Tuesday, June 19, 2007

If you haven't been to a concert before.

I am very much hoping that, perhaps even because of this blog, a lot of people will come to the TD Banknorth Summer Concerts this year who do not usually go to concerts, or perhaps have not ever been to an orchestral concert. So I thought I’d just take a moment to talk about what happens at concerts, and why – if there is a why.

I know lots of people feel a bit intimidated by concerts, and are not quite sure what is going to happen and what is expected of them. Obviously an open-air summer concert is quite a relaxed affair, and so there is little reason to worry about all that sort of thing. Still – here’s a bit of an explanation of what happens.

The first thing to realize is that it’s all about the music. And most people are primarily visual people. That is to say, for most people, the sense of sight takes precedence over the sense of hearing. That might seem too obvious to need saying, but in fact for almost all musicians it is the other way round. The sense of hearing wins out over sight. For myself, I find it almost impossible to read a book if there is a lot of noise, especially if someone is talking close by. The sight of the page loses out to my ears. I have no idea how often I have missed a freeway exit because the music on my car radio just got to the interesting bit. But many people tell me that when they recognize a piece of music, they instantly remember where they were when they heard it, and what that place looked like. Vision over sound.

So all the odd rituals, the fancy dress and all that, - all these are designed to minimize the visual and aural distractions. Take the tuxedos or tailcoats and white tie that musicians almost always wear for indoor concerts. It’s not that this is a particularly appropriate dress for anything in particular, rather is it a neutral uniform. Since musicians always wear white tie and tails, you can completely ignore it, since it always looks the same and it isn’t remotely interesting. There was a fad, some years ago, to “break down the barriers,” "be innovative" (yuck!) and have musicians dress more casually. But on the whole it didn’t work, since very soon the “competition of silk shirts” crept in, and the outfits on stage became terribly distracting.

Similarly, the ritual at the beginning of concerts gets the job done in a way that is effective, but constant, and thus not distracting. Here’s what happens: When the concert is about to start, all the musicians will be on stage warming up their instruments and “noodling” as we call it. – Incidentally that is a peculiarly American habit. It usually isn’t that way in Europe. European, especially German, orchestras tend to stay off stage until the final moments before the concert. Then they come on suddenly, in formation, as a bold theatrical entrance, sit, and bang – off we go. It is very impressive that way, but American musicians tend to complain that that is too fascist and against the ideal of the freedom of the individual that we so treasure here. I kid you not!

Anyway – the musicians will be warming up, then they will get quiet, and the lighting onstage may change. Once it is quiet, the concertmaster will walk on stage alone. The concertmaster is the first first violinist. There are two sections of violins in an orchestra, the first violins and the second violins – duh!

Incidentally there is no difference between the instruments. They are all just violins. It's just that orchestras have two sets of violin players, so that the composer can have more violin-notes going on all the time. The concertmaster is the primus inter pares, the leader of the first violin section. By convention, and in important ways backstage and in planning and administration, the concertmaster is the leader of the whole orchestra, and his/her entrance symbolizes the beginning of business by the entire orchestra. So the concertmaster walks towards his seat near the conductor's podium, and bows to the audience. It is now time for you to applaud, probably in a fairly tepid manner, unless he or she is your cousin. It's not so much for the concertmaster, who hasn’t done anything yet, but as a ritualistic recognition of the entire orchestra as being there, without the heat of anticipation yet. This moment is the beginning of the formal relationship between the audience and the orchestra, as opposed to just all being in the same room at the same time.

The concertmaster then asks the principal oboist to play the note A, and the orchestra tunes up to that note. It is always the oboist who plays the tuning note, and it is always A. This is because the pitch of A is the note that is determined by international conventions – it is 440 vibrations per second, though (and I shouldn’t be telling you this) most orchestras play at around 442 or even 444. Scandalous though that might seem, in flagrant violation of international law, notes sound a bit warmer and richer if they are slightly on the high side, so the pitch tends to creep up. Oboists spend their lives trying to stop this from happening, but what can you do? It is always the oboe that plays the A since the oboe gives a very accurate pitch, and is less able to wobble around than most instruments. It’s another of those things that is always done the same way, so it is reliable, and quite undistracting.

Once the concertmaster is satisfied that all the orchestra is correctly tuned up he sits down and the - pregnant pause - begins. In a moment, the conductor comes on stage, usually asks the orchestra to stand, and bows. Applaud! Applaud! The applause serves to recognize the players as well as the conductor, the entire performing team, now kicking the dust with their hooves, straining at the gate, acknowledging that something is about to happen. This is a good time to applaud with enthusiasm. (But save the ecstatic stuff for the end of loud pieces.) It also gets the attention of any people in the audience who have not yet noticed what is going on. So now, as the applause fades, it is time for the audience to sit down and be quiet. Get your coughing done now.

The conductor now turns his back on the audience, not out of disdain, but because he needs eye contact with the musicians. I'll write about conducting later, but the conductor isn't really there to leap about entertaining the audience. He is there to give coded signals to the players that will (in theory) be helpful in making the performance go well. Audiences tend to watch the conductor, however, since he moves about more than anyone else. (Visual dominance, remember? But who am I to complain?) Once all the players are seated and ready and the audience is quiet – off we go with the first piece.

In some forms of music, such as jazz sets, or rock concerts, or even in brilliant operas, it is perfectly normal to applaud after a really good bit, whether the music has stopped or not. In a night club, it is perfectly fine to talk and eat while the music is going on too. That is not the thing to do in an orchestral concert, however, for a very simple, and totally unsnobby, reason.

Orchestral music makes particular use of huge differences between loud and soft passages, between fast and slow, complex and simple. And these contrasts and extremes are not just the junctions between sections, they are a crucial part of the dramatic effect. So it is very important that there should be no other sounds going on during the music, otherwise the effect will be lost. It’s not snobbery or “religiosity” or anything, it’s just that classical music has a huge dynamic range, and you need to be able to hear it all – hear all the details.

Coughing is much more voluntary than you might think, and it is unbelievably loud. Also, it’s just a psychological fact that when you yourself cough, you don’t really notice that you are making a noise. After all, you know it’s coming. Truly, people do not realize they are making an awful racket when they cough. So – don’t do it. Don’t cough. If you have a tickle in the throat, have a hanky handy and cover your mouth. That’ll reduce the sound by about 80 decibels!!

So there you have it. An orchestral concert is a concert of music that exploits the very quiet as well as the very loud, so, while the music is playing, be quiet so that everybody else can hear even the quietest bits. (And classical music has a sneaky habit of getting very quiet very suddenly, leaving “Well, that's what Harold told me!” ringing out clearly from the 15th row.

Then, when it's all over, go home and tell everybody how wonderful it was, so that they'll buy tickets and we can keep doing it.

Andrew Massey.