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A Philistine Pondering on the Symphony


I am not prone to giddiness, but in weaving my way among the 1100-odd seats of the Seabrook Auditorium, it was close to being true. Fayetteville State University may not be Carnegie Hall in New York City, or Royal Albert Hall in London, or Konzerthaus in Berlin, but for that moment on that night a few years ago it could well have been symphony night at the Vienna State Opera, with Mahler himself holding the door and Strauss serving as usher.  I had been increasingly excited in the lead up, and now, as I found my seat, my anticipation swelled, ready for fulfillment.

The stage overflowed with chairs, music stands, risers, and the musicians milling about in various stages of preparation. Black tie adorned the performers on the stage, which I honored by wearing a button up shirt complete with collar, jeans and boots. I’m unsure what the symphonic equivalent to Brooks is, but was pretty sure I would be it. No, not that Brooks – the Garth variety, whose beloved song about being out of place at a black tie affair crossed my mind more than once. But even so, nothing was said, folks were friendly, and the whole set up was informal enough to not be prohibitive. Finding my place, I split my attention between observing the bustle on the stage and reading through the rather detailed program.

Then comes a noticeable change in atmosphere. The bustle of activity settles, the disjointed noises mute into a low hum, and the shuffling sounds of places being found and adjustments to both people and instruments being made. Then a hush, interrupted by some seemingly coordinated coughing that spreads from one person to the next like a giggle in church. But it runs its course and then there is another brief silence, filled with anticipation.

Then applause.

A person whom I learned is not, in fact, the conductor, but the concertmaster, strides to the center, from left to right. “Concertmaster” is a term apparently unique to Americans – the rest of the world settles for the self-evident “leader”. The first-chair violin comes, bows, then turns to the ensemble. He is not sitting on the riser that is prominent in the center, but standing in place among, but for the moment not of, the rest.

And then something extraordinary happens.

At some non-verbal, unseen signal, the sound of a lone horn comes, joined by a few others, gaining more instruments and rising in volume. The concertmaster turns, sits, and-in unison with the other strings-pulls across that first, uniformed note.

And that is when it hits you. “Hit” is not metaphorical; you physically feel the sound moving into and around you. The swell of the noise produces pressure against the listener as if he or she were bodily impeding a warm spring breeze from passing. It is utterly different from the electronic amplification of compressed and mixed sounds at a rock concert. It is aggressive without abrasion, forceful without intruding. Layers of warmth and depth and naturally-produced sound that is fully appreciated only through experience.

But it is fleeting; the union of perfect harmony quickly breaks into individual tuning, then silence falls again. All assembled rise, there is applause, and the conductor comes for his bow before mounting the riser and seating the symphony. Unlike the tuning note, this sound comes gradually, softly, almost timidly. The conductor, Faoud Fahkouri, leans forward and gestures a downward pressing motion, universal in its meaning of “go easy”. He motions and reaches on the downbeat as if plucking the strings of the instruments himself. The melody rises and falls with fullness, then back to gentleness, a wonderful ebb and flow. At moments, the music grabs little note combinations that a pop song might call a hook, or a rock guitarist would feel as a familiar riff, but they fall quickly back into the overall piece.

The program tells me I’m hearing the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, and blurbs that, on its original release to the public, it was not well received (“too Russian and barbaric” was listed as a review and I assume that was not a compliment) but grew on folks over time to become a frequent piece for many symphonies. Why the first movement was allowed to be skipped and the third left undone is not explained. The handbill helpfully explains that the melancholy but beautiful sounds of the first part come from an oboe, and that the climax of this piece refers back to the unheard first movement. Since I’ve not heard the first movement, I take this as an indication that I should have known this going in. I’m amazed and impressed, and wonder where our local symphony falls among peers on a quality scale. There are notes from the “FSO Music Nerd” with items and bits of trivia, no doubt intended to make the music more accessible to newbies like me.

I just know it sounds good.

Fitting that the piece I would hear was not initially received well, as the same is true for classical music in general to my ear. I like my rock and metal, along with old school R&B, hip-hop, and more recently, lots of roots music. I grew up in the mountains, where bluegrass and mountain music played live at most gatherings of any size. My parents mostly listened to the oldies radio station, and my father had a love for old R&B music — the great vocal groups like the Temptations, Platters, Spinners and such. Those were the tapes most frequently played, along with a healthy dose of Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash. I drifted toward hard rock and metal, until the advent of Fox, when a show called “In Living Color” introduced hip-hop and rap to my world.

Like many others, my gateway drug to classical music acceptance was the symphonic arrangements of movie scores. My own over-active imagination was always scored by John Williams, as my daydreams required the most epic of musical accompaniment. The Raiders of the Lost Ark arrangement was amazing to me. The first tape of straight orchestra-style music I possessed was the Jurassic Park soundtrack, a wonderful film score that has held up very well over time as one of the legendary Williams’ best works.

