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Enjoying a Symphony

In this arrangement, the conductor has to be very careful when he bows.

In this arrangement, the conductor has to be very careful when he bows.

People who know that James Brown was the “Godfather of Soul” might not know that Franz Joseph Haydn was the “Father of the Symphony”.  And vice versa.

In the mid-18th century, “Papa” Haydn began writing symphonies, which the Harvard Dictionary of Music calls “the most important form of orchestral music.”  It borrowed from earlier styles, but Haydn’s music inspired composers like Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky to write majestic pieces that helped some audience members sleep off the big meals they had just eaten.

Ironically, modern audiences occasionally have difficulty appreciating classical music concerts because these performances require us to a) sit still, and b) listen.  This can be torture when one has just gulped down three energy drinks and can feel their iPhone throbbing in their pocket.

In the right frame of mind, though, a symphony performance can be soul-satisfying in ways James Brown couldn’t touch.  To enhance your next concert experience, here are a few reminders of things you probably already know…

The size of orchestras has grown since the 18th century, when they were performing in some rich guy’s living room or garden.  In today’s expansive venues, a full symphony orchestra typically has 75-90 instruments, most of which are strings.

The usual seating arrangement for the musicians has the first violins to the conductor’s left and the cellos to his or her right.  Second violins and violas are inside the semicircle, which is closed by the woodwinds — flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons.  Behind the woodwinds are the brass instruments; the percussion section is in back.

The photo above gives the general idea; this display was mounted on the wall of the Italy pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010.  To my knowledge, no musicians were compelled to climb into those chairs.

But let’s get back to our hypothetical upcoming concert.

A few minutes before the performance is to begin, the Concertmaster enters; he is the first-chair violinist and is therefore despised by all the other violinists.  Oh, they’re nice to his face, but the minute his back is turned, well…

Anyway, the Concertmaster gets the orchestra tuned up — the musicians all play an “A” note.  Audience applause is not expected for that accomplishment.  Moments later, the conductor strides in and gets the program underway.

Most symphonies have four movements.  The first is allegro (fast), the second is adagio (slow).  The third movement is often something like a dance number — a minuet or a waltz, maybe, but sometimes it’s scherzo (very fast).  The final movement, allegro, is fast and energetic, has several false endings, and eventually results in boisterous applause from the audience.

By the way, it is considered a breach of classical-music etiquette to applaud between movements.  If you have any doubts about when to clap, you can wait until at least ten other people have done so.

If they’re waiting for you to lead, though, all you have to do is watch the conductor.  He’ll hold his baton above his shoulders until the last note has faded away, and then he’ll lower his hands to his sides.  When he does that, go crazy.  The conductor will turn and take a deep bow, the sweat dripping off him like he’s James Brown.