The Husband Points Hidden in a Performance of the Brandenburg Concertos
by Ric Reichert
On a recent Sunday afternoon, my wife and I attended Santa Fe (New Mexico) Pro Musica's performance of the Brandenburg Concertos at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. All I knew about the Brandenburg Concertos is what I read in the program once I had taken my seat in the balcony. In 1721, Johann Sebastian Bach, at the request and urging of the Lord of Brandenburg himself, presented the monarch with a volume of handwritten concertos. In return, Johann (1685-1750) received no money, no thanks, nothing. In fact, the Lord of Brandenburg simply shelved the collection in his library where it remained untouched and collecting dust, not discovered for another hundred years, and finally published in 1850. According to the program, "The Brandenburg Concertos are recognized as supreme examples of Baroque instrumental music."
There are six of them; they are titled Concerto No. 1 in F Major, Concerto No. 2 in F Major, Concerto No. 3 in G Major, and so on, ending with Concerto No. 6 in B-Flat Major. Despite Bach's undertaking in naming the order of concertos, the Santa Fe Chamber Orchestra decided to perform them out of sequence anyway. This made it confusing to follow along in the program, although I quickly noticed the word Intermission printed squarely beneath the list of the first three concertos. Yahoo! That would be break time, a momentary reprieve, the proverbial light at the end of a dark tunnel. I remember thinking: They had better not reposition the intermission. I made a promise to myself that after three concertos, I was heading to the lobby bar for a beer, no matter what.
To my chagrin, I discovered that each concerto consists of three movements, something I had stumbled onto when I started to clap after what I thought was the end of the first song. Deceptively, it was only the end of the first movement. I didn't recall reading any information in the program regarding the number of movements to each concerto. (Apparently, you're already supposed to know this.)
"Why aren't we clapping?" I asked my wife, whispering.
"We don't applaud until after the concerto is completed. Generally, each of them has two or three movements."
Damn, that's nine pieces! I quickly did the math. The first piece lasted about ten minutes, times that by nine... That's ninety minutes before intermission! (It was also then that I learned that we applaud, not clap.)
I complained, "How was I to prepare myself?"
My wife turned the page of my program and pointed to the last paragraph, the section I had neglected to read. It seems that Bach (reading from the program) often employed a chain of fast - slow -- fast musical pieces comprising the three movements of most of his concertos. Luckily, the orchestra only played two parts of one concerto, so that sped things up a bit. But wait. I'm getting ahead of myself. I am writing events out of sequence.
My wife received her master's degree in vocal music. She studied at Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio which, because of a substantial monetary endowment given solely to the study of Johann Sebastian Bach's music, my wife acquired considerable knowledge and appreciation of the 18th century Master. "I love singing Bach," she told me. "He wrote beautiful choral music."
Over the course of our fourteen-year marriage, I have learned some interesting tidbits about Bach (specifically) and classical music (in general). (Most of which were forgotten as soon as I heard them.) I must admit that I am more intrigued by the history than the music, although I do know that there was the Baroque period (Bach and Handel), followed by the Classical (Mozart and Haydn), and then the Romantic (Tchaikowsky and Wagner). Ludwig Beethoven bridged the gap between Classical and Romanticism. Thank you... Thank you, very much. I remembered all that without having to look it up. (You can clap if you want. Applaud, if you must.)
So, when I read in the newspaper that Santa Fe Pro Musica was going to perform six Bach concertos, I immediately jumped at the opportunity to garner some husband points. "Honey," I said, "They're playing Bach's Brandenburg Concertos at the Lensic Theater next Sunday. Do you want to go?"
"Who's playing?" she asked.
"Who do you think? The Knicks."
She flashed me her, 'I'm not amused by your sarcasm,' look. Reading from the newspaper, I reported: "It will be performed by the Santa Fe Chamber Orchestra. Catherine Manson is scheduled to be the violin soloist."
I think my offer surprised her. "You'll really go?" she asked.
"Of course," I declared. "I love Bach."
"You do not."
"I do," I insisted.
"Then name one piece of his music."
Again, reading from the newspaper: "The Brandenburg Concertos." Smugly: "There, that's six."
During the drive downtown to the concert, I learned that the musicians would be playing only the instruments that existed during Bach's era, the early 1700s. For example: The piano had not been invented yet, so the chamber group would be featuring the harpsichord. There were no valves on the trumpet back then, so the instrument would be what is now referred to as a natural trumpet. Same for the French horn -- no valves to push along the air, only the lung capacity and the tactical lip-positioning of the player to create the strength of the notes. I'm told that natural instruments are far more difficult to play than their modern incarnations.
