From the Orchestra Library

From Mahler to Minnie the Moocher

Posted in The Business,The Music,Touring by kschnack on July 11, 2011

Jeff Tyzik, our conductor for the pops programs up in Vail, told the audience the other night that you know you are working with incredible orchestral musicians when they can give a stunning performance of Mahler Symphony No. 6, and then come right back out the next night and do a fantastic concert of unfamiliar and difficult pops charts having had only one rehearsal.

He’s right, and they did.

In the middle of the residency we do four different programs in a row, and those just mentioned are the most difficult. Of course, we had performed the Mahler several times earlier in the season. But it’s never easy and, as you know, is relentless in its 80 minutes without intermission. I took the opportunity to sit in the theater and listen to my colleagues. It was truly an exceptional and moving concert.

Some of the audience members were probably not really up for hearing a work of this magnitude and length. And the house wasn’t terribly full, which means the program likely scared some people off who attend the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival to be entertained in a light-hearted way. But the festival didn’t apologize for this programming, which I applaud, and instead took the time to talk about the piece and why it was important to do.

The festival’s founder and Executive Director, John Giovando, spoke about how this music is so very compatible with being out in nature. He also told the story of Mount Mahler in Colorado, the only mountain in the US named after a composer: Finally, he told the audience that this was the first time in 24 years that the symphony would be performed. It’s always cool to do the premiere performance of such a major work.

The “hammer blows of fate” in the last movement and the order of the inner movements were also mentioned. There remains some controversy about both issues, and both are always a matter of discussion in musical circles. There isn’t room here to go into the respective stories (a quick Google search will give you the basics), but I can let you know that Maestro van Zweden does two hammer blows instead of three, and always conducts the Scherzo prior to the Andante.

I can also take a few minutes to tell you about how those hammer blows are produced in concert. The sound has to be like nothing else in the orchestra, and it has to be “jump-out-of-your-seat” loud. The Dallas Symphony had an instrument made by a bass player in the Chicago Symphony named Roger Cline. Mr. Cline used speaker technology by suspending and cushioning the strike plate on both sides with foam which helps create additional resonance. The hammer is also custom made, and not your basic drum mallet.

The Hammer Blow Instrument

Needless to say, this thing does the trick. Especially when Principal Percussionist Doug Howard goes at it full force. He scared the violin section half to death in rehearsal.

Principal Percussion Doug Howard ready to strike the hammer blow

For good measure, here are the traveling cases for the unique instrument and hammer!

The Hammer has its own box!

There is plenty of other fun stuff in Mahler 6, what with 106 musicians on stage. I liked how the cow bells were set up for rehearsal, complete with the player’s transportation accessories.

Cow Bells with Bike Helmet

Mahler calls for large woodwind and brass sections, as well as celesta, two sets of timpani and four or more harps. We use “only” two, as most orchestras these days do. Costs a lot of money to put this piece on stage, not to mention travel with it. The players were very good-natured about my begging, pleading and cajoling to let me take photos of them at work both in rehearsal and prior to the performance.

DSO Oboe Section for Mahler

Mahler Timps

Two Happy Harpists













The Mahler was really the main event for the orchestra in Vail this year. That’s not to say everything else wasn’t as important; it’s just that when a major work is programmed it can overshadow everything else in the players’ minds. It takes such a high level of preparation, concentration, craftsmanship and musicianship to perform this symphony well that when it’s over there is a collective sigh. And a real sense of accomplishment.

It’s no secret that orchestral musicians as a species are not crazy about pops concerts in general. But we well understand the need for those programs, and we give them our all just the same. Quality of repertoire, artists, music (I mean the actual parts), and conductors make a huge difference in how such a program is perceived by the orchestra. Which is really no different than for any other program.

We were thrilled by the concert Mr. Tyzik put together the night after the Mahler and hope we will be doing this show again back in Dallas. Turning the theater into a musical representation of Harlem’s 1920’s Cotton Club, the brass section sat on one side as the big band, and the strings on the other. Soloists Byron Stripling, trumpeter and vocalist, and Carmen Bradford, vocalist, wowed the capacity crowd both inside and out on the lawn.

