This evening husband and I, along with my aunt, were privileged to attend another Ann Arbor Symphony performance. The concert was called “American Celebration” and all the works played were composed in the United States. Much of the music had a uniquely American feeling, sounds that might have come from a bit of the old west, some raucous comedy, the noise of a busy city street, peacefulness of quiet reflection. It is a gift to experience an evening of Ann Arbor Symphony music filling the hall at the Michigan Theater; the sounds created by individual musicians combining into something bigger and grander than can really be described. But of course I’ll try.
Tonight’s first offering was “Seattle Slew: Three Dances in Forequarter Time” composed by William Bolcom, a Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award winner, Seattle native and professor emeritus of composition at the University of Michigan. We heard just one of the three dances, a lively, fun, sometimes humorous piece composed for dancers and to honor the horse Seattle Slew. I was sitting about 7 rows behind the composer during the performance, and I could just see the top of his head as it moved to the music he had written. What a wondrous thing that must be, to hear your work done by such professionals! Of course Mr. Bolcom has undoubtedly heard his work played many times, but I have to imagine that each time brings heartfelt joy, especially when the piece is done as well as it was tonight.
The second piece featured a piano soloist, Arkadiy Figlin, doing George Gershwin’s Concerto in F. Did I mention this concert was amazing? Gershwin is always fun, and Mr. Figlin’s improvisations made this rendition spectacular. He told us during the pre concert lecture that he was “a bit nervous” about tonight’s concert because he wasn’t sure exactly what he was going to play during his improv opportunities. After listening to him perform I have to say I don’t think he needed to worry. The first movement was so extraordinary, and ended with such strength and beauty that the audience broke into enthusiastic applause even though traditionally all applause should be held until the entire piece is finished. And it wasn’t just one or two misguided folk who broke the “no applause till the end rule” …it was all of us, and let me tell you, we aren’t ashamed of our misbehavior!
All three movements of the Gershwin piece reminded me of sound tracks to movies. The first was a fun, quickly moving piece and I pictured some lighthearted romance in a city, say New York, maybe in Central Park, where actors like Doris Day and Tony Curtis would frolic while the sounds of city traffic floated in the distance. The second movement began in a more moody vein, as if it were the background music for Humphrey Bogart sitting in a dark 1930’s smokey bar, him staring into his drink and feeling blue over some girl he’d lost. Then the music changed and I imagined a new dame sashaying into the bar catching his attention. As he watches her he starts to imagine a whole life with her. You know, the suburban house, 2 or 3 kids, a dog, drives in the country in a convertible…the improv of the solo pianist made me feel like there was going to be a happy ending after all for everyone. The third movement reminded me of a car chase in a silent movie, all black and white and jerky. Maybe Charlie Chaplin driving the getaway car, followed by some keystone type cops. Up and down the mountain road they roar, Chaplin hiding his car behind boulders on occasion, then shooting out the other way, always just ahead of the cops. The ending of the piece was clear to me; the cops crash into a big rock and Charlie drives off into the magnificent sunset, tipping his hat and winking at us on his way out. Now, really I doubt that anyone else saw these pictures in their mind as Mr. Figlin and the Symphony played, but you never know. What I DO know is that we were all on our feet as the last notes died away and Mr. Figlin got two curtain calls.
I think we would have been satisfied if the concert had ended with Gershwin, the program had been that fantastic, but we were in for a third treat–a more traditional symphony, No 9 in E minor From the New World, by Antonin Dvorak. A strong piece with interchanging melodies, the orchestra took off in the first movement, on fire and pounding out the relentlessly compelling melody. The second movement contained the music most of us recognize as the spiritual “Going Home.” You know the one…
“Goin’ home, goin’ home, I’m a goin’ home;
Quiet-like, some still day, I’m jes’ goin’ home.
It’s not far, jes’ close by,
Through an open door;
Work all done, care laid by,
Goin’ to fear no more.
Mother’s there ‘spectin’ me,
Father’s waitin’ too;
Lots o’ folks gather’d there,
All the friends I knew,
All the friends I knew. Home, I’m goin’ home!”
This song has special meaning to my family, as we’ve used it in so many funerals and memorials in recent years. The orchestra played it like a prayer, and I cried silent tears all the way through, sent it up to Mom and Dad and hoped they were listening. The third movement was strong and quiet, big and beautiful, small and delicate, a joy to listen to, and a perfect ending to an amazing evening.
I know this blog entry turned out to be long…but I want to use this opportunity to encourage anyone that lives within a couple hours of Ann Arbor to investigate attending a performance as soon as you can. If you haven’t been you’re missing a treat. Even if you don’t think you’re into “classical music,” give it a try. You just might find yourself sitting silently with tears running down your face.
And that’s a good thing.