On December 8, we had a full dress rehearsal followed by an evening concert. The rehearsal was planned to fit the schedules of the multi-tasking string players and for the concert, all backstage movements were scheduled so that the soloists would be brought from the warm-up room to the backstage area ten minutes before their appearance. The event was recorded and video-taped for further study. Each player knew exactly when their rehearsal time was and when they would be required to be on stage. We had three bassoonists attending solely to the smooth operation of the backstage movements (Amy Zhang, Susanne Hung and Neil Bishop) while the mastermind behind the whole schedule (Neil Chen) instructed them in their movements while preparing to play his full concerto (RV 500) on the second third of the concert. This involved Neil grabbing the sides of his head and groaning briefly before issuing the next set of orders.
Our recording engineers set up during the dress rehearsal. The school made archival recordings and I also brought in Rob DiVito, one of my favourite engineers to both record and video the show. This is essential to analyze our progress. In many ways, though I attend the rehearsals and sometimes hear parts of the concerti in lessons, this performance, by necessity, is more about independent preparation. So I really want to go over the final product with the players to discuss how their work will continue. I very much want this to be one of many performances.
This is the first year that we have had an artistic director step forward in a very brainstorming, conceptual way that was somehow immediately graspable. Amy Zhang is a first year student, quiet but powerful, and she wanted to be part of the event though she didn’t play this year. This year, as every year, I offered the idea that we could put an artistic theme behind the overall concept. Amy took the idea and ran. She said the parade of concerti could be conceived like a fashion show, with different models taking the stage. As part of the artistic development, she asked each soloist to provide an adjective that corresponded with their concerto and from the list, she chose one or two to represent the work. Though I encouraged them to imagine on a large scale, to imagine how each of them would fit into the big picture, imagine how the concept of a runway show could be woven into the reality of a Vivaldi concert. To imagine just when exactly we could rehearse the movements for a big-concept stage show. The immediate reality is that we had to bring the artistic ideas to our stage in simple ways. The posters reflected the richness and parade of a fashion show, the programmes reflected the imagery and for the concert, Amy prepared large signs and walked on stage with them, holding them high for the audience to read before she left again. Adjectives like “fiery, unorthodox, bohemian, stormy, awake, fervid, flight, dark, exotic, enigmatic” all took a turn on the stage.
After my introduction from the stage, Mike Sweeney led the evening with the Concerto in F Major, RV 489. He had performed this concerto in October with the Toronto Symphony (where he is the principal bassoon) and had meticulously prepared the parts. He was equally clear in the rehearsals, his demands precise but not inhibiting for the young players. He was amazed at their rapid learning curve. His performance was so refined, worked, luminous in it’s intent and so individually thoughtful. In keeping with our loose connection to the idea of a designer fashion show (all eyes on Vivaldi), Michael wore an elegant dark suit with a shirt in a delicately astonishing shade of spring green.
Alicia Bots played the first two movements of the Concerto in E minor, RV 484. She was our surprise powerhouse… she had come from being a shy player, technically unsure, to playing her last two rehearsals from memory with an increasingly strong sound and depth. Everyone stopped at the rehearsal and admitted that they didn’t know she could play like that. Dam straight she can play like that! And she wore a super-elegant, black, snakeskinish dress with patent heels. When she told me what she was going to wear, I said that she couldn’t play in heels unless she had practised in them. “I’ve been practising in them for two week!” was her quick reply.
I played the Concerto in C minor, RV 480. I was definitely a bit over-excited. The audience was hugely supportive. I love to play even as I am terrified that I’m going to forget the next note. This was my third time playing the concerto this fall and it still felt somewhat new. All of us need repeat experiences to refine our performances and this is another reason why I push to have this event each year. I had briefly considered changing into one of my designer gowns, but that would have involved assistants and clearing the busy but tiny green room… so in a rare move, I wore the same outfit I had worn all day: I wore my black net, glove-handed hoodie (Magpie Designs original), my faux leather pants (Christina Dobbiuk original), a grey silk shirt that has a long tail (Juma ready-to-wear) and my military Fluvogs.
