When I lived in the city, I had a subscription to the orchestra--it was something I'd always wanted to do, and I knew I should do it while I lived within walking distance of the concert hall. I subscribed for several years. After I moved farther away, and my writing became more of a career and left me less time and energy for concerts, I let my subscription lapse. But I still try to make the occasional concert, as I did today.
It was good to be back. I had a seat in my favorite section: behind (and slightly above) the stage, in what they call "The Conductor's Circle." It's like being part of the orchestra--without the responsibility of having to, you know, play an instrument. You can see all the musicians up close, and you get to watch the conductor's face and see his constant nonverbal communication with the musicians.
I like to get there early because, to me, the twenty-minute period before the show is part of the whole experience. I arrange my coat and belongings. I listen to the conversations drifting around me (as writers often do). I read the program, learning a little about the music and the composers. I look at the list of musicians. Today I was surprised at how many names came back to me, and glad to see so many familiar faces. The concertmaster, the principal timpanist, the principal flutist, and many others, are the same as when I was last a "regular."
But mostly, I like to watch the orchestra get ready. It's not like at a play, where all the setup happens invisibly, behind a curtain. The musicians come out and warm up and chat with one another in plain sight. Even though they're dressed up nicely, there's a friendly informality to it. Some musicians like to get out on stage super early. They practice their instruments, and I would bet they also settle into the space, get comfortable with the atmosphere. (If I were a musical performer, I would be in this group.) From where I sat today, I could see into the wings, and I noticed they had a giant clock on a stand right outside the stage door. As time passes, more musicians filter in. There are always a few who come in with only a minute to spare. I'm guessing they're the ones who make transitions easily, who don't need time to settle before they perform.
There's a squawking bird-like noise I often hear during this time, and today I was almost able to pin it down. I think it's oboists testing their reeds. It's a sound I had forgotten until I heard it again today.
In terms of writing, all this made me think of how many components there are to a setting. Having reentered a familiar setting after some time away, I was able to recognize all the little details, but with fresh eyes (and ears, etc.). When I lead writing workshops, I encourage people to use all five senses in describing settings. This was a setting where sound dominated (the stray scraps of music being practiced, the squawk I mentioned earlier, the hum of conversation), but there was also the plush of the seat, the gleam of wooden and metal instruments, the brightly colored wrapping around the ends of the timpanist's sticks, the elastic face of the conductor, the taste of coughdrops (to prevent coughing at inopportune moments), the smell of perfume and rain-wet coats.