I’ve been waiting for this concert ever since the season began, so I could hardly believe it when the lady at the will call window told me that there were no tickets for me for that performance. For a few breathless minutes I was unsure if my date and I would be able to see the symphony I had waited so long for, but thanks to the wonderful concierge, the mix-up was fixed and we got our tickets. Thank goodness for that, because the symphony was every bit as good as I had hoped and expected. Marin Alsop was a delight to watch as she conducted with evident passion and enthusiasm, and the orchestra seemed to put forth an even greater effort than usual (and that’s pretty great).
The first piece, called ‘The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie’, was for me the most controversial. I enjoyed it greatly—the clever ‘weeping’ of the strings and the story it told were a delight. However, for the first time I have some criticisms of a piece the PSO performed. Despite the richness of the piece and the way it involved the audience, I felt that it was a little grating. The beginning was beautiful, and the middle and end were fascinating in the story they told of confusion and fear and anger, yet I felt that perhaps there was too much. I understood the point composer James MacMillan was making, but to tell the truth I understood it long before the confusion of instruments ended. The cacophony went on just a little bit too long.
My second criticism is much more vague, but I shall try to make it as clear as I can. (I talked about it with my date, Ken, during the intermission, and it made sense to him, so I’m going to try.) For me, as I listened to James MacMillan’s piece and then to Barry Douglas playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2, I felt there was a distinct difference between the two. They both spoke of themes and conveyed emotions, but in ‘The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie’, I felt that that was all. The composer seemed to be writing his piece to tell a story and draw it out—using music to make a point. When I listen to Beethoven and Bach and Brahms, I feel as if those composers, too, were trying to tell us something, but that wasn’t their sole purpose. Their larger, more consuming reason for writing the symphonies was simply for the sake of the music within them, desperate to come out. So while James MacMillan’s ‘Confession’ was moving and enjoyable, I felt that it didn’t have the same enduring presence of the other two pieces.
The Beethoven piece delighted me thoroughly. The simple musical appeal was, of course, one of the main reasons it resonated so deeply, but the other reason I loved it was because it had a piano in it. While my piano playing compared with the masterful Barry Douglas is comparable to my ice skating in comparison to Michelle Kwan, or my writing to Leo Tolstoy, the fact remains that I do play piano. Because of that there was a special pleasure for me in hearing the notes of the piano blend with the strings and horns to form the playful, elusive music.
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 was also wonderful, as I expected. Tchaikovsky obviously had a very grim idea of Fate, and though I cannot say I share his dour outlook, his music conveyed his theme so well I found myself breathing a sigh of relief as the third movement began and the music took on a lighter side. The plucking of the strings pleased both Ken and myself immensely; however none of the other movements could compare to the finale. I sensed the hope Tchaikovsky was trying to hide but could not quite do away with in the last few booming notes, and as the audience burst into rapturous applause, Ken turned to me and said, ‘I think I might stand.’
‘I think I might, too,’ I answered. So we did.