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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

The third and final piece of the night was “Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber,” by Hindemith. The first few notes inquisitively played by a flute reminded me of something you’d hear from a classic disney cartoon, like when the heroes emerge to assess the damage, knowing they’re safe but not how safe.

I have had this fantasy about attending events like the symphony or even theater. It’s part of a culture of certain things I dreamed of as a kid that I would attend as an adult. I hoped to be the kind of person that goes to the symphony. Maybe it was caused by watching Frasier or maybe it was something more. This picture of being grown-up, and going to the symphony with my fictional husband. A night of dressing up. Bow ties and sleek suits. Sipping champagne in the lobby. Marble and decadence. Bow strings and conductors’ wands. Box Office bliss. It was one of the few daydreams I had while closeted that was hopeful, of a future not in my hometown. Escaping the Mormons and finding glittering chandeliers and perfect notes in a coastal city where I could live my life openly.

In reality, every time I’ve gone to the symphony this year I’ve gone alone, but that part hasn’t bothered me so much. That’s because going in the first place is becoming my version of therapy. While in the audience, surrounded by coughers, fidgeters, and lovers of the music, I let my mind wander. Not just wander, but settle on thoughts I would otherwise push aside, away, under. I let my mind follow the currents created by the music. I think about everything awful and miserable in the world. I think about everything lasting and worthwhile. I think about everything I hate about myself, my body, my mind. I think about all the ways I love myself, my body, my mind. I think about everything I care about that gets me out of bed in the morning. I allow myself this mental freedom among strangers because I can both enter this fictional world I once created and cradled as a child and supplant it with reality. It’s more than an escape, and more than a confrontation. I can, for a time, live in the music.

Stay Backwords,

Phillip Trey

PS: Please check out the following videos to hear the above mentioned pieces and learn more about the night in question.

About the Night:

Beethoven's Second Symphony

Absolute Jest

Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber

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