But when you sit hemmed in by the musicians -- inside the orchestra itself, at a rehearsal -- suddenly the tuba is stunning your eardrums and the violin bows are flying straight at your eyeballs. Sit still and hold on tight; you don't want to disturb the lady playing the piccolo.
But once you relax into the cramped intensity of a Spokane Symphony rehearsal, there's a dawning realization that the music isn't linear anymore. Instead, it surrounds you, making those big crescendos a spatial experience: double basses at your left elbow, trombones to your right, cellos just ahead, the timpani bouncing you out of your chair from behind.
Suddenly it makes visual sense, how musicians talk about the contributions from an orchestra's different sections. What seems mostly undifferentiated from out in the audience during a concert is different here, requiring me, physically, to turn about: woodwinds to the right of me, basses to the left of me, onward we march, assembling a concert.
Surrounded by Sound
Even 15 minutes before a rehearsal's scheduled start, the musicians' warm-ups still resound and boom way off into the wings of the INB Center stage. Some of the players mill around, selecting scores filed for them in large black boxes backstage.
Once I'm settled in my seat, principal tuba player Leonard Byrne leans over and remarks, "It's very unusual for someone to be allowed in for a first rehearsal" -- especially for a rarely performed work like the Gliere symphony today. "None of us has a clue about this one," he says with a wink. "This could be painful."
Music Director Eckart Preu sits up front, wearing a turtleneck. He sighs, counts heads in the horn section, practices his conducting with little arm movements.
After a tinkling of bells, the massive orchestra for the Gliere symphony, 89 strong, leans in to hear personnel manager (and piccolo player) Gale Coffee make some important announcements.
It was my first Symphony rehearsal, and I was eager to hear what musical nuggets of wisdom she might have to offer.
"If any of you got parking tickets last week..." Some chuckling.
"Tuesday's rehearsal will be in concert dress..." Huge groan from the musicians, especially the guys in the brass section.
The trombone guys are ribbing one of their own. "The Super Bowl? Is that today?" -- "No, tomorrow." (A lie. The game was on right that minute.) "Where's it being played?" -- "Right here in Spokane." Stifled laughter.
I have idealized musicians all my life, but it's becoming obvious that their music comes out of mundane circumstances.
Eckart's waving for attention, sounding out what he wants to hear. "There's another cut at 39 to 45 -- this was all e-mailed to you," he says. "In the first violins, the last beat in 39 is a G natural... bee-dop-bah-bah."
One of the trombonists -- the one who knew nothing about the Super Bowl -- is reading Newsweek. Another appears to be dozing off.
Then the horns come in sounding late and flat -- even to my untrained ears -- and the trombone section sure is awake now.
Eckart directs that "71 should really be fortissimo for the basses and bassoons -- everyone else, mezzo-forte crescendo."
And then a bit later: "Four measures before 25... expressivo -- whenever it says that, that has to really come on strong."
As he lets them play the crescendo, Eckart swirls his hands and stands on tip-toe, urging the horns to be more prominent.
He ends with encouragement: "Very nice, very nice. It's so great to have eight horns! When it really comes to that encounter at 56 -- eight horns with bells up, appassionato!"
He's clearly impressed.
From the Top
A rehearsal moment like that starts to fulfill Eckart's summertime study and preparation for any given work.
"I play through [the score] on the piano as much as I can," he says. "I listen to a couple of recordings. But a recording is a blessing and a ruse at the same time, so then I put them aside. The truth is on the page -- it's all there, how he wants it to sound.
"I have several ways of approaching a score," he continues. "I read it and imagine it harmonically and structurally. Pretty much what I do with the orchestra, I do with myself first -- harmonic analysis, melody, instrumentation, check the articulation. I do some research about the composer's style, his personal story, the history of the times, how this work fits into musical history.
"I spend a couple of days with each score, or a week, ideally. Then I let it sit, dig it out over Christmas and see what I don't remember about it. And then again, a couple of weeks before the concert."
