Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony

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When I started my undergraduate degree at the Chicago College of Performing Arts, I didn’t know much about music, and less about being a music major. I was a very stereotypical clueless freshman. However, I did know that Symphony Center was three blocks away, and my teacher played there with the Chicago Symphony. I figured it made some amount of sense to get myself some tickets. Plus, I kind of liked symphonies, I’d probably enjoy some of the concerts.

Note to any college students reading this: You absolutely should go hear your local symphony as often as possible! However, don’t do it the way I did. I went to the box office and bought a subscription. It came out to something like $25/concert with my student ID, which really isn’t a bad price for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. However, there are better deals available. Free comp tickets have a tendency to float through the university the week before concerts, and those are far preferable to tickets you have to pay for. As a last resort, get a rush ticket at the door – in Chicago, these were only $10 each with a student ID. Admittedly there is no choice of seat for these less expensive options, but there’s educational value in that too. One time a free ticket actually put me behind the stage, sitting directly behind the trombone section. I could read their parts, see the conductor from their vantage point, and hear the balance of the orchestra as they heard it. I never would have experienced that if I had stuck to my $25/concert subscription.

Anyway, I started going to the CSO concerts every week, and I had never even considered most of the things I heard. My first or second concert there consisted of three Strauss tone poems — what an introduction! I heard Bud Herseth and Dale Clevenger sound fantastic with their sections, and I heard the symphony sound at home in everything from Handel to Carter. I watched the orchestra stay steady with Impressionistic conductors and flex to the instructions of dictatorial directors. Most notably, early in that first season, I heard them play Felix Mendelssohn’s fifth symphony, the Reformation. This piece lacks the overt drama of the late Romantics that we sometimes associate with the Chicago Symphony, but that performance shattered my previous understanding of music.

What I heard emanate from the stage was the most elegant, pure, heavenly sound I had experienced. In the last movement’s chorale, the CSO trombone section, as a unit, produced the most compelling thing I had ever heard. It was not loud, and it was not forceful. On the contrary, it was controlled and light. Even the fortissimo high Ds were unstrained. It was like I had spent my whole life eating bread pudding and tasted strawberries and cream for the first time. To this day, it remains one of the three most influential artistic experiences of my life. When I conjure in my head the ideal sound that I want to produce, the sound quality I heard in that performance is what I try to achieve.

Mendelssohn famously said that the trombone was too sacred to use often. This statement refers to the trombone’s history as a church instrument used primarily as part of liturgical choirs. Specifically, he was commenting on the feelings of supernatural awe it can evoke in culturally-appropriate environments and cautioning against diluting that association by using trombones in other roles. Here, in his setting of Martin Luther’s “Ein feste Burg,” Mendelssohn demonstrated how he liked to use the trombone section. In an explicitly liturgical context, he gave the trombone section the climax of the symphony and let them soar above the orchestra like angels.

This weekend, the Springfield Symphony Orchestra will perform Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony. It will be the first time I have performed this symphony, and I am more than excited by the opportunity. In a program with Jennifer Higdon’s Blue Cathedral and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto, it should be a stunning season opener.