Playing by heart

Baltic Sea Philharmonic musicians and strings coach Jan Bjøranger explore the attraction of performing The Firebird from memory

It’s rare for an orchestra to perform a work completely from memory, let alone such a large-scale piece as Stravinsky’s The Firebird. But that’s exactly what the Baltic Sea Philharmonic does, for the first time during their ‘Baltic Folk’ tour in 2017. Playing without the sheet music is daring in itself, but how does it benefit the players? Violinist Jan Bjøranger, a long-time strings coach with the orchestra, who works from memory with his own chamber group 1B1 in Stavanger, Norway, as well as with other ensembles, explains: ‘Performing by heart forces an orchestra to spend more time learning a piece, until players reach the point that they truly embody the music. So it’s about empowering musicians, to look upon themselves as artists rather than workers on a music production line. To reach this higher goal, though, you have to accept that you might make mistakes, and so the learning process is also about getting rid of the fear of failure.’

While playing from memory might take some musicians out of their comfort zone, the Baltic Sea Philharmonic players absolutely identify with the sense of empowerment. As clarinettist Alexey Mikhaylenko says: ‘When you play by heart, it’s like you’re writing the music. It belongs to you. You’re not reading, you’re acting.’ Bassoonist Arseniy Shkaptsov adds: ‘When you’re reading your part you don’t fully concentrate on how you are playing. But when you already know the music, you listen more and bring out the emotional side of your playing.’

In his rehearsal workshops with the Baltic Sea Philharmonic musicians, Jan focused on building up a memorised performance by breaking the music down into distinct sections, some as short as only a few bars. ‘To make the process logical, I introduce musical and emotional “boxes,”’ he says. ‘I disintegrate the elements in a box, and describe their musical functions so that players understand their different roles. Then I put the box back together. We do the same thing with another box, one that has a different musical expression, and then we play the two boxes in relation and focus on the contrast.’ Working in this way, the musicians very quickly realised that performing the whole piece from memory was perfectly possible, says Jan. ‘Once you begin to trust yourself, it becomes a totally natural way of music making.’

The Firebird suite, with its clear multi-movement structure, presented an ideal canvas for memorisation. ‘The music is full of different characters,’ says Jan, ‘and the “boxes” are not long, so it’s easy to put together a story and internalise the timeline and the emotional changes. The process is more difficult with, say, a Brahms symphony.’

Another technique that Jan used in his workshops with the orchestra was to separate players from their sections, so that, for example, a violinist would stand next to the tuba player. ‘This makes the musicians experience the music in a new way,’ says Jan, ‘and suddenly puts much more emphasis on listening.’ Kristjan Järvi observed how empowering this exercise was for the musicians. ‘The ensemble was so impeccable, it was amazing,’ he says. ‘And it was because the players weren’t relating to their own section, or the musician closest to them, but to the whole organism of the orchestra, and to the conductor. They weren’t deliberately determining to be together, they were together naturally.’

Baltic Sea Philharmonic violinist Augusta Jusionytė is another passionate advocate of playing from memory, and always performs this way with the New Ideas Chamber Orchestra NICO, a string ensemble based in her native Lithuania. ‘I’m addicted to playing by heart,’ she says. ‘It offers a completely different kind of interaction between players, and especially with the conductor, who is able to do something different with a piece every time. Because the conductor gets much more attention from the musicians when they don’t have to read the music, he or she is free to find new moods and explore different elements in the music, and interact more closely with the players, receiving and giving impulses in the moment. I’ve been performing without the music for ten years now, and I could never go back!’