There is a moment before the music starts that might just make your hair stand on end. You’ve settled in your seat and the orchestra is beginning to appear – first a violinist, a bassoonist and then all at once, sixty-five musicians emerge from the wings and are sitting in front of you making their initial preparatory noises: adjusting a stand or a seat, scanning through music, playing a particularly tricky passage. Then, with a slight nod from stage left, a hush ensues. The conductor arrives. Some movement follows, readjustments, looks exchanged. And then comes the moment that makes you hold your breath. It is fleeting, but you wouldn’t miss it. The conductor raises her arms and the musicians lean in, ready. We all hold our breath. We focus. We watch so not to miss it.
When considering the validity of classical music in the 21st century – a time where everything we need is available to us via streaming or delivery at our convenience – it is easy to consider tackling the genre as a marathon, when we in all our glorified busy-ness are trying to run a sprint. And yet audiences continue to arrive at the doors of the concert hall and find incomparable amounts of joy in the orchestral repertoire. They are still thrilled by the sounds of brass and percussion thundering through the theatre and still entranced by the delicacy of a solo oboe floating up through a rich string arrangement. It seems that the more we struggle with busy-ness and disconnect, the more we need the power of a collective orchestral voice. Many of the symphonies that have endured in popular culture have remained steadfast because of their emotive capacity: to move, to challenge and to inspire. For the composer who writes them, the music expresses far more than can be articulated in any other way. It has been and will continue to be the composers’ quest; to capture the greatest of emotions: loss and love, pain and joy, suffering and hope. The ability to distill these touchstones of the human experience through music is perhaps the exact reason that the great symphonies continue to captivate audiences across the globe – regardless of place or time, we humans feel the same things and meet the same obstacles.
For Tchaikovsky, who saw music as “a true friend, refuge and comforter”, the writing of his sixth and final symphony was all-consuming and he struggled immensely to spend time away from its creation. He believed it to be his greatest work and following its premiere performance in October of 1893, Tchaikovsky died unexpectedly, leaving the symphony behind as his final masterpiece. Conversely, Variations on a Theme by Haydn came to Brahms in the summer of 1873, before his years of great fame following the premieres of his four symphonies. Based on a theme for wind ensemble attributed to Joseph Haydn, the Variations are oft considered to be the first independent set of variations for orchestra and continue to be one of Brahms’ most popular works.
From Vivaldi and Bach to Brahms and Tchaikovsky, the depth of feeling and character present in performances of their works is palpable. So it is with Australian composer, Graeme Koehne, whose work The Persistence of Memory considers the musical language and how our communication forms part of a larger cultural memory. Written as a tribute to the late Guy Henderson, former principal oboe of the Sydney Symphony, Koehne says the piece is “charged with responsibility to communicate a sense of respect, sadness and acceptance in reflecting on the passing of a great musician.” An elegy communicating a staggering loss, The Persistence of Memory is Koehne’s “attempt to return to the fundamental elements of musical ‘language’” – a language of emotions.
“It is a very simple piece and stylistically it reflects my recent tendency to what I'd call "lyrical minimalism". My aesthetic choices are guided by my recent studies of the burgeoning fields of evolutionary biology and music cognition which have guided me to a radical simplification of my musical language and the belief that music is first and foremost a language with a syntax, vocabulary and grammar developed - and largely agreed on - over hundreds of years (granted there are many different "dialects" and "accents" but the deep structure is universal). Music is part of how we communicate - it's what humans do - not an abstract series of sounds.”
In Koehne, in Tchaikovsky, in Brahms: we look for the emotional language - those melodies which ground us and lift us, comforting in times of struggle and inspiring us to reach new heights. The job of the orchestra, as translator and storyteller, is to make sense of those dots on the page and allow you – the audience – to understand.
We all hold our breath. We focus. We watch so not to miss it. Then the down beat: the music has begun.
Written for Orchestra Victoria.