06 October 2009

Ode to Joy

I went to hear the Symphony of India perform Beethoven’s 9th Symphony last saturday night. it took place at the National Center for the Performing Arts, which puts on shows of all kinds, from classical music and opera to traditional Indian dance and music, to classic movies from hollywood and bollywood. I had heard of the organization, so when i was online i looked for their website and checked out their calendar, and to my amazement saw that they were doing the 9th the following week. i’m a big fan of the 9th, it’s the greatest symphony ever, my favorite at least (with Stravinski’s Le Sacre du Printemps a distant second), it’s a masterpiece, a work of genius, it’s said to have restored many people’s faith. i called the theater and they were way sold out, but they said if i came the night of the show they surely would be able to find me a ticket. so i made my way down there.
it’s in the south of the city, close to the Oberoi Hotel (where Bill Clinton likes to stay, where some of the worst events of last year’s terrorist attack took place), in a nice part of town, in a cluster of buildings near the water. there’a a long pathway by the water, it’s very popular with locals. to get there, first i took a rick to the Bandra local train station, to catch a commuter train south. the Khar station is closer, but Bandra’s on the express line, with far fewer stops. I went all the way to the end, to Churchgate station, and found a taxi waiting at a stand outside. (auto-rickshaws are not allowed that far south, so you have to take one of the ubiquitous black taxis that roam around down there.) I told the driver “NCPA” and he took off. when we got to the general vicinity, it took a while to locate the box office. as it was, i had to walk a bit around the buildings to find it. but i did, and asked for one ticket for tonight, and they gave me the best seat they had. it was a reserved seat of one of the NCPA board members, maybe the 2nd best seat in the house, literally. about 15 rows back, in the first row of the main section, right where the sound came together, and with a perfect view. it was amazing to be inside the theater, a fancy, clean auditorium that would have not been out of place in London. indeed, all the people around me were very dressed up and spoke in the british-accented english found in the upper levels of educated indian society. the woman next to me was very friendly and struck up a conversation. she was on the board of directors of the NCPA, and seemed to know everyone in the place, as many of them greeted her on their way in. she was curious about my work here, and we spoke about music, and how great the seats were. she was surprised to see me in mine, of course, because she knew the board member who usually sits there, who apparently called at the last minute to cancel. we had a nice chat until the pre-concert talk began.
the gentleman gave a very competent introduction to the piece, to the time and place of its conception, to the stories about how raucous the applause was at the premier, so that police in vienna came rushing into the theater thinking something was wrong, and how beethoven, being completely deaf by then, was turned around by one of the singers to see the audience on its feet. following that talk was a little ceremony where the chorus director and president of the board and some others gave and received tokens of appreciation from each other and the conductor, as this was the last concert of the season. it turns out that the chorus was the Kazakhstan National Choir, who apparently travelled here on their own expense to perform the piece, so they gave the director of the chorus a plaque, and the director of the chorus gave the president of the board a ceremonial kazakhstani robe and hat, which was bright red, and he put on to great fanfare, saying something about winter coming up. then, to my great surprise and amusement, the gentleman who gave the talk and the president of the board and the kazakhstani choir director came to my row, said hello to my neighbor, and took their seats a few spots down from me. and then the real fun started.
the symphony comprises 4 movements, the last of which is the famous choral movement ode to joy, sung as solos and as a large chorus. the solos are famously difficult to sing (as are the instrumental parts to play), especially the soprano part. the first 3 sections are also incredibly beautiful, and by the end you’ve been through it all, driving sections and slow, elegant sections, beauty and loss, irony and joy.
the orchestra performed amazingly, the soloists were excellent, and the choir was fantastic. the sound came together so beautifully where i was sitting, and hearing it live, you could imagine the first performance in 1824 and so many other since then. the thing about hearing it live, as opposed to a recording, is that you can hear the extreme dynamic variation. on a CD, the difference between the softest and loudest possible sounds in the same recording is much smaller than in real life. i don’t mean turning the volume up or down, i mean at the same volume, how loud or soft can different parts be. on a recording they’re squeezed down to avoid distortion, but in real life, the louds are all-encompassing and the softs are delicate, with an orchestra and chorus of that size. this piece in particular has a huge dynamic range, and to go from the gentle softs to the exhilarating louds is incredible. there are even moments of total silence, and to me those can be the most beautiful parts of a song (for an example, check out the silence at 5:15 in this version of He’s Gone, from a Dead show I saw in Oakland, it’s utterly devastating). and when the 4th movement came, and they started singing, and it gets big and loud and amazing, i could hardly stay in my seat. at the end, we applauded like mad, like they must have in vienna, and i looked over at the president of the board, mouthed “wow”, expressing my extreme approval. i stayed in the theater as long as i could, and ended up meeting the one who gave the talk, and the president of the board and the Norwegian soprano who was going to sing in one of next year’s performances. after, i took a walk along the water outside, feeling like i had been touched by pure beauty, in love with all the locals who were out there, young adults out with friends and lovers. i was feeling grateful for the experience. i called my wife to share the moment with her, and then took a cab all the way back home. that was the first time i had seen the 9th live, and i was glad to have done so here.


heather said...

your wife loves that you call her your wife. :)

heather said...

and i tried really hard to get to 5:15 of the dead song but i just couldn't do it. ugh! glad you love me anyway. don't tell your wife. ;)