Why Strauss, Vaughan Williams and Holst Don’t Need Program Notes

I’m used to giving my interpretation of classical concerts, positive reviews, after I enjoy them in person. And I can honestly comment that the concert this past weekend with Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra was all about the music.

The point of this blog, dear reader, is to encourage attendance at symphony concerts, which is why you will never read anything negative (as long as that can be helped) about the music or the orchestras’ performances. But what is important to note is that no matter what the atmosphere or the surroundings, people appreciate good music.

Jacksonville Symphony musicians Kayo Ishimaru (left) and Rhonda Cassano. Photo: courtesy of Jacksonville Symphony

On Saturday evening I arrived an hour early. The Times-Union Center is situated on St. Johns River, and this allows for a beautiful stroll to observe the sunset before a concert. But hardly anyone took advantage of the outside walk when members of the JSO and the University of North Florida String Quartet performed in the lobby to help raise money for Japan’s victims of the recent earthquakes. JSO Principal Harpist Kayo Ishimaru, Harpist Masako Fukata, JSO Concertmaster Philip Pan and JSO Flutist Rhonda Cassano were among those who performed soothing melodies for a growing audience who quietly sipped their wine and simply listened. There was no introduction, no program notes, just music and an appreciative crowd. At the end of the mini concert, the audience eased its way into the concert hall, already smiling before the main event.

The orchestra performed Josef Strauss’s (1827-1870) Sphärenklänge, op. 235 (“Music of the Spheres”), a fabulous, fluid waltz composed by a member of the master family of waltzes, and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s (1872-1958) Toward the Unknown Region for Chorus and Orchestra, another rather mystic piece which the JSO combined with the voices of Jacksonville Symphony Chorus. But I have to admit I was waiting for Gustav Theodore Holst’s (1874-1934) The Planets op. 32 (click here for a previous post on The Planets) and I nearly missed it. I had been suffering from allergies/bronchitis/congestion/near death so I was rewriting my Will kind of week, and toward the end of the first half of the concert, that terrible choking cough caught up to me and I tried to drown it with several bottles of water during intermission. When the second half of the program had begun, while the JSO was on Mars, I battled my own war on earth when the cough of phlegm returned. I climbed over several people (sorry, so uncouth!) to escape to the lobby because that was my only option. After a sympathetic usher and symphony store manager fed me cough drops, likely worried I was choking myself to death, I seated myself by a speaker to listen to the music, convinced that was how I would spend the remainder of the concert.

But that was not so. The fabulous director of public relations, Paul Witkowski, invited me backstage (so I popped another cough drop in my mouth because I would be backstage!) in time to listen to the hidden Women’s Chorus sing in the final piece. They didn’t go onstage—they stood just outside the slightly cracked stage doors while their voices rang through the orchestra and I sat in the middle of the chorus! I was tempted to sing with them, but I doubted my raspy voice would have added to their glorious sound. At the same time, I was able to watch Maestro Fabio Mechetti’s facial expressions and gestures from a screen, a view (frontal) rare for the audience; to feel the boom of the drums ripple through my feet to my congested chest; and practically sing with the chorus.

Maestro Fabio Mechetti and the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra take a bow following "The Planets" on April 15, 2011. Photo: courtesy of Jacksonville Symphony

Yes, I have been backstage several times before as a former marketing director for a symphony orchestra myself, and I know how a conductor looks and how a drum feels. But that night, I just wanted to hear the music, as did the rest of the audience, and we did so in our personal ways. Whether one came to his first concert, one sat among a crowd of 1,800, or one was somehow a part of the experience (like moi!), we were all there for the same reason—we love music.

Note: for more information on the Japan Earthquake Relief pre-concert, including pictures and ways to donate, click here.

Upcoming Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra performance:
May 12-14, 2011

Leon Fleisher Plays Ravel
Schumann: Manfred: Overture
Ravel: Piano Concerto for the Left Hand
Leon Fleisher
Strauss: Don Juan
Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier: Suite

Upcoming performance of The Planets:
May 12 – 14 and 17, 2011

The Philadelphia Orchestra

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