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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, October 6, 2017

River City: A night at the symphony




There’s something special about an evening at the symphony. It’s an occasion for dressing up and being in elegant surroundings and good company.

As when eating at a four-star restaurant, you want to be on your best behavior and do the right thing at the right time. During the former occasion, for example, you don’t want to use the wrong fork at the wrong time; during the latter, you don’t want to clap or cough out of turn.

And, unlike a concert featuring your favorite band, it’s an evening for hearing music you might never have heard before and might never hear again – live or in your car as you’re blasting tunes on the way to work or the grocery store.

For some, hearing dozens of musicians pool their skills and passion to perform compositions that have endured the test of time is the height of the cultural experience. For others, the mere thought of sitting in a concert hall listening to centuries-old music is akin to torture.

But I believe both patrons of the arts will walk away from a night at the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera thrilled by the power, excitement, drama, beauty and – yes – fun of the experience.

Prelude

“That’s what you’re wearing?”

The look on my wife’s face suggested I was joking as I dressed in my button down black shirt and blue jeans (which were freshly washed, I might add).

She was attending the symphony for the first time and had preconceived notions that you wore nothing less than your Sunday best. That’s what she had on – and she looked fabulous.

Being a somewhat seasoned symphony-goer, I knew I could get away with dressing nice but casual. But my companion for the evening was going to have none of that, so I reconfigured my outfit and we were soon out the door and headed downtown.

Part of that “special something” about an evening at the symphony are your surroundings. The CSO calls the Tivoli Theatre, located on Broad Street, home.

Nicknamed “The Jewel of the South,” the Tivoli is an elegant neoclassic structure built between 1919 and 1921. The Tivoli greets concertgoers with a grand lobby, complete with white terrazzo flooring and crystal chandeliers, then welcomes them into a 1,800-seat theatre with a high rose-and-gold coffered ceiling. It’s a nice setting for an evening of orchestral music.

I also enjoy those few minutes one spends watching the rest of the audience shuffle in and the musicians take their places on the stage. As the performers warm up and tune their instruments, I feel a surge of anticipation.

My wife initially seemed to be more fascinated by the shoes the other ladies were wearing than the pre-performance atmosphere, but she eventually directed her attention to the stage.

I was apprehensive about whether she would like the symphony, since her last concert experience had included woo-hooing at the top of her lungs as Chicago belted out “Saturday in the Park” at Memorial Auditorium, but as the discordant sound of the combined instruments filled the theatre, she said she was excited.

I was, too. On the agenda were Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” Tan Dun’s “Crouching Tiger Concerto” and Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 1,” aka “The Titan.”

I enjoy film music and believe symphonic soundtracks are the classic music of today. Hundreds of years from now, people might revere the works of John Williams much as we do those by Mozart and Beethoven today. So, I was looking forward to hearing the selection from the movie, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

I also love Mahler. I write this without having a snobbish bone in my body. I first heard his fourth symphony in an introduction to music elective in college and fell hard for it. So, I was eager to hear something else by the late Romantic Austrian composer (which I also write without a snobbish bone in my body – I had to look it up).

To fill the wait, my wife browsed the pamphlet a volunteer had given her in the lobby and read about the history of the CSO. The CSO can trace its origins back to Nov. 5, 1933, when a group of recent high school graduates and adults who had banded together to play classical music performed their first concert together.

The Chattanooga Symphony and Chattanooga opera combined in 1985 to form the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera Association, which at the time was the only organization of its kind in the U.S.

Today, the CSO is led by Musical Director and Conductor Kayoko Dan, the youngest conductor in the organization’s history and the first female to serve in the role.

As the symphony silenced their instruments and Dan walked onstage, the first applause of the evening swelled within the auditorium. We were going to have a grand time.

Main movement

One of the things I like about Dan is the way she engages the audience at the beginning of a performance. Instead of walking stiff-backed to the podium and then turning to face the orchestra, she always gives the audience a smile, a wave and a brief introduction to the evening’s music.

Dan said the program had begun with the “Crouching Tiger” piece, which she’d wanted to bring to Chattanooga since conducting cellist Benjamin Karp’s performance of the work with the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra.

The piece requires a significant amount of percussion, so Dan said she added the Britten piece next, which serves as an introduction to the various parts of an orchestra.

Finally, since Dan knew she’d be blessed with an abundance of musicians, she added the Mahler symphony as the crowning piece for the evening. Mahler is known for his love of grandeur and spectacle (some call it pomposity), which often requires additions to the standard orchestra.

