Sunday, September 25, 2011

Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony at Seattle

Attending a Ballet and a Philharmonic concert was my long time desire. The first one was realised when we attended a ballet in the Bastille auditorium in Paris in 2008. The date for being at a symphony was set on 22nd September 2011 in Seattle. I wish to declare in the beginning itself that I have no knowledge about a Philharmonic Orchestra or a Symphony. I understand that Symphony is any part of music played by an Orchestra - usually in several movements. I am also given to understand that there is no difference between a Philharmonic performance and a Symphony. When I looked up the available information before going to the event, I learnt that a philharmonic orchestra and a symphony orchestra are one and the same thing. They say "Philharmonic" actually translates to "music lover". In that sense I am myself a "Philharmonic"! The word probably has its origin in Greek. Some say it is in French. Does it really matter as long as the music is good? The argument is similar to "Vedarata" and "Vedavaadarata". The first group is interested in understanding what is in Vedas. The second group is interested in arguing about what is in Vedas. Let us belong to the first group and forget about the arguments.

City of Seattle boasts of having a major Symphony, Opera company and Ballet. All of them were functioning from the Seattle Center Opera House located in the Lower Queen Anne neighbourhood. Sharing the same space for three different activities was felt a serious constraint and the City Fathers planned for a separate centre for the symphony and construction of a hall with proper acoustics to meet the requirements of the Opera. The Opera moved to the "Benoraya Hall" in downtown's University Street, constructed at a cost of USD 118 million, in September 1998. This took care of a proper venue for Operas and avoiding performances in oversize or undersized halls not designed for symphony music. The Benaroya Hall is owned by the City of Seattle and the project was managed by The Boeing company of Seattle, home for the Boeing air crafts. The building consists of 1,89,750 Sft constructed area, 1,47,000 Sft Parking space and a 22,000 Sft Garden of Remembrance on the terrace. The building provides for two halls ; the rectangular S Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium for main concerts having a seating capacity of 2500 and the 540 seater Illslay Ball Nordstorm Recital Hall for performances by smaller ensembles and solo artistes. The halls meet all the prescribed requirements to seat disabled persons. the Seattle Symphony Orchestra alone presents more than 20 different subscription series and gives over 200 performances annually. Soundbridge Seattle Symphony Music Discovery Centre located in the building provides a dedicated space to act as a "Learning Center" for music lovers and students. The Benaroya Hall hosts over 700 public and private events annually with two or three events on week end days. There is an ATM available in the building if you are short of cash, but there is enough money in the account. There is provision for excellent food and drinks in the lounge to complement the music and make the evening well spent.

The shows are themselves planned and arranged systematically. They are basically in three parts; reminding us of the Prologue, the Play and the Epilogue. One hour before the actual performance, in a programme called "Pre-concert Talk",  a talk for about half an hour on the day's subject of performance is delivered by a well known musicologist or critic highlighting the major points and subtlety in the performance to come up. Key points are explained by playing recording devices to emphasise the beauty of  the piece. This is actually like a preparatory training for the audience; learning for the naive and refresher for the trained. Then there is the actual performance for 2 to 3 hours. After the actual performance there is an interaction session between the guests and the artistes titled "Ask the Artiste", where question by the public are answered by the conductor and/or lead artistes. On one side of the auditorium beautiful photographs (by beautiful I mean photographs taken with excellent light effects) of each and every artiste in the troupe is displayed giving the roles assigned and instruments played by them that day. Along with the tickets for the show every patron is given a book in which details of the programme, bio-data of the conductor and lead players and composer is given. A synopsis of the pieces to be played that day is also included to prepare the listener to understand what he is actually listening.

