For an orchestra, too much rehearsal can sometimes be as dangerous as too little
What happens in orchestral rehearsals is obviously not as important as the concerts themselves, yet given that musicians spend more of their lives rehearsing than performing, the preparation process cannot be insignificant. Having said that, there’s no guarantee that stimulating and satisfying rehearsals always result in the best performances, and frustrating or boring rehearsals can still produce wonderful concerts.
Some musicians prefer rehearsals to paint a piece’s big picture with broad brushes, leaving details and practicalities for individuals to sort out alone. Others like engaging in the specific building blocks of a work, enjoying the freedom and confidence that comes from previously agreed and secure foundations. There are conductors who rehearse with the constant intensity of performance believing that that extra 10 per cent is the most important 10 per cent. Others are more relaxed, feeling conversely that the extra 10 per cent will come on its own. Though many musicians like to save their best for a paying public, others see an orchestra as the most discerning audience of all, deserving to be inspired whenever possible. The ideal instills a certain order without losing any opportunity for the spontaneous, and acknowledges the necessary level of intensity without risking the possibility of peaking too soon.
The danger of too little rehearsal is that the stress of not feeling prepared can undermine one’s ability to perform to one’s best. A musician’s tension is not the same as the music’s intensity. Unpredictability may have players on the edge of their seats, but it doesn’t mean it will have the same effect on the audience. The more rehearsal there is however, the greater the likelihood of a concert that only seeks to re-create in public what was achieved in private. Over-rehearsing can stifle genuine creativity during the performance and it is perfectly possible to practise oneself away from the music. Fortunately musical discipline needn’t imply inflexibility, nor does a lack of it always lead to chaos. The line is a fine one, and has to be delicately balanced. Much depends on the music itself. I wouldn’t want to hear an under-rehearsed St Matthew Passion but a chancy Rite of Spring could be thrilling.
Unlike an individual's private practice, the group dynamic of an orchestra adds an extra dimension to the nature of rehearsal. Most players in each orchestra agree on how they want their rehearsals to go, but there are always those who would prefer the emphasis to be on something different. The psychological make-up of orchestras varies, and the more conductors can influence or adapt to that, the more the music can prevail. In its simplest form, a conductor’s job is to make sure that the musicians all give the same performance in the concert. A common conception of style, and an acknowledged emotional temperature for each piece is probably all that needs to be pre-determined. The more certain conductors are as to what that is, the less time they need to achieve it, but as long as they do, perhaps neither players nor listeners really mind how.
Leading conductor Mark Wigglesworth is equally at home in the opera house as in the concert hall – and, indeed, the studio, where his acclaimed Shostakovich symphony cycle for BIS is nearing completion. In 'Shaping the invisible' Mark shares his passion for music and his fascination with the philosophies and psychologies that lie behind it. (Photo: Ben Ealovega)