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Nightingale goes ‘hee-haw’

APO Librarian Robert Johnson recalls how a hilarious rehearsal of Resphigi’s Pini di Roma led to a very special concert night that he remembers vividly.

The APO has performed Respighi’s Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome) on several occasions, most recently in 2009 with Baldur Brönniman conducting.

For a long time, the performance materials for this work were only available for hire, but in the mid-1990s a publisher made a reprint of the original Ricordi edition available for sale for the first time. So, when an APO performance was programmed for September 1998, to be conducted by Enrique Diemecke, I decided to buy a set.

When the set arrived, I realised that we had a problem. Unusually for a work composed in the 1920s, Pines of Rome includes a recording of a nightingale, to be played at a key moment in the final pages of the third movement (subtitled The Pines of the Janiculum). Respighi himself had arranged for the recording to be made, and the original score specifies a Brunswick Panatrope record player (hand-cranked) – pictured below.

Of course, as time went on and technology advanced, the original 78rpm recording had to be replaced by later versions, but these were always officially sanctioned by the publisher, and the only way to obtain them was to hire the rental materials. Having purchased a reprint set, I realised belatedly that the recording of the nightingale was not included.

I hastily arranged a visit to Marbeck’s Records on Queen’s Arcade to audition all currently available CD recordings of nightingales. As I recall, they had in stock seven or more different sound effects CDs containing recordings of nightingales, so I listened to all of them before selecting one that I thought would be most effective. It was one track within a CD containing about 30 different animal sounds.

In consultation with the conductor, it was decided that the most successful method of playing the recording would be via a CD player and speakers positioned within the orchestra itself, rather than played through the Auckland Town Hall’s sound system. Our principal percussionist at the time, Lenny Sakofsky  (now principal percussionist for the NZSO) was asked to take responsibility for this. Ever the showman, Lenny armed himself with a white glove with which to push the “Play” button on the CD player.

In the section leading up to the atmospheric entrance of the recorded nightingale, the orchestra becomes incredibly quiet and delicate. At the first rehearsal with the recording, Lenny pulled on his glove and pressed the button. A loud “Hee-Haw, Hee-Haw” shattered the air and the entire orchestra collapsed in laughter. The conductor was also highly amused for a couple of seconds, then recovered his composure and fixed Lenny with a fierce look of mock rebuke.

In the performance itself everything went without a hitch. I remember several people looking skywards when the nightingale began to sing, convinced that a bird had somehow flown into the Town Hall. The climax of the final movement (The Pines of the Appian Way) was one of the most spectacular performances I’ve ever experienced. The six additional offstage “buccine” (usually played these days by flugelhorns or trumpets) had been placed three each at opposite corners of the Circle, and Diemecke swung around vigorously to cue them in, the two groups providing fortissimo answering calls to the trumpets in the main body of the orchestra.

It was one of the grandest and loudest explosions of sound that I’ve ever heard in the Town Hall, and the response of the audience was similarly boisterous. More than twenty years later, this performance is still indelibly stamped on my memory.

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