Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Cue the cannons

I had an orchestra gig last weekend, and going into it I was a bit hestitant. See, I don't play as often as I should, and the finale of the concert was the 1812 Overture.

Now, most anyone, whether they're familiar with classical music or not, is at least familiar with the main theme. You've heard it during fireworks, in movies, and probably in cartoons. It's a little iconic. The thing with music like that, though, is that often the larger piece - and its original context - get buried beneath all the pop culture. And in most cases, it's a bit of a shame. It's like only knowing a caricature or parody...and in the case of the 1812, it's all cannons and huge brass (which is admittedly cool).

The full work is quite beautiful. The first time I really experienced it was as a senior in high school at the All-State music festival. The honors orchestra played it as the finale, and I got to play in the extra brass section. I rank it as one of the top music moments of my life thus far. Honestly, it was one of those rare moments when everyone - conductor, performers, and audience get taken in by the music and the moment. Unforgettably powerful...and I knew it was because the piece was just. that. cool.

And so I was nervous about tackling it again - especially when myself and the orchestra...and did I mention myself were not nearly as capable as my earlier performance.

Which brings me to last Saturday. At the rehearsal, we basically ran through it once - stopping only when we needed to. The opening bars (by the low strings) were underwhelming. Well, I thought, this is rather disappointing. Then the horns came in for the introduction of the really familiar theme. Aaaand now I'm underwhelmed with myself. Great. But we kept plugging through.

But then something unexpected happened. We got to the section where the brass plays the opening theme again and the bells go nuts. And I kid you not - I got goosebumps. If I had not been playing, I probably would have cried. I was completely taken in by the music again. If I could describe the end - it's pure joy. And it's really hard to play the end of it with any kind of restraint, because it just begs to be played ALL OUT. And we definitely did. In the performance, it was not the most artistic or skilled rendition there has ever been - but when we got to the end, we played it with all we had. Awesome. (I do wish the "cannon" had been a little louder, but you can't have everything.)

And as I've listened to my recording of it again and again this week, I realized (and am embarrassed to say) I'd never really read any background on the piece. Surely a piece this well-known has some cool history. So I read the short article on Wikipedia, and sure enough, it's pretty amazing and interesting.

So, this is my ode to the 1812 - to its ability to inspire with and without context - AND its ability to cause grown adults to play it no holds barred.

(And it's a chance for me to say that I'm glad I get to play in an orchestra now and then.)

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