Hey! So, you've decided to embark on a musical journey and attend your first classical orchestral music concert! This is an exciting step that will hopefully lead to a deeper appreciation for the world of music. However, the prospect of attending a classical concert with its mysterious rituals and formalities might seem a bit daunting. So whether you're heading to the next Odyssey concert (Every Tree Speaks to Me!) or another classical performance, we’re here to help guide you through your first experience and decode the meaning behind some of the traditions you'll encounter.
Before delving into the nitty-gritty, let's get a bit of background about orchestras.
What is an Orchestra?
An orchestra is a large ensemble of musicians playing different instruments together, often led by a conductor. Orchestras have grown in size since they began hundreds of years ago and can now have as many as 120 people in them! Almost every composer will have composed music for orchestras as the amount of different instruments means the types of sounds created by an orchestra are nearly limitless! The instruments have also changed as new instruments are developed they are sometimes added into the orchestra depending on if the piece needs them. Some modern pieces have saxophones It's a harmonious collaboration that brings classical compositions to life.
What Kind of Instruments are in the Orchestra?
Orchestras feature a diverse range of instruments, and in a standard symphony orchestra, are normally divided into four sections;
strings (violins, violas, cellos, double basses), where the sound is made by dragging the bow over the strings to make them vibrate;
woodwind (flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons) where the player blows into their instrument;
brass (trumpets, trombones, French horns, tubas) which are also blown but are made out of metal;
and percussion (drums, cymbals, xylophones, and timpani to name a few) where the instruments are hit with mallets.
Although these instruments usually remain as the core makeup of an orchestra, as new instruments are developed they are introduced for certain pieces. For example, some orchestra pieces have saxophones and drum kits in them! (Have a listen to Duke Ellington’s Three Black Kings)
What Types of Music do they perform?
Orchestras perform a wide variety of music, usually from around the Classical Period, with composers like Mozart and Beethoven, right up to modern compositions. The versatility of an orchestra allows it to explore various genres and styles. Some common types of pieces are:
The Symphony - A large-scale orchestral work usually with four or five movements;
A Concerto - A Orchestral piece with a soloist who plays with the orchestra, these are usually very virtuosic, designed to show off the instrument or the player;
An Overture - Overtures are usually at the beginning of operas and act as an introduction to some of the music you might hear in the opera. Many of them are beautiful pieces of music in their own right, and nowadays lots of them are performed as standalone pieces in concerts;
Programme music - These are standalone pieces in which the composer has tried to put across a specific story or idea. Holst’s The Planets and Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf are good examples of this.
Orchestras don't only play in concerts. A big part of what orchestras do, especially in this country, is recordings and a lot of that is in film soundtracks. The orchestra's many instruments mean that it is really good at expressing all the different moods and drama in a film. Next time you're at the cinema try and see if you can listen to the orchestral music in the background!
Understanding the roles of all the different people in the orchestra will help to enhance your concert experience.
The Conductor's job is the hardest of all. A big part of it is making sure that everyone stays in time with each other, not easy when there are sometimes over 100 people on stage! The conductor is also responsible for shaping and guiding the interpretation of the piece. When you have such a lot of people on stage, all with their own interpretations of the music, it's useful to have someone in charge! The conductor communicates with the musicians with gestures and sometimes has a baton, a short white stick.
The Leader (concertmaster) of the orchestra is the violinist directly to the left of the conductor and has a special role in the orchestra as the right-hand-man to the conductor, helping to make decisions about the music, mostly relating to the string section, but sometimes to the whole orchestra. Since the conductor does not make any noise, sometimes it is more helpful to focus on following the leader, who takes their cues from the conductor.
Section Principals sit at the front of their sections and are in charge of keeping everyone within their section in time. They can also make specific technical decisions relating to the instrument and the music in rehearsals.
The Principal Oboe sits behind the strings in the middle of the orchestra and has a very special job even before the music has started. They are the musician that everyone tunes their instrument to, making sure that everyone is in harmony. There are two main reasons for this. First, the sound of the oboe carries well over the orchestra. But also historically the oboe was the instrument that resisted pitch changes the most. In string instruments, the wood will expand and contract based on the temperature and humidity which changes the pitch of the instrument. The oboe was more resistant to these external factors so that’s why people started to tune to the oboe.
Decoding Concert Etiquette
What Should You Wear?
This is sometimes the biggest worry for newcomers at classical concerts, who might have seen glamorised films and TV shows with people wearing suits and black tie. You’ll be pleased to know that the dress code for classical concerts has evolved and most venues don't have a dress code, so wear whatever makes you feel comfortable. However, at certain places like opera venues, you might want to dress up, especially if they are special occasions. It’s important to get that Instagram pic to show people where you’ve been!
When Should You Arrive?
Unlike some events where the idea is to be fashionably late, arriving on time is crucial for a classical concert. Many venues won't allow latecomers until an appropriate pause in the music. This makes sure there is as little disruption to the performers and other audience members as possible.
When Do I Clap?
Clapping etiquette can be a bit tricky. The general rule is to clap at the end of a piece to express appreciation. But you should try not to clap between movements, as each movement is part of a larger composition, and clapping might disrupt the flow of the piece. If you’re not sure then wait and see what everyone else does!
The Finale and Encore
As the concert concludes, be prepared for a series of bows from the musicians. This is their chance to thank you for listening to them! If the audience is particularly captivated, the orchestra might perform an encore – an additional piece to reward the enthusiastic crowd. If you’ve particularly enjoyed a concert or are impressed by the calibre of the musicianship, you can give a standing ovation as a sign of exceptional appreciation from the audience.
And that's it! All you need to know before you head off for your concert. We hope this guide enhances your enjoyment of future performances and has answered any questions you might have had. Feel free to share your experience with us, and welcome to the world of orchestral music!