Concert Weeks are Jam-Packed!

Courtney Lewis

When newcomers attend the Symphony they often ask me, “How many weeks ago did you start rehearsing for the concert?” The answer usually elicits a look of astonishment, especially if the performance is on a Thursday: “We started on Tuesday morning!”

A Masterworks concert is preceded by four or five rehearsals, all within a single week. The musicians’ schedules are organized this way, as are those of guest conductors and soloists, who often stay in a city for a week before moving on to the next. This allows artist managers to schedule their clients’ engagements 18 months to two years in advance. The condensed timeframe assumes everyone arrives at the first rehearsal absolutely prepared since there isn’t time to learn the notes in the way you might in a youth or community orchestra. We’re all completely accustomed to this way of working, but it does mean that a concert week is very busy. I’d like to take you through such a week for me in Jacksonville.

Monday. No rehearsals. The orchestra musicians may have had a concert on Sunday, so Monday is usually a day off. If I’m guest conducting somewhere out of town, I travel on Monday morning so there’s plenty of time to settle into the hotel before a Tuesday morning rehearsal. If I’m conducting in Jacksonville, the day begins like every other weekday: I get up at 5:15 a.m., take the dog out and cook breakfast before driving to the LA Fitness on University Boulevard, where my trainer puts me through my paces from 6:30 to 7:30. I’m really lucky in having an excellent trainer here who understands my metabolism and fitness goals.

I’m home by 8 a.m. This is my favourite part of the day. I do all my most serious score study and thinking early in the morning. If I can get four hours in before lunch, the day is off to a great start. I will look over the scores I’m conducting that week, draw up a game plan for the rehearsals and finish memorizing anything that isn’t completed. That means sitting with my eyes closed, hearing the music in my head at the right tempo, picturing the orchestra in front of me and giving cues to specific musicians at the right moment. Eventually, I reach a point at which I can’t remember what comes next. Then I open the score, remind myself what I forgot, and go back to the beginning of the piece, hopefully getting further than I did the last time! It sounds excruciatingly time-consuming – and it is – but it works. For me the difference between conducting from memory and with the score is enormous. The former gives you complete freedom because you can maintain eye contact with the musicians all the time. I find that I hear better and that my sense of the long-term structure of the music is clearer. Of course, sometimes it’s impossible because the piece is simply too complicated, but more often it’s because there hasn’t been enough time to memorize. When the score is there in the concert, it’s very hard not to read it even if you don’t need to.

By lunchtime, the musical part of my brain is exhausted. I spend the afternoon answering emails, planning concerts, and thinking about the other five thousand things a music director does that have absolutely nothing to do with conducting. By early evening I’ve reached my work limit, so I take my dog for a walk around Avondale before cooking all the food for the coming week. There won’t be any time, and I won’t have any energy, once rehearsals begin.

Tuesday and Wednesday. The usual early start and workout. Rehearsals begin at 10 a.m., so I get to the hall around 9 and look over the music we will rehearse. At 9:59 I can hear the orchestra tuning over the intercom, so I walk to the stage, and off we go. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are “doubles” meaning we have two rehearsals, the first from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and the second from 2-4 in the afternoon. At lunchtime I’ll eat quickly before meeting the soloist for the week. This will be the first time we’ve seen each other that week, so we will talk or play through the concerto in my studio. I’ll make notes about where the soloist is planning to speed up or slow down, or if it’s a singer, where he or she will breathe, and what tempi are comfortable. Then we start the afternoon rehearsal together. This is one of my least favourite parts of the week. It always takes a while to get used to a new soloist – how they phrase, how much they want me to lead or follow, how they communicate with me while playing – and doing it after lunch with the accompanying slump in energy and blood-sugar levels is always a challenge!

Rehearsal ends at 4 p.m. (on the dot – rehearsals are unionized and cannot run over by even a second), at which point I’ll usually have a few quick meetings with musicians or staff, before heading home. By this point I am so tired I can hardly string a sentence together, so I sleep for a couple of hours before a most-welcome martini at 6. After dinner, I prepare the following morning’s rehearsal. One of the most difficult things to get used to in a professional orchestra’s schedule is how soon the next “service” (a rehearsal or concert) is. There isn’t any time to do any real thinking about the music once the cycle begins, which is why the preparation is so important.

