If you’re new to orchestral concerts you might be wondering what to expect. We answer (nearly all) your questions here.
The music we play comes from a huge repertoire that begins in the 18th century and extends to music of our own time. The best-known composers are the ones who've been around long enough to have had their music performed and recorded more often than anyone else: Mozart, Beethoven stand out as the leaders, followed by composers such as Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Mahler. But - and this is the amazing thing - there are many, many more composers and so much music that no one person can possibly know it all. It's a continual process of discovery.
Sometimes we let our hair down and collaborate with artists from other musical genres. When that happens you'll experience the blend of an orchestra with the sounds of pop or jazz or electronics. But mostly the music you hear in an orchestral concert will have been written with the unique sound of an orchestra in mind.
The orchestral sound comes from a combination of instruments that became standard during the 19th century. More than half the orchestra (about 60 musicians in the Sydney Symphony) play string instruments and these provide the distinctive core of the sound: violins, violas, cellos and double basses. The remaining instruments add 'colour' across the sound spectrum. They are the woodwinds (flutes, clarinets, oboes and bassoons), brass (horns, trumpets, trombones and tuba) and percussion (including the timpani or kettle drums). The harp and the piano often make an appearance. Less frequently you'll see saxophones or a guitar, or even something exotic like a viola d'amore.
If you look at what any orchestra performs over the course of a year, you'll see two genres of music dominate: symphonies and concertos.
Symphonies are the big fat novels of orchestral music: they are large-scale works for the full orchestra and they're normally divided up into four distinct sections - we call them movements. Movements are like musical 'chapters' - distinguished by changes of speed, intensity and mood. As you listen to a symphony you'll hear a musical drama unfold. The symphony often occupies all of the second half of a concert program and be anything from 30 to 90 minutes long.
A concerto places a featured, solo instrument at the front of the stage and the excitement and drama comes from the dialogue between the lone soloist and the full orchestra. Concertos are also divided into movements: usually just three in a fast-slow-fast pattern. The concerto is typically heard before the interval and it's a chance to enjoy the virtuosity of classical music and to hear a soloist who's at the peak of his or her field.
Over the years the orchestral sound has managed to infiltrate just about all aspects of Western life. So the likelihood of you recognising at least some of what we play is very high.
Orchestral music is used all the time in film and television soundtracks, classic cartoons, advertising, theatre and ballet, as well as at weddings or funerals, and at sporting events. Ravel's ecstatic Bolero, for example, enjoyed a boost in the 1980s when it turned up in a Bo Derek film and then in a prize-winning routine for ice skaters Torvill and Dean.
Some orchestral pieces have become very famous, even beyond the world of classical musicians and music lovers. You'll almost certainly recognise the opening notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony or the 'Ode to Joy' from his Ninth Symphony, or the beginning of Richard Strauss's Thus Spake Zarathustra (used in 2001 - A Space Odyssey). The Ride of the Valkyries by Wagner might ring a bell (Wagner also gave us the 'Here comes the bride' tune), as might Handel's 'Hallelujah' chorus fromMessiah or the 'O Fortuna' chorus from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. If you've ever watched Looney Tunes you've probably heard the William Tell Overture and countless other classical pieces. And you must have heard buskers playing Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik…
But even if you don't recognise the music, there's the thrill that what you're hearing might just become your next 'favourite'. Keep listening!
When you go to a pop concert, chances are you know the artist's music really well - you own an album or two or more, you've have heard them on the radio, you know their 'story'. So what you hear will be familiar, and that's a good feeling. Most people agree that the greater your familiarity, the greater your enjoyment.
The same applies for orchestral concerts. But the range of orchestral music is so vast that even the most experienced concert-goer is often hearing something for the first time. So what can you do?
The concert event pages on our website include short samples of the music, featuring some of the big tunes or most famous moments. That's a good way to decide whether you might enjoy the music before you buy a ticket. From there you can often find complete recordings online, through YouTube, streaming services or downloads. Or pick up an old-fashioned CD recording if you prefer.
We publish detailed and insightful program books, which are available free at most of our concerts. You can read the program in advance by downloading a pdf version in the week of the concert.
