Interlude: An Orchestral Education

Bugs Bunny sits at a piano. He wears a tuxedo with high collar. What he plays aren’t random notes, but Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.

Rob points out that like most people I have been a fan of classical music ever since being a kid and watching cartoons like Bugs Bunny. All our favorite television shows and movies are soundtracked with classical music. Particularly opera, because operas were originally written to support a narrative. Rossini’s The Barber of Seville for example can be heard everywhere from Seinfeld to A Clockwork Orange. Classical music is so ubiquitous that it often goes unheard beneath the image and story.

All this time it’s stirred my soul, yet somehow didn’t hear it.

A good illustration for my early love, and ignorance of classical music comes from a Simpson’s episode where everyone attends a concert of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. After the opening Da-Da-Da Daaaaa, everyone stands up to leave. They explain to the conductor that they already heard the best part, hearing it before in commercials and on ringtones. Marge desperately tries to stop the audience now running for the doors; she implores, “Stop or you’ll miss the next piece – an atonal medley by Philip Glass.”

Thanks to my friend Rob and his partner Rié I’ve stopped running for the doors.

Rié plays clarinet for The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia and like Rob is a warm-hearted, generous ambassador of her craft. After hearing about my interest in classical music she extends to me a priceless gift. A ticket! A ticket to hear classical music, live and in its entirety, for the first time ever. It is a thrilling! A bonus is seeing my friends in the orchestra doing something they truly love. My ear is forever trained to listen for the clarinet and think of them.

The intimacy of the Perelman theater and the musical selections by their director Ignat Solzhensistyn are an incredible introduction for a neophyte like myself. Because the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia is about a 1/3 of the size of a full orchestra, I am really able to isolate and appreciate the different sections and sounds from the stage. I begin to attend regularly to build an awareness and vocabulary for this thing I have loved since watching Tom and Jerry chase each around a piano, funny enough also to Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Some concerts come alive like realistic paintings full of landscape imagery adding the call and response of birds and mammals. Others, like abstract paintings focus on the formal elements and the relationship of the notes in time. Some bypass the brain completely and reach right into my heart and soul.

Discovering Shostakovich feels like discovering bands like The Clash and The Misfits and it’s like falling in love with music all over again. I am barely civilized enough to keep myself seated, I want to jump and point and shout, ‘Did you hear that?’ Pump my fist in the air. ‘Excelsior!’

Thanks to the gift and education Rié offered, it’s time to hear the power of a full orchestra. Rob generously invites me to hear him perform clarinet with some of the bigger orchestras around Philadelphia. Mahler’s symphony of a thousand brings me to tears!. The bigness of it! To hear so many vocalists on stage collectively projecting one unified emotion, my god. Beethoven’s 9th along with him and Mahlers’ respectable 5ths, Holst’s The Planets, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Firebird, Barber’s adagio, soloists like the pianist Jeremy Denk who’s fingers move like spiders across the keys. These are glorious evenings away from the television that transcend my mundane routines to sweep me up into something unknowable, universal, and timeless. The whole becomes greater than the parts. A stand out performance was the Philadelphia Orchestra’s 2011-12 season where Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, Mendelssohn’s symphony #4, Verdi’s overture La Forzza del Destino, and Resphighi’s The Pines of Rome. Yannick, mon Dieu!

Rié and Rob gifted me an incredible foundation for appreciating classical music… But opera?

The big ‘O’ of opera feels like a hoop that even music lovers are reluctant to jump through. Beginners like myself question the distance, the expense, when do you clap, what do you wear, and will I even understand what they’re saying. After a time and seeing my interest grow in classical music, Rob suggests we go to New York to see an Opera. There was no need for those worries and it was a remarkable evening. A goal for writing this blog is to allay fears and hopefully encourage someone new to give opera a try.

Opera is fervid! It holds both the vitality of youth and the wisdom of age. Composed by musical genius and sung by the greatest vocalists on the planet, opera is an experience not to be missed.

A big thank you to Rob and Rié who shared their knowledge and passion for music with me.