Between the bars

Living in liminality

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When I first heard the opening of “Prince Igor: Polovtsian Dances,” I must have shed a tear. 

Well, perhaps not a real tear, as I was watching the performance of the piece from the second row of a public back riser. Seated in a compact arrangement, I found myself sandwiched between the principal clarinetist to my right and another bassoonist to my left — and yet, I felt the walls of the rehearsal room expand with sound.

The initiation of the piece introduces the fantastical operatic world from the mind of composer Alexander Borodin. The French horns usher in the piece, with a subtle yet proud base. The oboist falls in to match the horns after their first beat, enunciating every syllable of its solo. From there, lighter flutes float on top to compliment the romantic dialogue that ensues between the woodwind section and the strings — filling the passages with an incredible sweeping progression. 

The ode to Igor was by far my most favorite orchestral piece I played in the seven-ish years of being part of the San Diego Youth Symphony. The song grows into itself through wrought emotions and conflicting passages, beautifully finding clarity in chaos. 

A frenzy of alternating musical lines came together in the conclusion of the final stanzas, a whirling dervish that emerged out of the smoke seeming to rise from rushed bows and red-cheeked woodwinds. The piece dances the line of lighter melodies and darker passages, flirting with liminality throughout. 

For an orchestra, bringing a song from sight reading to the stage is a great feat. Each time the piece is played, it takes on a different life, hinging on the instrumentation or conducting style of that specific rehearsal. While I will forever favor the Borodin piece, I will never remember which time playing it truly inspired my interest. 

But perhaps my interest was initiated not in spite of lack of uniformity between run throughs, but rather because of it. Each time it was played, I found myself within alternate interpretations of the singular composition. While it is uncertain how the sound will develop from each interpretation, there is creative comfort found in this liminal space. 

Liminality lies in the initiation of the first breath, as the conductor’s baton rises and the orchestra takes a collective inhale. This inhale lingers for the briefest of moments, but long enough to sense the anxiety arriving in the rehearsal room or stage. I’ve always found this breath to be the one of the beautiful moments in a piece; sound still reverberates from the stage without touching bows to strings, mouths to reeds or mallets to drum heads. 

When I first encounter sheet music, I always tend to reach for my pencil to frantically write the notes above the top stave. This unsophisticated move of mine originates from my deep-set fear of faltering. Failing to recreate the intended sound of the piece — thus failing to fulfill the composer’s desired dialogue between instrument sections — borders on blasphemy to me. 

My urge to stay true to the traditional is contested by most conductors, who wish to perform new takes on classic pieces. Take Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” opera, of which at least one of the four movements was certain to appear in my symphonic repertoire every year. I might have played the first movement at least five times during my stint in the youth symphony. Each time, however, the movement was conducted in a completely different direction from the previous rendition. 

The provoked discomfort I felt from straying from the original composition proved to be nothing in comparison to when I watched “Carmen” as an audience member at Palais Garnier, shortly after leaving the days of sheet music and stages far behind me. It was an avant-garde ballet performance, with an even brasher take on Bizet’s orchestration. The intricate marriage between bold brass and speeding strings found itself replaced by a cacophony of booming typany base notes and accompanying scattered percussion. 

Listening to the jarring notes was absolutely painful, both as a listener and as a past player of “Carmen.” To my surprise, however, I didn’t want to leave my seat after the red velvet curtains closed. The experimentation might have made Bizet turn in his grave, but the alternative interpretation worked with liminality to breathe new life into the movements. 

Liminality seeks to widen the constraining space between each stave in black and white sheet music; it seeks to enliven each line of notes and key changes. It allows a symphony to form a triage of translations that alter tone and style, so that I myself as a player may look beyond the lines before me.

Francesca Hodges writes the Monday A&E column on exploring liminal spaces within art and identity. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @fh0dges.