First-row seating sheds new light on Beethoven's 9th

By anne
January 14, 2006 - 17:53.

I had intended to get tickets the moment I saw Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in the Minnesota Orchestra brochure I received months ago, but you know how we all get busy and forget. Then I found out that a workmate is a member of the Minnesota Chorale, which would be performing the piece otherwise known as Ode to Joy, and felt a pang of regret. Fortunately, I was able to nab two last-minute tickets for last night’s concert. My friend Katie and I made it to our seats (sorry…excuse us…horrible traffic…sorry…excuse us) by 5 minutes to 8:00.

Did I mention we were seated smack in the middle of Row 1?

I’d never sat in the first row for an orchestra concert, although I once locked eyes with the lead actor (and most gorgeous man alive, although his name escapes me) from the front row of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at a theater in Washington, D.C., back in the summer of 1980.

The benefits of Row 1: Less expensive ($40 compared to the $78 we would have paid in Row 10); “insider” feeling, including close-up view of every first-chair string player’s facial expression, and of the equally expressive jumpings and jivings of the conductor’s backside; potential dates (there were single men seated alone on either side of us, if you can assume single status by the absence of a wedding band); ease of reading program notes because of the same bright lights that enable the musicians to read their music.

The curse of Row 1: Entirely too much intimacy with the players, including the female violinist into whose crotch I was positioned to stare throughout the performance (I wasn’t dozing off…I was just keeping my eyes closed). It’s like they’re sitting across from you at the dinner table, and you feel bad taking a bite because they’re busy working. It seems disrespectful, somehow, to be privy to the mechanics of what looks like smooth operation from a distance.

Actually, it was kind of cool to be close enough to hear every snuffle and grunt of players mightily bowing sixteenth notes—it reminded me that music is physical. Speaking of which, principal cellist (and fabulous eye candy) Anthony Ross kept it going even as his bow began disintegrating in front of us, one horsehair at a time. (I doubt most of the audience noticed that.) And it was a magical experience to gaze up into the eyelashes and nostrils of guest pianist Wonny Song, who is nearly 30 years old but looks 17, as he smiled, winced and otherwise emoted throughout Beethoven’s spellbinding Fantasy in C minor, performed in the first half of the concert. The sight of Song’s hands flying across the keyboard is a thrill I won’t forget.

While this is not by any stretch a review of the performance, I must mention Minnesota composer Steve Heitzeg’s Peace Cranes, performed as the perfect hors d’oeuvre to the evening’s classical meal. Three elegant women (Pamela Arnstein, Angela Fuller and Sarah Kwak) walked to front and center, raised their violins, and filled Orchestra Hall with the sound of cranes majestically soaring, “a metaphor for the aspirations of the human spirit” (quote from program notes). Katie and I sat there in the front row, looking up at swaying hems of black dresses, occasionally spotting an elbow or a lock of up-do in motion beyond the perimeter of the three music stands that blocked our view, and—not so much watching as listening—we were in awe.

The STRINGS all soar, the REEDS implore,
The BRASSES roar with notes galore.
It’s music that we all adore,
It’s what we go to concerts for.

—Lloyd Moss, from his children’s book Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin

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