The Oregon Symphony
Falling in love takes a fifth of a second, according to a 2010 study by Syracuse University Professor Stephanie Ortigue. When asked, “Does the heart fall in love, or the brain?” Ortigue responded, “That’s a tricky question always…for instance, activation in some parts of the brain can generate stimulations to the heart, butterflies in the stomach.” Despite science, we still resort to using metaphorical butterflies to explain love.
On January 10, 2015, my first live symphonic experience was gifted to me. Explicitly this piece will be about the symphony, and implicitly this is just a love letter.
That evening covered a varietal breadth of symphonic work. To help manifest everything into words, because music is not my expertise, I have referenced the brief, yet detailed Oregon Symphony program notes that my companion and I received from the ushers upon entering the hall.
Our seats were five rows back from the stage of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Even in the beginning as the musicians were fine tuning themselves to each other – the long whine of the strings, the brassy whomps, the flutter of the woodwind
instruments, the quick pattering of the drums – instilled wonderment. The violins or violas – I have yet to learn how to tell them apart visibly – flanked on both sides of Carlos Kalmar the conductor and music director. The first violin to his left, a cello directly in front of him, somewhere further back were the flutes, the piccolos, and then the trumpets, the trombones, a tuba, and then the drums and cymbals. From the moment my companion and I took our seats, the fifths of my seconds, falling in love at the symphony was punctuated by every sonic expression.
In the first 30 minutes, Kalmar took us through Henri Dutilleux’s Symphony No. 1 (composed 1950-51). On June 7, 1951, Roger Desormière conducted the French Radio (ORTF) Symphony in the first world-premiere performance broadcast on the radio. That evening, January 10, 2015, the Oregon Symphony performed it for the first time. The program notes: “Parts of this symphony would work well as the score to an Alfred Hitchcock film: full of suspense, edge-of-the-seat tension and hair-raising orchestral effects.”
The next piece of music was not what I conceived to be a typical symphony. Olivier Messiaen’s Oiseaux Exotiques (Exotic Birds, composed 1955-56) is exactly what it sounds like. Using the sounds of a piccolo, flute, oboe, three clarinets, bass, bassoon, two horns, trumpet, glockenspiel, three gongs, snare drum, tam tam, temple blocks, a wood block, xylophone, the string section, and a solo piano played by celebrated pianist Marc-André Hamelin, the composition imitates birdcalls from 18 different species of birds from India, China, Malaysia and the Americas. According to the program notes, the two things that provided the inspiration for Messiaen’s music was his Catholic mysticism and the song of birds. He dedicated the piece to his wife, pianist Yvonne Loriod. Critics have described the piece as “a fairy tale world of sound, a scene brought to life with prodigious variety, orchestrated with a mastery that is filled with magic.” Another called it “a fantastic orgy of color and sound.”
During intermission, I met a nice woman who said that Messiaen’s piece was an “assault to her ears.” Though enjoyment is convenient to appreciating music, one’s dislike does not automatically eliminate its artistic value. Oiseaux Exotiques starts out with the screech of a Mynah bird, and is then followed by the repetition of pulsing chords, representing the Himalayan Laughing Thrush. Quite simply, isn’t good art suppose to create an experience, even if it’s a visceral one coupled with complaints and disdain? A composition played by an orchestra that can conjure up exotic birds and lush forests in the middle of an Oregon winter, is as close to alchemy as I’ve experienced it.
After intermission, the highlight of the evening was Franz Litszt’s Totentanz (Dance of Death, composed 1838-62), a straightforward symphony with a thematic structure and variations. The trombones intone the theme of Dies irae (Day of Wrath), while Hamelin at the piano, at one point, pounds the keys like a series of relentless footsteps descending. Also according to the program, “…not all the variations are doom-fraught; Death has many guises, some gentle, some reflective, but most of the music showcases Death at its most powerful, inexorable, and terrifying.” Not much different, I think, from the falling that comes from loving someone.
We ended the evening with Maurice Ravel’s Boléro (composed in 1928), which from the snare drum’s opening is a recognizable melody. One critic called the insidious and repetitious Boléro, “…the most insolent monstrosity ever perpetuated in the history of music...” It was the least engaging for me of all the symphonies. Yet my conceit that the lack of melody in Messiaen’s Oiseaux Exotiques did not discount its artistic importance, and neither should my level of engagement dictate Ravel's artistic relevancy. In thinking about poet Gertrude Stein’s concept that repetition of a word changes the word each time it is repeated in relation to its previous utterance, makes one wonder if Ravel's "...insidious and repetitious Boléro" might be the work of a genius after all.
“Ravel had predicted Boléro’s popularity, commenting that “the piece I am working on will be so popular, even fruit peddlers will whistle it in the street.” He was not incorrect. Boléro entered modern pop culture through various media, including the 1979 film 10, and numerous TV commercials. According to the program notes, in 2012, the podcast Radiolab suggested that Ravel might have been experiencing early symptoms of frontotemporal dementia when he composed Boléro. One aspect of the disease manifests itself as an obsessive need for repetition, which explains the lack of development in both the melody and the rhythm of Boléro. Six years after writing Boléro, Ravel began to forget words and to lose his short-term memory.
Scientific studies have revealed that music and language are entwined in regions of the brain. Listening to these symphonies would explain more about them than my writing alone.
But what I can guarantee that listening to Dutilleux, Messiaen, Liszt, or Ravel on Soundcloud or YouTube won’t do. It won’t replace the experience of seeing and listening to the symphony in person. It won’t replace my sitting there with the orchestra in front of me, his hand on my knee and my hand atop his, the vibrations from the stage just a few rows away, the unified raising of the violin bows, the straight backs of the musicians, the breathtaking crescendos, the conductor and his baton casting whatever magic that was felt my first night at the symphony.