A Noob's Guide to Going to the Symphony in Dallas

The conductor -- at DSO it's Jaap van Zweden -- will let you know when the piece is over and it's time to clap.
The conductor -- at DSO it's Jaap van Zweden -- will let you know when the piece is over and it's time to clap.
Mark Graham

See also: Ten Must-Hear Classical Music Shows in Dallas This Fall

Last weekend, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra launched its 2012/2013 season with a big party, and classical organizations all over town are gearing up for an exciting season of live music. If you're intimidated by the seeming stuffiness of classical concerts, but don't want to miss out on an opportunity to hear some of the best music Dallas has to offer, here are some tips to keep you from sweatin' the small stuff:

Be on time. Most symphony halls and opera houses close the doors as soon as the concert begins and tardy attendees have to wait in the lobby until the first piece ends, a wait that can sometimes exceed half an hour. I promise they aren't doing this just to be giant classical music snob a-holes.

There's a kind of magic that happens when a violinist picks up a bow and a huge, silent, cavernous hall is filled with the effervescent vibrations of a single melody. Clicking heels on marble floors, cell-phone ring-tones and doors slamming exponentially diminish this magic. So plan ahead a little, remember that parking downtown is a pain, and show up early so your mind and ears are ready to soak up beautiful sounds.

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Just shut up. Unlike most shows you're probably used to attending, there is no amplification of sound from mics or amps at the symphony or opera. In a good concert hall (and we have great ones in Dallas), the room itself is designed to amplify even the softest of tones the orchestra produces. The downside of this is that you can hear the creak of a chair or a sneeze 18 aisles back. Ambient sounds are part of the experience, but too much background noise can take away from the sounds you are actually paying to hear. Think of the concert hall as a sanctuary. It's quiet time. Turn off your cell phones not because you have to, but because you get to.

Don't stress the dress. In my opinion, you can wear whatever you feel comfortable wearing to the symphony because it's 2012, this is America and you paid for your ticket, goddamnit. That being said, most people do tend to treat classical concerts with a level of sartorial respect. In general, what you wore to work today is probably okay. You certainly don't need formal wear, but classy cocktail attire is always a safe bet. A couple things to remember:

1. The opera is fancier than the symphony.

2. Friday nights at the Dallas Symphony are "casual Fridays" so you can pull off dressed-up denim.

3. Saturday evenings are, in general, the dressiest performances.

4. If you buy a cheap ticket to the symphony, it's possible they will seat you in the choir loft behind the musicians, in which case everyone in the hall will be staring up your skirt. So, you know, cross your legs and don't wear neon.

Clapping. At the opera, you are watching a theatrical performance drenched in music, so you can laugh, cry or clap at will, just like you would at any spoken-word stage play. The symphony is a little different because a lot of the pieces you'll hear are lengthy works divided into smaller sections called movements.

Traditionally it's considered good behavior to wait until the completion of all movements of a symphony or concerto until you clap. This can be confusing if you're new to the genre, because the number of movements varies based on the piece and the end of a movement sometimes sounds very final. An excited crowd often erupts in applause prematurely. If this happens, it's okay. The musicians are never annoyed by your appreciation.

The best thing to do is watch. Watch the conductor, watch your fellow audience members, watch the orchestra. At his podium, Jaap van Zweden is essentially conducting the entire room with his baton. His face, the tension in his extended hands, and the posture of the musicians on stage will let you know if they are trying to elicit a dramatic pause. And when the piece is really over, he'll let you know that, too.


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