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.
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.