“Sometimes, the logic behind what I choose is very simple,” Dan said as she flashed another smile.

With the stage set, Dan turned to face the orchestra and raised her baton, and the 85th season of the CSO began.

Although Dan added “Young Person’s Guide” after securing Karp for “Crouching Tiger,” the lighthearted work wound up being the perfect appetizer for the night – and the season. Without demanding much of the audience, Britten’s 1945 composition takes listeners on a brief but buoyant musical tour of the different instruments of the orchestra.

Even within that limited framework, two things became evident: the CSO might consist of dozens of musicians, but they are a tight ensemble and under Dan’s firm control.

As the sounds of the different sections blended together to create various tonal colors and the notes flowed with poetic precision, I marveled at the thought that an orchestra that could rival the better-known ones at larger cities could be birthed in a town the size of Chattanooga.

At the end of the single-movement work, my wife’s applause was immediate and enthusiastic. Knowing she was enjoying herself, I relaxed as Dan and Karp took the stage for “Crouching Tiger.”

As Karp settled his tall, thin frame into a seat, he plugged his cello into an amplifier. Although the use of electronics is not unheard of in the world of symphonic music, it’s the exception rather than the rule, so this piqued my curiosity.

Moments into the haunting, evocative piece, I understood why Karp was using the amplifier, which emitted one strange but beautiful sound after another. The CSO’s percussionists used a variety of equally unique implements to add texture and rhythm to the piece.

I loved it but my wife was not impressed, despite Karp’s virtuosity. During the performance, she learned toward me and whispered, “I liked it better when it was everyone.”

I understood what she was saying. Any good evening at the symphony will challenge audiences with music that resides outside their comfort zone or experience. This is something the CSO does very well. Some people like these works; some people don’t – but everyone responds to them.

The important thing is that the CSO challenges people to expand their musical horizons and does it within the confines of an evening featuring more accessible pieces.

The “Crouching Tiger” piece also showcased the CSO’s ability to bring in and feature extraordinary outside talent. What a treat hearing a musician of Karp’s caliber.

The evening ended with the grand spectacle of “The Titan.” I might have an uneducated ear, but I think anyone who calls this joyous expression of symphonic music “pompous” is built of nothing but snobbish bones. Mahler might have his critics, but there’s a reason we’re still listening to his music over a century after it was written:

It rocks.

I especially liked what elitists might dismiss as mere stunts: positioning some of the brass backstage during the first movement to give it a far-off sound; the double bass solo that opens the third movement; and the ensemble of eight horns that heralds the finale. The musicians stood as they played, creating, as Dan said in her pre-performance chat, an “awesome” sound. The talented musicians of the CSO handled each of these moments with ease.

“The Titan” is not just big and bold, though. There are times when Mahler requires a note so quiet, it borders on silence. For me, the most remarkable moment of the evening was not the standing brass or the accompanying clash of cymbals, but the point at which Dan quieted the orchestra and then, after a dramatic pause, pulled a pin-drop-quiet pluck of music out of it.

Not only was this utterly beautiful, it showed off the Tivoli’s outstanding acoustics and the ability of the CSO to take advantage of them. You might have been to a concert at the Tivoli, but if you haven’t heard the CSO perform there, you haven’t heard the theatre’s true voice.

My other favorite part of the evening came after the first movement of the Mahler work, when my wife started to clap but stopped when she realized no one else was applauding. “How am I supposed to know when to clap?” she asked, a puzzled look on her face.

As I explained protocol, I realized that one of the best things about going to the symphony is taking someone who’s never been. When the evening was over, her remarks about the beauty of the music and the elegance of the evening made me smile.

Finale

The CSO will offer plenty of opportunities during the 2017-18 season for others to have a similar experience. From banjoist Bela Fleck on Oct. 19 to Vivaldi on Nov. 16, and from an evening of movie music in January to a special Pops event in March titled “Bugs Bunny at the Symphony II,” to many other concerts in-between, there will be something for everyone.

Chattanooga is a city of innovation and forward movement. It’s also a place of timeless treasures. The CSO is both progressive and one of Chattanooga’s true historical gems. While it has considerable support from the people here, it deserves more. Every seat should be filled with people eager to experience one of the Scenic City’s finest attractions.

Just dress appropriately the first time to avoid having to reconfigure your outfit.