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ORCHESTRA by Sian Prior
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ORCHESTRA by Sian Prior

The woman sitting next to the principal viola player is laughing herself silly. Leaning back there in her shimmering black dress, instrument perched comfortably on her knees, she’s laughing and shaking her head, and I want to know why. What did he just say to her? Is he reminding her of the last time they played ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ and half the audience got up to leave after the initial fanfare because that was the only bit of the piece they’d heard before (thanks to ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’), and they thought it was time for interval? Or is he re-telling a lewd joke the trombone section has been passing around in the last few days?


She stops laughing, picks up her instrument and starts tuning up. A tuneful cacophony. It sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s not. I remember sitting in the midst of all those instruments, listening as the mad mix of notes distils into melodies, phrases, tricky little solos which are getting a last-minute rehearsal. And then suddenly the musical melee dies down, the oboe sounds a mournful concert A, and one by one the different sections of the orchestra join in, searching for the exact pitch, tweaking pegs and adjusting mouthpieces until everyone is satisfied.


Sitting in the circle of the Melbourne Concert Hall watching the BBC Symphony Orchestra preparing to play, I’m imagining myself sitting in the middle of the woodwind section, moistening my clarinet reed and waiting for the conductor to arrive on stage. It’s the smells I remember most vividly, the cork grease, the trumpeters’ sweat, the flute-player’s delicate perfume, and the faint scent of rosin wafting from the string section. And the nerves. I remember the sharpening of concentration that comes with the knowledge that in approximately ten seconds the conductor will pick up that baton, make eye contact with every single player, and then we’ll be off.


They’re extraordinary, those opening moments of ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’. It’s as if Strauss wrote the piece back to front, so that it ends with the beginning, and begins with the end. Is that the contra-bassoon making that low rumbling sound in the first bar? Sounds like an old boat chugging along in a quiet bay. Better watch out, there’s a tidal wave of sound on its way. And when it comes, with an inexorable crescendo of brass, it pins us to the back of our seats in the auditorium. Magnificent. I could go home satisfied right now. But I won’t, because after interval they’ll be playing ‘The Firebird’ suite, and  I’ll be right there in the middle of the wind section again, simultaneously thanking and cursing Stravinsky for writing those fiendish clarinet solos. That’ll be me, hunched over the music stand, desperately counting bars and trying to calm my breathing as I anticipate getting my fingers around the next crazy cascade of notes.


Sitting in the audience, fifteen years after I last played in an orchestra, I can still feel my heartbeat speed up in anticipation of those Firebird solos. It’s easy for birds, they just open their throats and out it pours. But when Stravinsky decided to imitate birdsong in this suite for ballet, he created a set of musical hurdles to challenge even the most virtuoso player.  Here they come, diddly-iddly-iddly-ump-diddly-ump, ump-diddly-ump, ump-diddly-ump, diddly-iddly-iddly, trillllllll (phew, one down, about nine to go).


When the piece comes to an end I’m relieved - and sad. It’s a bit like hopping off the Big Dipper, limbs still trembling from the adrenalin rush.  You can see the same look on the faces of the musicians. Made it!  The conductor understands, and for the final encore he chooses a lovely, slow piece by Rachmaninov to calm everyone down. I wander out of the Concert Hall into the balmy autumn evening, the wet saliva tang of bamboo reeds still in my nostrils, and make a resolution to pull out my clarinet again, just for old times sake.




Sian Prior: Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, Teacher, MC


Twitter: @sianprior

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