Wednesday, October 14, 2009

RPO: Really Powerful Opiate

They had me at “Hello.”

I had the happy circumstance of occupying my sister’s empty seat at the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra concert last Saturday. She and my brother-in-law are regular attendees, but for this particular program, my sister got to be on stage, performing with the Rochester Oratorio Society, along with our mom and dad and about 135 other singers.

It.Was.Glorious. I can’t recall the last time I heard a professional orchestra, live. (2002, maybe?) However long it had been, it had been too long. This happened to be the opening weekend of the recently renovated Eastman Theatre, now named Kodak Hall in homage to the company that forked over the $10 million to get the hall looking and sounding so heavenly. I’m no sophisticate. I can’t tell you whether it sounded more or less “blended” or “balanced,” “dark,” “bright,” “muddy” or “optimum.” People who hear and understand well enough to articulate such terms are beyond me, intellectually. It’s the same with connoisseurs of fine wine and high-quality coffee. I know if I like it; I know if I don’t. I think I have good taste, but don’t ask me to talk about it.

Was I impressed with the new Kodak Hall? Sure, yeah, I suppose so. But how about that orchestra?! You should have heard the magic they made!! Incredible!! I could barely believe my luck. I felt tempted to pinch myself several times throughout the concert, to ensure I hadn’t passed over into Glory. I was that good.

The first piece, Geo, composed by Douglas Lowry expressly for the occasion of the theatre’s re-opening, began with a French horn fanfare that stirred my muse from its 7-year slumber. “Hello!” I am a French horn player—not often anymore, but it’s my instrument. And hearing the horn in orchestral works is a little like flipping through a family album and pausing on particularly flattering photos of oneself. “Oh, look—there I am. I look good, don’t I? I have put on a few pounds since that picture was taken. Perhaps I should go for a jog today.” That’s how I feel when I hear the French horns. They are familiar and beloved, and I listen with a more critical yet eager ear than I possess for any other member of the group.

Geo’s five movements were as diverse and delightful as anything I’ve ever heard. It was haunting and humorous, quirky and lush. I loved it! In fact, Geo’s kaleidoscopic qualities reminded me of one of my 5 favorite possessions on God’s green earth, the crazy quilt my mother made around 1972. It hung in the extra-large doorway between the two living spaces in my childhood home. It served as a temporary wall during the Bible club classes my mother hosted at our house. I have such fond memories of the old ladies who came with their flannelgraph boards and their fascinating accounts of the Ancient of Days at work in ancient days. Like the crazy quilt, each segment of Geo could have made an attractive, serviceable “blanket” in its own right. But together, what a flavorful feast for the ears!

The second half of the program featured Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. I knew this was a famous work, and I knew it would be a rare and important opportunity for me to be edified by it. I knew that the famous tune to “Ode to Joy” was part of the Ninth, but other than that, I couldn’t “name any tunes.” Furthermore, my unsophisticated self suspected I’d hear an entirely different opening line. I expected to hear: “Dum-Dum-Dum Duuuuummmmm, Dum-Dum-Dum Duuuuummmmm…” When the actual Ninth Symphony began and I barely recognized it, the realization popped over my head like an invisible cartoon conversation bubble: “Ohhhh, no, no, no—that’s Beethoven’s Fifth. (Whew—glad nobody else can see how simple I really am.)”

Having recently read Steve Lopez’s heart-rending story The Soloist, about Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, a Julliard-trained musician afflicted with schizophrenia, I thought of Mr. Ayers and his utter adoration of the composer whose miraculous music I was witnessing this night. I remembered how Mr. Ayers, a man whose illness had rendered him homeless, defensive and disorganized to the nth degree, sat with Mr. Lopez of the LA Times awaiting an LAPO concert and lamenting that “Serenade in D major, Op. 8, Piano Trio No. 3 in C minor, Op. I, No. 3, and String Quartet No. 5 in A major, Op. 18, No. 5, are not among Beethoven’s more celebrated works, nor will we see the entire orchestra in its full complement.” Mr. Ayers’ reflections rendered me more aware of the privilege I was experiencing.

By the second movement of the Ninth Symphony, I felt like I was visiting an old friend I simply hadn’t recognized at first. By the third movement, I felt that all was right with the world. By the end, I became a believer all over again.

I thought of Mr. Ayers in Disney Hall, experiencing freedom from his garbled wits for the few moments the music flooded his beautiful mind. I thought of how some people would rather be at Disney Land than anywhere else in the world. I thought of how gleeful and grateful I felt to be right there, right then, in that glorious realm of the RPO in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre in Rochester, New York.

I left the concert in the same spirit poet Sonia Gernes describes her parents on the cusp of 50+ years of marriage: “…they strode from the church, believing in sunshine—the prairie ringing for them, the October trees all aflame with praise…” (“Golden,” from What You Hear in the Dark, University of Notre Dame Press, 2006)

With earnest appreciation for the Divine gift of classical music and the human beings who follow the high calling of embodying the beauty that is art—Amen.

Image from the Muppets’ “Ode To Joy,” available for your viewing and listening pleasure at


Nina said...

I am filled with joy that you were transported to heavenly realms!

I looked up the concert and found this --!_Beethoven%27s_Ninth/ with a clickable clip of the 9th. This mini digital rendering, even with voice over, is exquisite! What a thrill it must have been to be there in person! To be a part of the chorus would have been truly celestial. Lucky relatives!

Speaking of relatives, do you realize that Mr. Ayers most likely heard your/our cousin, Ralph Sauer, playing first chair trombone? He held that position with the LAPO for 30 years or more until he "retired" 2 years ago. Now he does concert gigs all over and is teaching at a university in Phoenix while living in LA. Your brother was ga-ga when he heard that Ralph is a relative!

PS -- Don't forget that Beethoven was totally deaf when he wrote the 9th!!!

WestBerryMom said...

Yay for you Grace! What a treat!

I was at Eastman this week too, for the first Jazz concert in the newly renovated hall (I loved your description of the acoustics - far better than my own summary of "loud!").

I was distracted by the rows and rows of white-capped bobble heads before me (my impression of the people, mostly seniors, who sat in front of me, bobbing their heads throughout the concert to the jazzy tempos). (The lights were not completely down. In fact, the new ceiling lights over the box seats are VERY bright, I thought.)

The aroma of new carpet, mixed perfumes, leather jackets and cough drops was overwhelming.

As an adult, the ornate decor strikes me as "scary" and "overdone"(Thankfully, my son was "wowed"). That HUGE chandelier hanging over my head...those ugly faces above the stage. I was worried that I'd grown into a pessimist. (Naw, just a country girl who prefers simplicity).

But the music...Adam Niewood, Chuck Mangione, other greats who came to pay tribute to the memory of Gerry Niewood...WOW!

Thank you for your post.