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Meet Adelaide Symphony Orchestra librarian Bruce Stewart

Music

What does an orchestra librarian do? The ASO’s Bruce Stewart – also an oboist and composer whose latest work is named after his dog Chloe – takes us behind the scenes and shares the strangest request for music he’s ever received.

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With COVID-19 forcing a halt to all live performance, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra is sharing a series of interviews that give an insight into the role and lives of its team.

First up is orchestra librarian Bruce Stewart, who’s had an association with the ASO since 1983, when he was a casual oboist.

Bruce is a tea drinker – black, no sugar – and when he’s not listening to classical music he likes to turn up the volume on a bit of big band swing. If he wasn’t an orchestra librarian he’d be a cosmologist, and his idea of a perfect day is any day when he can lie on the grass in the Adelaide Parklands with his beautiful dog Chloe.

Tell us about your role as librarian?

An orchestra librarian is essential for any orchestra, professional or otherwise. Somebody needs to make sure that all the players required for a piece have the appropriate music, and that person is the librarian.

As well as physically handling the music, my role also requires a level of research. For instance, in the early stages of planning a concert, the number of players required has to be taken into account for both staging and financial reasons. Researching instrumentation – what instruments are needed for a particular piece of music – is part of my job.

Some pieces of music might require an “exotic” instrument (for example, a bass oboe or heckelphone, or even things like honky-tonk pianos or theorbos), and that can have quite a financial impact on the cost of putting on a concert.

What’s the process of getting sheet music in time for a concert?

Much of the music the ASO plays is delivered from Symphony Services International in Sydney. In the days when all the major orchestras were run by the ABC, this was the National Music Library.

The ASO does have a library of music sets but much of this is no longer used. Some of the music is outdated – there are some works in the library that date from the ASO’s very beginning and which are no longer popular – and some of the sets are simply worn out through over-use.

What qualifications do you need to be an orchestra librarian?

To my knowledge there are no tertiary courses on how to become an orchestra librarian, but one essential skill is the ability to read music.

Some instruments in the orchestra have parts written in a different clef (the sign at the beginning of the written music that tells the player what note is what). A librarian has to be able to read treble clef, alto clef, tenor clef and bass clef. It even helps to be able to interpret some strange clefs like soprano clef. For even stranger clefs, the librarian’s first question is to Mister Google!

What other qualities do you need to do your job well?

An orchestra librarian also has to have some understanding of other languages. I can speak no language other than English but I have to be able (at least) to know what an instruments name is in French, German, Italian and a number of other European languages.

Bruce Stewart with his beloved Chloe.

Is all the music online?

While some orchestral music sets are available online, the majority of the music played by the ASO still comes in a box or off the shelf. As I mentioned earlier, a lot comes from SSI and some from distributors such as Hal Leonard and Devirra.

Do you play or compose?

I have composed music for many years but I don’t think of myself primarily as a composer. I have written quite a bit of choral music, some of which has become quite popular. One of my works will be performed this Easter at Lincoln Cathedral.

Recently, I finished a work titled “Chloe the Orchestra Dog”. This is designed as an “educational” piece along the lines of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf” or Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”. In case you are wondering, Chloe is my gorgeous little dog.

I also play a few instruments. Oboe is my main instrument but I also play accordion in a trio, and the ukulele. Over the years I have also played clarinet, saxophone and flute. As a young man I spent a few years playing the bagpipes in a pipe band.

What is your most memorable ASO performance?

For me personally, it was a performance of Holst’s “The Planets” with Arvo Volmer conducting. I was booked to play heckelphone (an instrument similar to a bass oboe) and just before the dress rehearsal something went wrong with it and it became unusable. I had to apologise to the conductor for my absence in the rehearsal and drive about 40 miles to the best instrument repairer available. Thankfully, he was able to repair the damage and everything worked as it should in the performance that evening.

What is the strangest request for music you have ever had?

Probably the strangest thing I have had to order in is John Cage’s 4’33”. This piece consists of that amount of time of players not playing their instruments. Nevertheless, orchestral parts have to be hired (they’re effectively blank pages!) and royalties paid for copyright reasons.

What’s your favourite piece of music and why?

It is hard to name just one. If I was forced to I would have to say “Nimrod” from Elgar’s “Enigma Variations”. Each variation is meant to describe the personality of one of Elgar’s friends. I find it very moving that Elgar could write such beautiful music for his friend Augustus Jaeger. He must have respected the man very much.

What’s the most interesting aspect of being an orchestra librarian?

I enjoy the research part of my job the most.

And the most challenging?

Spending a lot of time at the photocopier and feeling I’m productive.

How has COVID-19 affected the library’s function?

COVID-19 has affected everybody. For me, with ASO concerts being cancelled or postponed, I am not able to do a big part of my job as it requires physical handling of the music.

Bruce’s top 5 playlist

  1. Franz Biebl – Ave Maria
  2. Andrea Gabrieli – Omnes Gentes
  3. Dmitri Shostakovich – Piano Concerto No. 2, 2nd movt.
  4. Strauss – Four Last Songs – Im Abendrot
  5. Elgar – Enigma Variations – Nimrod

 

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