concerting

by pieces of moments

I’ve been to some great performances. Check it out:

  • June 12 // Matmos & So Percussion @ the Museum of Contemporary Art: my second time catching this great pairing.
  • June 18 // Chicago Symphony Orchestra @ Symphony Center: through pure generosity of one of our student’s family, I got to be a guest to the sold out CSO/CS Chorus performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (topping off a terrific Beethoven Festival week, which included performances of all the symphonies as well as other works) with Bernard Haitink conducting.

Now for the breakdown.

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Matmos/So Percussion

I was fortunate to see the magical one-two-punch that is the joint performing powers of Matmos and So Percussion a few years ago at the Museum of Fine Arts in my former hometown of Bostonia. Now I’ve seen them twice, which = twice as nice. What I love about going to see Matmos/So is they alter the way you perceive the world when you step outside the concert hall. Because they create infectiously creative music/rhythms out of a combination of old school instruments, laptops and gadgets, and normal every day things (they played an amplified cactus – no joke – and it totally worked), the natural rhythm of the world jumps out at you, and sound becomes 3-D.

M.C. and Drew (Matmos) continue to blow me away with the gamut of their work. I mean, how many bands can claim traversing the soundscape from an album including a hurdy-gurdy to an album with sampled sounds from liposuction surgery (still have to fast forward through certain parts of certain songs…the slurping timbre kinda gives me the heebie-jeebies, ain’t gonna lie). You know what else I love about it? It makes me think that if such a thing as molecular chamber music existed, this would be it. It’s neon cross-stitch sound. The cherry on top is they are so uniquely charming. M.C. announced before one of their set list pieces, “This is a song about Montana.” What followed resembled a tropical island get-away complete with steel drums and little sound makers that imitated jungle birds. Montana. Love it.

So Percussion. They are so good. To watch them is to be so entranced with the performance that it’s only when the music has stopped that you emerge from the rhythmic haze to realize how ridiculously difficult the music is they perform, and with what shocking precision they work together. It’s like a super clean paper cut. The only truly sufficient word is simply, “wow.

Here’s something else completely awesome about the concert: there was a tiny kid in the audience. He was totally digging the music, too (or, at least, enough to not be crying at all throughout the entire thing). Talk about getting a head start with your definition of “music.” The opening band was this noise-art-jazz-trio. I’m not sure how else to describe them; maybe like the sound of chaos theory, or the Art Ensemble of Chicago on speed.

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Chicago Symphony Orchestra + Bernard Haitink + Chicago Symphony Chorus + Soloists [Jessica Rivera/Kelley O’Connor/Clifton Forbis/Eric Owens] = Beethoven Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 12

My top two favorite composers are Bach and Beethoven. Perhaps that’s surprising (or maybe not, I continually find I’m not hardly as enigmatic in reality as my imagination would like for me to believe) given my near constant rants about new music and avoiding the standards in the “classical” world. But I adore each of them deeply for similar and contrasting reasons.

Bach spent his life as a church musician, constantly composing for services every Sunday, wrangling with the musicians, keeping the choir in line. He had a whole flock of children to cloth and feed. His beloved wife tragically died while he was away and he wasn’t aware of it until he came home to find her buried (can you imagine?). He didn’t get to travel much. Contemporaries he admired didn’t want to have anything to do with him (the sophisticated, traveled, Handel famously snubbed him).

As Peter Sellars observed, the music of Bach is often introduced as being very abstract – all that exquisite counterpoint as the sonic equivalent to an elegant math equation worked out on a different kind of grid. But, when you look at the majority of Bach’s music, it is extremely practical, and humbly human. This is not music being written by an elegant man sitting at an imposing writing desk with a china cup of coffee. Rather, this is the music of a man who worked for a living but chose to make the outcome of his labor something transcendent, and for that reason he is the ultimate example of excellence. He had talent and training, that’s very true. But the not-so-secret ingredient was good old-fashioned dedication, discipline, and hard work.

Enter Beethoven. Troubled, brash, and slightly preoccupied with upward mobility (exhibit A: trying to claim your name is really spelled “von Beethoven” and not “van Beethoven” – the spelling “von” being associated with the aristocracy).

If Bach was the razor sharp needle stitching heartbreakingly detailed embroidery, Beethoven would be the slightly barbaric looking, claw edged seam ripper, gripping and snapping out the neatly assembled hems of formerly set music parameters and sewing them back together in bizarre new patterns. Sometimes it worked better than others (*cough* Missa Solemnis), but you get to see it all from the top drawer to the bottom drawer, unlike some of his savvier honorary-next-of-kin, like Brahms, who burned stuff he didn’t want the world to see. He was also completely obsessive. If you listen closely to any Beethoven piece, you will soon realize that these monumental works are basically the neurotic workings out of a very small musical motive or idea. When you consider that, it’s even more astonishing how absolutely beautiful his music sounds. What’s even more fascinating is to listen to his work in chronological order so that your ear can pick up how obsession turns into maniacal fixation. But then he remembers to breath, and in those moments he produced some of the most gorgeous melodies in the entire catalog of Western “classical” music.

