This blog is written by Mary Black Junttonen, Michigan State University Music Librarian. She holds a Master of Music Degree in Voice, a Bachelor of Music Degree in Choral Education, both from MSU, and a Master’s Degree in Library Science from the University of Michigan. In addition to heading the MSU Music Library, she is a soprano who directs three choirs, is currently studying flute, has played clarinet and bassoon, and has a passing knowledge of keyboard instruments.
This blog represents some thoughts on why one goes out to a performance, especially when staying home in a Michigan winter is so enticing!
Music lovers, no matter how dedicated, can be reluctant to venture out on a cold winter’s night to attend a performance. One can stay home and listen to the work on a CD (one might own the concert works or find them among the 15,000+ CDs in the MSU Music Library), or, with far less fidelity, they can listen to any number of other sources. So why go to the concert hall?
First of all, no sound reproduction system can adequately capture the full frequency range of an orchestra. CDs, vinyl records, streamed services, and other formats compress frequencies to a greater or lesser extent, so the sound is already compromised at the source. Even the best speakers cannot fully substitute for the heart-throbbing presence of the orchestra. The space in which the music is performed also plays a tangible rôle in the sound – a large hall with many hard surfaces, like Wharton’s Cobb Great Hall, lets the brass bloom, the woodwinds soar, and the strings vibrate down to your toes. Then add the percussion, and perhaps a soloist, and listen to the building come alive. If we can only bear to hold off the applause for a few seconds after the music ends, a different but magical sound surrounds us as the echoes die away. This experience is virtually impossible to replicate, no matter how good one’s home music system.
Secondly, being at a concert presents a visual stimulation no other situation can provide. It can be a surprise to see what instruments are used and which are not, even if we think we know the work well from recordings. There is also the picture presented by the musicians, their arrangement on stage, and the direction from which the sound comes. Recently, friends of mine watched a young pianist in a backless dress play a concerto; they were seated slightly behind her and were amazed at the muscle movement in her back. The concert audience rarely thinks about the physical aspect of the musician’s experience on stage. Training in music is designed, in part, to make the performance look almost effortless, but the reality is quite different. Musicians, like highly-skilled gymnasts, don’t use brute force, but they have to have strength, agility, and complete body control. Imagine holding a violin under your chin – just holding it – for a couple of hours. Then imagine moving wrist and fingers on that hand while maintaining direction and proper pressure of the bow with the other hand. (Just holding a bow in the air for a couple of hours is no mean trick either!)
Watch all the string players in each section bow together. The choreography, as one might call it, is stunning and carefully planned. If anyone gets out of sync, chaos can ensue. Watch the wind players support their instruments and coordinate hands, lips, tongue, breath, posture, to produce their best sounds. A timpanist creates a ballet with arm movements. Other percussionists move and play in carefully planned strokes, beats and jingles. Each musician must maintain total concentration while performing at the highest level. The conductor usually stands up for the whole concert, and holds his arms up almost the entire time, gesturing with intensity and meaning, and catching the eye of each musician in turn. A soloist has his or her own challenges — memorizing, standing or sitting for periods of inactivity but intense concentration, performing exactly at the right moment, and keeping passion and integrity in the performance.
In the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra concert, some of the world’s finest musicians will have traveled thousands of miles to present music of outstanding orchestral traditions, with one 19th century Italian and two outstanding Russian composers of the 20th century. Despite the many differences in the lives of these three, they share an understanding of orchestral techniques. Rich instrumental colors, flowing melodies and intriguing rhythms are all represented in these compositions and should thrill everyone in attendance.
Throughout the earlier history of concert music, orchestral performances were available almost exclusively to the elite. Think of an audience member in former times in St. Petersburg, Rome, Vienna, or New York, dressed in finery, taking a horse and carriage to an event, then waiting for the conveyance to return and take them home through the dark night. Travel to concerts could be a cold, miserable and dangerous expedition – in an extreme circumstance, think of Johann Sebastian Bach walking 250 miles from Arnstadt to hear concerts by Dietrich Buxtehude in Lübeck (it took him about 10 days). Today most of us hop in our cars, arrive at the venue in minutes, dress slightly better than for a sporting event, and devote a comparatively small portion of our income to purchasing a ticket. Music is available more readily to more people and in more formats than at any previous time.
For the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra concert, we have the opportunity to experience great music from a great orchestra, with fellow music lovers, in a major concert hall. What could be better?
The St. Petersburg Philharmonic with conductor Yuri Temirkanov and soloist Vilde Frang come to Wharton Center Monday, February 24. More information can be found at http://www.whartoncenter.com/events/detail/st-petersburg-philharmonic-orchestra