Inside Philharmonic rehearsal
Fort Wayne Philharmonic music director Andrew Constantine’s thick shock of salt and pepper hair flutters in its own breeze as he walks with purpose down the wide hallway of the IPFW Rhinehart Music Center.
He carries a bottled water in his left hand, and in the crook of his right arm is a 2-inch stack of papers and folders, and also a narrow, red box about a foot long.
When he makes the right-hand turn and strides through the open doors of the Auer Performance Hall, where, hours before the orchestra’s chairs had been set up across the wide stage – the brightly lit room reflecting off the light oak hardwood floor – a half dozen or so musicians have now taken their places, studiously tuning their instruments. The pluck of the harp; the low whine of a single clarinet; a few violinists slowly drawing their bows across the four strings; all of them evoking a haunting, meandering sound.
But a few minutes later, once Constantine steps onto his raised wooden podium and the baton in his right hand completes the downbeat, an ethereal voice of music and mirth fills the empty auditorium. And just like that, what had once been noise would be artistry.
The score to Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 sat on the black metal music stands. Precisely 721/2 hours remained until the Philharmonic’s opening night at Embassy Theatre. And for the 52-year-old Constantine, in his fifth full season as conductor, there was no time to waste.
“The focus is to create a great performance for Saturday night,” Constantine says before the evening’s rehearsal begins. A native of County Durham, England, even his distinct British accent has a tone of immediacy. “While I know that it will get dramatically better by dress rehearsal, then concert, there’s only so tolerant I can be and only so tolerant the other musicians want me to be if things are going awry.”
Wearing gray slacks, white shirt with French cuffs and a light brown jacket, Constantine raises his baton, then lowers it.
“Two, three, four.”
First come the strings: a low, steady hum, quickly followed by clarinets chasing into the early theme. Trumpets provide a brief herald. A high-pitched woodwind chirps. French horns gently arrive. They play for a few minutes, then waved to a stop.
“If we can keep the tempo absolutely the same in the second bar for the third trumpet, as in the first bar,” Constantine says, who starts the orchestra again.
Shortly after, he stops the music because he doesn’t like what he hears.
“That will get better,” he says with patience. “Everyone’s going to get better.”
On this particular night, the performance tuxedos and black gowns remain pressed and hung in the musicians’ homes. Tonight, the attire is shorts and blue jeans and shirt tails hanging out. Women’s purses rest at their feet. Plastic water bottles and cardboard coffee cups dot the floor. The mood is convivial, yet focused.
With a hypnotic cool, Constantine lets the orchestra play the first movement without interruption. At times, he hums various parts. At times, he is on his toes; cajoling, drawing the musicians into his orbit. Once or twice he asks to repeat a segment, but mostly he moves the orchestra along.
“Why waste time?” he says during a break that extends to 15 minutes. “You can find the notes while you’re finding the right phrasing. My mentality, although it’s not shared by a lot of people, is that this isn’t a practice. This is a rehearsal. With a professional orchestra, you should turn up knowing what’s on the stand – knowing how to play it; knowing at least where the notes are and have the ability to find them without feeling compromised. And then is when you start rehearsing. Practice is what you do at home.”
To his immediate left during the rehearsal sits violinist Eric Wyrick, a guest concertmaster in blue jeans, from the New Jersey Symphony. He is here on Constantine’s request.
“He certainly has command of the language, which is really great when you’re trying to describe musical gestures and characters,” Wyrick says during intermission. “That’s a really good thing to have, but also the physical economy of motion, which makes you actually play more precisely. He has a precise beat, and so far he’s communicating great. The first run-through of the Mahler is going quite well.”
Back on his riser, Constantine announces, “Let’s go into the second movement.” And with his count of “one, two, three,” cellos, and violins that soon will be played pizzicato, and basses being bowed in the background, join hands.
A few minutes in, the orchestra is waved to a stop again. Constantine has Wyrick play a violin part. Constantine hears something from the violin section. “It kills the sound,” he says, without saying what “it” is.
“I think we change it,” Constantine announces, explaining the change. Several pick up their pens and pencils and learn forward to make a notation on the score in front of them.
“I still want the release of the sound. I don’t really want the bow dead on the strings, OK? One is up, one is down, for now. I reserve the right to change it. Cellos and basses, just play the notes.”
And they do. So does the rest of the orchestra. As the French horns romp and the violins become a little more violent and the basses take charge, Constantine snaps his fingers, then begins to hum. By now, Mahler’s theme is evident, and the English conductor, like a jockey on a horse, gives the orchestra its head.
Throughout the rehearsal, when Constantine is pleased, he says “good” as fast as he can. “Goodgoodgoodgoodgood.”
He suggests to the trumpets, “It’s lovely, the color on the front of that, but they’ve just got to taper away.”
And when they do, a few minutes later he responds with, “Goodgoodgoodgoodgood.”
It’s a few minutes before 10 p.m. when Constantine is satisfied with the night’s work. Mahler’s first symphony, written before he was 30, was challenged and, for now, partly conquered.
“It’s getting much better,” he would say. “It was a very rocky start. But, first night after (the orchestra’s) vacation, there were challenging moments. It’s a very, very hard piece. It was sounding as though there was some adrenaline flowing by the end of the movement, and hopefully we can build on that now that its freed everybody to play in a more engaged way.”
The musicians scatter into the night and the conductor gathers those same notes and folders he walked in with, as well as the slender, red box that he has had for 22 years.
“It’s a knitting needle box,” Constantine explains. “I was working in Germany in the beginning of my professional career. I was working as an assistant at the opera house in Munich, and my wife, who was expecting our first child at the time, came over, and my mother came over. We went to Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria. It’s what the Disney (Cinderella) castle was modeled on.
“In the gift shop there, there were these local, traditionally made knitting needle boxes, and I thought it would be perfect for a baton case. I’ve been known in all the places as the conductor with the red box. Nobody else uses anything like that.”