Penguin suits all round. Everyone dressed in black like they were attending a funeral, coattails for the men and demure black pants for the ladies. They look like something about to happen when they enter the stage, like it is the moment they dream of, waking up from a long sleep. It was the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and we were perched in a balcony seat high above.
The thing that impressed me the most in our lofty viewpoint, was how much of the performance could be described as holding back. Power in restraint. You might say it characterized the whole performance. If you understand musical cues, Piano means playing softly. Forte means play loud. Fortissimo means give it hell. Play very loudly. Now if you could go through a performance, although it is clear they are playing with intense passion, truly 99% will be held back, with a few portions in the music leading to climaxes where musicians lean in on their instrument.
And surveying the orchestra, certainly there was great power there. It wasn’t just in the playing, the entire ensemble was a vision of hierarchy held tightly in check. In the violin section, there was the head violin known as the concertmaster, whose chair is right next to the conductor. There is no question he is the boss because all the other violin players stand up when he walks in. He bows, which is their cue to sit down again. They acknowledge his skill. He must have earned it. Similarly, the entire orchestra genuflects when the conductor walks in, and again, for soloists such as vocalists and piano player.
The conductor is most fascinating to watch. He looks like he has a bad case of Tourrettes as he dives in and out of scores, gesturing here, then there hands up, then counting, driving down like he is in a casino placing a bet on the slot machine. He is animated to the point of looking like a madman, flecks of spit or sweat flying off him as he gestures. He has no sheet music, unlike everyone else. His particular genius I guess, is that he knows it all by heart, every beat, every note what is happening now, and what he is anticipating. He is moving with the music while directing what will come next simultaneously and seamlessly. He has to understand the contribution of every single section, and how and when to bring it forth. It made me wonder who signs up for that, and how they are trained, and how you know if they are any good. They seem to get a lot of respect, and it seems their abilities place them in a rare niche few people could comprehend. Literally, he is momentarily sitting in the seat of God, directing the revolutions of the globe.
It made me wonder, watching all that restraint flow through the entire symphony, Mozart’s 40th and the last one he wrote before he died. Holding back. Everyone holding back and yet giving forth 100 per cent of their powers only where it counted. They riffed off each other, fed off the particular energy and place of every instrument. I tried to imagine how they practised at home. Was it with a recording of everyone else in the background, like singing Karaoke?
Power is like that. You don’t recognize it unless it is held back most of the time. At work, a good boss is one who only steps in when he or she has to and otherwise lets you do your thing. Micromanaging is the opposite, something akin to meddling, and it will drive you nuts. It will also make you understand that restraint of power, is what makes power, dynamic in the moments when it is exercised. Its very strength depends on the fact that you rarely see it.
Everyone gets their part, even if it is very short. They all get a chance to throw their hat in the ring and show their power. It won’t come often, but it will count when it does. When the conductor madly gesticulates and catches your eye, you had better be on. You will have your moment. All of your training, the moments you have visualized for so long during practise, will now come to life.
Fortissimo. Give it hell. Every dog will have his day. It’s what every boxer trains for, every musician, every actor. That moment. All the world’s a stage and we each get to play our part, as Shakespeare said. You will hold back for a long time. Sometimes it seems like years. But you will get your moment too, and when you do, don’t hold back. We were waiting for your power all along, and we will applaud along with the best of them, while you smile and bow.
Fortissimo. Don’t be shy. Give it hell. It’s what holding back for so long was all about. It’s your moment. Fortissimo!
It’s quite possible the Concert Master will smile too. It’s what He was waiting for all along.