Antique instruments

Last week, J and I went to a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert:  the last of three such concerts we’ve gone to this season.  The program featured a symphony by Sibelius and a piano concerto by Busoni, two composers I wasn’t familiar with.  The soloist who played the Busoni piece, Kirill Gerstein, was amazing:  the concerto was long, fast, and complicated, and Gerstein performed it without sheet music, committing more than 70 minutes of emphatic, keyboard-pounding music to muscle-memory.

I don’t know much about classical music, and during any given concert, my mind sometimes wanders.  But I’m always inspired by the mastery both regular symphony members and visiting soloists demonstrate as they perform long, intricately orchestrated pieces.  I’m not a musician, so playing an instrument seems difficult enough, and playing an instrument in unison with an entire orchestra of others seems downright miraculous.

Antique instruments

My favorite moments in any concert are the quiet ones, when all eyes are on the conductor and you can almost hear the musicians holding their collective breath.  These expectant moments thrill me in a way the dramatic crescendos and flourishes do not.  Playing loudly seems easy enough:  even I could make a lot of noise with a horn or drum.  But it takes talent and a well-tamed temperament to ride the crests and troughs of a well-written concerto, the music and surging and subsiding in unexpected and ultimately satisfying ways.



February in New England feels like waiting. We dig out from one snowstorm then brace for the next; we count the days until pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training. March is muddy and messy, but at least it holds the hope of spring. February, on the other hand, is just winter grown old.

Ready to begin - turn off your cell phones!

Last week J and I went to a matinee BSO concert. Symphony Hall is an insulated, bunker-like space: it’s sometimes described as a building inside a building, with the outside walls keeping the street-sounds out and the inner walls keeping the sound of music in. When you’re inside Symphony Hall, it’s as if the outside world doesn’t exist. Inside Symphony Hall the environment is warm and attentive, with every ear attuned to an incoming wave of music. Outside, the world is cold and cacophonous, both the winter wind and the blare of car horns battering your senses the instant you leave.

Warming up

Both phones and photography are forbidden during BSO performances, so any photos I take show pre-concert warmups or the hush of intermission. February in New England feels like an intermission between the thunderous timpani of winter and the peaceful piccolos of spring. In February we sit like a lone cellist, our fingers poised over silent strings we’re well-practiced and ever-eager to play, waiting.

Louie and Stan - Jan 26 / Day 26

It’s been fiercely cold this week, so I’ve spent a lot of time hunkered down at home. Our cats are indoor creatures who have perfected the art of hunkering, mapping out the warmest radiators and most comfortable cushions. On a cold day, there’s something hugely comforting about curling up with a warm laptop and a purring throng of resting, grooming, and sleeping creatures, each of them quietly stoking their inner fires.

All ears

This isn’t to say I haven’t ventured out during this cold snap: I still have face-to-face classes to teach, dogs to escort to and from our backyard dog pen, and a photo a day to take. On Thursday, I dragged myself out of my office at Framingham State to take a short walk off campus and back, even a twenty-minute walk feeling like an adventurous arctic exploration. As much as my body might not want to walk when temperatures are in the single-digits, walking in the brutal cold feels strangely healthy after you’ve done it, the brisk air enlivening your steps. “Cold air kills flu germs,” I tell myself as I breathe the first, searing lungful of frigid air. I don’t know whether that is scientifically true, but it feels healthy to breathe fresh air rather than the stale, indoor stuff shared with colleagues, students, and random strangers.

Scooby keeps warm

On Friday, J and I went to an afternoon symphony concert, which meant we bundled up to walk from our house to the T and from the T to Symphony Hall, stopping along the way for lunch. “That’s a popular choice,” our waiter chuckled after both J and I ordered hot soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. Looking up, J and I noticed that indeed, the restaurant was filled with bundled married couples, many of them eating hot soup and sandwiches, and all of them clearly headed to the symphony.

