Monday, October 3, 2011

Building a Symphony

Did I tel
l you how I once sang a solo at The Albert Hall?
All right, I'll come clean and add that it wasn't an intentional solo. I was part of a group of enthusiastic amateur singers who had come together to sing Faure's 'Requiem'.
Over-awed by the splendour of the building, the privilege of participating, and the general excitement, I got carried away and came in a bar early in the 'Sanctus'.
Fortunately, my solo performance was short . . . very few people heard me.

This incident came to mind last Saturday when I was invited to a concert at The Albert Hall. It wasn't until we arrived that I learned where we'd be sitting. Not in the main body of the auditorium, but in the seats alongside the back row of the orchestra. There we were, behind the strings, facing the wooodwind, and cheek by jowl with the percussion.
In this position you were not so much a member of the audience as a silent component of the orchestra itself.

My view of the conductor was the one shared by those he was conducting. I was able to observe the intense concentration on the faces of the players - their periods of relative rest, the times of extreme activity, the page turning and the pauses - and to study their instruments in close detail.
Did you know that a drummer has at his disposal at least three different sets of drumsticks?

More than anything, it was fascinating to witness each individual contribution to the build-up of sound. Each note - however small, however seemingly insignificant - a perfectly positioned stitch in the formation of the musical tapestry.

We were halfway through the featured symphony of the evening when, to the left of me, a man rose to his feet. He had an air of purposeful concentration. On a stand in front of him was a small, metal triangle suspended on a frame. The man took a matching hammer in his hand and, with his eye on the conductor, stood . . . waiting. A few bars later his moment arrived. With quick precision, he brought the hammer down on the triangle.
Unlike my impromptu solo in the 'Sanctus', it arrived at precisely the right moment, the clear note blending smoothly with those rising from the other instruments in the orchestra. The man returned to his seat.

Had anyone noticed triangle's moment of glory? I doubt it. But, as an integral part of that moment in the music, it had made its mark. The concert lasted two hours, the triangle player lifted his hammer five times.

There's a story (you probably know it) of Sir Christopher Wren visiting the construction site for St. Paul's Cathedral. Three stone masons were working on the site and Sir Christopher stopped to speak to each one. He asked them, in turn, what they were doing.
The first mason explained that he was carving a piece of stone. The second replied that he was making the base for a pillar. But the third one looked up with an expression of pride, "I'm building a cathedral," he said.

For the percussionist at The Albert Hall I'm sure that the stone mason's conviction would ring true.
He wasn't playing a triangle . . . he was building a symphony.