It’s always exciting. It’s the day we’ve been working towards and now it’s upon us. We rehearse all afternoon and realise what, in the illustrious position at the rear of the second violins, we have known all along – there are some passages we can’t play and no amount of last minute practising will help us now. But all is not lost; our section leader and the more able and experienced players support us. Our conductor gently but firmly coaxes us through the trickier transitions into new tempi and moods and encourages us to keep down when the going gets tough, because no one needs to hear our particularly fiendish demisemiquaver passage when we’re accompanying a beautiful clarinet, oboe or horn solo. She hears the whole and decides where the focus of this final rehearsal needs to be. She leads her band with precision, musical discipline and good humour in equal proportion. She is Wonder Woman for we are a motley crew, yet she never despairs.
In our section today are three past-their-sell-by-date players, two of whom are ailing and sustained by painkillers (him) and nil-by-mouth (me). Fortunately, today our department is enhanced by one energetic player of extreme youth and one of experience. But to guide us all, as ever with a smile on her face, our heroic and totally dependable section leader plays reliably and confidently and when our eyes blur over the music stave, skipping lines, turning the page too soon and misreading rhythms, within seconds we follow her bowing and like sheep to the fold we return to our part in the music of the whole.
The rehearsal is tiring for the sick and ancient but our conductor has planned it to the last minute and no one is kept waiting, no one feels they didn’t have an opportunity to go over something again and we cover everything that needs a little extra attention to detail. In the second violins our confidence grows, if our stamina flags. It’s a fabulous spring afternoon and we have time for a break to ponder on the enormous pleasure of being part of a performance of great music. Whether we do it full and accurate justice tonight doesn’t matter to us. We have played our part, brought the notes on the pages to life and, from our central position in the orchestra, have been surrounded by some wonderfully able players.
On April Fool’s Day , what piece more appropriate to open a concert than a movement from Mozart’s Musical Joke? It’s somewhat nerve-rackingly exposed for the strings and it’s all about the relaxed wrist of the bowing arm, which we try to remember as we attempt to play delicately at speed. The piece serves as a friendly warm up for the fingers and gets us settled for the demanding work that is to follow – Elgar’s overture Froissart. This has been a challenge! It’s lyrical, wayward and elegiac and hard to pull off convincingly for amateur second violins. But with a full wind and brass section behind us, we sail through it. We give it all we’ve got in the passages we can manage and allow our bows and fingers to glide over the fast moving bars with élan and panache, albeit sotto voce so that our mistakes can’t be heard. Sibelius’ sweeping Karelia Suite closes the first half and we attack it with gusto. It’s over to the brass and wind in the first movement as we scrub away endlessly and at top speed, hoping that we change the chords underneath the soaring and strident melodies at the right point and not before or after we should. In this work the crucial point is the counting. The other movements have great melodies too and it’s so easy to listen to them, forgetting that we are the underdogs and our role is to chug along underneath them. The final movement is the one that will ricochet around our heads this evening and tomorrow morning. We say goodbye to the heavy brass at this point but now there’s more pressure on us to play accurately in the second half.
A welcome and tasty refreshment interval, sumptuous raffle prizes, a chance to relax and then we’re back in for Beethoven’s 2nd Symphony. This one’s all about the concentration; second violins are not always playing with our more accomplished neighbours, the first violins. After a stately opening section, the first movement is fast and furious and requires relentless scrubbing with the bowing arm. We’re exhausted and glad of the peace and delicacy of the second movement. But it’s long and slow and our arms are aching with the effort to sustain its sweetness and tranquility. My partner falters and turns a ghastly shade of greenish white. He rests a moment, takes a few deep breaths and soldiers on through the sparkling third movement and staggers through the fury of the last movement. We have survived.
Our audience of mainly family and friends is kindness itself. They congratulate us on our hard work, praise our efforts and turn a blind eye to the wonky tuning, missed entries and individual interpretation of accidentals and bowing. And so it’s over and we bask in the satisfaction of having started and finished together, stayed on the same page as the rest of our section, completed the concert without passing out (him) and actually feeling better than when we started (me) and we look forward to the summer extravaganza!