On the way home from Beethoven's 9th last month, my Lyft driver told me the acoustics in Davies Concert Hall sounded like shit. A man who claimed to play every major family of instrument badly, he spent our ride leading me on a perfectly plotted journey from "tells a cute story about his son in which he pretends to confuse the 5th and the 9th, in an apparently conscious effort to feel out whether I am a snob" to "learned discourse on comparative acoustics." Little though it pleases me to tell a Wise Cabbie story like a Times opinion writer who's blown their deadline, it also displeases me to lie, so I will tell you that this man is now as a father to me.
Anyway, they are some sketchy acoustics. I was in the nosebleed seats, the 9th having been a very expensive concert, and the orchestra sounded as if my head were wrapped in felt, a condition which admittedly would help contain a nosebleed. Fortunately, my ear isn't yet good enough to clock just how badly I'm told the acoustics suck. It was only recently that I started going to orchestra concerts on a routine basis, because for unknown reasons of aging, or quarantine, or the natural evolution of my taste, or having once again seen Amadeus, a switch has flipped in my brain that's taken my emotional ceiling for experiencing classical music from "I could get into this" to "this is the sound of a hundred angels rending their garments, of impossibly beautiful and refined beings baying to God like dogs."
Generally, my encounters with the aesthetic sublime go as follows:
- Something insane happens
- I freak out about it
- The voice of my suburban upbringing mocks me for acting like I could possibly feel this intense about a play or a painting
- Modulated, intellectualized attempt to recapture the original freak-out
There is something about hearing the orchestra, though, that dulls the voice of my upbringing and lets the freak-out build like a Pacific wave. The voice is still there, but our response to music doesn't have room for it – not like our response to a painting or a play. After all, you can look away from a painting; you can notice the artifice of a play. But if you look away from music, it just gets more present. As for noticing the artifice, the orchestra gives you nothing to look at except artifice, and while the players (especially the soloists, etc.) may show style and flair, they're still people doing counterintuitive things with long pieces of horsehair covered in sap. Like a torturer, the orchestra begins by showing you all of the instruments and what they do. It shows us that it only takes a simple tool to break anybody.
I sound both macho and masochistic about the orchestra here. I don't mean to be. What I mean is that this is music that works on me, in every sense of the word: effectiveness, manipulation, and especially labor. These are people with hard jobs. When they do them well, they elicit emotions, and they elicit bodily responses. The orchestra routinely does strange things to my body. I cry when I am not upset; I shake when I am not nervous. I learn about new reflexes. Sometimes, also, I feel nothing. Sometimes this music is good but boring, or bad and boring, or just okay – it's like any music, dependent on taste, sometimes dependent on whether you spend enough time listening to it to be able to appreciate deep cuts. Or sometimes it's not about deep cuts at all, and the piece just sucks! Nothing about being a part of the classical repertoire prevents music from sucking. The only universal fact about the classical repertoire is that, unfortunately, Mozart is actually the best composer, just like Hamlet is actually the best play.
The soloist at my first concert after the San Francisco Symphony's reopening was Yefim Bronfman. The piece was Beethoven's 3rd piano concerto. In 2000's The Human Stain, Philip Roth described Bronfman as follows: "Bronfman the brontosaur! Mr. Fortissimo! Enter Bronfman to play at such a pace and with such bravado as to knock my morbidity clear out of the ring. He is conspicuously massive through the upper torso [...] Yefim Bronfman looks less like the person who is going to play the piano than like the guy who should be moving it. I had never before seen anybody go at a piano like this sturdy little barrel of an unshaven Russian Jew.”
"Bronfman the brontosaur" is a pretty bad piece of writing. I don't know what it is about midcentury America that this caliber of writer was dependably entering the canon; Nabokov, the Mozart of letters, no doubt made all of them want to murder him homoerotically, just like F. Murray Abraham. But Bronfman remains a powerful player with an unmistakably proletarian vibe, and I believe I owe him personally for the all-important insight that playing music is skilled labor, labor you pay for with your body, and that a 63-year-old concert pianist during a pandemic must be making a bet every night that his body will hold out for the rest of the tour.
His performance was also notably beautiful. The 3rd piano concerto is a stunning piece of music on its own, but he showed us what it could do, and what he could do, in a way that made me unable to listen to other music on the walk home; during that first hour back in reality, one felt as if other music would only dirty the memory of that evening. I probably won't attend the next concert for which I have tickets, in early January, at the rate that things are going, but there will be another after that, and another, until I go to meet the angels personally.