We are an unusual ensemble. An obvious reason for this is our instrumentation.
As an ensemble specialising in music for horn and voice (and most of the time, horn and soprano), we face some unique challenges when it comes to sourcing repertoire, programming concerts and finding opportunities for professional and artistic development. This is why we were so excited to find out about the Australian Festival of Chamber Music’s Advanced Winterschool - an intensive week of coaching and networking that didn’t just cater for string quartets and piano trios!
In 2015 we travelled to Townsville and participated as a trio for horn (Tim Hannah), soprano (Alison McIntosh-Deszcz) and piano (Jacob Davey). Whilst by no means extensive, the repertoire for that combination is more-or-less known amongst performers (Schubert’s Auf dem Strom and Arnold Cooke’s Nocturnes being the most popular). This year we decided to take the risky step of applying for the Winterschool as a duet - looking at music solely for horn and soprano. The repertoire for this combination is notably less well-known.
Herein lies the first in a list of challenges for our pre-festival preparation and for the running of a specialist ensemble: sourcing repertoire. As with most of our more uncommon repertoire, we stumbled across our eventual choice, Tres Psalmi Davidis by Karl Kroeger, whilst searching for repertoire ideas across university libraries, music streaming services, sheet music catalogues and concert program archives. From experience we’ve learned that finding out the music exists is usually the easy part. Finding the physical or digital sheet music and a recording (if there is one) is the real challenge. So many works for our combination have only been performed once since their composition, have never been published or have gone out of print. We were lucky to find a digital copy of the score through a university library and a recording (with trombone) on Spotify. Good librarians are truly the unsung heroes of the music industry.
Preparing the music for private practice and rehearsal sometimes requires additional behind-the-scenes work. Often music has either been handwritten, photocopied so many times as to make accidentals and words unreadable or is simply supplied as a score too small for practical use in rehearsals. Often it requires editing, enlarging and extra printing. This work was no exception.
With almost all of the music we perform, the text is very important. During this early preparation we both seek out translations and look to see how the composer has chosen to interpret the words through the music. In exposed chamber music like these duets, both parts share the task of conveying the meaning.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for both of us is the rehearsal and performance of a work without piano - something which neither of us have experienced to this (small) scale. The parts are very exposed all (yep - ALL) the time. Where we would emerge from a bubbling piano brook in Schubert, here we emerge from silence, which can be rather less forgiving.
The logistics of attending a festival or interstate winterschool/summerschool are always something easily forgotten amongst the musical preparation, but it is worth noting that there is budgeting to be done, flights to book, accommodation to organise and suitcases to pack. All of this happens weeks or, if there’s a sale, months in advance, so we need to keep track of it all. We use Google Drive for communal document storage and Trello, a project management program, to make sure we both have access to the same information on the go.
We started this article by saying that we are an unusual ensemble. Aside from our instrumentation, we are also a couple who work together, which adds another dimension to our music making, relationship and attendance at this festival. It brings its own set of challenges and solutions, an unspoken rapport and a sickly romantic element to a tropical working holiday.