Beethoven, the Dude and Me

Last Wednesday I was in Sunset, eating lunch with Dave at Kingdom of Dumpling when I got an email from the artistic director of Cal Performances. It read "Can you come to rehearsal tonight at 7pm? Will explain later." I had recently been the pianist for a number of chorus rehearsals for Beethoven 9 but since today was the day that the orchestra was taking over I thought I was off the hook. So I wrote back "Ok, I can be there - but what will I be doing?" 

"You'll be on stage with the Maestro and the chorus for the rehearsal."

Upon reading those words I suddenly felt kind of faint and I lost my appetite entirely. No more dumplings for me thanks. (However, I took them home and they were super good for lunch the next day. Yum yum yum. Anyway....)

The Maestro in question that I was going to be working with that night just happened to be Gustavo Dudamel. I had been hired to play for the rehearsals leading up to the concert but the actual show was going down with Dudamel and the Orquesta Sinfònica Simón Bolívar.  I didn't think our paths would ever cross but suddenly it looked like I would be working with him very soon.....in about six hours to be exact. My lazy-no-work day eating dumplings and walking the dog had suddenly turned into an intense, omg I have to work with some insanely famous conductor so I'd better be in the type of mental space where I'm ready to bring the house down kind of day. As you might guess these days are typically quite different.  

I have a tendency to freak out and worry about things.  Over time and with a lot of experience performing I've become really, really good at keeping myself in check and getting through things with the minimum amount of hassle but that doesn't mean that I'm not aware of the adrenaline shooting through my body or my brain screaming things at me that I don't want to hear. Seriously, if I watch myself on video of any given performance I am always surprised by how calm and composed I look because that's really not what's going on at all in my head.  But that's for another blog post I think.

So it's normal that a gig like this would paralyze me in certain ways and I have to admit that for that first hour after I found out about it - it did.  All of sudden there were so many things that could go wrong. But then I realized, wait a minute! There were so many things that would go right. I had worked on the Beethoven pretty carefully with the time I had. I learned all the voice parts and had properly beat the orchestra part into a very fine ten finger submission. I'd had three rehearsals with the chorus and a conductor already and even though this would be my first time with Dudamel I knew that because he knows the orchestra part inside out he would actually make my job easier rather than harder. Armed with this reality I suddenly I felt relaxed and started looking forward to 7pm.  

When I got to the hall there were people with instruments onstage so I thought, oh, I guess the situation has changed and the orchestra is going to play after all.  I am no longer needed!  I looked around for the director but not finding her I thought that it would be a good idea to join the altos during the rehearsal and in that way still get to work with Dudamel.

I was standing at the back of the risers surrounded by slightly overexcited singer-type people when I thought to look at my phone. I had four missed calls and a number of emails.  Hmmm, that's not normal. At this point, it was about 7:15pm.  I looked at the first email:

"When can we expect you at Zellerbach?" I sent back "I'm here."

Then I looked at who had been calling me and that's when I realized that maybe I shouldn't be standing in the risers with the chorus anymore. Shoving happy singers out of my way I pushed and swore my way down to the stage where I found the director and others heaving out the piano. And here comes Dudamel with a big smile on his face so I guess this is where I sit down and do my thing.

The next hour and half was spent going through all the chorus parts of the symphony. Dudamel did not work from a score. Instead he would say, ok, let's start here where this happens, or let's start four bars before the next entry. Once I realized he wasn't going to use bar numbers it was actually easy to guess how he was going to move through the score. He was great with the choir, making them laugh and putting them at ease but also not letting them get away without first achieving what he wanted to hear. What I liked best was that he commiserated with them about just how difficult it is to sing Beethoven. "One minute of Beethoven is equal to singing three hours of Verdi" he said.  That's how hard it is. In this way, he made you feel that he was on your side and that every effort that you were making was more than worth it and not only that, you should be trying even harder. Inspiring n'est pas? A musician's approach to music can communicate many things about them and what I got from Dudamel was a feeling of complete comfort with what he had in his hands and a desire to share his knowledge and understanding with the people around him. This is the type of conductor, in my humble opinion, that will get the best out of the people he's working with. 

After the rehearsal he came over and shook my hand, smiled and thanked me. We bantered a bit but I can't remember about what. Maybe I was slightly star struck in that moment? Probably, he is rather charming. I stuck around to hear the run through with the orchestra and I've posted a video of the very last few minutes of the symphony. Sorry - it's shaky at the start but only until I find a comfortable place to set the phone. I think posting this might be some shade of illegal so if someone orders me to take it down I certainly will but check it out while you can. Since I recorded it with my phone the sound leaves a lot to be desired but you can still get a sense of what it was like. My favorite moment is the last fifteen seconds of the video where the orchestra gets to finish everything off with a huge exclamation point - I love the horns, the tempo and the absolute energy and power of the orchestra. This was an incredible experience on so many levels for me - enjoy!