Gala Concert: No Divas Need Apply

Working with professionals is pure joy: musicians who appear on time, well prepared, willing to rehearse and accept criticism as well as praise, are like sunshine and fresh air –  they encourage happiness, best efforts and beauty. To be honest, we’ve been exposed to divas in the past: the conductor who made us wait for hours because his private plane was delayed, the soprano who insisted on being driven the 600 meters from her five-star to the concert hall and back in the hotel limousine, the conductor who demanded that he be paid in cash just before the concert. Been there, done that, don’t need.  I prefer those who want to dig  in to the richly-laid table of delicacies poised in front of us as part of a team, because music is (also) about enjoyment as a collective. Tomorrow’s repeat of our gala concert will be doubly rewarding:  we’ve played it already and know that it’s in our heads and fingers. All we have to do now is to listen, react, and enjoy.  It’s also fun to watch because our conductor, Speranza Scappucci,  seems to me to closely personify the qualities of the music she’s conducting. She’s filled with energy and expression, her character is natural and effervescent, but possesses depth and contours.  Speranza knows what she’s up to, she shows the intention of the music and lets it shine as the true star of the show. Our soloists, Olga Peretyatko and Lawrence Brownlee, are made of the same stuff: they walk in (she in curlers and complete lack of vanity, he recently named „Male Singer of the Year“ but still friendly and approachable), rehearse well and with reserve. But when it’s showtime they set off fireworks with their vocal cords, musicianship, and charm. In short: this is an irrestible team. So please don’t be coy – come tomorrow night and listen, let yourself be seduced by the unbelievable lightness of Bel Canto.  Take part in our feast – you’ll leave it feeling refreshed and replenished, I promise.

Happy Birthday, Dear Ivor!

Today’s our principle conductor Ivor Bolton’s birthday and there’s much to celebrate. It’s my special pleasure to congratulate a captivating personality,  a generous, warm-hearted, unassuming human being, and a musician of exceptional passion and integrity.  In his first session with us, a recording project, he presented Berlioz’s music as fleetingly precious as the perfume of a rose, but at the same time new and radical. That’s when I knew I was experiencing something very rare and moving – and I’m not alone in this.  Ivor seems to inspire loyalty and devotion wherever he goes, from his orchestra colleagues to soloists of world renown, and this doesn’t surprise me. He has a simple and sincere way of treating us all as equals, he gives those whom he encounters the feeling of being valued. This sweet and humble art is perhaps the most beautiful and touching of his qualities. Dear Ivor, on your birthday I wish you all the blessings that you so richly deserve: health, happiness, and fulfillment. I hope that you’ll be spending time with your family, whom you love so deeply.  May your days be filled with laughter and music, and may you find time for long walks, fresh air, and sunshine.  Time is precious and passes quickly. It’s a great privilege and joy to share time with you. Happy Birthday!

Confessions of a Reluctant Juror


The next round of auditions is approaching and I’ll be frank: the thought alone makes me uncomfortable. Auditions are a necessary, even vital, aspect of orchestra life in which we, in choosing our newest colleagues, shape the  future of our orchestra. We chose a sound or musical personality which best pleases our aesthetic senses and fits our ideal wishes.  But until that glorious moment of „white smoke“ is achieved, it’s a lot of wading through applications and hearing countless renderings of the same pieces,  always keeping in mind that we’re dealing  with someone’s destiny. It’s daunting.  Just to give you an idea, there are normally between eighty and one hundred forty applicants for one job, although we have had up to four hundred applicants for a second violin job. Applying for a job in a symphony orchestra goes along with current recruiting practice: on-line, the applicant provides a letter of motivation (extremely telling), cv, experience, honors and awards. After poring over these documents, the chosen audition committee invites the cerca forty candidates who receive the most votes. Then the fun can begin. On audition day, those invited draw a number to determine the order in which they’ll be heard. The first of normally three rounds of playing can start and involves playing a movement of a classical concerto. All works to be played are pre-determined and the candidates are informed well in advance. The first round is also played behind a curtain – the listeners have no idea who’s playing, so it’s completely anonymous and neutral.  When the thirty-seventh candidate has played his or her Stamitz and the sphincter of my brain is threatening to close for good, it’s time for me to remind myself that I’m responsible for what happens next.  This is about someone’s future and is to be taken seriously. After everybody’s played, the committee votes on who will continue into the second round and if the curtain will remain or not. (If a candidate is known to us, we generally keep the curtain for the sake of fairness.) In the second round, the number of candidates has been appreciably pared down, and we get to hear another facet of their playing: perhaps a piece of romantic repertoire and some excerpts from orchestral literature. At the end, we vote once more for those to enter the third round with a modern concerto, more excerpts, and possibly a work of chamber music to be played with some of the orchestra colleagues, this time in full sight of the hearers. Sometimes the choice of a new player is completely clear, but more often we weigh different factors before we make a decision. Was someone brilliant in one round, but weak in another? Was the quality of sound hobbling behind excellent intonation? Was their rhythm solid? These and more questions keep us occupied until we can make our choice – or not. In some cases, the level of playing and musicianship that we seek is not achieved, and the audition comes to a halt, with no job being awarded. This is frustrating, but sometimes the only right decision. When we’re lucky enough to find a candidate on whom we all agree, the process of selection still hasn’t reached an end. Our candidate is subject to a probationary year, in which we wish all of us good luck – otherwise it’s back to the beginning and a new audition.  Honestly,  auditions are a gruelling and sometimes arbitrary process (how many candidiates are present, how is their daily form, do they suffer from stagefright), which is why I, personally,  am a reluctant juror.  Having been subjected to this process myself, though, makes it completely clear how much my full attention and subjectivity are needed. In the end, after a successful audition and probationary year,  the orchestra is the winner.