After intermission, Neil Chen told me that we were 5 minutes ahead of schedule, so he allowed me to speak for another two minutes. I thanked the Chambuls of Chambul Chiropractic for their exceptional sponsorship of our event. I mentioned that all 39 concerti are in the autograph of Antonio Vivaldi with the exception of the one that Bianca Chambul was about to play (RV 499) which was copied out by his father. I mentioned the fact that one of the students had done a financial analysis of the event when I asked him to ascertain how much this would cost in the “real world” and he came back to me baffled, saying that he was sure he had done everything right but kept coming back to the figure of having to charge $600 per ticket to break even. I said that we were in a protected environment, supported by the school in all the major ways, and that we should drink in every second of this privilege. I also said that there were extra costs and I pretended that the money had come entirely from the students pockets rather than mine and encouraged people to drop their spare change in the donation box.
Then Bianca Chambul took the stage in her tailored red soloist suit (very much like her black orchestral suit, but this one florentine red) to play the Concerto in A minor RV 499. I had seen her moments before going on stage and she confessed to nerves. But you would not have know it to see and hear her… a deep rich tone, rippling ornaments, some wild invention that I totally envied and somehow a fascinatingly kinetic, unified performance.
Eric Macarios was next, very tall in his dark blue suit, my incredibly enthusiastic, open and interested first year student from Louisiana. Though he has only had a few weeks of study with me since starting in September, he has grabbed every opportunity to have a lesson, and has learned my daunting freehand shaping and profiling method. He was playing on his own reed made in this style and playing to the very fulness of his ability. Wonderful to witness and likewise, his aunt in the audience gave him an immediate standing ovation which was also one of the highlights of the evening for me… such open support can only help.
This section of the concert ended with Neil Chen taking the stage to play the complete Concerto in A minor, RV 500 in a beautifully Leonard Cohen-ish-without-the-rumples outfit of black leather cap and black trench coat over his black shirt and trousers… he looked incredible though he said he felt a bit hot. I did not feel nervous listening to Neil or really, to any of the students. I knew that they were prepared and that the experience of playing from memory was another step in the preparation, the raw electricity of performance combined with the immense exposure of the self. Almost everyone had a memory slip and now they all know that it won’t kill them and that they can all get back on the horse. Anyway, I liked Neil’s third movement so much that I am putting this concerto on my next album for sure. Now that I think of it, I want to put all of the students’ concerti on my next album, which shows the power of exposing this music.
When he left the stage, the audience sat quietly for a minute until I realized it was the second intermission and said so. At this point, I was in the audience and got to see how many friends, students and new faces were in the audience. It felt like a real show.
Christopher Kostyshyn strode out to play the first two movements of the Concerto in F Major RV 490. In his customary crisp shirt, perfectly-chosen tie and dress pants, he danced, subtle but perfect and unmistakeable, from the first note. My oesteopath was in the audience and later said that Christopher was alive from head to toe… some of the bassoonists were slightly distanced from the instrument, others were completely physically connected; CK was connected.
Our grad student came on to play the first movement of the Concerto in C Major, RV 473. Eric was splendid in a blue velvet jacket, yellow bow tie, cream pants and tousled Chopin hair. His concerto has extended passages of huge leaps, by far the hardest passages to memorize. Every student brought a different voice and a different sense of where their voice will eventually go. Eric’s was deep and warm and in his most engaged moments, a very comforting sense of agile baritone-ness.
Kevin Sleno ended the concert, playing a version of the Concerto in D minor RV 481 with a substitution of the first movement of the Concerto in D minor RV 406 for cello.
Always inventive, this was more of an arrangement of the concerto with different voicing in the tuttis and was interesting. In a terse nod to the playful idea of the fashion show, Kevin added a silken silver scarf to his fine black suit.
Specific challenges of Vivaldi
It is always a journey to develop the right Vivaldi reed, one that is resilient enough to spring open after large leaps but also refined enough to not slow down the expressive responses or rapid passage work. Tuning must be very stable so that the bassoonist is not slowed down by the need to nurse pitches into place.
Contrary to the bitchy comment attributed to Stravinsky, the music of Vivaldi is neither predictable nor repetitive… the sequences invite variation and his methods of overlapping different sequential ideas can make his music much more challenging to memorize than later classical works.
