Monday, January 12, 2009

Matinee at the Symphony

11 January 2009

It is January in Oakland, and, for this native American, that signifies the Moon of the Dancing Gulls. As I walk along the edge of Lake Merritt on the way to BART, I see the seagulls dancing on the grass as they do at this time each year; they stamp with one leg, then the other, on the rain-wet earth, to make the worms lift their heads from the earth and be eaten.

Sunday Matinee at the Symphony.
The audience for a matinee, and especially for the lecture before the concert, has a uniform look that is elderly. Most decorative are the white-haired women: the curly white swansdown of the well-coiffeured; sometimes white clouds of hair; sometimes molded meringue. On the other extreme are heads where thin grey hairs look like old mopheads long in service. There are the pebbled stretches of men completely bald. Others have a yamulka of bare skin at the back of their heads (why yamulkas came to be, I suppose) where the hair is still black or brown; others, mostly bald, have a laurel wreath of hair. Here is a head where the hair is the straight, grey wing of a graceless, aging crow, indifferent to appearance. Some grey hair is short as a clipped poodle’s; with others, the short hair is so soft that it looks like matted cobwebs. While all the clothing on the elderly (I am one of that crowd) is dark, there in their midst is a bright red coat – a younger woman, yet her hairdo has the indifference of some of the elderly – long and brown, but pulled straight up to a drab brown clip; it looks like an imported palm tree with the branches still tied up.

Michal Tilson Thomas begins the concert with Copland’s “Music from the film OUR TOWN (1940).” I had never heard the music of Copland when I experienced certain feelings in a Hoosier village of 300 and then a small town of 5,000, but precisely those feelings were there again with me as the Copland piece unfolded – one of the mysteries of Copland’s art: It is uncanny how Copland captures the essence of small towns and out of the way places. It may have something to do with what MTT had to say between that piece and the Berg “Three Pieces for Orchestra (1915/1929)” that followed – that the Copland "sounds like familiar melodies.”
Oddly, while it is music that evokes it, what the Copland hedges for me with the music are the familiar silences of small towns and obscure places. He does not include the wail of a train going through town in the middle of the night, but something is there of the silence before and after that wail. Something too about coming to a break in the canopy of trees where you see the long, long way to a star, and in your head, you hear a note like the high A minor that passing train made, a tone that connects you to that star with a silver thread. It also evokes walking through empty Sunday morning streets, all the Christians gathered into the many chuches, and hearing from a distance the organ playing or the trance-like singing of soporific hymns, , while the maple leaves applaud silently above, nature celebrating that it is not in a church where the atmosphere is funereal. The music partakes of the silence of the view down long, empty tree-lined streets, where the music is all inside the heart experiencing the loneliness and obscurity of individual life in such a place, or just on the earth in general. But I think it is mostly the nesting of the wind in tree after tree high above the houses and over the lives of the people in a small town, like the spirit of sweet obscurity hovering over Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town.” The breeze is the music, or the music is the breeze that moves high up in the trees that, in their motion, comprise the green river that flows over the small town lives of the happily concealed.

Although a sharp contrast, I felt equally at home with the Berg pieces, but they describe an internal landscape, the modern mind. It carried you down a thousand strange streets just as we subjected to an endless variety of experiences in our own lives and in the lives we witness on the earth. At one point, the music lead me into a strange and ominous fantasy, but that kind of music is at home in most of us, and we do not fear it. It felt as strange as dream logic, and yet we are familiar with dream logic, so much so that one nearby member of the audience (we looked at each with amusement as we heard) was soon snoring softly. I understood what dream he was having. While MTT tried to prepare people for Berg's wild and “demanding” music, such music, in its daring, is also constantly surprising, and not foreign to this mind.

I was surprised that I had not noticed before how the woodwinds are like the conversationalists of the orchestra; located dead center on stage, they personalize the music with their individual voices, while other parts of the orchestra tend to be their chorus, the rest of the community adding to their comments. (This is a generalization that will not always apply!)

Finally, Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 was a familiar and comfortable pleasure, of course. What is most remarkable to me about Brahms is that he, more than any other, I think, writes music that makes the orchestra “breathe.” More than going for any special effect or startling impression, the orchestra, with his music, seems an organic being breathing on the stage, a special quiet miracle.

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