Please play this clip and listen to it (don't watch!) while reading, if you are able. And thank you for reading!
Despite the fact that I wound up going alone when, just the night before, I had a sure date for the event, I spent Sunday late afternoon at the Chicago Symphony.
Way back more than a year ago I bought season tickets to the "Sunday A Series" of subscription concerts. I described in this blog the events around and including the first concert of the series, and when I glanced earlier this week at the slate of pieces selected for Sunday's performance, I felt my breath whisked away: there was to be a performance of Samuel Barber's Adagio For Strings!
This adagio has become my favorite orchestral piece, which has been used in several films in the past few years. If you're listening to it as you read, and as I suggested, you no doubt instantly recognized it. It truly is a beautiful piece of music and, in my opinion, perhaps the most beautiful piece of music ever written or performed. It seldom fails to bring tears to my eyes, and today was no exception.
An added treat was most unexpected, however. Not being too savvy about the world of symphonic music, I am largely unfamiliar with the names of the genre's contemporary notables. Sunday introduced me to one of them. The guest conductor for today's performances was a surprisingly young man (age 28 this month) named Gustavo Dudamel. With his unruly mop of hair and wildly expressive face, Dudamel was entertainment all on his own. My season's seat is in the terrace, above and behind the orchestra, so I had an unfettered view of Dudamel's countenance for nearly two hours.
During Adagio For Strings he conducted without a score in front of him, demonstrating a knowledge of the piece so intimate that he knows every note and nuance as if he had written it himself. He slowly raised and lowered his arms as if to coax the emotions of the players out through their instruments, and he accentuated the subtle notes and chord changes throughout the languorous piece with little pulsing motions of his hands.
After the piece reaches a crescendo, screeching to a halt, it finishes with a mellowing return to the original theme and quietly, gently falls to its end. Dudamel closed the last note with his fingers and then stood quietly for nearly a full minute with his eyes closed and his hands clasped at his waist. I have always thought Barber's Adagio an incredibly powerful piece, but to see and hear it performed live, and with Dudamel at the helm, was truly magical. When he finally relaxed his arms and opened his eyes, a cheer went up in the house that seemed to exceed the rules of concert decorum.
Next on the program was a performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K 467. I didn't know I was familiar with this piece until the second movement, when a theme presented itself that I've heard many times before, undoubtedly in films or on television. As Mozart's music is usually lighter-hearted and more melodic than that of his peers, Dudamel was equally light-hearted, as he bounced his shoulders and smiled at his players while pointing at them when it was their turn to shine. The pianist, Stephen Hough, was amazingly dexterous, playing without one unintended note that I could detect.
After the intermission was a performance of Brahms Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73. I was completely unfamiliar with this piece, and I found it fairly uninteresting at first. As usual, I am most impressed with the orchestra players' abilities whenever the music becomes fast or incredibly intricate, and as this piece moves forward, the music becomes more frenetic. The final movement is loud and boisterous and almost violent. Watching Dudamel's face during this movement brought a laugh to me several times. When the score brought little, flitting flute passages, Dudamel flipped his head to the side, sending his hair bouncing, and he made goofy faces as if to accentuate the whimsy of the notes. The movement ends with a frenzied flourish and a big, loud, long blast of notes, which was followed by more uproarious applause. Even though I had never heard this symphony before, I was moved to tears as it ended.
I wish I could share the sounds of Sunday's performances with you, as it was a most incredible day. If you'll bear with me, below are a couple more clips, one of them perhaps my favorite version of Adagio For Strings, arranged for a choir.
In the other clip is a taste of the visual wonder of Gustavo Dudamel at work, conducting the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela in the Shostakovich Symphony 10, second movement. To watch Dudamel, it almost seems as if he's operating a machine, pulling out of it and being the source of every sound you hear. He looks as though he feels every last note within him, and it must come out!
I have never been a fan of an orchestra conductor before. But I am now a fan of Gustavo Dudamel!
I hope you took time to enjoy this partial recreation of my day. Even if you don't appreciate the music, at least you know some more of the things that make me tick.