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A Night At The Symphony

March 12, 2007

Alright, so I saw the Chicago Symphony Orchestra again on Saturday. I’m thinking it was the best show I’ve ever seen. And not just the best symphony I’ve ever been to, but the best show, shindig, event, period. And I’ve seen a lot of symphonies. I’m a pretty big fan of classical music although I don’t show it. I don’t just flip on my stereo and listen to Vivaldi or anything, like, ever, but I do play in an orchestra. So for about half my life I have been exposed at length to classical music, and not just from school, but from home as well. So even before I got to the Symphony Center I knew it was going to be a killer show. Usually they play some good stuff and some crap, but on this night it was different. No modern bullshit, all crowd-pleasers. Namely, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. So I was already expecting this to be great, because I really trust the CSO and these pieces were all fantastic. Going to the symphony can be a bit of a task sometimes but I really do love it. It’s the Opera that annoys me. I can’t deal with all the singing, but the symphony is more my niche and I can have fun just sitting and listening. I used to fall asleep a bit until I really got interested in classical music and started to realize that if a symphony can really actually put you to sleep, it’s doing pretty damn well. Like, if you are hypnotized enough by the music to be able to fall asleep in front of the CSO, that’s impressive. At any rate, tonight was going to be especially good because we had great seats, about the fifth row. We usually sit in the back balcony above the orchestra, but I hate that spot. Acoustically it’s probably better but I always feel like I’m going to fall off or something. I’m just that paranoid of a person I guess. So these seats were very good. I had to be respectful and lean back a little though, because I’m a tall guy and I was probably blocking someones view already.

We sat next to some nice people, essentially symphony groupies if that’s even possible. The kind of people who travel and see orchestras like the CSO, as a hobby. no big tall fat people in front of me, so I had no problems seeing. The first piece, Haydn’s 93rd, was really really good. Unfortunately it was overshadowed by those that followed it, but Haydn can hardly ever be considered an opening act. I was already having a fruitful musical weekend. I saw a friends band concert on Thursday and it kicked some serious ass, and I think I’ve now started to get interested in the whole band music culture, if one exists. The music was just so great. For my Orchestra class I need two outside class concert credits, and I was getting them both knocked off in one weekend; couldn’t be happier to know that I had no obligations after this concert. But Haydn is always great, and this particular piece was very delicate and enjoyable. There was a great little quartet part in the middle of it, and one of the funniest orchestral puns I’ve ever heard. You guys are going to read this and laugh at me because it’s not really that funny, but being an orchestra nerd, I chuckled. There is a part in the middle where only three or so violins are playing at all and they are all playing very quiet notes, in very slow intervals. And then there is a long pause, and a bassoon just blasts out the most obnoxious note ever from the back. It was awesome. And once again, our seats were awesome. We must have been, like, ten feet away from first violin Robert Chen, who is already quite a show to watch. He is one of the best violin players I’ve ever seen live, and he puts so much energy into his playing. It almost looks like he’s relaxed though, it’s hard to describe.

Anyway, the Haydn was pretty short for a symphony, about twenty minutes. But it ended and everyone clapped and it was very good. But that was only the beginning. At this point, the rest of the orchestra reconfigures for the guest player and all the basses leave and many of the band instruments, etc. I guess I didn’t mention who the guest was. Alfred Brendel. For those of you who are not familiar with the man, he is essentially the greatest pianist alive. Or at least he might as well be. He could play fucking Yankee Doodle and I’d be floored, honestly. So the orchestra was rearranged and a big beautiful piano was brought onstage, and then Alfred comes out. He’s in his late seventies, an old bird of an Austrian fellow, and he is kind of twitchy and his age shows. That’s not to say he doesn’t look like a very nice dude, but he’s kind of getting up in his days. When he plays sometimes he makes random little groans and twitches, but it doesn’t interfere with his playing and he is probably still in his prime. They played Mozart’s Piano Concerto 17, which is the one that Mozart famously taught the first five bars of to his pet bird. Mozart is one of those composers that everyone knows for a reason; he is reliable, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a piece of his that I didn’t like. But Mozart is about the greatest you can possibly hear, and there are only two or three composers that compare in my book. I’ll get to that later.

