Two nights of operas scenes dress rehearsals reminds me that I'm possibly at my most content as a performer in just that sort of situation - at any rate, I feel as close as ever to the experience of being an improvising jazz musician. For example, last night there I am playing a wild quintet from Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos that has way too many notes for me not to have practiced them. But, I really haven't practiced them and, anyway, they're certainly only an approximation of the sumptuous original orchestration, so I feel a strange sort of freedom knowing that I'm less about the task of playing exactly what's on the page than I am of simulating the Straussian sound as best as possible. Believe it or not, I enjoy it all the more knowing that I may have to chase a singer across a barline here or there and dealing with a piano where the keys are mysteriously sticking every now and then. It's kind of an a out-of-body experience to be flailing along and notice various keys staying depressed. "That's not right," I think to myself, so now there's the extra improvisatory task of figuring out how to get the key back up, making decisions about substituting other octaves, wondering if the pedal is causing the problem - all the while the music keeps flying by.
I'm not saying this sort of situation serves the music best, but there's a wonderful freedom in knowing perfection isn't so much the goal as is getting across the music against some odds. And, yes, I enjoy the thought of concocting my own bit of Struass on the spot - the Strauss that's right for that moment in time. Sometimes in a scene when a singer makes a wrong entrance I'll even think, "you know, from where he/she was on stage, that entrance made perfect sense. It was right for now." Of course I know how dangerous this sort of behavior can be; I even once explored it in a grad school paper called "Fake Your Tutti." Still, I think classical musicians, especially by way of training, often don't get enough experience improvising their way through the likes of Strauss. I know I learn something about the music by having to sort of co-create it on the spot. Now I'd better go learn some of the notes . . .