Getting a big bang out of a big band

Getting a big bang out of a big band


EVERY now and then The Companion and I get dressed to the nine and head to the Sydney Opera House (if we’re in Sydney) or to Hamer Hall (if we’re in Melbourne) to experience a symphony orchestra in full flight.

Really, there are few sounds, man-made or otherwise, that come anywhere near a full orchestra at the peak of its power. There’s a reason engine noises and exhaust notes are sometimes referred to as “symphonic”. When every part of the whole works in perfect synch, the effect can transport you from an uncomfortable concert-house seat to another plane altogether.

That’s the reason I go: for the hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck moments, and the moments that Madam Wheels readers might understand if I describe, in a musical idiom, as climaxes. Music does that to me, and I’m grateful, and that’s why I keep going back. The Companion apparently goes to catch up on sleep.

Annoyingly, though, even if he might clearly be comatose for part of the performance, he can just about hum back the entire performance afterwards. I hate him for that. I also hate him when he refers to the orchestra as “the band”.

There’s a certain etiquette that one should observe at the symphony. Some people think it’s all very stuffy and old-fashioned, but it serves a useful purpose. At least it does for me. Say you’re at a rock concert. You can jump up and down and scream and yell whenever (and whatever) you like at, say, Mick Fleetwood on-stage (which I’ll be doing in August), and so there’s a sort of constant dilution or expending of energy throughout the show. At the symphony you can’t expend energy gradually like that; it is pent-up and release, when it comes, is a total rush, amplified by that anticipation.

'It’s not only rude to clap at the wrong time, chatter and honk, but as a matter of pure practicality it detracts from the experience.'

However, over the past few performances I’ve noticed an irritating and worrying trend that’s undermining this effect. There’s been applause between movements; and there’s even been chatter during the actual performance.

At one concert an elderly gentleman (it MUST have been a man) honked like a fat goose into his handkerchief at the exact moment the soloist was about to launch into the second movement. By sheer luck alone the pianist had not made contact with the keys and so could stop, compose herself, if you’ll pardon the pun, and begin again. If I could have turned around and punched the snot-nosed simpleton in the face, I would have done so.

It’s not only rude to clap at the wrong time, chatter and honk, but as a matter of pure practicality it detracts from the experience. It stymies the build-up of tension as great music really well played, builds gradually to a crescendo - and then … and then … bliss! The effect simply cannot be the same when someone is talking all the way through it about a recent holiday or whether they remembered to put the bins out.

I understand that they’re trying to popularise classical music and the performances of Melbourne and Sydney’s respective symphony orchestras. That is a good thing - I think as many people as possible should be exposed to them; they would be hooked for life. Not everyone wants to get dressed up the way The Companion and I do, and that’s fair enough. And I concede that it does not matter a fig what you’re wearing because clothing does not (or at least it should not) make any sound and distract from the performance. But everyone can keep their mouths shut, surely? And stay off the damn phone – if even for just one hour at a time, each side of the interval?

I can only suppose that the offenders I’m describing are simply ignorant of one of the great unspoken pleasures of the symphony. It’s like those for whom the pinnacle of automotive artistry is a Commodore or a Falcon. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but if you haven’t been made aware of a broader range of alternatives that you can really say you’ve made an informed choice.

If the rock show is all anyone knows, it’s understandable that the hidden pleasures of a symphony performance will pass them by, and that’s a shame. A rock show is a two-hour priapic, orgiastic spectacle; the symphony is all about foreplay, timing, advance and withdrawal and, ultimately, release. Call me old-fashioned, but that’s the kind of performance I’m really into.