keyboard sub

Déjà entendu

A few weeks ago I played the Keyboard 1 book at the Broadway production of Les Miserables for the first time…for the third time.

I’ve been subbing in Broadway pit orchestras for twenty years now; I’ve played for about twenty-five shows. The original production of Les Mis was one of the first I played for, back in 1997 when it was still three hours and twenty minutes long. In 2007 I learned the Keyboard 2 book for the first Broadway revival, with its new orchestration. And now I’m on the sub roster for Les Mis 3.0.

So playing Les Mis is a pretty familiar experience—hence the title of this post, déjà entendu, already heard(by analogy with the more frequently used déjà vu, already seen). What’s interesting, though, is how different it is this time.

Tempos  and pacing are different. The orchestrations are based on those from the 2007 revival, I am given to understand, but not the same. Because the physical layout of the orchestra is different, my experience of those orchestrations is different. In 2007 I was playing Keyboard 2, and could barely hear Keyboard 1; now I’m playing Keyboard 1 and can barely hear Keyboard 2. The conducting styles are different (I’ve played the show under nine different conductors now). When subs are in, you can hear very plainly how playing styles differ from player to player.

This has got me thinking about how the same music can be different to us at different times in our lives. I have grown very fond of Les Mis over the years, from my sporadic perch in the middle of the pit, and I always enjoy playing the show now, although I vividly recall it being a chore to be gotten through twenty years ago. I played a regional production of The Fantasticks this spring, a score whose record album I nearly wore out as a child (those being the days when recorded music had a physical medium), and which I’d played two previous productions of more than twenty-five years ago; the experience was like a kind of double vision.  I was simultaneously experiencing the show as a child, to whom the music was sheer magic, and as an adult and professional musician, who knew how the trick was done.

Sometimes one’s life simply takes you to places where music has different meanings. I wrote a lullaby for soprano Karen Jolicoeur for her CD “The Dream That You Wish,” recorded shortly after her first child was born. My own son was a few years old at the time. She did a lovely job with the song on her CD—but I heard her sing it again a few years later, when her son was about the age mine had been when I wrote the song. The piece obviously meant something completely different to her than it had when she’d recorded it; the performance was transcendent.

Thus far I’ve been talking about the experience of performing music; what about simply listening to it? (As if there were such a thing as “simply listening.”) For me, anyway, the question only applies to music that you know inside and out—that you’ve worn out the record of, whether literally or figuratively—and then for some reason not heard for several years. Sometimes it turns out your memory is wrong, and that’s not how it goes. (A literary digression—I reread Watership Down after a hiatus of decades, and one of the scenes I remembered most vividly was simply not there. WTF?) Sometimes you’ve simply outgrown a piece; in my case, a lot of the Beethoven piano sonatas I  loved as a kid seem overwrought and/or sentimental to me now. And sometimes the memories of liking the music get in the way of actually listening to it again. Human beings are complicated.

The difference between playing music over and over and listening to music over and over is that I’ve never had anyone offer to pay me to listen to the same music repeatedly. For that you have to be a sound board operator; maybe that’s why they turn everything up so loud…