Friday, 22 February 2013

Rehearsal in Berlin

In front of me, the Berliner Symphoniker was getting ready for the second day of rehearsal. The musicians were tuning their instrument or practicing some segments of the score. Since everybody is playing something different it's a big pandominium - one that I enjoy. I feel happy and excited. It was only tomorrow that we would be at the Philharmonie, that great temple of music, built for Herbert von Karajan in the 60's. Just one and only rehearsal before the concert...
Today Thomas Wittmann will not be present - nor will he be tomorrow, because he is stuck in a very tight rehearsal schedule for a new play with the Berlin Ensemble. What were they thinking when they hired him, or what was he thinking when he accepted the jog? We can only trust that everyone's talent will be sufficient to give a n honorable performance. What they didn't expect is that the piece was more musically complex than they imagined: a symphonic tale based on a famous Vietnamese legend. An Asian counterpart to Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf? (That was their request). Maybe I could have made things simpler for myself and create lots of tuneful melodies. And yet... as Kiêt told me, that was the very first time a Vietnamese composer had his work performed at this prestigious concert hall.

The dân bâù (monochord)
 player had just arrived this morning. A friendly and witty man, he was concerned about the music. "I have never played with an orchestra of that magnitude... I usually perform for evenings and parties with my keyboard... And you music is so complicated!!!!" 
I tried to reassure him by showing that I fully trusted he would effortlessly rise to the challenge. I had other concerns in mind. I had learned that the manager had hired a couple of Vietnamese acrobats for the performance. I secretly wished they would do something before or after Thanh Giong but my hopes were quickly shattered. They had worked with the Cirque du Soleil. The mention of that name would have triggered another kind of reaction from, given another circumstance, but here I was falling apart in desperation.  
A narrator, a traditional Vietnamese instrument, two acrobats... It seemed the whole project was turning into ... a circus. Great and talented as they were, those two acrobats didn't care much about the narrative nor the music. Their sole focus was to find space to show off their skills. I was boiling and fuming inside. Partly at Tuân for not having made anything clear to anyone: everybody still thought he would be performing for the concert, whence the two acrobats who were asked at the last minute. His name was still on the flyers and pamphlet advertising for the event. 
I nearly gave up when Kiêt suggested the idea that his son played a Vietnamese folk song on the flute before the concert as a way to introduce the music and the story to the audience. Except that his sons didn't play the flute... "Damn Vietnamese", I thought, "Even when they're working for great orchestras they still can't help making everything look like a Paris by Night gala show!" 
But the day was saved by some luminous moments. Eventhough I was acutely aware that the score was not to overshadow any work by Stravinsky or Prokofiev, I had felt, for the first time in months, this formidable hint of joy inside me when they started playing the opening bars of the music. Some section will definitely have to be revised and enhanced but I could give myself a pat on the shoulder. It didn't have to hide in shame for my first attempt at composing and orchestral piece without any experience whatsoever.


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