Today morning is devoted to sectionals at the rehearsal venue (St. Euphrasia School, Bangalore).

We meet our Canadian viola counterparts ‘properly’ for the first time. We are led by Neal Gripp, who I immediately develop a tremendous respect, even before I come to ‘grips’ (if you’ll pardon the pun) with his impressive career. It becomes amply evident that this is a musician’s musician, someone who loves music with a passion, and I suspect he’d more happily work with enthusiastic amateurs (like me?)  than with jaded professionals.

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We work in detail on the Dvořák ‘From the New World’ Symphony. Gripp talks at length to us about Slavic music, about the multitude of influences and tunes in this work, from Dvořák’s own homeland (today’s Czech Republic, then Bohemia), and ‘from the New World’ (Native American songs, African-American spirituals), and the influence of Longfellow’s ‘Song of Hiawatha’. (Click here for an article that sheds more light on this).

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Dvořák’s compatriots would have instinctively known where the stresses and emphases in the score were, Gripp tells us. Some tunes are quite obviously (to someone from Eastern Europe) rustic folk dances. But he had to write in all the instructions for our benefit.

We come to the great viola ‘solo’: the end of the third movement (Scherzo), where the violas alone play a sequence of bars, with notes in each of them divided into six, then five, then four, then three and then one solitary note, before a good ol’ tutti karate chop finish.

I recall a similar phenomenon but in reverse, in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture in the build-up to the finale. Did one inspire the other? Or is this a composer’s ‘party-trick’, thrown in to add dramatic effect and tension before the ending?

I love the way Gripp rehearses this with us. He asks us to set down our instruments on our laps, and count out the rhythms (1-2-3-4-5-6, 1-2-3-4-5-6, 1-2-3-4-5, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3, 1…). And then we pick up our instruments and it seems a lot easier. We try the passage working from the end, first just the last two bars, then tag on the 1-2-3-4-5, and then play it through.

In the afternoon, we all meet for a tutti rehearsal, led by conductor Alain Trudel. We read through the first, second and third movements of the Dvořák. He tells us when to rein it in, especially when the 2nd flute has those delicious melodies, and when to really let rip (the opening to the last movement, for instance). He tells the first and second violins (seated at either end of the semi-circle, facing each other) how they need to look (even more than hear) each other, and how he’ll try and not get in the way of their sightlines.

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Then it’s a much smaller ensemble for Stravinsky’s Pulcinella suite. I watch and listen from the sidelines. There are some beautiful cameos, from the concertmaster, the woodwinds, and a burlesque moment for the trombone. It sounds great even at first reading.

We call it a day, and we meet again tomorrow (more sectionals) in the morning!

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