Our Oberlin Winter Intern, Duncan Reilly, has been with us since the beginning of the new year. For this, his final week of the internship, Duncan will share some observations about the countdown to concert day.

When I first came to work for the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, I, not being a classical musician, was under the impression that classical music concerts just sort of happened. Most groups playing classical music will go out of their way to entice my age group to their concerts through cheap tickets, targeted advertising, and interesting programming. If I were fulfilling my internly duties elsewhere in San Francisco, I would have jumped at the prospect of a ten dollar ticket to see a world-class ensemble performing the work of Steve Reich. I would likely have bought a ticket, seen the show, and paid the effort that goes into performing the music little mind. Fortunately, I have been working with the SFCMP for the past three weeks, and I’ve had the pleasure of seeing (and contributing to) the preparations for January 28th’s Confirmation concert, as well as a few others. What follows is a production diary, with my thoughts and observations on how a SFCMP concert comes together.

January 21st (7 days until the concert) – Setting the Stage

I learned today that finding a venue isn’t something you do once for each concert and forget about. It’s a constant process to keep updated on all the available venues around the city, and to find out which ones are suitable for the concert in question. Every little thing has to be taken into account, from which ticketing service we’re allowed/required to use, to the possibility to host a reception after the concert, to whether we’ll even have a piano at the space. With a smaller ensemble, with no dedicated space, there’s no way to guarantee that we’ll have a place to play other than by scheduling way in advance and keeping a careful eye on cost. I was researching for a concert in November, but we’re already narrowing down a list of about twenty venues.

Finding the space isn’t everything, though. Even when you’ve already decided on a venue, everything that a concertgoer will take for granted on the night of the show needs to be locked down and figured out. Last week, I went to visit the venue for Confirmation, the beautifully decorated concert hall at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. It’s the perfect venue for Music for 18 Musicians – there’s just enough baroque ornamentation to remind the audience of the piece’s classical roots, and just enough polished wood and acoustic paneling to reassure them that they aren’t in for stodgy traditionalism. To make the piece and the room work together takes coordination, though. Every movement of the set has to be coordinated, down to the last music stand. Perhaps a symphony orchestra would have this down to a science, but with a group like the San Francisco Contemporary Music players, who use unorthodox arrangements, experiment with staging, and never play the same concert twice in a row, there’s no room to get comfortable.

Music for 18 Musicians is perhaps one of the more complex pieces to stage that we could have chosen. The name is a bit of a misnomer — there will be more than twenty people on stage, all told. The instruments will range from percussion to voice, and incorporate a whopping four pianos. The effect can be hypnotic if done properly, but it relies on the ensemble’s ability to sound like one otherworldly instrument, and that in turn relies on the room being set up just right. With some planning, and a little bit of acoustic know-how provided by the conservatory staff, I think it’s fair to say that we’ll make it happen.

January 23rd (5 days until the concert) — Scores and Performances

Rehearsals for the concert started last night. It was my first chance to see the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players play contemporary music, a chance for which I was grateful after a day at the office. Sitting in the mostly empty auditorium at the San Francisco Conservatory, I listened to Artistic Director and percussionist Steven Schick lead a group of professional musicians and students through Music for 18 Musicians for their first time.

I was surprised, at first, that I could hear the problems he pointed out. I expected the piece to be a relatively simple undertaking, especially for the talented musicians that make up the SFCMP. No instrumental virtuosity is required to play the piece; there isn’t a melody in Music for 18 Musicians that any reasonably talented musician would have trouble with on their own. Putting it together was the first big challenge. With a piece as textural as this one, every musician has to hit their marks exactly or things will sound off. Though the piece allows the performers some freedom in how to perform it, everything has to be tight rhythmically. It really gave me an appreciation for how much effort goes into producing a concert, especially one of new music with complicated textures and rhythms.

When the rehearsal started out, things were a little ways from tight. As it progressed, though, I heard melodic lines start to interlock, and, as the sound technicians fiddled with the amplification, the performance took on the ethereal quality that Music for 18 Musicians shares with no other piece.

Perhaps part of this was just due to musicians getting more comfortable with the music. Even I, with no experience of classical music as a performer, could tell that playing Steve Reich is entirely different from anything else one might play, but as the musicians delved deeper into the score, something seemed to click. It wasn’t a single moment of “getting it,” but a process that had as much to do with understanding the other musicians as learning the score.

