Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Wonder & Delight

As a source of theatre and visual spectacle, a symphony concert runs a distant third place behind the opera and the ballet. The canvas is plain (musicians in formal attire), the staging seldom varied (conductor front and center, percussionists and their toys relegated to the back row), and the "choreography" is more functional than dramatic. But when attentively perceived as a whole, and not just as a backdrop to the sound of the music itself, these visual elements provide a fusion of sensory delights, a characteristic that never fails, for example, to capture the attention of a child or first-time concert-goer. Where a seasoned symphony patron takes for granted the synchronized motion of the horns readying themselves for an entrance, a newcomer thrills at the sudden splash of gold across the back of the orchestra and the consequent sound of the brass. It's pure magic, a painting brought to life.

I remember the "o" my own mouth formed the first time I witnessed the bows of an entire string section moving perfectly together: uuuup, dooowwwn, up-down, uuup, down-down. I was as entranced by the orchestra in motion as by the sounds surrounding me, and a little disappointed when the musical texture changed and the firsts began bowing differently from the seconds and the violas placed their instruments on their knees. A pianist (lacking the insider's viewpoint of someone reared by youth orchestra) might offer a particularly sophomoric critique of the symphony, yet simple, childlike observations are not without merit. I began to recognize the picture of the musicians onstage as a blueprint of the music itself, and thus learned about the score, about orchestration and compositional elements, through observation. For the ears, the great orchestras offer creative programming and rhythmic vitality, exemplary intonation and first-rate soloists and section leaders: they sound good. For the eyes, there is the supporting evidence, the complete picture of sound.

A chorus (lest we forget) is also like an orchestra and, though lacking the flashy instrumental props, similarly provides visual cues to the aural experience. Volti is an exceptional bay area chamber chorus that last weekend captivatingly delivered a performance of twentieth century American choral music. There is a sense of drama in the group's exploration of extremes (in Bob Geary's conducting, in impressive fortissimos, in singing authoritatively "let there be light" or smooching unsingable kiss sounds), and watching the singers perform revealed a synchronicity of technique and sound. Alternating between absolutely inaudible breaths and a full spectrum of vocal tone, mouths formed exactly the same shapes and jaws opened and closed precisely together. Volti's precision of vocal technique was as obvious as it was audible; at one tragic moment in Virgil Thomson's Seven Choruses from Medea, it seemed those mouths could only be controlled by some master puppeteer above. I giggled, not out of amusement (not during that piece!) but from sheer wonder. How'd they do that?

The unexpected moment of wonder or delight, particularly when it stems from this synthesis of the observed and then heard, makes an "absolute" musical performance as compelling as the grand spectacles of opera or ballet. To approach the symphony or choral concert in the way that one might view a great painting is unconventional. It tweaks the usual mode of perception (from ear to eye). Whether you take a friend (pick me! pick me! pick me!) or just yourself to an orchestra (or choral) concert this month, go as if it were the first time. Go as if it were the theatre. Be ready, visually and aurally, for that which might cause the mouth to form a little "o" and hands to flutter together involuntarily, sincerely, at the most inappropriate moment. If you smile because you couldn't help yourself, because you realize that you what you saw (all bows on the lap) is what you're hearing (pluck, pluck, pluck), you might, kid, experience delight.

5 Comments:

This is delightful. The Brevard Music Center (near my home) will be starting up its summer concert series soon, and I have plans to take friends to several of them.

I love watching symphony orchestras--sometimes from up close, sometimes from the balcony. I never cease to be amazed at the miracle of such wonderful sound coming forth from so many different people and instruments. Thanks for a great post.

--Waterfall

By Blogger Heather, at 8:34 AM  

Please encourage your friend to send something in about their experience. People have been very anxious to hear from patrons and their friends who are taking part in the program!

--Drew McManus

By Blogger Heather, at 8:34 AM  

Sending the link to your beautiful post to my friend who is going with me to the symphony this Friday!

--dulciana

By Blogger Heather, at 8:35 AM  

I'm glad you like the "Take a Friend to Orchestra" concept. I've always appreciated the visual element of orchestra concerts as much as the audible and I try to point out all of the little things to watch (many of which you mentioned) to folks that go along with me.

--Drew McManus

By Blogger Heather, at 8:35 AM  

Excerpt: What the heck does anyone get out of a symphony concert anyway? Is it worth it? Does it matter? Read this for one person's opinion.

Blog: oboeinsight

By Blogger Heather, at 8:35 AM  

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