Behind the Sparkling Scenes: HRO Rehearses Debussy

by Victoria Aschheim

Debussy wrote that the title to his composition, Nocturnes, is to be interpreted in the "decorative sense." The title is not meant "to designate the usual form of a nocturne, but rather all the various impressions and the special effects of light that the word suggests." In "Nuages," the first of the work's three movements, Debussy portrays "the slow motion of the clouds." In the second movement, "Fetes," the composer described its "vibrating atmosphere with sudden flashes of light."

In "Sirenes," the third movement, Debussy achieved effects of "the sea and its countless rhythms." Our erudite Harvard audience will recognize that the movement, Sirenes, is based on the sirens of The Odyssey, and their beauteous and ravishing music so fatal to sailors. We trust that our audience like Odysseus, will fasten themselves to their seats, as Odysseus bound himself to the mast of his ship, to enjoy the ravishing sounds of the HRO in this memorable Debussy composition.

Click on the numbers below to hear clips of the HRO rehearsing Nocturnes!

This is a clip from "divided orchestra" rehearsal, where either the strings, or in this case, the winds and brass, rehearse as a family of instruments. Here the brass section is playing part of "Fetes." You can hear Maestro Cortese’s quite operatic voice as he advises the section on articulation and brass instrument logistics!

Track 1

Here is another clip from "divided orchestra" rehearsal, featuring the woodwinds and brass together. You can hear Maestro Cortese vocalizing the rhythm of my part (the snare drum!) as he conducts.

Track 2

Here is the full orchestra rehearsing "Nuages," the first movement of Nocturnes, as Maestro Cortese helps the ensemble to calibrate its dynamics.

Track 3

Here the orchestra tries the same passage again with more precise balance in the strings (Maestro Cortese draws out the "firsts" – or the first violin section). Jonathan Bragg ’10 performs the English Horn solo.

Track 4

In the next three clips, listen as the orchestra sharpens the same passage, rehearsing it three times.

The gentle tension and movement of harmonic shades in this passage makes this passage one of my favorites in the Debussy. The celestial color of the instrumentation and the subtle shifting between the cloudy minor key and brief rays of light in the major key provide a climactic moment in the work’s tranquil first movement. Flutist Irineo Cabreros ’13 suspends his arching melody over the strings, and then transfers the solo role to concertmaster Michael Viscardi ’10.

Track 5

Maestro Cortese counts off the orchestra and exhorts the violins to "look at each other." Indeed orchestra members must breathe, move, and lead freely with their bodies and must watch each other across all sections as they would if they were performing chamber music. As a percussionist I find myself watching and listening for not only the concertmaster but frequently the bass and brass sections.

Track 6

In this clip Maestro Cortese encourages concertmaster Michael Viscardi ’10 to "sing" through his violin during his solo. The clip concludes with the end of "Nuages."

Track 7