The Communal Experience of Going to the Symphony for the First Time

Classical music is not for everyone. Neither is Sublime

“Although his life was difficult, to say the least, ending prematurely in madness, Robert Schumann nonetheless composed music that elevates us through its pure spirit and unique personal character.”
—From the event description for “Schumann Focus: Symphony No. 1 Piano Concerto” on the L.A. Philharmonic’s website

For two weeks I’d been bragging to all of my friends about how I was going to “get all fancy” and “go to the opera” because my girlfriend at the time owned a car and had bought me a discounted ticket. Being the uncultured swine that I am, I put on my best Vans slip-ons, a Uniqlo clearance button-down, and the faded pair of slacks I wear for retail job interviews and set out to see “Schumann Focus: Symphony No. 1 Piano Concerto.”

Robert Schumann was diagnosed with “psychotic melancholia” in 1854, two years before he died in an asylum either of syphilis, mercury poisoning, or some kind of cyst—it’s apparently still unclear. Psychotic melancholia sounds horrifying, like a German band that plays an obscure subgenre of death metal. Needless to say, I was stoked.

A post shared by Mark Ostrom (@mr_ostrom) on May 31, 2018 at 9:40am PDT

The Walt Disney Concert Hall is a fantastic monument, a perfect tribute to its wealthy namesake and the progressive politics he’s known to have espoused. Fun fact: All of the exits on the second and third floors lock upon closing, so if you want to go outside for a cigarette or a pull from your weed pen, be vigilant or you will have to re-enter the hall in the most embarrassing way possible, i.e. lingering around various service entrances until a concert hall employee sees that you’re just locked out and not a threat.

It didn’t dawn on me until I arrived that I’d simply be sitting and watching people play music, maybe because up until that point I’d been calling it “the opera” when it was actually “the symphony.” As my lover and companion told me prior to the performance, “It’s a communal experience. We’re all supposed to sit here and feel this thing…together.”

I tried immersing myself in the music, letting the beautiful soundscape pianist Mitsuko Uchida and conductor Gustavo Dudamel were building completely wash over me, and I think I came close. All the musicians on stage are, without a doubt, masters of their respective crafts. I looked around at everyone else in the audience and expected to see people with their eyes closed in some kind of trance or nodding appreciatively. That’s how I imagine the overeducated enjoy entertainment, by physically agreeing with everything they’re seeing and hearing. So I sat there and I experienced and felt…not much.

I’ll say this: High art isn’t for the attention-deficit disordered or the lactose intolerant. You’re not allowed to use your cell phone, and the concert hall architecture is designed so that if your phone does wind up going off, everyone will know exactly whose it was. Frank Gehry was a real sonuvabitch because this same amplification applies to the body and any sounds that may emanate from it. To put it simply, I’m a big, loud farter and I find that the acoustics of the Walt Disney Concert Hall are not kind to those of us who practice lactose intolerant stoicism. (That’s when you know and fully accept that what you’re eating will give you gas and diarrhea, so long as the food is delicious.)

We were supposed to stay after the performance for an open-bar mixer with other concertgoers in their 20s and 30s as part of the Phil’s CODA program. I’d seen enough, however, and my psychotic melancholia had started to kick in. (This is how I now refer to literally any ounce of discomfort I feel at any point.)

The next day, lover and companion and I took in a hike somewhere in Topanga State Park, and during our drive out there, Sublime’s “Santeria” came on the radio. Being a 27-year-old male with a slight “getting high and liking to party” problem, I started yell-singing the tune, as is protocol. That’s when she snapped.

“Stop singing that or get the fuck out of the car.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. We’re not in high school? Every white dude I knew in high school would play that all the time. It’s the worst fucking song and I hate it.”

“Well first off, I’m black. Second, it doesn’t make you feel, like…anything?”

“No.”

We broke up the next day. I kept asking her, “Hey, does this have anything to do with me not appreciating high art and culture?” She kept rebutting, “No, no, this is more about your inability to empathize with literally anyone,” to which I responded, “Oh, OK, yeah, that makes way more sense and is a lot more hurtful.”

I guess you could say, in a way, the symphony destroyed a burgeoning, beautiful relationship. A shame, really, but this is how we learn.

My final thoughts on the symphony? Have you ever blacked out in a bar just before closing time and for some reason you’re still there after closing even though you legally shouldn’t be and then “Santeria” starts playing and everyone else sings along because the night will likely end badly but, hey, at least you all have just this moment and that’s all you need to feel like it was worth something? That’s the communal experience I think classical music should strive for.


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