An Orchestral Dilemma

The Fargo-Moorhead (FM) Symphony played at the NDSU Festival Concert Hall last Saturday and Sunday (September 29 & 30). The program was one of five in the Symphony’s Master Concert Series. The remaining four will be throughout the academic year with the next being on the 10th and 11th of November.

The ensemble performed three pieces, each by a different well-known Russian composer. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Dance of the Tumblers opened the concert followed by Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23. It closed with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47. This program is extremely dramatic and romantic, but to truly convey this romance, an orchestra must interact with the audience.

The most important part of a symphonic performance, just like any performance, is the complex exchange of interactions between an audience and performers. Frankly, it is very rarely done well. Orchestras have become impersonal, attracting audiences that feel some need to show off affluence, maturity, and heightened western cultural awareness.

But this is not always the case. Sometimes conductors try to engage audiences by explaining aspects of the performance. Sometimes members of the ensemble are introduced. Other times jokes are told to discharge the air of seriousness. All of these things are done in attempts to break down the obvious barrier that exists between stage and house. Even though jokes were told and explanations were given at the FM Symphony concert, the barrier still existed, and it could have very well been tradition’s fault.

A traditional symphonic orchestra consists of a U-shaped seating arrangement around a conductor whose back is turned toward the audience. This set-up immediately removes the audience from the performance. Onlookers strain to be a part of this orchestral bubble that is formed on stage, and the performers do next to nothing to pop the bubble. Although not true of all orchestras, it is true of the FM Symphony: the performers simply do not look into it. Their enjoyment of the performance is barely perceptible.  With music as emotional as Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto and Shostakovich’s fifth symphony, it should be hard not to display feeling, but it was hard to see. The emotion could be heard, but not seen. If this is the case, why go to a live performance?

One reason to attend would be to see a soloist like pianist Benjamin Moser play Tchaikovsky. He, unlike the members of the orchestra, let his emotions drip from his face and hands. It was mesmerizing to watch his interaction with the piano. His face showed the piece’s drama as much as his fingers voiced it. His willingness to give of himself caused an eruption of applause and the audience’s appreciation was palpable.

Aside from many of the performer’s zombie-like tendencies, the FM Symphony is worth the watch and $5 student rush tickets. As stated before, the emotion of the music could be heard—just not seen. There is no doubt that the FM Symphony is extremely talented, they only lack the interaction between audience and themselves.

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