On this particular evening in front of a paying audience, I was playing in a youth orchestra in the Birmingham City Hall. The piece was the New World symphony by Dvorak, conducted by a flamboyant chap, tall and thin with floppy arms and hair – quite a sight when in full flow.
Seated next to me and doubling up my part was a student from the local music school. They did that to their students: expose new would-be professionals to challenges. A piece that he may not have played before, under a conductor also not seen before, and without coming to any of the rehearsals. “Learn the standard repertoire, learn to sight read, learn your trade!”. Dropped into the deep end without a life jacket. And no pay.
The New World has a passage that’s reaching towards a climax. The strings have the brunt of it, scrapping away as the tune moves lower in the register towards the cellos and bases, becoming more and more dramatic as the bars go by. Our conductor moved into overdrive. We two third horns raised our instruments as we counted the bars’ rest before our solo fanfare – one of the most well known horn fanfares in the entire repertoire. Perhaps that’s why the lad was parachuted in – a chance to ‘learn something’.
Well he did learn something but not what was expected. At the climax of the crescendo, the last note has a pause mark over the double bar line. The conductor flung his hands aloft and wiggled his fingers and hands to emphasis the dramatic pause. To a man the strings used up ten minutes worth of resin on their bows.
But it also had, in bold letters, the word ‘attaca’. A wonderful word for brass players meaning ‘don’t hang about – HIT IT’. Yup, you guessed it. The lad hit it – very well. He’d have been paid or hired out for another gig on the strength of it.
Meanwhile, the rest of the orchestra held their breath and stared at the conductor who maintained his wafting fingers as his eyes darted about trying to decide what to do next. When the fanfare reached its end, he counted out the bars in double or triple time and we all carried on as though nothing had happened.
I don’t think the audience noticed. He got away with that one.