This past Saturday we had seats for a symphony concert at the Orpheum Theatre. It's quite a while since we had season's tickets, now instead we prefer to buy them occasionally, depending on the program. On this particular occasion, the tickets had been a birthday present to the "old scientist" from a friend so we didn't really pay any attention to the soloist or the program, just the date.
Suddenly an army of stagehands appeared and started removing chairs from the stage. Then the piano was wheeled off. What the heck? Pictures at an Exhibition was written as a piano suite and then arranged for the orchestra most famously by Ravel, amongst others. There is always a piano. Suddenly all became clear. Elgar Howarth, English conductor, composer, former professional trumpeter and the conductor of the evening's performance, had arranged the suite for brass and percussion and this was the concert's main offering.
After the shakedown on the stage, with the addition of a wide range of percussion instruments including xylophone, seventeen brass players were assembled around the conductor with two percussionists across the rear. With very good orchestra seats we had an excellent view of the French horn players, with the one female, a very good looking young one at that, closest to us.
I must say that it was extremely interesting, watching them hastily exchange the various mutes and frequently empty the spittle out of the horns. Normally, the audience does not see these behind the scenes activities since brass players are usually seated at the back of the orchestra.
But did this arrangement work, you ask? Yes it did. We both enjoyed it very much, along with the rest of the audience who gave them such resounding applause that they played several encores. A very pleasant surprise indeed. I think the whole performance must have been delightful for the brass players who were very busy indeed, especially the percussionists. It's not often that they get an opportunity to shine so and the trumpet player was outstanding as he switched between several different instruments.
I don't think I'm rushing out to buy the CD of this arrangement. But I still love Ravel's orchestration of the suite and can listen to it again and again. Perhaps you might like to hear the first of four parts of this performance conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen with the Philharmonic Orchestra at the BBC Proms. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.