A Philistine Pondering on the Symphony

Andrew Donaldson

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 and his writing website Yonder and Home.

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16 Responses

  1. Doctor Jay says:

    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.Report

    • 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.Report

  2. Pinky says:

    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.Report

    • Andrew Donaldson in reply to Pinky says:

      The shaker melody variations of Appalachian spring is my very favorite piece of symphony music, bar none, when it pauses and then stutter steps to that insanely good swell of full bore sound…90 seconds of just pure awesomeReport

  3. Mike Siegel says:

    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.Report

  4. rexknobus says:

    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”!Report

  5. Pinky says:

    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.Report

  6. Michael Drew says:

    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.)Report

    • 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.Report

  7. Richard Hershberger says:

    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=HrqgMrwG4i0Report

    • 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.Report

      • Richard Hershberger in reply to Andrew Donaldson says:

        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_IvesReport

  8. Mark Kruger says:

    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.Report