velvet Orchestra Hall audience seats (its impossible to sit up straight in them), this time much further away from the stage, score in hand and about to play my small part in the first unconducted full rehearsal, except this time I wasn’t fuming. It was May now, and it had been several months since my inner tantrum. I was simply excited to see, to hear what would happen. Over the course of the two days before this rehearsal, somewhere around 80 emails were exchanged between the principals, our orchestra manager, Yo-Yo and myself ranging from simple sentence statements to lengthy, multi-page proposals on rehearsal structure, how to phrase, where time is taken and where it is not, overarching general gripes countered with words of encouragement, and whether to crescendo to piano or past it at the most delicate part of the symphony (pretty sure blood was spilled over this last small detail). Everyone was a little nervous at the onset. How to proceed!? Rehearsing a quartet is one thing, an unconducted baroque concerto another— even a chamber-sized orchestra playing a Mozart symphony is tricky but manageable…. a full orchestra rehearsing middle period Beethoven without a real leader? Can you say historically informed performance anxiety?
During the final rehearsals there was no clear point of transcendence, no singular ‘Aha’ moment I could accurately pin down, no instant where I held up my hands announcing I was switching sides, “Everyone, I just wanted to say that I’ve been a fool and I want to go on the record… I am down with Beethoven 6!” Yet as each rehearsal went further and we came closer to the final performance, this became my prevailing mood- there were these episodes where the track in my head aligned exactly with what I heard, what I wanted. But this was a conductorless orchestra; an absolute democracy. On stage some discussions would last much longer than need be, points were repeated, problems would remain unsolved. Every time the orchestra stopped I feared it would never get started again because of an inadvertent tempo-related filibuster. There was no space for me, the individual, to get my way.
Yet I had immense power, I just wasn’t used to it. I could say, “more flutes in bar 12, and here, second violins play out continuing the line the firsts gave you” or, “the time taken in this measure feels inorganic in the strings, decide what you want to do and be unified”. I had the best of both worlds. I was part of the orchestra but I didn’t have to play, a conductor without the worry of cueing anything. It didn’t matter whether a reviewer would call my interpretation garbage and contrived or if my three pattern crescendo made me look constipated, I was invisible! So there I sat, nerding-out with my score in the back of the hall, and I couldn’t have been happier. Beethoven 6 became, if you’ll allow me, a walk in the park.
Sunday afternoon. I get a call from Henry, our principal flutist. He asks me if I’d want to play in the concert tomorrow. I say, “Of course! But I’m sure they won’t let me play— you know how they are.” Henry said that wasn’t true, that if he could garner enough support from the rest of the orchestra, if enough people said they wanted me to play, then our manager would allow it. I was still skeptical, I told him I was really flattered and thanked him all the same. Later that evening I received an email from our manager saying the orchestra wanted me to play tomorrow, asking if I was up to it. YES! I felt so good. I wanted to hug my orchestra— the whole thing at once! I wanted ice cream cake, party poppers, champagne and those things you blow on that unroll quickly making that awesomely annoying noise. I. was. so. happy.
Monday morning. Paavo Jarvi und Die Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. For some reason I hadn’t heard this recording yet…
First Movement- Faster than us.
Second Movement- Seems about right, maybe a touch quicker.
Third Movement- Faster than us.
Fourth Movement- Faster than us.
Fifth Movement- About right. They do this super cool lugubrious thing at 37:40, check it out.
#1 Faster does not mean better. #2 For the first time, I found myself comparing professional recordings with celebrity conductors to my orchestra, The Civic Orchestra of Chicago. It’s always the other way around. I cannot seriously recall a time when it wasn’t, comparing whatever orchestra I was playing in to the professionals saying, “We sure ain’t no Vienna Phil or Berlin or Cleveland or Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie or Chicago etc. This was the first time I could say something like, “The DKB is no Civic Orchestra,” and mean it in a positive way.
Monday night. Concert night. I distinctly remember Josh (principal cellist)‘s head go up and down, starting the symphony. I remember smiling with the bass section when we pounded low F natural drones in the first movement. We weren’t where you’d normally find the basses; we’d been swung around behind the violas, and I definitely partied with the back of their section. I danced in the third movement. I had the blood scared out of me when the timpani played FF in the storm… she was literally right behind me. I felt goosebumps as we brought the symphony to a close. I don’t know if we went past piano or if we didn’t. I don’t care. We all connected and looked up and felt it. This was unity. This 1% of the time, this holistic focus, this energy and perfection makes all the rest of the fumbled, disjointed and out-of-tune moments worth it. It’s the best thing ever.
Then it was over. I’ve never been so dehydrated. I staggered backstage, chugging countless shot-glass-sized cups of filtered water—never enough. But something wasn’t right. Usually an amazing musical experience wears me out, I’ll have to go home immediately, I talk to no one, I need to be alone and decompress— to sort out what just happened to my body and mind, to find the rupture in my soul. This concert was different, it blew by so quickly. I felt amnesiac, like we all flashed, burned and cooled together within an instant. Beethoven 6 and the Civic Orchestra. A vacuum-packed supernova— just add water! So much freaking water.
Still dying of thirst as I quickly locked the bathroom door and stumbled out of my tuxedo. I felt different. I wanted to kiss everyone, to tap a 21-keg salute, to dive naked from a cliff into an icy pool, I needed something intense and tactile to mirror what happened to my insides. Somehow I became an extremophile in a volcano. I was BURSTING! I couldn’t wait to get upstairs, stupid penguin suit. Why do we still wear this garbage— we aren’t servants anymore! Once I finally got backstage there weren’t as many people. I grabbed whoever I could and hugged them. Only now I realize I kept saying, “I’m so proud of you. I’m so proud of you. I’m so proud of you.” Its true, I was and still am very proud of all my colleagues in the orchestra. But “I’m so proud of you” sounds much better than— “I was wrong. I was an idiot. Roundly reproach me, corporal punishment, whatever - Beethoven is the best! I’m sorry. Please forgive me!” Most people probably wouldn’t know what I was talking about. But that’s fine, it doesn’t matter.
Maybe that’s what it took. Maybe all of this was some sort of divine plan for me to get on board with this symphony. Any canonical work might have done it for me. But I’m glad my experience happened exactly as it did. Perhaps it really was all for a reason. Maybe Yo-Yo’s megabrain somehow perceived my silent outbursts, or maybe he heard us all, the whole orchestra begging for this challenge. Maybe I just grew up a little, told my ego to shut up for once, and allowed myself to help create the community around me instead of work against it, to be a positive force instead of a barrier. I can’t wait for next year’s big challenge, the summit of Everest or mission to the moon. I know I’ll be readier and more willing. I now have a bunch of friends and the real tools to make it happen… I just hope its not Beethoven 8.
Text and gif by Will Riley Robbins