The Precise Magic of the Symphony

The modern orchestra produces order out of chaos, and something beautiful for the heart. /

An usher scans your ticket. You pass concessions, check your coat, and head up a grand staircase. Through the center doors you enter an orchestra hall, wander down a dimly-lit aisle, and find your seat. Settling into K34, you notice the rustling of sheet music. You tune in to the sounds of a black-tie army of sorts—artists, in uniform—moving about the stage with the ease of pre-performance preparation, arranging their various accessories, greeting one another. Sundry strings are plucked and rosin lovingly applied to bows. Some squeeze in a little last-minute practice, repeating a challenging phrase with precision. It’s a full, disorganized noise.

As you peruse your bulletin, the program begins. From quiet chaos to order. Lights and curtains lower. Out comes the symphony director with a warm greeting to his benefactors—and, of course, a stern warning about cell phones. The curtain lifts and the esteemed concertmaster enters, pulling a long A across her violin. Suddenly, a cloud of noise explodes as all the instruments tune. Within a few seconds, the orchestra is calibrated and falls silent. From stage right, the conductor appears, all tails and smiles. With a deep, proud bow, he accepts your applause and shakes the hand of the first violinist. With that introductory ritual complete, it’s time for the music.

It would be easy for a passive observer to dismiss what’s about to begin as pedantic or dusty. Background music. The stuff of movie soundtracks and holiday rituals. The modern symphony, however, is a marvel. The coordination required to pull it off can blow an observant mind away. The invisible and perfectly-controlled collaboration of a score. Dozens of human minds with their ...

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Issue 23 / May 28, 2015
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