Balancing Recital Repertoire

It's very rare that I repeat the same solo repertoire from year to year. This choice was made to balance out the orchestra and audition rep that I played year in and year out. I've played Scheherazade, Billy the Kid, and Pine of Rome more times than I care to share. Audition rep? I honestly can't stand the sight of Beethoven 5 slow movement, La Mer #9 and Mozart 35 finale mm. 134-181 (honest and unfiltered). This repertoire is valuable for getting you an orchestra job and has some pedagogical merit, but my musical soul needs something fresh to balance that.

Since I don't play as many orchestra gigs anymore, I have more time to learn and perform solo rep. Without the pressure of trying to perfect 17 seconds of La Mer or 27 seconds of Mendelssohn's Scherzo, I can now handle revisiting some of my old friends like the Bach Suites and sonatas that I learned back in college.

For this year I chose 3 concert programs: complete Bach Suites, all-new (to me) 20th century solo works, and sonatas by Franck and Debussy. About 1 hour of this repertoire is new to me, so that has been my main focal point of short-term practicing. The other, more familiar works have been interspersed over a longer period of time.

For example, even though playing all 6 Bach Cello Suites in one recital is an undeniably huge feat, I've been preparing for this performance ever since I started learning the Suites at age 12, for better or worse. Over the years, I've gotten to play one, two, three, and even four Suites at a time for recitals and wedding gigs (yes, those are also performances). When I decided to do the Bach marathon, I had already been playing Bach 2 extensively. Bach 2, along with Bach 5, had been my longtime audition pieces, so I felt like those could sit on the back burner for a year. I started prep work on Bach 1, 3, 4, and 6 last November and got to perform those a few times in recitals. After that, I put those away and pulled out Bach 5 for a performance. Now I am doing a lot of touching up, recording, and playing for my family. Between now and the performance in September, I will need to sit down and play all of them in a row a few times.

The new solo rep feels very foreign. Every year I perform solo rep that has had, in some cases, only one previous performance or performer. In many of the cases, I don't have a good recording or any recording to go by. This year's 20th century rep is brought to you by Martha Blakeney Hodges Collection at University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This rep will be my main focal point after the Bach marathon is finished. In March, I chose 3 works from the Collection: Solo Sonata, Op. 31 by Sandor (Alexander) Jemnitz, Solo Sonata by Jerzy Fitelberg, and Suite No. 1 by Victoria Yagling. To the best of my knowledge, there are no commercially available recordings for any of those pieces. There is a recording from the 1982 Tchaikovsky Competition of Yagling's finale by Antonio Meneses, but that's not commercially available. I'm basically working from scratch. I will write more about these pieces in the future, but my biggest task now is to learn them for several performances.

To help me get the sense of these pieces, I went to the instrument that never fails me, the electronic keyboard; it's always in tune! There are 2 challenges in preparing new solo rep: the first is that it's solo, so all eyes will be on me, other that it's new to me and in many cases it's difficult to relate it to anything else I've played before. The positive side of the coin is that this rep is also new to the audience, and they are coming at it with no preconceived notions. Making sense out of a work that our generation will hear for the first time is just as difficult as finding something new to say with the Bach Suites, which get performed no less than 20,000 times a year around the world. We do have to remember that Bach Suites were, too, forgotten for 100 years until they slowly started to become a staple of cellists pedagogical and performance rep.

There is one more new piece that I am learning this year, the Debussy Sonata. This piece is so familiar to me, from hearing dozens of performances in college, that I feel like I know it inside and out, but I've never actually learned the notes before. I am dedicating some time to practicing it, but not as much as the solo rep. I will do more intense practicing once the Bach marathon is over.

If you have any specific questions on how to practice certain rep, please leave them in the comment below.

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