I have never been to the symphony. As a music lover and musician, attending a performance of a live symphony has been something I have wanted to do for well more than half of my life. The complexity and beauty of the most exquisite instruments ever crafted coming together in one intricate arrangement of sound has simply appealed to me since I first took an interest in music. In fact, years ago I hoped I would one day have the knowledge and talent to write music for a full symphony of instruments, but I always knew it was likely I would have to settle for enjoying performances of works created by others with far more talent and expertise than I. Needless to say, classical music has always had a place in my heart, and seeing the symphony has been something on my “to-do” list for a very long time.
Given that is the case, I promised myself I would take time to see the symphony for the first time during my “I have never...” journey. In turn, I actively sought updates regarding the Madison Symphony Orchestra schedule of events and did my best to find a date that would permit me to attend a performance. As I started looking for potential dates during this fall and winter, I realized attending a weekend symphony performance may prove challenging in the face of my building schedule of “I have never...” events.
These efforts had occurred on and off throughout the course of the last five months, until a little more than a week ago I found myself sitting in my living room staring at an advertisement for the opening night of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. On a whim, I looked at Rachael and said, “Do you want to go to the symphony next Friday?” Confused by the random question, Rachael gave me an odd look before starting into my existing plans for the day. “Forget about those,” I said as I looked back at the advertisement, “Next Friday at 7:00 pm... If I pay for it, would you like to go?” Still uncertain about the haste in my remarks, Rachael responded with a slight degree of hesitation. “Sure... OK,” she said standing before me. I gave her a slight nod and a smile, made a few clicks, and bought tickets to the symphony no more than 30 seconds later. “Alright, it’s done,” I said with a hint of excitement in my voice. In response, Rachael smiled and shook her head before walking into the other room to continue the task I had interrupted with my off the cuff question. Although it meant I was interfering with the “I have never...” plans I had scheduled previously, I was going to the symphony, and I felt good about that fact.
As a result of my sudden decision, I moved some of the events around in my “I have never...” calendar and prepared myself for what I knew would be an experience I would remember for some time. After working through a difficult week, my plans for the evening provided an excellent escape from my thoughts and a relaxing way to ease into the weekend. After getting cleaned up and throwing on my best suit this evening, Rachael and I made our way down to the Overture Center for the arts in Madison and settled in for the symphony performance. Our timing proved perfect as the symphony began warming up only a few minutes after we took our seats in the balcony. The sound of the instruments playing prolonged, swelling notes over the top of one another filled the theatre with a warm, brilliant feeling. The sound forced me forward in my seat and caused me to scan the orchestra fanned out below us as they made the final adjustments to their instruments. This continued until the conductor, John DeMain, appeared from stage left and made his way to the center of the stage.
|Appalachian Spring Suite|
My excitement began to build as the conductor offered a brief greeting to the first chair violinist and turned to the crowd. He waved to the applauding audience with a smile in gratitude for their welcome before climbing to the riser at the front of the stage and turning toward the orchestra. As he took his position, the conductor slowly raised his head and gently lifted his arms skyward. Then, with one drop of his arms the symphony began to play. At first subtle sounds of reed instruments and strings filled the air with the sounds of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite. The light, airy movements of the work rolled over the crowd and reverberated through every inch of the theatre. From the very first moment of the piece I was captivated, locked in a state of awe at the beauty of the symphony’s collective sound. Even as the piece dramatically moved into a heightened state I remained fixated on the work of the group on the stage below. Their efforts were flawless as they moved through the syncopated and dramatic movements of Copland’s work, leaving me oblivious to anything other than the performance happening before me. We were less than a third of the way into the night’s performance and I was already hooked on the experience. In a matter of minutes it had already achieved everything I hoped it would be, and I knew there was plenty more to come.
|Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde|
With orchestra ultimately bringing the Appalachian Spring Suite to close, the audience moved into a full round of applause. In response the conductor bowed before the crowd and pointed out the key members of the first leg of the performance. Following a brief walk off stage and some minor changes to the orchestration, the symphony prepared for its second piece of the night, Richard Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde. In similar fashion to the first performance from the symphony, the conductor led the orchestra into the piece with a sudden gesture of his arms. The second work began slow and somber, with the strings serving as the focus of the movement as it fell heavy over the audience. Although the piece was slower and more prolonged in its movements than the first, it was beautiful and engaging in its presentation, which left me in a renewed state of awe at the wonderful sounds coming from the symphony below. I held my position forward in my seat as the symphony moved into emotional peaks and troughs of the work that served as its theme. The effort of the symphony was so impressive I found myself surprised at how quickly the over 17 minute long piece was over. It was clear I was lost in the work of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, but there was nowhere else I wanted to be in that moment.
|Maestro DeMain doing his thing!|
Following a brief intermission, Maestro John DeMain and the symphony returned to the stage once more. The conductor gave a brief introduction on behalf of the symphony before extending sincere thanks to the audience for supporting the symphony on its opening night, which happened to be his 20th opening night with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. In response, the audience whipped into applause, which caused Maestro DeMain to take his position before the symphony and prepare for the third and final piece of the night, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Symphonic Suite, Op. 35. Unlike the works that came before it, the Symphonic Suite began with a swelling blast from the full symphony before moving into a quiet, subtle melody clearly rooted in forms of Eastern European music. The repeating melody in the piece provided the backbone for the entire suite of music and gave ample opportunity for the symphony’s most talented players to demonstrate their skills. With solos from the first chair violinist, the concert flutist, the bas clarinetist, and the bassoonist sprinkled throughout the piece, I was glued to the performance for the whole of the over 40 minute performance. The flawless work of the symphony let the Rimsky-Korsakov’s work tell its own story, and it was one worth hearing.
|Taking a bow|
With the conclusion of the Symphonic Suite, Op. 35, I immediately rose to my feet to applaud what was the most intricate and beautiful musical performance I had ever seen. The audience around me was quick to join in the enthusiastic accolades as the whole of them rose to give the symphony a standing ovation. The applause carried on for some time as the conductor and the symphony took their turns bowing to the cheering audience. Eventually, the applause began to wane after the conductor walked off stage and the symphony began to prepare to clear the stage. In turn, Rachael and I started working our way toward the entrance to the theatre.
As we walked toward the end of our row of seats, I kept my eyes on the diminishing symphony below. I couldn’t help but recap some of the most memorable solos from the final performance as we moved, doing my best to point out how and why certain members of the symphony stood out during the performance. Rachael happily placated me as I gushed, realizing how much my first experience at the symphony had meant to me. With that, I will say my first experience at the symphony was one of the things I know will stick with for a long time as a result of a few things. First, and most obviously, the timing of the event, the performances, and the amazing presentation set this experience aside in my mind. Second, having such an amazing experience with Rachael at my side provided me a powerful reminder of exactly how lucky I am in life. As a result, I know this night will stand out among the other experiences I have gained during this year, and I know I have found an event that will definitely recur in the years to come. I can’t say it any other way, this was a special night.