A Librarian's View From the Audience

As a non-playing orchestra librarian (well, mostly anyway), I don’t get to hear the orchestra on stage as much I did when playing more often and in the midst of the music.  Yes, we always have the monitor on so we “hear” the rehearsals and concerts, but that’s clearly not the same as either participating in the performance on stage or as an audience member.

It’s still kind of a strange experience for me to be out in the house because, after being in orchestras of some kind or another nearly all my life, I don’t feel like an observer.  I feel like I’m part of the performance and, happily, that feeling will probably never go away.  A musician to the core, I’m right there with the players in every phrase, every solo, especially, of course, with the violin section.  (Oh, and the percussion section too, being where my husband is employed.  He was on triangle and tam-tam for the performance I am going to tell you about, but don’t let that fool you.  The triangle part is loud and exposed — well, that probably goes without saying — and tricky.)

So, as the librarian, one has to plan in advance to sit in the hall during a performance.  Otherwise, the tasks of the moment will take precedence.  You suddenly find yourself racing against the clock to finish whatever has come up that night to be able to take 45 minutes or an hour to go out and listen with an unhurried mind, and appreciate all over again the reason you do this work.  And to support your colleagues.  A dear friend of mine who used to work at the DSO would often say:  “Someday we will miss this time in our lives when great music was flowing past us like water.  We should soak up as much of it as we can while we can.”  That’s for sure.  It’s a privilege and it feeds my soul.  How many jobs can you say that about??

Okay.  Not ALL of the music feeds my soul.  I said great music.  Some of the other stuff is a little soul-sucking to be honest.  But I’m not goin’ there!!

On the night in question I was determined to hear the Mahler Symphony No. 1 in the hall.  The orchestra sounded fabulous all week during rehearsals.  I carefully scheduled my work so that when 9:00 rolled around I’d be free to go out for the second half.  I even came in early to get a jump on things as it was the last concert in the series before the orchestra had two days off.  Which means, as the universe would have it, all kinds of library issues popped up right before the concert and during intermission that had to be done that night.

The music director (who would be going abroad for a couple of weeks) asked for a list of scores; several new items regarding upcoming audition repertoire needed to be addressed; some people wanted copies of various pieces; and then there was the usual stage move and dealing with scores and parts for the concert.  Suddenly a 30-minute first half was flying by.  When I finally delivered the materials to the MD*, it was a crunch to get everything done because I was not going to miss this performance!

Once out in the hall, I settled in for the nearly hour-long “Titan” which I love, and it was thrilling.  It’s amazing to hear things I’d never focused on before, even though I’ve played the work many times.  There’s no review coming here except to say the orchestra did a fantastic job.  Actually, that doesn’t do them justice.  It blew the top of my head off, and not because of decibels.  Wow.

Sitting there, I realized that if the top of my head can be blown off after nearly 20 years with this orchestra, and knowing the repertoire, players and personalities, then imagine the effect on someone who isn’t as familiar with the music, the art form, or the experience.  It was fun to catch reactions of people near me in the audience, including a row of three kids with their dad and a young couple, one of whom had obviously never heard or seen this piece live before.  They looked around surprised when the trumpet players came back onstage after the opening fanfares (the offstage performance was so perfect you couldn’t tell where it was coming from) .  They swayed with the ländler and the walzer and the klezmer  music.  They smiled when the horns and winds played bells up.  They were rapt with attention during the bass solo.  They jumped at the power of the 4th movement’s start after the 3rd faded away.  They looked at each other in amazement when the horns and trombone stood up near the end.  I’m pretty certain they went away from the performance completely awestruck by what they had been part of.  I went away awestruck by what I’d been part of.

And I’m certain classical music is not dead, despite what many would have us believe.  If this music can surprise and uplift audiences 125 years after it was written — and it clearly does — we should all walk around with our heads up, our confidence high, and our commitment unwavering to deliver this amazing, live art form to the world.  We are the ambassadors of it, after all, and we should be proud to be so.  Without apology or dumbing down or trying to turn it into something else.  We are lucky to have it flowing past us like water.

*MD = Music Director

PS.  For those who are interested in this sort of thing, the MD had us insert a section in the cello parts to double the violas, 8 bars before 19 in the last movement (letting them drop out of their pizz. a bar early to be ready).  It certainly gave an extra richness to that high passage.

About the author

Karen Schnackenberg
Karen Schnackenberg

Karen Schnackenberg has been Chief Librarian of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra since 1990. Prior to that she was orchestra librarian and violinist with the New Orleans Symphony, Santa Fe Opera, Oklahoma Symphony, and Chamber Orchestra of Oklahoma City. She holds degrees in Music Education/Violin (Bachelors) and Violin Performance (Masters, emphasis in Baroque Performance Practice and Music Theory), with honors, from the University of Oklahoma. She also studied at the Aspen Music Festival and the Meadowmount School of Music. From 1987-1999 she was the classical music columnist for the International Musician, the industry’s trade paper for professional musicians. Karen is Vice President of the Major Orchestra Librarians’ Association (MOLA), a professional association of over 225 orchestras, bands, opera and ballet companies worldwide, and will begin her term as President at that organization’s first European conference in Zürich in April, 2006. Karen also currently serves on the Executive Board of the Dallas/Fort Worth local of the American Federation of Musicians and, in her spare time, is a free-lance violinist, an avid reader, an amateur photographer, and a hiker.

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