Although a guitarist does not often get a chance to perform as a soloist with a symphony orchestra, it is certainly one of the most rewarding types of performance musically and emotionally. Here are some points to remember.
1. Selection of concerto.
Due to the infrequent opportunities to perform with an orchestra it is important you choose a concerto you truly love, and one that will make as big an impact on the conductor, orchestra, and audience as possible. If the conductor and orchestra enjoy the music it will make them play much better for you. The most often performed concerto is, of course, Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez. I have yet to find a conductor, orchestra, and audience who did not fall in love with it. It is one of the most beautiful concerto ever written for any instrument. But it is also a very difficult work to play. For the guitarist it is one of the most difficult pieces in the entire repertoire and should only be attempted if one has superior technical ability that does not falter under pressure. Be certain to choose a work that is well within your ability. And likewise, choose a concerto the orchestra you are to perform with can handle. If in doubt show the conductor the scores or give him recordings of some concerti you would like to play and get his input. He will know which one is best for his orchestra.
2. Your preparation.
You must have complete mastery of the guitar part. When playing with an orchestra there is no margin for error on your part. Any passages that have not been completely mastered will falter under the pressures of a public concert with the orchestra. A memory slip could lead to chaos.
Uncertain rhythms and tempi mean disaster. You must know where every beat is and be able to accent them as necessary to keep the orchestra and conductor with you, especially in a work such as the Rodrigo where 2/4 and 3/4 alternate throughout the first and third movements. Be able to play the concerto at a variety of tempi. Sometimes an orchestra may not be able to play at the tempo you want them to. You will have to slow down and be able to play the work comfortably at that tempo. Performance at a slower tempo must be rehearsed. Just because you can play something fast does not mean you can also play it slowly. On the other hand, sometimes during a performance, due to nerves or pressure you, the conductor, or the orchestra may unknowingly choose a faster tempo than you are used to. Or even if you are aware it is a faster tempo you may not be able to slow the orchestra down! Be able to play any movement five to ten percent slower and faster than your intended tempo.
3. Know the orchestra part.
Know what the orchestra is playing every moment. Study the relationship between the orchestra and the guitar parts. Be able to sing all the parts. Know the sounds of the instruments you are playing with so when you tell the conductor the oboe is playing too loud, you are not confronted with the reply (in front of the entire orchestra), "There is no oboe playing in this concerto."
Rehearse with several recordings of your concerto so you can get a feel for how differently various orchestras can play and so you learn to hear and listen to the orchestra as you are playing. Listen for varying interpretations of the work. Conductors are generally unfamiliar with guitar works and may ask you questions about how such and such should be played: How is the string part bowed here? How should the brass articulate this passage? Is the cello part usually played solo here or should it be doubled? Both experienced and inexperienced conductors have asked me these and many more questions. If you have studied well, you will know the answers.
4. Rehearse with a pianist.
To get the feel of give and take between guitar and accompanist (orchestra) work with a pianist playing the reduced score. You can work out interpretive ideas and try out various tempi. Working with a recording is also good but in many important ways not as beneficial. When you play with a recording it is leading you. When you play with an orchestra or piano it is you who must lead. It is an entirely different feeling of responsibility on your part. A recording sounds the same every time. A live orchestra will not. They may play one way in rehearsal and quite differently in performance. Working with a pianist will help you learn to cope with varying accompaniments.
5. Working with the conductor.
Maintain a good relationship with your conductor at all times. He or she can make you or break you. There is too much at stake to get involved in a battle of egos. But do not be afraid of him either. I am sure you have heard many true stories of tyrannical conductors who treated their soloists horribly and dictated to the soloist how the work was to be properly played. We guitarists have a distinct advantage here. As I mentioned above, few conductors are truly familiar with guitar works, even the Concierto de Aranjuez. If you know your part, the orchestra part, your part, orchestra-soloist relationships, etc. you can almost always safely give the conductor suggestions on how to play the work. But be smart. Do not make him look stupid, do not flaunt your knowledge or ideas. Make suggestions as diplomatically as possible and if you can, make it seem as though the conductor thought of the ideas, not you.
Try to go over the score with the conductor before the first rehearsal to iron out details and decide on tempi. Even better, if the orchestra is rehearsing the work before your first rehearsal with them, call the conductor and discuss on the phone tempi, trouble spots, etc. so any potential problems will be solved before your first rehearsal with them.
