The View From the First Chair

The View from the First Chair - On Contract as Guest Principal

A blog by Rachel Bullen

 

An orchestra that finds itself without a principal oboe often chooses to give a contract for a period of time. This time, that lucky oboist is me! I am on contract as guest principal oboe with Adelaide Symphony Orchestra for a few months. This blog will tell a little bit about my experiences playing with this fabulous group of musicians.

 

This is an orchestra that I have played with a few times over the past year, so I know the orchestra and the city a little bit. But what to pack??? Do I take all my reed-making machines? Just a selection? Which ones? Oh - and wait I need my oboe d'amore as well for some Bach coming up. Help! So many things to remember. Busy up until the very last moment, I find myself still throwing random things into my suitcase 30 minutes before my departure. I really hope I haven't forgotten anything important.

I've left my gouger, shaper, and profiler. I have a whole box of shaped cane, my micrometre, 2 colours of binding thread. Oh wait - is my knife in my suitcase? Phew, yes it is. Will my reeds work in Adelaide? It's such a huge difference in humidity between Melbourne and Adelaide - my reeds could do anything.

Even though it only takes me a couple of hours to get here, I feel like I'm in a different world. My freelance life in Melbourne involves lots of rushing around getting from teaching to rehearsals and concerts and trying to squeeze in practicing and reed-making where I can. And a freelancer has to be ready for unexpected calls to jump in when someone is sick. Suddenly, I just have one task and I know what I'm going to be playing and when.

           


 

I'm pretty eager to get going with the first rehearsal. I arrive early (almost the first one there) to see what my reeds are doing and warm up a bit. Hooray! I find a reed that I like - it's an old one, but should get me through. Slowly, one by one, the other musicians arrive and take their places around me. Some I know, some I don't. There's a lot of musicians here: my first rehearsal is Holst's The Planets.

Be prepared, dear friends, if you think that the tuning A is your first moment in the spotlight, you are mistaken. One of the pre-rehearsal announcements is about the guest principal oboe. It does make me feel welcome, but now I have the problem that everyone knows my name, and I don't know theirs.....

As I mentioned, I have played with this orchestra before. So I know how good they are! Also in my mind, of course, are the big shoes I have to try to fill coming after the wonderful Celia Craig. So I am a bit nervous. But I am also really excited! Excited to be here playing wonderful music with wonderful musicians! And what a sound! So many musicians working together to play this music that is so colourful, going from massive tuttis with resonant brass, to athletic strings jumping all around their instruments, to ethereal pianissimos with woodwinds and horns fading in and out. My brain changes up a gear when we get to Mercury - I practised it in 2, but it's in 1 and slightly slower than I prepared. Such a tricky balance to be well-prepared, but still flexible.

This is so much fun! I'm looking forward to tomorrow!


 

For the first two weeks of my contract, the orchestra has provided a hotel, which is great. I'm loving the 10 minute walk to work! I've even done some practice there without any complaints from my neighbours. Of course, there are also practice rooms I can use at the rehearsal studio. I do still miss my practice room at home, though. I always find reed making more straightforward in a room that I know - strange acoustics can cause errors in judgment, I find.

 


 

 

I am a bit surprised how quickly I start to feel at home here on the first chair. Names are starting to stick with faces and instruments, and everyone is very warm and welcoming. Already on day two, the adrenalin of the first rehearsal has worn off and I feel more like myself. Of course there are still many moments in the spotlight, some expected, others not. There are quite a few solos in my parts, but one solo I didn't see coming was in a fast 6/8 section where most of the wind instruments are playing quavers with rests in between. I am the only one who plays every quaver for that little section, and as they are supposed to listen to my part I get to demonstrate it for them. All by myself. So yes, dear friends, don't just practice the solos!

 


 

Moving from Grainger Studio to the Adelaide Festival Theatre where we will be performing is quite a change. It's much larger, of course, and the acoustics are very dry! Also a little disconcerting is wearing concert dress for the General Rehearsal for publicity photos. I get quite a few funny looks walking through Adelaide at 9am in an evening dress - haha!

 


The adrenalin is back for the concert. It's the first concert of the year, and I think everyone is a little excited. We have a good audience, too. Benjamin Northey does a wonderful job conducting, and it's a great concert. We finish off with a little encore by Elgar called the Wild Bears with lots of double tonguing and a bit of an oboe solo. My chops are a bit tired at that point, but it's still really fun to play.

