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a symphonic sermon [a&c]

a 21 year old’s defense of classical music concerts

Though I’m sure to piss off more than one Rhode Islander (assuming that any Rhode Islanders ever read this) by saying this, it seems that one of the greatest assets of going to college in Providence is its proximity to Boston. For those willing to embark on a short journey via train, bus, or car, a larger urban playground awaits. I’m obsessed with trains—the commuter rail, Amtrak, the T. If it has wheels on tracks, consider me smitten. Aboard the train, insulated from the cold New England air, I look out to the side and watch the world go by in a visually stimulating blur. Gazing from the window of a moving train, I can observe the world from a position of safety and comfort. Gliding through towns and forests, across rivers, near lakes, marshes, and derelict factories, I let my mind wander wherever my attention takes it. One chilly November night last fall, I boarded train 1812 for Boston by myself, the collar of my dark maroon polo shirt peeking out from underneath a brown sweater while a pair of black leather cowboy boots hid below my stacked Levi’s 501s. I was on my way to see the Boston Symphony Orchestra perform at Symphony Hall.

I’d never seen the BSO before, but I had seen the LA Philharmonic at Disney Concert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl, so I knew that I ought to dress nicely; a collared shirt, a sweater, a pair of dark denim jeans, and cowboy boots were somehow the most formal articles of clothing I had with me at the time. There was also something that felt a bit rebellious, something of the avant-garde, in bringing the Wild West into Symphony Hall, that hallowed shrine of the Boston Brahmins. But, in all honesty, I didn’t really think much of my clothing at the time. I wanted to listen to music and that, more than anything, was and always will be the most important determinant of attending a concert, be it Beyoncé or the BSO. To purchase a ticket to the performance, I used my BSO College Card. I created an account using my university email, paid a nominal up-front fee of $30, and was able to reserve a free ticket the week of for almost any BSO performance for the entire season. Despite the reputation of classical music—its aura of complexity and elitism—the BSO’s College Card program makes it far more accessible than most other live music happening today.

I got off the train at Ruggles station with Symphony Hall just a short walk away. I passed briskly through packs of Northeastern students, crossed over a light-rail tramline track, and observed the myriad of storefronts and fast-casual eateries before an elegant neoclassical building confronted me with its ornamented brick facade. Of course a building like this isn’t necessarily out of place in a city like Boston, but it had a unique magnetism for me all the same. I’d come all this way for Symphony Hall, but nobody else seemed to pay it any mind: It was a Saturday night in a college town, after all.

I imagined I’d enter through the building’s majestic column-set southeastern end, as if through the mouth of some stately red dragon. Instead, I snuck inside the beast between the scales on its belly, walking through the northeastern flank on Mass. Ave. Finally making my way into Symphony Hall, two things became immediately apparent: Most of the other concert-goers looked between the ages of 70 and 90, and I wanted a drink. This was a high-society function after all, and those usually provide ready-access to alcohol, do they not? Wandering up a grand coiling staircase in the far corner of the interior, I found myself in an intimate little hall decorated with portraits of musical giants associated with the BSO and a bar served by a bartender in a fancy suit. I spent the rest of the evening until the show began sipping a criminally overpriced Manhattan and engaging in the age-old pastime that is people-watching.

The program that night consisted of two parts: Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7. The Rome-based pianist Beatrice Rana and visiting Russian conductor Dima Slobodeniouk would take up the piano and baton respectively. I was vaguely familiar with both of the pieces, recalling their opening bars most of all: The sweeping romantic rush of the Tchaikovsky concerto and the ominous intensity of the Dvorak symphony were sure to make a delicious contrast in the program.

My ticket was for a seat on the highest balcony, so I climbed the staircase once again and passed through a door into the music hall. A cream-colored coffered ceiling hung with resplendent chandeliers is the firmament over which a sea of aged wooden-seats and luscious velvet carpeting fills with the anxious buzzing of concertgoers. Plaster reproductions of classical statues standing high in niches along the perimeter walls witness the commotion below and confirm the aesthetic priorities of those that put them there. Everything looks towards the stage at the opposite end of the rectangular hall, set within a gilded frame crowned with a shield bearing a single name: BEETHOVEN. Maybe it was the setting, or maybe the Manhattan hitting my bloodstream, but everything began to feel like I’d stepped into a warm, golden Merchant-Ivory production.

Now this isn’t meant to be a performance review, nor do I possess the critical knowledge necessary to intelligently critique the work of classically trained musicians, so I’ll just say that the music was engaging and moving, and all the players seemed to know what they were doing, exercising the skills of their craft with precision and joy. That is, except for a moment in the first movement of the Dvorak symphony, when the conductor was waving his arms with such enthusiasm that he accidentally released his baton and threw it somewhere amidst the string section. To my surprise, everyone just carried on as if nothing was amiss. One of the string players nearest to the launched baton reached to the ground and offered the stick back to the conductor after the first movement had concluded; he politely waved him off (refusing to reclaim the symbol of the podium) and finished the piece by shaping and extracting music from the orchestra with his bare hands. Yes, even professionals can make mistakes, and yes, the show must indeed go on.

More than offering verbose descriptions of the music I heard during the performance, I can instead say with certainty that I was something I am too often not: there. My mind may have stayed back in Providence when I rode train 1812, or it may have daydreamed imaginary lives for all those strangers I passed in the fading light of a cold Boston evening, but when the sounds of the orchestra filled my ears, I was right there in my seat––squeezed between an overweight old man and a frail looking older woman, but there nonetheless. I relished every minute of it. 

With nothing but a modest initial investment and a sense of curiosity, students like me and you can hop on a train to Boston and delight in some of the greatest musical masterworks of human history. Up till now, I’ve only attended the BSO alone; I hope that changes soon and that more people take advantage of this unparalleled opportunity to face life’s greatest mysteries as brought to you by one of the world’s greatest orchestras.



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