Reading Between the Notes

by William Short, principal bassoonist

At its best, an orchestra functions as a living, breathing organism. There is a unified approach, dictated by a group sense of where the music is coming from and where it’s going, permeated with a common feeling, and informed by years of training, both instrumental and in the art of listening.

What goes through the minds of the individual members of an orchestra while they’re performing? To find out, I sat down with six MET Orchestra Musicians to discuss a particular passage they variously described as “some of the most beautiful music ever written,” “a thrilling culmination of everything that comes before,” and “one of the moments that remind me why I became a musician.”

The conductor’s score to Richard Strauss’ masterpiece Der Rosenkavalier is 519 pages long. We will look at two of them - specifically, the pages that begin the magnificent trio that ends the opera.

Trying Not to Burst the Bubble

The passage begins with a contemplative solo trumpet singing out above sustained winds and strings. As principal trumpet David Krauss notes, this particular line represents the Marschallin’s “epiphany that, to love someone completely means to love all of their love - even if it is for someone else. It’s the emotional climax of the entire opera, and it’s really encapsulated in this one excerpt, because when the trumpet resolves to the last note, she has finally come to this realization.” He points out that Strauss actually did something quite unusual by giving this line to the trumpet. “He could have given it to any instrument. It would more typically go to the oboe or concertmaster, but here, we have the trumpet playing." Why? "Strauss, like Wagner, was such a master when it came to using brass instruments colorfully, and here, the trumpet is perhaps the closest sound to the human voice. So, when you end up on the last note, it’s the same timbre, the same transparency as the voice that it dovetails into.”

From a practical standpoint, David says his biggest concern at this moment is staying focused on the task at hand. “If I get caught up in the emotion of the moment, I might forget which button to push down!” Musically, he looks for “the sound and vibrato that’s closest to a human voice. It’s very particular to different singers - when we did this with Renée Fleming, for example, that greatly influenced my approach. You try to be as much a part of the texture as possible. It’s such a still moment, you don't want to do anything to burst the bubble of silence that’s fallen over about 4,000 people in the opera house.”

Principal Trumpet David Krauss playing backstage at the Met


Minding the Marschallin’s Mouth

Out of the trumpet’s line emerges, not just the voice, but a solo violin in unison with the oboe. Concertmaster David Chan notes that the challenge of this solo is that it comes at the end of such a long, taxing evening - he points out that, while the opera is technically difficult (a lot of “notes per square inch,” as he puts it), the real difficulty is rhythmic. “When Strauss appropriated the Viennese waltz, it was already kind of an anachronism,” so when it emerges in the opera, it is never quite as predictable as one expects a waltz to be. “You have to be constantly on your toes for little musical twists.”

When he finally arrives at this final trio, David notes somewhat self-consciously that he “doesn’t really look at the conductor here. My part by itself would make an exquisite violin solo, but it’s doubling an exquisite soprano line. My goal is to provide an instrumental underpinning for her, since she’s also had a very long evening. From my chair I can see her mouth, so I have one eye glued to her face to make sure that I’m absolutely with her. There shouldn’t be any violin ‘solo’ that sticks out.”

He points out that the concertmaster never actually rehearses this, one-on-one, with the singer. “In the end, your general musicianly skills - playing as beautifully as possible, like you’re playing chamber music - is enough [to provide the necessary underpinning]. Of course, there’s years and years of various levels of nuance and awareness that play into this.”

In the second phrase of the trio, Sophie (another soprano) enters, doubled by an additional solo violin. David notes that adding another voice helps the music “settle into more of a groove. There’s less rhythmic freedom when you add more people. [At that point], if I just play beautifully with my stand partner and the conductor, it’s going to be fine.” Associate Concertmaster Nancy Wu echoes his sentiment: “I’m really focusing on following David. My part adds these dissonances that are so poignant - it’s very gratifying.” Far from playing a secondary role, Nancy aims to be “about equal with David, and then at the very end, to actually take over the line.” 

