Wonder & Delight
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.