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Christopher Redgate on the nuts and bolts of playing Pasculli successfully
Possibly the most important aspect of learning the music of Pasculli involves the mental attitude we bring to the music. This of course is the same with all the music we play, but when you're facing music with enormous technical challenges the correct mental attitude at the beginning is vital. My approach to the music represents my feelings about the music; this is sunny music with beautiful melodies and a sense of having fun. It is true that the music is not particularly profound, and to try to look for deeper meaning in it would be foolish. But I have discovered over the years that my concert audiences really enjoy this music and I enjoy playing it for them. This attitude of enjoyment and having fun is vital to the learning of these pieces.
At some levels I approach the music with the attitude of a 'problem solver'. Hence some of the activities I use start away from the oboe. (My other musical passion is performing contemporary music, and many the attitudes I adopt in learning Pasculli I use also when approaching this music.)
My first encounter with the music of Pasculli was in my teenage years while attending a Holliger masterclass. I was immediately attracted to the look of the music, very 'black', very demanding, and way beyond my technical capabilities - but I bought it anyway!
Sometime during my career at the Royal Academy of Music I decided to learn the music I had bought and to perform it in a competition I was entering. At the time this felt very risky - and ever since then I have always performed the works with this sense of risk, a kind of daring. I suppose this is my version of driving a fast car! Since that time I've been performing Pasculli's music very regularly.
At the same time I begin to look for the technically challenging issues that I am going to have to deal with: awkward finger passages, difficult articulation, complex breathing patterns etc.
As I usually perform these works from memory I also begin to develop my memory grids. I don't know what others think but I believe in working with my memory at the earliest stages of studying a piece of music. I have always felt that to perform such showpieces from music rather takes away from part of the performance.
The issue of memorising I believe is very important. In works of this kind a physical memory will undoubtedly develop, as this comes from many repeated activities. But unfortunately this memory alone can be very fallible. We need to develop other approaches to memory as well. I would suggest that this include 'busking' memory, intellectual memory and possibly visual memory also. My recommendation is that with this music you begin to strategically memorise at a very early stage, possibly even from the beginning.
We find these in many pieces of music and I have found that the best approach is to analyse the specific problems. I am constantly asking myself "what is the real problem here?" It is very easy to waste time practising a difficult passage over and over again while never really solving the specific problem. These problems can be anything from difficulty in moving fingers accurately through to not enough breath support. On some occasions where I find problems with a specific technical difficulty I develop exercises that will correct the problems before working on the music itself.
Technical issues that need special attention
There are a number of techniques used in this music that are worth spending time developing in their own right, techniques such as circular breathing, complex articulation and embouchure agility. Once again I am convinced that the best approach is to separate the technique in question from any other problem and to work at the technique on its own before applying it in the specific musical context.
The issue of speed is of course very important in these works. I'm a firm believer in two approaches. Firstly, lots of slow practice with the metronome (I'm convinced this helps with relaxation, with overall security and also with muscular memory) and secondly, using different rhythms to develop evenness. Such an approach helps us to be relaxed while performing these works and helps us to avoid strain damage through tension and perhaps gripping the oboe too much.
Developing stamina and concentration
In some of the works the development of stamina is vital. Le Api is a very good example, requiring as it does long phrases in one breath or with circular breathing. I find also that there is a concentration issue in this music because very often the technically difficult challenges come in very quick succession. The way I develop both these areas is to build up the stamina over a period of time: either playing for a minute then a minute and a half etc, or working on one technical challenge then another and then combining the two. I have also found it very helpful to find friendly audiences to whom I can play these works in order to dig out more of the challenges before I go public in a bigger way.
On several occasions I have performed four of Pasculli's works plus a couple of other works in one concert. This was very good for developing stamina!
The first time I walked on to a platform to play Le Api, it was in the context of a competition. I did not know if, under the strain of performing, I could actually play the piece. I was very happy when I walked off the platform having survived! There are psychological challenges in performing music of this difficulty and it is as well to be aware of them from the outset. Quite frankly the surest way of going about this is to know that you know that you can perform them! Playing through the works in your own home and to friends is one of the best forms of preparation you can have. Because I have performed these works on many occasions I have a background of memories that I can call upon to give me confidence.
Knowing that you have prepared well can be a great boost to confidence; practising at home to make sure that you are relaxed is vital; and before a performance gentle stretches, focusing your mind, and slow practice can all help to form the right mental attitude.
Issues of Interpretation
In essence preparing to perform Pasculli is no different from preparing other works. The one issue I would like to raise here is in the area of bravura. I have heard performances that have been very well prepared, the notes are right, the sound is good but the performance is boring! Many of these works I would call 'bravura showpieces' and to me they need to sound like that, full of energy, invigorating and thrilling. As we practice we need to bear this aspect of the music in mind.
The other side of the coin of course is that we do need to spend considerable time phrasing the wonderful melodies and shaping the cadenzas. Another inspiring experiment is to listen to the original operas and see how the music works in context. This can be helpful especially if the singers are very good, but it has its limitations in interpreting Pasculli's own approach to the music.
In performing a number of these works for many years I have found audiences to be very responsive. They seem to enjoy the wonderful melodies, get excited in the technical sections and respond in a positive way to the music. Le Api has been a winner on many occasions, the brief moment for a breath in the centre of the work even causing them to laugh. When I performed I Vespri in China the audience took to applauding during the more virtuoso sections... I wonder if 19th-century audiences did that at a Pasculli concert? I suspect they did!
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