Discipline in conducting the Opera stretches further than this.  Late comers are not allowed to enter the hall and rob the early comers of the uninterrupted pleasure of enjoying the music performance. They are not totally denied either; they can watch and listen to the music in the Grand Lobby Monitor and enter the hall during intermission, if there is one. Mobile phones are prohibited. If the patron is expecting an emergency message, messages are delivered to their seats silently if exact seat location is left with the Head Usher station. An emergency phone number to contact an outsider for help if the guest has any problem is also available, since mobiles are prohibited. Doctors are available at the hall to attend to medical emergencies. We all know that healthy patrons also sometimes develop an urge to cough during the concert. Not here. You are not permitted to cough. Cough drops made available with Ushers, courtesy of Ricola and Bartell drugs. No need to say that silk sarees, jewellery or cricket scores can not be discussed during the concert.

We attended the Pre-concert talk at 6.30 PM and left the hall for evening coffee at 7 PM. When we returned to our seats at 7.15 PM, the artistes had already taken their seats and ready with the instruments. There were nearly 80 artistes on various instruments - Violin, Viola, Guitars, Drums, Brass and flutes. Our host had obtained excellent seats for us to enable us to have a full view of the entire stage. We were also warned not to clap when the conductor had his back to us. No back-clapping.  The evening's programme consisted of three parts - Dupree's Paradise from The Perfect Stranger by Frank Zappa and  L'arbre des songes (The Tree of dreams) of  Henri Dutilleux played by a French violinist Renaud Capucon, followed by Ludwig Van Beethoven's Symphony No.3 Eroica in E-flat major. Sharply at 7.30 PM all murmur and coughing stooped. The composer appeared and for the next one hour the first two items were played. All seats in the auditorium were taken, but it appeared none breathed. There were no clapping even when the finest of movements were played. Every guest was a stone or bronze statue. Compare with our Ramanavami concerts. The conductors and artistes were given thunderous applause at the end of each piece.

After the intermission it was "Eroica". It is said that the piece was composed by Beethoven while fighting his increasing deafness. The composer is said to have kept Napoleon Bonaparte as the motivation and an embodiment of a new and hopeful political order for this piece of composition. Later on he changed its title as he was not happy with the changes that took place in the political arena. Not being well versed in Western music I am unable to say anything more except that it was an unforgettable experience. The artistes and the conductor Ludovic Morlot received three rounds of standing ovation from the 2500 guests of the day.

We had a flight to catch within six hours of the conclusion of the main programme. We were unable to sit through the "Ask the artiste" programme. I have no regrets as I would not have followed much, given my total ignorance about Western music. Nevertheless, proof of pudding is in eating and not knowing how it is prepared. I should say that to camouflage my ignorance of the opera music.

The Opera music had cast a spell on us and the music was playing again and again in our minds on the long flight from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic coast.


  1. I appreciate your hours long endurance of strange cultural fine art. We are accustomed to our carnatic music concerts in our Halls and pandals. We have studied about the Ballets and Symphony in Shakeshpeare and novels. However a vegetarian had the4 patience to endure the non-veg fragrance with patience.

  2. Halls/museums/homes are open to any art lover who wants to experience or enjoy it. Human creativity (hard work, passion and dedication too) deserves our respect & applause even if its beyond the realms of our tastes or understanding. I am glad that the music left with you when you walked out of the Benaroya Hall.

  3. I am the one who enjoys Music in any form as long as it is serene and peaceful. I am not for loud one. The symphony we witnessed was beyond words. It just took us to a different world and was an experience by itself. The devotion, discipline
    of all the artists,the dignity with which the audience conducted themselves,really touched me.
    It was our first ever live symphony experience and we just loved it. Thanks to our hosts.

  4. The love for music is in our blood. I cudnt stop myself from getting goose bums while reading few sections. Was totally drawn into it. So very well expressed chikkappa .. it was like i was there. I love the details u give in ur blogs.

  5. Music is music in any form or style. It is divine and lifts the spirit.

  6. As usual, you have drawn the reader so skillfully into the narrative - it felt I myself was in the auditorium. Although quite involved with Indian music, I am yet to acquire the skills of appreciating the nuances of Western muusic. Thanks a lot for sharing a wonderful experience and an engaging read.



  7. Reading the narration i felt that i have been literally transported to an opera theatre and listening a live performance. It rekindled the memories of a program of this nature by a visiting opera team attended by me way back in 1972 at the India International Centre in New Delhi.