I went to my first musical concerts in high school with my boyfriend, who was passionate about music and a talented singer. We began attending performances by the Philadelphia Orchestra, led by Eugene Ormandy, in Orchestra Hall in downtown Philadelphia. The affordable tickets were in what people referred to as the nosebleed section, up a long series of exterior fire-escape type steps. Climbing up those steps in the company of fellow concert-goers, chatting with the people in front of and behind us, became part of the ritual of concert-going. As did listening to the music from up high and afar, the members of the orchestra barely discernable as they played.
Because it was what I was accustomed to and a part of my youth and initiation to music, I continued to buy balcony seats for musical performances. Going to hear an orchestra, or even a quartet play, became synonymous for me with height and distance, and for some reason, I never thought to shift the paradigm.
But I’ve always longed to hear music up close. Not necessarily by sitting in the orchestra section of a concert hall, where the vastness of the environment would cancel out the shorter distance between me and the musicians. But in a living room, with a small audience—between ten and 20—the musicians and their instruments not more than 15 feet from me.
Chamber music has always been my favorite. Though the Philadelphia Orchestra was my first teacher of classical music, I felt more comfortable with a limited number of instruments and performers. As a lifelong practitioner of small, I’ve always found orchestral works overwhelming. There’s just too much going on for me to find my focus. Instead, my attention dips and soars, darts and jumps from the strings to the wind instruments, to the conductor, to the percussion, then on to the violins, and from there to the flutes, then to the violas.
Chamber music frees me from overwhelm, offering a scene I can take in at one glance or settle into and concentrate upon, allowing me to hold all the instruments in my sight or to zoom in on any one of them for some time. Acoustically as well, I can relax into the ensemble of instruments or home in on them one by one, appreciating fully the various sounds.
Last weekend, for the first time, I had the pleasure of sitting in an audience of four, listening to three cellists rehearse pieces they were playing for the first time in a while. How the opportunity arose is unimportant. What matters is the of thrill sitting within five feet of three cellos playing Bach, Saint Saens, and Barbara Strozzi, a woman composer from the 17th century.
Of all the strings, the cello, with its mellow, warm, silky sound, is my favorite. I love listening to a CD of Yo Yo Ma, and feeling the notes leaving the cello and swirling around me. And until last Saturday, that was the closest I’ve ever gotten to a cello and its music. But now I know what it’s like to hear the notes sailing off the strings, floating toward me, their vibrations penetrating me, so that I feel I am “hearing” with my whole body.
And although I’ve known about vibrato, I’ve never been able to focus on individual vibratos, a technique that some say starts from the heart and moves down the arm and hand. For the first time, this weekend I could see just how personal vibrato is, with one person preferring fast and narrow, and another slow and wide. Observing the three cellists and their vibratos this past weekend, I felt I was watching their hearts beating to the very music they were playing.
And all this is to say nothing of the splash of light beaming off the wood of each cello, in nearly the same spot, as if a portion of the instrument was glowing, the reflection itself vibrating along with the vibrato, which traveled from each cello over and into me, from heart to heart.