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Jack Smith

A bird watcher catches sight of a rare species at a Philharmonic concert

March 13, 1985|Jack Smith

We went to the Music Center the other evening for the Philharmonic concert.

We have tickets scattered through the season, so we never know what the program is going to be in advance. This evening the conductor was the Estonian, Neeme Jarvi, and the orchestra was to do three pieces from "The Damnation of Faust," by Hector Berlioz.

Berlioz is one of my favorites; not only because of the brilliance of his music, but also because of the man he was--that passionate, headstrong, lovesick romantic, spending years and pouring out his genius in pursuit of an Irish actress--Harriet Smithson--whom he had never even met.

He had seen her as Ophelia in a performance of "Hamlet" at the Odeon in Paris, and was never to banish her from his mind again. He wrote her letters, which she ignored; his persistence frightened her; it was she who inspired his greatest work, the Symphonie Fantastique, and she didn't even go to its premiere performance. It was only years later, when all Paris knew of his unrequited infatuation, that she attended a performance of the symphony and was astonished to find herself an object of whispered attention; she was astonished also to find that the composer of the symphony was the very man whose unanswered letters had so bewildered and terrified her; but now at last they met, and she was no longer able to reject him. They were married, and thus began a tempestuous and, in the end, a very sad marriage.

I am not enough of a student of music to be absorbed wholly by the harmonics of it; I float on the sea of its sound, carried like a small boat into this port and that of memory or fantasy; it is something, I imagine, like an opium dream.

Our seats are in the balcony, which I consider much superior for the symphony. The sound comes up. One hears it all, nicely mixed; and one see the orchestra as individuals, instead of foreshortened like classmates in a group picture.

I found myself, as usual, checking out the women violinists through my opera glasses. My wife gave them to me for bird watching, but I don't consider women violinists too far afield. I used to go with a violinist for a time in college; I have always been especially drawn to women who had the discipline and talent to be good in the arts; and I am especially pleased to see women playing in the symphony, which used to be a male stronghold.

After the Berlioz, the sisters Katia and Marielle Labeque were to play Poulenc's Concerto in D minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra. I had never seen the Labeque sisters and was agreeable surprised when two beautiful young women strode out in black trousers and sat down at the two pianos.

They played with great verve and panache. One of them, Katia, I think, attacked the keys with what seemed almost fury, bending over the keyboard so that her long hair fell down over her hands and then drawing her hands away, at the end of an incredibly virtuoso passage, as if the keys had suddenly turned red hot, at the same time throwing back her head in a sort of momentary triumph, flinging back her hair, flashing her eyes and smiling ecstatically.

Marielle was somewhat less theatrical, but no less skillful, as they attacked flamboyant music, melding their separate parts like turbulent streams coming together.

I had read in the program that Katia and Marielle had been born in France and had studied under their mother as little girls. By the time they were 9 and 7, they were playing in public. What kind of life had they had, I wonderer; practicing hours every day of their lives; studying in Paris; traveling round the world in tandem, always keyed up, always playing for the critical applause? Had they any love life? Had they not been pursued, as Harriet Smithson had been pursued?

The audience loved them. Three times they called them back, and finally they played an encore. A little ragtime from Scott Joplin. Naturally, everybody loved it. They could have gone on playing the rest of the evening.

But there were still the eight Slavonic dances, by Anton Dvorak. So melodic, rhythmic, sinuous and exotic. I got to watching the percussionists. They fascinate me. Four this time: kettledrums, bass drum, cymbals and triangle.

They sat back behind their instruments, at the top of the stage, arms folded. As their cues approached, they stepped forward. The kettle drummer, who was kept the busiest by Dvorak, choosing from his various hammers and tapping his drums; the bass drummer also selecting his sticks, then stepping in, exactly at the right instant, to thump his drum; and the cymbalist, rarely called on but critical when needed, getting ready, holding his cymbals six inches apart, and then, just when the music is at climax, the kettledrums are rolling, the bass drum is thumping, and far at the left the man is dinging his little steel triangle--clang!--the cymbalist comes through.

It seems to me to be the most civilizing of experiences--to watch a great symphony perform; to see a hundred men and women working together, bringing a lifetime of training and dedication and skills together, to create, in perfect unison, an hour of beauty.

When the Music Center was on the drawing boards I used to hope that I would live to see it built. We have had it many years now, and it has enriched our lives.

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