The musicians on stage are all looking around wondering what they are supposed to be doing. No, it’s not because they have lost their places in some complex piece of contemporary music but because it’s break time and we are only an hour in to the session.
It seems as if we have only just got going, but in order to give everyone an uninterrupted half hour it means the timetable is a bit lopsided. But the players are given the nod and, except for a few percussionists fine-tuning the placement of their numerous bits of kit, they all walk backstage for a coffee.
Playing unfamiliar music, especially when there are multiple changes of tempo and you are surrounded by seemingly unconnected sounds, can sometimes feel a bit like reading a map in a storm. So you need a reliable guide, a calm, reassuring focus. From where I’m sitting, in the side balcony overlooking the Milton Court stage, the first conductor Daniele Squeo looked to be that person as the orchestra read through Piper’s piece for the first time today.
How? His movements are decisive and tight, and clear to read. For instance, there’s a passage which has a slight accelerando from one speed towards another, and the three times he went over the passage, it was obvious he wasn’t just inadvertently speeding up. And he gave the players ample chance to play through the notes, almost always the best way to familiarise oneself with a piece of music.
Next up, Jonathan Bloxham has a strikingly different style. Energetic, always looking around the orchestra to keep players engaged, often slightly crouched as if ready to spring into action, and always with an eye on musical detail. And he has a good rapport with the players. But while that works a treat in Mozart and Beethoven, as we heard yesterday, or in the more sweeping passages of the Dvorak concerto this morning, it can be more disconcerting as a player when it’s all kicking off (musically speaking) around you. It’s sometimes hard enough to follow the beat without also first having to locate the actual conductor it’s attached to as he bounces round the couple of square metres of podium.