CONCERT-GOING

I found myself at Memorial Hall on the UNC campus last night for a concert by the Israel Philharmonic. They are touring the United States this spring and fit in a date at our local university on their way from NY to Miami. What a thrill it turned out to be!
First, the people. Though I was born when Eisenhower was president, a symphony concert is still a place where I am, relatively-speaking, in the flush of youth. Much of the crowd appeared to have been bused in from retirement and assisted living facilities. Only a tiny contingent, perhaps three percent, were college students. And, judging by the amount of time they spent furtively playing video games and checking e-mail and Facebook during the concert, I suspect most of them were in attendance in order to score bonus points from their Music 101 professors.
My first glance at the program was concerning. There was a piece by Faure, followed by two by Ravel, and finally, Berlioz. While I like classical music, I admit to being somewhat of a meat and potatoes fan, with large doses of the big guys, Beethoven, Brahms and Bach. I prefer discernible melodies and rhythms. I know Ravel, in particular, to be full of atmospherics; his is the sort of music where you aren’t sure when to applaud.
My concern was somewhat confirmed when I noted the orchestra to contain not one, but two harps. More than one harp is rarely a good sign for fans of un-subtle symphonic music.
This being the Israel Philharmonic, in order to access the hall, I had to walk through a gauntlet of demonstrators. These misguided souls are under the impression, apparently, that violinists have a role in setting government policy. They are aggrieved that cultural exchanges are occurring between our country and Israel and feel that Muslim culture is short-changed.
Two things came to mind. First, a troupe of Muslim performers were at UNC last fall, called the Manganyar Seduction. I found their performance to be fabulous and interesting and none of the demonstrators outside were even aware that performance had taken place, much less attended it. Second, as I assured them, if Palestine or Iraq or even Abu Dhabi sent over a world class orchestra, I would be delighted to hear them. In fact, if the Gazans could manage a first-rate string quartet, I’d be willing to listen. In my opinion, to demonstrate against the appearance of the IPO was simply lunatic.
Back to the music: The Faure piece, Pelleas et Melisande, turned out to be familiar. The performance was splendid, subtle but beautiful. It was not dynamic enough to turn the students away from their mobile devices, however. The Ravel selections proved as atmospheric as feared, but still had lovely moments and some surprising risings and swellings of sound. Unfortunately, both pieces were divided into six or seven portions. After each section there was a pause. And during each pause, the audience felt compelled to let loose with a spasm of coughing, sneezing and throat-clearing that made me think I was at a nineteenth-century tuberculosis sanitarium, or in my usual situation on an airplane.
Listening to Ravel afforded me the chance to contemplate. I thought about the experience of attending a concert in Chapel Hill versus my previous home in the suburbs of New York. There, world class performances were always available. Unfortunately, accessing Lincoln Center from Ramsey, NJ sometimes required the logistics of the Normandy invasion, particularly if it was on a weeknight evening. Also, the cost was astronomical, and the crowd seemed jaded and unimpressed.
In Chapel Hill, we attend concerts for twenty percent of the cost, five percent of the hassle, and everyone is excited to be there, except for some of the students. When we go to hear the sixty-piece North Carolina Symphony we never fail to conclude: “Wow, they are really, really good. They are only 90-95 percent as polished as the New York Philharmonic, but for the price and convenience, it’s a worthwhile trade-off.”
But “really, really good” is not the same as phenomenal. Once in a while, it is necessary to be reminded of true greatness, of a full-throated ensemble of 105 off-the-charts-amazing musicians, working together as one to deliver a timeless performance. The second half of last night’s concert, featuring Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” was such an event.
From the first notes, the performance held the hall in rapt attention. The coughers were suddenly cured, the few students who had not escaped at intermission looked up from their smartphones. The music rolled, like waves, from section to section of the orchestra. Bells tolled, drums boomed, strings flowed in unison.
The familiar piece, so well-known as to seem dull to me on the radio, was thrilling to see in person. Who knew there was a timpani quartet in the middle of the final movement or that an improbably bearded, yalmulke-wearing orthodox percussionist could play a snare drum with such aplomb? When the last blasts from the brass section sounded like cannons it was as though we were transported to another dimension, where sound-waves vibrated every wall, every seat, right through to the bones.
When the final chords subsided, there was a pause before the audience realized they were still on this earth, at a concert, and it was time to applaud. The sound welled up quickly, with people shouting “bravo” and rising as one to provide the deserved standing ovation. The crowd refused to stop cheering until the conductor returned and led an encore.
“Wow, these people are starved for culture,” I imagine some of the musicians were thinking. But, no, Chapel Hill has a laudable amount of culture. We have many very, very good performances to enjoy. We just don’t often have a world class orchestra in front of us. And we didn’t want to let them go.

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