Monday, November 29, 2010
An Encounter With Beethoven
The scene: Christmas orchestra concert in Magdalen College chapel. My first such event since the CI. I enter to the sound of instruments warming up. My brochure says that Mendelssohn and Beethoven's second symphony are on tab. Okay, I'll take it.
The light inside is soft against the vaulted stone, the air outside dark and cold. Promptly at 7:30, the conductor walks in, straight-backed and taut. Everyone comes to attention: the audience, the orchestra members. The space of the chapel is intimate, the bass player sits only five yards away from me. Bows are poised. They begin.
The sound washes over me, but at first I am all eyes. I am too used to seeing. The sweep and flow of the conductor's arms fascinates me, seems to imply what I should be getting out of the music, and soon it occurs to me that in the rise and fall of the orchestra I can hear various instruments come in. I am supercharged, trying to watch what I'm hearing, rather than simply hear. I see a bow rise: my eyes rush over. The course of the piece seems to change: I glance through the seats and the instruments, trying to figure out why. Mendelssohn's energy is there for me, tangible, but just out of reach.
Then, slowly, I settle. There comes a time at the end of the piece when I realize that, without meaning to, I have stopped watching. The sound rises before me, becomes dominant. I don't need to fixate on the conductor conducting or the instruments playing. My CI volume is turned as high as it can go without my head splitting. The music calls me into meditation.
Next, Beethoven. I am absolutely struck by how different each movement sounds from the others. Allegro, larghetto, scherzo - I have no idea what these mean, but they each launch off with a different mood, a different energy. Yet by the fourth movement I can vaguely sense how each has built on the one before it, even if I can't describe how. I can't describe, either, what the music is about, or what it expresses, but I feel its tingling movement. It is full of grappling tension, the ebb and flow of a compressed intelligence. Parts give me chills.
The instruments layer and come together, then part ways and divide, but my favorite parts are when only one or two instruments can be heard, in a sort of repose, a light thread of melody. The rest is almost too complex, too flurried and impenetrable. The only exception is when they all quicken. At such moments, I seem to quicken too.
It strikes me at one point that, sitting here six months ago, I would have been bored. Fidgety. Looking into the faces of my fellow audience members, trying to assess what value they found in this. This is what I remember from all the other musical performances I've attended (or been forced to attend).
But it's not that way anymore. It's not about the past, or even the future. The music calls me into the present moment. It's hard for me to stop thinking analytically, but eventually I do. I respond to what I am hearing at that instant before it glides and morphs into something else. I sit absolutely still, almost like I've lost consciousness of my own body, of everything but this strange new sense.
I walk out at a loss for words. I really don't know what I have just experienced. I'm just glad that I am no longer missing out.