Blog Post: An Evening at the Symphony

So, somehow – I have no idea how – I got on someone’s list, and I was offered comps to the opening night of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra‘s 95th season at the Orpheum on Saturday, Sept. 28th. It was a lovely, unexpected surprise, like someone just decided to give me a present out of the blue. I’m not sure who to thank (apart from the VSO’s marketing department, maybe?), but I’m very grateful.

Here’s the thing: although you wouldn’t necessarily know it by looking at the work I do now…in a lot of important ways, I cut my artistic teeth on classical music. From middle school onward through to the end of my undergrad degree, I spent enough time in a succession of bands, youth orchestras, concert choirs and chamber ensembles that music was like my part-time job. It was also my home away from home, the safe place where I knew I would always find my tribe, the thing that injected colour and drama into in my life, stretched my imagination and made my heart sing. When I hear the chorus of “At the Ballet” from A Chorus Line, the part that goes Up a steep and very narrow stairway… I don’t think of a dance studio. I think of my clarinet teacher Joy Skrapek’s little apartment on Bay St. in Ottawa, where I went every week for lessons from my grade 8 year until I graduated from high school and moved to Montreal. During my undergrad I didn’t have very many opportunities to play my clarinet, but I kept singing. I auditioned for and got into the McGill University Chorus, and had some of the most thrilling performance experiences of my life under the direction of a genius conductor named Iwan Edwards.

When I moved to Vancouver in 1999, and especially after I started working in the arts here, the focus of my creative life shifted: to theatre (musical and otherwise), to pop, jazz and rock, folk, roots and world music, and the amazing hybrid that is the work of the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra. I don’t regret this shift; I have loved learning to feel at home in those new worlds. But seeing and hearing the VSO play the other night was like listening in on a conversation held in a language I used to speak fluently.

The feelings of nostalgic recognition started even before the concert began; as I found my seat there were a few musicians warming up on stage. It’s interesting to me now, coming from theatre (where you never see an actor on stage before the show starts unless a specific artistic decision has been made to that effect): most things about the way classical orchestral music is performed are extremely formal and ritualized… but it is totally the done thing for the members of the orchestra to trickle onstage haphazardly from the half hour onward, and to warm up in sight and hearing of the audience. Every musician has their own routine, their own particular combination of scales and interval jumps and bits of melody that they always do to wake up their instrument, limber up their fingers, engage mind and body. When I used to go to hear my clarinet teacher perform with the NAC Orchestra or the Ottawa Symphony, I could usually pick her out by the sound of her warm-up, even if I couldn’t actually see her from where I was sitting. I don’t remember most of mine now, but I do recall that I always ended it with a chromatic run at top speed, from the very lowest note to the very highest that the clarinet could play. It was a sort of superstitious way of reassuring myself that all the notes were still there.

The noise of dozens and dozens of musicians all doing this sort of thing at once is a very particular kind of cacophony, that builds and builds as more and more of them take their places on stage…and then it all drops magically into silence as the house lights start to go down. That’s the concertmaster’s cue to enter, bow to the audience – see above re. rituals, formality – and signal to the oboist. Two long tuning notes: one for the strings, one for the brass and winds, with the rumble of the timpani underneath it all like distant thunder. Then another waiting, suspended moment of silence and stillness until the conductor appears. He strides through a forest of string players to the podium; the orchestra stands at his gesture; the maestro bows and turns back to the musicians, baton raised.

Deviation from the norm: on opening night, the musicians all stayed standing, as they launched into O Canada. The audience belatedly realized what was going on, and lumbered to its collective feet. Maestro Tovey conducted us more than the orchestra; they can probably do this tune in their sleep. Oh, CA-na-da, we stand on guard fooooooor theeeee! He encouraged us to stretch out the last few notes with melodramatic gusto, and cut us off with a flourish. I thought to myself that he must be a ton of fun to work with as a choral conductor. “What a ham,” said a lady somewhere behind me, with great affection.

The first piece on the programme was a world premiere of a piece commissioned by the VSO from Randolph Peters, who wrote it as a feature for superstar percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie. She was a compelling performer, moving like a dancer through her huge array of instruments, all of which were crowded together at centre stage. There was a full drum kit, a set of bells, a massive marimba, a row of small brass gongs that looked like little gold-plated frying pans, a selection of actual pots and pans, two large gongs, and a grand piano with the top taken off so she could play the strings. Video cameras had been set up, so that we could see close-up what she was doing as she played, on two large screens hung on either side of the proscenium.

