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Everything That’s Fascinating About Classical Music
Live concerts provide an experience that recordings just can’t match.

by Drew McManus
July 19, 2004

During my recent trip out to the Grand Teton Music Festival I was able to enjoy a wonderfully unique concert experience. It wasn’t due to the fact that were two pieces on the program written by guys that aren’t dead yet (although that was a real plus), but because of a completely random visual element.
It was this past July 2nd and I was set to attend that evening’s performance by the Grand Teton Festival Orchestra. The concert, conducted by David Lockington, featured performances of:
  • Hailstork: American Fanfare
  • Barber: First Essay for Orchestra
  • Ives: Country Band March
  • Ives: Decoration Day
  • Corigliano: Tournaments
  • Dvorak: Symphony no. 7
The Hailstork and Corigliano were both new to me and neither disappointed. The Hailstork started out with a solo trumpet section part that makes Fanfare for the Common Man sound like a warm up. I admire the players for not cracking under the pressure.
And I love Ives, not in huge doses mind you, but these two tunes were both wonderful. And how could you not enjoy the Barber? The orchestra’s full string section was so lush sounding I listened to most of the piece with my eyes closed. The sound was almost palpable. The Dvorak took up the entire second half and was a satisfying end to the evening.
I brought my trusty pair of binoculars with me and routinely switched from a close-up view to a wide shot of the entire ensemble. And I was seeing things I’ve never seen before, such as when I was let my eyes stop focusing on any one thing. After a few seconds I noticed that I could see each individual string section’s bowings move in a way that was similar to watching a large school of fish move. It was graceful.
Then I realized it wasn’t just the bowings moving in sync, but the players themselves were moving in sync together in their seats. It was subtle, but definitely there. At several points in the Dvorak, the cello section swayed in union and even made an abrupt change from swaying left-right to right-left along with a change in the music.
It couldn’t have been planned, the players didn’t even seem to notice when they did it. When I asked a few after the concert about it, they were oblivious to the fact.
Then there was the horn section comprised of Matthew Annin, William Caballero, Robert Lauver, and Gabrielle Webster! It was as though they were the Hammer of God throughout several sections throughout the Ives, the Hailstork, and the Dvorak. To watch the deliberate, sudden intake of breath right before a unison loud passage was enough to make the remaining orchestra suddenly disappear, only to be replaced with a thunderous level of warm four part harmony. And watching it all through the binoculars intensified the event – they allowed me to concentrate not only my sight, but my hearing on just the horn section. 
Then there’s the joy of watching the individual players. You can tell the ones who are engrossed in the music, which ones enjoy or dislike what they’re playing, and which ones are sometimes holding on for dear life while navigating a particularly difficult passage.
Finally, there’s the fun of watching the mechanical process of playing an instrument: the clarinet players hurriedly yanking off a mouthpiece and fit it to another instrument that had been waiting patiently on their laps, and the tympani player changing the pitch on each drum almost silently.
Then it dawned on me that nearly everything I was experiencing during the concert was impacted visually, sometimes even more so than the aural experience. To me, it reinforces what makes a concert experience so special: being there in person.
I’m fortunate. I know what to look for, how to listen, and what’s happening on stage. In addition to being given a tremendously satisfying artistic product, I was given the treat of becoming immersed in the entire event.
If I was fussing with program notes, or distracted by a visual annoyance, it wouldn’t have been nearly as satisfying of an experience.
If I were sitting in the front or middle of the house instead of the very back, I wouldn’t have experienced the wide angle view that so caught my attention. The best seat in the house is whatever you make of it.

Postlude: I recently learned about the passing of Jonathan D. Kramer, composer and Columbia University professor. Our editor here at The Partial Observer, Mark Johnson interviewed Professor Kramer last January.

If you missed that interview, I highly recommend you take some time and give it a read. His honest insights into the world of classical music are right on the mark. That interview led to the creation of this regular column, which hopefully, is leading you the reader to have a greater understanding and appreciation of live classical music.

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