The Night the Lights Went Out On Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovksy's_signatureThe principal horn player had finished his solo with aplomb and the orchestra effortlessly elided into the new theme. All were inspired by the direction in which the second movement was headed. This followed an electrifying first movement, then a pregnant pause between movements that held the audience expectantly poised for more. Then, 31 bars into the glorious second movement, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony came to a grinding halt.

The concert was going better than expected, the orchestra was tight, the emotional swells more effective than they ever had been in rehearsal and the adrenaline was pumping. Then the lights went out. Literally. The concert had experienced a force majeur. The technology we rely upon had failed.

Special kudos go to the double bass section who completed their phrase in the dark. After the few seconds (that felt much longer) the emergency lights went up, and following an appropriate pause to see if it was all going to self-correct, I decided I must leave the stage to find out what was happening. The audience remained silent, not wanting to leave the emotional tracks we had so thoroughly established. Though now they were also expectantly poised in another way.

It became apparent the problem was campus-wide and not likely to be soon fixed, so we cancelled the remainder of the performance, promising a return evening. The audience sighed. The air had been let out of the balloon.

We had been doing an excellent job of bringing out Tchaikovsky’s expectations and surprises in the score. I espouse much of Leonard B. Meyer’s theories in preparing a score. His Emotion and Meaning in Music is required reading for my conducting students. One of the basic tenets of his theory is that our emotional response to music is based on the careful manipulation of consistency (expected style) with careful balance of delay or surprise in those expectations. Basically stated, our emotional response to music is based on the unexpected.

Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony is an extremely well-composed piece, with a loose program revolving around a fate-motive that appears in different guises, some obvious, some hidden—all surprises in terms of expectations. Even his chord choices in the symphony’s introduction are a study in the effectiveness of changing expectations. The problem was a power outage was not part of the performance. Tchaikovsky’s symphonies are not performance art, nor even like those of his countryman Alexander Scriabin where visual colors are integrated to certain compositions. The power outage was unexpected on all levels of our expected experience.

Musicians deal with technology failures on a fairly regular basis. Reeds that split, valves that stick, strings that break are all part of the orchestral experience. But a power outage goes beyond the ability of the musicians to address or fix. The musical surprise and resolution that awaited both the musicians on the stage and the audience was taken away, ironically by the chance of fate. To say it was a let down is an understatement.

This unexpected surprise did not have a deep emotional effect until much later in the evening. Once the adrenaline of the evening and lighting failure wore off, the emotional ride bottomed out. To be sure, musicians experience this as a normal part of performing. But the interruption of the music created an unusual lack of resolution and deep emotional morass that many have reported feeling, both musicians and audience alike.

For most events, audience would leave saying, “Oh well, it was nice while it lasted.” But this does not happen with great music. Immediately, and for the past several days, there have been inquiries from all corners about when will the concert be rescheduled. When will we finish Tchaikovsky’s symphony?

That Tchaikovsky wrote a piece that demands completion is explicit of his genius as a composer and a validation of the greatness of this particular piece of music. Like a well-crafted story we simply must follow it to the conclusion, through the many transitions and cadences, to the final exclamation point. Amazingly, this is the case even if you do not know the programmatic element of the music and significance of the fate theme. It works with or without the program because it provides a narrative that can be followed on a deeper level. Descriptive words can help explain, but they are not necessary for understanding and meaning.

“In ‘pure’ instrumental music, the strategies chosen by composers to create unity were responsive to the tenets of Romanticism…Even in the absence of an explicit program, motivic continuity created a kind of narrative coherence. Like the chief character in a novel, the ‘fortunes’ of the main motive–its development, variation, and encounters with other ‘protagonists’–served as a source of constancy throughout the unfolding of the musical process.” Meyer: Style and Music: Theory, History, and Ideology (1989)

The good news is that we will indeed finish the story. And I am pleased to report that the concert will be rescheduled. The Utah Phil’s Tchaikovsky 5 Reboot will be Thursday, November 5th at 7:30 p.m. at Libby Gardner Concert Hall. Since every concert is different, the thrill ride we were on will undoubtedly be slightly different, too. But the spirit will remain. And we will finish Tchaikovsky’s Unfinished Symphony. Once more with feeling!

