On a cold, blustery January night, I slammed my car door shut, pulled up my hood, and shuffled through the McKinley High School parking lot with an eye on the warm yellow light of the entryway doors. In the midst of its 75th season, tonight the Canton Symphony Orchestra welcomed pianist Andre Watts. Not sleet, snow, wind nor ice would keep serious concertgoers from missing this one.
Although not the glitz and glam of a stand-alone concert venue, a top rate experience awaits ticket holders inside the newly renovated Umstattd Hall. I should know, I’ve sat in nearly every section. Upper, lower, left, right. Since I go by myself (my husband can’t sit still that long) I originally bought flex tix and got to “test drive” various individual seats as they came available. I liked the lower center left section so much that I upgraded to season tickets and have claimed seat P-25 for the past 6 years. I settled into that familiar spot and waited for friends Susie and Joe to arrive.
Canton Symphony Orchestra is one of the best orchestras of its size in the country, and for two solid reasons. First, Gerhardt Zimmermann, Music Director, has been with us for over 30 years. This is almost unheard of. For a conductor to stay loyal to one particular orchestra is quite rare. His allegiance to CSO is in direct correlation to reason number two — CSO is a hot bed of talent, directly tied to superb music schools in northern Ohio. Cleveland Institute of Music, Oberlin. Graduates from top schools find their way onto the stage at Umstattd Hall.
That stage was now abuzz. A polite cacophony of noise wafted through the venue as musicians freely ran through difficult phrases, warmed up fingers, and fine-tuned instruments. Susie and Joe arrived and we chatted until the lights dimmed. I quickly opened my Program Notes to the evening’s agenda, folded the magazine and placed it firmly in my lap. I didn’t want to be the one who, halfway through the concert gets a little too complacent then BAM! the magazine slips onto the floor and lands with a “pop” that magnified in the arena of a concert hall has the effect of a shot gun going off. Nope not on my watch. That magazine was staying put.
Lauren Roth, first chair violin, walked on stage. Applause broke out. She acknowledged the audience, turned to the orchestra and, still standing, played “open A”. The orchestra responded by tuning their instruments to hers. She sat down, they grew quiet, and Gerhardt walked in. More applause, this time louder. Canton loves GZ.
Those not familiar with symphony concerts may find the antics of a conductor distracting. Some conductors are less flamboyant in their movements, some more so. I recall taking a friend to a concert and afterwards he wondered aloud, “Why does the orchestra do all the work yet the conductor gets the most applause?” It’s the conductor who keeps the music together, moves it forward, creates it. Every dramatic swell, deep pause, burst of percussion or tap of staccato is shaped by the conductor. It might not seem like it, but every musician is watching that baton. The skill of the musicians and direction of the conductor determine the final sound.
Tonight’s concert opened with Dubussy and Ravel, subtle and flowing pieces that calmed the mind and geared the audience towards the second half. Anticipation grew as the large piano was wheeled front and center during intermission.
Again the lights dimmed, we took are seats, and guest soloist, Andre Watts walked out to applause. And this, for me, is when the fun begins. It’s when I “clock out of life”, at least for a little while, and recede into a small dark bubble. Joe and Susie disappear, my to-do list disappears, everyday stresses and obligations disappear, the room physically darkens around me, I nestle deeper into the chair, and my eyes and ears focus on nothing but the musicians in front of me. It might be a particular piece I’m anticipating, or a favorite musician. Different than a rock concert, I can tune out much of everything else and experience incredible music created right in front of me. This is what I love most about the symphony.
Andre walked swiftly to center stage, cut off our applause, sat down at the piano and immediately began to play. Symphonic Variations by Franck started off grave and steady then grew in complexity. Wearing a dark suit, Andre appeared large over the piano, but his hands, well – they seemed to take on a life of their own. At times they raced up and down, spilling over one another, an absolute blur. They flew up into the air, fingers splayed, then in a dash were flung down by his sides. They dangled there for a second, as if to take a breath, then it was up on the keys again and back at it. Single notes and thrilling runs. Sometimes the hands, still moving, lifted up from the keys and danced in mid-air. Out of this furious cartoon jumble of movement an incredible body of notes rose up, pure, distinct and beautiful.
We were enthralled. Engaged. Amazed.
After this particular concert, a reception open to all, was held at The Canton Club. Concertgoers arrived first, ordered a drink, and filled plates with diverse offerings from Executive Chef Kent Welsh. Gerhardt arrived with wife Sharon, and then Andre. We applauded. He smiled. What an opportunity to see him up close after the performance.
Canton Symphony concerts are a way to unwind, relax, listen to world-class music, and see top performers. Experiencing Gerhardt’s interaction with the musicians takes it up a couple notches more. Like orchestras across the U.S., CSO offers much for a new and younger audience. I see children, students, and young professionals regularly. There are opportunities for pre-concert dinners, post-concert drinks, and sometimes, like tonight, opportunities to meet performers and talk to them in a casual setting. I won’t go into details or even the subject matter of the table talk that occurred between Gerhardt, CSO staff, and fellow concertgoers during our post-concert dinner at The Canton Club. Let’s just say it was full of laughter and far from stuffy. The notion that concertgoers, or even musicians are snobby is a stereotype that is sometimes hard to shake. There is protocol and discretion yes, but only to enhance the experience.
See for yourself. Buy a ticket, settle in, and focus on one of the top-rated orchestras of its size in the country. The Canton Symphony Orchestra has educational outreach programs, MasterWorks and Casual Series, and many other opportunities. Learn more at CantonSymphony.org.