Of course, the other part was the input from Steve Schick. A veteran performer of Steve Reich’s music, Schick has a unique role in the playing of the piece. Music for 18 Musicians does not use a conductor in the traditional sense. Instead, the vibraphonist and the first clarinet share the duty of cuing the other musicians for transitions, and often take the initiative to move the ensemble on to the next section. Schick, only playing sporadically to cue the other musicians, was in a unique position to correct mistakes on the fly. As he moved around the space, correcting the more minor problems, I could hear the music actually improving as it happened. The ensemble had become a living, breathing entity, and it was ready to do big things.

January 24th (4 days until the concert) – Why Hold Concerts?

Though I’ve heard Music for 18 Musicians, Clapping Music,and Electric Counterpoint before, and I have recordings of them that I can listen to whenever I want, I always feel that it’s worth it to go see performances of them. It’s not because I always expect a performance to be better than a recording. In fact, it might be the exact opposite. A recording can, through multiple takes, recording studio sound, and creative editing, come as close to perfect as is possible, nailing every last mark on the score, and containing no mistakes whatsoever. Far from this being criticism, it’s this inscrutable level of detail that makes listening to some records over and over again so rewarding.

Concerts are different. A concert is a higher-risk environment, where musicians are given one chance to play the piece correctly. No matter how talented they are, the possibility remains for little hiccups to distract the audience. Other things will be distracting no matter whether the performers make a mistake or not. Those sitting close enough will hear the noise of the page turns, and everyone will hear the musicians tune before they start. Simply put, it is a process with no possibility for perfection, or even the possibility of nearing it.

If this is true, why don’t audiences give up, retreat back to their homes, and rely on recordings to fulfill their musical needs? Some would suggest that it’s a social reason, but who hasn’t tried to make their friends listen in rapt attention to a recording, and realized that the experience just isn’t the same? Others say that the sound is better, but who hasn’t heard a concert that they’ve enjoyed in spite of the sound quality and not because of it?

In my opinion, it is the imperfection itself that makes a concert worth going to. A concert doesn’t have to stand the test of time, and it doesn’t have to bear close scrutiny because it can only really be heard once. A record promises perfection in return for fetishization, for the possibility of repeated listenings. A concert, in return for the forgiveness of its mistakes, promises a shared experience, and the knowledge that this is music performed by people, for people.

January 28th (Day of the concert) – Making it Work

The day of any concert is always a complex mix of excitement, stress, and sheer terror. The fact that this will be undoubtedly our biggest concert of the Spring only makes this combination a bit more acute. It’s no secret that classical music ensembles are clamoring to get their hands on a younger audience, and there’s no better way to do this than through a composer who has both influenced and been influenced by the popular music of his generation. Now that we’ve sold the tickets, we just need to deliver on the performance.

Sitting in front of me is a 15-step checklist of what needs to happen to make the concert work perfectly. From the time that the SFCMP staff arrive, to loading the uneaten cheese and crackers from the reception into a car, everything is accounted for. Two hours before the music starts, staff arrives to get a sense of the venue. At an hour and forty-five, our volunteers show up and are briefed in turn. The box office opens at 6:30, and at 6:45 we begin seating guests for the pre-concert talk.

At half an hour until showtime, things get tricky. The house is already crowded, and we need to take inventory of which tickets will be used, and which won’t. People with comps will have already showed up to claim them, and so begins the process of finding seats for those with none. More than likely, we’ll have fewer tickets than people that want them, but those with the patience to wait in line will have a chance at seeing the show.

After all the tickets are taken care of, one way or another, there’s nothing left to do but show everyone to their seats, turn out the lights, and hand things over to the musicians. It’s a credit to them that we haven’t once seriously worried about what happens after that. The rehearsals have been productive, to the point where a blindfolded listener could hardly tell the difference between the student guest performers and the SFCMP regulars, and at eight o’clock (by practical standards, that means anywhere from 8:01 to 8:05), they take over. That part of the concert, only marked as “Downbeat” on the schedule, is what the other fourteen steps revolve around. We as the staff, along with every other person in the room, get to sit back, and see what we worked for unfold before us.

Duncan Reilly, Intern, SFCMP