July 30, 2010
If playing drums in the 5th grade and wearing a dorky "Stravinsky Freak" T-shirt in high school, are any indication, life as a musician is almost innevitable. Mark Mobley is a percussionist, a producer of classical music programs, a writer and music critic. He lives in Wilmington, Delaware where he worked, until recently, with the Delaware Symphony Orchestra. Today, Mobley explores how his lifelong passion for music is re-ignited every time he enters a concert hall.
I believe the best things in life start with an A. Not the first letter of the alphabet, but the note from the oboe that tunes the orchestra as a concert opens.
I love lots of sounds that begin things - the ringing phone, the popping cork, "Gentlemen, start your engines." But nothing gives me the same thrill as the moment the houselights go down and the hall goes quiet, and the oboist plays her familiar solo. It's a long, steady tone like a call to prayer, or at least to peaceful assembly. She plays it once for the woodwinds and brass, once more for the strings, and then it's time for the conductor to enter and lead the rest of the music.
That silence carved out by the oboe is a field where a miraculous invisible building by Beethoven or Mahler or John Adams or Jennifer Higdon will stand, crafted by many hands with miraculous precision. It's said sometimes that classical music is a niche product - something only for rich people or snobs, the initiated elite. So why do so many of us return to it when we get married or plan a funeral? How does it manage to inspire children, the elderly and all ages in between?
I grew up in a house with just five classical albums, four of which were the 1812 Overture. And I became a drummer in 5th grade, then went on to study percussion in college and spent many years as a music critic. I do tend to like what a friend calls "boy music" - loud and aggressive - but I'm also fascinated by hypnotic repetition and the extreme ends of softness.
To me, this variety helps make music the highest bandwidth form of human communication, with myriad points of entry and limitless possibilities. There have been great composers but there are certainly more to come, and where they'll come from you can't predict. And no one can imagine what the music of the future will sound like. So the tuning note before a world premiere has an extra touch of drama.
Yet every orchestral performance opens with the A, or La, which is not just -- as the song says -- "a note to follow So." It's the note that begins a journey into the soul. Once the oboe and the orchestra are tuned, it's the listener's turn.