Poetry in the concert hall


Gustav Dudamel
Gustavo Dudamel

This past Thursday I attended a much-anticipated concert at Symphony Center – the return of Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel. He made his debut last year with the Chicago Symphony to much acclaim, and I feel privileged to have been there to witness it.  He has an infectious energy, a joyful spirit, that transforms the orchestra and washes back out over the audience. I’ve seen it happen with other conductors – our soon-to-be music director Ricardo Muti is one example – but Dudamel is unique. He’s young. He’s the protege of Daniel Barenboim.

Oh, and he’s got that mop of curly hair that flies up and own as he bounces around on the podium.


What does this have to do with poetry? Quite a bit. As my friend Jane and I waited for the concert to begin, I realized that I wasn’t expecting a repeat of that first concert. That was special; it can’t possibly be that good again, I was thinking. And then he stepped to the podium and raised his arms. The first piece, Barber’s Adagio for Strings, is achingly emotional, full of tension that builds gradually to an impossible climax. Dudamel barely moved throughout the entire piece. Only his outstretched arms moved, as he reached out and pulled the notes from the orchestra with such agony that I couldn’t breathe. His wrists and fingers are poetry, I found myself thinking. Dark and cathartic poetry by Sharon Olds or Margaret Atwood.

from “The Loneliness of the Military Historian”
Margaret Atwood

In the interests of research
I have walked on many battlefields
that once were liquid with pulped
men’s bodies and spangled with exploded
shells and splayed bone.
All of them have been green again
by the time I got there.

But it’s no use asking me for a final statement.
As I say, I deal in tactics.
Also statistics:
for every year of peace there have been four hundred
years of war.

Next we heard the delicious Mozart Piano Concerto No. 21 – Dudamel bouncing around the podium as the pianist, Stephen Hough, delivered a lovely performance. (I felt a twinge of sympathy for Hough, overshadowed by the “rock star” classical music conductor with which he had to share the stage.) I love Mozart (who doesn’t?), but only upon reaching my 30s have I begun to truly appreciate him. In my 20s, I loved the nationalist composers – Dvorak, Copland, the Russians – who reflected my angst back at me. Mozart rarely has visible angst; he worked within the forms of his time. But he took those forms and broke all the rules, made them new, startling the audiences of his day. Perhaps it is that subtlety that appeals to me now. One is listening, listening… and then a phrase leaps out and tweaks your expectations. Emily Dickinson, perhaps? Always working with the material of her time, but surprising the reader with little twists.

Emily Dickinson 

THERE is no frigate like a book
  To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
  Of prancing poetry.  

This traverse may the poorest take
  Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
  That bears a human soul!

After the intermission, we came to the showpiece of the evening, Brahms Symphony No. 2. It is “happy” Brahms, composed during a stint in the countryside and somehow reflective of sweeping lakes and rivers and hills. Now Dudamel seemed in his element, his entire body conducting. Several times, the only parts of him touching the ground were his toes! He is impossible for an audience to resist. Even the orchestra appeared under his spell: principal flautist Mathieu Dufour nodded his head along with one passage, something the players never do. Poetry? This Brahms symphony has to be a long narrative poem. A celebration. Whitman. 

from “Song of Myself”
Walt Whitman 

The Yankee clipper is under her sky-sails—she cuts the sparkle and scud;
My eyes settle the land—I bend at her prow, or shout joyously from the deck.

I’ve just started reading The Music Lover’s Poetry Anthology, Helen Handley Houghton and Maureen McCarthy Draper, editors. I haven’t read enough to judge the collection, but it seems promising. 

thumbnail_music-lovers-poetry-anthology2from “On Hearing a Symphony of Beethoven”
Edna St. Vincent Millay

Sweet sounds, oh, beautiful music, do not cease!
Reject me not into the world again.
With you alone is excellence and peace,
Mankind made plausible, his purpose plain.

by Issa (translated by Robert Hass)

Blossoms at night
and the faces of people
moved by music.

The book’s front matter contains a quote from Charles Darwin that I had not encountered before, probably because I stayed as far as possible from all but the required science courses in college. I wholeheartedly agree with him, though. 

If I had my life to live over again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once a week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would have thus been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.      – Charles Darwin

2 thoughts on “Poetry in the concert hall

  1. Dear Holly,

    I liked this set of perspectives! You can see my Chicago Sun-Times review at my site.

    Thank you for these ideas and poetry connections to the concert. (Oh, one small thing — Gustavo counts Daniel Barenboim as well as Claudio Abbado and Sir Simon Rattle as his mentors as an adult conductor. That he can take so much from three very different figures, as well as from his earlier mentors in Venezuela, says a lot about him, I think.)

    All best,

    Andrew P.

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