7:59, June 3rd, half running in ripe breeze, rounding an archway, breaching the spiritual electric fence between city & campus, following a trickle of other almost-latecomers up steps through doors into low light and sitting-- just in time for what I came to “critically review”-- I was writing, in my head, a disclosure for you, reader. A disclosure that, regarding contemporary classical music, or new music, or art music, I know nothing.
Listening to the DePaul Concert Orchestra & Ensemble 20+ program, I have three ways of learning what the music is about.
1: Michael Lewanski, the conductor, who, early in the performance, turns and talks directly to the audience about his program. Regarding overtones: “...when you play or hear a note, you’re actually playing or hearing many other notes as well.” We’re encouraged to mind the presence of these “other notes”: not only what’s intentionally played but also what else emerges. Lewanski shares an anecdote about sleeping in a bedroom in Florida, noticing himself lulled into deep relaxation, & realizing after that the soothing effect came from sound, from an air conditioner with rumbling resonant tones. Furthering the thought, he seems to say: let’s observe, in played notes, what else emerges, both the other tones and their effects on us. He’s guiding us, he wants us to understand.
2: My friends, regular concertgoers, who at intermission explain that regarding the harmonic series there’s more to know. “It’s not just musical-- it’s science, or math, it’s a phenomenon.” We experience overtones without seeking or meaning to, without always knowing it; the harmonic series is the tones’ organizing pattern. It still seems to be about observation & its effects. Direct awareness to what’s less known, or unconscious in order to feel appreciation, maybe awe.
3: The program notes, which I clutch and peek at often. I went to another concert of art music before this, to practice “listening critically” and many of the answers to that test were in the program. Maybe that’s the convention, how I can cheat. In addition to much context that I’ll read later, these notes come right out and say: ‘One way of thinking of the history of music is as the history of how people hear sounds and think about how they hear sounds. We hope the program tonight brings this into relief and… invites you to reflect on your own experience of harmony, timbre, and sounds in general.’
At a glance, last Friday’s program appears to be a simple bookending: it begins with Mozart and ends on Mahler, with three works by living composers sandwiched between. The evening actually reveals a more complex progression: the program converses thoughtfully with itself, inviting reflection throughout the night. Each piece highlights harmonic concepts in the pieces that precede and follow.
If Lewanski’s program were a joke, Mozart’s Horn Concerto in D Major, K. 412, would be the set-up. In the moment, it’s straightforward, enjoyable, and, to this listener, sort of opaque. I think of countrysides, of the word bucolic, of the street scene in Beauty and the Beast. More than the actual music, which pleases and then passes me, I’m struck by the way the onstage bodies move. The horn stands apart as an inoffensive hero of the piece but I’m most engaged by the accompaniment. I think of ants, of hives, of the way mushrooms grow. Not the mindlessness of individual insects but their deep knowing, their impressive coordination. The program notes, too, seem most interested in the concerto’s non-musical life: they explain that in the margins of Mozart’s manuscript, there exists a scrawled rant directed at the horn player who was to play the concerto. The next piece in the program, by George Friedrich Haas, takes a line from this diatribe as its title. In this program, Horn Concerto in D Major seems not an end in itself, but the context for what follows.
Then, dread enters. Dread smiles at us and asks if we want to stay. Following Mozart, Haas’s ...e finiscia gia? (“...are you finished yet?”) is a powerful punchline, or just a punch, but in slow motion: grating, surprising, and visceral. Taffy-pulling a specific chord from the previous concerto (a thing didn’t recognize at the moment but learned after the show, from the notes), it begins with dissonant strings and builds like water boiling, or almost boiling. Something you know, have known a long time, don’t want to say, but have to say: Haas’s piece stands on this precipice and lingers. Something’s about to be revealed or released. I think of a prolonged death. Horns emerge - this time not heroically, but from the back - and to me it sounds like Taps played drunk and drugged. Only these sounds could produce this feeling. This is listening. Then it starts to recede. There is a sense the sounds are going away, the piece is ending. But is it really ending? Or is it simply retreating, plunging back beneath consciousness? Is this a thing that doesn’t go away? (And to think later-- in a way, this was in the Mozart too, the whole time.)
