The symphony orchestra is the most impressive musical ensemble ever invented. Its place is indelible in Western civilization and beyond. It evokes awe and wonder for most musicians and lovers of music. The reasons are many:
The sight of more than 100 contrasting musical tools is both thrilling and daunting — as are the musician who wield them, many who've been training since their toddler years.
What seems improbable starts to jell as the warm up begins, each section puts voice to instrument and a fascinating melange of sounds — high, low, cutting, sweet and booming — shoots across the auditorium. The ritual completes as the head violin, the concertmaster, comes in to polite applause and the notes get tighter and more consistent. Then, the conductor enters with a walk and expression as varied as the personalities that have inhabited the role since Beethoven’s time.
The dialogues begin, passing like a compelling breeze from the violins and violas to the cello section and the primal grip of the bass fiddles. Soon the movement takes off, leaping from brass to woodwinds, percussion of myriad shapes to the boom of tympani. Few won’t be held by the wonders sailing past their ears.
Electronics are a poor substitute for the full sound of symphonic conversation. There is no other configuration ever created that can rival its sound and power — no other ensemble, acoustic or electric, can capture its surprises and movements as it leaps from brass to strings to woodwinds and the endless flowering of accents from the tympani and percussion artists.
But will it last? This masterpiece of invention is periodically endangered by funding, indifferent citizenry and the sheer mass of its needs. Is it worth saving or is the symphony orchestra destined for the repertoire of history?
It brings to mind a story I heard recently about the dairy farmer who listened faithfully to WJR's classical music host Karl Haas. The farmer said he never really understood much of the scholarship but he appreciated the music. His cows as well — research in both England and the U.S. indicates that milk cows give more milk if relaxing music, especially classical music, is piped in. The most effective compositions were from Bach, with Mozart not far behind. The music has reach, to say the least.
When the Great Depression and World War II nearly crippled the American spirit, the radio broadcast the greatest musicians of the day performing concertos in great orchestras. We heard the finest symphonic works conducted by the great Toscanini, Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy and Bruno Walter. How we needed it.
A vast cross-section of American minds, the average with less than a high school education, were touched by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, the genius contributions of musical immigrants such as Bartok and Stravinski, and the Americans, Copland and an upstart named Gershwin. Listeners were soothed, comforted and ennobled by the sounds of symphonic orchestras. Coverage extended to Hollywood as well, with some of the great classical musicians and conductors of the day appearing in often unlikely plots and scenarios with Hollywood actors.
The music mattered — it found its way into the minds and hearts as it always had, and it helped.
That goes for today as well. The connection of intellect to human emotion through the symphony is profound. No other body of composition has the power, variety and breadth of symphonic music. We are fortunate to be able to enjoy this firsthand through our resident Traverse Symphony Orchestra conducted by maestro Kevin Rhodes.
Symphonic music touches the best parts of us, and it's worth saving. It's healing you can hear.
Joe M. Coffman has published features, reviews and commentary on the lively arts in newspapers, magazines and on radio.