We often say music is moving, without really thinking about what the word means. Our actual experience of classical music tends to be still. The musicians may sway a bit when they play, and we in the audience may tap our toes, but there’s a sense that such movements are involuntary outbursts in a climate in which they are meant to be suppressed.
On Sunday afternoon at the Clarice Smith Center, the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra offered a literally moving performance. Playing Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” from memory, the musicians stood, and walked, and swayed, and danced, and even lifted each other and their instruments. From the very first notes, when the players offered quiet arpeggiated awakening phrases from one side of the stage, gently bathed in quiet blue light, the performance felt powerfully, viscerally emotional. Freeing all the latent creative forces in those usually still players brought a powerful sense of release. I finally realized, in a kind of epiphany, that this is what “moving” really meant.
This is from my wife Anne Midgette’s review, in the Washington Post, of a performance she and I both went to. Since she describes it, with so much truth, I don’t have to. This followed, as of course Anne said, the near-viral Afternoon of a Faun the same student orchestra did two years ago. You can watch the video here. I remember telling a colleague on the Juilliard faculty about it, who then got so (justifiably) excited that she forwarded the link to the entire faculty mailing list.
Anne also mentioned something she and I both noticed, which was that the Appalachian Spring performance was a little less together than the Debussy, because while the Debussy flows, musically, like a sensuous liquid, the Copland piece dances in tight rhythm, giving the players some coordination challenges they didn’t have two years ago. Which isn’t to say they played the Copland badly. Not at all. It just wasn’t quite as unified.
Which, though ,hardly matters. I’ll quote Anne again:
Freeing players from an orchestra’s faceless mass, having them move — one executing footwork while he fiddled, another exuberantly wielding his double bass over his head — creates an entirely different awareness of orchestra members as individuals. The performance becomes a democratic collaboration between a large group of people who have very different things to say, and who are participating even when they’re not actually playing, perhaps in a bit of square dance, or running a gantlet of other players with their instruments over their heads.
The relationship to the audience becomes more dynamic as well. Once the players become active participants, the audience does, too, almost by default. I defy anyone to sit and watch an entire orchestra move toward him, in full cry, and not have a reaction. At the end of the piece, the players walked to the foot of the stage and and laid their instruments down, one by one, in a kind of surrender to the silence, or an offering to their listeners. The gesture felt like an act of tribute, and the audience responded with a roar of applause.
This performance is not in any sense student work: It is not an amateur preparation of something that seasoned professionals are doing better. It represents work by some artists at the top of their game, like [Liz] Lerman [who choreographed the performance], and nobody else is doing anything like it.
Amen to those last words. As I’ve said before, the lesson in these performances — besides that James Ross, who runs the orchestra program at the University of Maryland School of Music does amazing work — isn’t that every orchestra should now start dancing the music it plays. Not at all. The lesson is that there’s far more potential in classical music performance than most of us may have realized, and that we should be looking for many different ways to make it come alive.
I’m sure that for some people in the audience, the second half of the program, after Appalachian Spring, seemed comparatively routine. It wasn’t, as Anne, too, said. Maybe you had to know a bit about orchestral performance to understand this, but the two pieces on the second half — Dutilleux’s Métaboles and Robert Russell Bennett’s Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture — are anything but easy to play.
And in fact they’re tremendously difficult. The Dutilleux was written for the Cleveland Orchestra at the height of its virtuosity under George Szell, and the Bennett piece is, in its sound, anything but a routine medley. The orchestration shifts constantly, among much else putting subtle, rich, and dancing counterpoint above, below, and behind the well-known tunes. The players have to be alert. In both pieces. They rarely have a moment when they can relax. They have to know where they are at every moment.
That Jim Ross and the students could pull this off — after going completely off the charts with Appalachian Spring — speaks volumes for Jim’s depth as an artist and a teacher. And for the way the students are inspired to respond to him. I’ve rarely heard a concert that inspired me so much. And I say that without being the greatest fan of Dutilleux, and without being convinced that the Bennett piece is quite symphonic enough: It may not be scored like a routine medley, but in its form it too often seems no more than that. The power of this concert goes far beyond my personal opinion of the music. I was constantly surprised, challenged, aflame with admiration. How many professional orchestras give concerts this radiant?
I’ll also make no apology for writing here in glowing terms about my wife, and about Jim Ross and Liz Lerman, who both are friends. All are well known to be at the top of their various fields, and if other writers praised them as I’ve done, that wouldn’t cause the least surprise. I’m not going to hold back, just because, in my case, I’m talking about family and friends.
(I realize, by the way, that I haven’t said much about Liz, but of course if you’re going to have musicians dancing — and doing it with such wonderful success — the choreographer of course has done something, to use these words again, completely off the charts. Which pretty much, as I’m hardly the first to say, describes what happens in everything Liz does.