Last week my mom and I went to the ballet. I realized with some embarrassment that it’s been more than a few years since I’ve been to a ballet. I came away feeling very cultured and refined, with some unique and unexpected impressions from this night of music and art.
We had first row orchestra seats, front and center right up at the orchestra pit. Since I enjoy watching musicians playing as much as I enjoy watching dancers and other performers, I was thrilled with these seats.
When you sit that close to the front, in an opulent but small 1920s-era theater, it means that you’re really close to the stage. If I’d stretched, I could have almost touched the orchestra conductor. This put me in a rare position to hear nuances of the music that those farther back in the theater wouldn’t have heard.
I heard the conductor breathing. He began each musical phrase on an inhale or exhale. Since the conductor sets the tone for the entire orchestra, this seemed appropriate for him to be breathing the music, living the music.
Musical instruments sometimes make sounds besides just the music they were designed for. Fingers sliding on the strings of the cello or the bass. The click of the keys on the bassoon and the clarinet. To me, these mechanical sounds are part of the music, and something that can be lost listening to a recording or to electronically-produced music.
Tchaikovsky’s Serenade, the ethereal string composition that began the evening, featured female dancers in white airy garments. But from my seat, I could tell that even though these dancers floated like fairies, they were still just human like me. Skirts swished, toe shoes thumped with soft little hollow sounds as they twirled. Hearing these sounds made the experience no less magical for me.
The same was for the following two numbers – Bernstein’s Fancy Free, and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The movement, the music, the athleticism of the dancers – all of that goes into making a memorable ballet. But so does the clicking of the beads on the girl’s skirt in Fancy Free, and the thumping of feet as the male leads each performed their solo numbers.
Or the pounding of hands and feet beating the stage in The Rite of Spring, or the heavy breath of the lead dancers after their grueling solo of acrobatics. These sounds are invisible to those sitting in the mezzanine seats, with their grand overhead view of the entire stage.
My view was limited to the musicians right below me, and the dancers right above me. And I could hear everything. The next time I go to the ballet, I will do whatever I can to get those orchestra seats.