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7 things I learned at the symphony

Editorial Staff

Mira Burt-Wintonick is the producer of WireTap on CBC Radio One. She loves music, and studied piano as a teenager, but she’s a newcomer to symphony concerts. This year, she bought a three-concert subscription to the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, and it has been an education. We asked her to tell us about it.

I recently had the pleasure of attending a concert at the Maison symphonique de Montréal. As someone who doesn't get out to the symphony much (do real classical music fans even call it "the symphony"?), I wasn't sure what to expect, but the evening did not disappoint.

On the program were the Prelude from Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Debussy's Images and the world premiere of Montreal composer Walter Boudreau's Concerto de l'asile, performed by the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal with pianist Alain Lefèvre. The latter work is a tribute to Quebec poet Claude Gauvreau, who apparently spent much of his life in and out of psychiatric institutions, which would explain the chaotic nature of the piece.

The following is a list of things I learned at the symphony, which I hope might serve as a guide to any fellow neophytes venturing into the world of live classical music.

1. Don't be late.

As someone more used to attending indie-hipster shows in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood, where "doors open at 8" means things might get started around 10:30 p.m., I was not prepared for the opening notes of Wagner's Prelude to begin at 8 p.m. sharp. As such, I didn't have time to get to my seat in the chorus section, and had to sit in the latecomer, i.e. loser, seats at the back of the hall until intermission.

2. The conductor is God and can start over if he darn well feels like it.

The evening's conductor was Ludovic Morlot and about five minutes into the opening movement of Boudreau's Concerto, an awkward silence filled the hall. Morlot then turned around on his podium and announced that he wanted a do-over (never mind that the opening movement was such a jumble of notes that not a single soul in the audience had noticed whatever had apparently gone amiss).

3. The page turner has the most stressful job in the orchestra.

Pianist Lefèvre would do Beethoven proud, not only with his nimble fingers but with his long, feathered locks. Throughout the performance, he shook his hair feverishly with the rise and fall of each musical phrase, and I was worried that his page turner might lose an eye with each violent toss of Lefèvre's head.

4. Be prepared to chug your wine.

The intermission is just long enough to order a glass of wine, but not quite long enough to drink it. As the "please return to your seats" signal echoed through the lobby, seemingly classy concertgoers were forced to down their drinks like winos at an open-bar wedding.

5. Do bring cough drops.

The acoustics of the Maison symphonique de Montréal are such that you can hear the flourish of the second flutist's trill during a bold crescendo, the overtones of the harp during a gentle diminuendo and yes, the hundreds of individual coughs peppered throughout each and every movement. One cough every eight seconds, on average. (Yes, I counted).

6. Closing your eyes helps.

The chorus seats are the best in the house because you get to watch the conductor's amusing facial expressions. Whether it's twitching his nose towards his cellists to signal a more playful touch, or squinting his eyes menacingly in the direction of his bassoonists to demand more energy, these grimaces can be distracting. Closing one’s eyes can be a great way to block all that out and let the music wash over you.

7. Just about anything with a big finish will get a standing ovation.

It seems that no matter how disjointed or underwhelming a piece might be, as long as it builds to a dramatic finish, people will get up on their feet and cheer like nobody's business.

All in all, my evening at the symphony was quite a treat, and I look forward to going back soon now that I know the ropes.