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Mahler 9, Blog 6: Tanya's Bow

4/10/2008 3:57 PM

This story is about orchestra empowerment.

Throughout the rehearsal process of Mahler's Ninth Symphony with the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, I had been aware that one of the violinists had been sitting in an overly-relaxed, almost slouched position. By the time of the dress rehearsal, her posture, still unchanged, was in noticeable contrast to the other players, who were now fired-up and physically demonstrative. Although her playing was completely professional, the gut-wrenching intensity of Mahler's final testament made her off-hand appearance, dispiriting in any performance, seem particularly incongruous in this one.

At the end of the rehearsal, I went up to her and asked whether anything was amiss. Her response surprised me. "Are these your bowings?" she inquired. When I told her that these were the bowings we had used in our last performance in Boston, she commented, "The music goes too fast for all these bow changes. I just cannot get into the string." Since I know how difficult it is to apply a fast-moving bow to the string with enough pressure to make a big sound, I suggested that perhaps we should take a slower tempo. But she was taken aback. "Don't be ridiculous," she remonstrated, "you should perform it the way you feel it. But you did ask."

This was a revelation to me. A player's outward demeanor, her whole physical appearance, even her mood, were connected to her comfort with the bowings! One should remember that the conductor of the orchestra is not actually playing the music, however attuned he or she is to each instrument -- and as a string player, I consider myself particularly sensitive to the physical motions of the bow. However, in my eternal quest to find the right tempo for the music, in my desire to reveal the aching, arching long lines and the turbulent frenzy of Mahler's expression, I had probably been led to move the tempo somewhat faster, thereby sacrificing the player's vital kinesthetic relationship of bow to string. The cost was the discomfort and finally the resignation of a valued member of the violin section of one of the world's greatest orchestras. That was too high a price.

My usual routine on the day of a concert is to go to my room after the morning's General Rehearsal and take a long sleep, then shower, eat two English muffins and a scrambled egg with some nice strong English tea, and then return to the hall to give my customary pre-concert talk. This time, however, it all changed. I went back to my hotel room and spent the afternoon with Mahler's score, imagining how it would feel to play each passage on the violin. It was obviously not all too fast. Maybe this passage? Maybe that one? At the concert that evening, I slightly broadened each of the passages that I had decided might have presented a problem for Tanya's bow.

During the performance, I frequently glanced in her direction and there in her seat was an impassioned, unabashedly demonstrative player totally enraptured by the music. Although we would have played a more than respectable performance without the full participation of Tanya, the engagement of that extra one percent caused a disproportionate breakthrough, because once she and I were in relationship, I too could be fully present. When previously I had been viewing her as an unimportant casualty, I had had to pretend it did not matter that for some reason she was unengaged. Meanwhile, I wasted energy both watching and ignoring her.

After the concert she was nowhere to be found, but a few weeks later I decided to track her down to thank her for the last-minute coaching that had helped us give such a stirring and satisfying performance. I obtained her phone number from the Philharmonia office and called one morning from Boston to the London suburb where she lived.

Tanya seemed audibly shaken when I identified myself. She confessed that she had never received a call from a conductor at home before. She responded with delight as I expressed my deep gratitude for her contribution to our performance of Mahler's Ninth. It emerged that Mahler was her favorite composer, that she was passionate about all his work, and that the performance we had done together was one of the high points of her musical life.

The thing I learned is that the player who looks least engaged may be the most committed member of the group. A cynic, after all, is a passionate person who does not want to be disappointed again. Tanya, the Mahlerian par excellence, had decided to "sit out" that performance, because it was going to disappoint her again. I learned from Tanya that the secret is not to speak to a person's cynicism, but to speak to her passion.

When I initially approached Tanya -- not to reprimand a recalcitrant member of the team for not pulling her weight, but rather with the attitude, the certain knowledge, that she loved the music, that she wanted the concert to be a success, that she wanted to "get into the string" with her bow -- I gave her an A. My question to her, "Is there anything amiss?" was a question to someone I imagined to be completely committed to the project we were engaged in together, someone who, for whatever reason, was having a hard time.

When I returned to the Philharmonia the next season, Tanya greeted me in the most enthusiastic way. As a result of my experience with this violinist, it seemed that I had a warmer relationship with all the players there. During the break at one of the rehearsals of Mahler's Second, after we had been working on the subtly-lilting, Viennese-waltz-like second movement, I slipped into the chair beside my new friend. "A tiny bit slow, don't you think?" she murmured.

From the Art of Possibility

Rosamund Stone Zander
Benjamin Zander

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