It was later, as an adult, that I started exploring more into classical and symphony music. My cousin, freshly graduated from college with a music degree, was staying to help out as I recovered from some surgery and we often discussed music in-depth. “If you like movie scores and want to get into classical,” she told me, “you want to check out Dvorak.”

She was right. Once I worked through several instances of being corrected on pronouncing the great man’s name (d(?)-VOR-zha(h)k, which with enough hillbilly drawl comes out as “devour Zach” if one is not careful) I really enjoyed it. There were enough little hooks and melodies, like the bit that would be spun off as “Goin’ Home”, among the changes, that you could play out a movie in your mind with the New World Symphony as the score. Those softer, gentler melodies were counterpointed with awesome bombast, full-throated horns, and thundering drums. It was no mental stretch to hear something akin to a metal riff and power chords among the stronger sections. The more I enjoyed, the more I wanted to hear it live, without the filter of recording.

Live symphonic music is remarkable and something I’ve recommended to friends, especially those not accustomed to the arts, to experience for themselves. Our local symphony does many things beyond full concerts, such as chamber music at the Episcopal church downtown, youth programs, free concerts in the park, and theme nights such as kid-friendly program that has become something of a Halloween tradition. A few Hallow’s Eves’ ago, “Star Wars” was the theme, and during Williams’ “Imperial March”, fully costumed stormtroopers occupied the hall and Darth Vader had the conductor taken away. Then, taking the baton and riser for himself, he proceeded to conduct the replay of the piece, to the delight of all.

Such creativity is a must for smaller musical endeavors. But despite, or perhaps because of, these challenges, the smaller symphonies are thriving at a time when larger, prestigious groups are floundering under heavy contracts, hall maintenance costs, and a changing world in general, according to the Washington Times.

With more than 105,000 musicians performing in 1,200 orchestras across the country last year, regional and small-town orchestras that run on small but innovative budgets, have become the rule, rather than the exception.

Two-thirds of the nation’s symphony orchestras operate on less than $300,000 a year, according to the League of American Orchestras. Their business model – paying professional musicians for each performance rather than a salary, reaching out to corporate sponsors, foundations, state and local governments, building on relations with longtime subscribers and nurturing a passion for music among a new generation of music lovers – has kept them strong even as major orchestras in cities such as Louisville, Philadelphia, New York, Tampa and San Jose have filed for bankruptcy in the last decade.

Meanwhile, many of the smaller orchestras in this region have tapped the wealth of local talent, including music faculty at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Carnegie Mellon, Duquesne and West Virginia universities, many of whom play in multiple small-town orchestras across the tri-state area.

“There was a study a while back that said the number of people with music performance degrees with full-time employment was 8 percent. I don’t think much has changed,” said Westmoreland Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Warren Davidson.”

Fayetteville’s Symphony is no different, where most members work for a living and play for their passion. Many have advanced or terminal degrees, wear several hats professionally to get by, and play in more than one symphony. Everyone from teachers, military members, massage therapists, medical doctors, and high school band directors sits on the stage. The regional talent pool is very strong, with the “big three” triangle schools of Duke, UNC, and NC State 90 minutes away, and a dozen smaller schools within that same arc. For the time being at least, the local symphony seems secure.

Which is a good thing when a philistine like me goes wandering into a performance, eager to see what it is really like to have a mass of musicians firing hundreds of years of musical tradition at his preconceived notions. Though it will never be mistaken for a country kegger, there is an accessibility to local arts that is vital for their continued survival. The stereotype of the classical music snob must, at least occasionally, give way to the costumed Wookie to bring in the young ones. The youth programs go so far as to teach recent pop hits to their understudies, and even the website for our symphony’s youth program has the electronic dance music stylings of the very popular Lindsey Stirling. Classically trained violinists dancing and performing to the beat isn’t the way it’s always been done, but it sure is fun. Besides, YouTube can do in a few minutes and one or two clicks what it used to take months of fundraising and awareness to accomplish.

Therein lies the key for centuries-old music to have generations of influence: lowering barriers and obstacles, or at least providing a gateway through them, so the uninitiated can get to the unique part. There will never be a replica for the visceral feel of sitting in close proximity to a symphony as it opens up. An incredible feeling of raw auditory power is enough to change even the most skeptical of minds. The feeling outpaces the understanding, leaving a trail for reason to follow and an open door for the mind to explore further, if it wishes. A child might not know all the terminology, but they know their Star Wars: a blast of horns from the Imperial March means bad things are coming; the flutes and harp set to scenes of space evoke wonder, and the fanfare that everyone knows means an adventure is at hand. Why shouldn’t that be a gateway for them to Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, or if they wish, Williams, Zimmer, or Horner?

