First concert of the season. Actually, I think I’ve only been to opening weekend once, two years ago. But I remember the start. The assembled audience openly singing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ to the best of their ability accompanied by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. A performance I find better then any celebrity with their own interpretation of the piece at a Super Bowl or World Series.
The Star Spangled Banner has changed its meaning to me over the past two years, which is proper as an artistic work (which it is, among other things). In the past two years, I have been attached to military forces to Afghanistan, and I have responded to fires and worked in Hurricane response as a Red Cross volunteer. I’ve been alongside those in the military, fire, police, all levels of public service and volunteers doing their jobs in non-standard conditions. To use some allusions to literature, classic man vs. man and man vs. nature scenarios. Some of the people I worked with were tuned personally to working in crisis and emergency conditions. Some were not. But even those who were not, generally strove to do their duty even when in situations much larger then themselves. And I was glad to be in their company.
With this frame of mind, I listened to the PSO play ‘Short Ride in a Fast Machine.’ I’ve listened to versions on the internet, but somehow, the hearing it live, in the concert environment, with all the variables of the concert setting such as an audience, the orchestra and conductor, and its place on the program, changes its meaning. I spent much of the past month in Texas and Louisiana volunteering for the Red Cross, serving in government operations centers. In these centers, there were representatives from a wide variety of state government agencies, working to provide support for citizens being impacted by the hurricane or in the early stages of recovery. Many of the workers there were used to working in emergencies, like those from law enforcement or fire. Many were not, and these were new stresses for them.
The time in these centers were marked by constant activity, rising and falling in tempo. And there was much repetition, as similar issues would recur in different places. Similar enough to be familiar, but just different enough that they had to be engaged differently. Very much like the orchestral parts in ‘Short Ride’ with it many repetitions in the parts that were close enough to be familiar, but different enough to sound different with every reprise of a theme.
The underlying unity of ‘Short Ride in a Fast Machine’ is provided by the wood blocks, with their constant marking of a pulse, even as their tenor changes. And the constant where I was working was in the steadiness of the work, the ongoing response to situations by those doing the work, whether steady, calm, frustrated, or overwhelmed, which was the constant tenor amidst the constant activity and sometimes chaos of a hurricane.
My life is a varied one, with many aspects. Among them is this place to absorb and respond to performances of the fine arts. While in Texas and Louisiana I dealt with a wide variety of people. People whose lives have been turned inside out and upside down. People who worked in recovery, to whom hurricane response and recovery was a challenge worthy of applying their talents and skills. People who were responsible for citizens of their towns, counties and parishes, doing their duty. People who heard a calling to help their fellow people, using the talents and abilities they may have. Some of them would view themselves as simple people, far away from the lights of the big city and the great ideas of the world. And many of them would be greatly surprised at being thought of in the context of one of the country’s great fine arts institutions. But it is for them that such works were created. And I was proud to know them and glad for the opportunity to serve with them.