[Paleopsych] NYT: Cracking the Secret Orchestral Codes
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Cracking the Secret Orchestral Codes
February 13, 2005
By DANIEL J. WAKIN
THE curtain had fallen on opening night at the Metropolitan Opera's
revival of its lavish production of "Turandot," and the cast was
basking in applause. Some of that applause was coming from the
musicians in the pit, who stood clapping or tapping their bows on
music stands. But something was different here. Usually, the players
are out of the door before the audience members, even beating them to
the bus stop.
To the untrained eye, it might have looked like a spontaneous show of
appreciation for the cast; or maybe the conductor, Bertrand de Billy;
or maybe Andrea Gruber, the Turandot, who recently made a comeback
from an addiction to painkillers. "The orchestra was very fond of the
conductor, and they were rallying around Gruber," said Ronald Arron, a
violist in the orchestra that night last month.
Appreciation, maybe, but spontaneous, no. As it turns out, it is
tradition at the Met for the orchestra to stand and applaud the first
performance of an opera during the season.
"The deal is," Mr. Arron added, "for the first show of a run, the
orchestra stays in the pit for the bows." It is partly to show
appreciation of the singers but also for the benefit of the audience
and the critics.
From dress to choreographed movements and the courtly interplay
between conductor and musicians, the classical music stage is rich in
etiquette and sometimes hijinks that are not always obvious to the
audience. Chronicling this tradition goes back to Hector Berlioz and
his classic "Evenings With an Orchestra," a collection of essays
dissecting the world of 19th-century orchestras and musical culture.
As a lifelong concertgoer - even a sometime orchestra member - I had
been aware of many of these practices. But in five months on the
classical music beat, I have come to be amazed at their breadth and
intricacy. Such traditions figure in the argument by some that
classical music's popularity suffers from stuffiness, although plenty
of musicians and fans welcome their sense of timelessness and
"It's true, we do strange things," said Eric Wyrick, the concertmaster
of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and a wry commentator on the
subject. "Who knows why?"
As concertmaster, Mr. Wyrick is in the thick of these rituals. With
the orchestra seated, he comes out for a solo bow before the
conductor. "I don't know why I have one," he said, "but there it is."
The tradition may have its roots in the days before the invention of
the modern conductor, when the first violinist or a keyboard player
would lead the group.
Before the concertmaster emerges, many American orchestra musicians
are likely to straggle out, tune up and even practice that evening's
parts. European orchestras tend to tune backstage and come out all
together, as the London Symphony Orchestra did recently at Carnegie
Hall. For some, the difference is striking. "We in Europe think the
American habit of sitting onstage for half an hour is abominable,"
said Harold Clarkson, a former cellist who represents orchestras on
tour. "In Europe it always causes comment."
Onstage, the American concertmaster's nod to the principal oboist
produces an A for the winds to tune to concert pitch, and another A
for the strings. As Mr. Wyrick tells it, the conductor enters and
shakes his hand. Sometimes they exchange half bows. "It's a very
antique way of greeting," Mr. Wyrick said. "It's theatrical, except
that musicians are not very theatrical-minded, so it comes off as
Often a conductor signals for the orchestra to stand. Once, an
imperious Russian conductor told Mr. Wyrick that the orchestra should
rise on his entrance, a command that could rub proud musicians the
wrong way. Mr. Wyrick said he defused the situation by saying,
"Maestro, we will stand up when you ask us to stand, because we want
to follow you right away."
During performances, orchestra musicians have their own internal
rules, too. Never turn around if someone makes a mistake. (New York
Philharmonic musicians speak of one colleague who got into hot water
for doing so.) Never turn a page if someone nearby has a solo. Signal
praise with a slight shuffling of the feet. For a nearby string player
who has a solo, a slight rubbing of the music with the edge of the bow
does the trick.
"Musicians have incredible peripheral vision," said Carl Schiebler,
the personnel manager of the Philharmonic. "They're looking at their
music and watching every nuance of the conductor. Any kind of unusual
motion on the stage is noticed immediately by everybody." At the end
of the concert, the orchestra takes its cue from the concertmaster
about whether to rise again. Occasionally, when the orchestra feels
particular warmth toward a conductor, it will show appreciation by
declining to rise (again, at the concertmaster's cue).
"There's nothing that will make the conductor any happier," said Mr.