Some of our own orchestra members were featured in solos throughout the evening, including Principal Trumpet Ryan Anthony and Principal Trombone John Kitzman. Mr. Tyzik’s point at the beginning of the evening was proved by these players as well as the rest of the orchestra. It’s amazing they can adapt so quickly to the different styles and physical requirements the various programs demand.

One of the highlights of the Cotton Club evening was Mr. Stripling’s tribute to Cab Calloway with his rendition of “Minnie the Moocher.” The audience was captivated, and sang their parts with gusto. It was easy to call up the memory of Cab in his all white suit, hat and walking stick, dancing and singing across the stage. I feel lucky to have worked with both of these gentlemen.

DSO at the Cotton Club

On my drive south through the mountains, my itinerary unfortunately didn’t take me to Mount Mahler. But I did find a couple of other peaks of interest. Colorado’s version of Matterhorn Peak reminded me that the town of Vail was modeled after Zermatt, Switzerland, where the original Matterhorn is.

Colorado's Matterhorn Peak (middle)

And then, all of a sudden, there was Minnie Mountain. I’ll take it.

Minnie Mountain (left)




Sturm und Drang

Posted in The Music,Touring by kschnack on July 2, 2011

If the late afternoon weather so far up here in Vail is any guide, the DSO’s performances at the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival will be full of excitement, drama, and intensity. Our first concert Wednesday evening had all that and more. Music Director Jaap van Zweden was heard afterwards to say “It was one of the best Beethoven 7’s we have ever done!” I have to agree with him on that.

But it wasn’t an ordinary opening night by any means, let alone a normal concert.

The day started off well enough with perfectly fine conditions for a morning rehearsal of Beethoven.

First Vail rehearsal 2011

Even Mr. Conductor who guards the front of the theater was happy in the dappled sunlight.

Standing guard over the theater

Other than the process of getting situated in the environment, starting to acclimate to the altitude and dry air, dealing with the logistics of instrument and wardrobe cases, and adjusting to a different performance schedule, it was pretty much business as usual for a first day on tour.

After the rehearsal we all went about our afternoon routines with an eye on getting back to the theater during the five o’clock hour rested, refreshed and ready for the concert at 6 p.m. It’s actually pretty tough to keep energy and focus on this schedule, especially early in our time up here. I’m always impressed with how the players manage in the thin air — especially the ones who have to BREATHE. You wouldn’t know by listening to them that their bodies were all racing to make more blood cells and oxygen.

So, despite a few afternoon clouds, it was a lovely Colorado day. The players gathered on stage to begin the concert with the Star Spangled Banner. Senior Associate Concertmaster Gary Levinson tuned the orchestra, Maestro van Zweden went out and gave the cue for the timpani roll, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra was off and running in its first performance of the 2011 Vail festival season.

DSO Horn section getting ready to rock the Egmont Overture

After the banner, the orchestra launched into a vigorous Egmont Overture. They sounded great, and the horn section did indeed rock it; what fantastic music!

Beethoven’s Triple Concerto followed the overture with violinist Ida Kavafian, cellist Peter Wiley, and pianist Anne-Marie McDermott (who is also festival Artistic Director) as soloists. Everyone had a great time and enjoyed the wonderful performance.

Senior Associate Concertmaster Gary Levinson

At intermission we had a stage move to reset for Beethoven Symphony  No. 7.  This is one of the busiest times for an orchestra librarian during a concert — moving folders, picking up soloists music, exchanging full scores for the next work, and generally making sure everyone has their parts (and wind clips).

The orchestra then began the second half and I went into the lounge to start writing this blog. All of a sudden, as if on cue with the timpani, I heard a loud sound that was clearly not man-made and looked up at the skylight to see dark sky and trees waving wildly in the wind. Stormy weather had moved in without warning. Oh no, the music!

I raced out to the edge of the stage to see players frantically clipping their music while continuing to play. At this point, there wasn’t real rain, and after a few minutes things died down. The orchestra went on as if nothing had happened, and all seemed under control. It wasn’t long, though, before the storm decided to unleash its full force. Now there was rain coming in from the sides of the stage. Musicians were moving their stands and chairs away from the rain’s range, and some had to leave the stage altogether. At the end of the movement Maestro van Zweden begged the audience’s indulgence and waited a few moments to begin the slow movement. The orchestra did make it through that but just barely — it was now clear the concert couldn’t continue.

