You don't know me, but if you've been to a National Symphony Orchestra concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall lately, you've seen me. I sit in the chorister seats, right behind the stage and just above the orchestra. Chorister seats didn't exist in the Concert Hall until the 1998 season, when the Kennedy Center struggled to improve the muddled onstage acoustics and renovate the interior space. For concertgoers, the addition of 2 1/2 rows behind the stage was an unexpected bonus.
Because of their unusual location and presumably inferior acoustics, the seats--at $15 a pop for NSO performances--are the cheapest available, and the best cultural bargain in Washington. The unique perspective is the most obvious advantage: From the back row, you can rest your head against the massive pipes of the Concert Hall organ--with a view of every one of the 2,400 regular seats--and know immediately that yours is the best in the house. Sure, you're looking at the backs of some of the orchestra members. But you're also closer to some of the players than the conductor--I occasionally must battle the urge to drop my program on the timpani.
Surprisingly, the acoustics in the chorister seats are really quite fine. Credit the renovations and the extraordinary size of the Concert Hall. If you enjoy bold, clear and unadulterated symphonic sound--if you want to be the music--this is your ticket.
One night, during a performance of Respighi's "Pines of Rome," I was nearly catapulted onto the stage when the organ sounded during the march theme from the "Appian Way." Who knew Respighi orchestrated for the big pipes? So while the seats may be good for the faint of hearing, caution is advised for the faint of heart.
So you've got audibility and proximity, and here's the kicker: the ability to look into the eyes of some of the greatest conductors in the world as they exhort, cajole and chide the orchestra with their frenzied gesticulations and apoplectic expressions. As an intimate, I'm privy to the conductors' unspoken and sometimes audible rebukes. I witness, too, the disgust conductors reserve for the coughers and late-arrivers--not in the chorister seats!--who mar the performance. Better for the moneyed denizens of the orchestra seats that the conductor's rolling eyes and scowls are seen only by us few.
Don't sit on high if you're self-conscious, and certainly not if you wish to be inconspicuous. Dozing is definitely poor form. Wear something nice, don't fidget, and prepare to be scrutinized for the length of the performance. In the weeks and even months after any concert, friends will mention that they saw me at the symphony. In truth, it's hard to be missed.
Unfortunately, but perhaps inevitably, that aspect seems to draw exhibitionists, who insist upon moving to the music as if they were alone in their cars or in the front row at a Peter, Paul & Mary concert. So should you join me in the cheap seats, let quietude and discretion be your watchwords. I admit it's not easy. I've noted my own struggle with impropriety and the urge to "accidentally" sound the drums. But my strongest caprice occurs at the end of nearly every performance, when the conductor singles out particular sections or soloists for individual recognition. It may sound churlish, and be the yearnings of a frustrated musician or just another madman. But one day the maestro will point grandly toward the brass section, and I'll rise to my feet, one level above, bowing deeply to surprised but sustained applause.
Chorister seat tickets are available at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall box office, by telephone at 202-467-4600 (with a handling surcharge) and online at http://kennedy-center.org. Because choruses sometimes sit in the seats (go figure), tickets are sold on a night-by-night basis and season subscriptions are not available. According to the box office spokesman, chorister seats are typically purchased in proportion to seats in the rest of the hall. But because there are only 63 such seats, it is advisable to order tickets early.
--Jim Hage, Lanham
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