When soloists and orchestras get lost

March 10, 2017 at 07:53 AM · When a soloist pulls apart from the orchestra -- or the orchestra pulls apart from the soloist -- whose responsibility is it to fix it? And what's the realistic way to fix it?

So as a bit of background to the question: As part of my performance prep, I'm watching a lot of YouTube videos of Lark Ascending performances. Last night, I decided to specifically search out community-orchestra performances, because I was interested in understanding what is likely to go off the rails in a performance, and what the soloist did to recover.

I have yet to watch a performance in which the orchestra was ever entirely together, or where I did not hear at least one solo wind make an incorrect entrance. (I spent the better part of one video pitying the principal flute, who got lost early on, and at each incorrect entrance, was getting an insistent head-shake from the soloist and increasingly violent gestures from the conductor, as if his baton were a wand that could be used to invoke avada kedavra.) But coherence issues in which neither the whole orchestra nor the soloist is off are basically just par for the course -- everyone who knows where they are goes on and ignores the outliers.

But I watched one performance (soloist is a college prof who appears to have a modestly successful solo career, but was really not having a good night, and so I will not link the video) where the soloist underheld a note by precisely one bar, relatively early in the piece. The soloist then soldiered on as if that had not been the case. That left the orchestra a full bar behind. They then proceeded to play almost half of the work completely unyieldingly (the soloist seemed to assume "if I play louder, they will rejoin me", and the conductor "if I beat time pointedly enough, everyone will follow me"), to the point that the conductor was very pointedly cueing the orchestra to come in de-synced from the soloist, despite the clear hesitance of the orchestra, who could undoubtedly hear that the orchestra had collectively separated from the soloist.

The situation could have been easily fixed by the soloist either waiting an extra bar to come in after the orchestral tuttis (or over-holding one of the long notes where there's interplay with wind soloists), or by the conductor giving a cue to come in earlier. They didn't come back together until the longest orchestral tutti (where the orchestra starts the bar after the soloist ends, leaving the conductor beating a measure of silence before the orchestra came back in), and the soloist finally seeming to decide that rather than strictly counting they should listen and come in appropriately at the end of the tutti.

I remember as a teenager in youth symphony, we played the Poulenc Organ Concerto with a soloist who had a terrible memory lapse in performance, and ended up basically randomly jumping around the work in patchwork-quilt fashion. I remember the orchestra frantically flipping through its parts -- and the conductor flipping through his score trying to figure out where we were (with no idea where we'd go next!). And yet we actually managed to pull off a pretty coherent performance, with the orchestra supplying the generic accompaniment more or less from memory of those sections (thank heavens for repetition). I have no idea what would have happened if we'd collectively decided on the linear route of soldiering on and hoping that the organ would rejoin us from his planetary adventures.

So. Thoughts, or funny stories of performance disasters?

Replies (26)

March 10, 2017 at 11:47 AM · I would say it is no one person's responsibility to fix it. I am the first violinist in my string quartet, so in that situation I consider it my responsibility to keep us together. If we fall apart, I emphasize beat 1 so the other three know where we are. If we really fall apart, I lightly play through my part until the net big forte or key change (for example) where I take a big overemphasized breath and bring my violin up and down as if I was starting the piece again. But everyone has to know each others' parts really well in addition to our own. Same for a concerto with orchestra. The soloist or conductor can do something similar, but I think it really comes down to orchestra members and soloist knowing everyone's parts.

March 10, 2017 at 01:41 PM · But surely you cannot expect the whole orchestra to think as one ! This has to be the job of the conductor to bring it all back together : isn't that what they are there for ?

March 10, 2017 at 02:45 PM · I think conductor, and in a case like that I think I would have stopped, found the nearest obvious starting point, and tried again. I think yelling "everyone skip a bar" would likely yield worse results. But the one you describe sounds like performance art and now I must find it.

March 10, 2017 at 02:58 PM · Galamian had this irritating habit of snapping his fingers at certain points when I was playing during my lessons, almost always to slow me down. So, (I thought to myself), I'll still make my playing have some sort of musical sense even when he does that awful snapping.

