I don’t often attend symphony concerts. I love them from my side of the footlights, but when it comes to paying a babysitter to go out in the evening, or even just leaving the house after dinner, I can’t see it. I listen to music, but usually only to learn a specific work. I love the oboe. I love what I do. I love the collaborative experience of making music - but I don’t care that much for passive listening.
And that makes me wonder why ANYONE attends a concert.
I am not the first person to raise this question, I know. The audience is declining, the audience is graying, the audience is giving up on us. This is the perpetual refrain of orchestra management, and organizations are cutting back and even closing their doors all over the country now.
We talk about improving the concert experience, making the Symphony Orchestra less of a stuffy, tuxedo-clad institution and more of an event to go out to. We argue about the relative merits of more education and lower ticket prices and video monitors and more Pops programming. I sit on these committees, I have these conversations, but I don’t have an answer - really, I just want to bury my head in the sand and keep doing what I’m doing. Striving for excellence, working to make every concert better than the last - from my tiny perspective, anyway - and just hoping “they” come.
But yesterday was inspiring. I went to hear the Seattle Symphony perform in their beautiful hall, and suddenly I realize, again, why people should attend these events.
From the front, it’s a thrill to see all of these people pulling together. This sea of violins, all moving as one, and bowing in perfect unison, and working noticeably hard, is exciting. The fact that they are all still observably individuals, with different mannerisms and personal style, makes it all the more touching to see, and all the more inspiring.
The percussionists! I had forgotten that they were so neat to watch! Always DOING something, and with SUCH skill, and such precision! I like a good VISUAL instrument, and as much as I love the oboe, watching percussionists beats watching oboists by a wide margin.
Sidenote: sitting in the audience gave me an entirely different perspective. When I work, I am so oriented to the winds. They are my immediate partners, and we have to match pitch, articulation, and style with every entrance. I am always hyper-aware of every attack, and every release, and how those line up with those of my colleagues. If my sound isn’t quite what I wanted or a note drops out before the end of the chord, I assume that that is the primary thing the audience notices, and that my colleagues throughout the orchestra are murmuring to themselves about it. I think this MUST be normal - in the interest of making the entire product great everyone must be concerned all the time with doing his or her own job to the very best possible level, right?
I was surprised at how small a part the wind section played in my enjoyment of this concert. They sounded wonderful, of course. It’s an excellent orchestra. But they just weren’t the center of my attention, as they always are when I’m working, and as I always assumed they were for everyone else.
No, the heroes were the strings, who had lines I’ve never noticed before in a symphony I’ve performed many times. I do listen around me, but while I’m actually playing I am tuned in to my own work and to the wind players around me, and I hear the strings only as my pitch environment, not as the main voice singing the symphony.
Mainly, sitting out in the audience gave me a sense of the scope and grandeur of an orchestra. SO many people. Trained to SUCH a high level. Giving SO much energy so that the audience can thrill to their work. It felt like an honor to sit in the hall, in the presence of such excellence, and when the piece ended and we came back to earth and once more engaged with the humans around us I felt as if we had experienced something together, something real. It was an intense active listening experience, and while I could imagine wanting to doze or to enjoy more passively, and I will stand behind any paying customer’s right to nap in his seat if he chooses, I couldn’t take my eyes off the group.
And that feeling is one that you don’t get with a movie. You don’t get it with a classical CD, no matter how great your stereo is or how fine the recorded performance is. There’s something stunning about live music, and even if every single performance isn’t transformative, there’s always the chance that it might be. I don’t think we need to make classical music less stuffy or more accessible, though I don’t think it would hurt it if we did. I just think we need to share the message of what a magical experience this can be.
Going to the symphony is an intense event. Worth doing. Come out and join us - you won’t be disappointed!