Practical notes on Five Sacred Trees: Eo Mugna

One week ago today, I played John Williams’s Five Sacred Trees with the Niagara Symphony Orchestra. 

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I actually didn't choose this piece. Bradley Thachuck, the music director of the NSO, asked if I wanted to play it; I had heard of it, of course, and said yes... and then listened to it. That was in February of 2016; I ordered the part right away and started practicing it. And continued practicing it, pretty consistently, for the next two years.

This turned out to be a little bit overkill, but actually... not all that much. Over the course of the two years that I invested in it, I learned, re-learned, memorized, and agonized over every bar in the piece, so now that it's all over, it seems like it would be worthwhile to write it all down in the form of detailed notes about how I played it. These are not, of course, instructions to be followed; what worked for me may not be best for someone else, and some of these decisions were only arrived at after a practicing process that was in itself valuable. They are, though, the kind of thing that I think I would have appreciated reading two years ago; just a list of issues and how one person chose to work through them. With a standard like the Mozart concerto, you already begin work on it with an idea of what the issues and choices are, bar-by-bar. Here are some ideas about Five Sacred Trees.

 

A note on memorization: I did memorize it, and made a video recording with piano for memory, both for rehearsal and archival purposes. When I mentioned to Stephane Leevesque, who played the piece with the OSM, that I was hoping to perform from memory, his horrified reaction made me reconsider. Stephane rarely forbade me from or forced me to do anything, as a student, but when he did there was usually a very good reason, so a strong reaction from him, based on performance experience with the piece in question,  seemed worth paying attention to. I ended up having the music in front of me in performance and found some parts of it-- like the opening cadenza, and much of Dathi-- easier with my eyes closed, while some parts, like Tortan and Craeb Uisnig, were easier with eyes open (but I was still very glad I didn't need my eyes glued to the part, and could swivel to communicate easily with the conductor and concertmaster.)

I'll post these by movement, so here are my notes on Eo Mugna.

Opening: Big breath out, empty lungs. Small breath in and out at the bottom. Big breath in.

There’s a crescendo on the first note, but leaving too much room for it makes the entrance sound timid.

Mm 4, whisper lock on.

Mm 5, eighth notes long to contrast with the accents on many of the other eighths in the opening.

Mm 7, there is a decrescendo on the low C in the 1st edition, removed in the 2nd. I settled on a slight decrescendo but still an emphatic vibrato and ending to the note.

Mm 8-9, I chose to take a large pause and then play this section with all legato eighth notes.

Mm 10, long low C and then accelerated up the run, using the R4 F# and found that anchoring my attention on the Bb ensured it emerged cleanly. I probably worked this run up from quarter=20 about fifteen separate times, and it stuck a little more each time.

Mm 11, started extremely slowly and sped up, with the last two eights aided by the L-only Eb fingering.

Mm 12 aided by a firm grip on the low G. The final D of the bar is, for some reason, extremely intuitive to play as an eight note in the tempo of the new section, which it is not. The conductor requested that I elongate it, so I did, but for some reason it didn’t occur to me to just play it as a quarter in the new tempo, which would be an excellent length.

My tempo for the main section was intentionally rather fast: more like 85 (to the marked 72-76.) I like this tempo because it allows the entire theme to be played comfortably in one breath, and because the marked tempo sounds draggy to me, but maybe I’m just young and impatient.

So, what’s the difference between a grace note and a thirty-second in this passage? I have been reliably informed that John Williams, when asked this question, had no strong opinion on the matter. One could make a case that, in the interest of not confusing the cello section, who unlike the bassoonist are individually tasked with playing this theme in unison with other people, the second quarter beat of mm 13 should be deliberately placed on the beat and not a moment before, whereas the second quarter beat of mm 16 should have the grace note placed slightly ahead of it.

Mm 19, I rather enjoy that the first half of the bar contains a sixteenth note instead of the expected thirty-second, and make possibly an inappropriately big deal of it.

Mm 21 could be interpreted as a change of character and a bouncier articulation, and I was planning on doing so, but once I was actually standing beside the cello section taking their shot at the theme, it suddenly seemed a little obnoxious, and I smoothed it out.

Memorization-wise, mm 27 and 36 are easy to mix up and end up in the wrong place. My mnemonic was that the first time is fancier (grace note before the 2nd big beat of 27, omitted in 36) and started higher, and the second time around I just want to get it over with (no grace note) and end lower (the downwards run starts on G in 37, E in 28.)

Mm 29, the low D looks like it should have to be quiet. It doesn’t; it will be swallowed by the bass clarinet and the wind section anyway, so whatever volume will be best in tune is fine. I put the lock on during the low G in 28 and remove it after the D just for peace of mind.

Mm 34, I play the first A of the run long and the high A with the L hand only.

Mm 36-37 is conspicuously lacking in dynamic guidance, but with aggressive section that comes after it, I decided to go for loud.

Mm 52-53: should the first bassoon note have a clearly audible attack, or should it start in the ring of the orchestra’s final chord? I’ve heard it both ways, but chose to observe the accent and make sure by attack was heard.

Mm 55 whisper lock on in caesura.

Mm 55-56, all the eights have legato markings, which makes a nice contrast with 53-54 and also with the sfz in 57, where I took Chris Millard’s suggestion to conceive of it “like a frog burping.”

Mm 57-58: are the eighth notes grouped six and three, or do the slurs stand in contrast to the emphasis that is properly place on the first and second quarter beats of 58? After all, this section is essentially meterless, yet he still put a bar line in the middle of this ascending line and chose the vehicle of eighth notes to convey the desired pitches. There’s a strong argument for the latter, but I chose to phrase with the slurs.

Unlock before mm 59. 59, grouped the run 3-3-4 to accelerate.

If memorizing, I implore you to not play mm 16 where mm 62 should be.

Mm 64, I like the sfz interpreted as a lift before the downbeat of the next measure.

Starting mm 66, it’s easy to get too soft, too fast. The dim only starts in mm 70.

For the final D, I added R thumb and 2.