A Night at the Symphony

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The first of February, I went to the symphony. It was a spontaneous decision: whilst looking for cultural things to do, I landed on the website for the Orchestre National de Lille and of course looked at the agenda. Having read the descriptions for a few concerts, I knew instinctively that the program I’d like most was that of the concert taking place that same night—in two hours, in fact! One couldn’t buy tickets online anymore, and the ticket office, luck would have it, had closed minutes before, eliminating calling as an option. But, after poking around on Google a little, I found a little blurb of hope that read that tickets could be bought sur place, at the door, 45 minutes before the concert. Violà !

The Nouveau Siècle was nearly a full house (and it was a Wednesday!), but purchasing my 10 euro ticket for the galerie haute was no problem. Some minutes later the lights dimmed and the orchestra began the night with La Princesse jaune, a piece by the French Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saëns. The name of the piece evokes glittering, daffodil-yellow diamonds, or bright yellow sunflowers among dandelions in a meadow of aggressively green grass the color of parakeets. Actually, it’s racist; Saint-Saëns intended to express through sound the visions of a Japanese princess as she dreams under the influence of opium. Harp glissandos signal at the beginning that one is in a dream, and the triangle, the oboe suggest an Oriental influence. The melodies though—oh, they are wonderful, flitting little things from the strings and the piccolo. I felt quite like a butterfly in a meadow myself.

This short rêve over, another, golden harp was brought just to the right of center stage for the Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera’s Concerto pour harpe, a number full of both charms and surprises that, equal parts sweetness and violence, demonstrated the possibilities of the instrument. Never had I had the joy of hearing a harp soloist perform, and the soloist that night, Anne Le Petit Roy, is highly acclaimed in France. She came on stage in a dress that made her look as though she were from a maiden from a fairy tale wood. A long dress kissing the floor but just, not long enough to hide her pedalwork, it shone in an iridescent sage flecked with French blue.

Tchaïkovsky’s Symphony No.6 was the most fanciful of them all, though. Tchaïkovsky, master composer of symphonies whether for ballet or for concert, is said to have expressed his innermost sentiments through this form of composition. Yet of the final three of his six symphonies, which supposedly offer a glimpse into this man’s soul, the sixth is noted to be the most mysterious, though the most touching, too.

At the beginning of the first movement, one distinctly hears oboe, which turns into a happy little melody. Four and a half minutes in, it’s as if Tchaïkovsky were teasing the audience with the same three notes that begin the Blue Danube Waltz, though that was written by another man at an earlier time. From there it sounds like dancing, like a song to which the water of a fountain might sway or something from an old Disney film, flute delicately singing ascending scales before strings passionately sweep the audience off its feet. Just when the audience thinks the movement is over, Tchaïkovsky surprises it with a dramatic new beginning, timpani dark in the undertones like during the scene in which the prince goes to fight the villain. The French horns play prominently—that there were four was striking to me, as I don’t think there are so many in, for example, the Los Angeles Philharmonic—before a reprise fades softly to silence.

The second movement begins brilliantly, with miniature trills and playful staccato up and down octaves first on violins, then flutes. This becomes the main theme, to be accompanied by gentle octaves and plucking of strings like tiptoeing. The third movement is quick and lively with strings that execute turns and hold a conversation with the clarinets. A petite march turns into so much to-do that this movement sounds like the finale, especially with bold descending scales and rousing drums at the end!

But a fourth movement, picking up with a minor variation, ends the piece. Tchaïkovsky is said to have cried a lot while mentally composing this symphony (The symphony was even nicknamed the “Pathétique”!), and this fourth movement allows one to imagine how he may have; it is incredibly moving. At its end, the audience clapped and clapped for an encore—though in France, apparently, the audience claps together at regular intervals to ask for an encore, as opposed to simply continuing to clap as we do in America. There were no encores, neither after the concerto nor after the symphony, but the audience still hoped for them, wishing that the enchantment would never end.

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