Recording With a Great Symphony Orchestra

The Minnesota Orchestra just finished (…or perhaps “Finnished”) recording its CD of Sibelius’s Third, Sixth, and Seventh Symphonies for the Swedish label, BIS.  Principal Trumpet Manny Laureano posted his thoughts on the recording process over on his Facebook page; it was such a good piece, I asked if he’d allow me to cross-post it here on my blog.  He agreed!  Please enjoy—I think it gives a fantastic insider look into the creative process.  I’ll keep you posted on when the CD is released! 

–Scott

* * *

Lots of you know this past couple of weeks has had the Minnesota Orchestra recording in addition to playing our season finale and “Inside the Classics” concert. But precious few really know the inside baseball of putting out a memorable recording with a great orchestra. Here’s your chance. I hope I do the process justice.

What to Record?

The audacity of making a CD involves a healthy dose of ego in various layers. First, you have to decide that what you have to say as a collaboration of conductor and orchestra is actually worth the expense people will have plus their investment of time to listen. Yes, when you make a recording it is all about you or, at least, that what people will think.

The truth is that you need to be committed to something and in our case we have been mostly committed to bringing the public closer to two composers, so far. The first was Ludwig van Beethoven and that was very successful in terms of critical acclaim and touring (CDs are why most orchestras and other groups tour; to sell CDs). The audacity of that was in saying “we have something to say no one has ever said before in repertoire that’s two hundred years old”… and we did.

As though that wasn’t daring enough, The Boss decided he wanted to RE-record a cycle of Sibelius symphonies that he had already recorded with his old band from Lahti, Finland. That stunning bit of chutzpah paid off in the form of two Grammy nominations and a Grammy win for the second CD while we were Locked Out.

When we set out to record the final CD in our Sibelius symphony CD trilogy, we had three left: Symphonies #3, 6, and 7.

The Players

In order to create a competitive-sounding orchestral CD you must have several things in place. Obviously, the orchestra is one. The Minnesota Orchestra is made of the finest players from all over the country and world who come from varied musical backgrounds and instruction.

You need a conductor with a very clear idea of what the repertoire the orchestra is going to play is all about. When I say clear, I’m not kidding. Whomever steps up on the podium is the captain and has to have a thorough knowledge of the stars he’s using to steer the ship. That is, if you want a great recording.

You need a producer with ears that are every bit as good or better, actually, than the conductor. The producer is your Truth Detector and needs to develop so much trust that everyone will be willing to play something for the 18th time because the Truth Detector says it’s necessary.

The Engineer has the all-important job of setting microphones in the exact spot you need so that the recorded Minnesota Orchestra sounds as much like the Minnesota Orchestra that audience members have come to recognize. The Engineer is in charge of playback and every technical demand made in the session that doesn’t involve playing a musical instrument although he may well be a trained musician.

The Minnesota Orchestra Staff are there to monitor the time and the players. Is everyone there? How long will the breaks be? Does everyone know how much time is left on the session so plans can be made intelligently and efficiently? Who’s going to make a phone call and get a sub to play for the trumpet player who had his dog jump up and bite a hole in his lip (yes, that happened)?

There’s your team. Now….

Doing It

We generally play the repertoire we are going to record in concert a week or so before so that we have time to live with it. The Producer will come and hear a few concerts, as well, and listen for any problems he’ll need to sort out. This saves time, which is precious, during the actual session. There are many rules and they have to be strictly observed or fines and overtime can be imposed. It’s a serious business on a national basis.

Everyone shows up well ahead of time because we need to be as well warmed-up as we can. We enjoy nice treats like bagels and such before that have mostly been provided by The Staff. It helps put smiles on our faces before we start the process which is as demanding as it gets for classical musicians.

And They’re Off!

Minnesota Orchestra sessions start with two As that are sounded when The Concertmaster stands at precisely one minute before start time and our Principal Oboist plays. The first A is for the strings followed by Woodwinds, Brass, and Timpani. The tuning note of A is an exciting sound, as it is the improvised prelude to all that follows.

Welcomes are followed by playing soft and loud sections so The Engineer can set the levels properly. This ensures a wide dynamic range without distortion or harshness. Once that’s done it’s time for…

Take One

The first take is an exciting moment because every musician on stage still harbors the fantasy of getting something on one take.

It ain’t gonna happen but it’s fun to fantasize.

The fantasy ends when we all go into the playback room.

