One of the nicest things about being a student in Boston is the $25 “BSO Student Card,” which lets you attend certain Thursday night performances of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for free. Of course, Thursday night is not the big night for the Boston intelligentsia to attend the symphony, and tickets for the cheap seats are actually cheap, even if you’re not a student. Thus, it’s fair to conjecture that you get a different crowd at the Thursday night performances, to put it politely, and it’s clear that many of us “far in the back” are not taking the experience as seriously as those paying $150 for the privilege. I fear that the musicians probably think of Thursday night as riff-raff night, and regard it as a rehearsal for the weekend’s benefactor show. If they don’t, they probably will from now on.
This week the orchestra played Edward Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius,” which is a huge piece for full chorus and orchestra with pipe organ. It is a setting of a poem of the same name, which deals with the death of a man and his transport beside his guardian angel to His final Judgement and on to Purgatory. (Too much capitalization there? Well, better safe than sorry, I say. The grammarian version of Pascal’s wager.)
The beginning of “The Dream…” is a somber orchestral prelude, setting the mood using perhaps the quietest tone in which I’ve ever heard an orchestra play. (For the first time I’ve seen, the concert notes are printed with the admonition “Please turn the page quietly.”) The hall is hushed, and this beautiful string adagio begins to wax quietly, creating a hallowed, church-like atmosphere. But it does not last long, this being Bingo night at Symphony Hall. An older gentleman in the balcony starts to go into a comical, high-pitched coughing fit that sounds like an asthmatic cat being repeatedly gut punched. They are probably looking frantically for this guy in whatever ICU he wandered out of. Going out in public was probably a poor call, but he clearly has a health problem and can surely be forgiven, if not lauded for his thematic complement to the subject matter. Jesu, Maria–I am near to death, And Thou art calling me; I know it now, sings the tenor. But there are others for whom Judgement will not be so kind…
Very shortly after this episide, as the orchestra finally builds to a mere pianissimo, I begin to hear a faint second theme overlaid on the first. I strain to figure out the strange sound I am hearing, played on an instrument I do not recognize. Behind me, somebody furtively takes out a ringing cell phone, and I can now clearly hear that mysterious second theme as R. Kelley’s haunting opus “Feelin’ On Yo Booty.” As I understand it, this is not the first evening R. Kelley has urinated on a group of people, though perhaps the first time they were of legal consenting age. The owner of the cell phone is an elderly woman who is having trouble operating the phone, and her mortified husband begins to chastise her in what I’m guessing is Romanian, making more noise than the cell phone. So pray for me, my friends, who have not strength to pray, implores the tenor.
However, the master stroke of our proletariate revolt against bourgeois high culture finally comes as the orchestra lulls following a brief swell. The entire hall falls silent, all of us hushed as if listening for a whisper. Then, at what is possibly the very least opportune moment of the entire two hour score, the tiny old lady sitting in the row in front of me breaks wind like a long haul truck driver. At this point, it is too much for one of the students who happens to be sitting behind her, and now he, who shall remain nameless, is vainly trying to cover up heaving laughter by playing it off as a coughing fit. Sanctus fortis, Sanctus Deus, intones the choir. “Holy mighty, Holy God,” indeed.
And thus was the genius of Edward Elgar foiled by section LL of the Thursday night performance.
Fortunately, the early faltering performance of those of us in the cheap seats was not enough to overwhelm this amazing piece. I’d never heard it live before, and it is breathtaking. There is a part, meant to convey the approach of God, with the chorus and orchestra and pipe organ all firing away in anger, which was the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard. There are chords written in 16 parts for one instrument. At one point, for one brief note, every instrument in the orchestra is commanded to play at “full force.” Even in row LL, it was like a punch in the stomach. People pay $5000 for a stereo system, and yet for $26 you can hear the temporary assemblage of the greatest sound system ever concieved and built: the live combined efforts of 300 people who’ve trained a lifetime to play the work of a genius on instruments honed over centuries in a hall built for the purpose. Western civilization is worth keeping around. Perhaps they could even afford to raise the ticket price a bit.