Emotional Relationships in Orchestral Performance

October 27, 2012 at 1:32am

Experiencing the Houston Symphony at Jones Hall live in concert is a very viscerally emotional and rewarding experience. It's a testament to the virtues of live performance the impact tonight's performance of works by Hector Berlioz had on me, so much more so than a recording would have.

Roman Carnival Overture and Symphonie Fantastique

I was particularly excited about this performance because I was familiar with the selected works by Berlioz. It's not that I dislike music discovery or only seek shelter in the familiar, but a degree of familiarity with music makes an amazing rendition so much more rewarding. I actually had the good fortune to perform the fourth movement, March to the Scaffold, with full orchestra a few years ago, which puts it in a special place. I was basically the guy in the audience who kept nodding his head to all of the cello entrances. The concert opened with some interesting commentary over the context of the two works. Interestingly enough, Roman Carnival Overture was adapted from a previous work of Berlioz, Benvenuto Cellini, and features prominently the English Horn in a theme echoed by the viola section. For this reason, the Overture is an important part of audition repertoire for both instruments. Also discussed were the program notes for Symphonie Fantastique. Although I was familiar with the idea of the story which the program notes sought to tell, what I found interesting and enlightening was the attitude of Berlioz himself toward the interpretation of his music. Berlioz conducted the premiere of Roman Carnival Overture personally after Benvenuto Cellini failed, ostensibly due to poor conductor interpretation, "for conductors, never forget, are the most dangerous of all your interpreters." However, interpretation played importantly in the other direction, as Berlioz acknowledged that movement titles and program notes could easily be eschewed due to the unique reaction of each individual as they connected to the music.

Between Composer and Music

The host of our performance noted that Berlioz revised his program notes iteratively based on the music - not the other way around. In the sense that the music defined the program notes, his music, in the sense of art, did not try to capture life as it were, but provided an emotional life of its own. The composer in this way captures a different kind of beauty. Each individual person, with their knowledge and experiences, connects to music in a slightly different way. Enjoyment of music, and music's enjoyability, while superficially measurable by empirical standards, is a deeply personal and subjective thing.

Between Conductor and Orchestra

The preceding stands not to imply that the role of the conductor is disruptive. It is rather very fundamental to the experience of interpretation and performance. After the performance, a question and answer session was held by our host featuring an oboist, a percussionist, and the conductor. When an excellent question was raised about the experience of working with different conductors professionally, for the players, and working with different orchestras, for the conductor, the consensus was that each individual brings unique values to the performance. They noted the almost immediate establishment of a natural rapport between the conductor and the orchestra as rehearsals progressed; as they called it, a telepathy. As a member of an orchestra which underwent a regime change, I find this to be extremely true. The relationship between a conductor and the conductees through music involves an inexplicable mutual understanding. Overcoming interesting technical challenges like the acoustics of time lag between the front and end of the stage is only possible through an unspoken sense of unity through musicality.

Between Orchestra and Audience

The last important emotional relationship in a performance is that between the orchestra and the audience. From the perspective of a performer, it is rewarding to express through music and share the emotional impact with others. As an audience member, it's deeply amazing the extent to which a performance can connect with me. Some moments of Symphonie Fantastique had me physically dropping my jaw in amazement. The cello section played inspirationally well. The e-flat clarinet in movement 5 created a deeply unsettling yet ringingly clear tone which made me almost want to squirm in my seat; a similar effect came from the unprecedented col legno in the violins. I don't even remember which instrument produced the sound over the timpani in the beginning of movement 4, but it sounded so much better than what I'd heard before in the recording to which I usually listen. An unexpected low accidental in movement 3 sounded so wrong yet so right. It's moments like that which made me think about how appreciative I was to share in the performance as an observer.

An evening listening to a concert performance by a professional orchestra was both rewarding and inspiring. Ultimately, the feeling of human connection accomplished through music is self-evident and self-justifying.