Saturday, November 5, 2011

When the Audience Impresses the Orchestra

For most orchestral musicians, community concerts and educational performances are generally not embraced with quite the same enthusiasm as a concert featuring a work like Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra”. However, in the last few months, it is during these more intimate concerts that I have been privy to some rather interesting behavior from outside of the orchestra.

he first instance that comes to mind was during a typical community engagement concert. Along with a narrative guide, the orchestra performed a series of typical symphonic works for an attentive audience. Likely a first exposure to classical music for most of the crowd, the orchestra’s speaker for the program encouraged participation during a march by prompting them to clap along. Unintentionally, he set up an 8-bar beat pattern that happened to correspond to the phrase we were just playing (the music naturally dictated an increase of beats at that moment). I was a bit taken aback when the audience didn’t continue the faster beat pattern but in fact returned to the start of pattern and continued it in its entirety. And perfectly together at that! Musicians generally try to tune out group-clapping as the sound falls behind the beat almost instantly.

Perhaps the next instance exemplifies the age we live in more than anything else, but an amusing interaction happened recently between the orchestra and a guest soprano. I could not help but notice that during a rehearsal for a pops concert, the soloist kept glancing down at something, yet she held no score or sheet music. She had no trouble with the words, so it was not a series of memory lapses that was causing her to continually glance downwards; what was she doing? And then I realized, of course! She was using her iphone to check the lyrics as she performed. It was no different to her than a soloist having a score off to the side during the dress rehearsal (it should be noted that she sang all the words beautifully during the performance, without the help of her phone).

The final instance that comes to mind is something one never sees in the United States; people singing a national anthem in tune. In purely musical terms, it is quite a feat to sing the US anthem well and thus makes everyone wait with baited breath for a guest singer's inevitable "really high note" before a baseball game starts. Growing up, I remember reciting the Pledge of Allegiance daily but when we did sing something patriotic, it was usually "America the Beautiful".  I think many young kids probably assume that is our national anthem; goodness knows it is sung more than the real thing in schools. Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't admit that I have always enjoyed the following interpretation of the anthem from a classic "Simpsons" episode:

While the South African National Anthem does not have the vast pitch range that the US anthem requires, it does boast an impressive language requirement; the South African anthem consists of versus sung in five different languages. Our outreach concerts take us to many schools around the KZN province and are always concluded with the students singing the anthem along with the orchestra. Without fail, students and community members alike not only sing this anthem with a noticeable sense of pride, but also a noticeable since of pitch. Frequently the students sing the anthem complete with harmonization and always with a dramatic crescendo at the end which leads to them erupting in applause. For an anthem sung in Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Akrikaans and English, all while modulating to a different key in the middle, it is most enlightening to see students as young as five and six that seem to have no trouble at all with this repertoire. It is an anthem that does its best to represent a country with eleven official languages, as well as a troubled political past, with music that is both compelling and easy to sing. While a midi-version hardly embodies the emotion that one typically hears the anthem sung with, the first Youtube clip gives a clear idea of the languages/lyrics used. See how accurate your African language pronunciation is as you read along; my attempts only make me respect these students all the more. In terms of sheer musicality, I quite like the anthem and that it even features a meter change (be it one measure). Interestingly, the second Youtube clip features the South African anthem from 1957-1994; note that is only in Afrikaans and just a bit different in tone and feel…

Indeed, most orchestral musicians, if given a choice, will prefer to perform concerts that features serious classical literature, but then again, the smaller outreach concerts are certainly not without their valuable points. There are countless musical differences from living in the US vs. South Africa, and one certainly learns more about their audience through these more intimate performances. As always, just like in the US, I feel that both country’s audiences are ready for more contemporary music…