The Missoula Symphony Orchestra, keeping it together for 45 years 

“What’s he for?”

That’s the question certain members of my family are likely to ask me if I take them to the symphony. The “he” in question is the symphony conductor. (Symphony conductors are not always male, but that often is true; it’s considered a position of power, a musical CEO.)

“He keeps them all together.” That’s my quick response. Fairly meaningless, too. My companions might accept it, but their silence—as they take in the increasing agitation on the podium and listen to what seems to them to be an assaultive cacophony of sound—is dubious.

In an essay called “The Delicacy of Rock and Roll,” art critic Dave Hickey muses over this idea of togetherness in music, referring specifically to groups performing rock and jazz. He proposes that the jazz experience yearns toward freedom, but stays grounded in consensus, while rock and roll yearns toward a crashing resonance but results instead in a mash of individuation. Or something like that. Here’s his words:

“Jazz presumes that it would be nice if ... while playing this complicated song together, [we] might somehow be free and autonomous as well. Tragically, this never quite works out. At best, we can only be free one or two at a time. ... Rock-and-roll, on the other hand, presumes that ... as damaged and anti-social as we are, [we] might possibly get it together man and play this simple song. And play it right, okay? Just this once, in tune and on the beat. But we can’t. The song’s too simple and we’re too complicated and too excited ... the guitars distort, the intonation bends, and the beat just moves, imperceptibly, against our formal expectations, whether we want it to or not.

Is a symphony conductor more jazz-like or more rock-like? Is he intent on collectivizing sound, finding the groove? Or is he refereeing a sonic streetfight? Maybe it depends on what’s on the program. Maybe it depends on whether he considers a piece by Beethoven or Hindemith or Tchaikovsky to be an effort to free some musical lines while melding most of them together or “a hurricane of noise ... a fractual filigree of delicate distinctions.”

Here’s another question. What happens when a whole other element is added, in the form of a soloist? What if the soloist is both hot and cool, “a firebrand of the keyboard” (as described in The Pittsburgh Press) who plays (according to the London Times) with “glittering panache.” What about that?

The Missoula Symphony Orchestra, Joseph Henry conducting, will present the first concert of its 45th anniversary season on Saturday, Oct. 2 at 7:30 p.m. and again on Sunday, Oct. 3 at 3 p.m. at the Wilma Theatre. The concert will feature piano soloist Janina Fialkowska playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor. Also on the program are Overture in C Major, Op. 115 by Beethoven and Hindemith’s Nobilissima Visione. Tickets $7 to $21. Call 721-3194.

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