The Playbacks

It is here that the majority of the work is decided. The Producer and The Boss sit side-by-side in front of two large speakers and just as many small ones to hear what has been done and absorbed through the mechanized ears of the microphone. Mics hear differently than we do and the adjustments necessary to almost recreate the live experience are massive.

It is after Take One that decisions both musical and technical are made. Do we need to move the first violin mics? Is there an air pressure noise present that we have to fix before we proceed? Are the brass too present? Not present enough? Should we tune again?

Once that’s been sorted out it’s back to the stage for “another go” at the passage or entire movement in the symphony.

This passage needs to be more articulated.
That chord’s out of tune.
The bassoon must be louder.
The brass are too distant.
The brass are too loud.
The strings need a different atmosphere.
The basses are late.
The timpani are early.
THAT was gorgeous… but someone coughed.
I’m sorry but we had a technical problem while you were playing
Someone in the second violins was vibrating too much.
Yes, that creaking chair marred the take.
That was exquisite. Let’s move on to the next section.

All day long. Really… all DAY long.

Yet, somehow, my colleagues kept smiling and pushed through until The Boss and The Producer were happy. Sometimes we have to…

Lighten the Mood

If one does not take advantage of the down moments and engage in funny, sometimes, juvenile behavior one can really grow frustrated. It is imperative to keep morale up. The Boss is under he gun to never show frustration as the tension can ruin the mood and the music. A correction is often accompanied by a smile or an analogy that portrays The Boss’s vision and helps us to understand what he wants.

One liners are the domain of every musician. They are usually in response to something that happens at the moment. They are nerdy and funny. They fit neatly in the “You had to be there” compartment of life and humor.

The Minnesota Orchestra is unique for the “Not Me” Salute. The Not Me Salute is reserved is what happens when someone drops something audibly on stage and every raises their musical equipment to show they are “not guilty”. When new conductors come to work with us they look puzzled and wonder exactly the Hell is going on. Old guest conductors smile and sometimes participate. I actually started that 34 years ago but that’s another post.

Then there is “Stuff the Boss Says”

The Boss has a litany of things he says that we can, by now, all recite as he says them and recording sessions with him are where we can usually look forward to hearing them. You made a mistake during a take and raise your hand to admit it so that we can make sure it doesn’t ruin an otherwise good take usually elicits a “No guilties!” from The Boss. He doesn’t care who did it. He just wants it fixed.

The Boss asks for a sharp note to be lowered or a loud sound to be softer and you go too far in correcting it. “You went from dis side to dat side” with his vertical arm, bent at the elbow looking like a meter of some sort.

“You must play like a king!”
“It must be like a sunrise, not a sunset.”

Like that.

No Egos

In a series of sessions like we play you must check your ego at the door. When you receive a musical or technical correction you have to operate under the assumption that, yes, you are fallible, and that all involved want the best product possible. It would be very easy, albeit counter-productive, to take each and every comment given by The Boss or The Producer personally. To do so just ruins the mood and casts a pall on what should be an art form. It is those times when correction comes repeatedly that we are being asked to be who we are as orchestral musicians: the best of the best.

Ya gotta step up and do it… and we do… time after time after time.

Pressure

Pressure comes in many ways. It comes when there is little time left and the perfect take has just not been achieved. The pressure comes from The Boss knowing what you’re capable of even when you might not be aware yourself. He asks for…

That one extra metronome mark faster
That one level of pianissimo softer so that it can be pianississimo
That one level slower than your capacity to breathe
That perfect intonation that is the difference between radiance and dullness

And we have to handle it because that’s our charge. Each has his/her job to do.

And… We’re Done

This last session was unique in that we got a personal address from The Producer who rarely gets to do that as we often have gone to the last minute. We ended early and we received a heartfelt congratulation from him and The Boss for the mighty effort in completing this set of Sibelius symphonies. The Boss let us know a couple of times how our playing moved him to tears in the playback room. I can only hope the CD-purchasing public will be as moved by music that is now becoming more familiar with this repertoire as a result of our efforts as an organization.

* * *

Principal Trumpet Manny Laureano joined the Minnesota Orchestra in 1981 and has soloed regularly with the ensemble. He is also in demand as a conductor, and served as the Minnesota Orchestra’s assistant conductor during the 2005-06 season. With his wife, Claudette, he serves as co-artistic director of the Minnesota Youth Symphonies. For more information, click here.

Xochipilli

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