With the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra currently undertaking it’s longest ever European tour, Fellowship Conductor Alpesh Chauhan presents the first part of his tour diary.
Day 1, Thursday, March 20th 2pm (Introductions!)
CBSO 2nd violinist Michael Seal is also the orchestra’s Associate Conductor, which means that while playing on tours he is on hand to assist Musical Director Andris Nelsons; this involves conducting in acoustic (i.e. sound) checks and even conducting concerts at extremely late notice. Due to his growing number of conducting commitments, Mike was only able to undertake the first five concerts of this tour, so in his absence the orchestra asked me to assist Andris for the remaining ten concerts, all of which form part of the German leg of a tour which has already taken the orchestra to France and Austria.
So, I am currently on a train to today’s venue in Freiburg (after taking a flight from Birmingham to Frankfurt) with 2nd violinist Catherine Arlidge – it seems the way of replacing Mike’s role after he had left involved two people: an assistant conductor and another 2nd violinist! So this diary will recount my experiences of being on tour as the CBSO’s Conducting Fellow and letting the readers know just what goes on on tour (with obvious what-goes-on-tour-stays-on-
Day 2, Friday, March 21st 11.30am (Freiberg)
The orchestra is currently halfway between Freiburg and Heidelberg, travelling on three coaches. So, some brief information on yesterday’s rehearsal and concert at the Freiburg Konzerthaus. Last night was concert No. 6 for the orchestra and the repertoire was Brahms – Piano Concerto No. 1 (with soloist Hélène Grimaud) and Prokofiev – Romeo & Juliet (highlights). It’s the second time on this tour that we’ve played the Brahms and the fourth outing of the Prokofiev.
Rehearsal was 5pm-6pm, so very short (though not as short as some of the rehearsals yet to come). Andris began by doing some very quick moments in the Prokofiev to check certain corners while regularly turning round to me, sitting in the auditorium, and asking questions on balance and how it sounded ‘in the mix’. A few words on the hall: it’s a large space, and looked like a sister hall to Manchester’s Bridgewater. A modern looking hall with lots of wood and a very lively acoustic similar to a ‘town hall’ type acoustic. For the orchestra, this meant that they had to play with more brilliance of articulation; for example, short notes needed to be played even shorter to obtain clarity as the hall made everything more resonant.
Back to the rehearsal and my role as Andris’s assistant. There are two main ways that conductors use their assistants: the first is to turn round and shout to each other for the assistant to gesture at the conductor if things seem to need to be louder or quieter (obviously this can vary from conductor to another). The second method is for the conductor to swap places with the assistant, who then conducts some excerpts while the actual conductor goes into the stalls to listen to what their orchestra sounds like and what they consider might need changing. Although various members of the orchestra and the CBSO management have seen me conduct, Freiburg was the first time I had conducted the CBSO proper so that Andris could go out to listen. It was great to be in front driving this Rolls Royce of an orchestra in a non-pressurised situation. It’s funny to think that no amount of piano classes can prepare you for conducting a professional orchestra. The CBSO’s sound breathes and is very human and as a result, conducting them for the first time in such a big piece as the Prokofiev was a very major – and memorable – step in my chosen path.
Following this brief soundcheck, Hélène Grimaud came out and the orchestra rehearsed fleeting moments of the Brahms. After a great Argentinian meal at a restaurant, the concert began and was incredibly well received. Hélène, performing in the first half, played beautifully, her piano playing filling the hall, and left the audience wanting more; her choice was a Rachmaninoff prelude. Naturally, the hall sounds different with a full house but still had its lively characteristic making for a staggeringly loud and exciting end to the Prokofiev (producing gasps from some members of the audience) which Andris played with, allowing it to be fresh for the orchestra; something that the players seem to really appreciate. Speaking to Andris after the concert he seemed very pleased and commented on this freshness saying that he was very pleased at the orchestra’s responsive as he has done the Prokofiev differently every time – at times you could see certain members smiling at Andris when he spontaneously decided to go in a different direction! Real, live and inspiring music making!