Your guide to the Maryland Symphony Orchestra

January 08, 1998

Your guide to the Maryland Symphony Orchestra

By Kate Coleman

Staff Writer

What's special about a live performance by Maryland Symphony Orchestra?

The goose bumps - listening to a recording can't duplicate that feeling.

Technology can't reproduce the thrill of hearing the orchestra tune to the oboe's "concert A," the anticipation at seeing the conductor's raised baton.

With its lush velvet drapery, ornate box seats and golden cupids, The Maryland Theatre is a perfect setting for beautiful music. And the acoustics are great, according to Bethany Latham, the orchestra's marketing director. The music is heard without electronic amplification.


What the audience hears comes from instruments played by approximately 65 musicians who each have a particular place on stage.

The percussion and brass sections of the orchestra are at the rear because of their greater volume. The wind instruments are placed closer to the strings for balance, and the strings - which outnumber the other instruments - are at the front.


Barry Tuckwell, Maryland Symphony Orchestra's founding music director, will conduct next weekend's performances in this his farewell season.

He stands front and center, reflecting his role. While the musicians have musical charts of their individual parts, the conductor is the only one who has the score, the music that includes the parts of each instrument for the entire composition.

Tuckwell chooses the music for the program and considers it quite a responsibility. He wants not just favorites, but music that is accessible, even if unfamiliar.

He compares his role as conductor to that of a coach for a sports team on an athletic field. He decides how fast and how slowly the music will be played and who will be dominant. He is there to indicate balance, to coordinate the starts, the stops, the changes in speed.

During a performance, the musicians read music, but they do see the conductor in their peripheral vision, Tuckwell says. They also are listening to what is happening. The conductor is there to signal what Tuckwell calls the "corners" in the music - the slowing down, the changes in direction.

At the front of the orchestra is the string section, which is composed of four groups - first and second violins, cellos and basses. The first violins usually play the melody, and their part usually is higher in pitch than that of the second violins, according to Valerie Clemans, the orchestra's concertmaster and leading first violinist.

Tuckwell points out that being called "second violins" doesn't mean the musicians aren't as good as the "first violins." He compares it to a gypsy band in a restaurant. The first violin is the the pivotal voice. It's the musician who comes to your table and plays the solo.

The second violins play more of a supporting role, fleshing out the middle of the harmony, Clemans says. Although second violins may not be as visible as the first, if they were not present, listeners would know something was missing, she adds.


If you attend a Maryland Symphony Orchestra performance, you most likely will notice 28-year-old Clemans seated at Tuckwell's immediate left in the chair at the front of the violin section.

She describes her role as the leader and spokesperson within the orchestra for the orchestra, particularly the strings.

One of her duties is to coordinate the bowing for the string section. This is important not just because it looks nice, Clemans says. The bowing is written into the part, and she reads through the music and makes changes where she thinks they are necessary.

Her suggestions are subject to the conductor's approval. Coordination is essential. For next weekend's performances, for example, Tuckwell is working with the original manuscript of Beethoven's "Fifth Symphony, " and he might have certain phrasing in mind, Clemans says.

The musicians are using all of their senses, according to Clemans. It is important for all the musicians to be able to see the conductor, she says.

Within the section, the strings almost always are playing together. The principals in each of the string sections also strive to maintain good eye contact with each other, Clemans says. She relates it to playing in a string quartet. But maintaining that contact is not always easy. It can be difficult to look around Barry Tuckwell, who sometimes is dancing, she adds.

Clemans says she doesn't know if it's because Tuckwell is a musician himself, but as conductor, he really gives symphony soloists free rein to express themselves.

As a musician, you are in control of your instrument, Tuckwell says. The conductor is in control of the entire performance.

Tuckwell has another analogy for the conductor and the orchestra, that of the teacher and his students. He says that kids often try to test the teacher, try to trip him up.

Surely Tuckwell, the world-renowned French horn player, never did such a thing.

"I invented many of the tricks. It's fun," Tuckwell says.

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