Stan lounging

“These are the hardy symphony-goers who can still get around on their own,” I whispered to J, since the BSO is largely popular with elderly folks, many of whom arrive at Symphony Hall by the busload from local retirement communities: one of the perks of growing old in a city with a world-class orchestra. True to our experience of past concerts, the BSO ushers expertly guided folks with physical challenges to their seats, whisking away canes and walkers to be stored in a neat row outside the restroom: the geriatric equivalent of the rows of baby-strollers you see outside playgrounds and popular amusement park rides.


“At least they showed up,” J mentioned, nodding to our otherwise empty row; apparently many concert-goers stayed home, daunted by either the cold weather or the threat of flu. I’d stuffed a handful of cough drops in my purse before we left home, knowing that Coughing At The Symphony is a social faux pas that is to be avoided at all costs. We didn’t need to avail ourselves of that emergency stash, though, and we heard very few coughs or sniffles during the symphony’s performance. Apparently the folks who venture out for a concert on a frigid day are an especially hardy bunch.

Tuning - Jan 25 / Day 25

Three evening gowns

Last night J and I went to the first of three Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts we’d agreed back in December would be our mutual birthday gift to one another. Neither one of us had ever been to the BSO, which is kind of ironic given how long we each have lived in New England, so we felt like bumpkins when we walked out of the rain last night into the well-lit swankiness that is Symphony Hall.

Champagne wishes

“We’ve never been here before,” J explained, apologetically, as we presented our ticket stubs to an usher, looking clearly clueless as to where we should be. “Oh, yes,” she chuckled as she led us to our balcony seats. “That’s how we Bostonians are. We never do any of the interesting things until we have visitors!”

She’s right. J’s been to the Symphony in Pittsburgh, and I went to see the Toledo Symphony a half-dozen times when I was an undergraduate there. But neither one of us ever got around to going to the Symphony here in Boston, somehow eschewing such high-class nightlife in favor of more low-brow activities.

“So, how is this different from a Bruins’ game?” J asked after we’d settled into our seats, skimmed the concert program, and listened to the last half of a pre-concert lecture explaining the motifs we’d hear in Rimsky-Korsokov’s “Scheherazade.” We decided a typical hockey game features more drinking and more fights than a typical symphony concert (although fights aren’t unheard of at Boston Pops concerts). Judging from the concert program, which was filled with ads for retirement communities and investment brokers, the typical symphony-goer is both older and wealthier than the typical Bruins fan, although from our cheap “partial view” seats in the upper balcony, we spotted more than a few 20- and 30-something concert-goers who presumably were taking advantage of the BSO’s reduced rate for the under-40 crowd.

Evening wear

I’d worried a bit before the concert that our understated evening attire–a turtleneck sweater and skirt for me, and a dress shirt, tie, and chinos for J–would clearly mark us as Symphony Newbies, but everyone else in attendance was similarly dressed, with the only ballgowns and tuxedos we spotted being on the stage. Our “partial view” seats, we learned, gave us a great view of the sculpture niches that house marble statues of mythological figures overlooking the hall: instead of sitting in the proverbial nosebleeds, we sat in the heavens, surrounded by gods.

From our particular corner of the upper balcony, our view partially obstructed by a flanking row of seats, we had a perfect view of half of the strings and most of the percussion section…and if we leaned forward or sat up in our seats, we could just barely see the evening’s soloists. But a symphony, as J remarked, is not a play: you’re there to listen more than watch, and there isn’t a seat in Symphony Hall where you don’t find yourself submerged in a lushness of sound.


Now that we know where to go and what to wear–and now that we know that the BSO website’s stated policy disallowing cameras only prohibits pictures during the performance, as the folks around us snapped shot after shot of those aforementioned marble gods before the concert began–we’re looking forward to our next concert and its taste of Boston nightlife.

This is my belated contribution to this week’s Photo Friday theme, Nightlife. Because I left my camera at home last night, I have no photos from Symphony Hall, so these well-dressed mannequins from my photo archive will have to do.