Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Joyful Morning in the Berkshires

There is no setting more perfect for listening to classical music than on the grounds at Tanglewood in the Massachusetts Berkshire Mountains. The grass is always green, soft, and perfectly mown, and there is never a weed in sight—or so it seems. It’s possible that Alan Jay Lerner had recently visited the grounds at Tanglewood when he wrote about Camelot, the land where imperfection would never be allowed to exist.

Now, that may be overdoing things a bit, but not based on our visit to Tanglewood last Saturday morning. We were making our annual summer visit to the Berkshires to be immersed in the classics—from Shakespeare to modern dance to symphonies. Saturday morning found us camped on the lawn at Tanglewood to hear the Boston Symphony rehearse for its performance the next day of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. We came with folding chairs, a tarp (in case the ground was wet), some snack items, suntan lotion and bug spray, and even reading matter to enjoy along with the music. (If this had been an evening performance, we would have also been shlepping a cooler filled with perishable items and wine, a picnic basket filled with utensils and more foods, a blanket, a citronella candle, and possibly a folding table. Others around us would probably have added candlesticks, silverware, crystal goblets, and the occasional duck or lobster feast. Tanglewood brings out the classy and pretentious in all of us.)

The entire program this day was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the one that ends with the oh-so-familiar “Ode to Joy” chorus. You know the one. It goes, “BAH, bah, bah, bah/ BAH, bah, bah, bah / BAH, bah, bah, bah, BAH-be-bah.”  I recently read that the “Ode to Joy” was adopted by the European Union as its inter(national) anthem. The powerful opening chords are also pretty familiar, but I won’t try to imitate them. Take my word for it, you’ve heard the opening fanfare played on newsreels or cartoons. Or you can hear it here:

As the music started flowing Saturday morning, most of us reclined comfortably and let our minds wander. That was until about three minutes into the fourth movement of the symphony. That’s when the “Ode to Joy” melody made a first sneak appearance, played by one or two cellos and then picked up by a few violins and French horns. Now, I’m no music critic, and neither were most of the people on the lawn, but we knew what was happening. We started to sit up and pay attention.

What happened next went like this: After the orchestra played around with the melody for perhaps four minutes, a single deep baritone voice began booming out lyrics to go with the music. Then a few higher voices joined in. The German lyrics talk about magic and sparks and brotherhood, and, of course, joy.
But who could be certain just what the singers were telling us? We just knew that we were being moved into “joy mode.”

The single voice and chorus was replaced by two voices, one deep and one high. Then the chorus jumped in again, and three voices followed, then four, then a whole bunch.

By now, not only was almost everyone on the lawn sitting up at attention, but perhaps thirty people were standing and serving as pseudo-conductors. Right arms were counting out time with imaginary batons, a veritable pride of Leonard Bernsteins. I saw one couple throw their arms around each other as the music crescendoed.  Ah, joy!

In my mind, I could hear my mother-in-law humming the melody in her slightly off-key but exuberant way. The annual trip to Tanglewood was always one of her great joys. She would sit perched princess-like in her folding chair, wrapped in a familiar red jacket and covered by a blanket to keep out the cold. No matter what the orchestra played was wonderful to her, especially if she could hum along.

Finally, after a 20-minute ride, the chorus completed its joyful journey, and the audience exchanged its imaginary batons for real applause. It was quite an experience.

And, for those few minutes, I had also been transported back in my imagination to my days in the Savannah High School band, playing part of a Beethoven overture on the tenor saxophone or even (gasp!) on the bassoon. Only this time, all the notes I played were the right ones, which made the experience joyful (and a little surprising) for my parents and the other mothers and fathers in the audience. Talk about a beautiful spark and magic!

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