Do not be afraid to make requests or ask questions. If you want the woodwinds to hold a note a little longer to make your entrance more dramatic say so. If you want a relaxation in tempo in
a certain passage, tell the conductor.
If possible it is a good idea to watch the conductor conduct other works before or after you rehearse with the orchestra so you can observe his beating patterns, hand movements, and use of body language in order to follow him more effectively when you are playing with him.
6. Rehearsal with orchestra.
Arrive early for the rehearsal. Keeping eighty musicians and a fuming conductor waiting could be hazardous to your health! Be certain you have requested a microphone on an adjustable stand with a baby boom or gooseneck attachment weeks in advance. If your performance is at a school or auditorium that does not have a house speaker system be sure to also request an amplifier and good speakers. I once told someone I would need a microphone and ended up with just that-no amplifier or speakers! And do not be foolish and kid yourself that you will not need a microphone. No unamplified guitarist has the sound projection to be heard clearly above an orchestra in any concerto I know of in the literature. Be certain to have someone in the audience you trust to tell you if the microphone is loud enough. So many times even with a microphone the guitarist's sound is swallowed up by the orchestra. You do not want an even balance between guitar and orchestra. The guitar should be noticeably louder so you will have latitude to musically vary the loudness and softness of your playing rather than having to always play fortissimo in order to be heard. And use the mike in rehearsal. Do not wait until the performance to use it the first time.
Bring your music to rehearsals. You may want to double-check something in mid-rehearsal from time to time and more commonly, the conductor will stop and start within a movement saying, "We will begin two bars before letter B." Unless you have your music you will be lost or will have to get up to consult the conductor's score each time to find your place.
Check your tuning with an A-440 tuning fork before you walk on stage. This way when you do go on stage to tune to the orchestra you will already be very closely if not exactly in tune with them saving everyone valuable rehearsal time. And learn to tune quickly, quietly, and accurately. Conductors and audiences get very impatient with guitarists who constantly fiddle with their tuning.
Be certain a proper chair has been provided that does not creak and is comfortable. Be sure the same chair is used for the actual concert so you will feel as comfortable and "at home" as possible during the real performance. Incidentally, when you are on stage facing the audience, you will be seated to the right of and slightly in front of the conductor with the violins on your right, the conductor and celli on your left.
When you walk into rehearsal be cordial with everyone. Do not be the aloof, self-centered, prima donna type. Smile and warmly greet everyone-stagehands, conductor, assistants, orchestra members, etc. You need everyone on your side so they will willingly give you a hundred percent effort. Often the conductor will formally introduce you to the orchestra when you walk on stage. If he does not, do not just walk on and sit down and not acknowledge the orchestra. Turn to them, look at them, and say hello, smile or whatever. But try to connect in some way with them.
During rehearsal you will be faced with many new experiences. One of the most frightening is the realization that you are in charge, not the conductor. Unless you have a first-rate, well prepared conductor who is confident of his knowledge of the score (which is rare), you will find you are actually leading the orchestra. If you follow the conductor you will find your playing taking on an unfamiliar lackluster quality. Remember, a concerto is a solo work with orchestral accompaniment. You cannot let someone else determine the quality and character of your solo. If you follow or try to stay with the orchestra, which sounds like a perfectly reasonable idea since you are supposed to play together, a curious thing will happen. The tempo will drag and get slower and slower. This is because the orchestra is following you. They are used to being led.
Therefore you must establish a tempo and stick to it solidly. You will feel the weight of the orchestra. It will seem as if you are physically pulling them along. Within reason, this is what should happen, and though it may not seem like it at first, they will actually be playing with you fairly well.
On the other hand, sometimes you will have an orchestra and/or conductor that tend to race. Again stick to your tempo. Hold the orchestra back and pull in the reins.
A strong conductor will always be of much help keeping you and the orchestra together. He will sense when the orchestra is becoming sluggish and you are pulling too hard to keep them with you and will help move them along. And conversely, he will hear you attempting to slow them down if they start to race and will help put the brakes on. The ideal conductor is one who senses orchestral sluggishness or racing before the fact and corrects it before even you are aware of it. In those cases you will not have to pull or hold anyone back. Just play the piece as you like it to sound and the orchestra will be right there with you.