Living through the debacle of the Trump presidency, I imagine that I share with others the sense of dread that greets my mornings. With the help of my snooze button, I manage to avoid wakefulness a few times, but eventually I force myself to concentrate on the broadcast from the NPR-tuned clock radio. It’s a good sign when I hear conversation about a movie or book, or maybe an interview with a presidential candidate, all indicators that Trump didn’t start World War III while I was sleeping. I’ve found myself relating to Maureen Dowd, one of my favorite political columnists, who reports girding herself every morning for the latest vitriol coming from the White House, her energy sapped before she even gets out of bed.
Many friends have suggested that I would feel better if I just cut down on news consumption. But I am compelled to check on the travesty du jour because I worry about the raging narcissist with nuclear codes and abuser of small children who follow their parents despite Donald Trump’s personal preferences. As Mayor Pete Buttigieg says, “It is the nature of grotesque things that you can’t look away.”
Which brings me to my soul yearning for escape and the sweet solace of the symphony. Before the music even begins, I forget our national nightmare, finding myself calmed by the sight of six dozen or so musicians, after their tuning session, sitting immobile on stage at the ready for their signal to break into motion. The thousand or so audience members are settling in and chatting softly. But, as lights dim, they, too, fall still into a profound silence – the hall is preternaturally quiet with nary the ping of a cell phone, the whine of a child, or even a whispered word. Here, in the Dell Concert Hall in Austin, Texas, a city renown as the allergy capital of the world, no one sneezes, coughs, or even clears a throat. I savor these wondrous few moments infused with both serenity and anticipation.
When a smiling man with floppy black hair and glasses strides in from stage right, looking more like Harry Potter than Leonard Bernstein, the silence is broken sharply by applause as instantaneous as glass shattering on concrete. Maestro Peter Bay steps up to the conductor’s podium acknowledging the audience with a brief bow. The silence returns as he lifts his baton and with one precise flick of the wrist starts the music that will suffuse our ears and lives for the rest of the evening.
At one recent performance, the concert began with the William Tell Overture by Gioachino Rossini. I’ll venture to say that all audience members are familiar with at least the last three minutes of this overture, having grown up watching the Lone Ranger astride his horse, Silver, galloping across our television screens to its accompaniment. But the magnificence of this musical piece never shines as brightly as it does when played by a full orchestra flooding a hall with near-perfect acoustics, the instruments in perfect balance, tugging at our collective consciousness and spurring on our passions. As the horns pump energy into the melody, the strings play furiously, reined in only by the magic baton. Adrenaline courses through our veins as our spirits soar, transported to another level of awareness beyond our anxieties and earthly concerns. We want it to continue – to ride ever faster on our stage-bound steeds!
And yet, the last note must be played. Its airy life has barely died when the audience explodes like a champagne cork, excitement no longer containable. Minutes of sustained applause are required before we can gather ourselves and get our bodies seated and stilled again. After another respectful bow, Maestro Bay leaves the stage.
We wait for the next item on the program – a Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 in D Major K. 218 featuring visiting soloist, William Hagen described as a “brilliant virtuoso,” in a quote from the bio printed in our programs. Notably, he would be performing on the 1732 Arkwright Lady Rebecca Sylvan Stradivarius.
And so, Maestro Bay returns to the stage with Mr. Hagen and the precious violin. Ascending the conductor’s podium, Bay takes his baton and begins the process of weaving together his musicians, the soloist, and the sound from one of the world’s 600 Stradivarii into the blissful musical tapestry that Mozart intended.
Maybe I was merely in the throes of musical emotionalism, but at times I felt far away from where my body sat – I seemed to be floating within the collective awareness of millions who had listened to this concerto across the world during the almost 250 years since its inception. Periodically, the Italian craftsman, Antonio Stradivari, would come to mind. Did he ever imagine that audiences in a country that was barely discovered when he lived would be enthralled by his craftsmanship 300 years later! Could Mozart and Stradivari ever have dreamt about their places in the cultural soul of Western Civilization?
Granted, classical music is considered classic because it has stood the test of time, because true genius doesn’t lose its currency with each new generation. But there’s something else about it – the way its melodies and motifs embrace and transport us to another dimension where there are no political parties, concentration camps, wars, divisions between people because of their origins, skin color, religious preferences, or who they love.
Yesterday, on July 4th, the Austin Symphony Orchestra, along with orchestras all over this country, performed the 1812 Overture while audiences tingled to the sounds of cannon fire at the music’s climactic end. Did anyone complain that it was written by a Russian composer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, to commemorate Russia’s successful defense against the Napoleonic invasion in 1812? Did anyone complain that it’s an un-American piece of music?
Chances are that no one complained. The 1812 Overture was played right along with the Stars and Stripes Forever, because despite its national origins, it’s become American, just like The Star-Spangled Banner (set to the tune of an old English drinking song) and My Country ‘Tis of Thee (sang to the tune of God Save the Queen, the British National Anthem).
When we applaud for our orchestra performers, we are commending them for more than a job well done. We cheer them for their devoted care-taking of a timeless and all-embracing musical heritage and for their ability to reset – in 90 minutes – the rhythm of our lives from a 24-hour news cycle to a flow of centuries.
In these days, when we are bedeviled by a leader whose goal in life is to win the day’s news cycle with an emphasis on discord and aberration, we need more harmony and artistry to sooth our increasingly tired and troubled souls. Here in Austin, I urge you to support the Austin Symphony Orchestra, the Austin Civic Orchestra, and the Austin Symphonic Band, so they can continue to support us. As long as they perform and this music survives, I can continue believing that so shall we.