I don’t know if you just changed seats or left the whole venue after our chat, but I didn’t mean to scare you away. I meant my invitation to enjoy the second half. Did you? I wondered throughout Sibelius’s fifth symphony if you were able to love the dissonance in the strings and the rumble of the tympani and the precision of the woodwinds. I wondered if it wouldn’t seem melodic enough to follow, but my husband, a lover of Radiohead, found Sibelius a little more familiar than, say, Beethoven. Maybe you don’t know Radiohead, but they’re cool too.
Anyway, I know the symphony can be hard. You can’t scroll through the parts you don’t like, and the language is often foreign, literally and metaphorically. And even if you know the rules and your parents made you go for years, you still might not like it, and that’s fine. (I’m referring specifically to my sister here: I adore her, in part because she’s different from me. She went to her last symphony concert probably 20 years ago because she prefers musical performances that involve words and movement, so good for her.)
It’s true. You distracted me during Sibelius’s Karelia Suite, and that distraction became anger during Lauridsen’s Lux aeterna. The conductor had invited us to experience transcendence, and you had your heads together over the glow of a phone for the entire first half of the concert. You whispered and occasionally giggled, and I couldn’t hear the silence between the notes, and I come to the symphony for the silence as much as for the notes.
But maybe you didn’t know that it’s not cool to look at your phone during a concert like that. Maybe you didn’t know that the symphony is an ephemeral art for all the senses: a thing to be watched as much as heard.
I don’t know if boredom taught me this or boredom made me obey my parents’ instruction in this, but I learned a long time ago to watch the performers at a concert without words. Watch the concertmaster—that’s the violinist who walks in after everyone else has been sitting, whose presence stops the noodling and commands applause, who stands to receive a note from the oboe and invites all the other performers to tune their instruments together. What a miracle: 60 instruments tuned in a moment to one pitch. The concertmaster tends to move more than the other violinists because everyone is following him. Those subtle movements can create a unity of volume, articulation, speed, and timbre. Each concertmaster is different. Watch, you’ll see.
The cellists are always the most amusing to me. At least in our local symphony, they provide the most diversity: some move with the music, some caress their instruments, some hold their bows differently than others, some pizzicato with bravado while others pizzicato with reserve, some splay their knees wide and throw their feet forward during long rests, and some sit stoically until just occasionally they permit the smallest exultation. I worry about beards getting caught in the pegs. Wouldn’t that be terrible and funny?
I played violin growing up, so I’ve known some of the string players here nearly all my life, and I’ve watched them make music as core members of the symphony nearly as long. Same goes for many members of the percussion, winds, and brass sections, though I find them all the more interesting for never having met them. The bald clarinetist who recently retired would rise and fall with the music, squeezing into his solos. The French horn players appear to make a terrible mess when they pull those handkerchiefs through their instruments during pauses. The third trumpeter occasionally taps his knee and raises his eyebrows at mistakes.
Perhaps listening to the symphony is the obvious thing to do. But you can do that at home. When you go to the symphony, you must watch. Watch the conductor: he’s giving cues not only to his musicians, but also to the audience. Watch the audience: sometimes a wife will give her husband a smile at a note she loves, or a cadenza will surprise a young boy. Watch the instruments: their sheen, their variation in color, their shape, how their masters hold them. And watch the musicians: on that stage is collected hundreds of years of practice and expertise. On that stage is collected a minor miracle as 60 or so fine individual musicians pour all of their energies into one series of moments serving one piece of music to you.
You said you came to the symphony because your teacher promised you 100 points for going. But does your teacher hand out extra points for occupying chairs? Probably not. Your teacher probably expected you to try to experience the symphony.
Sometimes I forget that I’ve been a fairly regular member of this local symphony orchestra’s audience for more than 30 years. Sometimes I forget that as a kid, I found it boring, too, and probably acted that out more often than my mother would want to remember. Sometimes I forget that the symphony isn’t for everyone. So thanks for reminding me. I hope you come back sometime and watch. If you don’t like it, I hope you’ll give it at least one more chance—some good things take a little time to learn. But I understand if it’s not for you. Try the opera instead. And the ballet. And summer musicals. And plays. And literary readings. Hey, try a Radiohead concert—they’re touring again soon.
But when you go to these things, don’t take your phone. Well, take it, but don’t look at it. Except during intermission, when you snarkily tweet about those people bugging you in the next section. (Not that I did that last night.) And don’t look at your friend the whole time you’re there. If you want to hang out with your friend, Starbucks is cheaper and your snapchatting probably won’t distract anyone else.
Take your ears and your eyes and extra patience. Like maybe more patience than you’ve ever had for anything. Push through the boredom. Receive it as a gift. Push into it and wait for what it will make you see.
This post is a modified reprint that was originally published at Strangers in a Strange Land.
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