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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Musing on the Road

Way Back When Dept.: A new orchestra sprang up in the Albany area couple of decades ago to satisfy the needs of choral groups that needed such forces from time to time. The St. Cecilia Orchestra was an ensemble comprising the best players, and it even was able to put together its own season of adventurous programming. Internal fractiousness eventually took its toll; as one of its former conductors put it, in a different context, it was “too good to be true.” Here’s a piece I wrote about a run-out the group made to appear on Boston’s WGBH.


TWO HOURS BEFORE BROADCAST TIME, Anne-Marie Barker looks stricken. She is pale and nervous. Only when she settles into her seat as concertmaster of the St. Cecilia Chamber Orchestra and begins to rehearse with the other players does a measure of composure return.

The St. Cecilia Orchestra in Boston;
Antonin Kubalek at the piano,
Alfredo Bonavera conducting.

She explained it on the bus the day before: “Too much pressure. I'm just – I can't believe everything it takes to put this together.”

She’s referring to a visit by the orchestra to Boston public radio station WGBH and its popular program, Morning Pro Musica. The group has been invited for its second appearance to perform in the studio for a live broadcast with host Robert J. Lurtsema.

Composer Bohuslav Martinu is being honored on the centenary of his birth; Lurtsema has been presenting recordings of Martinu’s music throughout the past few weeks and the St. Cecilia performance of his Sinfonietta Giocosa for Piano and Small Orchestra will be a highlight.

Fitting 23 players, a conductor and a grand piano into the small studio is a challenge. Chairs are set and rearranged as bowing arms and instrument bells need to be accommodated. Conductor Alfredo Bonavera examines the podium placement, unsure of visibility. The pianist, Czech-born Antonin Kubalek, assures Bonavera that he can be seen.

Musicians have been warming up in a nearby conference room; Barker ushers them in to be seated. Violinist Robert Taylor, who founded the orchestra with her, will lead the second violin section. Where Barker is tense, Taylor is a picture of eager contentment. “It’s going to be great,” he assures her. “Why shouldn’t it be?”

His confidence comes both from the ability of the musicians – they are the top-ranked players in the area – and their familiarity with the music. It was part of a recent concert, and was picked apart at a rehearsal at Union College just before the orchestra boarded its bus.

It was a peaceful ride across Massachusetts. Board member Allan Yerdon, who caters many St. Cecilia events, brought a platter of cheese and crackers for travelling food, enhanced with some good white wine. Although the group had the typical bus-trip accouterments of headphones and novels, conversation kept returning to musical gossip: who’s playing what orchestra, and what are the politics involved?

And nobody would dare trust an instrument to the baggage bins, so two bass fiddles are riding in the front seats with cellos seated behind them; other string and woodwind cases lined the overhead racks.

The players were given rooms on the eleventh and twelfth floors of the Back Bay Hilton; for the two hours before dinner, the halls carried the dim racket of practice in room after room.

As the rehearsal continues, engineer Jane Pipik dodges players while moving microphones, dashing between studio and control room to listen to the instrumental balance. The contrast in sound is startling. In the studio it’s loud and you’re overwhelmed by whichever instrument is nearest. In the booth you hear a well-measured blend.

There’s no question that this is a difficult piece. Martinu’s later works – this was written in 1940 – are tuneful but heavily textured with unusual chords and bright syncopation. As the group rehearses for its broadcast, Bonavera stops periodically to examine a particular accompaniment figure. Kubalek smiles and waits, then dashes in with more of the fast-moving piano solo as Bonavera gives another downbeat.

Although he now makes a specialty of music from his homeland – his newest Dorian recording is a fiery collection of dances by Bedrich Smetana – Kubalek wasn’t always enthusiastic about Czech music and describes his renewed interest as an ironic homecoming that occurred after 1968, when he realized he’d never be able to go back.

Now a Toronto resident, Kubalek developed an amazing facility to learn music because of a childhood handicap – he was blinded for several years by an explosion and learned to piano music through a tedious process of interpreting Braille.

Bonavera starts the fourth movement, a bouncy, up-tempo dance, and the players dig in with enthusiasm. It’s a professional characteristic: showtime approaches and there’s no reason to do anything but enjoy it.

Two minutes before 11, as the last piece of recorded music for the morning ends, Lurtsema enters the studio and takes a seat by a small table near the piano. “I just want to get a pronunciation,” he murmurs in his measured, gravelly tones, and consults Kubalek.

The usual funding credits roll by, then producer Leslie Warshaw  hits a switch in the control room. “You’re open,” she says into Lurtsema’s headphone. He nods gravely. “We’re pleased to have with us in the studio ...”

After exchanging a few words with Kubalek, the pianist begins with a solo: Book Two of Martinu’s “Etudes and Polkas,” some ten minutes of rollicking music, played with sure-fingered vigor.

A message comes into the control room: a listener in Albany has called to say that the broadcast is coming over affiliated station WAMC loud and clear.

The big piece is announced. All of the rehearsing pays off with a top-quality performance full of sparkle and wit. There will be champagne on the bus as the players head home, and a tape of the broadcast will be played over the bus stereo as the musicians savagely tear apart each nuance even as they enjoy this triumph.

Because it is another important feather in the cap for the group. This is the kind of recognition that’s needed to build credibility and allow the orchestra to share its music outside the area. If Taylor is happy on the return trip, Barker is positively jubilant. Both talk excitedly about plans for the future: a New England tour, an all-Shostakovich program. Already there is a performance being planned that will bring the group under the baton of John McGlinn, who has been restoring and reviving scores by Jerome Kern and Cole Porter and wants to present music by Kurt Weill in Albany.

The music on the tape ends and they hear again the interview that followed: Kubalek describing to Lurtsema his childhood; Bonavera discussing the music. “What does ‘Bonavera’ mean?” Lurtsema asks, and the conductor’s answer pretty much sums up the feelings of everyone: “Too good to be true.”

– Schenectady Gazette, 12 December 1990

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