I felt like this was the best piece I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing the CSO do. Alfred sat there next to the piano while the rest of the orchestra started, waiting for his time, with this warm smile on his face, and to hear him start into his piano solos from complete silence when the rest of the orchestra has stopped, that’s to find God in music. There is no question. The piece was only a little over thirty minutes and by the halfway point I already knew it was one of the coolest things I have ever heard. I just have a hard time believing how anyone can play the piano…it impresses the shit out of me. The theory has to be buried into your brain, because on Piano there it’s really black and white, like fretted instruments. On a violin you can search for the right note, but on the piano, if you fuck up, you fuck up. And at that, both of your hands are operating, and Alfred Brendel does it on such a spectacular level. The emotion that he puts into even the simplest fills baffles me. And yet he puts the same emotion into huge intricate solos, and he does it flawlessly. Sometimes with his eyes closed, his elderly jowls going wild. It was a thirty minute piece that felt like ten, it was just TOO good. He got four ovations, three standing.

Somewhere in the middle of the piece, though, a woman on the back balcony caught my eye. She was either drunk, stoned, or not completely there in the head, but I still think she might have been one of the free-est souls I’ve ever seen. She was literally doing a sitting hippie dance during Alfred Brendels piece. That made me realize…this shit is pretty rockin.

During intermission, people usually walk around to exercise their legs, go to the bathroom, pick up a ridiculously expensive chocolate bar or glass of wine at the concessions, etc. But I was too floored to really stand up right then. It was obvious to me that this was one of the most impressive things to ever grace my ears. I can only think of one or two performances that have come close, and then actual recorded music which is quite different and more up for grabs. When it comes to recorded music, lots of songs strike me as just brilliant every time I hear them. Off the top of my head, Song To The Siren covered by Cocteau Twins, Fleeting Smile by Roger Eno, and Samba Pa ‘Ti by Santana. I also saw Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble a few years ago, and that was also just unbelievable. But this was totally a new breed of awesome. So you’d think I’d be disappointed in whatever the last piece had to offer. Because really, how can something measure up to this? It’s Alfred Brendel playing Mozart, that’s pretty hard to beat. Like I said, only a few composers compare to Mozart. Bach is one, Handel is another. I usually don’t think Beethoven when I think of favorite composers, but he is amazing enough in his composures that he should be making top composer lists for all fans of classical music.

To my disbelief, the Mozart was actually beaten out by something even more amazing, Beethoven’s 5th. Even if you don’t know shit about classical music, chances are you know that name. Beethoven’s 5th. Everyone has heard the opening bars. It’s just so a part of popular culture and music that it’s hard to escape. And it’s popular for a reason, most people consider it to be the greatest piece of music ever produced. It’s not just the opening part that is great… Every minute of the thirty minute long symphony is absolutely ingenious, and not one fumble is made in the whole course of the music. It’s the most amazing piece of classical music, bar none. It has load of energy and every time the piece explodes into beautiful sound within the last fifteen minutes, and it feels like about as many times, you just feel like this is the greatest thing you have ever listened to. And it’s being performed by the CSO no less, all operating as one huge wonderful unit. Everything here was absolutely perfect, the pizzicato stretch, the complex solos bouncing off of each of the sections… This shit is hardcore. If there is headbanging classical music, this is it. No question, this was even cooler than the Mozart. I’ve fucking seen the light.

Anyway, Saturday was easily the best night of music of my life, I’m still trying to get over it.

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2 comments

  1. I would have loved to see Alfred Brendel perform with the CSO. I saw him perform his last ever recital in Los Angeles last year, and it just blew me away. Have you seen the BBC’s documentary on him, “Alfred Brendel in Portrait”?

    As for Beethoven’s 5th, I saw the Royal Phil and the San Diego Symphony both on stage at the same time performing it earlier this year. And I have to agree with you — the entire symphony from beginning to end is just amazing. It’s a shame more people haven’t heard the whole thing.

    Thanks for the post.


  2. His last ever recital? How exciting! It must have been amazing. I actually saw him again last Winter I believe, also before he retired. It was great, as expected. I have not seen that BBC Documentary, but thanks for the tip. I’m going to have to check it out now.



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