So. First concert done, and now a few days to practice, make reeds, and prepare for the next program!


 

So back to rehearsal again after a few days practicing, making reeds, and exploring Adelaide. New conductor, new program. This one is for Chinese New Year, and is a bit of an eclectic mix including the overture to Fledermaus, some famous Chinese works, and Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations. I'm feeling fresh and ready to go!

 


 

Until.....the reed I was practicing on for hours yesterday isn't doing what I expected. Thankfully it plays in tune and sounds ok, but it's really quite uncomfortable. Somehow my embouchure isn't quite right. Hmmm. To swap, or not to swap. I have a look through. No big breaks. Lots of exposed bits. Right then, let's soldier on. The rehearsal goes fine, but I am a bit sore by the end. Luckily the next rehearsal is tomorrow afternoon so I have time to recover and find a more comfortable reed.

 


 

The next day, I'm back in action with a reed that feels good. Yay! Rehearsing is so much more fun when you're not dealing with reed discomfort!!! And there are some quite fun bits to play in this program. Of course this is an evening rehearsal followed by a morning general rehearsal and an afternoon concert.....Hmmm, I'm feeling very glad that I've now got a comfortable reed, but this is still going to push my muscles a bit - gala programs like this often are quite tiring.

 


 

The Adelaide Festival Theatre looks amazing! There are Chinese lanterns hanging from the ceiling, and at one point there are even fireworks. Sadly though, they have removed the acoustic shell and it sounds even drier than usual. The Rococo in particular feels very exposed! Oh well, it's a case of trusting how it feels, finishing every note very carefully, and believing it sounds better out in the hall than it feels on the stage. The audience liked it, so I think we did well.

           


 

My next program is quite fun - it's a James Bond Showcase complete with martinis and assassins. It's all quite glamorous, and there are some great melodies! This job is definitely not monotonous! During this project I am preparing for the next one, Mozart's Magic Flute. Quite a contrast!

 


 

The end of James Bond also marks the end of my stay in the hotel. It's been fantastic living right in the CBD and walking everywhere, but I am also looking forward to a bit more quiet and a few more trees. A friend from the orchestra very kindly helps me to move to my Airbnb out in South Plympton. It should take me about 35 minutes to get into town from there, and I have the choice of bus or train. I'm also looking forward to seeing a bit more of Adelaide, and not just the city centre.

The place is fine and it has everything I need - I can even practise a bit and the acoustics aren't too bad. But somehow I don't sleep well here, and this is when homesickness starts to kick in. I miss my cat. I miss my belongings, and I miss the feeling of being home. But no, this place in South Plympton is home for the next month. It's made a little worse as I have a few days off. The orchestra is playing a concert, but I have been given respite. In many ways this is great as it gives me time to acclimatise to my new place and work out the public transport system, but actually I'm struggling to work out what to do with my time. I'm not finding a good rhythm for practising, reed-making, and getting out into the world. In a way it would be easier to have rehearsals to go to. Ah well, rehearsals for Mozart will start soon enough.

 


 

As part of the Adelaide Festival, we are playing Mozart's Magic Flute with singers and conductors from the Komische Oper in Berlin. This project is amazing! The singers are fabulous, and the production is like nothing I have ever seen before. The singers are suspended on platforms halfway up a wall onto which animations are projected. I can't even begin to imagine what it's like to sing from so high up, and the choreography has to be absolutely spot on to line up with the projected images. Other members of the orchestra are playing on a rotation and have the chance to go and watch one of the performances, but I'm in every show. We were invited to watch a rehearsal, so I could see some of it and understand what it's all about, though.

It's a great project, but it's also intense. Playing Mozart always makes me feel completely exposed - so many details!! Added to this there are two casts and two different conductors to manage the 5 performances in three days. Amazingly the Komische Oper have brought out over 120 people to put on this show! I really have to be mentally switched on to be ready for the different style of conducting, and different interpretation of the music. It gives the music amazing flexibility and aliveness!

The pit has quite a nice acoustic and playing here feels good. Well. Except for some temperature issues. Outside it's hot. Proper hot. This week ranged between 38 and 43 degrees - I really have to keep in mind not to walk around outside too much because it's so tiring. And to keep things interesting, it's actually quite cold in the pit. I'm happy it's not boiling down here, but I think my oboe is getting quite confused about the change in temperature from outside to inside, and at the end of the show I'm actually quite relieved to go outside and defrost!