Then I got the opportunity to play Dvorak concerto with a community orchestra in Iowa. Lo and behold, when I got to certain parts it was just like Galamian snapping his fingers!

So, yes it is the soloist's obligation to adjust to the orchestra. A good soloist should know the entire score as well or better than the conductor does.

March 10, 2017 at 03:02 PM · Run off the stage!

March 10, 2017 at 03:30 PM · The soloist should adapt but I have also seen a conductor bring people in a bar early or jump a bar in the middle if that can fix the problem. Whatever works.

It can be difficult for string principals when we are sitting close enough to the soloist to know immediately what has happened, and yet we have to follow the conductor. It's important for those of us in the front to keep in mind that not everyone on stage is hearing what we're hearing, and the shortest, quickest way to complete catastrophe is for individuals to just start playing what they think is right. The orchestra needs to follow the conductor.

March 10, 2017 at 04:38 PM · When in trouble

When in doubt

Run in circles

Scream and shout

March 10, 2017 at 04:54 PM · Just make sure that you get along well with everyone. I was in an orchestra once where one of the soloists, who'd been pretty snotty through all the rehearsals, had the tiniest of memory slips on an entrance. Nothing anyone on the outside would have noticed, but it threw her concentration a bit.

Everybody continued to play well, and everyone followed the conductor, who was very good. But, somehow, the group wasn't giving her any help-- and she ended up having not so pleasant an evening.

March 10, 2017 at 05:04 PM · I've done a lot of Suzuki-recital accompanying on the piano. Adjusting when things come apart is hard enough just for a soloist and pianist. But it's actually pretty common in kids' recitals, and the Suzuki accompanist just learns to deal with it. I cannot really imagine what it would be like for soloist and orchestra. The accompanist can at least see what the soloist is playing.

March 10, 2017 at 05:10 PM · Leon,

good one!

My favourites were community orchestras when the soloist's tempo does not match conductor's whose in turn does not match the orchestra's. Not to mention that sections often do not play in sync.... the only somewhat workable solution was to ignore the baton holder and listen to the soloist.

March 10, 2017 at 05:17 PM · This is a bit off topic, but... I was playing in a pickup orchestra concert in NYC in which the conductor was useless, but the players were all pros. The amateur "conductor" bought this orchestra with his own money so he could perform on the concert stage. Anyway a couple of minutes into Beethoven 5th Symphony the conductor lost his place in the music and was frantically turning pages of the score to figure out where his orchestra was. All this time the orchestra continued to merrily play on with excellent ensemble, just ignoring the conductor's plight. Finally the "conductor" stopped the orchestra, turned around to the audience and apologized for the terrible performance of the orchestra and saying that they were not following him. Yes, this is a true story.

March 10, 2017 at 06:34 PM · In my youth orchestra days, during a performance of Edvard Grieg piano concerto, the soloist started to pull away during the third movement. We tried ( I was the principal second violin) but failed to catch him. He in the end finished a few beats ahead of the orchestra to a standing ovation.

March 10, 2017 at 08:11 PM · From the depths of my memory ...

A Chopin piano concerto in Bristol's Colston Hall with professional orchestra, conductor and soloist. The soloist galloped away from the orchestra, which was very obvious to the audience, and was clearly ignoring the conductor's beat. In desperation the conductor started indicating the beat by stamping loudly with his foot on the podium (I never knew how resonant those things can be!) and this did bring the miscreant to heel, everyone eventually finishing together - so therefore a performance within the meaning of the Act.

An experienced solo cellist had an unexpected memory lapse in the last movement of the Elgar concerto. The conductor, thankfully with his eye very much on the ball, held out his score in front of her for a very few seconds so that she was able to regain her place, and the concerto continued uneventfully to its conclusion. The interesting point was that the only people who noticed this were the first desks of the strings (I was first desk cello) - none of the rest of the orchestra, and no-one in the audience. I checked afterwards with friends who had been seated in the front row immediately in front of the soloist, and they hadn't noticed what had happened.

