The Minnesota Orchestra's recording session begins much like a standard rehearsal. The musicians casually walk on stage with their instruments and begin warming up.
What's different are the two dozen microphones on the Orchestra Hall stage. Cables from the mikes snake across the stage, down to the hall floor, through a couple doors and into a rehearsal room where recording equipment is set up. As the orchestra begins playing Beethoven's Eighth Symphony, two engineers check the sound levels on a couple of computer monitors. The producer listens with a pair of headphones while following the music score.
The orchestra started recording Beethoven's Eighth last June, but ran out of time. Now it's January and the orchestra has four hours to finish the job.
It would seem that would give plenty of time to record a 25 minute symphony, but producer Rob Suff says the process is a bit more complicated than simply playing the symphony a few times and going home.
BIS Records has sent Suff from the company's headquarters in Stockholm to oversee the Minnesota Orchestra's Beethoven symphony recording project. He's produced Osmo Vanska's recordings for 15 years and says he and the conductor have developed a close, trusting partnership. He says that allows them to work quickly and efficiently.
"The producer has to function as the ideal listener," Suff explains. "After each take the producer has to be able to give constructive criticism and ask for passages to be repeated. But it always has to be done in a constructive way so that the musicians feel that they're improving and not just repeating things endlessly for no reason."
Seated at a recording console in the rehearsal room, Suff communicates with Osmo Vanska and the orchestra through an intercom. He's careful not to stop the orchestra too often because there's always a danger of disrupting the flow and mood of the music.
During the course of the four-hour recording session, there are several ten- to 20-minute breaks. During that time some of the musicians come into the rehearsal room and listen to the playback while producer and conductor look over the score and discuss what needs to be done next.
Principal Trumpet Manny Laureano describes the whole recording experience as a roller coaster ride. "We like to call the recording 'The Big Lie,'" he laughs. "Because you have to do so many things in new contexts. You're playing to microphones. You may be playing a balance that's very different than what you're used to. The way you relate to your colleagues sonically is a very different ballgame. You're constantly trying to hold tempo in and out of context. Somehow it all comes together to become this fantastic product and you're right back to what should sound under ideal circumstances like the live performance."
Producer Robert Suff says Osmo Vanska is an ideal recording conductor. He has the patience for the continuous starting and stopping. Most important from an editing standpoint, his tempos remain constant.
Vanska says it helps that he prepares his scores with a metronome. "The editors cannot put anything together if the tempo is always different," the conductor explains. "So I have to make my decision about the tempo and then keep it there. Even if we are doing something many, many times and after many months, we have to stay at the same speed, because if you edit something in different tempos it's impossible to listen to."
As the end of the recording session approaches, producer Robert Suff is working against the clock. There's less than 15 minutes left and he needs Osmo Vanska and the musicians to repeat certain passages so the performance heard on the CD will be flawless.
"It's incredibly expensive to have even two minutes overtime, so one tries to avoid that," Suff says. "Of course, it can get rather tense at the end in these sessions as the clock is ticking away. But if you have a conductor who keeps cool and musicians who give 100% until the very last minute, then you can be pretty sure that the playing won't deteriorate at the end and the quality will be maintained."
The recording session ends with a few minutes to spare. Robert Suff takes off his headphones, walks from the rehearsal room to the stage and thanks the musicians for their work. They not only put the finishing touches on Beethoven's Eighth, but also recorded the complete Beethoven Ninth, which will be released this fall.
It's been a long week and Osmo Vanska is in his office, exhausted. "I feel quite empty at the moment," he says. "I don't have so much energy. I know that we have done some great things and I'm sure that they will be excellent CDs. But now it's time to breathe and come back to life."
The first reviews of the Minnesota Orchestra's new Beethoven CD have been enthusiastic. Writing in "Classics Today," critic David Hurwitz says, "the performance of the Eighth Symphony is perfect. It doesn't get any better."
The Minnesota Orchestra's new CD of Beethoven's 3rd and 8th symphonies will be officially released June 1.