Thanks to a much-appreciated Christmas gift from two of our children, my wife and I went to the Mobile Symphony Orchestra concert last night.
The first piece was Smetana's Overture to The Bartered Bride. Most people who have listened to classical music very much have probably heard this. It's one of those fairly short (under ten minutes) and colorful pieces that serve very well to fill out a recording or a classical radio station's afternoon programming--or to open a concert. I've heard it enough in such settings, and paid little enough attention to it, that I would have recognized it without being able to identify it. I'd never actually listened to it. It was definitely not the reason I wanted to attend this concert.
Well, turns out it's really quite a good piece, irresistibly rhythmic and catchy, danceable I guess if you have a whole lot of energy. There are good reasons why these old chestnuts stay around. Here, have a listen for yourself:
(And by the way why do we call them "chestnuts"?)
Next was Dvorak's Eighth Symphony. I'm not very familiar with his symphonies, apart from the "New World," which of course I love. I think I've heard this one before, but if so it was some time ago, and only once. I enjoyed it somewhat short of rapturously. But I think I might like it better with closer acquaintance. The last movement is a theme and variations, and I always like those because it's one of the few classical structures that I can actually understand (more or less).
And after the intermission, the Brahms Violin Concerto with Vadim Gluzman as the soloist. This was a real treat. I am not at all in a position to critique Gluzman's playing by comparison with other big-name violinists, but it certainly impressed me. This piece is horribly difficult. I want to say that the violinist Joseph Joachim, for whom Brahms wrote it, initially pronounced it unplayable, but I may be mixing up my stories.
It had been a good many years since I'd heard this concerto, and on hearing it again I remembered that I've always had an odd sort of reservation about the first movement. Despite the fact that what I take to be its main theme (I'm always a little uncertain of what's what in sonata forms) is one of the most sublime melodies ever written, I always feel that there is some sort of disconnect between what the violin is doing and what the orchestra is doing. I'm sure this is a defect in me. Toward the end of that movement it occurred to me that maybe I'm looking at it backward, that I'm thinking of it as orchestral music with solo highlights, but should be thinking of it as solo music with orchestral support. I'm going to listen to it again with that thought in mind. If there is an expert in the house I'd be interested in any light you can shed on this.
For what it's worth, I don't have that feeling, or at least not as strongly, in the second and third movements.
For some reason Gluzman did not give us an encore, though he was called back at least three times. I hope there is a good reason for that. I'd like to have heard one of those brilliant showpieces that violinists use for that purpose.
I've said this before (see this post), but I am really appreciative of the local symphony orchestra. No, they're not in the league with the major orchestras, but they are plenty good enough to be enjoyable. You don't sit there wincing at the lapses. And I think they've improved a good deal since I first heard them twenty or twenty-five years ago.
And there's just something about the sound of a live orchestra live (live music generally, I guess), something that I don't think you can get from a recording. I have a pretty good stereo system, and as it happens I've been listening to it more attentively than usual for a couple of months, because I'm thinking of swapping my very good but rather large speakers for a pair someone gave me that are possibly not quite as good, but are considerably more compact. The room (my study or office or whatever you want to call it) is small enough that the space gained would be nice.
So last night at the concert I sometimes found myself comparing what I was hearing with what I get from my stereo, and the very clear result was that there really is no comparison. The live sound, the real sound, is just something altogether different. My brain would have trouble articulating it but my ears have absolutely no doubt about it; they cooperate with my vision to give me a picture of the sound, and the image from the live orchestra is many times larger than that from the stereo. And that's not just a matter of loudness: my stereo can go loud enough that you couldn't stay in the room with it, and yet it would still not be the same as live music.
Years ago I read an article on this subject in an audiophile magazine. The writer described his extremely expensive high-end system and how great it was, and yet: he had a cat which was terrified of thunderstorms, and would zip away and hide under the bed at the first rumble. The writer, like a lot of audiophiles, sometimes liked to admire and exercise his system for visitors by playing various non-musical sounds and marveling at their realism. He was playing a CD of storm sounds very loudly when he noticed that the cat was sleeping not far from the speakers, quite undisturbed.