In the midst of all this, David is also leading the oboe, who is the final melodic “voice” in this passage. “I’m kind of like the point person. It’s easier for the oboist to follow me than for my eyes to flit up and down [and follow the oboe]. I take a leading role and I trust that the oboe will do exactly what it needs to do.”

Concertmaster David Chan and Associate Concertmaster Nancy Wu playing backstage at the Met

Going Over the Break

How, exactly, does one do that? Principal oboist Nathan Hughes describes having his “radar antennae up for possible shifts in tempo.” He “tries to listen for the change in energy of [David’s] sound to help predict when he will change notes,” since if he waits to hear the changes of notes, he will already be late. “Where I sit, I don’t hear the singer as clearly as the solo violinist or the conductor, so I rely on both of them for cues.”

Apart from listening so intently, there are a number of purely instrumental challenges Nathan has to contend with at this point, also. “The sustained, pure legato and dolce sound needed here are difficult in this register, and especially this late in the opera. It goes right over our break - from notes that have very little [air] resistance to notes that have a lot. One needs control of the airstream, gentle finger motion, and embouchure finesse to even it out. There is also the added challenge that whatever reed one’s been using is probably starting to show signs of fatigue, too, and requires extra effort to control.”

Ultimately, Nathan is striving for “a very dolce and malleable sound at this point, not only because it fits the mood, but also to achieve the tender nuances necessary to weave in and out of the other lines.”

Principal Oboist Nathan Hughes playing in his apartment

Fluffing Up the Sound - Or Not

A particularly beautiful instance of weaving in and out comes when the clarinet enters near the end of the oboe’s phrase. Associate clarinetist Dean LeBlanc describes his thoughts immediately before entering: “I’m listening to the oboe - we have to match up on the same note, so just before I come in I’m listening to their dynamic and the specific quality of sound that they have at that moment. I have to sneak in and match everything - to make it as seamless as possible.” Much like Nancy’s role as the second solo violin, though, Dean rapidly emerges as a prominent voice. “It’s a quick transition from just matching to crescendoing and taking over the line.”

Once the oboe has finished its phrase, the flute takes over its role while the clarinet continues. This poses an interesting question: how does Dean play differently with the two instruments? “It depends on the register, on the music. If the flutist is playing with a ‘fluffy’ flute sound, I try to fluff up my sound, and maybe use a more focused sound with the oboist, depending on who the player happens to be. I’m just trying to mimic whatever quality they have.”

Clarinetist Dean LeBlanc playing in a practice room at the Met

Allowing the Instrument to Ring

What’s going on underneath this beautiful, interconnected array of musical lines? Principal cellist Rafael Figueroa admits that he’s grateful to “only play long notes and enjoy what’s happening.” But even in those long notes, there must be musical intent and awareness. “I’m trying to produce the most beautiful sound that I can and to play as seamlessly as possible. Where I sit in the orchestra is amazing - I can hear everything in the pit and onstage, and at this moment my ears are on the stage. I just want to provide a bed of sound.”

At right, the part shows bow changes (for example, the “V” that signifies an up bow) that actually contradict Strauss’ marked slurs, which are generally played in one bow. Rafael explains that “it’s about bow distribution. With such a long note, if you only used one bow, the sound quality would really start to suffer. Being able to use a little bit more bow speed [by changing bows more frequently] allows the instrument to ring better. You don’t have to use as much pressure to get the sound.”

Principal Cellist Rafael Figueroa playing in the author's apartment

At the End of the Evening

In every performance, each musician strives to contribute in just the right way, whether it be by leading, following, or somewhere in between. There is constant, unspoken interaction, a supportive give-and-take that inspires and challenges those both in the pit and on the stage. To sit among such focused and passionate artists is an indescribable thrill, even for those who have done it for decades, because the results can achieve heights that transcend any one musician’s individual capabilities.