Inside a musician-led performance


By Suzanne Schaffer

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in first appearances is not so different than other orchestras getting ready to perform a symphony: same formal black attire, musicians making the same micro adjustments to their chair positions and one last check that all of the pages of music are in the folder. In order. But when the SPCO is ready to perform, the musicians don’t look to a conductor at the podium. There isn’t one. Instead, they lock eyes with each other.

For concertmaster and violinist Steven Copes, it’s Kathy Greenbank, principal of the oboe section. This week the SPCO is performing the Symphony No. 2 by Franz Schubert and Greenbank’s eyes tell Copes they’re ready to go. “We play the first note together, the strings and winds” he says, “but the winds really introduce and set the stage” for the majestic opening. During the course of the work, Copes says he makes eye contact with each of the instrument section leaders and many other musicians. That’s how they communicate tempo, dynamics and character of the music. Rather than feeling the absence of a single conductor, Copes says “hopefully there are lots of little conductors in the orchestra.”

But it’s hard to be both musician and conductor at the same time. The first violin part in Schubert’s symphony is dangerously tricky. The musicians’ left hands spider walk across the violin neck with light, quick notes. It’s like cleaving your brain in two, Copes says, to play and lead at once. He calls one side “the violin brain” that focuses on playing the challenging notes well. The other side is listening to the blend of the orchestral instruments and anticipating the musical motions that will happen next. Each member of the ensemble plays this same tug of war of attention, alternating between a focus on his or her individual performance and the performance of the chamber orchestra.

It’s a delicate balance. Playing a few wrong notes individually can hijack all concentration that would have gone to the sound of the ensemble. As a result, Copes says musicians in a conductorless chamber orchestra must know their own parts especially well. They also must find a way to connect emotionally to the music. Copes adds, “after I’ve studied the musical, technical stuff I have to kind of get away from it and write down stuff that helps me get in the spirit” of the music.

This violinist creates what he calls “my own silly story” to evoke a particular feeling and emotional arc in each movement of Schubert’s Symphony No. 2—an effective strategy that’s not silly at all. Copes says the second movement, for example, is about two old friends reuniting. “They’re talking about their memories and each variation is kind of a different memory,” Copes explains. “He [Schubert] orchestrates a tune a little bit different so each one gives a little different take on the memory… And at the end there’s a coda which is like, ‘oh this was so wonderful.’”

Storytelling like this is exactly how Schubert wrote music. Copes keeps on his phone a photo of a letter composer Robert Schumann wrote about Schubert. Copes clicks it open and reads aloud, “Schubert unburdened his heart on a sheet of music paper just as others leave the impression of passing moods in their journals. His soul is so steeped in music that he wrote notes where others use words.” The SPCO concertmaster clicks the photo closed and gets ready to go, packing up together his phone and the musical score, reuniting notes and words like two old friends.