Taking the Fifth

Do you ever have that rare abeyance of your pedestrian day that makes you fall in love with life? Do you ever feel like a grounded insect and then some experience nudges you to discover your wings, and you take to the stars? Are you longing for transformation? To answer these questions, I recommend a night at the symphony.

Last night Andrew and I were members of the audience for the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s performances of two fifths, Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto with Nobuyuki Tsujii at the piano and Shostakovich’s fifth symphony both conducted by Maestro Alexander Mickelthwate. As I’ve always had backwards inclinations (I even discovered that I can write backwards in high school), I will begin my musings at the end, with the second part of the program, the Shostakovich symphony.

The early movements struck me as powerfully menacing with an almost militaristic rhythm in parts. Violins expressed anxiety, and the music traversed a journey through dark landscapes, spaces mirroring those dark places through which we sometimes descend in our inner worlds. During the Largo movement, Maestro Mickelthwate conducted without a baton, using his hands to caress the music from the orchestra. His gentle movements conjured music from the instruments and the musicians, massaging our troubled minds from the earlier movements into gentle calmness. In the final movement, the Allegro non troppo, I felt a successful, resounding resolution to whatever conflict might have tormented the composer’s inner life. I felt a successful resolution was possible in our lives as well.

Full disclosure, I am not a music critic. I am fairly uneducated in music beyond my voice and piano lessons. These are just my impressions, ghostly images generated by the sounds I inhaled last night. I might not possess the expertise to critique a concert, but having existed as a human being my entire life, I possess the expertise to validate how moving the concert was. So often I look inside myself, listening to the voices in my head. A night at the symphony gives you the opportunity to look outside yourself and to listen to the music encompassing you, enabling you to grow on the inside just the same.

And I haven’t even begun to discuss the part of the concert that really touched my heart and mind, which was the first part of the concert, the performance of Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto, dubbed the Emperor concerto, with pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii. I think the first time I heard part of the concerto was in the film Dead Poets Society in which I believe the Adagio is played as background music to an emotional scene. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have the CD of this piece with Leonard Bernstein as conductor and Rudolf Serkin on the piano. I have played this CD so many times, it is one of the most familiar pieces of music to me.

The first movement played by the WSO of the Emperor concerto airlifted me out of the daily battles that we negotiate just to get through life. The program notes written by James Manishen indicate that this concerto emerged during the time that Beethoven was forced to hide from Napoleon’s invasion of Vienna. The program notes also mention that the name “Emperor” for the concerto was not Beethoven’s choice, and I wonder which emperor to which it refers. Napoleon? Did the music in Beethoven’s mind airlift him out of his circumstances as well?

The second movement, the Adagio un pocco mosso, is more difficult to broach. In that movement, the music touches all those secret places in your heart and mind that you try to repress. I immediately began to cry with the opening bars of the strings and held my breath until the release with the entry of the piano. Nobuyuki Tsujii expressed all the broken parts that lay dormant (or not so dormant) inside of us and then mended the wounds all in a breath of music. The performers didn’t seem anxious about performing; the goal was not to show off or to exhibit, but to touch and to move the audience. To create beauty. I absolutely loved Tsujii’s interpretation. In the pauses that created suspense in passages lay poetry. Yes, there is poetry in spaces, music in silence. Then when the next note sounded, I felt a sense of ecstasy. The performance possessed all the qualities of a diamond with its distinct clarity.

We all face obstacles every day, some more than others. Beethoven suffered under the invasion of Napoleon and later became deaf. The pianist who performed Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto, Nobuyuki Tsujii, has been blind since birth. Maestro Mickelthwate guided Tsujii, two partners in the creation of otherwordly beauty, to and from the stage, arm in arm. It reminded me of how Andrew and I have walked through our lives together, arm in arm. Tsujii could not see the immediate standing ovation of the auditorium, but I am sure he could hear the audience’s love and affection through our overwhelming applause. It makes me wonder what I don’t see in life even though (with strong prescriptive glasses) I do possess the ability of sight. We are all blind in some ways, and I can suspect through the beauty that Tsujii could conceive, he sees better than most of us.

I had had a difficult week and didn’t feel like mustering the energy to change out of my sweat pants and t-shirt to go to the symphony. We had paid the fee for the tickets already and are on a tight budget, so there was no doubt we would attend; I just felt reluctant. Andrew told me perhaps it would change my life.

And perhaps it did.


4 thoughts on “Taking the Fifth

  1. Beautiful piece, you should send a copy to the New York times. World class critique with powerful emotional tone. As for Beethoven, I think it was the Eroica symphony that was going to be dedicated to Napoleon. But, when Napoleon declared himself Emperor Beethoven was devastated and washed his hand of Bonaparte.
    Keep up the good work.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I am a big fan of Nobuyuki Tsujii in California, and I have heard him play the “Emperor” concerto live as well as on CD. I truly appreciate the posting of one who writes from her heart, as opposed to the jaded opinions the learned critics. Thanks for sharing your thought, which I will share with many Nobu fans (I run a site for his international fans, voluntarily — http://sites.google.com/site/nobufans/).
    By the way, “The performance possessed all the qualities of a diamond with its distinct clarity” is a description of Nobu that I read in Japanese postings over and over again. (I am not Japanese but taught myself enough Japanese to read the comments on Nobu.)


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