Norgard and Murail, the other living composers on the program, enter the conversation and hold their own, though for me less sensationally than Haas. Norgard’s Voyage Into the Golden Screen opens with striking, high pitched dissonance in the violins, though the logic behind the sounds is complex, difficult for me to track. It’s clear the sounds don’t “fit together,” it’s a deliberate turning away from harmony - and I’m curious about why these sounds have found each other, but I’m not sure I hear an answer. The effect of the first movement feels like standing in the hall outside music’s door, scratching on wood but not knocking, deciding whether or not to go in. The piece then lurches away, but finds rhythm, patterns in the wind and brass that remind me of a ball on an uneven surface, tumbling back and forth. Something emerges now for me, for the dumber listener. A kind of structured dizziness, in the same family as the exquisite dread of the Haas. Bells sound periodically, punctuating, maybe trying to break through into a new sonic environment, but they don’t - until they do - break the piece - at the end, into silence. Reflecting later, Norgard’s sounds seemed to function as a toy that the composer rolls across the floor at us, seeing what we’ll do. It’s his game, but if you know the rules you can engage, you can play. I couldn’t, really, but I was allowed to watch.
Murail’s Seven Lakes Drive, fourth on the program after the Norgard, seems a little out of place. Members of the orchestra sit silently behind as members of 20+ sit in front and play. Murail’s piece also contains uneasiness, recalls the feeling of a horror movie, of a dark, winding road. It’s inspired by an actual road, with sections of the piece embodying the road’s scenery, its adjacent lakes. I’m told by the program notes and my friends afterward that the piece is about the resonances between the horn and the piano; in experiencing the music, I lean forward, but in the context of the evening I’m not sure where my attention belongs. During this piece I notice the concert hall’s architecture, the white walls, the high ceilings, the chandeliers. I’m waiting for the road to widen, for something to open, but it never quite comes. I wonder if there’s a concept being demonstrated, something I’m just not getting. I notice that the horn resumes its place as a kind of character, maybe the driver in this piece, the star. The piano embodies a thicker, multi-vocal presence. The two feel at odds. At the end, one sound honestly startles and stays with me afterward: the sudden wood on wood of the piano slamming closed.
A week before seeing this concert, my younger sister called me while I was walking out of the grocery store. She told me she was cancelling her wedding, which had been planned for this October, after a two-year engagement to her fiancé, her first and only boyfriend, her partner of eight years. During the final piece on Friday’s program, Mahler’s “Adagio” from Symphony No. 10 in F-Sharp Major, I think of her, suddenly, again, and I notice for the first time that we, the audience, are sitting in pews. Throughout the repetitions, interruptions, dynamic shifts and complex emotions of the Adagio, I notice Lewanski’s physicality as he conducts: a precarious, rapt, hopeful summoning of sounds. In my ear, my sister was sad about the breakup - of course she was, sad was obvious, sad was the first and clearest and loudest note. Being musically dumb, I am unfamiliar with Gustav Mahler, and with Symphony No. 10, although later the program notes will fill me in. But without familiarity the experience still has moments of transcendence, made more so by the odd experience, likely unique to this program, of recognizing elements of the three preceding works in the Mahler, works that were written long afterward. The low horn. The high-pitched violin. It’s all here in this composition from long ago that is happening right now, affecting us with powerful dynamics, which we watch and weather like sudden summer storms. My sister was very much in love but above and below the sadness in her voice there was a lot more, there were other tones that emerged. The Mahler ends on a prolonged resolving note, which after everything else feels layered and complex, like sudden freedom: unexpected, guilty, sad, ecstatic relief. Relief without simple resolution. After all the audible sounds stop Lewanski holds the silence for several beats before relaxing, as if listening for what else there might be. I think again about the air conditioner. The orchestra relaxes, and we clap. There was a lot I didn’t catch, but the show still made sense, and at its best contained engrossing, vivid moments on which I can honestly reflect. (To reflect on my experience of sound, I suppose I need to experience sound itself, and not only sound illustrating concept.) I left still dumb, but moved, and definitely more curious, more aware.