I should start by saying that I adore live music. I caught the bug early – I was seven when I saw my first concert, Aretha Franklin at Artpark in 1992, and I never looked back. Since then, I’ve waited for hours in extreme temperatures to see my heroes take the stage. I’ve hung out on tour buses and in greenrooms. From Sir Paul McCartney to Pearl Jam, Elvis Costello to Bad Religion, James Taylor to Raekwon the Chef. It’s pretty fair to say I’ve seen it all. Well, almost. I’m 29 years old and up until recently…I had never seen the symphony.

Oh sure, I’ve heard the orchestra on stage with Arcade Fire and performing alongside cast members of Phantom of the Opera –I will use this time to share with you that I’m also a huge musical theatre nerd– and I’ve escaped from mosh pits relatively unscathed, but I’ve never been to a live orchestral performance until last week.

That being said, it may seem strange to some that I was completely psyched to start a Public Relations Internship with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra. Every part of me, from my purple hair to my tattoos, was more than thrilled to be able to work and learn in such a creative, supportive and exciting environment and with people who are so dedicated to sharing music with the community. It is here that I’m gaining all of my exposure to orchestral music and I’d be completely lying if I said I didn’t like what I was hearing. It’s also a lie to say that I haven’t been humming Elgar’s Enigma Variations to myself for a week now –because I have.

HPO rehearsal. Photo taken by John Rieti, CBC Hamilton.

I can tell you first hand that the electricity in the concert hall is the same if not greater than any venue I’ve been in before a show. There’s a certain buzz in the air and that sense of excitement the musicians have is absolutely contagious. Having the privilege of sitting on the stage with them for rehearsal is like nothing I’ve experienced before. Needless to say, when I took my seat beside the percussion section, I was beyond intimidated. With the exception of Arcade Fire, The New Pornographers and Broken Social Scene, most rock bands are on the smaller size – there were four members of Led Zeppelin, three members of Rush, two White Stripes, but there were 58 professional musicians sharing their performance space with me.

I didn’t expect the symphony to sound as tight as they did right off the bat. That all those different people, playing all those different instruments at the same time could be so in sync. It was actually as if someone had hit play on something that had been pre-recorded. I was immediately impressed and awestruck.

There’s something about having 58 musicians playing together that enhances the visual element of a live performance. I’m talking about watching each section of the orchestra contributing to the overall sound of the piece they’re performing. There’s something so satisfying about being able to identify which instruments were contributing to each element of the performance. Being onstage gave me an insider’s perspective to the music –like I was listening to it on a different level.

Timpani and mallets.

That being said, I learned that the percussion section is SCARY! Seriously. I had seated myself next to the gong and the giant drum (which I later learned was the bass drum) which was probably not the best idea. I was unfamiliar with the piece being played and paying so much attention to the other sections of the orchestra that I did NOT see the timpani part coming. As a result, I jumped a good 15 feet in the air during the opening of Fanfare for the Common Man – probably the closest I was going to get to crowd surfing in the Great Hall.

There is only one word that can describe the sound I experienced once the orchestra started to play –powerful. Just as powerful as when a rock band plays their first notes on stage together. I was completely blown away, but in a different way than I’m used to. Do you know that feeling when you hear an opening band you’ve never heard completely nail their set and end up stealing the show? Yeah, my first symphony experience was like that but at least 50 times greater.

I’ve crowd surfed and managed not to get dropped on my head. I’ve swapped stories with members of the Wu Tang Clan. And now, I’ve sat on stage with a professional symphony orchestra while they rehearsed. How many people can say that?

Here’s a taste of the startling but very powerful timpani introduction in Fanfare for the Common Man.