Mysteries of the symphony orchestra solved Answers to questions about clouds, frogs, money, selections, bookings..

February 11, 1991|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,Evening Sun Staff

EVER WONDER why the rear corners of the Meyerhof Symphony Hall stage are now open during concerts or why the concertmaster sometimes stays seated when the conductor shakes his hand or how Baltimore Symphony Orchestra members are hired?

The 75th birthday of the BSO celebrated at a 7:30 p.m. concert tonight is a good excuse to answer some questions patrons may have about the BSO. Answers include things like clouds, shuffling feet, Saranwrap, 18 phone calls between two people in 30 hours . . . and frogs.

The answers came from Susan Anderson, BSO operations manager; Patricia Purcell, director of development and community affairs; Miryam Yardumian, music administrator; Mark Van Oss, consulting marketing director; Janet E. Bedell, publications manager, Louise J. Miller, public relations aide; John Gidwitz, executive director, and David Zinman, music director.

Here we go:

Question: What are those 18 brown discs hanging by chains from the ceiling over the orchestra?

Answer: Those are called clouds, acoustic reflectors that can be tilted or moved up and down so the music is properly dispersed and heard. They were adjusted mostly recently after music director David Zinman arrived in 1985. Sound bounces the way light does. So, among other tests, the acousticians covered the discs with Saranwrap and shined light at them to see where light was reflected. They adjusted the disc positions accordingly.

Q: Why can't patrons in the front of the orchestra see the brass and percussion instruments as they used to a few years ago?

A: Sergiu Comissiona, the BSO's conductor when the hall opened in 1982, wanted the musicians on risers, in European style. After two years, he decided the American style of playing on a flat surface produced a better sound for the audience. That way, for example, the trombone sounds from the rear could be scattered and wouldn't blare out over the strings and drown out things.

Q: What are those 40 big white screws in the ceiling?

A: They are stationary sound deflectors that resemble the built-in bric-a-brac in old halls used to scatter sound and prevent echoes. In the same way, the "screws" break up sound waves so people can hear the music better.

Q: Is anyone around who was at the first BSO concert Feb. 11, 1916?

A: Yes, at least one venerable fan and major benefactor, Mrs. Ruth Rosenberg, 91 and widow of Henry Rosenberg Sr. She was 16 at the first concert and is honorary chair of tonight's repeat show 75 years later. Her health makes her appearance tonight uncertain.

Q: Why are those eight new wooden cabinets at the sides of the stage back of the violins and the basses?

A: For the players. The Meyerhoff stage is known by musicians as a very loud, resonant stage. The "cabinets" are simply sound defusers along the curved solid walls to break up the sound waves and quiet things for the players. The audience can't hear the difference.

Q: Why are the stage panels open at the rear corners? It's something new and looks ugly.

A: Recording engineers discovered last fall that shoving the movable rear wall back a foot and tilting side pieces vents the noise and presents the orchestra's sound better to both players and audience. Now it's done for concerts also. The BSO is figuring how to make it prettier.

Q: Is the concertmaster being rude when he doesn't rise sometimes as the conductor shakes his hand?

A: No, he is being polite. After several entrances and exits, the conductor may again shake the hand of the concertmaster, always the principal violinist. When the fiddler doesn't rise, that means he wants to honor the conductor on behalf of the players, starting a round of applause for the leader of the band.

Q: Violinists applaud soloists by waving their bows. Other musicians sometimes don't do anything. Why not?

A: They may be doing something you don't notice. In a time-honored tradition, many members applaud by stamping or shuffling their feet, a practice probably started because their hands were full of their instruments.

Q: Will the BSO tour out of state this season?

A: One day. On Monday, March 4, the BSO and pianist Richard Goode play Carnegie Hall, New York, during its 100th season. The program: Harbison's "New York," a New York premiere; Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 14 and Stravinsky's "Petrouchka." Seats, $12-$45, are still available. Call (212) 247-7800.

Q: What competes with music in Zinman's office?

A: Frogs -- maybe "1,000" toys, statues, stuffed amphibians, pictures on the wall, hanging from the ceiling, frogs everywhere. When he was hired here, Zinman was asked what he collected. He said nothing, but if he did it would be bad art like frogs from Tijuana. That and one gift frog started the deluge from friends that continues to this day. "I buy them myself too . . . only the most terrible kitsch things."

Q: Who was the first black musician to appear with the BSO?

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