With thrill and mild terror I am waiting at the back of an auditorium while the able bodied members of the orchestra – everyone else, it seems – set out chairs, move the grand piano, assemble instruments and pass out music. The piano lid is propped up high; the big double basses come out of vans and are wheeled in the side door. I’m hiding against the back wall, looking studious and hoping my inactivity is not too obvious. I’ve never in my life performed in an orchestra, this is exciting!
The conductor wanders past muttering numbers. Not the usual count, One-two-three-four, he’s up in the 70s. Chairs, I realise. He has the difficult decision: how many are coming?
The audience begins wandering in. All ages, but many are clearly parents with younger siblings in tow. The grey ones are grandparents, casting around the room for a grandchild that has grown half and inch and changed their hairstyle. Half the orchestra is my age, give or take a decade or two, and half are enormously talented school kids.
I will be playing bassoon, a very close relative of the beloved oboe. Oh, Oh Oboe! Strictly speaking, in the interest of full disclosure: it says bassoon on my score, I am playing the bassoon part, but not quite the bassoon itself. When it comes to the matter of actually blowing, it will be my bass recorder. None the less!
Ten minutes before we begin an extra row of chairs is put out. And another! Very promising.
Five minutes left and nearly every seat is full. Favourite Wife and Teen Girl have been shopping while we prepared (no surprise there) and now they are back to find a seat. There is a gentle murmur in the hall, gradually rising to a buzz of anticipation.
I’ve been to many concerts, but I have never felt like this. My childhood was peppered with concerts, or “the symphony” as my grandmother called it. I lived with my grandmother and great aunt for some of my teen years, and on the first Friday of every month they hosted a dozen or more of their school friends; having spent their whole lives closely connected. I sat in on the gathering now and then. We ate cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off. My grandmother used to freeze sliced bread, and then cut each slice in half, through the crust, to make the bread thin enough for this delicacy. Most of these older folk had season tickets to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and on account of their advancing years there was frequently one who could not attend. Which was my opportunity. I can’t easily forget the many long taxi rides into the city, wedged in the middle seat between fox fur and lavender. But arriving beneath Sydney Opera House and joining the dignified throng milling up the grand staircases dispelled all discomfort. Men wore dark suits, some carried silver topped canes, even the odd top hat was still to be seen.
But no orchestral concert felt at all like this one. This time I am utterly invested in each tiny detail. I cant believe how good we all look! And the inspired sparkle in the instruments warming up is impossible to miss. The opening item, a young string group, play beautifully; and the odd poorly tuned bar hardly rates attention as I feel so keen that they should succeed.
I first heard this orchestra, the junior orchestra at the Conservatorium in our city, on a cold, wintry evening only ten weeks ago. Woodwinds are becoming more taxing to blow as the months pass, and I was so energised by the performance that I conceived a whole new musical chapter playing 2nd violin. You may perceive a pattern here, harking back to a certain woodwind beginning with O. Having rashly purchased the O instrument outright, this time around I more cautiously hired a violin, enrolled at the Con, and got the shock of my life. I have been playing instruments and working with all manner of tools and machines most of my life, but I have never held in my hands anything as alien and awkward as that violin. The second violin part suddenly looked much less promising, and there being no call for a seventh or even an eleventh violin section, I packed the awkwardness of horse hair and cat gut back in its box. But I had, at least, given it a go.
My teacher – I am so grateful to him – was not the least concerned by my erratic flights of musical fancy, and simply suggested instead that I play Faux Bassoon. I’ve been practicing with the orchestra for just a few weeks now, entering an entirely new world of counting rests for a dozen bars, playing a flying run of semiquavers in very strange intervals, resting five counts, playing six and a half minims, and so on. The joy of being immersed right in the midst of this live, thrumming, beautiful sound is overwhelming.
Just a few minutes more and I will be sitting two chairs away from the oboist, and I will play the bass part for Gabriel’s Oboe, the haunting, glorious Enrico Moriconi piece from The Mission. The orchestra, our orchestra, will play ten pieces. It will be euphoric, I wish you were here…
And suddenly the audience is quiet, something is about to happen.
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