Friday, November 26, 2010

Milton Keynes Sinfonia concert

26 November 2010

A brief history of brass instruments: if you take any narrow metal tube or pipe, open at both ends, put one end to your lips and blow you can produce a musical note. The tighter you press your lips together and the harder you blow the higher the note will be. With most metal tubes you will be able to produce a limited number of different musical notes, based on the frequencies at which the tube will naturally resonate. The longer the tube the more notes will be possible, but even with a very long tube there will be a limit to which notes can be produced – enough for a fanfare but missing the notes in between that you would need to play most melodies. The precise notes available will vary depending on the length of the tube.

One early solution was to create a detachable section of tube that could be removed from the middle of the instrument and replaced with a similar section of a slightly different length. The early version of what we now call the French horn (which is a very long tube curled up to make it portable-enough to play on horseback) used this system of detachable ‘crooks’. But it was not possible to swap crooks fast enough to play a continuous tune requiring notes from the different crooks. A quicker way of altering the overall length of the tube was to create a sliding ‘crook’ that could be moved in or out while playing to vary the total length of the instrument, leading to the development of the trombone.

The alternative was to permanently attach several ‘crooks’ of various lengths to the instrument and create a system of valves to redirect the air through the appropriate pipes as required to make particular notes available to the player. The modern trumpet uses three vertical valves that, when pressed, channel the air through a second set of pipes from those used by default. Combining all three valves creates seven different possible total lengths for the air to travel through, providing the player with access to every possible note.

The modern French horn uses a similar system of valves, except that they rotate to change the direction of the air (rather than moving up and down as on a trumpet). Most horns have levers for the player to press which are attached to the rotary valves by ‘strings’ (thin nylon twine) which pull the valves round to the relevant position.

The reason I’m telling you all this is to set the scene for the Milton Keynes Sinfonia concert I played in last Saturday. The concert opened with the ‘Peer Gynt Suite No. 1’ by Grieg, followed by the Miaskovsky ‘Cello Concerto. Russian composer Nikolai Miaskovsky was a contemporary of Rachmaninov and wrote in a late-romantic style. His ‘cello concerto, written in 1944, is an interesting piece that was completely new to me – a little rambling, maybe, but with some lovely tunes. With the Milton Keynes Sinfonia’s conductor, David Knight, being an extremely accomplished ‘cellist himself, it was no surprise that the soloist he had chosen was something special: German-born ‘cellist Julian Metzger gave an outstanding performance.

I was only involved in the second half of the concert, in which we played Tchaikovsky’s mighty final work, the ‘Pathétique’ Symphony No 6. My role was ‘bumping’ the first horn part, ie doubling the first horn to allow the principal horn player to save himself, in this mammoth stamina-sapping work, for the more delicate solo passages. It started well, but shortly into the second of the four movements of the symphony I heard a snapping sound and realised that the string on my third valve had broken. This made the third valve unusable: replacing the string is a fiddly procedure and not one I was going to be able to accomplish in the middle of a concert, so I resigned myself to having to play the rest of the piece without using the third valve. Fortunately, the third valve is probably the least used but it was still a considerable mental challenge to calculate which notes I could play with an alternative fingering and which I would have to omit entirely – as well as a challenge of physical dexterity, particularly during the faster passages, to make sure I didn’t automatically revert to the familiar fingering patterns. All this made for a nerve-wracking forty minutes. I was fortunate that I was doubling the first horn part and was not the only player responsible for producing those notes. The fact that, after we had finished the performance the principal horn player, David Lack, said he hadn’t noticed my predicament suggests that I got away with it!

The ‘Pathétique’ Symphony is a very emotional piece: the third movement is a brilliant march with a magnificent ending that sounds like it should be the climax of the whole work. Most audiences burst into applause at this point – and our audience in Milton Keynes was no exception – leaving the heart-breakingly beautiful fourth movement to shatter the joy and lead us inevitably into despair. I was amused to discover that, in the tense, silent moments after the last note of the symphony, as orchestra and audience held its collective breath before relaxing into applause, one member of the audience was heard to say "I loved the Tchaikovsky, but what was that funny piece they played as an encore?".

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