The Huntington Symphony tunes up in advance of an Oct. 21, 2023 performance at the Huntington Museum of Art auditorium in a ‘Barbara Meets Beethoven’ concert featuring pianist Barbara Nissman. | thestoryisthething.com photograph
by douglas john imbrogno | dec5.2023 | thestoryisthething.com
There are many days it seems to me music is helpless against the daily worldwide onslaught of human beings acting like cruel demons. As a weekend musician who sometimes performs at festivals, I remain haunted by the butchering raging Hamas militants inflicted along their way on Oct. 7 upon the Supernova Sukkot Gathering, a music festival celebrating the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, as they swiftly murdered 374 festivalgoers and snatched away more than 40 hostages into tunnels beneath Gaza. Before any strident readers fire ‘Whatabouts …!’ at me regarding the horrors and horrific body counts that day and since — and how to apportion blame even as Israel conducts its own ongoing slaughter — I direct you to a favorite political commentator, Kevin Drum:
‘I envy people who have total certainty in their views of Israel and Gaza. I have nothing close. Israel has endured decades of various Arab coalitions trying to destroy them, and it’s hard to understand how anyone can blame them for their deep and abiding desire for self defense and retaliation. At the same time, their treatment of Palestinians over the past couple of decades has been so gratuitously revolting that it’s hard to understand how anyone can blame them for cheering on even a grotesque terrorist group like Hamas.’‘Israel and Its Enemies’ by Kevin Drum, december1.2023
NOTE: CLICK ON PHOTOS TO ENLARGE THEM
A Huntington Symphony cellist at work. I shot these photos from a distance in the audience with an iPhone, creating the graphic pencil or painterly effect you see. I liked the effect so much I accentuated it in the editing process. | Huntington Museum of Art auditorium. | october2023 | thestoryisthething.com photograph
I raise up the specific terror of the Sukkot Gathering slaughter for a reason. Having attended and performed at more than a few festivals, I’ve so often experienced an alternative space of hopefulness, a modeling of how we might all get along, at least for a few days. All of it set to the background vibe of the harmonic convergence happening in the festival atmosphere. That is not to suggest some la-di-da, pie-in-the-sky mooniness, or that music is a sure tonic to soothe the savage beast within humankind’s too-often heartless breast. Plus, we humans can surely act like dolts at festivals, especially after one too many Blue Moons or fat joints or both. True confessions: I know I have.
Yet the communion of shared, transcendent musicality is certainly not nothing. Which is why we keep ducking out of the blaring, breaking headlines to recharge our spirits with our playlists, favorite performers, and songs that move us beyond ourselves. It is why the thought of music one moment in the hills of Israel and the roar of approaching gunfire and splattered bodies and shattered instruments the next remains so soul-troubling and scarifying. Or maybe just scarring. Will bullets forever cancel out the notes?
A Huntington Symphony violinist moments before the conductor called the orchestra to order. | Huntington Museum of Art auditorium. | october2023 | thestoryisthething.com photograph
We make music and gather around its bonfire to push back against the darkness. One of my musical icons, David Byrne spoke to this point upon this Fall’s re-release of possibly the greatest concert film of all time, Jonathan Demme’s “Stop Making Sense.” Demme’s thrilling capture of the Heads in full, expanded flower has had a delightful effect in movie theaters. I experienced it myself at a screening last month at the Floralee Hark Cohen Cinema in West Virginia’s capital city. People react to the ecstatic music as if they were at a live concert, talking back to the screen, shouting out lines, popping out of their seats to move and dance. The film’s musical joy recalibrates one’s cellular vibration. Or as Byrne put in it a New York Times interview:
“In a culture that’s so much about the individual, and the self and my rights, to find a parallel thing that is really about giving, losing yourself and surrendering to something bigger than yourself is kind of extraordinary. And you realize, ‘Oh, this is what a lot of the world is about — surrendering to something spiritual, or community or music or dance, and letting go of yourself as an individual. You get a real reward when that happens. It’s a real ecstatic, transcendent feeling.” …‘Stop Making Sense’ Is Back, and Talking Heads Have More to Say | NYTimes, september9.2023
A Huntington Symphony cellist tunes up as the orchestra awaits the arrival of the conductor and the evening’s featured performer, Barbara Nissman. | Huntington Museum of Art auditorium. | october2023 | thestoryisthething.com photograph
So, the modest row of paragraphs and photographs on this page make no claim other than to push the hope that we stumble once again out of the infernal Stygian darkness of breaking news and break instead into the light, setting aside our terrible tribalism and “surrendering to something bigger.” No single concert or festival will ever save anything, much less fix our species’ worst badness. But music has ever served to pass forward the promise that all is not lost and never was. Even if we don’t speak the same language, we all can ride the same vibration and, maybe more importantly, be called back to the fact that there even is a shared vibration.
