I have not been to the symphony since I was dragged by grandparents when I still lived in Texas, and this is not what I remembered or expected. There are baseball hats on heads here, and an outreach person with the Symphony invites me to draw or write a poem while I listen, as part of an alternative interpretation thing they’re doing. I opt instead to look for a place to stand and find one as the lights dim.
The highlight is a sort of call and response on an icy tundra, with long silences between rustlings and whistlings of thrushes, bushes, and wind. Partly because of how the musicians are positioned, it is not so much a thing you watch or listen to, but a thing you are in. Alaskan poet John Haines’s words break up the musical vignettes. From his If the Owl Calls Again:
“We will not speak,
but hooded against the frost,
the alder flats, searching
with tawny eyes.
And then we’ll sit
In the shadowy spruce
and pick the bones
of careless mice…”
Just as we’re settling into the rhythm of these crisp, quiet places, the whole thing is over. It’s been a half hour or so. Those who are not staying for the main concert take off and the rest of us mill around, grab drinks.
- At late-night Symphony concerts, the audience is all spread out on every level of Benaroya's glassy Grand Lobby.
Principal oboe Hausmann’s world premiere is first. It’s hard to know where the breaks are here, and it feels like hearing a foreign language for the first time, the way it sounds like one unending, incomprehensible word.
In general, Hausmann's piece seems to conjure some little creatures frolicking in the grass. The musicians are playing like they’ve been keeping this piece pent up inside them for ages and are finally liberating it. There are moments of giddy, bouncy parading, but those moments are not messy—just exuberant.
Next, principal bass Anderson premieres his 6-minute solo piece: Traction. Given the life-size-ness of the double bass—its curves, its booming voice that makes the fluid inside your ears vibrate—it sometimes seems like a being in its own right. Tonight, it’s old, having a drink after a long day at work and telling us about life. It all seems sort of random, the way the dark moments and the less hard ones and the really frightening ones just cascade before you. And then, toward the end, you start to be able to look back and piece it all together. Your memories are fond, jazzy, catchy, but every once in a while there is still an interruption, a nagging feeling of not having been anywhere. In the last 30 seconds, Anderson puts down his bow. His right hand plucks and his other hand presses the strings down, into the fingerboard and then down the neck until the plucking stops altogether. All that’s left are two hands sliding down strings, losing traction. After so much, the instrument sleeps.
Contemporary Cambodian composer Chinary Ung’s Grand Alap is next. Ung wrote the piece in 1996, and liner notes I later found explain that, six years after the Hubble telescope was sent into orbit, the piece “refers to the recent discovery of hundreds of newly found galaxies” and also draws on “the image of a necklace that contains many beads, each a separate and distinct entity, but all strung together in a circular shape.” It happens on a cello and in a percussion station complete with what look like two giant xylophones, a bowl, a few gongs, a pair of drums, and some cymbals. The piece is hard to access and almost certainly would have been played in the Cambodian Cabaret Voltaire if there had been one, if the Cambodian version had been earnest and religious instead of absurd and sarcastic. The couple sitting behind me is chuckling and my companion is frustrated that “it doesn’t go anywhere.” I can’t argue with that, but there is something there. Do circles or galaxies go anywhere? What makes it read as a piece of music, an incantation?
(Go to the 3-minute mark in this video.)
Principal bassoon Krimsky’s world premiere, Love Song, follows. It involves giant chimes with special mallets. It is slow and serious, but not subtly so—more melodramatically so, with angelic voices that push us to really feel the uplifting love. I do not feel loved during this performance. I can only think of how far our capitalism has come, that a portion of our society survives by producing specialized chime mallets for symphony orchestras.
Finally, there is Anna Clyne’s Roulette, written in 2007, in which a string quartet plays over a track of pre-recorded voices and breaths. The piece is named for a New York performance art space, but it also recalls the Russian kind in that the breaths sound like they’re being pushed from the lungs of a woman who is dodging bullets or swords and just barely avoiding being pierced by them.
By the end of the evening, we’ve been to the tundra and the forest, frolicked in the grass, lost traction and slipped away into nothing, prayed to keep our sanity, tried in vain to feel love in the age of mechanical reproduction, were almost stabbed, and had a bit of wine. It's 11:30, and the predictable sounds of clicking heels on concrete and braking buses out on the street are almost, just for a second, a soothing welcome back to monotony.