Get to know D.C. with our daily newsletter
We dive deep on the day’s biggest story and share links to everything you need to know.
As a guy in the newspaper business, I’ve been pelted with the same line for more than a decade. You’re not appealing to young people. You’re a dinosaur. Your demographic is dying out.
Then, last night, I went to the symphony. Never have I felt as young. What came to mind was something Charles Barkley said back in his glory days: “As long as [Larry] Bird is around I will only be the second-worst defensive player in basketball.” And as long as classical music is around, well, print journalism can’t possibly be the very next industry to fold.
Amid a hairscape of gray and blue and non, I watched Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra perform the grand opus of Camille Saint-Saens, Symphony No. 3 (“The Organ”). Alsop’s troops managed to fill the very large Strathmore Hall with the alternately tempestuous and melodic passages in this masterpiece of classical tunes’ Romantic period.
Saint-Saens never nicknamed this symphony “The Organ,” and one good listen reveals why. The organist simply chills for much of the performance. And when the instrument does come in, it’s often just to provide some rumbling background-mood vibe—-nothing too obtrusive.
That pattern changes, of course, at the outset of the symphony’s final movement. It’s one of the great moments in the entire classical canon. The movement starts out with a jarring organ jam in C major. Abrupt, here, is an understatement. One time, my brother Munk was playing this piece on our home stereo when my Aunt Janet was visiting. She was calm throughout the early allegro and adagio movements. But when that final-movement chord hit, she almost fell out of her chair, really.
So the test of any good performance of the Organ Symphony is how well the venue conveys that very critical moment. On this front, the BSO and Strathmore delivered nicely. The organ blast was clear and loud, though it hardly shook the place at its foundations. I could have used a bit more volume, a bit more bass. But again, it was a fine performance, on par with the performance I caught more than a decade ago at BSO’s home, Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in B’more.
Both of those sure as hell beat the setup at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), in patrician Upstate New York. Years ago—-maybe 1999?—-I saw the Philadelphia Orchestra take a stab at the Organ there, but they had the machine connected to some loudspeakers—underwhelming.
In my book, the best place to hear the Organ Symphony is Hagerstown. Maryland Theatre in downtown H’town has a classic Moller pipe organ. I heard the Saint-Saens warhorse there back in the early ’90s and will never forget it. A built-in pipe organ is a tremendous community resource, as is the Organ Symphony. When the two meet, it’s all glory.
Which brings up the larger issue here, and that’s volume in classical music. I’ve long been dismayed at the lack of it in these larger concert venues. Take the KenCen. Even after the concert hall was renovated for acoustical reasons, it has left me flat. There are simply too many cubic feet in there to feel the music. Same thing, pretty much, at Strathmore. The place is huge. Sure, at both places you can hear the music just fine, but why can’t classical music fans expect the same pleasing thing—-eardrum-piercing volume—-that fans of pop music get at concerts?
Thursday night’s BSO performance, for instance, also featured Mozart’s 29th Symphony. I could barely hear it. Perhaps that’s because my ears are too baked from blasting The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway throughout my adolescence, but hey, I’ll bet others in the concert hall might have had some hearing issues as well.
There are two solutions here. One is to bag the live tunes and just turn up the volume on your home stereo. That was always the solution my father had. He’d listen every night to WMHT, our public radio station in Schenectady. He couldn’t identify a composer or an opus to save his life—-he’d guess Beethoven every time. He’d often tape symphonies right off the radio onto his cassettes, and since he could never remember what the opus was, he’d label the tapes “Good.” But he knew what he liked, and when WMHT played something “Good,” the volume would often go up.
The other answer for volume-deprived classical fans is to hit the small venues, the puny places where subpar orchestras do their thing. You tend to get a bit more sound in those places. As a single fellow fifteen or twenty years ago, I made the rounds to these spots—-orchestras in Arlington, smaller venues in D.C., Hagerstown, of course. One time, in 1996, I went to see some orchestra in Howard County play Brahms’ gorgeous Symphony No. 4. Boy did they hit all the wrong notes, and I am by no means a good tonal judge. But not to worry—-the space was tiny, and I couldn’t hear myself think. Well worth the trip!