For most, the idea of performing previously unseen music brings back nightmarish memories of music exams and sight-reading exercises.Nevertheless, today we should consider it a strength. Brits have acquired an international reputation for being the best sight-readers in the world, due to our orchestras and choirs preparing their concerts in a fraction of the time it takes their continental and American counterparts.
Expert sight-readers share a seemingly miraculous talent for getting the notes of a piece right first time. Instrumentalists must look ahead to see what comes next in the music, while remembering and playing what they have already seen. For choral musicians, the challenge is to know how their part sounds without first having heard it played. For all musicians, developing these skills means they are able to perform music straight off the page. Most agree that sight-reading can be learnt and practiced, but there is nothing special about the way we teach sight-reading in Britain. However, where continental orchestras will typically spend a week perfecting a programme and go on to perform it several times, a British orchestra will spend one or two rehearsals on a programme before moving on to the next.
Chorus director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus Simon Halsey describes the difference between the financial models in the UK and Germany: ‘The idea of doing many programmes in a week is, in Britain, an economic necessity. The subsidy levels of most European orchestras mean that their salaries are paid before the year begins, whereas our commercial model means that maybe 40 per cent of your costs are covered in the beginning of the year, and then you have to earn everything else.’ In an interview for BBC News shortly before his appointment as the London Symphony Orchestra’s incoming Music Director, Sir Simon Rattle bemoaned players’ relentless schedules in a similar vein. ‘It's hard to explain to people how hard and brutally these wonderful [British] orchestras work…The conditions for the players are incredibly important because it’s a matter of what actually people can achieve.’
Feeding into our reputation as a country of sight-readers is our ancient tradition of cathedral music making. Generations of boys and girls up and down the country first learnt to sing in a cathedral, chapel or parish church choir. The often-swift rehearsal models of evensong established the expectation that a musical standard can and must be achieved at speed. No other choral tradition in the world can claim to work with such regularity or breadth of repertoire. The idea that rehearsals should begin with fundamental aspects of the performance already in place spills over from the cathedral song school into every sphere of our musical life.
Sight-reading is not just a matter of the right notes first time: it is also performing them with an immediate sense of what else is going on in the music. The BBC Singers are often hailed as the ‘best sight-readers in the world’, but David Hill, their principal conductor, agrees that it is about more than just accuracy. ‘They are probably the fastest choir around,’ he says. ‘Sight-reading is incredibly important to being a BBC Singer because they have to assimilate more than one project of entirely unfamiliar music each week – but it’s the reading alongside the ability to sing with others.’
So, British musicians have developed an instinctive sixth-sense for ensemble, for intonation, for direction – the basic building blocks of musical performance. Blockbuster film scores are very often recorded by British orchestras. New music, too, thrives in Britain because groups like the BBC Singers commission new works as part of their remit and, crucially, are able to put difficult, unfamiliar music together quickly enough to perform it.
However, pianist Stephen Hough emphasises the need to spend time with repertoire to know it thoroughly enough. ‘You can’t do a crash course in the great works of art. Music is a very intellectual discipline and there’s an awful lot to unpack in what’s written on the page. Almost the greatest curse is a kind of facility: if it’s too easy to learn a piece it can often mean you never get deep inside it.’ No orchestral musician could afford to spend as long on every piece they play as a soloist would learning each concerto. The repertoire is too broad and their part rarely as difficult. In an ensemble setting it is the conductor’s job to illuminate how a piece’s hidden details should affect the performance. Nevertheless, Hough’s message applies to all: hasty learning can lead to a superficial performance.
How much is it possible to say about a monumental work like Bach’s John Passion when the performing ensembles regularly spend only three hours constructing a performance? The musicians are experienced and dynamic enough that the concert will hang together, and in the current climate we should perhaps be thankful that these performances are happening at all. However, these conditions prohibit a new and meaningful contribution. We are left with flat-packed music making that we must hope never becomes the norm. Just as we can justifiably be proud of our unrivalled choral tradition, the efficiency with which we turn around a film score, our ability to thrive in the face of chronic under-funding, so we should look outwards at what other traditions do differently – and we should learn from them. So accustomed are we to working with less time, the risk is losing sight of what we could do with more.
Benjamin Goodson is a conductor and chorus master. An extended version of this article first appeared in the July 2015 issue of BBC Music Magazine.