Utah Philharmonia Tchaikovsky 5 Reboot: Thursday, November 5. 7:30 p.m.


Copyright, 2015. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Music, Pepper, and The True Spice of Life


For me, it all began to sink in with the lack of a spice. As a fan of Mediterranean cuisine, and Middle Eastern food in general, I was searching a local specialty market for Aleppo pepper to complete the ingredients for a recipe. When I asked the proprietor for help, a nice gentleman originally from Lebanon, I was met with one of those hard stares that laid my Western cluelessness bare.

“You’ve heard what’s happening in Syria, no?” he asked.

The question was practically rhetorical. I needn’t answer and he pressed no further. We both knew that Aleppo is in Syria, in one of the bitterest zones of the ongoing civil war. I merely nodded and checked out with the exotic spices whose import was not yet affected by death and destruction.

“The only thing that I have come to find more astonishing than the human propensity for destruction is the immeasurable capacity that humanity has to rebuild; the limitless potential to recreate ourselves anew in the face of what seems to be utter ruin. It is particularly in these dark phases that we look to our culture, our arts, the stories of our elders and the songs of our bards with the hope that they can inspire us with the courage to continue on our journey and, eventually, rebuild something even stronger than what we had cherished in the past. We have seen it time and again from Lisbon to Tokyo and Beirut to Berlin. We have picked up the pieces, no matter how small, and rebuilt.” ~ Mohammed Fairouz

The price of war is not something that musicians and other artists generally are allowed time to deal with until the aftermath occurs. Only afterwards come the poignant remembrances and long odes to what was lost. We are very good at remembering and producing art that helps put life in perspective, even the most horrific events. Art helps us continue.

The reality in an ongoing war zone is quite different; namely that the artists, musicians, dancers and writers are not unlike any other segment of the population when it comes to day-to-day survival. Once valued for their contributions, perhaps even idolized, a war-torn country offers few immunities. There’s little time to compose a masterpiece when you are starving and running from bullets.

There is also a deeper cultural and historical cost to war as well. Many in the west are unaware of the rich tradition of art, poetry, dance and music that existed in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. The cities of Aleppo and Damascus were once heralded as cultural magnets. So were Baghdad, Beirut, and Cairo. Musicians, poets, visual artists and dancers would travel great distances to soak up the culture, learn traditions rooted in ancient times, and perhaps meet one of their artistic idols.

“But music is made up of the energy of sound and the ideas of the human mind. Those things cannot be killed as easily as human flesh or destroyed as easily as buildings. Even the combined terror of Daesh’s (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) barbarism and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s barrel bombs cannot obliterate the ancient culture embodied in the Syrian spirit.” ~ Mohammed Fairouz

The very fact that the arts are a threat speaks of their importance and resilience. The ARTS are sometimes seen as a dangerous thing to those in power, especially to those who lack tolerance and humanity. The deep message, emotional power, and transcendent experience are strangely antithetical to fundamentalists and dictators. Things like music bring people together in a common purpose and brotherhood. This is why the arts are a threat to despots. This is why they try to control them. This is why they decide to destroy them.

Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz has written a very fine essay regarding the loss of music in Aleppo, published earlier this week in Gulf News. I am pleased to recommend this link for our further understanding and compassion:

The immensity of the Syrian crisis is finally being covered in the media, although perhaps not with the urgency the situation deserves. But there appears to be a sliver of hope now for many thousands of people, a chance to continue life without daily strife. A chance to remember the ancient culture and its importance on all our lives with, refugee and host alike.

“This is the special greatness of art: It embodies the spirit of our immediate storytelling identity, but also the uniquely human ability to look beyond the ephemeral present and cast our souls into something that is timeless and eternal.” ~ Mohammed Fairouz

Copyright 2015, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

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