18 December 2011

The Percussion Section

I went to hear the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra last evening. This orchestra travels about the Twin Cities area and last night’s venue was the United Church of Christ on Summit Avenue. I say this to emphasize that this particular stage was designed as a platform for religious ceremonies and not as a concert stage. The orchestra must fit into a much smaller space.
Thus it was that during the final piece, Haydn’s Symphony #100, the Military Symphony, from my seat I observed three men sitting to the rear on the right of the chancel. They sat behind a low wall and since I did not see any instruments I assumed that since there were microphones everywhere they were recording the concert for later air play. They were dressed, however, in the traditional black of the orchestra and so I knew that they were part of the unit itself.
But during the third movement, I believe it was, all three stood up and transformed themselves into a percussion section. The first beat on a drum, the second clashed a set of cymbals, and the third dinged the triangle. While they played—several minutes at most—they focused intently on the music on their stands before them and played with a seriousness and concentration no less engaged than that of the first violins. When they were done they sat down and did not move nor waver in the attention they continued to pay to the rest of the orchestra. Then, towards the close of the final movement, the three men rose again to join in the glorious conclusion to the symphony, beating the drums, the cymbals and the triangle.
I wondered what these players thought about as they sat immobile during the majority of the piece, and then how that thinking changed as they became transformed into the percussion section without which the symphony would have been incomplete. They were essential but marginal. In an entire symphony they were involved in 10-20 bars, and yet they were responsible for the entire evening. They received compensation for the entire evening. I marveled at their attention, their patience and their dedication.
I recall hearing recently Beethoven’s “Creatures of Prometheus,” and noticing on the stage a harp. And yet during the performance that harp remained silent for all but one small section of the entire thirty-minute piece. I thought, how remarkable, that in his composing Beethoven heard this sound of the harp in this one particular place and was compelled to write the sound into the piece. And that the harpist sat throughout the piece and even through the entire evening of music awaiting her moment.
There is, of course, a metaphor in this somewhere. And the concert was wonderful. I especially appreciated the percussion section.


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