(I was a professional percussionist with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in the spring of 1983, and was pondering the possibilities of spending my life either as an orchestral percussionist or a xylophone soloist. The following story helped me make up my mind ... )
The Romantic composers normally wrote four movements per symphony. After three movements, listeners often get a bit bored; so composers look for ways to spice up the final movement. Ludwig van Beethoven understood this better than most, and used a great dramatic device in the final movement of his Ninth Symphony -- the addition of a chorus. The orchestra plays alone for the first three movements, and then the chorus stands up! After 45 minutes of doing precisely nothing, the echoes of shuffling feet and sudden coughing produce a memorable acoustical effect, which reinvigorates the audience for the finale.
Peter Tschaikovsky, in his Fourth Symphony, learned much from this gesture of Beethoven's, but since Beethoven had patented the chorus idea, Tschaikovsky searched for a substitute. He decided that the sounds of the percussion section -- snare drum, bass drum, triangle and cymbals -- would add the perfect touch. The players would be a model of restraint until the fourth and final movement,when they would stand up and all acoustic hell would break loose, much like the finale from the 1812 Overture. Unfortunately, that means the percussionists have nothing to do for the first three movements, since their scores are marked:
The reader might originally find this a happy proposition, since for the first three movements the percussionists are essentially being paid to wear their tuxedos. As a matter of fact, the only difference between a percussionist and a member of the audience in this symphony's first three-quarters-of-an-hour is that the percussionists are paid to sit while the audience pays to sit. But the percussionists must sit on stage, and are therefore visible to the audience. Passing the time by taking a nap, or trading off-color stories could get someone fired. Even fidgeting could be noticed by the perceptive audience. The professional percussionist must cooly wait. And wait. And wait.
I was at a JSO rehearsal of Tschaikovsky's Fourth at Binyanay Ha'Ooma, the building where the orchestra normally held concerts. My roommate, first chair trumpeter Ken Cox called it "Tschaik Four," and since trumpet soloists are "cool" and can say chic things like that. Since I was almost the youngest person in the orchestra and wanted to be "cool" I called it Tschaik Four, too. I made the mistake of being too cool once. Assuming that I had lots of time until the fourth movement, I left the rehearsal room to make a quick trip to the bank across the street. As I took my place in the bank's line, Valery from Leningrad (the percussion section leader), ran in breathlessly and in clear earshot of the other bank customers read me the heavily Russian-accented Hebrew version of the riot act.
"Zeh lo kibbutz! Zeh lo r'chov! Zeh tizmoret!" (This is not a kibbutz! This is not the street! This is an orchestra!) This was not a stage whisper.
I told him not to worry, that I only needed a few minutes in the bank and I'd return in time to play the final movement. I argued that since the percussion was only necessary in the final movement, we had at least 45 minutes (free time) (to kill) while the conductor rehearsed the first three movements with the rest of the orchestra. But Valery had become a Russian in a power position in Israel, and relished the fact that he could now boss an American around. He didn't want to hear me ask for "a few minutes". "What would happen," Valery bitched, "if the conductor decided that the first three movements didn't need rehearsal, and he'd like to rehearse the fourth movement immediately?
Leaving a rehearsal in the middle isn't the way things were done in Matushka Rus!" he said. "Good point," I conceded, noticing he forgot to mention they didn't have banks in Mother Russia, either.
There's a phrase in German, which, roughly translated, is, "you're right, and I have my peace." So I surrendered, and walked back with him to the concert hall to dutifully await my triangle cue in the fourth movement. One hour and seven minutes later.
Playing the triangle isn't as easy as it looks. A left hand AND a right hand are required. For right-handers, as I am, the Right Hand holds the short metal bar (called a beater) normally used to strike the triangle's downward slopes. The Right Hand is also handy for turning pages for the other percussionists (whose hands are often full), or scratching hard-to-reach places. The Left Hand (for right-handers) holds the triangle in the air so that everyone in the audience can see who's playing the triangle. Some percussionists claim that holding the triangle aloft allows the sound to project better, but in truth it only allows the player's ego to project better. Most people don't know it, but triangle players often develop severely fragile egos since the triangle is the orchestra's smallest instrument, and its player stands furthest from the audience, normally at the back of the stage. Feelings of inferiority are quite natural. Playing triangle in an orchestra is somewhat like becoming a Bar-Mitzva, whereby your voice is added to society, but nobody cares what you have to say. Because of its high, tinkling sound and deleterious effect on the nerves, the triangle part (not the Bar-Mitzva) is normally assigned to either the most junior player or The Wimp of the section. Section Leader Valery's choice was simple. The triangle part was assigned to me.
Don't misunderstand, I'm not complaining. I think the Tschaik Four is a wonderful orchestral work, one of my favorites in the orchestral repertoire. But percussionists spend far more time waiting than playing. The orchestra's schedule: to rehearse it Sunday morning, Monday morning, and Tuesday morning, plus individual or sectional practice as necessary, and then performances Tuesday night, Wednesday night and Thursday night. Understandably, the piece can easily become a bore for percussionists.
Finally, the first concert night arrives. We'd all dressed up in our penguin suits and were looking fantastic, the house was full, and the Tschaik Four began under the baton of Dutch conductor Hans Vonk. The famous low brass fanfare bellows out, but the percussion section has nothing to do for about 45 minutes. We look debonair, but we have nothing to do but wait.
Finally, the third movement ends. The percussion section, comprising Valery Panov (Russia) on snare drum, Pamela Jones (Great Britain) with the cymbals, Yehuda Bloom (Israel) on bass drum, and Alex (USA) on triangle, have all been silently awaiting this one moment. We rise as one, each player focusing on picking up his or her instrument and/or beater. At the downbeat of the fourth movement, we are a unit totally intent on atoning for our previous silence. The roar that erupts from the battery is pure sonic energy, electrifying the air that surrounds us. The bass drum explodes, the snare drum rolls menacingly, the cymbals rise and crash and vibrate over and over again, the triangle
rings at the very top of the orchestral spectrum. The brass fanfare from the beginning returns at the end, and Tschaikovsky's frenzied finale pours several liters of adrenalin into the percussionists' veins. A sudden silence descends as we play the final note, but that silence is soon filled by audience applause. Our concert is over.
Some of the audience are applauding wildly, the soloists and conductor take their obligatory bows. But other members of the audience hurriedly put on their coats in order to get to their cars as quickly as possible. Professional musicians like Ken Cox call this a "running ovation". As the audience slowly leaves the hall, the performers slowly leave the stage, to change from our tuxedos to our regular clothes. But the percussion section can't go home as soon as everyone else, since the group has a tradition of sharing the task of putting away all the cymbals, the drums, the gongs, the timpani - our entire musical menagerie. Although strong piano-moving types are paid to pack up the heavy instruments, they usually have nicknames like Ahmed the Destroyer, so we prefer to do it ourselves. Finally, clothes changed, instruments and music put away, we each go home in turn.
It's a nice job for those who love it, and when I played in an orchestra, I did love it. But I realized that this was not the way I wanted to spend my whole life, that it was better for me to find a truly artistic form of expression, rather than alternating between the extremes of Silence and Thunder. So from now on, when I want to listen to the Tschaik Four, it's better for me to buy a ticket and listen from the audience side. Then, at least, I could take a nap.