Once again the Maestro told the audience the orchestra would have to stop so the instruments were not ruined. But he asked them to wait, and we would try to come back and finish the symphony. That brought loud cheering and applause, and musicians and listeners alike waited for the wind and rain to abate.

And in true Colorado fashion, it did just that. A little bit later sun came through the clouds and a dazzling rainbow arced across the theater. The players moved back on stage, took their places, and completed the performance with a rousing Scherzo and Finale of the symphony. It really was a spectacular performance enhanced by nature’s drama and unpredictability. Live music at its best!

We shall see what transpires in our upcoming performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6. With the Hammerblows of Fate, I doubt Mother Nature can resist a little atmospheric gift. See you then.

Back on stage after the storm

The beautiful rainbow that graced our performance

Auditions, Auditions and More Auditions

Posted in Preparing Parts,The Business by kschnack on February 14, 2010

Timpani Showroom (Photo credit: Melissa Rogers)

Timpani showroom?

Nope, just an audition.

Or rather, one phase of several auditions here at the DSO of late. We have had three days of preliminary, semi and final rounds for the Principal Timpani chair during the last month, and will finish the rest of the semis and finals on Monday following a long day of Assistant Principal Horn auditions. We just last week completed the Second Trombone auditions, and, on top of that, auditions have also been going on for several weeks to fill the choral director position.

You might wonder why I would be writing about auditions as a librarian, because you might think we don’t have much to do with them. But auditions can take a fair amount of careful music preparation. I’m sure most of us in this business have a pretty good idea of what the general audition process is for the players. But I bet most people, even the players, don’t realize what is involved behind the scenes in preparing music for the auditions.

Take a look at this list:

The repertoire lists are determined by the section principals (or, if the audition is for a principal position, by the next ranking person or committee) and conductor, and are sent out to the applicants by the personnel manager. Here at the DSO, we also often have a shorter list drawn from the full one for those who are asked to send tapes. We work with the principal or audition coordinator to identify the excerpts that will be required, getting exact starts and stops marked. Once the repertoire is determined, we then go into production of the audition book itself.

First, we assess which pieces on the list are under copyright, because the players will not be able to purchase those parts and we prepare them to be sent out. Amongst MOLA libraries there is an understanding that we will make these excerpts available to our orchestra’s applicants, but that we will try to do it in the proper, legal way. Currently, that means contacting the publisher for even an 8-bar excerpt of something like Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and gaining their permission to make the necessary copies to distribute or post on our websites (sometimes this involves a fee). Some of the publishers still have the view that allowing us to freely copy or post audition excerpts is a threat to their “revenue stream” and that an orchestra could somehow misuse those excerpts. (I’m not sure how having access to 8 bars of the Bartok timpani part could create any kind of situation in which we could put on a concert and charge a ticket price, but you never know. Perhaps audiences would come to a concert with 50 timpanists playing the audition excerpts in unison…..hey, maybe I should talk to marketing!)

Anyway, after we get permission from each publisher of a protected work, we then create a little book to send to the candidates. This means extracting* the excerpts along with title, composer, key and time signatures, tunings if applicable, and anything else we want the player to have. Here we prefer to send out clean but corrected parts so that the committee can get a sense of how the player approaches the work without imposing our own markings. I should mention that some libraries create the entire audition book to be sent to all the candidates, but at the DSO we generally do not. For the mailing we only reproduce the copyrighted excerpts, since all of the other parts are readily available for purchase. The personnel manager then sends the auditions materials out including the specific list of works with bar and/or rehearsal numbers.

