by Ben Shine
In 1997, a dear friend introduced me to one of the most compelling pieces of music of any genre or style that I've ever experienced. It was Górecki's Third Symphony. As she had described it, this "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" was mesmerizing. I, along with a lot of other people, loved it. It is one of the best-selling modern classical works.
I loved it, but I did not expect that this piece -- a slow swirl of layered sound with long bowed notes, punctuated by a powerful voice and occasional percussion -- would likely be performed by my hometown symphony. Pops are, by definition, quite popular with Indianapolis audiences. And of course, Symphony on the Prairie is a great way to spend a summer evening. Modern classical music can be challenging. Górecki's Third, which highlights the sometimes heartbreaking link between mother and child, explores death and references the poetic last words of a Gestapo victim, is not necessarily going to sell out a performance. I may have dreamed that I would get to see it live one day, but I never envisioned that it would be here.
Maybe, yes, dreams do come true. And sometimes, reality happens and it's maybe better than the dreams. But they only happen if you're open to them.
The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra not only played Górecki's Third on Feb. 28, along with two other pieces by Polish composers, the ISO offered 20 audience members, including me, a chance to be a part of the show.
Right before the concert started, after the musicians had tuned their instruments, Krzysztof Urbański hopped on the podium, and began describing the first piece the orchestra would perform, Krzesany by Wojciech Kilar. In a surprise move, he asked if anyone wanted to play percussion with the symphony that night. My hand shot up immediately. I couldn't help it. An usher pointed at me, hustled me out of my seat and led me, along with 19 other volunteers, down one set of stairs and up another. We lined up in the back row of the stage terrace seats, where we got directions from Urbański himself about how to use the percussive instruments that were laid out in front of us. I grabbed the tambourine in front of me. Others had cowbells, sleigh bells and all sorts of noisemakers.
Not only did Urbański offer us a very special experience, he did it in a playful and welcoming way. He practiced with us for a few minutes, teaching us when to start and how to stop. Understanding that not everyone knows the visual language of a conductor, he signaled us to start playing, not with a baton, but with what looked like one of those little red flags that utility companies use to prevent homeowners from hitting a gas line buried beneath their lawn. We closed, with the rest of the orchestra, with a more traditional conducting move. So, we got to learn, if we didn't already know, how conductors get everyone to stop all at once. We were supposed to sound like the ruckus of a market, and Urbański said we did a pretty good job. I think we nailed it.
It was fun to play along with the orchestra, and to hear them from that special spot. I didn't just hear, but felt the music in a more physical way. But it was even more extraordinary to watch Urbański direct the music. His movements were flowing, leading everyone into it in subtle and invitational ways. He had the face of a sort of thin, happy Buddha -- focused, with the smallest glimmer of a smile and a great deal of depth.
For me, that trip to the symphony was more than a fun night. It's reflective of what it's been like to grow up here, have dreams and grudges about what it could be but wasn't, and see a lot of those things actually start to happen. Even more, though, it's about the things I didn't even think of but that make it amazing to be here now. Did I imagine that we'd have an incredibly young, smart, challenging, thoughtful, fun Music Director at the ISO? Nope. I thought we'd be Brahms and Bach and pops, and that would be good enough. I just hoped I could afford the tickets more easily.
Instead, I live in a city that has an Urbański-era ISO, which invites a soloist like Shara Worden (a constant collaborator among independent culture creators and in My Brightest Diamond, a band on local label Asthmatic Kitty Records), who performed one of my favorite compositions ever. I live in a city where much is possible, where I get to play tambourine with a world-class symphony at the start of an all-Polish lineup of challenging music (one other friend reported that her row got drowsy, but I was on the edge of my seat the entire time), with a lot of focus on sadness and death. I live in a city where things are happening that I never would even think of, and I'm glad it's not just becoming my idea of what it should be. We get to go to each other's things and enjoy a variety of dreams, because we're also a city where ego matters less than creativity, and ownership is less important than civic pride.
This is my kind of town, better than I knew it could be. More and more, it's what I most want it to be -- cool enough that all my dear friends who grew up here and left, or passed through along the way to somewhere else, might just want to move back.