As for me, as the Tchaikovsky faded out, I was left with a wonderful and satisfied joy, and a longing for more. “Patron of the Arts” will probably never be on my résumé, and I still prefer
In Flames while mowing the grass, and jazz when I am cooking. But when I want something to bring out emotion, or to still it and make the world go away for a bit, I put some classical in the rotation. Mostly, the symphony made me want to come back again.

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Born and raised in West Virginia, Andrew has since lived and traveled around the world several times over. Though frequently writing about politics out of a sense of duty and love of country, most of the time he would prefer discussions on history, culture, occasionally nerding on aviation, and his amateur foodie tendencies. He can usually be found misspelling/misusing words on Twitter @four4thefire.

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16 thoughts on “A Philistine Pondering on the Symphony

  1. I enjoyed seeing the symphony through your eyes. Thanks.

    I expect they only played Movement 2 because the whole symphony takes 40 minutes and they didn’t have room for it in the program.

    Some other suggestions for entry drug symphonic music: Host’s The Planets which sound not a little bit like John Williams Star Wars work, though that’s really vice-versa. Orff’s Carmina Burana, which has been in films and commercials. Beethoven is an old reliable, try the 5th, 6th or 9th symphonies. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring caused a scandal when it came out, though that may be because the subject of the ballet it is written for is human sacrifice.

    Another avenue you might try is to dig up the old Disney film Fantasia. It’s a bunch of orchestral pieces (symphony and ballet) with an animated short film to go with – strung together in a feature-length film. Made in the 50’s the quality isn’t up to modern standards, but I think it’s still worth your time, and will introduce several new pieces.

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    • I appreciate you reading it. I have The Planets on my limited rotation, along with Copland, Tillis’ Fantasia on a Theme, and some others that you would instantly recognize. I remember watching Disney’s Fantasia but it has been a while. We were talking in the morning ed the other day about the old Looney Tunes having quite a bit of Opera/Symphony music to them as well, which came back to mind with bringing up Disney using it as well.

      Carmina Burana (O, Fortuna) gets a lot of play, and I do love that piece. Latin lyrics only though, please, it doesn’t sound right in English.

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  2. I believe that the concert master flashes the number of horn notes for the tuning, gang-style, with his right hand as he’s turned toward the orchestra.

    I recently attended a performance of Aaron Copland’s An Outdoor Overture. If you like country music, you probably would have enjoyed it. Copland’s an odd one. He can be boisterous and American, or as sterile as an operating room. By the way, Hoedown is the one Copland piece everyone thinks of, but they think it’s called Appalachian Spring. Appalachian Spring isn’t bad, and there’s a passage near the end that you’ll recognize, but Hoedown is a lot more fun. It’s from the ballet Rodeo, which I’d recommend.

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  3. There is nothing like a live symphony orchestra. I went to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s summerfest where they were doing the Beethoven symphonies right after I’d taken a class on them. You hear SO MUCH more in a live performance.

    And the 9th … is just overwhelming in person. They had brought Robert Shaw out of retirement and when it was over, I heard a sound I’d never heard from a classical audience before: cheering, yelling, shouting, jumping up and down. One of the most memorable experience of my life.

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  4. My first night at the symphony: Early 70s (I was early 20s). Knew my way around psychedelic rock, but the classics were the province of my lovely lady at the time. Got tickets to see Andre Previn conducting the London Symphony performing Beethoven’s 7th. Our seats were literally the absolute last row in the balcony of a large college auditorium. Good acoustics, very wide angle overview of the orchestra, full orchestral experience. Sweet! At the half-time intermission, a rather frazzled gent asked if we would trade seats with him because he was too close to the stage.

    We ended up in the absolute front row, about ten feet from the first violin. Actually not a good spot to appreciate the music itself — too close, way to close. Couldn’t even see the players at the rear over the stage front. But being about twenty feet from Previn, I could finally see what a conductor does. He’s not just waving that little wand around, keeping time — he’s communicating very intimately with the musicians. We could see his direct eye-to-eye conversations with, say, the lead cello, and how she responded and then he would direct his attention elsewhere. He was working his butt off, keeping those dozens of musical geniuses in line, in sync, in harmony. Great and wonderfully educational “Night at the Symphony”!

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  5. There’s a concert series in my area that I’ve been going to for years. (I credit a conversation on this site for getting me started with it.) This year I consciously got seats in different parts of the hall for each of the four concerts I attended. It was an interesting experiment. Not just in terms of acoustics, but in terms of seeing elements of the production differently. You do hear a lot more at a live performance, but it’s also interesting what you see. There’s an idealist in me that resists the idea that the visuals affect the musical experience, but they really do. But classical music is a mix of entertainment and education for me, and it’s easier to learn what’s going on when you can watch it.