Thursday. I try not to work out on concert days since I need all the energy I can muster. The dress rehearsal begins at 10. We play through the music much more than at the previous rehearsals. There is never enough time to get everything done – to be a conductor is to understand the tyranny of the clock – and by 12:30 I wish everyone well for the concerts and drive home. I usually eat an enormous lunch since it’s difficult to eat dinner before a concert, and take a nap. At around 4, I’ll sit in my study and imagine my way through anything I’m conducting from memory, and look over any spots that were causing problems in rehearsal. Thursday evenings are Symphony in 60, so I get to the hall very early and plan what I’m going to talk to the audience about.

Friday and Saturday. Sometimes there is a coffee concert on Friday morning that comes around alarmingly quickly after Thursday night! If not, I’m free until the evening. Empty days before concerts are strange things. You always think you’re “off,” but of course you aren’t. The day needs to contain very little that doesn’t pertain to the concert. If it does, it’s very easy to arrive at the hall worried about something mundane, and that makes for a bad concert. The degree to which my own emotional energy and state of mind can influence the orchestra’s playing terrifies me, so I keep these days very quiet. I listen to the recording of the previous night’s concert and make notes on anything I can do better, or of requests I can make of the musicians, to be delivered by the assistant conductor before the concert. The musicians don’t like that much, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. I arrive at the hall in time for “Insight,” the series of pre-concert talks I give at 7. I really enjoy these. They are well-attended, and the audience often asks really interesting questions. That’s a great indicator of the level of musical sophistication in our community. At 7:30 I go back to my studio, change into my tails (which, by the way, takes a good 20 minutes; there’s a reason why there were so many valets on “Downton Abbey!”), and then sit very quietly until it’s time to go on stage. Conductors use this time differently. When I worked in New York, Alan Gilbert’s studio would always be full of family and friends chatting, throwing toys and laughing, with visitors popping in to wish him well for the concert right until he stepped into the elevator to take him to the stage. That’s what we wanted, even needed. I need silence. Something mysterious happens during this time. It’s a little like method acting as described in Stanislavski’s wonderful book “An Actor Prepares.” One needs to change into something different: no longer the conductor of the rehearsals, but the conductor of the concert. There’s a very important distinction and it’s to do with embodying the music and providing the kind of moral leadership the orchestra needs in concert. On the few occasions that I haven’t had time to make this shift I’ve felt very unsafe and unfocused on the podium. It’s the same at intermission: I want to be alone and think about the music on the second half.

After the concert, it’s a different story! Our wonderful stage manager, Ray, usually hands me a Stella Artois as soon as I walk off stage. If I’m pleased with the concert, I want to jump for joy. If I’m displeased, I want to jump off a bridge. Either way, emotions run high. Guests and donors will assemble outside my studio, and after I’ve peeled off my soaking clothes and changed into something dry, I meet them for a champagne toast. Then it’s time for dinner with senior staff and our soloist. That usually ends around midnight, at which point I go to a club to dance with friends for a few hours: I always have far too much adrenaline to sleep! Occasionally I’ll stay up and listen to the concert recording. Saturday morning arrives and off we go again.

There is a challenge in repeating a concert three or four times. Many of you will remember from high school dramatics that a middle performance isn’t as exciting as the first or last of a run. A big part of my job is preventing that by inspiring the orchestra to be at their best at every concert. I have to say it’s one of the parts of being music director in which I feel myself being tested the most. It sometimes requires a kind of super-human effort, especially when the concerts are taking place in your hometown, with all the responsibilities of everyday life. The dog still needs to be walked, you still need to eat, you still need to do laundry, you may have guests staying. As a guest conductor in a hotel, you are marvelously relieved of all this; not so at home. By the time the final concert ends, one feels an extraordinary sense of accomplishment – after all, I will usually have been thinking and dreaming about the music for at least 18 months – accompanied by absolute but joyful exhaustion! Music is a demanding mistress, requiring all of your physical, emotional and spiritual resources, but what a privilege it is to spend your life seeped in such a rich and profound art. The day after the final concert I barely leave the house – maybe brunch with friends, but usually just several hours of trashy television. Nothing that requires any brain power! And alas, next week is just around the corner, and there is a pile of scores on my desk that I will be conducting in less than 48 hours that look frighteningly unfamiliar….

Reprinted with kind permission of the Florida Times-Union. Original story at