Ginger and I are going to the symphony tonight.
(Let’s see – I’ll take “Sentences that Milton Rarely Types for $200, Alex.)
One of the people in Ginger’s church was kind enough to give us her tickets since she could not use them – with a parking pass. According to the BSO web site, we will hear Emmanuel Krivine conduct Mussorgsky’s “Prelude to Khovanshchina,” Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35 (with Joshua Bell), and Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 I have now said everything I know about what is going to happen this evening, and I have very little more to contribute when it comes to classical music in general. It’s not that I don’t like it, it’s that I don’t know it.
When I think of Brahms, I think of lullabies, though I am hard pressed to hum any of his at this particular moment. When I think of Tchaikovsky, I think of “The 1812 Overture,” complete with cannon that we get to hear every Fourth of July here in Beantown. What I know of Mussorgsky is from my old Emerson, Lake, & Palmer records, where they did their version of “Pictures at an Exhibition.”
There. I’m done, at least for the most part. ELP’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” sent me searching for more Aaron Copland. The Elephant Man introduced me to Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” through its soundtrack. But I don’t know classical music because I didn’t grow up with it; I wasn’t trained to listen for it. Part of the reason is Bulawayo, Lusaka, and Nairobi didn’t have Philharmonics in those days. Part of it is my parents’ musical tastes ran more toward hymnal than highbrow. The folks in my church joke that I don’t need a hymnal on Sunday mornings. I know them all by heart.
In first grade I took piano lessons, like many people. I went through seven teachers in a little over a year. My last teacher came out to the car one day and said to my mother, “He has musical ability, but it’s not ready to come out. Do him a favor and me a favor and let him quit taking piano. His talent will come out in good time.”
The problem (issue?) was I had too good an ear. Rather than learning how to read the notes on the page, when my teacher stopped to correct my mistakes, I would ask her to play and then repeat what she had played based on what I heard. She figured it out when she played a mistake and I repeated her error. My mother let me quit and I asked for a guitar for Christmas – my ninth grade year. I’ve always loved to sing. Since most of rock and roll exists because of three chords (G, C, D), I had all the music I needed around me. My soundtrack had six strings.
My brother, who grew up in the same house and got a guitar the same Christmas, would tell this story differently. He became a professional musician. He learned to read music, to love the symphony and the opera, he did the work of learning to read what is still a foreign language to me, other than knowing Every Good Boy Deserves Favor.In college, I was learning to play Dan Fogelberg while he was performing “De Fledermaus.” It was not a matter of what we were exposed to as children, it had to do with the ears we grew and what melodies we allowed to take root in our hearts.
I love live music. I love the idea of being in a room where a musical event occurs that cannot be replicated and was not recorded; you were either there, or you weren’t. In rock and roll, those kinds of moments come when an unexpected guest walks out on stage, or some sort of interaction with an audience member changes the set list. Live orchestra is shooting of a different kind of live experience, one where everyone has practiced individually and rehearsed together to bring the score to life by playing the score note for note. But there is no such thing as a literal playing of the score; it must be interpreted. The conductor makes decisions about tone and tempo. The players bring their own style to their craft. And then there’s the challenge of playing together.
Acoustic sets have been stylish for some time now in popular music, where a musician forsakes the band and plays solo with nothing but guitar, as if the stripped down version of the song is the truest one. I can’t imagine a violinist, a trumpeter, or a timpanist making a case for a solo version of any of the pieces they know. (“Wait for it – my drum comes in every forty-five measures!”) The composers wrote parts that could come to life only in the context of community. They had to have the band to make the whole thing work.
All of a sudden I’m talking as if I know the difference between scherzo and shinola.
I wonder what the musicians car hear when they play. Do they have a sense of the entire orchestra at work? Do the strings hear more than strings? If one sits in front of the big brass does one holy hear big brass? Does the guy playing the triangle wish he had a microphone so he could hear himself? Do they have to play the notes and trust the conductor to tell them if they are making music? Do those who play supporting notes ever really get to hear the melody?
We’re off to the symphony. I’m going to sit in an historic room and let the sounds wash over me, hoping to find resonance, to grow new ears. I’m going to find beauty in the diligent work of the players and the conductor. I’m going to be a part of an evening I usually miss, to see a side of the world I don’t usually see, to give attention to what I usually let flow by.
That’s always worth doing.