Wave of sound: The revelation of live music

by Cinda Yager, Special to MPR
May 30, 2014

Technology — the technology of long-playing vinyl records — introduced me to classical music.

My parents owned a small collection mostly of Pete Fountain, big bands, symphonic bands, and polka, but also a collection of popular overtures, Gershwin, Russian favorites, and Ferde Grofe's The Grand Canyon Suite. My parents took my siblings and me to community band concerts and school concerts, and attended the concerts in which we performed. I played the piano and the french horn. We also watched Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic on television. Television gave me the sights and sounds of a concert, but not the physical sensations and immediacy.

In high school, my piano teacher loaned me her complete collection of Beethoven symphonies on 78 RPM records. I don't remember now if they were recordings of only one orchestra or several, or who the conductor was, but I remember spending the summer enraptured by that music. I wanted to hear a professional symphony orchestra, not the high school orchestra or a college orchestra or a community orchestra. I wanted to hear a professional orchestra play Beethoven in concert.

My first live concert with a professional orchestra came my freshman year in college: the Philadelphia Orchestra with Seiji Ozawa conducting. The program included Haydn's Symphony No. 60, Ravel's Mother Goose Suite, and Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. No Beethoven — but the Bartok made up for that absence. "A gigantic wave of sound," was how I described that concert to a friend.

I had sat in the second row directly behind the conductor. I could hear the conductor breathing with the beat, which was disconcerting during a 5/4 section. The orchestra's sound was not only in front of me, but surrounding me, and inside of me. I felt the sound wave vibrations hit my skin. That sounds weird, but it was like the sound flowed through me, not only into my ears. When it was loud? Unbelievable. My bones vibrated.

Live orchestra concerts energize me. I see the people on stage playing their instruments intent on the conductor's gestures, and there is motion everywhere. The energy from the people in the audience flows forward to the musicians, and the musicians' energy flows out, with the sound, to the audience. An orchestra concert stimulates the senses and makes the experience exquisitely physical.

How the sounds affect my mind and imagination is another matter. Since childhood, classical music has opened my imagination for play. The music also opens my heart to all kinds of emotion. A live concert brings all of this out with an immediacy, a humanity, not found anywhere else. I've laughed, cried, and become high from the music. Live concerts alter my consciousness.

But if I'm unable to attend a concert and it'll be broadcast live on the radio, I'm happy to listen to the radio broadcast. What's missing? What I would see: the musicians on stage, the conductor, the gleam of the brass instruments, and all the movement. I wouldn't feel the amazing energy between audience and musicians or the sound waves hitting my skin. I would still hear the music with a similar immediacy on the live broadcast. My imagination could play, and my heart could still be touched. As advanced as technology has become, though, there's still nothing like being there in the presence of live musicians creating that wave of sound.

Cinda Yager writes essays, fiction, and two blogs in Minneapolis. She loves classical music and has just published an e-book novel set in the classical music world, Perceval's Secret.

Interested in writing about classical music for Classical MPR? Have a story about classical music to share? We want to hear from you!

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