1 Dress Rehearsal

The “dress” or “general” rehearsal is the last one before the concert. Many Ensembles, opera houses etc. may have their own approaches or traditions when it comes to these rehearsals and as such it is worth considering a number of factors. 

Firstly, if you are in any kind of theatrical situation (opera, ballet, music theatre) the dress rehearsal will be exactly that – in performance dress. More than likely this will not apply to the orchestra, unless they are on stage and in costume. There may be more than one dress rehearsal, and it will often be required that the work is performed from beginning to end. This is to give everyone involved in the production a genuine feel for performing the work. As well as singers/dancers onstage and musicians in the pit, there will be lighting, set changes, costume changes and many other issues to consider. In this context, a dress rehearsal feels very much like a performance – there may even be some audience. There may be some time available at the end to give notes or even rehearse a few corners, but whatever you do, don’t stop!

On the concert platform with a professional ensemble in most European countries, the general rehearsal is seen as an opportunity for the musicians to play the programme from beginning to end. It will feel more like a rehearsal than a concert, particularly in comparison to a dress rehearsal in the Theatre, but you should still expect to play each piece in its entirety. There may also be some time to rehearse a little before going on to the next piece. You should notice a clear step up in concentration and energy from the orchestra, and they will expect the same of the conductor. Having said that, the worst thing you can do is peak too early. In ideal situations, the general rehearsal takes place in the morning, or even in the evening of the previous day, giving everyone time to rest before the performance.

In the UK, and to a large extent in North America, the dress rehearsal can feel much more like a regular rehearsal. The main reason for this is the amount of rehearsal time – there is usually so little that there can still be work to be done in the dress rehearsal. Additionally, in the UK at least, the dress rehearsal is normally in the afternoon. The orchestra will not perform at their best in the concert if they have played every note of the programme just a few hours earlier. Try to at least play in long sections before fixing any details, miss out repeats, and don’t play recapitulations. If you have the luxury of quite a lot of rehearsal time, you might tend more towards the European model, but be wary of stamina.

If you are touring, then by the time you get to the second and subsequent performances, the repertoire should be familiar, but the venue may not be. There will usually be a short seating rehearsal just to check everything and everyone has arrived, whilst also allowing timeto become accustomed to the acoustic. Touring is extremely tiring for all, so over-doing it in seating rehearsals will not be appreciated.

With amateur and youth groups, there are some new issues to consider. Firstly, the dress rehearsal may well be the group’s first time in the concert venue. It can also be the first time that everybody is present – harps, percussionists and some other extra players may just be hired to come on the day, and even from the regular membership there is rarely full attendance at earlier rehearsals. For these reasons, it’s often necessary to play pretty much every note, and the players will generally want to do so. On the other hand, these players are likely to be less able to manage their stamina – especially the young ones – so you need to be careful not to make the classic mistake of leaving the best performance of the programme in the dress rehearsal. 

Professional players know how to conserve energy, play with a bit less energy, leave out stamina-sapping passages in the brass, and so on. Amateurs, and especially young musicians, will need your guidance. You can talk about it, encourage the 1st horn and 1st trumpet to take it easy, and stop now and again; it also helps if your body language transmits this. I have developed a tactic of conducting in dress rehearsals where I do small passive gestures; stare at the score; lean back on the rail of the podium; cross my legs; put one hand in my pocket – anything that says, “relax and don’t try too hard”. Then as you approach a tricky corner, turn it back on: conduct “properly” before, during and after the bit you need to do, then drop back into neutral mode. It’s not just the players who should conserve their energy for the concert.

If you are meeting some of the players for the first time, it’s worth thinking through their role and having a couple of words with them before you start if there is some information you think might be useful. Even in the context of experienced professionals coming in to help out an amateur or youth orchestra, they will welcome knowing what you beat in certain crucial places, if you go attacca between some movements, or what sort of sound you want from the timpani. 

In both professional and non-professional situations, consider the needs of any soloists. The dress rehearsal can be the only rehearsal of the concerto, but even if not, you will probably spend a bit more time pro rata on a solo work than the rest of the programme. The convention is that soloists don’t play cadenzas in earlier rehearsals, but you should allow them the opportunity to do so in the dress rehearsal. They may not, but it should be their decision.

Finally, just before you finish, a reminder of the concert order is always a good idea, as are a few words of thanks to the musicians to wish them a successful concert.

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