Jean-Marie Zeitouni, music director of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, shared tips for attending an orchestra performance and offered a behind-the-scenes look at how the CSO prepares for a concert.

Jean-Marie Zeitouni, music director of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, shared tips for attending an orchestra performance and offered a behind-the-scenes look at how the CSO prepares for a concert.

What do you suggest that people do before they go to an orchestra concert?

I encourage them to go online. YouTube has many videos so that you can get familiar with the work. Discovery is good, but sometimes it is good to prepare. I compare classical music to wine; it's something that you can gain appreciation [of] the more you are into it. To see an orchestra of 100 people playing on stage in front of you is already an event in itself, but getting familiar with the works is a good thing. If they are familiar with work, then they can focus on the interpretation. They can focus on what's happening there that's different. Every orchestra and every conductor has a different way to play the same work.

So if you see an orchestra play the same piece under two different conductors, how different will it sound?

Even the same orchestra with the same conductor, it will never be the same, because we are human and our sensitivity is different from one time to the next. Many of the basic things will be the same, but if some musicians are particularly inspired one day, you might get a performance that happens that is extraordinary. Music is different from every other kind of art because it is an art of the moment. If you compare it to sculpture or to painting, you go to the museum and you look at one painting, the painting itself will be the same. The sculpture itself will be the same. You might look at it differently, you might be in a different mood or there might be a different light on it, but the work is the same. But the performing arts - ballet, theater or music - they are different in that they really happen in the moment. When I look at the musical score, I have the basic plan for the interpretation inside the score, but it really happens in real time when you play it. Sometimes the differences are subtle, and sometimes the differences from one orchestra or conductor to the next are big in terms of the pace, the dynamics, the articulation, the colors, the mixes.

What is the role of the conductor, both during the concert and beforehand?

He develops the vision of the work, develops the ideas. He develops a relationship with the score and with the composer. His job during the rehearsals is that he will make sure to work as a catalyst for the orchestra. They play their parts, and they prepare on their own, but they have only their lines in their parts. They don't have everybody else's part in their music, so they rely on the conductor to coordinate things. The conductor has to make sure that everybody is together and that everything is in tune and that everybody plays the right thing. The conductor takes this responsibility so that the musicians can express themselves without having to bother when it's time to come in, when it's time to stop. For example, for a trumpet player, sometimes he needs to play something in tune in ensemble with the violins, but he is sitting 65 feet away from them. So it's hard for him to coordinate and to know how soft or loud he has to play so that he sounds just right for the audience. It is the role of the conductor to serve as an outside ear to make that work.

And then during the performances, the conductor will energize the players and will try to go further. They practice over and over the difficult figures or the difficult movements to make sure that when it's time to perform them, that they are completely free to be generous and attuned to one another. And then we are completely free to dedicate ourselves to our performance.

As the conductor, how do your gestures change from piece to piece?

My gestures are trying to draw in the air the music that's in front of them. It brings some extra information. The musicians will have in their parts whether it's soft or loud, they will know if it's short or long, they will know if it's fast or slow. But there are so many more subtleties in it, so they will rely on the hand but also the face of the conductor and the whole general body language to see what kind of sound you will approach. If I make very sharp and brisk gestures, it will encourage them to play sharply and more articulate. If I make softer, more sinuous gestures, it will encourage them to play with a connected – legato, we call it – slurred approach to the music. My gestures also change according to how they play. If I want them to play soft, I will probably make a small gesture compared to if I want them to play loud. But if their soft is too soft, my next gesture will be bigger, to encourage them, yes it's soft but it's not that soft. It's always a work in progress. It's a back and forth, a give and take with them. They try to do with the sound what I try to do with the gesture, and then I adapt and react to it with the next gesture and so on through the whole concert.

What is an orchestra rehearsal like?

Everybody gets ready on their own, and then we spend around 10 hours together to get ready for the concert. It's not much. You get there and read the piece through. Very often I will play the whole symphony, which would last anywhere between 30 minutes and an hour, and while we're doing it I'm talking to them. Everybody takes note of the bigger picture, and then we start working on the details. We gradually focus more and more on the difficult passages, and then we work in the fine details. The last rehearsal is the dress rehearsal, which means we're going to play the pieces all the way through once more.

Is there a science to what pieces are performed when in the concert?

The way the business worked for many, many years, it was a menu that looked like a restaurant menu. So you have an overture to open, or a shorter work, and then you have a concerto with a guest artist - a soloist - and then the second half of the concert will be the symphony. So you get an appetizer, and then you get your salad, and then you get your entree. Now things have changed. I like to work with concepts that are a little bit more poetic than this, so sometimes I think the piece with the soloist should come in the second half because it's the most substantial one. Now things are changing. It's not rare to see many smaller works as opposed to one big work. Every occasion is different. But it's good to finish with the main feature.

Looking at the menu metaphor, how often is there a dessert? Is there ever an encore?

It really depends. Sometimes when we have a guest soloist who performs a concerto at the end of the first half or at the end of the second half, then the crowd is pleased, and the crowd asks for more, then they will play an encore. So sometimes the dessert arrives halfway in the meal (laughing).

When you're seeing a performance, when is it OK to clap?

I'm a little bit different. Classical music people don't like when people applaud between the movements, if you have a concerto or a symphony which is in three or four parts. For the past hundred years, the custom was to wait until all of the parts are over and then you applaud and you acknowledge, just to respect the concentration of the artists. But it was not always like this. ... [In Mozart's letters], he writes, "Dad, you would not believe it at the concert last night. When we played the concerto for the first time, people went crazy after the first movement. So I was so happy we played the first movement a second time." In those days, at the turn of the 18th or 19th century when people were going to concerts, they would bring food with them and drinks and they would talk. Now things are different. It's actually from when Gustav Mahler the composer and conductor at the turn of the 20th century wanted to make it an experience. He's the one who actually asked for all of the lights to be turned down in the hall during the concert, and people cannot talk. I'm more flexible about it. If you like the first movement and you think it rocked, then it's OK to acknowledge it. But many of my colleagues and distinguished members of the audience would disagree with me.

Of course, there are some very soft moments, very sweet and tender moments, when it's sad to hear a cell phone or wrapping paper for a candy or somebody coughing. But that happens.

Do people dress up to go to a concert?

It's traditional to dress up. The way I see it, you go to an event, and anything you can do to make it special is good. But I'd rather have 2,000 people in the hall wearing jeans than 50 people wearing tuxedos. It's like when I go out to dinner, I like to dress up because it feels more special. It's part of the experience, you want to respect the moment, you want to make yourself a special ambiance.

Where would you recommend that people sit in a concert hall?

At the Southern, because it's not a big hall, pretty much anywhere is a good place to sit. If you're sitting a little bit higher, in the balcony, you're able to see the whole orchestra, which is great because you're able to see everybody working. The sound itself tends to go up, so if you are a little bit higher than the orchestra, then you will be in a position where you will receive the quality of the sound in its entirety. But of course in the front you see better the soloist and the conductor and the violins in front, but sound-wise higher is better.