Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Rocking Out to the Orchestra

The tram that stopped at Museumplein had two types of people. The first group consisted of boys and girls wearing graphic T-shirts, flannel, slim fitting jeans, and Chuck Taylor shoes. Some wore flat-billed baseball hats while others wore beanies. All thumbs were tapping frantically on smartphones, and all eyes were glued to these luminous screens.

The second group consisted of men in button-up shirts and women in pleasant, non-revealing dresses. There was a notable lack of denim-on-denim that was present in the first group. It was mostly older married couples who would throw back their heads and laugh jollily.

I was with the latter crowd.

There were two concert venues at Museumplein, and they were within 500 yards of each other. The first group went to the Uitmarkt festival, where rock bands played on multiple outdoor stages. The second group went the other direction towards the Concert Gebouw to hear the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra perform works by Wallin, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky.

The Concert Gebouw was astounding. I experienced the grandeur of the venue with glistening chandeliers, velvet seating, and names of composers decorating the balcony walls. I took my seat behind the orchestra nearby the upright bass and tuba players. Before the performance began, the oboist stood up and played a single note. Slowly, all the instruments added to the sound. The musicians were tuning their instruments, and the sound was so harmonious that I could empathize with someone who thought that the first piece had already started. The acoustics in the concert hall were breathtaking. Whether the burst of the trombone or the timpani’s subtle thrumming, the purity of the sound of each instrument was preserved. 

The conductor made his entrance. I was surprised by how young he was. His name is Lahav Shani, and he is in his mid-twenties. I was sitting with Giuliano, who added a lot of insight to the performance. We spoke about each piece after the show, and he taught me a lot about the technical aspects of the music.

Lahav raised his hands and the first piece, Act by Wallin, began. It was fast and almost chaotic. The piece jumped around with sudden transitions between slower sections and frenzied segments. A wide range of percussion was used, adding to the effect of crazy movement. It was a very modern piece. However, to my ears, it was not unpleasant sounding like some of the other modern works that I have heard. The music resonated well with me while keeping me on edge with various surprises. I could tell it was not a traditional Beethoven symphony. Per the brochure description, Wallin incorporated mathematical models, fractals, and chaos theory. While I could not take apart and analyze the structure, the overall effect was exciting. It was novel such that I was very engaged, but not so bizarre that I was alienated from the music. The audience felt the same way, for after the piece ended, not only did everyone cheer loudly, but many listeners also turned to their neighbors to make a brief comment about the music.

The following performance was Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto. The white haired Ronald Brautigam entered and sat in front at the grand piano. The concerto was majestic, and while all the instruments were in time and in tune, I was captivated most by the piano. The dynamics were well expressed, and there was no harshness to the notes—crescendos occurred smoothly with every subsequent note a consistent amplitude louder than the previous. That is to say, there were no out-of-place accents in the middle of those crescendos. The piano runs were also very well controlled. The notes did not blur together and I hear the individual keys (although each key did not feel isolated but felt like a portion of the whole). It was controlled without feeling restricted; it ran freely without getting sloppy. In addition, the transition between piano and the rest of the orchestra was seamless. The piano flowed in and out so smoothly there was no instant in time at which I could tell the concerto was switching focus between piano and the rest of the orchestra. The piece was sumptuously composed and exquisitely performed.

The final performance was Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony—my favorite of the night. It was a very emotional piece, and rightly so given claims that Tchaikovsky committed suicide ten days after the premiere of the symphony. The introduction during the first movement was haunting with the upright basses. Then the trombones came in fantastically, and the piece showed off how powerful it was. 

Then there was the third movement. I can only describe it as ridiculous. Ridiculous as in it was so magnificent that the world could have ended and that movement would have served as the satisfactory climax to life such that one would not regret dying in a more glorious manner. Even though there was still one movement to go, the audience could not contain itself. It released a suppressed applause even when propriety deemed it improper to clap between movements. The applause was not the result of ignorance but of uncontainable enthusiasm. The ten-seconds ovation was medium-loud in volume (an interesting interplay between excitement and trying to contain it until the end of the symphony).

The final movement was slow and somber. The ending was so intricate that I felt like I was slowly sinking. After the final decrescendo at the end, Lahav kept his hands up for what felt like a minute before finally relaxing. Sometimes audiences are slow to applause because they do not know when a piece is over. This audience was slow to applause because it was trying to take in what it had heard. The choice to have a powerful and heroically spectacular movement followed by a subdued one was very effective emotionally. It built me up only to break me down. I could feel the gut-wrenching passion that drove Tchaikovsky to create what he aptly titled Pathetique.

If I were to describe how I felt to that first, graphic T-shirt wearing, smartphone addicted group on the tram, I would tell them that I was amped. At the end of the night, I would tell them that I felt like I had gone to a rock concert.

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