what’s the difference between a symphony in detroit and a symphony anywhere else?

…it turns out the answer is the Ford Motor Company.

Last night I went to see the Detroit Symphony Orchestra perform, and there was a large car in the lobby. Also a Ford representative spoke beforehand about the company’s long-time sponsorship of the symphony. Oh and the drive to the hall included a trip through an industrial complex so enormous it reminded me of an industrial Lord of the Rings landscape (like there were factory smokestacks spewing fiery fumes and stuff…it was intense).

In short, Detroit is crazy, and their symphony is crazy good.

The program started off with two pieces by Richard Strauss. The first was a Serenade for Wind Instruments, which was lovely. It was composed when Strauss was only 16 years old, so it’s among the more traditional or even conservative of his compositions – full of perfectly woven, lushly Romantic harmonies. Next was a more familiar piece, the tone poem Tod und Verklärung – Death and Transfiguration. Strauss was a student of philosophy and it shows – his best moments feel like they contain all the wisdom and brilliance of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche with about a millions times the transcendence. Strauss is no easy feat for an orchestra but watching this performance was like being transported somewhere else.

The program closed with a performance of Mozart’s Requiem, the composer’s final work, complete with a full chorus and four solo vocalists. It was beautifully performed as well, though I feel like in any requiem nothing is ever quite as exciting as the “Day of Wrath” section, which happens kind of early on.

It was the first time in a long time that I’d been to a performance like this, and it was one of the most cathartic experiences I’ve had since returning from Morocco. It’s amazing to me what people can do together; amazing to see a hundred highly trained artists so highly attuned to one another, and amazing to see hundreds and hundreds of people gathering simply to hear them play. So many people crammed into one room, and all quietly focused on one thing at a time. It’s not your typical everyday American experience, and yet it happens every day in America. It was a reminder of many of the things I missed while I was abroad – parts of myself and parts of my culture – and in many ways it made me feel like last night, for the first time in a long long time, I was home.

The drive home through the rain, past that menacing industrial smokestack (which was still spouting fire), was a reminder of the things we have in common: that in a city as new and foreign and strange to me as any, in a corner of our country I am just getting to know, there are more than enough chances to celebrate humanity in profound ways. And that is a comforting thought.


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