Tchaikovsky piano concerto nr. 1, a professional soloist with the same orchestra and conductor as in the previous paragraph. One of the woodwind missed a cue in the last movement, throwing the soloist off balance, and she stopped abruptly. The conductor stopped the orchestra, quietly called out the previous rehearsal number in the score and we continued from there, this time with no problems. Again, I reckon a fair proportion of the audience didn't notice, possibly because the stopping and restart were done so smoothly.

A BBC Radio 3 broadcast way back when. A lengthy and, frankly, unintelligible piece by one of Europe's madder modern composers was being broadcast live. 10 minutes into the piece the music stopped. The conductor's voice was then heard saying, "I'm very sorry about that. We'll start again." The music restarted and went on for about 15-20 minutes before thankfully coming to its allotted end. I don't know what went wrong, or whose fault (if any) it was, only that the second time through the first 10 minutes sounded the same as the first time through.

This story I was told by my cello teacher, who knew the person mostly closely involved. A modern composer was conducting a recording of his own composition for wind ensemble. This was well back in the days of vinyl. I gather the piece was largely polytonal, if not full-blown atonal. At the end of the day's session, and all the takes having been finished to everyone's satisfaction, the clarinettist was cleaning and putting away his instrument and realised to his horror that he had in his hand his B-flat clarinet, and not the instrument in A that had been required by the music. No-one in the recording studio had noticed - the other musicians, the producer and studio staff, and certainly not the composer/conductor.

Our man on the clarinet bravely kept shtum and the recording was eventually issued, whether or not to critical acclaim I have no idea. It was not until many years later, when he had retired, that he revealed the sordid truth.

March 10, 2017 at 09:48 PM · Okay, just had a painful flashback from my youth orchestra days. I've probably told this story before. We were doing a joint Halloween concert with another youth orchestra in the auditorium at Duke. First we played Danse Macabre (I got to do the solo! Wearing a grim reaper costume.) That went well but my triumph was short-lived. We next played Night on Bald Mountain. I was sitting next to the concertmaster of the other orchestra. We somehow both spaced out at the end at the Meno Mosso section and lost count, failing to bring the section in. I was probably looking for a cue, which is now excuse for missing an entrance. The conductor obligingly started SINGING our part until we caught up. Not sure the section ever quite came together after that. We didn't even need a soloist to mess ourselves up!

March 10, 2017 at 09:48 PM · Oops, double post after typo edit. Stupid phone/thumbs!

March 10, 2017 at 10:54 PM · Too many times to count when I've been in a group and the soloist decides to do something different come concert times. It could be nerves, memory lapse, wanting to do more after they heard a random recording,etc... Then again, I've told this before but the second time I ever soloed with an orchestra way back in my youth (15 or 16), I'd gotten gotten carbon monoxide poisoning along with the rest of my class the same day a performance of Mozart 5 was set. It was going along great even if I was barely there, until the cadenza and I went a completely different way than we'd rehearsed. We're talking, significantly longer and different. It was well received but the conductor was obviously furious as was the orchestra. Learned a few good lessons.

March 10, 2017 at 11:34 PM · I'm actually doing a concert of solo pieces with youth orchestra students this weekend! As a conductor, I look at this as "it's my job to help the soloist sound as good as possible, so I'm going to go with them no matter what they do." It also helps when we play their instrument and/or know the score intimately as well.

I've been in some situations observing K-12 music teachers where a student is playing a concerto with their school orchestra, and the person conducting doesn't know the piece well enough to effectively cue the ensemble. Their recourse is to blame all the mishaps on the players, when the problem is the conductor! If there's one lesson I will remember from my conducting teacher, it is "if the orchestra makes a mistake, say to yourself 'It's my fault!'" Sage advice, that has helped me immeasurably in my career to date. :)

March 10, 2017 at 11:58 PM · The diverging tempo problem is an interesting one. I had won the concerto competition in college to do a movement on the spring concert. The problem is, the conductor, for whom I was playing at least once a week in the orchestra, never thought it a good idea to talk to me before full rehearsals began. By the time he'd prepared the group enough to have me appear as soloist, I found out that his tempo was slower than mine, that it had all sorts of crazy ritards that he said were "traditional"-- he was a horn player, not a violinist, so he must have had an interesting record collection-- and when I did any rubato he slowed down to follow me but never bothered to pick it up again. This came in the passages where the orchestra had the tune and I was hoping just to decorate what they did without changing anything.

