With the mass extinction at the end of the Baroque era, new life forms emerged. Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Bach, and Handel had all died within a period of less than twenty years. Emerging from the cultural rubble was a new organism called a symphony orchestra. Within one generation two composers, Josef Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, breathed so much life into this new creature that it has endured like no other through three centuries.
There are all kinds of music. There are all kinds of great music. Every region on earth has its own traditional music that goes back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Even within the classical music realm you’ve got opera, lieder, chamber music, chamber orchestra, and solo instrumental repertoire galore. But regardless of your personal preference, it’s hard to deny that there is nothing like a symphony orchestra in terms of sheer versatility and the evolution of its range of expressive possibility over such a span of time.
Tonight the Boston Symphony performed La Mer by Claude Debussy and La Valse by Maurice Ravel. With these two pieces, these two composers achieved what might be regarded as the pinnacle of symphonic composition, of using the orchestra as a virtuoso instrument in a dazzling display of musical color. The music might not be as profound as a symphony by Brahms or Beethoven, but I’m not sure that was what was intended as much as to astonish the listener with sheer brilliance of sound. To give you a sense of what I’m talking about, just listen to the first minute of La Valse. You’ll say to yourself, pretty straightforward. A single musical idea. But then I want you to go back to the beginning and each time you hear a new instrument enter, draw a little hash mark on a piece of paper. You’ll be amazed. Then go back yet again and try to identify by each of the instruments by name. Your mind will be boggled. And that’s just in the simple part.
Let’s not forget that these diverse instruments don’t play themselves. They’re being played by equally diverse human beings. That’s another wonder of the symphony orchestra. These days, your major professional orchestra is a multinational corporation on one stage, yet somehow there’s a common bond in the music. The original Boston Symphony, with a preponderance of European musicians, had international roots from day one. Today there are Russians, Asians, Europeans, and Americans whose ancestry traces back to almost everywhere on the globe. And though everyone on stage looks pretty much the same to the audience, one musician might have arrived at the hall after shopping for shoes at Nordstroms. Another might have just had dinner at a ramen shop, or just ran five miles, or just finished making a remote-controlled airplane. Some are friends, others hardly know each other outside the hall, and believe it or not, some don’t even like each other all that much. A hundred distinctly different people leading different lives, but each playing his or her part with consummate skill in the incredibly intricate jigsaw puzzle of an orchestral composition.
Among those hundred people, there are three for whom this is their last weekend with the BSO at Symphony Hall before retiring from the orchestra. They are Kazuko Matsusaka and Bob Barnes, members of the viola section for twenty-five and forty-nine years, respectively; and John Perkel, who has been an assistant librarian since 1998 but whose association with the orchestra goes back much further. The BSO has a fine tradition for retiring members to take a solo bow at the end of the concerts on their final weekend. And as enthusiastic as the audience’s applause may have been for La Mer and La Valse, it was surpassed when these three dedicated musicians took their final bows.
And so the DNA of the symphony orchestra continues to evolve.