The Salvation of the Symphony
Last weekend’s Beethoven Festival saved my soul. This weekend’s concert could so the same for you.
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.
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.
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 mso.org and pabsttheater.org.