Honestly, I haven’t seen enough orchestras of international acclaim to comment on whether they’re the best or the worst. But I had a great time because they played Beethoven’s Symphony Number 7 — a work by my favorite composer.
When the strings played a line, my left ear knew right where they were. When the tuba played, my right ear told me he was behind the cellos and violas. The orchestra and the singer, Celine Byrne, made all of the sound they needed to fill the room without microphones and electronically mixing their sound. It’s a different experience from attending a rock concert where all the amps are cranked up to 11 all the time.
The orchestra’s precision and control made the power they showed so meaningful. Byrne hit a high note at the end of the Mahler aria that made my hair, or what’s left of it, blow straight back because of the power she was projecting through the air with her voice.
It’s a big step up from the way I usually listen to music. My home stereo is cobbled together from bits and pieces. I grabbed the speakers for free from one of my journalist friends. He couldn’t fit them in his car when he moved to Minnesota or Ohio or wherever. The record player and the control unit came from pawn shops. The CD player cost $10 at Goodwill. It squeaks a little, but if you smack it around it works just fine. You can pick up a nice home stereo from Best Buy for a couple hundred bucks, but I wouldn’t give you more than $35 for mine. I feel a special connection with Johnny Cash when I put on “One Piece at a Time.”
As I became more interested in orchestral music, I learned more about home stereo systems. I also heard stories about major symphony orchestras that welcomed new conductors. Some will play standard symphonies for their first performances to let patrons ruthlessly evaluate them. Some will come with watches to make sure the conductor has chosen, what they feel, is the appropriate tempo, or speed. Others are critical of the selection of music, or tone or volume.
The joke is that composers didn’t start writing specific speeds on pieces until recently. It’s more common to describe the speed of a piece with Italian words that mean stuff like walking, happily or quickly. I’d love to see a bunch of orchestral patrons in New York walking around the theater to see if the conductor chose the right pace for the music.
The other joke is that when humans play music — or do anything — they are prone to mistakes. So while music fans have the idea of a perfect performance in their heads, it rarely comes out the way you might expect, whether you are talking about an orchestra or the Eagles.
Really old composers, like Bach, who lived before Beethoven, didn’t put much direction in their scores at all, leaving much to the imagination of the conductors when trying to reproduce the music. There are no marks that indicate how fast the piece should be played, how loud, or if any notes should have more emphasis, possibly because early composers expected to conduct the orchestra themselves. Derek Gleeson, the conductor of the Dublin Philharmonic said that he prefers modern pieces for that reason, in his interview with me a few weeks ago.
The scrutiny is magnified when you look at the recordings of important works. I decided a few years ago that I cared so much about Beethoven, that I would actually buy — not download illegally — all of Beethoven’s symphonies and some of his works for piano. I did it because I wanted control of the version I chose. Each version seems to have a flaw, according to some classical music snob somewhere. I chose one that seemed reputable that was performed by the Vienna Philharmonic.
I play Beethoven whenever I feel like life is unfair. When I listen to one of the greatest composers who ever lived, who started going deaf in his early 20s, it makes me realize that there are worse things in life than whatever meaningless quibbles I might have.
For me, his music expresses his frustration and his heroic triumph over his circumstances. He composed well after he was completely deaf.
Beethoven’s Symphony Number 7, the work the Dublin Philharmonic played, isn’t his most famous. Actually, even I hadn’t listened to it much. I stuck to my favorites — the third, fifth, sixth and ninth. The seventh is written in his middle period, when he still had some hearing left, but he would soon lose it completely. Many of his works from this period shared a heroic theme. They included movements that were dark and frustrated, that culminated in a triumphant last movement.
Derek Gleeson told me he wants the Dublin Philharmonic to be a major philharmonic orchestra, even though they had only been reorganized 12 years ago. I’d say they have a tough road ahead. Let’s hope they can learn a thing or two from Beethoven about overcoming obstacles.