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Terror at the 32nd Bar

After all, life is a matter of timing, in both big and small ways.

Any musician who is playing music from a score knows the challenges represented by long breaks between passages. Counting beats and measures to make an entrance at exactly the right spot should not be too difficult. Memory of a piece and the natural logic of where an entrance should happen can help. But a new piece is a challenge, especially if it requires infrequent but aggressive entrances. Mahler is a good example of a composer who could change moods on a dime, leaving brass and percussion players the worry of getting their entrances right.

This challenge of entering at the right moment can be the case with any instrument or singer, but it is especially true of percussion parts in newer works. Percussionists can easily break out in a sweat anticipating the double forte cymbal crash that must sound on, say, the second beat after a break of 32 measures. Guess wrong and you will be on your own aural island set adrift from the rest of the orchestra.  And entering too late isn’t much better: about as welcome a play’s onstage telephone that fails to ring on cue.

The musical rule is inviolable: If a composer wants a cymbal crash on the second beat, it will not do to hear it anywhere else. An alert conductor may help by providing a cue. But they can also save their worst Halloween face for the wayward player who misses their moment. And it gets even worse for the cymbal player, who is usually standing on a riser in the back of the orchestra, clearly visible to those even in the cheap seats out front.

I’ve lived through my share of these moments, especially in high school.  There’s nothing like the random clatter of an errant percussionist to screw up the mood other players have worked so hard to create.

In the scheme of things this is a small problem, even if there are 1000 listeners who are witnesses. With this kind of mistake no one needs medical assistance.  But a good sense of timing matters in both big and small ways. As Shakespeare noted, life is a series of exits and entrances. We may often wonder if we made our moves at the right time as we pass through a series of personal milestones–from choosing friends to life partners to jobs.  A decision of “if” is often matched by an equally important “when.”

I thought of all of this recently watching not a percussionist, but one of the world’s great organists playing his way through the stunning final section of Camille Saint-Saëns “Organ Symphony.” The virtuoso Daniel Roth, was playing one of the world’s great instruments in the church of SaintSulpice in Paris. The final pages require the organ to enter over a barely audible passage from the orchestra. He comes in in full attack mode with a C major chord, thundering against a hushed section that builds in the last few pages. The thirty-two-foot Contrabombard pipes in this famous Cavaillé-Coll organ are like sonic canons. The can’t be let lose too soon.

In a fascinating You Tube video we see this master with two assistants carefully counting out the measures and beats to enter, retreat and reenter. The timing had to be perfect: made more tricky because–as the video demonstrates–Roth can see the conductor of the orchestra only on a video monitor. The audio also suggests that he is some distance from the musicians and audience in the nave.

It’s all adds up to a short masterclass in one of the many facets of the musician’s art, magnified in this amazing piece.