The Lensic Theater opened in 1931, originally built as a film and vaudeville palace. Looking down from the balcony, the stage had the ornamental and colorful facade of an old gypsy wagon. I could easily imagine watching wooden marionettes, manipulated by strings from overhead, dancing merrily around the stage, or watching another episode in the saga of the quarrelsome couple, Punch and Judy. According to their promotional blurb, the 800-seat theater remained in operation for nearly 68 years. It closed for a two-year, multi-million dollar restoration project. It reopened on April 22, 2001, with its unique architectural interior design still intact. Added were a few modern technological improvements: a new sound system, a special-effects control booth, a wider stage, and more bathrooms.
The musical director walked out onto center stage. He thanked us for attending the concert and for supporting the "Arts." Blah... blah... blah. He then apologized that this afternoon's performance (for reasons I didn't understand) was not going to follow the printed agenda in our handouts -- which (remember) was already out of sequence from Bach's original intention of Concerto No. 1 in F Major followed by Concerto No. 2 in F Major, and so on. At this point, I became confused by the landscape of the concert. Nothing made sense! I would have gladly walked out of the theater in utter disgust, voicing my disappointment with the musical director's clumsy artistic decision to rearrange the innovative sequence of the Brandenburg Concertos. My opinion was quite simple: If the concert was not going to be performed as Bach had intended, then I wanted no part of the aberrant deviation! However, reason quickly prevailed and I decided to keep that bit of theatrics in reserve. I might need it later... say, at intermission. I could suggest a compromise. "Honey, we've just listened to ninety minutes of music that confused me. Ninety minutes is a lot. Would you be disappointed if we left early?"
I settled back in my seat hoping that even if I didn't enjoy the music, I wouldn't find it excruciatingly long. I held my wife's hand.
The musicians walked onto the stage. Despite all of the director's shuffling and reshuffling of the program, the small orchestra played the first concerto of the Brandenburg Concertos first. On stage, were three violins, three cellos, two brass, two woodwinds, and a harpsichord. Behind the harpsichord sat a large instrument that I had mistakenly identified as a bass.
"That's a viola da gamba," my wife corrected.
"A la gumba, what?"
"A viola da gamba," she repeated slowly. "It's dramatically different from a bass."
"A viola da gamba has six strings. A modern bass, called a double bass, has only four."
"And the significance of that -- is?"
"I'm not sure," she admitted.
The artist playing the viola da gamba did so with energy and enthusiasm. She didn't have much to do (during the full scope of the concert) but what she did do, which was occasionally strumming her bow across the strings, she did with great relish. She was small and the instrument was tall and fat, and so she had to sit on three chairs stacked together in order to finger the neck for notes. She was constantly pushing her glasses back up the bridge of her nose as she concentrated down at her music sheet. She was intent on not missing even one single cue to draw her bow across the instrument. She was clearly delighted to be on stage, to be playing before a live audience. I enjoyed watching her performance.
The concert started; count down to intermission. It began with the three violins, and then one by one each of the other instruments joined in. (This is called a canon, I think. Don't ask me how I remembered that.) It was pleasant enough, not as snappy as Mozart though. With little else to do other than listen to the music, I constructed a scenario about when the double bass was first introduced to the world. The inventor was understandably excited. "Ludwig, look! I've created a new musical instrument."
"No, you haven't. That's a viola da gamba."
"No, it's not. A viola da gamba has six strings." Deliberately plucking each string, the inventor proudly declared: "This only has four. That makes it a new instrument."
Ludwig remained suspicious: "I don't think so."
"And look, Ludwig, I've shorten the bow, by a full three inches."
"Because there are fewer strings to play?"
"That obvious, huh?" A contemplative pause. "All right, forget the bow then, but the rest of it still constitutes a new instrument."
The music stopped abruptly. Jarred from my daydreaming, I began to clap, but my wife put a hand on my forearm (as she often does in social settings), to keep me from saying or doing something rude or stupid. That's when I learned we're not supposed to applaud until the concerto is finished, which would be after the third movement.
I looked around the auditorium. It was nearly three-quarters full. While the orchestra was shifting around, turning pages, adjusting themselves and their instruments, getting ready to begin the second movement, I asked my wife: "So, why is it we don't applaud after each moment? Lookit, the band is clearly finished playing music. They're doing other stuff."
"Because we don't," she snapped, not unkindly. She wanted me to stop talking, as I might disturb the people seated around us watching the musicians doing stuff other than playing music.
I was not about to give in. "Is it because some people might be sleeping... and there's no reason to wake them with unnecessary clapping?"
"Yes," she snapped again. "Now, please be quiet." She took my hand and squeezed it, which told me to behave myself.
The second movement began.
In retrospect (as I am now drinking a beer, listening to a Talking Heads CD, and writing about the six-pack Brandenburg performance), I have to say that my favorite performer of the concert was the young chubby French horn player who had a long ponytail, and who sat directly in front of the ensemble. Another French horn fellow sat to his left. He had short blonde hair.