Experienced concert-goers use the program books:
We offer free pre-concert talks 45 minutes before nearly all our concerts at the Sydney Opera House and City Recital Hall Angel Place.
A talk makes an illuminating and entertaining introduction to the concert, and it also helps your ears make the transition from the distractions of daily life to the intensity and focus of an orchestral concert.
Check the event page for more information and to find out who's speaking before your concert.
For selected concerts during the year we offer podcasts prepared by our pre-concert speakers. These audio features of about 10 to 20 minutes allow you get your ears around the music and explore a particular theme or aspect of the concert. Listen at your desk, at home, or perhaps on the way to the performance. If we make a podcast for a concert, we'll link to it from that concert's event page. [link to the podcast area of the site]
We want you to be comfortable - there isn't a rigid dress code for our concerts and jackets and ties are not compulsory.
Most people regard attending a concert as a special event and so dress for the occasion. Some wear the clothes they wore out to dinner before the concert, some come in the clothes they wore to work (suits, professional), some people enjoy the opportunity to dress up. But keep tiaras and ultra-formal wear in your wardrobe for when gala attire is specifically suggested.
There are free and secure cloak rooms on the Box Office levels of both the Sydney Opera House and City Recital Hall Angel Place: please leave briefcases, large bags, overcoats and umbrellas there.
If you arrive after the performance had begun, the ushers will admit you to the auditorium at an appropriate break in the music. Meanwhile, you can see and hear what's happening on the screens in the foyers. When you do enter, please enter quietly (the floors are wood) and follow the ushers' instructions.
Other conditions of entry are published and available at the point of purchase and on the back of your ticket.
All the basic principles of good manners apply in concert halls, but because concerts are a listening experience there are two special things to keep in mind:
Here are some simple tips:
• turn off all electronic devices. Being 'unavailable' makes you more mysterious and attractive.
• unwrap cough lozenges while the orchestra is tuning up, or choose brands with waxed paper wrapping rather than plastic or blister packaging.
• if you really need to clear your throat or make some other noise, cough into your elbow or muffle the sound with a handkerchief. Try and wait till the loud bits. Nothing kills the mood like 200 people with 'miner's lung' during an adagio.
We would love you join in our conversations on twitter @sydsymph. If you do follow us you'll notice that we often live-tweet from the pre-concert talks, as well as before and after concerts and during intervals, and sometimes during broadcasts and webcasts.
But we have one simple principle that we follow without fail when we're listening to the orchestra in the concert hall and we invite all our fans to adopt it too: If it's tweetworthy, it's worthy of our full attention.
So please leave your mobile device turned off when the music's playing.
One of the conventions of classical music - at the moment anyway - is that concert-goers choose to hold their applause until the music has finished, even if the piece is in several sections or movements. In practical terms, this means there will be moments of silence (between movements) when the musicians stop playing but no one applauds. And then at the end of a piece, the applause will break out.
Our advice: wait for the conductor to turn around at the end of the final movement. We also include estimated durations in our program books, and that's another good way of establishing whether the piece is really over - some composers such as Tchaikovsky have been known to play tricks on the audience!
In Mozart's day people clapped for two reasons: if a section of music ended loudly, or if they liked it a lot. That meant they sometimes clapped before the end of the piece (as still happens in jazz performances today).
Then a composer called Mendelssohn came along in the 19th century, followed by Wagner, Mahler and a bunch of others. They didn't like their creations to be broken up by applause because it 'murdered the mood' and they composed pieces that were intended to be listened to in rapt silence from beginning to end.
Studio recordings in the 20th century meant that music lovers became even more accustomed to hearing complete musical works - even music by Mozart - performed without any applause. They began to expect the same experience in the concert hall.
And that, in a nutshell, is why most concert-goers nowadays don't applaud between movements. (Instead they clear their throats, which some consider even more distracting!)
Children under the age of eight will probably find most of our evening concerts heavy going. But we love seeing children enjoying music as much as anyone else in the audience. And so we suggest these options for kids:
If you'd like to ask about the suitability of a particular concert, feel free to call our box office.
Taking of photographs or recordings of any kind is a breach of copyright and is not permitted in the hall.
Flash photography is also highly distracting to performers as well as your fellow concert-goers and is a bad idea for that reason alone.