The Oregon Symphony
Bill Long 4/9/06
A Feast on Haydn, Creston, Schwantner and Strauss
Of all the things there were to enjoy in this afternoon's concert at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall was one unexpected pleasure--a series of conversations between musician and audience as pieces and instruments were explained for our pleasure. The conversations provided insight either into the composers themselves or the interpretive task of present-day musicians as they seek to "hear" the works for today. The thesis of this essay is that through these conversations the Symphony has caught onto something crucial in deepening the audience appreciation of the musical works. And the thesis is important enough to pause and consider what was done today.
Setting the Context
In order to understand my approach to these musical conversations I need to reveal what has shaped me with respect to "classic" texts and their presentation to lay audiences. I was a professor of religion and humanities at Reed College in the 1980s. One of our persistent debates as humanities faculty was whether we should introduce classic texts (Homer, Aeschylus, Plato, Thucydides, Herodotus, etc.) without secondary interpretive material or with some "background reading." The "purists" among the faculty argued that the language of these "classics" was so potent and full that all we needed to do was present the works unmediated by any "paltry" attempt to construe them for today. The power of the work would speak, as it were, directly to us today. I sided, however, with what you might call the "contextualists." My approach to the classics was that they were great works of literature but they were made more great by awareness of secondary studies on language, structure, history or philosophy. Indeed, I didn't doubt the continuing validity and power of the texts; I argued, however, that they become the more timeless once you discover their essential time-bound character. Great works of literature arise in the crucible of human experience. One cannot, for example, appreciate the energy of Plato in the Republic without understanding how he felt he was "burned" by the political powers that be in his own time, and that his creation of an intellectual ideal world was triggered by his sense of failure or disappointment at not being able to bring that world to birth in actual life.
Returning to Today
For most of the 30+ years I have listened to symphony orchestras, they and their conductors treated music as if they were like my "purist" colleagues at Reed. All that was needed was the work itself. Granted, there were program notes that elucidated the work, but you had to study by candlelight, as it were, to understand how the two interacted. I recall collecting oodles of program notes, planning to delve into them after concerts but never quite getting around to it because of the press of living. I wondered for years why musicians weren't also contextualists, since this was, to me, the obviously correct way to understand expressions of human creativity.
For one of the first times in my experience, the Oregon Symphony today, under the energetic and stylish leadership of Carlos Kalmar, tried to engage in extensive explanatory words to the audience. Space only permits my comment on the conversation between the Maestro and Principal Percussionist Niel DePonte after the latter provided a superb and energetically precise interpretation of Creston's Concertino for Marimba. Kalmar engaged DePonte in a conversation which allowed us both to enter Niel's creative world as well as to appreciate that the hermeneutical task is key to the artistic life.
Many of us probably think that the percussionists have it relatively "easy," for they often show up for a whole concert and only seemingly play a few measures or notes. Striking to me were Niel's words that over the course of a 29-year career as Principal Percussionist with the Symphony that he has played 200 instruments, ranging from Middle Eastern and North Indian to easily-recognized North American percussion instruments. In that one statement I began to understand his musical life as being as complex as the conductor's. Each of these instruments Niel has used over the years has its own history and tradition, its sounds, its music and passion, its secrets that can only be coaxed out by someone who has learned how to appreciate the capacity of the instrument.
But then Niel also discussed the more "common" instruments which the percussionists normally use in concerts. "Backstage" are not simply one or two snare drums but a bundle, not a single tambourine but dozens, not a metal triangle but several. Each one, he informed us, is slightly different from the others. Each has its sound, and his role is to select the instrument which "fits" the musical score to be performed as he understands it. The vision I received in my mind is of an artist "listening" to the music before him and deciding which instrument perfectly matchs what he "hears" as he studies the piece. It is the same mental process that a director of a Shakespearean play must pursue when asking how words of King Lear or Othello or Macbeth are to be "heard." Or, to change the text, it is similar to the way I think when I read the text of the Book of Job and try to ask myself how the characters are positioned, how the speaker is saying what is attributed to him, how he is being picked up by his hearers, etc.
Education and Musical Talent
One of the things quite apparent to me as Carlos and Niel continued to talk was that they were both superb educators. Each could explain what he was trying to do with precise and accessible language. Each talked about his love with knowledge, passion and humor. Carlos was able, in other contexts, to tell us about Haydn or the younger Strauss; Niel was charmingly and disarmingly lucid in his explanation of everything from marimba mallets to his education as a drummer. Together they made the concert "click" and enhanced my enjoyment both of Creston's work (Niel) and the other pieces.
Bring alive the people whom you want us to hear, and the music will take care of itself. And you will find, not surprisingly, that the listeners take home interesting stories and vignettes about the life of artists past and contemporary. What more, really, could anyone want?