How do you fire off a cannon inside Verizon Hall without hurting anybody? You need the cannon, of course, for Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, a highlight of this week’s very Russian concerts, which also include Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 featuring Denis Kozhukhin. The performances are led by Principal Guest Conductor Stéphane Denève.
Actually, no cannons will be used—and no one will be harmed—during these performances. As Principal Percussion Chris Deviney explains, a synthesized cannon sound will be fed into speakers inside the acoustic shell surrounding the stage. The resulting reverberations should be thrillingly, if not frighteningly, lifelike.
This doesn’t mean the Orchestra is scared of loud noises, however. “At Saratoga, we’ve used a battalion of howitzers on the hill; that’s a pretty cool effect!” says Chris.
At other times, a starter pistol has been fired into an empty 55-gallon oil drum. That approach made the Secret Service nervous back in the 1970s, when President Nixon was due to hear an Orchestra performance at the Academy of Music. The agents checked out the gun and the show went on.
More prosaically, according to Chris, if you hit a bass drum dead center on the head, which is not the normal technique, it makes a pretty good cannon sound.
But Chris is fine with turning over the explosions to chips, circuits, and speakers. “The cannon part is actually written into the percussion score, but everyone in the section is pretty busy playing other instruments while the guns are going off.” The usual cymbals, timpani, snare and bass drums are enhanced by offstage chimes, ringing out the sound of celebratory church bells after the French army was driven from Russia in 1812.
Unfortunately for Napoleon, the synthesizer hadn’t been invented back then, so the Russians relied on actual cannons.
(Principal Guest Conductor Stéphane Denève leads The Philadelphia Orchestra in Leopold Stokowski’s arrangement of the Andante cantabile from Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 1; Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with Denis Kozhukhin; Boris Godunov: A Symphonic Synthesis, an arrangement and orchestration of excerpts from Musorgsky’s opera by Stokowski; and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture this Thursday-Saturday. For tickets and more information, please click here).