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A healthy music performance

Back in September, some generous and thoughtful friends invited me to the Opening Gala concert at Lincoln Center: a performance of Alan Gilbert conducting the New York Philharmonic. Yo-Yo Ma, Michael Ward-Bergeman (incredible accordian player), and Jamey Haddad and Cyro Baptista (both mind-blowing percussionists) were soloists on the bill.

There is nothing quite as powerful and moving as a live symphony orchestra. And the NY Phil, under this fine conductor, has to be among one of the best in the world. I was ten rows from the stage, could see every expression of joy and encouragement on Yo Yo Ma’s face, was mesmerized by Alan Gilbert’s movements, and experienced shivers down my spine on several occasions, which is no small feat.

What stood out?

Yo-Yo Ma is so good that he risks sounding ugly. He takes musical risks like no one else I’ve seen – with complete absorption and pleasure in the music he and his fellow musicians are making. It’s authentic. And that’s why he is the most famous classical musician alive or dead (I have no data to back this up, but it has to be true).

I can’t help it: when I listen to live music, I think of the health of the performer. I like to think that Yo-Yo Ma is an emotionally and psychologically healthy human being. Why? Because I hear and see it in his playing, and in the way he invites others into his musical world with a smile of encouragement, or a gaze of appreciation. He invites risk taking and even imperfection (in my opinion, an essential part of every live performance that makes the music alive and touching). He has enough skill, and enough confidence, that he is not proving himself – he is deeply inside the music, and believes so fully in what he is doing. And the sound that he makes cannot be described in words, although I’ll try – sweet, shivering, wailing, helpless, bounding, terrible, filling, inviting, passionate, full, crying, joyful, reckless. He has access to many states of being within him, and you can hear his rich inner world in his music.

I loved watching and listening to him more than I’ve loved a lot of things lately. And then the performance ended, and he and everyone else took a bow. And I saw the difference between the soloists and the orchestral musicians. I was right in front of the second violin section (which Gilbert places on the right of the orchestra), and not one person cracked a smile during the standing ovation for the second piece…or the third…it was only after the last piece that a saw a couple of smiles, presumably because they get to go home.

Not so for the viola section, led by Cynthia Phelps – she really appears to enjoy her job, seems to be completely absorbed in the pleasure of the music, and she invites her section to follow suit. They really seemed to be enjoying it!

Now, I have sympathy for the poor second violinists – most orchestral musicians are overworked, exhausted, under-paid, and truly frustrated artists. The soloists get to be themselves totally; the orchestral musicians (especially toward the rear of the section) generally feel ignored, and unheard and they usually have zero creative agency. However, I think an important sign of health is a person’s ability to allow themselves to experience the pleasure of the art that they are hearing, or seeing, or even creating. Health is (and this is only part-definition) the ability to surrender to beauty despite other stressors, difficult life events, mental or physical “illness” etc. Granted, beauty is subjective, but there was a objective beauty about the experience, evidenced by the soloists and the audience’s experience. I wanted to shout to the second violin section: “Come to music therapy and I’ll help you feel pleasure again, in the wondrous music you’re making!” Oh, that some of them might read my blog!