This past Saturday evening I had the pleasure of attending a Vermont Symphony Orchestra performance at the Flynn Theater in Burlington. I do not think I have heard the symphony sound this good in a long time; Anthony Princiotti was outstanding in my book, the opening Overture to “Euryanthe” by Carl Maria von Weber was an absolute pleasure, the Jennifer Higdon “On A Wire” (a concerto for sextet and orchestra) was an intriguing new composition warmly received by what I suppose is a conservative audience base, superbly executed by the organization “eighth blackbird,” and the Sibelius 2nd Symphony was stunning, evenly paced and conceived, with the last movement truly magnificent. On a personal level I needed that performance, was excited to hear the Sibelius and totally satisfied at the end of the performance.
But this is not what I wish to address here, but rather something quite apart from the music. I am reminded from time to time how a symphony orchestra (or some other performing ensemble of equal stature) should be at the center of the cultural life of a community, and there was no better example of this than what I witnessed last Saturday evening. I was unable to find a parking space close to the Flynn Theater, so parked my car up Main Street hill quite a distance from downtown. I enjoyed the brisk walk down the hill in the cold weather that promised to bring snow and our first real touch of winter. But I was not alone by any means! Flowing down the hill were many individuals, some walking hand in hand, some just strolling. Others were coming in from the side roads, and as I approached the Church Street Market Place I noticed still more people coming down, crossing the street, as well as people walking up the hill, anxious to leave the brisk wind from the lake behind! Al l were headed to the Flynn Theater; yes, a community coming together not only to support our own state Symphony, but also to participate in a cultural and social activity that I personally love to witness and love being a part of!
As I entered the Flynn it was bustling with activity; tickets being sold, purchased or picked up at the reservation window. People intensely involved in conversations and discussions about a hundred different topics. Students milling about looking forward to the upcoming performance; some maybe hoping someday to themselves be performing with such an ensemble. Other individuals looking through the information on the tables, signing up for who knows what, getting a drink or some food before the performance, looking through the available information concerning Flynn and Symphony upcoming performances and some taking brochures. Everything was just bustling with activity, a microcosm of a community coming together.
As I entered the performance space I was once again reminded of how much I love the sound of a symphony getting ready for performance; tuning up, an oboe or trumpet or some other individual instrument playing a particularly difficult passage one last time before the performance or just playing “something” dear to their hearts. But the sound…oh that sound that I have known since my childhood when I attended my first symphony concert in Bangor, Maine. Since than I have heard Chicago, Philadelphia, Montreal, Boston and many, many others, but the sound is always exciting, and is etched permanently in my mind. Than there were the people looking for their seats, ushers helping in this endeavor and people standing in the isles greeting family members, waiting for more of their concert party to arrive, finding an unexpected friend and hugging, shaking hands, etc. It is a very, very vibrant scene and for me one to be observed and totally enjoyed. It is all part of the evening a nd it is repeated everywhere in this world in cities that have their own orchestras, including Burlington. Vermont. Just wonderful stuff, isn’t it?
However, at the appointed time everything seems to fall into place, people all sit down and everything suddenly assumes an expected order! The lights dim, and the conductor comes out on stage to accept the applause on behalf of the orchestra, and off we go! (Well, actually there is usually some sort of speaker before the concert begins; it seems to have become the new “normal” these days, and I guess I understand why it has to happen, but for the most part I find it annoying! No extra charge here for the personal commentary!).
Intermission arrives, and all of a sudden the hustle and bustle returns, but the intent in very different from the pre-concert energy. This time people are all busy trying to be the first ones to the bathroom, and that part of the building becomes enormously popular and a real centerpiece for discussion, although most are most anxious to get back to the seats to participate in the lively discussions taking place in the house. THIS is a most intriguing part of the concert dance! Many discussions are taking place about what has just been experienced; people that are just enthralled with what they have just heard, others that heard the same performance but were not so happy with the result. The tempo was too fast, too slow, the woodwinds were out of tune, etc. I love looking at how people have dressed for the performance as well; there are definitely those that have dressed up formally for what they feel is an important occasion, while others look like they h ave just come from one of our local lounge’s and decided at the last minute that they would attend the performance. After all, all those people heading into the Flynn must indicate that something of importance is going on there! Some people are dressed out of a respect for what they are attending, while others are dressed purely for show! Some people are talking sincerely and honestly about the performance, while others are discussing with equal intensity but it is obvious that they are trying to show off their knowledge and musical prowess, but there is no substance to their words. Some love to name drop to impress others! There are some younger people around me that have noticed someone that attracted their attention and are sneaking looks at them in the hope they might make eye contact! What an absolutely wonderful array of of humanity and activity!
Most genuine for me are the daughters that bring their elderly mothers to a performance, walking slowly and carefully arm in arm as they escort them to their seats. To be fair I also saw a couple of men escorting their elderly mothers in the same manner, one man with his elderly father, and in many instances an elderly couple together enjoying a night out. I had one of those couples right beside me and struck up a brief conversation with them; they were delightful people, and the husband seemed particularly informed about music, although the Higdon was about as much “modern” music as he wanted to hear on one performance! The wife seemed to take a great deal of pleasure that I had taken time to speak with her husband, but being beside them and listening to them, watching them and experiencing the bond that they had together as man and wife gave more to me than they could possibly imagine!
I enjoy just standing at my seat at intermission and watching people, looking intently around to see if there is anyone I know, and trying to spot individuals that I know are there but cannot find! I KNOW that Karen Jordan was in the crowd, but darned if I could find her! No matter, as there was so much to watch and listen to. Yes, a diverse community of people that came together that night, all with their own agendas, some having made a night of it preceding the concert with a dinner. I KNOW this because on the way to the bathroom at intermission I briefly spoke with a gentleman that had obviously eaten at a fine Italian restaurant; the garlic was overpowering, and I sure am glad that he was not seated near me!
But do you see what I mean? There is a culture behind an audience, and it is the same culture regardless of where you are. This scene is repeated over and over again in concert venues throughout our nation; indeed, throughout the world. We that love classical music and symphonic music cherish our orchestras and relish the times when we can participate in the concert dance once again. I for one am proud of our own Vermont Symphony Orchestra, and given the opportunity to stay home and listen to the Boston Symphony on my stereo or to listen to a live performance of the Vermont Symphony, I will elect the latter every time. We are so privileged to have our own Symphony, our own Anthony Princiotti and Jamie Laredo and Robert DeCormier. It really is true that out performing organizations should be at the cultural center of the life of a community, whether it be the Symphony, Bella Voce, The Burlington Choral Society, Counterpoint, the Vermont Choral Union, the Vermont Jazz Ensemble, the Oriana Singers or any number of organizations. Each have their own audiences and their own character, and each of them has their own “dance” that takes place before, during and after a performance. But in this case, the Symphony was the object of my attention, and I hope that next time you are able to attend you take the time to listen, observe, speak with others and participate in the culture of the audience. It is well worth the effort.
And in closing, I must say that I was totally involved in the Sibelius performance, and the last movement was an emotional experience for me. I am a better, or at least a different person, for having been there to experience this. It reminds me that when an audience stands to offer a standing ovation they are saying many things. I love to participate in that odd gesture of humans applauding to show appreciation to our performers. But don’t forget that although we are applauding to thank the members of the Symphony, the conductor, the managers and all that work behind the scenes, we are most applauding, ultimately and in this case, the incredible genius of the master composers; in this case of Jean Sibelius. The gift that he gave us, for eternity, in this symphony and the others he wrote will give us a lifetime of pleasure and a lifetime of discovery. Does it get any better than this?