You would think that someone fitting that description would not be so understandable and accessible, but he is just that. He’s just as human as Bach, just less…functional, perhaps. But I think that’s why everyone gets what he’s saying, why everyone is picking up what he’s putting down. He lets you see him sweat. He struggled. We struggle. Life was unfair to him (a composer going deaf is about as unfair as it gets). Life is unfair to everyone. He wanted to be loved truly and genuinely. We all want to be loved truly and genuinely. It’s all there in his music. Because he was so unbearably human, we get it, because sometimes we can’t bear to be human, too.

I’ve heard the Symphony No. 9 many times on recording, but this past Friday was my first time hearing it performed live. People, this is why, in the age of DVR and “on demand” everything, we continue to go to concerts: nothing compares to the physical sensation of feeling sound waves brushing against the cells of your hair and skin. During the final movement I could quite literally feel the choir-and-orchestra-wall-of-sound racing past my torso and beating in my ear canal as if I was a sail on a boat exposed to a sudden gust of wind. It was marvelous. Just marvelous. I wanted to take a knife and slice myself a little notch to crawl right into the middle of the sound.

Another reason we continue to go to concerts is the shared, communal, aspect. It’s really something to turn around and see thousands of people all as enraptured as the next in the event. There is a meta-experience that takes over in those moments that we describe as crowd excitement or enthusiasm. Whatever it is, it was there on Friday. Far before the show even began the air all around Michigan Avenue between Adams and Jackson was charged with a special kind of electricity as attendees finished their dinners, emerged from their cabs, or walked from the parking garages and trains.

Of course, it helps when everyone knows they are going to hear one of the best orchestras in the entire world play one of the most famous pieces. I’ve been to many Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts in my life so far, and I have to tell you that each time I am continually astounded by how consistently phenomenal they sound. Our seats were low string side, and they kick things off by laying down the red carpet in the form of a low, nervous, hum for the violins, right? Get this: the interpretation was so seamless that even though I was expecting the jagged descending 4ths and 5ths to emerge from the opposite side of the stage, my neck physically jerked when the entrance came. I LOVE WHEN THAT HAPPENS, don’t you? Playing loud is easy. Playing soft is difficult. They managed to pull off such a whisper that was so breathlessly clean that the sound grabbed my face between its hands, looked me square in the eye, and said: “Pay attention! This motive is important!” Which, of course, is exactly the point as that opening motive is one of the main fractions that Beethoven will maniacally fixate upon, weave and unravel throughout, like Penelope waiting and waiting for the relief and freedom of homecoming.

I attend a lot of concerts where pieces are being exposed to the fresh air of public opinion for the first time. It’s great to hear all that brand new music, but really, there is just something about knowing exactly what’s coming and being able to sit squarely with the sensation of anticipation. For me, it was expectantly awaiting the sound of hundreds of choristers standing up – you never get that sound on a recording! It’s like a wordless preamble to the musical constitution. And what was even better? I realized that two former undergraduate colleagues of mine are now members of the CS Chorus, and not only that, they are married to each other! It all seemed really appropriate (both my seeing them and the fact they are now married) for a piece of music whose final text exalts brother/sisterhood and humanity.

Speaking of the Chorus, they opened the evening with a wonderful performance of Beethoven’s (what else would you expect during Beethoven Festival?) Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Op. 112 for choir and orchestra with text by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (note he’s a “von”). We all knew we were packed in the hall to go on a journey, so this was a spot-on choice for the opening bon voyage.

Oh, and I can tell you that we all definitely enjoyed our trip. Before the last reverb had silenced the entire sold out crowd had already jumped into standing ovation position that spilled over into thunderous applause punctuated by all kinds of whoops, hollers, and bravos (and those people who can whistle that perfect taxi-getting whistle). It was like being present at a political rally where the candidate of everyone’s choosing had just shown up. Clearly, the CSO, chorus, soloists, and Haitink had our vote. It was a landslide.

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Post Script

I could tell you about how I missed seeing The Books perform in Millennium Park tonight, which was a total bummer (I heart The Books), but let’s keep on the high note, shall we? And at least I missed out for two good reasons: #1 Monday night knitting club and #2 picking out repertoire to perform with one of my friends and performance partners from years ago. We’re back and armed with Couperin! We’re determined to sharpen our improvising skills, too. Watch out.

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