Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Playing the orchestra game

Published Jan. 4, 2013
I rarely watch football, and when I do, usually at a family gathering where I’m forced against my will to submit to the artificial world of high-stakes ball-chasing, it drives me crazy because they can’t play the game without stopping. Because I don’t watch television, I’m accustomed to movies on DVD without interruptions other than those I choose, so it annoys me to no end to see the continuous stopping of the action in football. Imagine an orchestra concert run like a football game.
First, the kickoff. The orchestra manager stands at the back of the auditorium and kicks the conductor’s baton in the air, and the conductor races to catch it while all the musicians, instruments in hand, race from the sides of the room and find their seats.
The conductor raises his baton while a cameraman hovers to the side, and the musicians launch into Handel’s “Concerto Grosso in F Major.” But just before they reach the key change to C, the orchestra manager calls a time-out and brings out music, aided by the official librarian, with revised bowings for the second violins. The violinists form a huddle with the conductor to discuss the changes, and everyone swigs Perrier. During this lull in the action, the channel televising the concert shows footage of other orchestras around the country and goes to commercials for violin rosin, oboe reeds and trombone mutes.

We must pause here to describe the clothing. Our musicians wear bright tuxedos emblazoned with the name of the orchestra above the last name of the player and a number representing his or her instrument and place in the seating chart. Each orchestra wears its own color tuxedo, and every orchestra has the requisite player sporting dreadlocks.
Breaking from the huddle, the musicians return to their seats, the conductor raises his baton, and the orchestra resumes where it left off, smoothly switching to the key of C while retired players serving as coaches stand next to each section leader to direct the key change, the camera occasionally switching from the orchestra to fans in the audience who have painted their faces in orchestra colors, jumping up and down as if on pogo sticks and waving frantically at the camera so the world will know they’re at the concert. Hung on the wall behind the orchestra are huge banners advertising repetitive-injury insurance for string players and luthiers who make exact copies of Stradivarius violins, or so says the ad. The concert is held in a lavish state-of-the-art auditorium financed by the orchestra owner, who threatened to move his group to another city if the city leaders failed to cough up public funds for construction.
The orchestra finally finishes the concerto after about two dozen more time-outs to distribute more revised music, discuss playing strategies and guzzle Perrier, and the audience rushes to the lobby to buy steak sandwiches, wine and Great Lakes beers at the concession stands. The bathrooms are jam-packed, and many male orchestra-goers find handy bushes outside to make room for more beer and wine. The network goes to commercials for French horn polish, custom batons and music score publishers.
The second half — I mean the part after intermission — goes the same, and our knowledgeable commentators help us to understand the music by interrupting with explanations, statistics, playbacks and references to past players. The commentators are former players who are past their prime but not wealthy enough to retire to Malibu, either because they failed to sign multi-million-dollar contracts or blew it all on secret cruises to Le Select in St. Barts to hear Jimmy Buffett sing about cheeseburgers and margaritas.
The conductor slashes his baton at the final crescendo, and the fans stand on their seats whistling and cheering. A choice few inebriated celebrators pour Dortmunders over friends’ heads, and all about can be seen high fives and pumping fists in the air. The commentators conclude the doings with four hours’ discussion of the two-hour show as audience members drive home to watch more concerts on TV while drinking more beer and wine and eating cheese and Trail bologna.
And the next night they’ll all tune in to “Monday Night Baroque” for an evening of beer, popcorn and music on television.

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