Mastering the Score

Caught up in preparing for her first subscription series concert, BSO assistant conductor Lara Webber almost had to remind herself to breathe.

November 10, 2001|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

She sings into it. She marks it up. The oversized blue book Lara Webber has carried around this week in rehearsals with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra contains all the directions she needs to conduct Gustav Holst's The Planets tonight at the Meyerhoff.

Until now she has conducted only a few of the piece's seven movements. In recent weeks the notations in her score have grown; this week, she added a few more. Years from now, her ideas about it may have changed completely.

Though the score is 5 years old, it still looks new by conducting standards. There are none of the tears and dog-eared pages on a score used by a conductor as experienced as Yuri Temirkanov. The maestro has used his copy of Mahler's Symphony No. 1 more than 100 times.

The preparation by a conductor in the years of her promise couldn't be more different from the preparation by a conductor in his prime.

For weeks, Webber's been holed up in her home on Lanvale Street studying the score and making weird noises. Just ask her landlord. Or her husband. They go something like "pish pa pomp" at 80 miles a minute, faster and more bizarre than Bobby McFerrin.

Plus, she says, she grunts, hollers and squeals to mimic the instruments.

To be sure, the 32-year-old assistant conductor for the BSO was invited to conduct this concert, her first on the symphony's regular subscription series. Some in the orchestra were playing professionally before she was born. That she commands the musicians' respect is testimony to an unusual ability for someone her age. Most of her peers are five to 10 years older.

It also reflects her hard work.

With a thank-you concert for the symphony's big donors Wednesday and a weekend debut on the subscription series, this has been a bananas-and-water-bottle week for Webber. Everywhere she goes, she carries a banana to assuage the sudden hunger that strikes one who works so hard she forgets to eat. Water she drinks to pace herself; otherwise, she'd forget to breathe.

Normally she bikes to work, but not this week. "I wouldn't want to run over any patrons," she says.

Those patrons also should thank her husband, Julio Friedmann. He takes over the cooking in weeks like these because otherwise, he says, Webber wouldn't eat. Eggs for breakfast, pasta with vodka marinara sauce for dinner.

In her dressing room a half hour before rehearsal, she sits in the middle of a charcoal gray couch, feet tapping the floor, bent over the score on the coffee table, singing through it.

Her immediate concern is not the subscription series, but Wednesday's concert. It featured dance pieces as diverse as Bartok, Bernstein, and Strauss.

In walks Ellen Pendleton Troyer with her violin, to warm up for her solo, "Ziguenerweisen," by Pablo de Sarasate, a piece Webber says is famously hard to accompany. "I'm trying out what tempo to set for you," Webber tells Troyer. "We'll probably be underneath you."

Stepping in to help

She has to know when she can be helpful. For the "Toy Symphony in C Major," played for fun with toy instruments by some of the symphony's benefactors Wednesday, this meant staying her own hand.

"Would you mind if I don't cue you tonight?" she asked percussionist John Locke, who was joining the amateurs on stage. "Every time I do, [a benefactor's instrument] goes off."

They laughed.

Around her last week was controlled mayhem:

People collecting passports for the BSO's upcoming trip to Europe. People demanding decisions about where the chorus should stand. People fixing lights and adjusting the NASA space videos that will accompany the score.

Finally she takes to the podium and turns to Holst.

"I want to hear the tenor tuba and the base tuba without having it get louder," she says.

They begin again.

Yes, she says. Yes.

On to the harps. She wants them on the attack. The trumpets, she wants to hear a hair less.

Basses and bassoons, can we have a little more accents on the full notes that come before No. 2?

Violins, forte, but not brittle. Toss them off a little more, if you would.

An orchestra of the BSO's caliber "can achieve anything quickly in rehearsal. It makes for an incredible challenge to conduct. You must get to the next level," she says.

Webber has to be able to show the orchestra musically what she means. She has to respond to what she hears. She must know what each instrument is capable of doing.

Of course, she gets help from the orchestra. Adrian Semo, the associate concertmaster, rose a handful of times in rehearsals to show his violin section how to produce the sound she was seeking.

Violas had their own conversations with Webber, as did the horns. After one rehearsal, Ed Hoffman, assistant principal trumpet, sought out Webber to say he noticed the conductor was ahead of him.

"Yes," she told him, "I want it to go faster."

It's not enough for Webber to decide if the horns are too loud, the violins too soft. She even decides that the stage door must be open during Venus so the chorus can be heard from behind stage when it sings the G sharp.

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