Beethoven Was Half Right
By Drew Holmes
Ludwig Van Beethoven is quoted as saying “It is the power of music to carry one directly into the mental state of the composer.” I think he is half right.
At the Midwest Clinic in Chicago, I attended a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Brass. Having worked extensively in orchestra production, I’ve been in many of the great concert halls in the United States but never Orchestra Hall. This was a must-attend show.
Finding my seat in the balcony I scanned the program for the evening’s repertoire. Two pieces immediately jumped off the page for the special memories they held: The Queen of the Night Aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute and the Resurrection from Mahler’s Symphony 2.
Junior year at Drew University I started my second brass quintet. We had some performances (including a poorly publicized Christmas tree lighting where we outnumbered the audience) but mostly it was for fun. When the time came to plan my senior recital, I knew the second half had to feature my quintet. We prepared a challenging but fun set which included The Queen of the Night Aria.
Unfortunately, the day before the recital our trombone player had a severe asthma attack and ended up in the emergency room. We had a friend on campus who was an accomplished euphonium player, so we held an impromptu rehearsal that afternoon to get him up to speed to perform the next afternoon.
Was the performance perfect? Of course not, not even top professionals will claim that. But it was good, and it was a good time. My mom had had mugs emblazoned with our names made for the members of the quintet, which meant our last-minute sub did not have one. My grandfather corrected this near faux pas, discreetly shaking hands post performance and slipping him an honorarium for his heroic efforts.
I spent only one season as Librarian for the Brooklyn Philharmonic before leaving for the Principal Librarian position in Naples, FL, but our performance of the Mahler Symphony 2 left an indelible mark in my mind. I had worked professionally as an orchestra librarian, but this was the first opportunity to prove myself independent from my mentor in Philadelphia.
I was not familiar with the piece before that production and was (and still am) awed by Mahler’s vision. The symphony is a tour de force of orchestration, combining one hundred individual performers to sound like one, with perfect tonal color from each instrument. It is easily one of my favorite pieces in the repertoire.
Hearing the CSO Brass play Mahler 2 transported me to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Bob Spano conducting. I was sitting at my folding table in the wings, stage right, just out of view of the audience. Mere feet away from the orchestra, I was in awe at the magic of the offstage banda and how lucky I was at age 22 to be a part of a production at such scale.
Back to Beethoven. I agree that music has the power to transport us to another time or place. While I have experienced the pull the composer intended to the destination of their choice, I usually end up visiting a memory. To me that is the power of music to transport us, whether that is directed by us or by the composer.
As I stood, applauding enthusiastically, at the end of the performance I came back to the present. To an in-person performance at Orchestra Hall. To a concert by the best in the world, once again part of in-person music making.
That is a memory I will be visiting again.