Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Night at the Symphony

Leif called me yesterday morning and said that the woman I am dog sitting for in May had called him with an interesting proposition. They had tickets to a concert that evening, but she wasn’t feeling well and they were going to stay home. But they had already paid for them. Would we like to use their tickets for the symphony? He said that, if it was all right with me, he would like to go. He had never been to a formal concert like this before and would like to see what they were like.

He knows that my whole life has been spent with music. My father is a retired band conductor and teacher, my sister is a conductor and teacher, and my brother is still playing regularly in the band he has been with since college. Holidays are an opportunity for the whole family to bring their instruments and play together. Dinner table conversations often, no usually, include discussions of players, or certain pieces of music, or musical instruments themselves. (dear family, if you think about it, it’s true) I believe I have been attending concerts since I was born. I can’t imagine a life without music. How thoughtful of Leif, on HIS birthday, to think of doing something that helps him to know me better.

So we put on our good clothes and headed out for the concert. We even took the bus instead of our bikes so yeah, this was a special evening. Unfortunately we got there after the concert had started. Naturally they wouldn’t seat us during the performance, but we could wait in the lounge until the interval. We didn’t have to miss a thing just because we had been put in the lounge. There were drinks or cafĂ© and a giant screen where we could watch the performance. So we got to sit in pretty chairs and drink freshly squeezed blood orange juice while watching the performance from a vantage point that no seat in the house had.

Finally the interval came and we took our e-mail ticket confirmation to the door. “Oooh, sir, this isn’t an actual ticket,“ the woman at the door told us. This then becomes a long and involved story in which four Italian ushers huddle over the e-mail, reading each sentence aloud and conferring in hushed tones, all the while shooting suspicious glances our way. Maybe they thought we might run for it. I don’t know. Finally one woman came to us and said that they would seat us this time, “but in the future, please follow the instructions and get our tickets from the ticket office before the concert begins.” I honestly think this is one instance where my blond hair and blue eyes helped. As an unsophisticated American I can’t be expected to do things the right way.

Once the usher had removed the two squatters from our seats we settled in for the second half of the music. Mozart, if anyone is wondering.

Concerts are different here. The audience listens in rapt silence. This isn’t a pretty turn of phrase but a factual account of what happened. Absolute silence as they listened. The man in front of us broke into air conducting at frequent intervals. One unfortunate man sneezed (and as always happens, during a tranquil moment in the music). Every head turned, eyebrows raised and hands were flung up in exasperation. When it happened again a few seconds later the reaction was twice as eloquent but remained silent. The amateur conductor in front of us actually buried his face in his hands for a moment. I imagine ushers rushed to the scene and discreetly removed him to the lounge. Hopefully this is his first offence and he won’t be stripped of his concert privileges. There was no applause between pieces. This is the time everyone takes to cough, whisper and adjust their seating for comfort. Thunderous applause and shouts of “Brava” are saved for the end, and last forever.

I have never been to a concert where the conductor didn’t use a score. Wow. If you have ever seen the conductors scoring of a piece of music you know that every note that every instrument plays is there. Everything a conductor needs to know about the music is printed there. To me it looks like someone spilled (a lot of ) ink on the page, but a conductor knows what it all means. Maybe they are the kind of group that doesn’t need a leader, but custom demands that someone stand up there and move a baton up and down. Whatever the situation was, everyone started and ended together, and there were no embarrassing moments where sections started looking at each other with a “what the hell?” look. That my friends is a successful concert.

We had seats high on the right. I have never had this view of a performance before. I could see everyone. As they played (beautifully, I might add) I noticed something unusual. There were seven French horns, the largest section of instruments in the wind portion of the orchestra. Usually it’s hard to get two or three French horns together to form a section. Instead of being tightly ranked together like the rest of the brass and woodwinds, they were seated with plenty of space between them. I wondered why. From our vantage point I could see each player clearly. As I watched them closely I began to understand why, I think. If you aren’t familiar with the French horn, it is the brass instrument shaped like a circle. Each time a player came to a measure of rest, he (yes they were all men) turned his instrument around in a circle. Twirled it, you might say. It wasn’t synchronized twirling, they didn’t perform this part as a group. Each player had their own little ritual they performed at their rest measures.

Again, for those not familiar with the instrument, it is without a doubt the moistest instrument in the band. It’s entire length is curved into a circle and the condensation from the player’s breath gathers in the instrument. If this condensation (it’s spit, folks) isn’t removed the horn eventually begins to sound like it is being played underwater. It loses some of its’ majestic sound when you can hear the bubbles forming. Because it’s a circle they have to turn the instrument to lead the moisture to a point where it can be removed. Hence the twirling. Because they have more rests than notes what you see are seven French horns twirling like majorettes. But randomly, each one marching to the beat of a different drummer. For me the music became a mere backdrop for the spectacle of flashing brass instruments. I’m thinking if they could get the percussion section to juggle their sticks and mallets they would really have a show on their hands.

Even with all these distractions, they were amazing musicians. The concert was beautiful and Leif enjoyed it. Well, what he said was that he enjoyed the music almost as much as he enjoyed watching me enjoy the music. He is one special man and it was a great way to spend an evening with him.

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