Arron, the Met violist. He paused and added, "Other than a good
Mr. Wyrick said he has seen conductors steal bows by not asking the
orchestra to rise and pretending to bask in their glow.
Tradition also dictates that in certain pieces with major solos, the
conductor will acknowledge individual players or sections by having
them rise separately.
"Some conductors will actually go into the orchestra and individually
shake hands," said John Hagstrom, the second trumpeter of the Chicago
Symphony Orchestra. "Rostropovich is famous for kissing people," he
said of the bearlike Russian cellist-turned-conductor Mstislav
Rostropovich. "It's fun because he's Rostropovich. If some young
conductor did that, you'd think he's nuts."
In German and Austrian orchestras, the two players who share a music
stand may shake hands at the end of a performance. "It's a very nice
thing," Mr. Clarkson said. "You thank your stand partner for the
evening." Japanese musicians, he added, will sometimes bow to each
It is usually up to the concertmaster to decide when the applause has
died down enough for the orchestra to leave the stage.
Mr. Clarkson, who represents the Vienna Philharmonic on its American
tours, pointed out other quirks about that orchestra, one of the
world's most venerable. It hangs a spare instrument from a music stand
in each violin section and in the viola section as a backup in case a
string breaks. (Most string players keep an extra set of strings in
their pockets, though occasionally you will see a hobbled player
simply sitting and taking in the performance.)
The Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna State Opera, for which the
players do double duty, have their own collection of instruments, Mr.
Clarkson explained. So the musicians often play instruments that are
not their own and would have no problem switching to a spare. The
Vienna Philharmonic even takes its own violin repairman on tour.
Mr. Clarkson also points to a particularly endearing tradition that
comes into play in Strauss's opera "Der Rosenkavalier." At the
beginning of Act III, Baron Ochs asks the waiters at an inn -
"beetles," he calls them - what they are doing. When they reply,
"Serving, Your Grace," the orchestra sings along.
Backstage traditions at some orchestras include decades-old poker
games. At the Metropolitan Opera, the game extends back at least to
1940, said Craig Mumm, a violist in the orchestra. Hands are played
during tour travel, breaks in rehearsal and, most famously,
"We really play fast," Mr. Mumm said. "Of course, we don't have time
with intermission to be changing chips, so everything is done in
cash." The games of choice are stud, draw, Omaha and the increasingly
popular Texas hold'em. Stakes range from $2 to $8 a bet, he said.
Some operas are better than others. The current "Turandot" production,
for instance, has 38-minute and 29-minute intermissions. "That's a
great poker opera," Mr. Mumm said.
More genteelly, the Met players have a tradition of wishing one
another a good season before the year's first performance.
Another realm of tradition is dress. The New York Philharmonic's
manual for musicians lays out the requirements in meticulous,
carefully calibrated detail, lending support to the stuffiness
For main subscription concerts in the evening, men must wear formal
black tails, formal black trousers, long-sleeved white shirts, white
bow ties, white vests and black shoes. Black, floor-length,
long-sleeved gowns or black skirts with long-sleeved black blouses are
prescribed for women. No pants allowed.
During matinees, men substitute black or midnight blue suits and long
dark ties for the tails. Dresses for women can rise to midcalf;
wide-leg "palazzo-style" pants are permitted.
The formality diminishes for summer concerts. The code is white jacket
and white short-sleeved shirt for men, black bow tie and black pants.
When it is too hot for jackets, white long-sleeved shirts are allowed.
Women must stay with the floor-length black skirt and long-sleeved
white blouse. Still no pants. The dress code is the same for the men
for the parks concerts, although women may wear short-sleeved white
blouses, midcalf black skirts - and, finally, pants if they want.
Some traditions are even musical. Different orchestras may play the
"Air on the G String" from Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 3, the
Allegretto from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony or the Barber Adagio to
honor a dead colleague.
Mr. Hagstrom spoke of another honor, usually for an orchestra member,
that occurs at least at the Chicago Symphony. It is a spontaneous,
improvised fanfare, often in the key of E flat, played by the brass
section. The last time the Chicago brasses played the fanfare was
during an evening last year honoring Adolph Herseth, the orchestra's
legendary principal trumpeter, who had previously retired after a
half-century in the orchestra, Mr. Hagstrom said.
It is one of the rarest traditions, he said, and one of the most
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