On a planet that can seem constantly dis-harmonious, the fact remains that harmony is ever and always possible. This would explain the persistence of music-making since the first proto-human picked up a stick and began rat-a-tatting a rhythm, a Ringo Sapien laying down the beat as other ears perked up nearby and came wandering over.
I am not sure which has the better headstock: the wavy mane of this Huntington Symphony cellist or his curly cello. | Huntington Museum of Art auditorium. | october2023 | thestoryisthething.com photograph
The littlest and biggest of the symphony’s stringed, bowed things. Huntington Museum of Art auditorium. | october2023 | thestoryisthething.com photograph
On a planet that can seem constantly dis-harmonious, the fact remains that harmony is ever and always possible. This would explain the persistence of music-making since the first proto-human picked up a stick and began rat-a-tatting a rhythm, a Ringo Sapien laying down the beat.
The Euclidean geometry of a Huntington Symphony Orchestra violinist in waiting. | Huntington Museum of Art auditorium. | october2023 | thestoryisthething.com photograph
But I come here not to extemporize an op-ed (well, only a little). I also wish to share snapshots of the architectonics of a smartly dressed, well-rehearsed symphony orchestra led by Maestro Kimo Furumoto, knocking Beethoven out of the park and then accompanying internationally renowned pianist Barbara Nissman as she knocks Beethoven out of the solar system. Here was the formal lineup the symphony performed at the Huntington Museum of Art at its all-Beethoven and Barbara evening: the ‘Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43’; ‘Symphony No. 4 in Bb, Op 60′; and the ‘Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op 58,’ with the pianist helming the Steinway grand rolled onto the stage after an intermission.
If you have never heard Barbara Nissman’s fiery, athletic, jaw-dropping artwork upon the keys, well, there is a reason she was recently inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. Not to mention why, also, that the Prokofiev Family Trust hired her to record a video master class at New York’s Columbia University, instructing in how to perform the devilish intricacy of Prokofiev’s compositions, one of several master composers whose work she channels with her own commanding skill.
Barbara Nissman prepares to perform a Beethoven concerto with the Huntington Symphony Orchestra. | Huntington Museum of Art auditorium. | october2023 | thestoryisthething.com photograph
How this exceptional pianist landed in the Mountain State — in the late 1980s, she and her poet husband, Daniel Haberman, settled outside Lewisburg, a base from which she continues to perform far and wide at age 78 — is worth knowing about. See her moving essay of love, loss, and renewal, “Where Walden Meets West Virginia,” published this past October in the digital pages of my occasional web magazine, WestVirginiaVille.com (which I roused from its current slumber to showcase this notable piece). In addition to her riveting interpretation of Franz Lizt’s ‘Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2’ at her West Virginia Music Hall of Fame induction (see a video of it at the bottom of her WestVirginiaVille essay or here on Youtube), I have added below a smartphone-recorded excerpt of her encore to the Huntington Museum of Art concert. Do track down some of her many stellar recordings on CD or online via her own record label, Three Oranges Recordings.
Maestro Kimo Furumoto leads the Huntington Symphony Orchestra as it launches an evening of Beethoven. | Huntington Museum of Art auditorium. | october2023 | thestoryisthething.com photograph
In reading over this photo-essay, which begins with human horror and ends with impeccable human harmonics, I realized I used the words ‘demon‘ and ‘devilish‘ to describe aspects of both ends of this wide spectrum. Maybe high horror and high art sum up the constant arc of humanity’s story. I also do not mean to suggest that a soaring symphony orchestra or Talking Heads hoedown can be anything but a band-aid in addressing the deep wounds and long bleeding out of the Palestinian and Jewish people. I believe it was the legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser who said something to the effect that sometimes you don’t decorate the bag of rice with a cool, artful logo. You rush that bag of rice to hungry refugees, instead.
Maybe high horror and high art sum up the constant arc of humanity’s story.
But speaking of devils — and their celestial counterparts — music is also a reminder of Lincoln’s wise precept that we seek “the better angels of our nature.” I leave you with an excerpt of Barbara Nissman’s encore piece that concluded her October appearance with the Huntington Symphony. It’s a rousing work by another magisterial composer, Alberto Ginastera, with whom she was close and who once described her as “a magnificent interpreter of my music, one of the best pianists in the world.” High praise indeed from the Argentinian composer, who is himself considered “one of the most important 20th-century classical composers of the Americas.” Her performance of Ginastera’s ‘Tres Danzas Argentinas, Op. 2: III. Danza del Gaucho Matrero’ is by turns subtle and sinewy, as the piece goes from quietly melodic to storm-filled and then back again. It is the good kind of devilish human intricacy and a harmonic treat for the soul.
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Thanks to Jeff Seager for his editing prowess on this piece.
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