I was in third or fourth grade, and my idea of classical music was “Nutrocker,” by B. Bumble and the Stingers, the rocked-up version of Tchaikovsky’s “March of the Wooden Soldiers” from The Nutcracker ballet. So, a field trip to the Cleveland Symphony seemed cool only for the prospect of getting out of school for the day.
Much to my surprise, I genuinely enjoyed the performance. Not enough, apparently, to ever again venture inside a concert hall to see anything other than rock bands and comedians. Until earlier this month, when I took my wife for her birthday to see the Elgin Symphony Orchestra. Didn’t know a single piece of the music — Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert — but I enjoyed the great musicianship. Still, I found my mind wandering quite a bit about the composition of the orchestra, everyone’s role in it. I asked my wife, a classically trained musician and, in fact, a former member of the ESO, some of my ignorant questions, then I realized: Why not go to the symphony itself, get the answers for the classically illiterate rock ’n’ rollers like myself. So, if you’re a symphony aficionado, read no further. My basic questions — answered courtesy of the ESO staff — might insult you. But if you’re thinking of stepping outside your comfort zone, here’s some info that could demystify the symphony:
Q. Why so many violins? They seemed to make up half the orchestra.
A. String instruments are much quieter than the other families of instruments playing in an orchestra. To create the proper balance of sound in the strings, there are always more violins than other strings. The ESO plays with 12 first violins, 12 second violins, seven violas, seven cellos and six basses.
Q. Come to think of it, what’s the difference between a symphony and an orchestra?
A. Those two words mean the same thing — along with philharmonic.
Q. How come the violinist gets to come out first and take a bow, before the conductor?
A. The Concertmaster is the first-chair violin and the leader of the orchestra. The ESO concertmaster is Isabella Lippi, and she represents the whole orchestra when she bows.
Q. It seems to me the musicians spend way, way, way more time looking at their music than the conductor. Is he just needlessly waving his arms?
A. Musicians are trained to see both the music on their music stands and the conductor at the same time. The conductor is always an important part of the concert, not only for tempo, but for expression and balance. Also, by the time you see an ESO classic concert, the orchestra has had four rehearsals under the direction if the conductor, so a conductor’s job is also to prepare the orchestra for the concert itself.
Q. Why no saxophones among the brass and woodwinds?
A. Occasionally there are saxophones in an orchestra for specific pieces of music, but as a rule saxophones do not blend well with an orchestra. You will see saxophones more often in jazz and concert bands.
Q. Does the timpani player ever get bored? I mean, he has some pretty long breaks.
A. Timpani players are never bored! It really all depends on the piece of music how often they are playing. There are times when Bobby (our principal timpani player) never gets a rest!
Q. Why is it called the “double bass?” I see only one instrument.
A. It is called double bass because it functions as the cello’s lower octave. The cello plays the “bass line” in music and often the double bass plays that same line one octave lower. That is how the name came about.
Q. How does one know when to applaud? This past Sunday, I and a small portion of the audience started doing so after a long interlude, but my wife quickly muffled my hands and whispered, “It’s only the end of a movement.” By the end of the next movement, everyone else had miraculously figured this out.
A. Traditionally you are not supposed to clap in between movements of a piece, but the ESO rule is if you feel like clapping ... clap! Our musicians and conductors never mind and appreciate when people are moved by the music they are playing.
Q. The symphony got a long, standing ovation. Why no encore?
A. Honestly, encores are never spontaneous (just don’t tell anyone)! We do surprise our audience with an encore from time to time, but as a rule we like to keep the audience wanting more!
Q. Any tips for the novice listener to maximize enjoyment?
A. Anyone can take part in some of the educational offerings we have that are designed to help you understand the music and composers. We have a Listener’s Club that meets the Wednesday before a classic concert at Elgin’s Gail Borden Library (free of charge) where you can find out what was happening historically when the music was composed and even what was happening personally in the composer’s life. Music is very personal, and often pieces are written in response to love, heartbreak or major life events. You will also get to hear some of the music and learn what to listen for during the concert. An hour before each classics concert, our conductor has a Pre-Concert Chat in the concert hall where they talk about the music and composers — and sometimes even what the music means to them personally. You can also go onto our website, www.ElginSymphony.org, and look at the Patron Notes before the concert to get some background.
A large part of enjoying the music is also relaxing, letting go of the pressures of the day, and really listening. And you do not have to “know” about classical music to enjoy it. And a glass of wine never hurts!
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