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Laurie Niles

The Living Symphony

January 17, 2013 at 5:17 AM

The beginning of Brahms First Symphony is so big, so resonant -- I could feel it in my elbows touching the armrests of the seats of the Ambassador auditorium, in the paper of my Pasadena Symphony program as I held it in my hands, in my feet that touched the floor.

On Saturday night I had come to hear violinist Caroline Goulding play the Sibelius Concerto, which she did with great skill, playing the c. 1720 General Kyd Stradivarius she has on loan from Jonathan Moulds. Also on the program was Peter Boyer's likable and rhythmically clever piece for strings, "'Apollo' from Three Olympians."

The Pasadena Symphony Orchestra could have used twice the string section for both the Brahms and Sibelius. As it was, the orchestra performed with 10 first violins, seven seconds (seven!), eight violas, eight cellos and six basses. Ah, "budget cutbacks." Would Monet have decided not to buy the color green, to paint his water lilies? Would have made no difference, right?

But the musicians who were there -- call them my colleagues, as I have played in this orchestra many times -- moved me greatly when they played Brahms. What musician gripes about Brahms, what musician does not love this work? My guess: the ones on stage Saturday love Brahms. Sure, there were problems: the small string section, some wobbly sound in the horns. Yet the sum of their efforts equaled more than those parts.

My heart felt better, listening to them play. What a beautiful thing they were bringing the audience; what a beautiful thing they were bringing me. And how special the occasion, when I can sit in a hall and listen to symphonic music, unfettered by the obligation to "multi-task" as it unfolds in the background, over speakers or headphones, as I drive or do dishes or work.

Maxim Vengerov said last week that every time we play a symphony or great symphonic work, we paint it anew, like a great masterpiece in a museum. He meant this in a good way, but people call a symphony a "museum piece" in a derisive way as well. I say such people do not understand museums. To stand within touching distance of a beautiful work, to see the brush strokes of the master, to understand the history that brought you and this painting into the same spot in the world at this moment in time -- this can be a profound and moving experience.

Brahms wrote his first symphony at 42; he would have been old enough to see the shifting seasons, both of the earth and of a human life. The changing colors of the first movement bring this feeling to mind: a slow-moving harmonic kaleidoscope.

As the second movement began, I thought about some of the beautiful stringed instruments that the musicians in the Pasadena Symphony play -- old Italians, relatively new moderns. No doubt all of those instruments have sung this symphony before; in many cases, before its current owner was born. My colleagues came here from all over the world. They studied with various masters at fine musical institutions -- I could think offhand of a few of their teachers: Ruggiero Ricci, Robert Lipsett, Josef Gingold, Ivan Galamian, Dorothy DeLay. Here they sat, together. Each of them brings that world of music into our community, with the students they teach, the performances they give, the projects they undertake, the conversations they have with friends as well as strangers. They've had their ups and downs, this human group: triumphant performances, failed auditions, celebrity and travel, partners and children, heartbreak, injury, ambition and disappointment. Here they were.

During the fourth movement's horn calls, which herald the theme that have led some people to call this symphony "Beethoven's 10th," the lights flickered. Would the electricity go off, on this windy and cold evening? It didn't, but if it had, I'm certain that most of these musicians could have finished the symphony in the dark.

A symphony orchestra is a live treasure in a community. Unlike a museum piece, it can't endure in a back room, to be brought out later. It has to beat like a heart and live through its musicians, its directors, its composers, its teachers, its supporters, its students, its administrators, its community. It must embrace its oldest and most knowledgeable patrons, educate its young, and provide artistic inspiration and growth for all.


From Paul Deck
Posted on January 17, 2013 at 1:22 PM
Laurie, thank you so much for this candid yet affectionate post. You mentioned the small size of the string section. Curiosity: How big was the venue? To what percentage was it filled?
From Laurie Niles
Posted on January 18, 2013 at 5:57 AM
To answer your question, Paul, it's about a 1,200-seat venue, and this was the second performance, about 80 percent filled. The stage isn't huge, but it's certainly big enough to accommodate a larger string section for these works.

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