Tuesday, November 15, 2011

An Afternoon At The Philharmonic

I think I have a relatively high interest in music. I can identify many thousands of songs in just a very few notes and have collected thousands of performance music videos from the 1950s to the present. However, there are a number of categories of music I don't particularly care for, including opera, Chinese opera, jazz, rap and classical music. Consequently when my son couldn't make the L. A. Philharmonic concert at the Disney Concert Hall and I took his tickets, that could have been quite a mismatch, as I was certainly the least sophisticated member of the audience when it came to this kind of music.

In fact I had a wonderful time with Mrs. Chandavkl at the concert. Frankly I didn't like any of the music, but I had a very interesting time observing the orchestra. For example I never realized that a symphonic orchestra was so heavily weighted towards string instruments, with just a small number of winds and percussions backing up the predominantly violin, viola and cello orchestra. The first thing that really caught my attention was the cymbal player in the back row. In the first piece performed which lasted about half an hour, he spent most of the time seated on a chair. Once in a great while he would stand up, grab his cymbals, then a minute later he would crash his cymbals once, twice or maybe even four times. I counted only four or five times when Mr. Cymbal was called on to perform, which means he probably spent 25 minutes of the 30 minutes sitting at his chair, and probably one minute actually performing. Now I know the Philharmonic musicians are world class, with intense competition to work your way into the most prestigious orchestras. But this made me wonder, exactly what made one a world class cymbal player? My guess is that there were two elements--the first being able to distinguish when your time to perform was coming up, and the second being able to operate the cymbals at the proper noise level. I do think I know what makes a world class kettle drum player. The drummer was maneuvering six different sets of drumsticks, each with a different size head, and it certainly took skill to switch from one set to another to another. Even just knowing where the various sets should sit struck me as being daunting.

The next thing I learned was that musicians in the orchestra come and go between pieces. After the first piece, Mr. Cymbal was done for the day, as were most of the other percussionists and some of the wind instrument players. Other musicians, including a new cymbal player who doubled as a bass drummer, showed up. Also, I noticed that not all the musicians turned their music pages at the same time. I guess that means there's different sheet music for different types of instruments. In addition I became cognizant of the complexity of composing and conducting a symphonic piece with all of the different instruments and the assignments. The conductor was indeed like the head coach of a sports team, not just a guy waving his baton to the rhythm.

After the first piece ended and some of the orchestra left, they brought in a piano, which was followed shortly by the entrance of the pianist who received a large ovation. The pianist was a young Asian woman in a relatively short black dress. I wondered to myself whether this might be Yuja Wang, though it wasn't until intermission that I was able to look at the program and indeed confirm that it was her. Now while I know zero about classical music, I do know enough to be aware of Yuja Wang, for the skimpy orange outfit she wore earlier this year at the Hollywood Bowl, which apparently resulted in the first ever convergence of a public performance of symphonic classical music and wolf whistles. Now besides not liking classical music, I probably dislike classical piano the most, so I really didn't appreciate her performance. But man, that lady plays a mean piano.

My last observation is how contrived the ovations for the conductor and featured performers are. After the piece has ended the conductor stands and takes his bows. Then he exits stage left. Then he comes back for another ovation. Then he exits stage left again. Then he comes back for a final ovation. In Yuja Wang's case she must have left and come back four or five times. I also noticed Yuja bows kind of funny--more like a gymnast than a musician. As we left Mrs. Chandavkl wanted to get a closer look at Yuja Wang who was going to sign autographed copies of her CD in the gift shop. However the line to see her was too long.

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