Clocking In

The guy in front is sawing away at his cello, but what are he and all the other musicians thinking about?

Ralph Kirshbaum knows how to keep time.
Ralph Kirshbaum knows how to keep time.

Long waves of sound. No lyrics. How are you supposed to keep your concentration when an orchestra’s playing?

Here’s a breakdown for the 15-minute opening section of Antonin Dvorak’s cello concerto — the second of three works to be performed by the Spokane Symphony Orchestra this weekend. Stay focused.

Opening round of applause — The featured soloist, cellist Ralph Kirshbaum, has performed the Dvorak concerto in Munich, London, Sydney, and Denmark. His first time? “About 45 years ago.”

0:00 — Right from the top, when conductor Eckart Preu gives the downbeat, clarinetist Chip Philips plays four solemn notes. Kirshbaum considers the rhythm of the opening notes to be crucial. “When I enter three-and-a-half minutes later,” he says, “I have [the same phrase] in the major [key], and I have it forte [to be played loudly]. But it’s the same rhythm. And if it’s played in a slack kind of way, you’ve got problems.” (No pressure, then, on Philips.)

0:20 — Musicians, like listeners, tell themselves little stories about the music. For flutist Bruce Bodden, the opening passage is all about “an immense army snaking through the woods.” And his flute phrase here? “Forest creatures peeking out from their hiding places.”

1:30 — The cello section throbs in unison. Assistant principal cellist Helen Byrne says that “we all work on the Dvorak concerto in school, so we can appreciate it from the inside out.”

2:15 — In a horn solo, Jennifer Scriggins Brummett introduces the movement’s second main melody — aiming, she says, for “a yearning quality, like a distant memory.”

3:00 — A “last joyous outburst” from the orchestra, as Byrne describes it, “which relates to absolutely nothing else in the whole piece.”

3:30 — Kirshbaum finally makes his first entrance. His cello enters “on a tremolo [a single, wavering note], and it has to be like a clarion call,” he says. “When I teach this to young people, they seem to feel that they need to play it as loud as they possibly can, no matter the quality of sound. But I’m interested in how I can sustain that sound, that excitement.”

4:15 — Playing his flute licks, Bodden pictures “a mother pleading with her son to be careful as he goes off to join the army.”

8:30 — The full orchestra reaches another of its several crescendos. “Our job is to collectively help the audience get to another place,” says Rachel Dorfman, among the back-bench first violins, “to understand the music instinctively, and not to think too much but just let go.”

9:30 — The cello enters very softly, very slowly, as if playing a lament. “No! That’s totally wrong,” says Kirshbaum by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “It’s not pianissimo, and it’s not a lament.” He’s being nice about it, but it’s clear that he’s tired of cellists playing Dvorak’s score in “self-indulgent” ways while “disregarding” what the composer wrote. He pulls out his facsimile of the original manuscript — “smudged,” he says, as if Dvorak “spilled a cup of coffee or something.” And the passage in question?

“It’s written mezzo-forte,” he says, “and in the tempo of the second subject, which is not a lament. It’s a beautiful Czech song.”

12:00 — Kirshbaum’s cello plays a passage so ethereal that it has — I know this from personal experience — made grown men cry.

13:00 — Philips, meanwhile, has concerns that are less emotional than practical. He had plenty of clarinet solos in the evening’s opening work, Zoltan Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta — and near the end of Dvorak’s first movement, he says, he’s “already pretty tired.”

14:15 — The final minute features full-orchestra blasts alternating with virtuoso displays, with Kirshbaum’s hand traveling up and then down the fingerboard, urging the instrument to climb as high as it can go ... just before the Big Triumphant Concluding Fanfare.

15:30 — The SSO musicians still have another 26 minutes of Dvorak to go — and then, after intermission, the small matter of performing an entire Brahms symphony. At least they’re gonna rock Dvorak around the clock. 

“Dvorak’s Dramatic Concerto” (Classics 4) • Sat, Nov. 19, at 8 pm, and Sun, Nov. 20, at 3 pm • $14-$49 • The Fox • 1001 W. Sprague Ave. • • (800) 325-SEAT

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.