orchestral excerpts (a.k.a. old enemies)
This morning I dusted off an orchestral excerpt I hadn't touched for a while, which got me thinking about my relationship with classical music.
One of the most exasperating parts of being a classical musician is orchestral excerpts. Only a handful of measures long, they’re loaded with pressure to sculpt each microscopic detail into the most compelling interpretation possible.
As classical musicians, we expect ourselves to deliver them perfectly, whether in a masterclass in front of other ambitious flutists, or auditioning for the orchestral job most of us dream of since childhood — sandwiched between dozens of flutists from all over the country, playing the same 20-40 seconds of music.
Revisiting orchestral excerpts now — two years out of college, on a somewhat amorphous trajectory as a musician — has been freeing. Without the need to perfect them to prove my validity as a flutist, excerpts become simple exercises in sound and technique.
This morning while warming up, I started playing the excerpt “Volière” from “Carnival of the Animals” by Saint-Saëns. I hadn't played this in months, so it was wobbly and unrefined. But it was fun — a sign my relationship with classical music is on the mend.
If I were practicing this more intentionally, I'd work on evenness with rhythm & sound across leaps in register. Eventually I'd play double-tongued as written.
A week ago I bused downtown to see the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. On the program was Debussy’s “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune,” which opens with one of the most notorious flute solos in orchestral repertoire.
The first time I studied this excerpt, I was 14 and felt as if I'd gained admittance to some elite club of "serious flutists." Unknowingly, I'd joined the ranks of countless flutists who spend years beating our heads against the wall of this excerpt's demands — breath control, impeccable intonation and rhythm, excruciatingly-exposed elements of tone color, dynamics, and phrasing.
Last week, I watched Lorna McGhee transfigure a concert hall with this solo. With jaw-dropping ease, her sound soared past the dozens of silent musicians around her, over an audience holding our breaths behind masks.
Knowing this scenario plays out again and again, in concerts all over the world, didn’t keep me from dissolving into tears as her solo flowed into the rest of the piece.
It whisked me back to what I’d run away from, what captivated me as a teenager — how orchestral music magnifies how you experience sound through dizzyingly complex, constantly shifting harmonies and textures.
It was a portal to the soundscape I'd immersed myself in for ten years, until it became clear I couldn't stay.
My flute professor Alberto Almarza would say that sheet music is only a map, but we tend to cling to the map as if that's all there is. A compelling performer takes you to the place itself — so unequivocally, you've left the world of sight and exist only in that space, held together by vibrations of sound.
Going to see the symphony is always bittersweet. I step back into this perfectionist culture that only ever seemed to insist I didn’t belong — I couldn’t sacrifice enough hours of my life to perfectionism inside a practice room.
On the other hand, I rediscover that paradox of how perfectionism, though inhumane, births this transcendent experience that both encapsulates and enlarges what we're capable of as humans. Sometimes I think, I didn't have to run away.