It’s a classical concert thing; you wouldn’t understand

Severance Hall
The Cleveland Orchestra in Severance Hall during a rehearsal with pianist Rudolph Buchbinder on March 6, 2104

Franz Welser-Möst recently told me he doesn’t understand classical music.

That’s very surprising coming from the music director of one of America’s best orchestras and one of Europe’s great opera companies. But the maestro was talking about something bigger than just comprehending notes on a page. He was talking about the indescribable beauty that can happen in the concert hall when all those strings, reeds and brass tubes vibrate together.

“There’s something so magic about it,” he explained. “I know a lot about it, but it doesn’t mean that I understand it.” Welser-Möst was responding to a question I asked him for a video story that ran in May on the nytimes.com. I wanted him to describe what a listener gets at a live performance that he or she can’t find elsewhere. Like any good Cleveland resident, he used a sports metaphor.

Franz Welser-Möst
Franz Welser-Möst, Cleveland Orchestra Music Director (Photo: Craig Duff)

“I can go to a sports game,” he said, “which I don’t understand, but if it’s an exciting game, I will get the excitement. And it’s the same here.” (This is the place where you can insert your own joke about the lack of excitement at most “sports games” in Cleveland lately.)

It’s true of many musical genres. “Have you heard them live?” is a question often asked by music fans, many of whom collect concerts the way Midwestern grandmothers collect Hummel figures. It’s why I love to see (and used to love to perform) live theater. But the draw of the live experience is especially true for an orchestra, whose un-amplified power in a concert hall is unmatched in any other venue.

Cleveland Orchestra patrons Tamar and Milton Maltz during my interview with them in the board room at Severance Hall.
Cleveland Orchestra benefactors Tamar and Milton Maltz during my interview with them in the board room at Severance Hall.

In another interview for that story, I spoke to Milton and Tamar Maltz, who donated $20 million from their family foundation to help the orchestra develop new audiences. “I’m rather short,” said Mr. Maltz. “I’m only five-foot-seven. But after a wonderful night with the Cleveland Orchestra, I feel ten feet tall.”

I was thinking of the excitement Maestro Franz described (and the elevated height of Mr. Maltz), when two friends were visiting recently, and we went to hear the great Chicago Symphony in its final subscription concert of the season. It was the first time the married couple had heard a live performance by a major orchestra and this one packed a wallop. The program included a popular symphony by Schubert (the Fifth) and ended with music director Riccardo Muti leading the CSO in Mahler’s First Symphony in D Major.

I first heard Mahler 1 in high school, and have studied the score (as much as my amateur knowledge of music would let me), so I know it fairly well. I’ve heard live performances of it by the L.A. Philharmonic with Gustavo Dudamel, and the Berlin Philharmonic with Zubin Mehta, and I discover something new about it every time I hear it. I also adored Michael Tilson Thomas’s vivid deconstruction of the piece in one of his Keeping Score specials on PBS.

So I prepped my friends at intermission, giving them some familiar cues to listen for: the opening notes sound like the beginning of Alexander Courage’s theme to the original Star Trek, then you’ll hear a lot of cuckoos and brass bands, followed by a variation on Frère Jacques and ending with hints of Handel’s Messiah. It’s much more than that, of course, but those are fun little surprises to listen for.

During the performance, I looked over at my friends, and there was palpable joy. The wife was visibly shaking with excitement; there were tears at the standing ovation. The pleasure of it reminded me of the words to one of the themes in the symphony’s first movement, which comes from Mahler’s own Songs of the Wayfarer: Ging heut morgen übers Feld.

I walked across the fields this morning;
dew still hung on every blade of grass.
The merry finch spoke to me:
“Hey! Isn’t it? Good morning! Isn’t it?
You! Isn’t it becoming a fine world?
Chirp! Chirp! Fair and sharp!
How the world delights me!”

How the world inside a concert hall delights me, even though I understand it far less than a renowned music director who claims not to fully grasp what makes it so special.

There was an old series of commercials for audiotape that posed a question: “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” The ads touted cassette recording tape with such fidelity it was indistinguishable from a live concert (it could even make a recording of Ella Fitzgerald’s voice shatter glass).

But we know deep down that even if it is technology’s most authentic recording — even if it recreates a perfect digital facsimile of the concert hall sound — it can never replace the live experience.

I do understand that much.

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