Notes from the back row: Is hearing the same as listening?
By Charlotte Cerminaro
As performers, most of our difficult life lessons take place in public. The relative privacy taken for granted, like struggling quietly in the back of a math class, is almost non-existent when so many hours are spent on stage. Making matters worse, we're expected to grasp extremely difficult concepts, on the spot. My first few years in a professional orchestra were fraught with nearly-impossible and unavoidable lessons.
It was the first rehearsal of a favorite Bruckner symphony, surrounded by a hundred other musicians. I felt that familiar twinge of anticipation. One of the legendary conductors was standing on the podium, waiting impatiently to begin. He gazed across the large orchestra, seeing what he had to work with. Looking for the horns, his gaze met mine--the usual ‘sizing-up’ of a new player--and his slight nod was one of acknowledgement, not approval. I had no idea that I was about to learn a lesson most profound. The highest artistic standards and performance practices, handed down, one generation to the next for hundreds of years, cannot be learned anywhere else.
The conductor raised his hands; there was an instantaneous, electrified hush. With his downbeat the delicate, almost translucent tremolo in the strings--the opening of Anton Bruckner’s huge and majestic 4th Symphony--emerged out of the silence. A lone horn call joins in, quiet and noble. The conductor’s hand went up, a “too loud” gesture. I pulled back, but he still wasn't happy.
“Yes, soft. But restrained!” He paused, “Just listen.”
I thought I was listening. This same scenario played out several times that morning. He kept saying, “Like you're restraining something”. I asked if he wanted more intensity, but that wasn't quite right. So he repeated, “Just listen.”
By the end of rehearsal my frustration was about to boil over, but more than determined to understand what I was missing. Putting on an old recording of that piece, I listened. And listened. Then I heard.
Next morning’s rehearsal started much the same way. This time, my entrance brought no gestures, no comments. As I listened, I realized it was the big picture, the overarching view of the piece that our esteemed conductor was taking. The opening call, while quiet and noble, reached out with a solemnity, a carefully restrained power that continued to crescendo into the massive chorales and cadences later in the piece. Even in the triumphant call repeated with all eight horns together, marking the end of part one, there was a tremendous power barely contained, beautifully balanced as a delicate structure. The release from the melancholy this time was palpable, where it had been absent before.
At the end of the final concert that week, our energy expended, the applause continuing, our conductor turned my way and once again made eye contact. Claudio Abbado rarely smiled, but his slight nod of approval bestowed a responsibility that I have never forgotten. It was a humble reminder of my place in the long span of time and tradition. The deep emotional peace, an afterglow of the music and its own glory, was merely an awareness of things much greater than ourselves. Not just perception, but perspective. Most people believe that the golden age of orchestral music is over. They're probably right, but as long as there are musicians who know and still remember what our job really is, that mantle of tradition will continue.
Charlotte B. Cerminaro is a Juilliard-trained classical musician who, in addition to being a studio and orchestral musician, enjoys writing. © 2019