Last Friday night, under the threat of snow and ice, D.J. and I drove Downtown to attend the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra perform Stravinsky’s The Firebird, along with a flute concerto by Jacques Ibert.
I don’t know music. I know the names of instruments (most of them, most of the time), and I can recognize the names of the most famous classical composers. I could once read the notes floating across rows of parallel straight lines, interpret them in my own crude, slow way. I appreciate how music sounds, and I know when something displeases my ears. But I can’t listen to Mozart and Bach and tell you which is which. It’s been years (decades, really) since I’ve held an instrument, years since I attempted to make sense of those black dots with little flags.
So when we go to the Symphony, I find other ways of understanding.
First, there is the richness of Heinz hall, the crystal light scones sparkling with light. Then the sea of black-clad bodies on the stage warming up with their instruments, their notes discordant and scattered. When the lights dim and the conductor takes the stage, the chaos settles into harmony. The musicians sit, and the uniform blackness of their formal wear resolves into textures and shapes: a violinist in a crushed velvet skirt, another in a long dress with flowing sheer sleeves. Some dresses are a deeper black than others, some hang heavy on the wearer, some light and airy. Even the men’s tuxedos are different cuts and styles, some more traditional, some sharply modern.
The conductor, Juanjo Mena, holds up his baton, and everyone in the hall takes a breath, waiting. The music begins, and suddenly dozens of bodies move together. It’s easy to forget how physical music is when you only listen to recordings. The musicians lean in to their violins and clarinets and trombones, using their breath and their arms and their cores to coax that exact sound, at that exact pitch and tone, from their instruments. Together they weave a dream out of sound, something completely intangible but still distinctly felt in my body.
When flute soloist Lorna McGhee enters the stage, she creates sounds with the flute I did not know were possible. She takes the music high, low, soft, softer still, then rushing and tumbling. Her breath is audible, a powerful inhalation transformed into music that races around the hall, as if the notes are chasing each other. We aren’t close to the stage, but even from a distance I can see the muscles in her arms contract as she moves her fingers up and down the flute. Her body sways, setting her purple grown rippling. It is clear she feels the music deep in her soul, and although I don’t have a language to describe what I hear, she makes me feel it, too.
This is what flying must feel like to birds.
At the end of the concert, when the ordinary shuffle of shoes on carpet overtakes the last lingering musical vibrations, we rise from our seats, renewed. The world is ugly, yes, but it is also beautiful and surprising. I don’t know music, but I know art, and art exists beyond language. That, at least, I understand.