My experiences of conducting The Cenci

James Kelleher

My experiences of conducting The Cenci - James Kelleher When the idea of conducting the première of Brian’s The Cenci was mentioned, I jumped at it. After all, as a conductor I am primarily interested in opera, and as both a composer and a previous Brian conductor, I am very interested in premières. The thrill of knowing that you are the first to translate marks on a paper into audible reality is great.

Having conducted operatic premières before (most notably the UK premiere of Bernstein’s opera A Quiet Place, which the composer himself attended), I was under no illusions both about the logistical difficulties involved, nor the likely cost of the enterprise. In view of the latter, a performance would have been out of the question without the wholehearted support of the HBS, and the former would have been impossible without the wholehearted support and tireless work of David Brown - my thanks go to both of these in helping to realise what I consider to be a very worthwhile artistic goal.

Preparations for the performance started almost 18 months in advance, with one of the most infuriating but unavoidable "chicken and egg" situations: we wanted to book a good date in a good venue; the venues wanted to know (not surprisingly) the repertoire and artists involved before letting us have dates; the artists wanted to know the dates before committing. In the end, by a process of some bluffing to all concerned, we secured both some names for the venue (the QEH) and a date for the artists. As it transpired, none of the names we put forward at that stage went on to do the performance, but that, believe me, is quite common in the current musical climate!

Budgeting proved difficult - the orchestral cost was fairly easy to calculate on a per-session basis, but the big question there (in view of the alarming figure for a single rehearsal) was how many (or rather how few) rehearsals could we get away with? This involved studying the score and attempting to estimate the difficulty of it, not only from the perspective of the players, but also of the orchestra working with the singers.

Then of course came the question of soloists. We wanted a few names to help attract an audience, but names cost money. In the event, we got a good balance - names such as David Wilson-Johnson with some lesser-known artists, and all secured, after much wrangling from David Brown, for less than their normal fee - in some cases marginally less, in some substantially.
So far, so good (and relatively easy, certainly when compared to what came next).

The orchestral parts were being (beautifully) copied out, but there were no funds at UMP to do the same to the vocal scores. The vocal scores were almost entirely illegible. Singers have delicately balanced temperaments, which balk at having difficulties such as not being able to read the music thrown at them. It was not a good mix of circumstances. Several soloists almost pulled out, as they could not read either the words or the notes to which to fit them (or sometimes even the rhythm). In a rush, David Brown produced a libretto which I distributed to counter one problem, and we managed to persuade UMP to foot the bill for electronic typesetting of just the vocal line to deal with the other. Despite this, complaints were still vociferous from some parties (who shall remain nameless but to me and David…), while others quietly got on with learning.

What transpired to be a useful touch was the production of a tape of the piano reduction, which I made with the skilful help of Tim Peake, our rehearsal accompanist (my own piano skills being not quite up to dealing with the vocal score - oh dear, now I’m complaining about it…). This was sent to the singers to help them hear the accompaniment and fit their line against it.

During this whole time, David was beavering away on all other aspects of the performance - the publicity, booking rehearsal venues and times to fit the plan I had concocted, and a million and one other things that go into promoting a performance. Thank goodness for the advent of e-mail: David and I must have sent a dozen a day to each other at one stage!
For my part, I was busy learning the score and booking the orchestral musicians (mostly drawn from either the Royal Opera House orchestra or the LSO/LPO lists). It was a great relief to finally hit the rehearsals, about a week before the performance. The rehearsals began with sessions with the soloists and piano, which were mixed. Some soloists were a delight, having prepared meticulously and being ready to change what they were doing completely to fit in with my overall vision of the work, and some covered up their lack of preparation with a barrage of abuse at the work, the vocal writing, the vocal score (again) and the valid argument that the words really didn’t always fit the music perfectly.

I wrote some notes on this topic for the programme booklet, but it is worth bringing up some thoughts on it here, as this is one area which will constantly be a problem needing resolution where The Cenci is concerned. In some instances, the musical stresses fall on different parts of the words from the natural spoken stress, but these can be dealt with by a sensitive singer without too much issue. What does cause more of a universal problem is that there are often just too many words for the bars of music.

I am not a musical purist by any means, but I am still caught by the question of whether as a conductor I reserve the right to alter a composer’s output to make it more performable, or whether the composer’s word is a holy one that I have to simply perform in the best way possible. There are telling arguments for both sides: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was nearly unplayable at the time it was written, but is now standard fare for even youth orchestras. It would have been a crime to edit that score. On the other hand, Stravinsky had the benefit of not only hearing many performances of his own music, but of also conducting them, and thus came to know what was (just) possible and what needed to be edited. Brian did not have this luxury.

Should it therefore have been my duty as a conductor of the premiere to make sure I "helped" in this direction where I could? In the event, I did change one or two of the more impossible sections (Beatrice and the Count have most of them), and cajoled the singers into doing their best with the others, making extra time in the accompaniment (against the prescribed tempos) to allow some of the denser word settings to be humanly possible to utter.
I do wonder if I should have done more pruning, and whether this would actually been less of an intrusion into Brian’s music than having sections that were both a little slower than marked and yet still containing uncomfortably many words. It is easy when composing (I have done it myself!) to lose track of the REAL speed at which the music is going, and I would imagine that, had Brian had a chance to hear the result (and had to be faced with irate singers complaining of the impossibility of some passages), he would himself have taken an editor’s pen to it.

Still, generally the piano sessions were very successful, and most of the cast took on the mantle of their role (or roles) very willingly – the dramatic story line certainly helped fire their imaginations. After this we progressed to the orchestral rehearsals. Budgets being enormous and funds not unlimited, we did not have the luxury of orchestral time alone before working with the singers, which would have really ensured the quality. As it was, 90% was there in any case, and so this was the one thing which I could cut without feeling I was jeopardising the end result.

The orchestra, being largely used to accompanying opera, had no difficulty with this aspect. What they had generally not done, is deal with Brian’s over-generous scoring, and the bass instruments especially were not used to the agile melodic nature of their parts. However, they adapted quickly to the latter. The former was more of an issue on the first rehearsal day, as the rehearsal hall was only just large enough for the orchestra, and so the sound filled it completely (and filled the singers with dread that they would be drowned).

As it happened, much of the opera does not actually have such heavy orchestration. However, it was difficult to adjust sections which did (it is almost impossible for tubas to play semiquaver runs at less than mf, let alone pp), particularly as the singers did not have sustained vocal lines which they could open their throats with - the recitative nature of the voice parts meant that they were really struggling to project both words and notes. Again, perhaps I ought to have done more to help, with a mixture of reducing words and reducing doublings in the orchestration. The latter I was more loath to do, as that actually affects the colour, whereas (arguably) the words can be reduced and still have the same meaning.

Thrill of thrills, we finally made it into the QEH itself for two rehearsals, the concert was drawing near without singers being ill (which would have meant the scuppering of the enterprise as there were no funds to allow for under-studies). These sessions and the performance were really fun to do - the music is not really difficult to conduct as opera goes (Puccini is harder!), and the overall shape was beginning to emerge well (even though I say so myself…). I had a great time at the performance, and the breathtaking ending, complete with tubular bells tolling from some lighting gantry half-way up the QEH wall, was magical.

I am just sorry that not more people were there to enjoy it, and that the critics did their usual anti-Brian campaign on it. That, unfortunately, is the shape of the current UK music scene, but that is a whole other story…