But the genesis of Friday's concert began long before even last summer.
Back in November 2005, Eckart started working in consultation with the Symphony's general manager (and sometime bass player) Don Nelson, whose three-part job includes concert production (i.e., logistics), orchestral management (musicians' contracts) and artistic management (dealing with soloists' agents). Eckart and Nelson started their programming with renowned violin soloist Sarah Chang, "because that was the only week she was available." (Chang's repertoire includes her much-praised Sibelius concerto, which she recorded nine years ago with Mariss Janssons and the Berlin Philharmonic, back when she was only 17.)
Working from a foundation of Chang's violin in the warhorse Sibelius concerto, Eckart devised an all-Scandinavian program by adding two less frequently played works: Danish composer Carl Nielsen's Second Symphony (nicknamed "The Four Temperaments," and, like the Sibelius, written just over a century ago), along with 1972's Cantus Arcticus by Finnish composer and household name Einojuhani Rautavaara. It's a "Concerto for Birds and Orchestra" that will open Friday's concert by merging the sounds of Spokane string players with the chirping (on prerecorded tape) of Arctic terns and other chilly birds.
After the programming and research are concluded, and as rehearsals approach, Eckart finds it hard to predict where the difficulties will lie. "I have a rough plan for rehearsals," he says, "but it never works out that way. There's an old story about why older conductors are better," he goes on, smiling. "They know where we're going to get stuck."
Meeting with Eckart a couple of weeks after a Classics concert (concertos for two pianos by Mozart and Poulenc, along with the massive symphony by Reinhold Gliere) for which I'd observed some rehearsals, I was curious if he would like to take back any part of that performance.
"I would do everything over," he exclaims. "That's one of the most unsatisfying things about [making music]. I would love to do it again because I love the music so much.
"There is imperfection in everything that we do. But if it's perfect, it's not beautiful. Precision can exclude music, and music can be done without perfection. What are the chances that with 80 people onstage or so, that in each minute, nobody will make a mistake? I mean, a lot of things went wrong, but that's not the point. Did that impact the musical-expressive [outcome]?
"I wouldn't say I was unhappy. I was very happy. In fact, I wrote an e-mail to the entire orchestra that I was so happy. Now, the Gliere symphony is very tough -- it's tough physically, and it's tough psychologically because it's so long and it has so many notes."
And then Eckart laughs one of his clever-schoolboy maniacal laughs.
Keeper of the Notes
But before rehearsals or even individual practice sessions can take place, the players need musical scores in hand. That's where music librarian Catherine Shipley comes in. "I'm in charge of every single piece of sheet music that gets to conductor and musicians," she says.
The process of obtaining musical scores for orchestras is more tangled than tree roots. Some scores are available only for rental; others, only for purchase. Different agents will sometimes represent different works by the same composer -- "don't ask me how that works," says Shipley.
For this particular concert, the Symphony rented the Rautavaara, purchased the Nielsen symphony and already owned the Sibelius. But a miscommunication last fall -- Shipley purchased a $700 edition of the Nielsen, when Eckart wanted another version -- created more work in the music library. Once they realized that last fall, says Shipley, she and her two assistants "had to go through every single part and make corrections in Eckart's score, going measure by measure."
Then came the discovery that the music publisher in Boca Raton, Fla., have the wrong parts -- "well, not wrong, but they had the first flute and not the second. Or the articulations were off -- the little indications whether to play it short, or, to the winds players, to play it in one breath or play it smooth.
"So I spent about an hour per part making changes," says Shipley. "That was for 21 wind and brass and percussion parts."
The string parts turned out to have a quicker fix: The librarian for Eckart's "other" orchestra (in Stamford, Conn.) had gotten it "right," and he made photocopies for use in Spokane.
"Music librarians have to be patient," Shipley says. "But most of us become impatient. We depend on a lot of different people, and a lot of people need things from us." She spent at least 40 hours making corrections and additions to the errant Nielsen scores -- getting the bowings for the first and second violins from the concertmasters, then getting the scores back and making copies for the orchestra's other principals.
