My turn: Symphony musicians not only skilled - they're amazing

Posted: Wednesday, February 18, 2009

"Kudos" isn't really the word here. In fact, I'm searching for a word that might cut it, and while the colorful nouns and adverbs (I'm French, you know) normally issue forth from my mouth to the utter annoyance of all, today all I can say is - well, wow.

I don't know if folks knew, but we have a symphony orchestra in Juneau. Honest. It is not a happy-go-lucky group of Sunday plinkers and screechers like most towns this size have, but a well-organized, skillful ensemble with excellent musicians and artists that command the admiration of any music lover - which is an affliction I happen to suffer from, and I'm afraid it's incurable.

I'm not going to dwell on what it used to be like to attend the local symphony. Suffice it to say that the term "amateur" no longer applies, except perhaps in the technical sense that most of the members of our orchestra rely on other sources of income to buy shoes for their kids.

Usually, in a town that counts only 30,000 people, the opportunity to play some music from time to time is enough. And the result, while not perfect, procures pleasure in itself to the instrumentalists and their families. Meanwhile, people who are accustomed to attending concerts in larger cities like London or Paris, played by professional orchestras, cannot help but go home hungry and focus on enjoying the perks of living in a small town - no traffic jams, no high crime rate, affordable housing - OK, scratch that last one.

Today I'm here to tell you that, judging by the last concert given by the symphony, music has become, on its own, a reason to move here. I very recently took part in concerts in cities more than 10 times the size of Juneau, and the verdict is clear - the Juneau Symphony comes out ahead, hands down.

Not that there was a competition going on, but you can go to a concert in Juneau and benefit from a performance every bit as good, and quite often better, than that which you would experience in a much larger town with more means and a larger pool of musicians to draw from.

Last weekend, for the first time, instead of making a mental inventory of the various mistakes and mishaps that typically plague performances of lesser orchestras (annoying, I know, but when music is your passion you can't help it), I was able to lose myself completely in the program and enjoy each piece to the fullest: The Kodály dances, which I hadn't heard before, were a superb choice by our very own Todd Hunt. I'm very happy to see the local Symphony featuring this accomplished conductor, for whom I have always had great respect and who can draw great sound out of small groups like no one else's business.

The Mendelssohn, which I have been in love with since I was a teenager, featured a somewhat nervous Franz Felkl who nonetheless plunged us in the magic of this piece, leaving us screaming for the other two movements at the end; and finally, the Shostakovich 5th, well, ha, hmm.

There is a very difficult moment at the end of the second or third movement, I'm sorry I didn't write it down; I had my eyes closed at the time. The whole orchestra seemed to hold its breath ... for me it was like time itself was holding back. I say difficult, because it can't be easy to hit that fine musical target. It would be difficult for a soloist, let alone for 50 people synchronized and coordinated. With those few bars, the Juneau Symphony categorically demonstrated that they could take on the best that music can offer. I don't remember how much I paid for my ticket, but it wasn't enough.

Something I want to share with non-musicians: Music is a world that everyone can be a part of. Excellence in music can be achieved by everyone because the foundation of good music is practice, practice, practice. There are talented musicians, but if they don't practice they quickly turn into talented annoyances. It is very obvious to me that the musicians of the Juneau Symphony have embraced this fundamental principle. And, first through the competent leadership of Todd Hunt and Kyle Pickett, and then through their dedication of time and hard work, they have risen to a new level, one which opens the door to many wonderful musical gifts for our community. Thanks, all - keep up the amazing, mind-blowingly good work.

• Philippe Damerval is a musician and Juneau resident.

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