John N. Gardner
On the weekend immediately after the credit rating agency Standard and Poor’s downgraded the US credit rating because of our political dysfunction and lack of predictability, I found myself enjoying a symphony for one more reason.
I live with my wife, Betsy Barefoot, in Brevard, North Carolina, a small mountain town in the western Appalachian mountains. The best known thing about our town is that it is the home of the 75 year old Brevard Music Center and Summer Festival. The presence of the Center in Brevard is what drew Betsy and I away from South Carolina to live here. The Center is a non-profit higher education training institute for gifted young classical musicians who participate in a seven week festival of daily performances every summer.
The weekend was the closing weekend, but it was identical in format to all the other weekends during the seven weeks. There are major ticketed concert events on Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons. The Center has three different orchestras.
So, like every other weekend during the festival, Betsy and I went to three symphony orchestra concerts. I have long been a lover not only of the repertoire but of the ritual. This weekend I found it especially moving now that our great country has lost more than a touch of its glamour in the world order.
The symphony as ritual is so predictable. It is so orderly. It is so formal. It is centuries old and we count on it and are always rewarded. None of the members dress like slobs. None of them are badly behaved while on stage. All follow the maestro’s instructions with baton or hands no matter what the individual members of the orchestra think of the leader. There is no evident competition or jockeying for position. In fact, the positions do not move during the performance. Before the symphony begins we know the Concert Master will come out to fill his/her empty chair before the Conductor appears. The Concert Master will cue the other musicians. The Conductor will then appear and greet the Concert Master. We know how this is going to play out. There is diversity in the orchestra members: men, women, and different ages, ethnicities, races, national origins (and we assume sexual orientations) represented.
The communication exercise they engage in entertains, enthralls, moves, soothes us. It reaches resolution and closure. We exit fulfilled, sated, but still wanting to come back for more. The whole process has what Congress lacks: predictability, discipline, a focus on the common good, decorum, and no need for compromise to find an outcome satisfying to all.
No wonder I especially loved the three orchestras I heard this weekend.
What could we do, short of making orchestral music majors out of all college students, to interject into our collective campus lives and cultures some of these deeply satisfying elements of the symphony experience. I offer this as a sincere and serious question. I believe we could do this. It is pretty obvious that our students and country need to be experiencing these outcomes in more venues and contexts than symphony hall.