It's not as if she doesn't have enough to keep her busy. In addition to acting as music librarian (a position she's held for five years), Shipley plays among the Symphony's second violins; serves as artistic director of a chamber music program for teenagers; teaches privately ("primarily violin and viola"); and is a member of the Riverside Trio ("we do weddings and parties"). And that's an example of how people whose parents told them they'd never make a living in the music world make a living in the music world.
"Most of us have at least one other job," says Shipley. "It's amazing to me how some have full-time jobs, teaching in schools, and then they show up at night for rehearsals."
You might think that the drudgery of annotating musical scores is the worst part of Catherine Shipley's job. You'd be wrong.
"No, the worst part is carrying the music," she says. "Feel how heavy these two boxes are?" They're filled with dozens of scores, and she explains how they have to be checked and rechecked, then carted off to rehearsal and performance venues. That way, viola players can stroll in, pick up their scores and start tuning up.
Shipley was wearing some kind of arm brace. "Oh, that's tennis elbow from the Beethoven symphony."
Wearing Two Hats
Chuck Karschney has played horn with the SSO for 21 years. He's been production manager for 18. That means when it comes to schlepping instruments from this rehearsal hall to that venue, Chuck's the guy loading up the truck.
The next Classics concert is "unusually small," says Karschney -- meaning that for four rehearsals and the performance itself, he only had to move around chairs and stands and risers for 68 musicians, along with "timpani -- there are four of them, you know -- and harp, a gong and some incidental drums for the percussion." That's nothing like the Gliere symphony of a month ago, with 21 additional players, including three in the percussion section alone.
Since playing horn and managing production add up to a full-time job for Karschney, he has "time to practice in the mornings -- most of our set-ups are in the afternoons." With his hand buried in the bell of his horn in time-honored fashion, he usually tries to "go over each movement, and it's good to check the rhythmic meters. And it's good to go over any harder passages that might cause problems. Since I'm second horn, I don't get any of the solo stuff," he says.
He's busy enough in a typical week before a Classics concert: three hours on the lighting, two hours on the chairs and risers, an hour of setup before each rehearsal and performance. And all that doesn't count any other pops or school concerts. You get the idea that after all that, during performances, Chuck Karschney may be blowing off some steam.
Jason Bell stands barefoot on the carpet of his home studio, fiddling away at Mozart as a demonstration of how he practices before a concert. Bell, the principal player among the SSO's second violins, is obviously going through what for him is a daily ritual. But for me, it's a strolling-Gypsy-in-the-restaurant, sublime-from-the-mundane moment: a guy I've only seen before when he was wearing a tux and sitting 40 yards away, now wearing his casual jeans and filling his living area with incredible sound.
It all started for Bell in LaCrosse, Wisc., when he was 4 and a half years old. A teacher said, "Get this kid some music lessons." The family couldn't afford a piano, so violin became his instrument. He was a boy who didn't need to be told to practice, and now he's good enough to merit owning a 1933 Luigi Galimberti for practice while performing on a Symphony-owned Carlo Landolfi violin made in 1779. He won the Violin II first chair in an SSO audition four years ago; this is his first full-time musical job.
When practicing before a concert, Bell wants to know such things as: "What is the tempo? What happens when I come in? What are my cues, and what's going on just before my cues? Are there any solos? Do I have any personal solos? What style are we playing in? And in what colors?"
He shrugs. "I give one or two listens to it, but honestly, not a whole lot. It's easy to play in a group. You'll hear us, but most people in the audience won't hear me individually." That's because "the second violins rarely have the melody -- we are the harmony. So it's all about rhythmic integrity," he says.
Blowing a Horn
I caught up with Chris Cook, the Symphony's second-chair trumpet player, in between performances that the Symphony gave at a couple of local high schools as part of an educational outreach program. The musicians had played three different programs in the space of a week, along with all the accompanying rehearsals.
