Monday, September 14, 2009

Rehearsals in Perm - Part 2

The band eats the mandatory lunch before rehearsal starts

Now that all the tech issues are solved, and after a couple of days of working on arrangements with the members of Huun Huur Tu, we are ready to start working with the string quartet.  The players are four women who play in the orchestra of the Perm Opera, all veteran classical players.  With the help of my assistant / translator Tania, I learn that they have never performed in this type of pop setting before, and they both excited and intimidated by the prospect.  The day started with a run-through of all the songs with Huun Huur Tu before the strings arrive, and it goes very well - everyone is on and the sound is really gelling. The quartet speaks no English at all, and I must rely on Tania, the assistant and translator to get across some of the fairly abstract musical ideas.  I learn she has a degree in music, and this is an essential element in making things go smoothly.  Even so, there are times when the players ask the same question several ways, not quite believing the answers - this is a very different musical world from the Opera House.
The string players arrive
We give the band a break, and I run through three of the songs with just the string quartet and Carmen's programmed parts. My original plan had been to conduct only countoffs and entrances, as I do when working in the studio and with my Notes From the Edge ensemble.  However, because in the electronica parts the beats sometimes drop out, the string players were getting lost, and requested that I conduct throughout the the pieces.  Loren helps me quickly set up an in-ear click, and on two songs, I abandon my keyboard parts in favor of conducting.  On two others, I work out a way to play the essential parts and switch to conducting and back to playing.  We run through four songs with everyone, and it goes very well. I breathe s sigh of relief - this is going to work after all.
Rehearsing with the strings

The full ensemble plays together for the first time
At the start of the second day of the strings, we work on two songs that do not involve the electronics - "Erbe Akasy" and "Magalyk".  The first is an upbeat number, and with the strings added, it sounds like a combination of Bartok and Tuvan hillbilly music. Carmen almost immediately vetoes the piece, as he feels it does not really fit with the rest of the program,  but Huun Huur Tu really want to perform it, so a compromise is made that it will be one of the Huun Huur Tu songs they do solo, probably without strings.  The second, "Magylyk", is a song that features Kaigolo singing solo with the strings.  He sings it very rubato, with pauses, and sometimes drops beats to create measures of 3.  The problem is that he never sings it the same way twice.  At first, it is difficult for the strings to follow me following Kaigolo, so I re-bar the music to make the downbeats line up with the start of Kaigolo's phrases, creating a piece that looks complex on paper, but is actually easier to conduct and play.  Once we have conquered that obstacle, we move onto two pieces that call for some improvisation from the quartet.  I give them pentatonic scales to work with, and they are quite timid at first, but after encouragement, they get into the spirit of the song and become more inventive and fluid.  In the second imrprov song, I ask them to imitate sounds of birds in their playing, and once again, they ask Tania for re-translation in disbelief. After much prodding and smiling, I get them to give it a try, and they roll their eyes and comply.  Soon they realize what fun it can be to let go and be playful, and they really get into the joy of the song, a good thing, as it is the show's finale.
Kaigolo sings "Mazhalyk"

The strings and Kaigolo perform "Mazhalyk"

Carmen & Sayan rework "Lost Past"
The third day with the strings was magical. We ran through all the songs in order, everyone hit their marks and their cues, and the blend was close to perfection. "Orphan's Lament" was especially moving - one of the crew called it "a masterpiece". The highlight though, was "Magylyk", the song that is just the strings and Kailgolo.  This time, the strings were able to follow the rubato perfectly, and my conducting was in sync.  Kaigolo's vocal performance was ethereal and haunting, and the performance left us all breathless.  I turned over to the assistant (on this day Valeria), and her eyes were full of tears.  Truly an amazing moment, one I hope we can recreate on stage.
A new rehearsal hall (with the German organ)

Huun Huur Tu sounds amazing in this space
On the fourth and final day with strings, we have to move to another hall across the street, one that houses a gigantic organ.  It is a very live room, full of reverb, and we run through the set and Huun Huur Tu's instruments, percussion and especially voices sound epic in this setting.  The strings arrive, and the live room makes "Orphans" and "Saryglar" majestic. We try out the new arrangement of "Lost Past", and the players are still thrown by the fact that Carmen's programming is in 4/4/ time and the song as performed by Huun Huur Tu changes meter to bars of 2/4 and 3/4.  After a few tries, we make the painful decision to abandon the idea of strings on this piece, and my long night's work is thrown away.  Carmen decides he will simplify the programming even more, so that the electronica element will still be present, and I go back to keyboards on this song.  On a positive note, the players are getting comfortable with the two improvised pieces, and so are getting more adventurous, and even having fun with them.  We also decide to add "Erbe Akasy" back to the program as an encore piece, with the strings, and this makes them very happy, as they love playing that song. The ensemble for the "Children of the Otter" orchestral piece show up early, and there is much discussion and drama, and it is decided we will let them work with Huun Huur Tu for the rest of the time in the hall, and Carmen, Loren and I pack up our gear, and head back to the hotel to start a well-deserved 4 day break.
The strings perform the encore piece


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