This was our first show in a real concert hall and we were ready for it. That alone seemed to draw in more people. My own Dad was in the hall, along with my oldest friend, my long-time lawyer and many others from my life. My goal is to have the students and others realize that you can make your own break if you have the wherewithal to recognize the raw materials of opportunity. It was by no means a given that the university would allow us to present the concert in their main recital hall, but I like to think was an opportunity that we had worked hard to deserve.
How to Raise the Bar
Every year, I add an element to raise the bar, to enrich our experience, to enfranchise us within the context of our culture. Adding the memorization requirement vaulted the level of achievement and the level of risk. What will I do next season? I still think that I will open the doors to anyone who wants to perform. Next season will be only full concerti. And maybe I will fundraise to pay the orchestra and to create a scholarship prize. And maybe we will have the audience vote for the winner. Not sure… first we will have a party and watch the raw video footage on a big screen and groan and yell and laugh. Then we will decide what we want to achieve next. Because it is simple. If you can imagine it then plan it, you sure as hell can do it.
Background History (in case you haven’t had enough already)
The first Vivaldi Christmas Concert was held in 2006 in a classroom in Waterloo with a group of young players standing shoulder-to-shoulder beside a piano, reading our way through the first movement of the D minor concerto. We had cake afterwards. During the next 4 years, we expanded the concept, the number of concerti and the audience. When I left Wilfrid Laurier University in 2010, I took the Vivaldi event to the Glenn Gould School of Music and the University of Toronto.
This year, we had nine soloists playing completely from memory and two teams of rehearsed, top-notch string players plus keyboardists. Of the nine soloists, two of us are professionals in our fifties. Among the seven student soloists, we had first year students, education and performance majors and a grad student. Of the nine soloists, 5 of us played complete concerti, two played the first and second movements and two played solely the first movements.
Participation this year, as all previous years, was entirely voluntary. Each player accepted the challenge of memorizing their work. And each player did memorize their piece, though I decided on the night before the show to send our youngest out with his music. He had it memorized but he did not yet have enough experience playing as a soloist. He now has a lot to build on, having played from memory in all three rehearsals and during his lessons. First year students, education majors, performance majors, grad students and seasoned professionals performing on equal footing, taking the stage because they had the guts to step forward and the discipline to prepare, even if some of it was done at the last minute.
We had three rehearsals with the strings and that was the hardest part of the organizing as our young personnel managers quickly learned. The second rehearsal was the cutoff for memorizing. At that rehearsal, I decided if people would be permitted to play their entire concerto or if it would be best if they concentrated on a single movement. Others had decided from the beginning that they would perform one or two movements.
At the first event in 2006, I did all the organization and told the students what to do. Each year, I passed more and more control to the players while always retaining the right of ultimate veto. I warned them that as standards rise, tempers will flare. It took a couple of years for this to happen, but it did. Fine with me since it goes hand-in-hand with strong ambition and willingness to think for oneself.I also wanted the players to know what it takes to get the orchestral parts organized. At first we did it with scissors and paste, photocopying scores and pasting the parts onto pages. Now we order the facsimile scores from the National University Library of Turin and create our own editions.
Very roughly, the process goes something like this:
Convene all soloists and bassoonists who want to operate as support
Identify all jobs and assign (e.g. project manager, personnel manager, librarian, programme manager, graphics, pr and marketing, recording manager, stage manager, finance manager, recording and decide if we want a reception)
Discuss scope of event – begin to form artistic ideas
Choose concerti (committing early is best — we are also trying to cover all 39 concerti so people are encouraged to venture into the lesser-known works, though our special guests are always permitted to play the work of their choice.)
Pick a date
Check date to avoid other conflicts.
Request the Hall
Then and only then book the string players
Request the harpsichord and organ, tuning and recording services
Schedule the rehearsals to the minute
Explain the responsibility of the soloists to order the facsimile scores from Italy,
to create orchestra parts and have full scores at all rehearsals. The soloists must proofread the parts and make sure that the rehearsal numbers are the same in parts and scores. Librarian maintains a complete set of back up parts.
Fine tune the rehearsal days and times far enough in advance to secure room bookings (and harpsichord)
Schedule all rehearsals for maximum efficiency
Book the rehearsal rooms
Book the harpsichord and organ.
Book dress rehearsal time
Plan backstage flow
Plan staging requirements and lighting
Book dress rehearsals and sound checks, instrument moving and tuning
Plan for the unexpected – illness in the strings or soloists or music