City Life

By James Liu

The other night, I headed downtown to the Civic Orchestra to see Baremboim conduct Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto and the Seventh Symphony, a piece of music I’ve been in love with ever since I heard it on the radio years back. It was a free concert, so I was kind of surprised that I couldn’t get anyone to come with me to see it. Anyway, not beholden to anyone else’s schedule, I decided to head downtown early to wander a bit.

Glancing into a Starbucks, I ran into an old friend. She was late for class, but we still had a chance to catch up. Just when the city seems like nothing more than an agglomeration of impersonal buildings, it surprises you like that. When I finally stepped up to the box office, they were sold out, and I had to stand outside with a quickly improvised sign to beg for a ticket. It turned out to be alright, I managed to get myself seated on the terrace behind the performers, on the front row with a guardrail that I could lean on.

Between the two pieces, Baremboim gave an impassioned speech about the importance of musical education. Talk about the ethnocentricity of Western Classical Art Music all you wish, but the truth is, there really isn’t enough of it. Baremboim himself holds concerts that bring together Israeli and Palestinian youths. Sure, Beethoven’s piano sonatas don’t hold universally the same value throughout the world, but given the least bit of a chance, and a charismatic enough performer, they really can bring people together.

But the real reason for classical music was in the performance itself. These performers are young. Unlike a seasoned orchestra like the CSO, the Civic hasn’t memorized the entirety of Beethoven’s symphonies, and a conductor really was necessary to lead them. You could see in Baremboim’s face that he really was working at conducting and playing, and absolutely loving it. An amazing cadenza at the end of the first movement serves as a friendly reminder that, oh yes, he is an amazing player of the piano.

The performance of the Seventh itself was spectacular. I’ll never be able to hear it the same way again. I have a few recordings of it, but even accounting for the home stereo Symphony Center difference, this performance will be what I measure every other performance against. There’s a sense in which the stormy Seventh, which was such a surprise when it was premiered, has lost its luster through familiarity. Listeners find it “charming,” which is a misconception I’ve just been thoroughly disabused of. Contrary to expectations, the horns were too brash, the accents in the violins too sudden, the thunder of the timpanist too roaring.

When I felt myself falling off the edge of the earth, I was only literally on the edge of my seat, leaning on the guardrail. This was precisely the Beethoven I’ve dreamed of, and was always disappointed when it wasn’t delivered. Thinking about it now, this is exactly the city I had always dreamed of. Always there, always unexplored, always brimming over with hope. This really has become my home of sorts. If only the Jeffrey Express ran more often.