What made Ponytail so amusing to watch was that he must have thought he was practicing alone in his bedroom; totally oblivious (or unconcerned) with the fact that he was actually performing in front of a live audience, some of whom must have been as bored as he was acting. Truth was: he couldn't sit still, not even for thirty seconds.
He would stand and play a line of music, his face quickly turning a bright and florescent red. Finished, he sat. Now, his partner, the French horn player to his left, would discreetly cradle the spiral instrument in his lap, holding the funnel and mouthpiece toward the floor. Natural horns have no spit valve, so a player must rely on gravity to drain any build up. But not Ponytail. He was impatient. He would hold the horn off to the side and shake it as if it was a bottle of slow moving ketchup. Occasionally, he would look down into the brass funnel, checking the progress, and then shake it some more. Behind him the other musicians continued playing in earnest, not distracted by his antics. Not me. I was captivated.
He stood, played some notes (his face turning red), then sat. He started shaking out his horn again. Not satisfied with the sluggish progress this time, he removed the mouthpiece, leaned forward, and blew into it. He returned the mouthpiece to the instrument and crossed his legs. He began staring intently down at his shoes. Evidently, some spit had landed on a shoe. In another moment, he was rubbing his left foot against his right calf, drying the shoe against his pant leg.
Ponytail stood. More notes. A lot of notes this time. I thought his lungs would burst from the strain. His face turned an Irish crimson. I had guessed correctly. The poor boy sat exhausted, slumping into his chair. Once his breathing recovered, he became distracted again. He began inspecting his tuxedo jacket, picking off several pieces of lint and flicking them onto the floor. I imagine his professionalism restrained him from yawning straight out.
The first concerto ended. We applauded, the players bowed, and then they departed the stage. Two teenaged boys came out and began moving the chairs and music stands around, setting up for the next piece. When the orchestra retook the stage, the French horn players were not among them. I was disappointed. Whom would I watch? The orchestra began playing. I studied each of them, hoping to discover a mannerism that might be interesting to watch further. Nothing. When they weren't playing, they sat or stood quietly, waiting for their entrance to rejoin the song. Oh, well. I sat back in my chair, determined to enjoy the concert, to open my mind to a new experience. At least the seat was comfortable. That helped.
End of the first half. Much applause. The house lights went up. Like me, many in the audience stood slowly, a little creaky from sitting politely for an hour and a half. Looking around, I saw a sea of arms stretching up toward the ceiling, faces yawning, and fingers busy doing isometric exercises.
The intermission turned out to be something of an unexpected experience, as well. No beer. The theater bar only offered glasses of high-priced wine and a few top-shelf liquors. Neither of which I drink. I was a little embarrassed when I ordered a Michelob and the bartender cleared his throat, saying (rather snooty, I thought): "We don't have beer, sir. But there is a local pub two doors down." He warned: "You would be wise to remain standing by the front door, sir. You're not wearing a leather jacket with cut away sleeves."
An interesting sales technique, I thought. 'Have a beer if you must, but you might be assaulted for your trouble. But to remain truly safe, you can enjoy what we have displayed on the shelf... at ten dollars a shot.'
I pointed to a rather fancy-looking bottle with an impressively frilly label. It turned out to be a single-malt Scotch. "Excellent choice, sir," said the bartender. "You must have a discriminate palate." (My Aunt Helen. He wanted a good tip -- bath water would have been an excellent choice.) Nonetheless... it was smooth. I ordered another, suddenly wishing I had an expensive Cuban cigar to go along with the fine drink.
My wife has just finished reading the rough draft of this article. Her comment: "You didn't mention Catherine Manson [the solo violinist]. Her performance was unquestionably superb. Her phrasing was exact and emotionally uplifting. She inspired and guided the orchestra to excellence."
I swallowed a slug of beer. "Yeah, but she wasn't funny."
Would I go to another classical music concert? You bet. Solid husband points are difficult to come by. Besides, all in all, I had enjoyed myself. It was a remarkable experience. Much akin to looking at a primitive sketching scrawled on a cave wall, the marvel of pyramids, intricate Mayan villages carved into a side of a mountain, or early irrigation systems built rock by rock across vast acres. Discovering a creative mind expressing itself, despite the technical limitations at any given point in our human past, is a wondrous understanding. I had spent the afternoon with an imagination from three hundred years ago, listening to a musical composition limited by three violins, three cellos, two brass, two woodwinds, a tinny-sounding harpsichord, and a viola da gamba. Not a single drum, electric guitar, or special-effects machine. So yes, I would attend another classical music concert.
Well... not tomorrow.
About the author:
Ric Reichert lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with his lovely wife and her two cats. Several of his stories have been published, including Writer's Hood (both the humor and general fiction sections), Flashquake, Literary Review, and Pindeldyboz (his second piece). Currently he is working on his first novel, The Kabuki Family.