Asked about practice time, Cook first explains that he teaches two sections of a music and humanities class at Gonzaga, along with a brass methods class; he has private students; he plays during four masses every Sunday at Our Lady of Lourdes Cathedral; "and I have four children and a wife. So I couldn't cram much more work into my schedule."
Still, Cook finds time to practice "pretty much every day. I have a routine in the morning, kind of like a multivitamin. I touch of every aspect of playing, just to stay on top of my game."
He's clearly conscientious: "I will have marked parts, based on recordings, weeks before a concert," he says. "Editors are not perfect -- I'll check to see if something is a sharp, because my part might be wrong. And I mark my breaths."
Cook calls the trumpet a "bipolar instrument -- its basis is in fanfares and in signaling between distant towns back in the Renaissance. It's still used in the military. So it's very martial-sounding, and yet you can also play a lyrical solo and let it whisper. So 'How soft can I be?' is my personal goal. I'm always working on playing piano."
Paul Raymond doesn't have a lot to prepare before Friday. Partly that's because he has been principal percussionist with the SSO for 33 years, and partly it's because, during Friday's entire concert, he only has to play three notes.
"They're all in the Rautavaara," he says. "But I'll wait until intermission" -- until after the Nielsen symphony -- "to pack up."
Often (if not for this concert), he has a lot to pack up. "There are thousands of percussion instruments," Raymond says, and he has played most of them. "They might seem the same to a layman, but they're not the same.
"I can't name them all, but I can categorize them. There are the membrane-type instruments -- drums with skins on them. Idiophones -- basically, things you're striking that aren't pitched, like wood blocks or a triangle. And the mallet instruments, with a keyboard."
Violinists may just walk onstage a few minutes before a concert, but Raymond and his fellow percussionists are often setting up beforehand for an hour and a half. He devises diagrams to figure out which instrument goes where and who'll be banging away on it.
Of course, percussionists have long rests too. "When it says 'tacit' from Rehearsal 27 to Rehearsal 85... well, I tend to bring books a lot," he says.
"But we get copies of the first violins' part" so as to anticipate entrances. "We have logistical nightmares," Raymond says, laughing, "but they have lots of notes."
The Jet-Setting Soloist
Sarah Chang has been preparing for Friday's concert, in a sense, for 18 years. She was discovered at age 8 by the likes of Zubin Mehta and Riccardo Muti and has been performing for major orchestras ever since. Asked if she could estimate how many times she has played the Sibelius concerto, her response is: "No way. Hundreds of times. Maybe a thousand."
OK, so technical mastery isn't a question here. Instead, Chang's preparation for the Sibelius goes to more abstract matters than bowings or dynamics. Her research on Sibelius -- and journey to his remote forested home, half a lifetime ago, back when she was 13 -- uncovered how controlling he was. No running water in the house, lest it disturb his composing; wife and daughters compelled to scrimp by turning curtains into dresses; daughters standing lookout whenever they dared to play the family piano.
Research like this pays off in the frantic finale of Sibelius' 1905 concerto. "It's very all-over-the-place," says Chang. "He threw all the notes in the kitchen sink in there. But at the same time, the third movement is very metronomic. There's no wiggle room, because the orchestra is on the same rhythm -- and maybe that's an aspect of how controlling Sibelius was. But then the opening is one of the most beautiful in any concerto ever written. So obviously he had a soul."
The life of a concert violinist at Chang's level can seem a little out of control. Orchestral musicians, she says, "especially the ones who have families, can have a set method and routine of rehearsals and concerts. You can build your life around it.
"But for the soloists -- we're the ones who are bouncing around and flying everywhere. We need to be in a different city every night.
"It all amounts to one big ball of jet lag - there's no other way to put it. I haven't been home since, like, February -- a year ago. But that's OK, because at this point in my life, I have only myself to worry about. Maybe one day that will change. Right now, this keeps me happy." She sighs. "I was just in Milan for a week. Let's see, I went from Paris to Milan to London, then back over here for Houston, and when that ended I was in Israel for eight shows with Zubin, and then Las Vegas...
