Monday, March 28, 2011

Mahler 6: Through A Musician's Ears and Eyes

Mahler 6: Through A Musician's Ears and Eyes
By Ellen Ritscher Sackett
This is a Jaap van Zweden week at the Dallas Symphony, and the orchestra has been in heavy-duty rehearsal mode, preparing Mahler’s Sixth Symphony since Monday afternoon. The piece is of epic proportions, 71 minutes in four movements. It is the one-and-only piece on this week’s program. The first of three concerts is tonight.

I am the second harpist. I’m what’s called an “extra” – not a contract player who is on salary, but a freelancer who is hired to play with the symphony as needed. I’ve been playing harp with the orchestra since 1988. My name has never been on the program, but when you look up at the harps from the audience, I’m the one sitting on the outside.

There are quite a few extras for this Mahler Symphony. While it’s visually impressive from the audience’s perspective, it’s pretty crowded from ours. Imagine well over 100 people sitting side by side for several hours a day, six days a week. We try to be considerate of each other. No heavy perfumes, hairsprays or colognes. No garlic at lunch. A pack of gum or breath mints handy.

The primary order of business for the musicians just before our first rehearsal is to jockey for space. We each need just enough to do our jobs well. String players, for example, have to have room to move their bows, and obviously, the larger instruments, like the harp and percussion, take up a fair amount of space. Once we’ve staked out our territory, then the next order of business is to make sure we each have an unobstructed view of the conductor.

Rehearsals always start on time. I have to be there plenty early to tune my harp. The other musicians also roll in ahead of time to warm up and practice the tricky spots. We have to be prepared because once Jaap takes the podium, our attention is on him and his every demand.

And demanding he is. If I had one and only one word to describe a rehearsal with Jaap, it would be “intense.” He immediately gets down to business, and every eyeball is focused upon him for the duration. Jaap’s goal is to push us into achieving his musical goals, beyond our comfort zones at times while stretching our technical abilities to the max.

We are, after all, the conductor’s instrument. The conductor is boss, and it’s our job to follow his instructions. We do our best to serve him and his intentions. This is true for all orchestras, not just the DSO. It helps when the orchestra respects its conductor, and certainly the DSO thinks highly of Maestro van Zweden.

As the second harpist, I don’t play as much as, say, the violinists who are busy almost all of the time, but that doesn’t mean I can relax. In between my “licks” I have many empty measures to count. I keep a watchful eye for changes in tempo. Sometimes the maestro conducts in two; sometimes, he switches to four, and sometimes there are meter changes.

Since there are a lot of stops and starts in a rehearsal, I listen to the conductor’s comments, even if it’s directed to the violas or the flutes or the French horns. That way, I can anticipate where he will begin next. He doesn’t give us a lot of extra time to find that next starting spot. Sure enough, the other day I leaned over to say something to my colleague, and that slight distraction caused us both to miss an entrance. My bad.

We got the glare. That’s the maestro’s very effective way of letting us know that HE knew we’d dropped the ball. The longer his stare, the worse the sin. Avoiding the glare is a high priority. Jaap doesn’t have to yell or jump up and down on the podium to get his point across.

Most of the time, however, Jaap is very polite. He shakes his head and says, “This isn’t working,” or “I’m sorry to have to tell you. You are rushing. Just a bit.”
“Do it this way,” he says. “It’s so very important.” And my favorite: “That was close to pretty good.” He explains what he wants through a combination of words and by singing how he wants the music to sound. Then he asks, “Can we do it once more?”

We do it once more. At least. He has us repeat the section until we get it right, however long that takes. He talks a lot about the dynamics – the louds and softs and everything in between. He fixes intonation. He works on articulation. He listens carefully and doesn’t miss a thing. Every correction is made with the music’s intent in mind. The orchestra rarely rides the wave of emotion for long before Jaap interrupts us to make a correction. That’s what rehearsing is all about. Making good music is all in the details.

By the time we get to the performance, the finer points will have all been addressed. It’ll be time to play. When the Maestro gives the downbeat tonight, we’ll be ready.

In addition to playing the harp, Ellen Ritscher Sackett is a features writer at the Denton Record-Chronicle. She can be contacted at

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