    The thing that has been preoccupying me is the extent to which a musician gets visibly caught up in certain passages. There are stretches where the violins have to exert themselves to get the necessary volume, but there are other parts when you can see some of them rolling along with the melody. Hardly at all among violas, though. Is it because the larger instrument interferes with the gesturing, or is it because violinists are more show-offs? Or is the caricature of violists as non-musical really true?

    I once saw a video of violinist Janine Jansen playing a concerto. She is very physically expressive in her playing. But what really struck me was that she allowed herself to be conducted. She played as a member of the orchestra. It was a very different experience from the usual soloist plus orchestra. I don’t recall what piece it was – something I never considered special – but she brought out a completely different dimension to it. I always wondered if there was some connection between her expressiveness and her musicality.

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  6. This post puts far out of reach the notion that you really are a philistine, Andrew. I’d say you’re something closer to symphonies’ ideal patron in your age cohort.

    I’d love to read more accounts of your trips to concert venues.

    (As background, I grew up dreaming to be a cellist in a professional orchestra and, implausibly, maybe a conductor some day. That all didn’t work out, but this music remains one of my main passions in life.)

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    • I appreciate your thoughts, and you reading and enjoying it. It is an interesting question what is the ideal patron; I think the data included supports that these “smaller” symphonies that are thriving have figured out you need all kinds of patrons, or at least a bigger tent that just the traditional donors and supporters to make it work. And often it needs to be somewhat localized or at least regionalized to be effective.

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  7. Excellent essay. A couple of points:

    On being underdressed: Even in the big cities, symphony audiences don’t dress up anymore. This isn’t to say that they show up wearing cutoffs and flip flops, but “business casual” is just fine. The only exception is if it is a fundraising gala performance, where dressing up is much of the point.

    Symphony economics: These have always been tenuous at best. What we think of as a full symphony orchestra is actually the 19th century version. Blame Beethoven, who invented the Wall of Sound long before Phil Spector. Without amplification, you need a lot of bodies on stage to achieve this effect. How to pay for this? Even the big city symphonies bring in freelancers as needed. If they are playing a piece with lots of French horns, for example, only two of them will be full timers. Your smaller symphonies do this with most or all of the musicians. This keeps cost down, but the best musicians will be drawn to the full-time employment opportunities. This isn’t to say that the musicianship of the smaller symphonies is poor. Far from it. Music conservatories churn out far more graduates than there are full-time positions, so there is a lot of talent available to the smaller orchestras. But if you get a chance to go to one of the majors, grab it.

    I suspect that the future is with chamber music, simply because of the economics. Don’t scorn small ensembles. I think the full symphony is the easier entry, because it is so physically impressive. In my old age I have come to appreciate the string quartet. You like Dvorak’s symphonies? Try his string quartets. They are excellent. Here is a good place to start, keeping in mind that this is a poor alternative to attending a live performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HrqgMrwG4i0

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    • I appreciate you reading it. Your chamber music point is well taken. Our local symphony scatters a half-dozen or so “chamber performances” at the historical downtown Episcopal church, which is an excellent small venue (150ish seats). These actually have some variations from the quartet to up to twenty or so depending on the piece. They have an upcoming one that is actually going to be the winds doing some of Mozart’s Operas that I’d like to take in and is a nice change up.

      Your economics points are well made. As I mentioned in the piece we benefit greatly from the region; almost all the musicians here are in multiple groups and we have such deep college/university systems in the area so the “overlap” gives lots of musicians many opportunities.

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      • Musicians in multiple groups: This happens everywhere. A big city will have the full-time professional symphony orchestra as the top tier, but then there will be a miscellaneous conglomeration of chamber orchestras, string quartets, early music ensembles, and so forth. Nobody makes a full living off of these. Some people will patch together a living wage by combining gigs. Scheduling becomes an issue here. Most will have day jobs. A tenured position on a music faculty is ideal, but there aren’t many of those. A lot of the everyone else will be teaching in some capacity or other, anything from an adjunct position at the local university to teaching in the public schools or in the back room of the local music store. Or they might be selling insurance. This has better long-term prospects, and was good enough for this guy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Ives

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  8. Great essay! We have a fantastic symphony and a dedicated state of the art venue here in Omaha (thanks to some of the world’s richest people). The symphony is a great pleasure – it was refreshing to hear from your point of view.

    In my experience you can easily get involved in your local symphony. There are usually charities, fundraisers, volunteering, and of course writing checks. ;) I would say support your local arts and music scene both high-brow and low-brow. It’s an important part of our collective experience.

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