Who We Are

I find it particularly fascinating that our orchestra, a multi-national, multi-lingual, and multi-cultural assembly, continually shows a warm welcome to players from all over the world.  Exclusion is not in our repertory.  At the present moment our players come from twenty-two different countries and five continents. To my knowledge there have never been any personal conflicts within our ranks which have been based on a political situation in a country of origin. When we play together, we are a world unto ourselves. I began to wonder about the homelands of our followers and, after some research, discovered that this blog is followed by readers in sixty-three countries. Awesome! Is only one term I could use to express my  happiness and gratitude that we are reaching many parts of the world with the  message of art, creativity, and optimism. Music spans the globe, gives hope and happiness, pushes aside clouds of grief and despair. Music unites the nations – and we are all part of this.  This blog is a collective effort.  Many  of us, as in our orchestral roles, give a voice to our observations and contribute namelessly to one over-reaching goal. An orchestra is, after all, many people working together as one for a common goal. We are the world in miniature, a Utopia in deed.  Everything each of us does counts in the greater scheme of things. As to me: I an happy to be a small part of this and to contribute in whatever way I can.  Who I am isn’t important. But if you’ve read this blog carefully, you won’t have trouble identifying me: I’m the one in the black dress.


Down to the Wire

Good morning….at least, I think it’s a good morning. It’s just that I ache all over, my muscles are sore, my head is feeling heavy and muddled. I’d understand this if I’d been out partying last night, and in a way, I was: last night was the main rehearsal for „Satyagraha“. The main rehearsal isn’t the dress rehearsal, though. It’s a complete run-through of the piece followed by the necessary corrections, onstage and in the pit. The dress rehearsal will take place tonight and from there we head into the premiere.  We’re getting down to the wire, it’s serious business now. Because this project is a co-production with two other major European opera houses -meaning that the staging, costumes,  and direction have been created here in Basel, and that this will be taken over one to one in these other houses – there’s a lot of attention in the opera world and press relating to the reception and success of our work. All eyes are on Basel, you could say. I just hope nobody was peeking when I set down my viola for a few seconds‘ respite in the second act. The opera doesn’t seem long to me up until then, but the fast and furious repetition of patterns is a potential source of injury:  without an occasional pause, the chances of damaged tendons are very real. At the end of the more than four hour  rehearsal and heading toward midnight,  minds and bodies had been put to the test: we had given our all, were reeling from the effort, and couldn’t absorb any more.  Tonight,  the last opportunity to rehearse, we’ll put our shoulders to it -literally- and give it our best. This is something that I cherish about Sinfonieorchester Basel: when it comes right down to it, our professionality  goes into high gear and we deliver.  Unfailingly. So I’ll happily rub some liniment into those sore spots and get ready for tonight’s challenge.

Mahatma G: Superstar

Part of my curiosity about my profession involves delving into the subjects of the pieces we play. As the premiere of „Satyagraha“ draws close, it’s time to look into the subject matter that’s treated in this opera by Philip Glass. „Satyagraha“ is one of his three operas which deals with the lives of three personalities who have changed the world. (The other two are Albert Einstein and Akhnaten, the pharoah.) Wikipedia decribes the term satyagraha as follows: 

Satyagraha (/ˌsætiəˈɡrɑːhɑː/; Sanskrit: सत्याग्रह satyāgraha) — loosely translated as „insistence on truth“ (satya „truth“; agraha „insistence“ or „holding firmly to“) or holding onto truth[1] or truth force — is a particular form of nonviolent resistance or civil resistance. The term satyagraha was coined and developed by Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948).[2] He deployed satyagraha in the Indian independence movement and also during his earlier struggles in South Africa for Indian rights.

I wasn’t prepared for this- a whole opera, based on thoughts and actions of those who led through an insistence on non-violence. Then, to couple these thoughts with the texts of the Bhagavad Gita, the teachings of Krishna, seems so enormous in its scope. When I’m sitting in the pit playing the many loops and convolutions of this score, I have no visual access to the stage. And, since I don’t understand Sanskrit, the texts are also out of my grasp. What I understand is that what we’re playing is a constant but ever-changing reflection of the human state, that striving for perfect harmony involves actions and attitudes which are not native to our human nature, yet are what make us humane. On the truly human level, I am sometimes overwhelmed by the way the patterns of music weasel their way into my brain, never leaving me, infuriating me with their insistence. They are supremely non-violent, though- in keeping with the theme of the piece. But maybe their persistance is like the constant wearing of water upon stone.  I’m not sure it will help me to embrace the concept, but it is a fascinating experiment. „Satyagraha“ is noteworthy in its simplicity and complexity. The lesson I take from it? Stay curious, stay awake, be open.  I’m truly curious to feel the effects of the music and stage upon myself, the orchestra, and the audience.  I feel certain  that „Satyagraha“ will be another revealing and exciting production which we’re privileged to shape and accompany.