Jonathan Morton on ‘Tchaikovsky by Heart’

Ahead of our memorised performances of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings we caught up with Scottish Ensemble Artistic Director Jonathan Morton to ask him more about the project.

13 February 2022

Scottish Ensemble (SE): What’s the reason for memorising Tchaikovsky’s Serenade? What do you hope it might change or bring to the performance?

Jonathan: The question of playing without a score emerged during the two shows Scottish Ensemble created with Andersson Dance (Goldberg Variations & Prelude). For certain sections we played ‘from memory’, which allowed us to explore physical movement in ways that would not be possible if we were moored to our music stands.

In addition to this external, physical freedom, I also started becoming very curious about the implications of playing from memory on the musician’s internal processes: how we imagine the music, how we listen to – and communicate with – each other and our audience, how we translate a musical intention into sound. It seemed to me that this could be a richly rewarding area to explore, and I wanted to find out more about it.

Why Tchaikovsky? I thought that a good test would be to perform a piece that we all know very well, so that we could compare performing it with and without the score. I also think it’s important to revisit and re-invigorate the staggeringly beautiful musical heritage that we are all custodians of, so the Serenade felt like a good choice!

SE: Apart from obviously just been a lot of notes to commit to memory, are there any particular challenges in memorising music? (as opposed to, for example, words)

Jonathan: I think one of the main differences between words and music lies in the way information and meaning is organised, and I think leads to different challenges when committing either to memory.
With language, it’s one word at a time – any overlap between words (and speakers) quickly leads to unintelligible information. With music on the other hand, the notes / patterns are layered simultaneously, so the musicians not only need to memorise their own instrumental part, they also need to map how their part relates to the other instruments at the same time.

SE: Do you find yourself missing the music? It must be such a physical reflex to refer back to it. Is it odd to perform without music, an iPad, nothing in front of you at all?

Jonathan: Well you will certainly miss the music if you don’t feel secure about your memory! It’s therefore crucial to prepare for such a performance well in advance, so that muscle memory had time to develop.

Any changes in performance practice can lead to feelings of being unsettled, so performing without a music stand can feel odd at first. Most of us have played from memory in our lives (usually as kids or when performing as a soloist) so it’s generally a question of reactivating the memory muscle, though there are considerable additional challenges to memorising the inner parts of an orchestral piece (as my colleagues in the second violin & viola sections keep pointing out!).

SE: Does memorising the music change the rehearsal process at all? Do you approach it differently?

Jonathan: It’s too early to tell! But the fact that we have individually spent a long time engaging with the musical material ahead of the rehearsals will make a big difference. It means that by the time of the first group rehearsal every musician has completely internalised their own part (and its relationship to the other parts), and therefore this could open up new ways of rehearsing.

SE: Tell us about the Serenade. What makes it such a well-loved piece? And did anything about it make it particularly suitable for memorisation?

Jonathan: It’s a piece we have performed many times over the years, so that makes it a good candidate for memorisation – we’re not starting from scratch !

I could point out some of the elements that I think make it a well-loved piece – incredible tunes, a masterful blend of Russian emotion and European classicism, an irrepressible spirit of dance running through three of its movements, … but ultimately, for the last 140 years it is the community of performers and listeners that has felt that there is something unique and important about this music.

Long may this continue!

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