This evening I had the chance to go to the Oregon Symphony with a couple of friends from my congregation after dinner at the home of our host for tonight’s events. I had never had the chance to go to the Oregon Symphony before tonight and I have to say that it was enjoyable to listen to. Each of the three pieces for tonight’s performance was quite different in terms of its style and approach, but there were definitely some connections between the three in terms of psychology. The first piece was related to the theme of night, the second piece was written on the prompting of the composer’s sponsor that his work had gotten a bit too dark, and the third piece was written on the tail end of the composer’s depression over the disastrous reception of his debut symphony. So, we might say that darkness would connect these three pieces together in some fashion, despite their differences.
The first piece in the set was Noctures by Claude Debussy, which was either inspired by a set of impressionistic paintings by Whistler or by a contemporary poem. Debussy’s piece was mostly quiet, full of swirling sounds that matched the mood of the clouds, a fete, and the sirens of the sea. My own writing has been compared to the impressionistic paintings of the late 19th century, with the fact that they are generally pieces of a given moment and are often related to the general art and culture of my time and of the past that is a part of my life. Of course, the movement of this piece that most closely relates to my life is the third movement, with its choir of soprano and mezzo-soprano women in a wordless chant as sirens luring unwary travelers to their doom. Yes please! Count me in! In all fairness, though, I have yet to know a young woman who intentionally and cautiously sought to cause me trouble. As far as I’m concerned, sirens get a bad name, or at least the term is used a bit too widely of people in real life.
The second piece was a fine and upbeat Haydn symphony, No. 53, L’Imperiale. As was commented by the Oregon Symphony’s artistic director in the lecture before the concert, this name is a bit of a misnomer, as there is nothing regal or “imperial” about the piece. Rather, the piece was instead written, apparently, at the prompting of Haydn’s Hapsburg royal sponsor, who appeared a bit unhappy about the large number of dark Sturm und Drang pieces that Haydn had written. As a result, this cheery and lighthearted symphony resulted in some popularity at court, given its contrast to the dark mood of the time in Austria (which was dealing with its decline to a rising Prussia and the failure to retake Silesia). For those of us who are two and a half centuries removed from its composition, it is merely “boring genius Haydn,” as it was called today. I happen to be a fan of Haydn, even if I have somewhat mixed memories where Haydn is concerned.
Although I am nowhere near the quality of violists that were on stage myself, I did manage to play for a chamber orchestra in St. Pete when I lived in Town & Country (on the west side of Tampa), and the director there tended to choose Haydn symphonies (I remember playing at least No. 45) because our chamber orchestra was not too dissimilar to the one that Haydn had to work with in Esterhazy. Of course, when my orchestra was learning that particular piece, I went to the Feast of Tabernacles in Argentina in 2009 with my viola. It was not an auspicious trip, largely because my own personal life was not good, I got the bird flu (which was wretched), I was stranded in Chile after missing my flight out for a couple of days, and I ended up being a matchmaker without anyone to match with myself (which is not something I find particularly enjoyable). At any rate, during the time all of this was going on, I found out that I was scheduled for special music, and not being able to find anything to sing on such short notice, I ended up recruiting a couple of local musicians in the feast site for a trio performance of the third movement in the symphony, which is generally my favorite movement of a classical symphony. Of course, the fact that he and I were interested in the same girl made life complicated, but my life has always been complicated in that way I suppose.
For some people, life can be compared to a classical symphony like that of Haydn. Such a symphony has four movements. The first movement sets up a set of patterns and motifs, and can be compared to the first part of our life where we are establishing our patterns of behavior and life based on our experiences and background and our formative choices while our personality and character are being formed. The second movement is often in andante, a slower and often rather repetitive movement where patterns are repeated over and over again with slight variation but the same result. I’m pretty sure that this is the stage of life where I happen to be right now, if my recent experiences are any judge. The third movement is my favorite movement of a classical symphony, with the lighthearted minuet and its elaboration. I clearly have not reached that part of life yet, but it would be nice to see that before too long. The closing, of course, has its own patterns and when it says what needs to be said, it goes home and is finished, as our lives are if we are fortunate enough to say and do all that we longed to say and do. I wonder how many of us are that fortunate.
The final piece tonight was Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2, with suburb piano playing by Arnaldo Cohen, a man whose piano playing in college came along with an engineering degree. I have a lot of respect for a world-class pianist who happens also to be an engineer. His playing was not only technically brilliant but also played with a great deal of heart, and it earned two well-deserved standing ovations, one for the concerto itself and the other for its encore. Of course, it is rather telling that Rachmaninoff wrote this piece at the tail-end of a lengthy major depressive episode that was induced by some savage and unkind reviews of his first symphony. After being hypnotized by a doctor who repeated over and over again that he was a talented composer who would produce great work, the tape (which apparently replaced his own mental tape of despair, at least temporarily, as Rachmaninoff struggled with depression his entire adult life), he composed this particular piece, which served as the inspiration for two Eric Carmen songs (“All By Myself” and “Never Gonna Fall In Love Again” ) as well as Frank Sinatra’s “Full Moon And Empty Arms” . At least two of these songs refer to my life right now (I’m not even going to pretend that the second one is realistic, knowing myself as well as I do). Here’s hoping the night ends soon enough, followed by a glorious dawn. It was a wonderful night and a wonderful culture, but the night cannot last forever, can it?