Vermont Symphony Orchestra: they’re good at what they do


Kayla Friedrich

The Vermont Symphony Orchestra in action

The Vermont Symphony Orchestra kicked off its Made in Vermont Music Festival at JSC on Friday night, Sept. 20, the first night of JSC’s Alumni/Parents Weekend. Alumni and parents are certainly their target audience, especially the older alumni: once one becomes an adult, one eschews rock ‘n’ roll and those fun-based styles of music for the sophistication of the symphony. There are also, I’m told, those radicals who dabble in opera—no doubt they enjoy the current movies, too, at least those at the art house; though, of course, none compares to “Lawrence of Arabia,” or the films of Carl Dreyer.

So precise is their attention to even the slightest detail that, even in today’s society, their daughters are generally well-matched: the worthiness of those young men they bring to dinner is gauged by their receptiveness to the suggestion that they read Proust, not “Swann’s Way,” for goodness sake, but “The Captive” or “Cities of the Plain.” “‘Swann’s Way’ is the dessert,” they say. (Though, of course, there’s no sense in dancing around the fact that those who listen to opera are likely to suggest one stick with James Joyce’s “Ulysses” before reading anything else.)

All this is to suggest that considering the high level of intellectual development and study and personal sophistication required to understand the deepest reaches of art, it is admirable, even noble, that the Vermont Symphony Orchestra should be so generous and selfless as to begin with Bach, a very welcoming artist, as opposed to a more challenging, dynamic composer such as Kraus, though one might suggest that it begin with the “Goldberg Variations,” which might remind those in the audience with any genuine interest in jazz music, thus providing a bridge over which they might cross into the art. It was a gesture so moving Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” seemed audible, hovering over the audience like a shared halo, rising upward as the music filled them like an inhalation from God, taken upward, into the Heavens.

This would be no coincidence, since classical music is, in fact, rooted in Christian liturgical music. This accounts for the fact that classical music already seemed preternaturally sophisticated at its inception, a statement designed not to disparage other cultures, but to illustrate that while other cultures of the time relied on intuitive rhythms modelled simply on the basest existential observations, such as sexual rhythm (gross!! GROSS!!), even at its beginnings, classical music operated according to musical notation.

The first classical composers quickly dismissed rhythm as a foundation in favor of the far more refined and therefore sturdier foundation of sophisticated, interweaving melodies.

The Vermont Symphony Orchestra certainly captures that melodic sophistication. Its music seems to rid the universe of chaos; the only growth is that measured, meticulously directed flowering calculated with omnipotent precision by the composers, and wonderfully realized by these talented performers.

There is no doubt they are talented. No one would doubt the amount of focus and control required for so skilled a performance, though whether all would appreciate such refined skill is doubtful, especially in such a venue as JSC’s Dibden Theatre of the Arts.

The fifth of the VSO’s five official goals is “To always ask of any venture, ‘Is it a good investment?’”—a statement any military general, government official, or businessman might ask—and with this in mind, it is fitting that it chose to venture to Dibden when the theatre was most likely to be filled with parents and alumni.

As for the preceding goal on that list, “To provide exceptional musical programs,” one must agree that its glossy programs were rich with any variety of information one could ever want regarding the VSO and its music, and thus exceptional.

Another of the VSO’s goals is “To build devoted audiences of all ages who are passionate about great music in Vermont.” Since the VSO deigned to initiate its “Made in Vermont Music Festival Statewide Tour” at JSC, they must have recognized the intellectual potential of our audience, a humbling compliment; it isn’t until the 30th of Sept. that it plans to appear before those fu—rs at Castleton.

For those at JSC curious about the arts, the VSO’s Dibden performance has put to rest any doubt that classical music is as prestigious as any of mankind’s endeavors, and few take the endeavor with such grace, precision, and skill as the Vermont Symphony Orchestra. One can hardly imagine a more dignified celebration with which to open Parents and Alumni Weekend.

Of course, celebration is based on dismissing dignity, which makes the VSO performance sort of a self-negating cluster—k, and fundamentally celebration is the attainment and premaintenance of pleasure, the brutal mutilation and subsequent murder of which opened the performance.

Pleasure is, in my experience, a physical sensation. It’s a common side-effect of rhythm. However, rhythm, the foundation of African music (the polar opposite of classical music), was caged and starved like a slave in the symphonies, which were, instead, dominated by melody.

Melody is a more intellectual pleasure: a thin, jagged sensation at its best, rather than unlimited and filling like rhythm. Classical music defuses melody to a point of pure intellectuality, as embodied by that most famous of 21st-century classical composers, HAL 9000.

It was clear many of those who attended the VSO performance were titillated by melody’s nymphean striptease, but if we have to sit through robotic flirtation, why can’t they stick us in a theater with Scarlett Johannson’s Siri knockoff from “Her”? If we must endure such eviscerating dehumanization, is it so much to ask that we transfer our stiffness from our backsides to our laps?

I don’t mean to insult the VSO, even with such a viciously obnoxious tone. (This is the last time I will use it.) The VSO is deeply skilled at what it does, and more share its passion than my distrust. I just can’t get behind it. If you want “classical” music, why not African music? Traditional Saharan music? Is jazz too lively? The difference between classical music and jazz, or hip hop, rock ‘n’ roll, blues, even reggae or folk, just seems like the difference between love and artistocracy.