There are a few pieces the mention of which are enough to strike fear into every orchestral musician’s heart. One of these is Richard Strauss’ infamous Don Juan.
This piece is hard for EVERYONE. It shows up on audition lists for pretty much every instrument. I’m convinced that if you study an orchestral instrument long enough, sooner or later you are forced to learn this part.
I have never played Don Juan in concert, but I have studied the harp part over and over again since I was in college. I have only once, basically by accident, had the opportunity to play it in context. At Eastman, most graduate students are recruited to play in the conducting orchestra once a week. This ensemble exists to give the conducting students a group to practice on. On this rare occasion, we were playing a piece (I forget what it was) that required two harps, so I sat with another harpist - who was also going to play Don Juan - waiting for our turn to play. Shortly before the rehearsal for Don Juan was scheduled to begin, my friend had to leave to make an emergency phone call. She asked me, “Can you cover for me if they start before I get back? It won’t take me too long.” And she left.
Well. I sat there in shock, feeling like I had just been asked to fly a fighter pilot against the Death Star. I tried not to panic. The first page of the harp part consists of a few glissandos and chords, which are not difficult, but later on there is a whole arpeggio section that goes terribly fast and is almost impossible to play without memorizing. So you can understand why I was terrified.
Luckily I only had to play the first section before she came back, but my heart was pounding about a mile a minute! At that moment I swore I would attempt to avoid playing the whole thing in context, if at all possible.
So, guess what we were assigned for our first orchestra reading tomorrow?
Yep, you guessed it.
Welcome back, Mannes kids. LET’S DO THIS.