After that part of the process is finished, we move on to preparing the rest of the complete audition book for the actual day of the audition. In addition to those copyrighted excerpts already prepared, we extract the specific passages that may be asked from the other repertoire on the list. For example, if the list calls for Beethoven Symphony No. 7, we know that the candidate will not be asked to play the entire symphony during the audition. (Oh my, can you imagine??) So we extract only the portions that the principal determines are realistically possible to include. This cuts down on lots of extra and unnecessary work for everyone and moves the audition along more efficiently. We make  one or two performance-size candidate books (including all the excerpts for prelims, semis and finals) depending on how many players are anticipated, and up to 10 copies of the book for the committee (8.5 x 11) for reference during the auditions. A cover sheet is put on the front with the list and page number of each excerpt. And then our work is, mostly, done. If the committee and conductor want to allow for the possibility of sight reading, we may have some things ready to hand out on the day if they haven’t been predetermined and included in the book. The candidates are given the information at the audition about what will be asked just prior to each round.

One aside: discretion on the part of the librarian is important. We make sure we don’t talk about, show, or post (like in blogs!) what will be asked on the audition so that everyone has the same info. Of course, most players — especially wind, brass and percussion players — pretty much know which excerpts will be targeted anyway but no one, even in my own orchestra, is going to hear the specifics from me!

Many players bring their own music to auditions, and that is perfectly fine for them to do. I certainly understand this, and did it that way when I was taking violin auditions. But it is incumbent upon the player, then, to read the orchestra’s list carefully and be sure to acquire the proper parts so they don’t have a problem using an incorrect version or something.

Once we are finally finished with our work. we save everything physically and electronically so that we don’t have to start over the next time the same instrument or position comes open. When I am long gone from this job, my successor will have, hopefully, less work to do for auditions.

As for auditions for orchestra librarian positions, that is a separate post (and, yes, I meant to write “auditions”). I will regale you with the good, the bad, and the ugly of that process another day!

*Extracting excerpts used to mean cutting out parts like paper dolls and pasting them in order on clean paper before copying them. Now, with our document manipulation software, we do the cutting and pasting electronically and it is incredibly fun. We are proud nerds.

Timpani Everywhere! (Photo credit: Melissa Rogers)

What Happens Backstage Stays Backstage

Posted in Stage and Concert Duties,The Business by kschnack on November 1, 2009
Tags: , ,

Well, except for the parts I’m going to tell you!  No names of course.  LOL.

Seriously, performers have to be able to trust orchestra librarians to handle backstage situations with professionalism, courtesy, discretion, and, above all else, help when they need something.  It wouldn’t be right to betray that trust, so I won’t — the last thing artists need is some star-struck librarian to “kiss and tell.”

But that doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun and entertain you a little about the kinds of things that happen backstage.  Rituals, wardrobe malfunctions, logistical snafus, nerves, you name it.  Because it can be quite the trip.  And just when you think you’ve seen it all something happens that is a complete surprise.

Take wardrobe issues……..You can always tell if a dress is going to be dangerous for the diva during her arias, be it for breathing or bowing, and I’ve been asked more times than I can remember to pin up, zip up, scoop up, fix straps, check hooks, whatever.   The operations people and librarians are the last to see the artist(s) before they walk on stage, besides the stage crew and conductor.  And it’s usually at the very last moment when that look of “OMG, what am I going to do?!” calls for some fast action.  This is precisely why I always keep a mending kit in the library trunk by the stage; recently I had to clip off the sales tag from a soloist’s blouse before she went out.  Of course, she’s telling me to “hurry, hurry!” when, uh, a little checking after buying the duds and putting them on would have been in order!

For the guys it’s the fly-check.  Oh my.  Men, can I just say, if you are going to be all exhibitionist about this part of your dressing routine would you please do it in the DRESSING ROOM??  I really don’t need to see the more, um, personal displays, which, I swear, some of you are doing either to get attention or because of a pre-performance nervous ritual.  I mean, I understand the pre-performance rituals — I have my own, most notably always checking with one last look that I actually did put the conductor’s score out [this subject requires an entire blog post of its own], which invariably is preceded by a spike in blood pressure.  So I know you have to do whatever it takes to make yourself ready to Go Out There.  But does it have to be such a grand gesture?  I find it interesting that when the women check their flies they are very subtle about it, quiet, quick, done.  For the men out there who are also trying to be discreet, I thank you, from all the librarians in the world.

