I had the opportunity, years ago, to drive my daughter and a friend to Sunday afternoon rehearsals of the Youth Orchestra of San Antonio, and made a couple notes on the big piece they worked on that year.
It was a piece I already knew pretty well, but I’d always visited it after the project was complete; witnessing the construction was a revelation.
A cathedral, once built, and barring natural or man-made disaster, can stay built for many hundreds of years. There are other masterworks that must be constructed from the ground up each time we wish to enter into them. One of these is the Brahms 2nd Symphony. Some literal-minded folks might say, “it’s not a building, Thad. It’s a piece of music.” The architectural metaphor, though, is validated, if we have the opportunity to sit in on a series of rehearsals by an orchestra of high school students—to hear it in early run-throughs, then in bits and pieces, sections separated, sometimes excruciatingly, from the whole.
There is dangerous exposed wiring, aural hazards all around, daunting challenges of execution for each bricklayer, each artisan, each horn player, each percussionist. An eloquent argument for a community’s need to support the performing arts is made here. These are students who need their teachers now more than ever. They need them not just for technical guidance but for commiseration and psychological support when facing the prospect of returning to such a job site every Sunday afternoon.
The sturdy listener can also find great entertainment here, including the seriously comical scene of the young conductor crooning the oboe line when it is not immediately forthcoming, and his valiant effort to communicate the relevance of the piece to the lives of these teenagers. It is gradual, painstaking, sometimes tearful labor, but finally the majestic edifice begins to take its familiar shape on the skyline. The players, at different rates, develop the neural pathways and the muscle memories that are required. Soon after, the circulatory systems of many of them follow the rugged trails blazed by their fingers and their lungs. From the foundation of the double bass to the stained glass of the violas and the flute’s tasteful filigree, this becomes a place where any genuine god will feel at home. No sermon is required; no one will miss the homily.
Others might say the many fine recordings that exist eliminate the need to build the piece yet again or to visit it for ourselves. Here it is helpful it to consider a symphony-specific irony. The Brahms 2nd was first performed in 1877. In that year, the All-England Lawn Tennis Championship was for the first time played at Wimbledon. Hermann Hesse was born, sundry wars pointlessly wasted thousands of Eastern European lives, and Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. The eventual result of that last development was that the unwieldy orchestral experience could be captured, like a rhinoceros in a zoo, on an increasingly sophisticated contraption and a series of new and improving petrochemical products.
Now, of course, it’s easy enough to hole up with your computer and download note-perfect and occasionally profound performances of the Brahms 2nd. You can get the Von Karajan/Berlin, the Solti/Chicago, the Bernstein/Vienna and many more. In fact, most of the great conductors and the great orchestras of the world have recorded it at least once. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves. If you decide to stay home and listen to your Deluxe Boxed-set of Furtwangler Brahms or one of the countless streaming versions instead of choosing to hear it live next time it’s performed within 100 miles of you, I have a suggestion: while you’re at it, get out those age-worn postcards that your Aunt Margaret sent you of Notre Dame Cathedral, look at those for a few minutes, and see if it feels like you’ve been there.