The piece was a percussion concerto called Musicophilia, based on anecdotes from a book of the same name by Dr. Oliver Sachs; each movement represented one of the rare and bizarre ways that music interacts with the human brain. Who knew that a condition exists whereby some people can’t actually hear music as such; it sounds to them like so much clattering of pots and pans. Or that others have musical hallucinations, in which they constantly hear music that isn’t actually playing anywhere but in their mind? The “Earworms” movement made me laugh out loud – and that’s all I’ll say about it because I don’t want to spoil the sly pop-culture references it makes for anyone who might hear it at some point (and how often do we talk about spoilers in a classical music context?). But my favourite was the last movement, called “Permanent Present Tense.” It was inspired by Sachs’ story of a patient who can only remember seven seconds at a time …but he can conduct Bach; somehow the music helps him stay focused, seven seconds at a time, enough to keep going through a whole piece of music, and it helps him feel connected to the world and to other people. Peters’ interpretation was beautiful and evocative and sad and hopeful all at once. The whole thing made me want to go read Sachs’ book. It also filled me with gratitude again, some more, for the mostly-uncomplicated, joyful relationship I’ve always had with music.

The rest of the programme was a bit more conventional: Verdi’s overture from La Forza del Destino (which I loved because I love Verdi in all his overblown operatic glory, and also because it has a beautiful solo clarinet part), Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber, and – the grand finale – Ravel’s Bolero. This was, I think, the first time I’ve ever heard this classic performed live, and it really brought home to me how it’s basically a piece full of rotating solo opportunities. It was cool to be able to see the music moving through the different sections of the orchestra, to watch the slow build happening in addition to hearing it. But mostly I was just super impressed by percussionist Vern Griffiths, who came down to the front of the stage to perform the anchoring snare drum part. Playing the same 2-bar rhythm over and over for about 15 minutes, getting very gradually louder and louder, doesn’t seem that hard at first glance – but I think you’d have to be SO focused, to keep from accidentally missing a beat or losing track of where you were in the sequence. Yikes. Mr. Griffiths did the whole thing without music and – as far as I could tell – with his eyes closed! Dame Evelyn came out and joined him on the second snare drum for the dramatic conclusion, which made for a fun surprise ending.

The whole evening was lovely, both on its own merits – the VSO is a world-class ensemble, and I’m proud to live in the city it calls home – and because it brought all those formative years in classical music back to me in a nostalgic rush. Watching the orchestra play, I was reminded of so many things that used to be second nature, from the tiny practical details, like deciding which of you turns the pages when two musicians are sharing a stand and a score, to the ridiculous and frankly kind of disgusting bits, e.g. the fact that horn players have to take off their mouthpieces and up-end their instruments every once in awhile to shake out all the saliva that collects when they play (woodwind players do the same, only we use a cloth on a string, which quickly becomes disgusting in its own way). I remembered how it feels to be at the centre of that maelstrom of sound, dizzying and exhilarating and overwhelming all at once.

And I realized that, for all I might be more of a theatre person now than anything else… the world of classical music is where it all started for me. It’s where I first learned how to practice, and about the rehearsal process: how you break the work down into small pieces and then slowly build it back together into something that tells a story…and how an ensemble, if you can get it firing on all cylinders, becomes so much more than the sum of its parts. How the best collective performances are like a TARDIS, bigger and more amazing on the inside (for the people doing them) than the audience on the outside can ever know…but all you want, as a performer, is for them to leave feeling as though they’ve caught a glimpse through the door, maybe even joined you on the journey for a couple of hours.

I might have expected it to be bittersweet, the other night at the symphony, to be looking in from the outside on a world that I used to know so well, where I used to belong. But it actually wasn’t. It was just…comforting, being reminded of those deep roots and how they connect to who I am now. It’s the same feeling I get when I visit my parents, who still live in the house where I grew up. I’m not the same person I was when I lived there, and a lot of surface things about the house have changed too… but I could probably still navigate it blindfolded, because the shape of it is written on my bones, familiar and beloved.

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