Luckily, it was the first movement of the Beethoven. Just before we went on for the concert, I pulled aside the timpanist and told him exactly how fast I wanted him to start. And it all went much better than I'd feared.

March 11, 2017 at 02:30 AM · I seem to remember a story concerning Fritz Kreisler. Many people looked forward to his occasional memory lapse and thought that his improvisations,,, finding his way back, in the style of the music being played, was the most exciting part of his programs.

March 11, 2017 at 04:34 AM · Good idea to check out community orchestra performances! In my experience, those are the toughest ones for all the reasons you mention...

March 11, 2017 at 04:37 AM · Good idea to check out community orchestra performances! In my experience, those are the toughest ones for all the reasons you mention...

March 11, 2017 at 02:50 PM · I'm just a beginner, but here's my 2 cents.

Whenever I play a piece for violin and piano, it's always the piano the one that has to be supportive to me, so if I get lost, it's the pianist who must find a way to sync again with me, not the other way around. The pianist can't behave like:

"Oh, the violinist got lost. Well, I'll blindly continue playing the accompaniment at constant tempo, so he can rejoin me"

I once was playing a piece and I skipped one bar, and it was the pianist who carefully listened to me and managed to rejoin me after 2 bars.

So this, extrapolated to an orchestra, follows the same rule, in my opinion. The soloist is the one that's getting all the attention. If he skips 1 bar or whatever, it's the accompanying orchestra the one that must resync and rejoin the soloist. The soloist shouldn't do it because you can't "break" the main melody of a piece in order to sync with the background accompaniment. It's one point of view.

Of course, it's a very difficult task to make a WHOLE orchestra skip the same part, all at the same time, to rejoin the soloist again. A good director is crucial here. In the other hand, it's WAY easier for a soloist to improvise an extra bar to rejoin the orchestra again.

I think it depends also on the soloist, if he is capable, after making a "huge" mistake that separated his melody from the orchestra accompaniment 1 bar or 1 beat, of fixing it himself or herself. Actually, I think most soloist would fix it so quickly even some orchestra players wouldn't notice something was wrong.

March 11, 2017 at 04:25 PM · Obviously not orchestral, but when I was performing Beethoven's 5th sonata for cello and piano in a concert some years ago the pianist had one of those dreaded page-turn incidents half-way through the first movement. She turned over 2 pages by mistake, then turned back 3 to correct the error. And stopped. We just smiled an apology at the audience and restarted.

March 11, 2017 at 05:25 PM · Jeff, is it possible, I wonder, that Fritz might have practiced an occasional "memory lapse" or two and the ensuing "improvisation"? I wouldn't put that past someone who got away for so long with spoofing the critics with his "discoveries" of long-lost works by obscure 18th century composers ;)

Seriously though, it is a very useful accomplishment for a soloist to be able to improvise their way out of an unlooked-for situation. Here is a wonderful example,


March 11, 2017 at 06:20 PM · Violin with piano is a very different matter than violin with orchestra. Also, a piano accompanist will jump to the violinist, but in music that's more fully collaborative -- in some violin/piano sonatas, for instance, the pianist has the more difficult part, and in sections, the more prominent -- the violinist may have to adjust to the pianist.

Chamber groups, like quartets, may adjust to a mistake made by someone, especially if that's the voice that has an extended melody and there's really no good escape plan other than for the rest of the group to adjust.

Orchestras adjusting to the soloist require that the orchestra take a collective decision to do so, which isn't easy to do unless the conductor gives exceptionally clear cues. This is more easily done in some works than others. (In Lark Ascending, with long-held orchestra notes and an interplay of solo and tutti entrances, a conductor could have adjusted in the situation I was listening to.)

March 12, 2017 at 03:11 AM · Yeah, as I said and expected, this is a complex problem to solve live unless clear instructions are discussed with the conductor in the rehearsal.

Can anybody show me clips of these lapses and how professional orchestras deal with them?

YouTube links or something.

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