Sunday, May 13, 2012

Music to Part Your Hair

(borrowed from a Facebook friend)
Last night, my community orchestra performed one heck of a concert to a nearly full and very appreciative house, and I’m telling you, the sound we produced could part hair. Literally. I have been seated in front of timpani on occasion, or a very enthusiastic bass drum, and I could actually feel my hair move with each beat. It’s an odd, ghostly sensation, and I’m imagining that’s how the entire audience felt as we blasted them with our finest and most bombastic notage.

The orchestra is in the midst of a May Festival, a promotion we’re sponsoring that helps call attention to all the fine arts events in our county in the month of May. We’ve got all sorts of things on the schedule—high school performances, community band concerts, private dance studio recitals, a Broadway show…—and our performance last night was meant to punctuate this thing with a demonstration of what community arts is about—all ages, all walks, all interests doing what they love for all to hear and see…and to feel when your hair raises because a brass line has just shouted at you with accented half notes until their veins pop in their foreheads.

We assembled an honor band from seven local high schools and mixed the kids in with our own wind section to form a 70-plus member band, and this group opened the concert with Nehlybel’s Estampie. You won’t find it on Youtube, so you’ll have to trust me when I say it’s a fun, powerful, driving piece. The kids handled themselves very well on stage, perfectly focused and nerves in order. A lot of them had parents in the audience, so it was a proud moment.

We reset the stage to seat the orchestra minus kids, and we performed Respighi’s Pines of Rome. If you haven’t heard this, you really should take time to listen. You can find this on youtube, but do yourself one better and buy a good recording of it. You’ll want to listen to it more than once and wallow around in its goodness.

This music covers the emotional bases—starting out sprightly, invoking puckish children playing in the gardens of Borghese, running around on light feet and getting themselves into mischief. You just want to wring their scrawny little necks, if only you could catch them. And then all at once, you’re in the catacombs of the Eternal City where history lies, the bones of people who were once scampering children themselves but are now nearly dust. And then you’re on Janiculum Hill with your sweetheart, forgetting all of your troubles and basking in what’s right in life.

You know, I arrived at the hall last night slightly angry and a little hurt over something, and I pounded out the notes of Estampie with rage in my heart. I sat down for Pines with tension building in my shoulders, but during the second and third movements, I could feel all that tension and anger slipping away—listen to the trumpet solo from off stage and the nightingale floating from tree to tree and the clarinet singing its love song. You can’t be negative and agitated when you’re surrounded by such ethereal and lovely music.

But hold onto your chair because a battalion of Roman soldiers is about to come at you with their stomping feet on the Appian Way. We pulled out the stops for the final movement with a level of intent I don’t believe I heard from this group during rehearsals. And I had to fight back tears from the power and emotion this piece evokes.

So, do you see? We start out as carefree children running ramshod over the earth, and we grow up to become thoughtful lovers. And when it’s over, we’re buried below ground to make room for the next batch of light-footed children who replace us and on and on. And there is triumph and determination in all of it.

Well, the second half of the concert was devoted to Orff’s raucous and occasionally baudy Carmina Burana. The orchestra was backed by a 150-voice choir, and our already big sound was amplified. Carmina isn’t a sheet of music, it’s a book, and my book was well worn. The bottom corners of the pages were stained with the thumb prints of dozens of other second horn players who had played from the thing before me, and I found comfort in that. Think of all the other people who turned those pages, sometimes quickly to catch the next measure and sometimes slowly to discover they need to ready a mute or make note of a changing key signature. Will they be in bass clef or treble with the next phrase? Be ready.

Carmina is too big to break apart here, so I’ll just say go listen to it, and not just the opening movement that we’ve all heard dozens of times. Listen to the whole thing, and then see if you don’t stand up for a private ovation with that final screaming, ranting plea to Fortuna, the goddess of fortune. It’s heart pounding and sweet and funny, and mind the bass drum. It will part your hair.

If you'd like to hear a more indepth discussion of the music we performed last night, here is the pre-concert chat (shot and produced by Husband and I) featuring our conductor, Eric Benjamin:

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