Oh, the Culture of it All
Last night Mr. Oilman and I attended a Houston Symphony Orchestra show. I participated in a market research interview for the HSO a few months ago, and they gave me a pair of coupons good for any show. Knowing that M.O. is not unconditionally interested in classical music, we decided to try this weekend's fare: Brassy Gabrieli. The brass players were to be seated up in the balcony instead of on the stage with the rest of the orchestra. It seemed like a neat idea, so off we went, with M.O. looking forward to "bombast!"
The brass-in-the-balcony plan worked beautifully, I thought. There were four or five players on each side. They dimmed all the house and stage lights, so the orchestra effectively disappeared. There was a single spotlight on the conductor, who turned around to face the balcony, and so as he directed the players, we got to experience the music visually--as if he was physically pulling the sound out of the darkness--as well as aurally. The antiphonal arrangements worked well, with the theme and response bouncing back and forth from left to right, building a resonating wall of sound.
After this stirring opener, we heard a Haydn symphony from the orchestra. It was sprightly and enjoyable, but I was disappointed to realize that the brass in the balconies wouldn't be joining in. During intermission, which followed a second short Gabrielli piece, M.O. told me in no uncertain terms that he wasn't amused by the intrusion of the orchestra on his bombast.
While there certainly are pieces of classical music that bore me, these Haydn symphonies weren't among them. I don't know what you're supposed to be thinking while listening to an orchestra, but generally speaking what's going on in my head is a multi-layered extravaganza of technical observation of the music, a visual interpretation (often involving ballerinas--what a cliche!), and a narrative building the story as it progresses.
It might go something like this: [ooh, that's a nice little oboe piece, and there's the answer from the violin][ballerina in typical filmy pink dress, twirling across an ornate ballroom][here's our heroine, young girl, carefree][okay, this is definitely the theme, there's the underlying phrase, repeating][the ballroom turns out to be a smaller room, and the main party is going on downstairs, lots of people dancing][our little girl is just listening to the music, maybe she's supposed to be in bed, or maybe she's dreaming][intrusion of heavy bassoon and horn thing!][well, that's definitely ominous, must be some bad news here, let's see, her father is some sort of statesman, and he's receiving bad political news][cut to a sumptuous library with a few men arguing][oh, the bassoon and horn thing is short, but I bet it's coming back][the library and the main ballroom are side-by-side][our little girl's theme is being drowned out, so she's off to sleep][this all winds down, end of movement].
In the next movement, maybe I send the girl off to college, or out on a picnic with a lover, or whatever. The stories don't have to make sense, of course, and sometimes I find myself thinking, jeez, I should have got the love interest in earlier, I didn't realize the fourth movement would be so short, or equally silly things, but this all keeps me so occupied that I rarely get bored. This actually happens more naturally with music that I don't know, because if I know the music, I concentrate way too much on the technical aspects and what I'm hearing from the individual instruments instead of the overall feeling and sound.
Anyhow, I thoroughly enjoyed both Gabrieli and Haydn, and we even got an encore Gabrieli, with all the lights up, which was fun. Having had orchestra-level seats for two shows now (this one and Carmina Burana last year) I don't think I'm ever going to want to sit in the balcony again. It's so much more involving to be up close.
Update: Don't miss M.O.'s review of the evening!