"I mean, that Israel-to-Las Vegas flight, I'm not kidding, that was 20 hours. And I went right from that into three interviews and a two-and-a-half-hour rehearsal, and by the end of that, I was so tired, I could barely walk. I think I got about two hours' sleep the whole time I was in Vegas.
"And people don't see that. But what they see and expect -- and rightly expect -- is someone in top form and ready to deliver Shostakovich or Mendelssohn or Sibelius or whoever. And with their heart and their fingers -- and hopefully their luggage -- right there."
Sarah Chang laughs. She prefers performance over rehearsal "hands down," she says. "That is when I'm happiest and most content." And even after riding the Sibelius railroad a thousand times, she still grows excited about the idea of stopping off in Spokane for the first time ever: "I think it is so cool that I am still making debuts!"
Eckart Preu isn't sure whether he prefers rehearsals or performances. "Someone asked once, 'Do you give a pep talk to the musicians before a concert?'" He chuckles at the memory. "Hello! We are artists. You don't want to make them aggressive before the concert -- they'd freak out."
Today he has to concentrate on rehearsal. We're in the INB Center's downstairs Music Room, with the public performance of Rautavaara, Nielsen and Sibelius just five days away.
When the fiery opening of the Nielsen Second (familiar from my iPod) erupts inside the cramped, wooden-paneled room, it's still startling. Moments before, there had been a large group of people chatting and socializing; but now the music inflates the room, filling it with the hours of preparation that have gone before and the promise of how it might yet all come together on Friday night.
Sixty-eight musicians bend to their work, and Eckart starts issuing directives: "If you could, basses and cellos... yutt-uh, yutt-uh, ignore the violins... Can we please pick it up from the poco piu, five measures after 'T'? ... Woodwinds, if you play too sharp, we won't have enough sound."
When you've listened to a work beforehand and then stand alongside the orchestra, you find yourself rooting for certain instruments. Go, timpani! Now I understand your rumbling. Go, brass! I have waited patiently alongside you during your 125 measures of rest.
Twelve minutes in, and Eckart's already running his fingers through his hair, starting to sweat, practically ripping through pages of the score. "Horns, you share only one of those accents with the bassoons," he directs.
The second run-through of the first movement's final section sounds noticeably better to my ears, and sure enough, Eckart calls for a stop, saying "much better" while scanning his score for the next passage he wants to hone.
"Violins, at 399, after 'S' in the fourth measure, that G is in a very dangerous passage. That's why he gives you a whole measure to find it." He acts out a violins-pitted-against cellos passage that's initiated on the offbeat.
But then, during the second run-through of the passage, there's an obvious glitch. Eckart waves his arms, aborting the practice run, frowning at his score and muttering to no one in particular, "some interesting notes there." One of the trombone players raises his voice: "Sorry. You knew that was going to happen."
There's a long pause while Eckart works out some questions about bowing and how he wants something different than even the printed score.
And then: "At 208 -- woodwinds, piccolo, clarinet and bassoon, we want to hear those triplets." Eckart Preu and his musicians were still working on just the first part of one of Friday night's three works.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & n the first afternoon when I observed a rehearsal, I mistakenly left some notes backstage at the INB Center. I ran across downtown well after 9 pm on Sunday night, hoping the place wasn't yet locked up. It was six and a half hours after that afternoon's first rehearsal had begun -- and yet there was Eckart, just five days before the performance, giving the string players a late-night note about dynamics. With the auditorium's seats stretching far into the darkness, tired violinists pushed back their hair, revealing the dogged expressions of musicians still playing the music that they love.
The Spokane Symphony Orchestra plays music of Rautavaara, Nielsen and Sibelius on Friday, March 9, at 8 pm at the INB Center. Tickets: $15-$35. Visit www.spokanesymphony.org or call 624-1200 or 325-SEAT.