Not that librarians, male or female, can be squeamish about this stuff.  Again, it goes back to trust.  The conductors and artists need to know that we understand the concert hall is a theater, and you just can’t get worked up about people in various stages (pun intended) of getting ready.  Librarians are all the time having to go to the artists dressing rooms to get their scores, or ask and answer questions, and while you’d think those therein would wait to invite you in until they are actually completely dressed, it just slows everyone down so nobody worries about it.  Of course, I’m not talking about anything truly untoward.  Just life in show biz.

There are countless other rituals that performers do, not unlike athletes preparing for a game or race.  Some are famous in concert world lore, like Bernstein kissing his Koussevitzky cuff links before he walked out.  People cross themselves, knock on wood, stretch, jump up and down, make jokes, or just go into a Zen zone of their own.  I try to respect this process quietly unless asked for something, but some actually want a little conversation and companionship before they perform.  It’s important for the librarian to judge the artist’s mood accurately and not do anything that will get them off their game.  It may be old-fashioned, but I always stand at the entrance to the stage before the conductors and soloists go out.  It’s my way of showing support and respect, and staying available if they have any questions. I also like to think they appreciate being with a musician who understands what they are about to embark upon in their performance.

As everywhere else in life, there are some artists who go too far with pre-concert antics.  We had a conductor a number of years ago who completely shocked us all by horking up a huge glob of phlegm and spitting it on the floor before he walked out, stepping on it like someone puts out a cigarette, then taking a giant step over it as he went onstage.  Apparently this maneuver was lucky for him.  I’m sorry, but that’s disgusting and next time you come around, mister, I’m going to tell you so.  This is where we are different than ball players — it’s a concert hall, not a field! And, BTW, can anyone say Germs??  Forgive my detailed description, but I wanted you, dear readers, to have a full understanding of this particular ritual, just in case you know the guy and can set him straight that it is really UNCOOL.  You can also tell him that great rolling of eyes ensues when someone is that grandiose and gross.  Not to mention, it’s gets around.

Then there is the subject of performing from memory.  I understand why performers want to.  It was pounded into us as youngsters that we needed to memorize our concerti; one did not use the music.  I suppose it’s still expected for the standard solo repertoire, but the days are long over when everything has to be memorized.  Especially for contemporary music or premieres. This goes for conductors too.  May I suggest that, unless you really, really know the piece cold, it would be better for all concerned if you used the music? If you go out there without it, and have a serious memory slip, the audience is going to remember the memory slip more than anything else.  But if you use the score and give a tremendous performance, they are only going to remember that it was fantastic.  They aren’t even going to think about whether or not you used music.  No loss of face in that at all. I have witnessed moments of private terror, and have even, at times, offered a score to someone who clearly wasn’t prepared to do the work from memory.  Do yourself a favor. Take it next time!

So, there’s your little slice of backstage life for today.  Very glamorous, indeed, eh?

Thank You Jeff.

Posted in The Business by kschnack on October 4, 2009
Tags: ,

As this week went from near-sanity to complete madness (I’ll have to get back to you on that), I was glad to have a laugh when I saw Jeff Curnow’s new video.  Jeff is Associate Principal Trumpet in Philly, and he used to be Principal Trumpet here in Dallas.  I assume most of you have seen his hilarious short videos taking on all manner of indignities in this profession from a trumpet player’s perspective.  But if you haven’t you should watch them immediately.  What cannot be truly conveyed in hundreds of words is instantly captured on these videos, many of them innocuously named “Trumpet Tips” as if you are about to get a serious lesson.  They are lessons alright, and ones you will never forget!

This latest one is the first in a new series called “What’s Bothering Jeff?” on Drew McManus’ blog Inside the Arts. When my husband and I watched this we about fell out of our chairs laughing so hard.  Here you go (and check out the great website while you’re at it, all kinds of good stuff there):

There’s the one about taking auditions, to which I’m sure everyone relates:

And librarians certainly feel his pain about pops:

But my favorite is still the first one I ever saw in which conductors (sorry, conductors out there, but you have to admit this is funny!) take it on the chin, literally:

Jeff, we are so glad you have found a productive and therapeutic way to channel the dark side.  Keep ’em comin’, we are counting on you.  Otherwise we might just lose it.