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  • Alex Hu

The stories told through music

Last night, I had the absolute privilege of hearing the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at their concert in Boston.

Despite having played classical music for most of my life, I have not attended an in-person concert for many years. However, I could not turn down the opportunity of hearing from THE Berlin Philharmonic.

This blog post is my personal interpretation of the music I felt. While I am by no means an expert in classical music, playing instruments, or composition, the range of tantalizing beauty I witnessed had to be shared.

I will admit that I felt completely out of my depth as soon as I stepped into the concert hall. The seats were made of tough, yet comfortable leather. The stage was framed by an ornamental pillar of gold decadence. The guardrails and ceilings had intricate engravings - the meanings of which I am not cultured enough to decipher.

As I sat amongst a sea of pressed tuxedos and flowing dresses, I set my mind to the music. Our program began with Unstuck by Andrew Norman. I was immediately awe-struck by the sheer force of emotion that the orchestra imparted. I felt the tribulations of finding creativity interwoven with my personal struggles of finding identity. As a relatively short piece (~10 mins), it set the stage for the rest of the evening.

Next up was Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 1. In the program brief was explained how by this point in his life, Mozart was still “entertaining his musical ideas” and had yet to develop his mature style. After all, Mozart had composed his violin concertos before he turned 20. The jubilating energy was poking fun at itself while knowing exactly what it was doing. In many ways, the piece embodies the youthful and slightly naive eagerness of a bouncy, optimistic entrepreneur.

If the soloist, Noah Bendix-Balgley, had outperformed himself playing Mozart, he became a force of nature with his interpretation of a Klezmer tune (Jewish folk song). After a multitude of cries from encores from the crowd, he stepped back on stage with an easter egg to share. I found this song to be the most difficult to understand, but its energy was the most invigorating. I felt I was conversing with a fiercely proud, passionate, yet humble ambassador towards an unfamiliar culture.

After the break came the main course - Korngold’s Symphony in F# major. After being called a genius by Mahler at age ten, he would then write a pantomime at thirteen and 2 operas at eighteen. However, after moving to California and composing some of the most acclaimed film music (winning 2 Oscars), many viewed Korngold as only a film composer. His only symphony, composed in 1952, would set out to reshape that myth. However, due to lackluster performances, he would never see his symphony find success until 1972, 15 years after his death.

When I listened to Korngold’s symphony before the concert, I counted myself among his doubters. At first glance, the phrasing lacks flow to the point of nonexistence, and the melody was…confusing. The deeper nuance in the harmony felt unintelligible.

Over the next hour, the Berlin Philharmonic gently sat me down and unfolded Korngold’s account. In 1938, he vowed not to write any more concert music until “the monster in Europe is removed from the world.” After 14 years, this was his statement to the world.

Through the seemingly jarring and aloof melody, I was shown the true settings of conflict, destruction, disaster, and tragedy brought about through war. I witnessed the initial reactions of a population far away from a globally-defining conflict. I looked upon the scheming and planning of various cultures’ prejudices. I felt the pain of discovering unforgivable tragedies. I heard the cries of mothers and fathers upon receiving condolences from the army. I saw the tension between nations build, from skirmishes to ferocious sacrifice, to genocide, until the atomic bombs fell.

Korngold tells us the tragedies of the war through an American lens. The feelings of anxiousness, disbelief, desperation, despondency, and periodic hope are all interwoven within 4 breathtaking movements. Thanks to the impeccable range of each member of the orchestra and Kirill Petrenko’s standoffish yet lively conduction, the shoebox overflowed with the humanity of Korngold’s inextricably complex message, of an inextricably complex time.

Of all the movies, history lessons, historical games, and Wikipedia articles I’ve scoured, Korngold’s words when sung through the voice of the Berlin Philharmonic brought me closer to a human depiction of war than any other before. It is not a surprise that after the final note, the applause started and didn’t stop until 5 ovations had passed. A truly brilliant set of messages told through world-class skill, creativity, and experience.

I greatly look forward to many more classical music concerts in the future. Even the most advanced headphones or speakers cannot replicate the full force of emotions the best storytellers in the world can invoke.

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