Joey Grihalva

The Salvation of the Symphony

Last weekend’s Beethoven Festival saved my soul. This weekend’s concert could so the same for you.

By - Apr 3rd, 2014 02:40 pm
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I had a rough Saturday night. I’m talking about one hell of a birthday party, the full details of which I won’t list but it involved way too much drinking, not much sleep and waking up with a shiner over my eye. So, after that episode of March madness my soul was in need of salvation. Over the years I’ve visited a number of Milwaukee churches, from a Bay View Catholic Mass to a Northside Baptist congregation to an Eastside Unitarian smörgåsbord. But last Sunday I worshipped at my all-time favorite Milwaukee church, The Pabst Theater, and bathed in the glory of Beethoven’s “Eroica.”

I’m a hip-hop kid who loves the symphony. For me, the two genres are just different sides of the same rosary. At the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2012, it was truly sublime to witness the hip-hop group Deltron 3030 backed by a mini-orchestra and band, complete with producer Dan the Automator (of Gorillaz fame) conducting the ensemble in a tuxedo while Del the Funky Homosapien rapped alongside. So I see some connections here. Centuries before the South Bronx birthed hip-hop, Beethoven was rapping his reality through symphonic movements.

I used to think the symphony was about as boring as baseball. Now I’m a big fan of both. My interest in classical music has been nourished by a fantastic morning radio show from Canada’s national broadcaster called “Tempo with Julie Nesrallah,” which I discovered while attending university in Montreal. Nesrallah is a young, enthusiastic, attractive host who humanizes long-dead conductors with stories about their lives. Since Milwaukee lost its classical radio station, I still stream her show regularly.

Back to the fact that The Pabst is my most cherished church in town. What is a church anyways? It’s a house of spirituality, a place to commune with other people and the unknown, a space to think about your life and be inspired. Hopefully, it’s also somewhere you can enjoy yourself. (Good luck Catholics.) For some, church is a venue to model their finest threads. All of these elements are present at the church of art and culture, especially at a symphony concert.

In Milwaukee, the dress code can be a mixed bag. The ornate design, breathtaking chandelier and red velour seats at the Pabst might seem to demand tailored suits, gowns, fur coats and pearls, but it doesn’t stop teenagers from showing up in comfortable pajama pants, as my seatmates did on Sunday. Considering I was in recovery mode, my attire was also strictly casual.

The Pabst Theater was built for Beethoven. There is literally a statue of the composer prominently displayed along the south wall. The acoustics are incredible. It’s a treat that the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra scheduled the bulk of their Beethoven Festival at the Pabst.

MSO Conductor Edo De Waart

MSO Conductor Edo De Waart

Personally, I prefer to experience the symphony with my eyes closed, “watching” the sounds bounce around the temple of my mind. But there is plenty to look at during an MSO performance; Maestro Edo de Waart hypnotizes as he conducts, the players display multi-varied flair, the surroundings are gorgeous, and if you’re in a balcony you can watch the shadows dance. Ride the elevator during intermission and it’s like you’re in a Wes Anderson film.

The MSO’s Beethoven Festival concludes this weekend with three performances of “Symphony No. 7.” Beethoven battled health problems throughout his life and it was during a period of recuperation in the Bohemian spa town of Teplitz when he began composing “No. 7.” Not only can the symphony help heal wayward souls like myself, it may have provided renewal for its composer.

There is so much noise in our modern world; the chirping of our mobile devices, the clicking of our keyboards, the crashing waves of the Internet, the hum of traffic, the visual litter of advertising. The symphony offers an opportunity to silence that noise and let a holy arrangement of strings, winds and percussion wash over you. While the glowing screens suck our souls, the symphony offers salvation. Music can be the greatest sermon. Art emboldens the spirit.

Today you might find me at the Milwaukee Art Museum for Target Free First Thursday, reflecting at the altar of art. No matter how my weekend unfolds, come Sunday afternoon I will be back at the Pabst to praise the gospel of Beethoven.

MSO performs at 8 p.m. April 4 & 5, 2:30 p.m. April 6 at The Pabst Theater. Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Wind Instruments (1947 revision)” and John Adams “Violin Concerto” will precede Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 7.” Tickets are available at and



0 thoughts on “The Salvation of the Symphony”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Nice words, Mr Grihalva!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Classical music helps me conduct my cooking. I’d surely attend No. 7 if I was back in Milwaukee. Thanks for sharing a glimpse at how the orchestra can heal.

  3. Anonymous says:

    On a related note, movie palaces were once referred to as “cathedrals of the motion picture,” so comparing the Pabst Theatre to a church is completely relevant!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Of course the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (along with other musical venues and other artistic activities in our city) can save one’s soul! This is why the arts exist! I had never attended many classical musical events until I won to tickets to Dvorak’s New World Symphony (a favorite of a friend of mine, whom I took along that night) and became spellbound by it (in the past mostly listening to Rachmaninoff since I like the piano, and otherwise non-classical forms of music). There is nothing like hearing a symphony orchestra perform live! Ditto, I never knew I loved opera until I saw members of the Florentine Opera performing at a Colectivo coffeehouse (I was there by chance). To see them up close and hear those amazing sounds actually coming out of people’s bodies was wondrous, and since then I’ve engaged in listening to a multitude of operas! You’re right on in your analogy (music soothes the savage soul and, better yet, often changes the way we feel about the world)!

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