It’s summer in New York and cool deals on food and concerts abound. The abundance is such that September will roll around and you’ll discover that shit, you missed Shakespeare, and the Bryant Park movies, and the apparently sick Childish Gambino performance. (You kinda got to hear Bieber’s live Today Show take, but that’s just because the stage was kitty corner to the office.)
In an early moment of proactivity, and luck, I sprang for Philharmonic tickets for a group of twenty people at the end of April. Miraculously we all made it to Lincoln Center two months later. As ticket holders, we were asked to dress appropriately, no shorts or jeans, no t-shirts. It was a Tuesday but we were dressed in our Sunday best (or as someone’s retro idea of adults) and filing into the impressive auditorium for the first time, I marveled at the why of it all.
Why did twenty 25-year-olds want to do this thing? I had certainly never been to the symphony before without my parents, and some of my partners in crime had never been ever. It turns out most of us studied the prerequisite instrument in grade school, and some sang, or played in jazz band. But when did we decide to actively listen to classical music, not list it as our least favorite or just tolerate it? And though we made it to this concert, did we like it? Or was it the novelty of the event that appealed; the act of playing grownup in some new way. Cigarettes and alcohol were frontiers of the past; did we now need sit-down concerts and health benefits to legitimize our maturity?
The stillness and elegance of our surroundings stood starkly against my usual interactions with friends, where phones constantly zip in and out of pockets, loud pop fills in every empty space, and clinking beer glasses and shrieks of delight are the most common staples. Instead we sat politely side by side, tried not to fiddle with our hems and just listened. I’m not sure any of us do that very often anymore. Looking around the group the impression I had was of sincere engagement; one boy even had his eyes closed in sweet reverie. Unless, of course, it was sleep.
The performance of Henri Dutilleux’s compositions wowed us. He is a composer I had never heard of, because he is alive and writing for a modern stage. The first piece evoked Star Wars and Noirs and Dexter or Bones. I didn’t exactly run home and buy his work on iTunes but I did pay attention. Something about the crucial mass of instruments in a symphony emphasizes the complexity of the sound; you notice the dexterity. Your body hums in the acoustics and sitting in my chair I had a new appreciation for Newland Archer’s first glimpse of Countess Olenska. Places like this have power. The sensuality of the music wasn’t exactly at odds with the setting, but the rows of chairs and stacked boxes of polished wood dictated certain restraints. Glances were suddenly capable of producing small eruptions, a held hand: cascades of fireworks.
The final piece showcased Yo-Yo Ma (the main event) with contemplative, rather frightening, Baudelaire quotes from “Les Fleurs du Mal” projected above the musicians. (“Keep your dreams;/Wise men do not have such beautiful ones as fools.”) Ma has an explosive energy that animates his music and his body. His joy in his craft is infectious and ravages his audience. The why didn’t really matter as we clapped our hands until they vibrated. We left exuberant.
I don’t know if I had underestimated my friends’ depths, and I don’t know if going to a classical concert is an important gateway to adulthood. Regardless, the symphony taught me that horizons are still expanding, and whatever the answer, I can say this episode of uncommon camaraderie marked a season of new abundance.
Frances Milliken is not your average cat person.
Lincoln Center photo by Robert Mintzes.