Wandering Through the Symphony

Photo courtesy of Phillip Trey

I’m making a habit of going to the symphony alone. It’s equal parts bad planning and an impulse decision, but this November, three hours before show time, I decided to attend the Oregon Symphony – again. I love a good excuse to dress up and struggle to tie a tie, even though part of the beauty in going to a symphony performance in Portland is that half the audience will be dressed to the nines, and the other half will be wearing flannel and beanies. It’s a beautiful mix. This latest performance showcased the works of composers Ludwig van Beethoven, John Adams, and Paul Hindemith.


Conducted by guest, Johannes Debus, the orchestra started the evening with Beethoven’s Second Symphony. The program notes mention that, “Lovers of Ludwig van Beethoven’s music associate the word ‘heroic’ with his Third Symphony, nicknamed ‘Eroica.’ Beethoven’s lesser-known Second Symphony is also connected to heroism – not obvious in the music, but inherent in its composer. When Beethoven brought this exuberant symphony to life, he was overwhelmed by depression and thoughts of suicide.” In all honestly, this was the first time I’ve read of Beethoven suffering from depression. His biography more often touts his child prodigy status and his near-deafness later in life. This knowledge of his depression makes him more human in my eyes, and less like a portrait of everlasting talent. Perhaps that’s because the grander story of Beethoven’s talent and life popularized involves his physical losses. The death of his mother, his father’s alcoholism, and his own hearing loss all create a list of knowable loss, but the mental state of someone is harder to grasp in a history book. Or maybe it’s also because I can only admire his enormous musical talent, but depression? That to me is relatable.

Photo via OR Symphony website

The second piece performed, “Absolute Jest,” was by American composer, John Adams, and aided by the St. Lawrence String Quartet. Before playing, one of the quartet members cracked jokes and took time to perform portions from the overall piece. He showed how Adams often borrows, even steals, music from other composers, like Beethoven, to incorporate into his own works, laughingly quoting someone else to the effect that, “good composers borrow, great composers steal.” Adams himself writes that, while composing “Absolute Jest” for the San Francisco Symphony’s 100th anniversary, he “was suddenly stimulated by the way Stravinsky had absorbed musical artifacts from the past and worked them into his own highly personal language.” A more glorified depiction of borrowing.

Once the second piece ended, the older man next to me caught my attention and said, “Wasn’t that just lovely?” with such conviction it took me a second to respond, his earnestness both refreshing and disarming. Halfway through the 25-minute piece, I already knew it was one of my favorites of the season. It was beautiful to know I hadn’t been alone in this feeling.

Paul Hindemith