My boyfriend wanted to share one of his favorite things with me: the symphony. He got us four tickets to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony at Jones Hall here in Houston. We spent several weeks looking forward to the event. Life happened, and he was unable to make it, so he insisted I go with others who would enjoy it. My daughter, one of my lovely co-workers, and her husband joined me last night.
It was glorious. If you have never been, go.
I love music of all kinds (my boyfriend and I have a little contest going to see who has the more eclectic playlist), but there is something very special about classical music. Composers speak to us across centuries and oceans in a bizarre mathematical language of lines and dots. Conductors and musicians practice their craft, listen intently over and over and over in order to do their part to translate to music lovers what the composer meant in the most beautiful and collaborative way: the symphony. The end product, when done well, is a treasure.
Beethoven’s 9th asks big questions in different ways during the first three gorgeous movements, and answers them with astonishing beauty in the fourth. He wrestles with serious questions we still wrestle with today, and a quick google search will reveal that while interpretations of his intended meaning vary, the general consensus is this: he wanted to display the beauty and power of the brotherhood of man.
Men and women of African, American, Indian, Asian, Latino, and European descent performed an incredible act of interdependent human cooperation last night as the packed house listened, with intent appreciation. Everything from the construction of the room years ago to the craftsmen who formed the instruments to the utilitarian metal stands looking like birds’ feet standing all across the stage to the wires and lights glittering above us like lightning bugs and spider webs on a summer evening to the musicians and their conductor, all worked together and resulted in hundreds of people time-traveling using the vehicle of their work to meet in that room at that time to accomplish and appreciate one thing: a symphony.
Strings and voices sang. I was certain the first chair violinist was going to fall off his chair because he was on the edge of his seat; he played as though his life depended on it. The fingers of cellists moved with spectacular force and speed (I wonder how deep their callouses are). The singers filled the room with a volume and power that could be felt in the marrow, and then, at the direction of the conductor, they sang with such intense softness as though they were telling a powerful secret.
Each performer in the symphony had a different thing to say and a different perspective from which to say it. Regardless, they all communicated together with a harmony that was grand. Some musicians spoke for a long time; others briefly. Some loudly, others softly, some spoke alone, others spoke as part of a group. Some musicians were animated, others performed stoically. The audience listened, entranced. When they finished, we stood and applauded thunderously for at least five minutes, the director returning three times from backstage to accept our gratitude.
The conductor, Andres Orozco-Estrada, led with a silent intensity. His curls shook. His body was totally committed to drawing both powerful volume and intense softness from the musicians, all of whom were as intent on the music as he was and they seemed to respond to his commands out of devotion, not obligation. His gaze was everywhere; every person mattered, every person’s contribution was appreciated, and the result was one voice, a marvel of what humanity is capable of when we work together toward a common goal.
I imagine some of the musicians last night have differing opinions on what Beethoven was trying to say when he wrote his masterpiece and how it should be performed. I imagine some came to the stage last night with unseen pressures and sorrows. It’s likely there is as much behind-the-scenes drama between the performers as there is cooperation. But, above all of that, there was an evident respect for the music, for the composer, and for the conductor.
Watching him lead with his quiet passion, I thought perhaps we should look among symphony conductors for our political leaders. A good conductor respects history, adapting it to the present with reverence. They honor the institution they represent in their leadership, even if they lead dramatically. They appreciate the contributions of each person in the symphony, and understand the power of collaboration, practice, study, and, most importantly, they lead by example, giving as much as they demand from those they lead. And, truly, the world is more wonderful when their work is done than before it began.