Canberra Symphony Orchestra uncovered
Artistic chemistry from chaos
Question: What would you get if you crossed the Canberra Raiders with an Olympic synchronised swimming team?
Answer: The Canberra Symphony Orchestra playing a concert with amazing ensemble tightness and magical sound.
It’s an odd image to grasp, but the oddity, or the uniqueness of the CSO is its redeeming feature.
Canberra Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Barbara Gilby explains her role as similar to captain of a football team. “There’s a certain amount of work I do even before rehearsals.
For example, I ‘bow’ the string parts, which means I decide where we’re going to ‘down-bow’ and ‘up-bow’ and I mark it into the parts and that means when we get to rehearsal any particular phrase is going to be played the same.”
Barbara likens the orchestra to synchronised swimming, in that, “If you don’t know what the moves are then you’ve got these people plunging around in a pool looking really silly. But once they know what the formation is, then it looks great.”
Sitting in the concert hall – gazing upon the glint of brass or mesmerised by the movement of the strings – one may not appreciate the commitment, passion and compromise that players experience to produce a sublime concert. For unlike other state-based, professionally-paid orchestras, the CSO is not full-time.
“They’re doing their day job and then coming to orchestra in the evenings and being expected to present a level of playing that doesn’t take into account the fact that they may have worked for eight hours, gone home, put dinner on the table, left their partner to get the kids into bed and gone off to work again.”
Behind the sparkling bubbles on concert night, there’s a true labour of love. “But it’s like any profession. For example, in the string sections we sit on a ‘desk’ which is two players looking at one music stand.
“Now if your ‘deskie’ has irritating habits, like they don’t blow their nose or haven’t washed their socks, it’s like being married to someone with irritating habits. You know people get divorced for sillier reasons.”
Barbara says it definitely takes a certain kind of character to play in an orchestra. “I could have my absolute best night and be playing like a genius and the person behind me might make a terrible mistake or drop their music. So you’re only as good as the whole.
“There are people who don’t play in orchestras because it just drives them nuts. On the other hand, those of us who love it, when everyone’s having a good night and it’s going really well, there’s nothing better.
“There’s this sense of heightened awareness – a bit of adrenalin, some kind of special feeling, and your blood pressure’s up. And people take drugs to feel like that, but we don’t have to.”
So for the players, is it worth passing CSO’s high-standard audition, then committing to five rehearsals and countless hours of individual practise for every program performed? Barbara says, yes, for the audience experience.
“A famous composer said that listening to a recording is like eating a sweet with the wrapper still on. You can’t get to the core of it, you can’t savour the essence of it, while a live performance is like taking the wrapper off and really tasting the sweetness of it.”