Thank You, Beethoven!

As a New Yorker, I have this persistent, nagging feeling that I take this great city and all it has to offer far too much for granted. We have some of the greatest museums in the world, and I rarely go. We have the greatest concerts and cultural events, and I too easily find reasons not to avail myself of their treasures. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but that’s little comfort. Sometimes, when I’m driving on the Long Island Expressway heading into Manhattan and I hit that point in the road where the entire skyline of midtown opens up before you, I reflect on the fact that people travel from all over the world to see that view… but I tend to be more focused on the traffic. Living in New York is often as much about surviving it as it is celebrating it. It takes a conscious effort to transcend survival mode.

And so it was that, happily, this past Sunday, my wife and I attended an all-Beethoven concert featuring the Budapest Festival Orchestra, under the baton of Maestro Ivan Fischer. The program was part of the 2016-17 Great Performers series of Lincoln Center. Having come upon the tickets quite by serendipity, the concert was a gift, a perfect way to spend a few hours on a winter afternoon.

I knew nothing about the Budapest Festival Orchestra when we got the tickets, and I am obliged to admit that I am far from a music critic. But my wife and I were both moved by the power and beauty of the performance. All of the pieces were beautiful, (as if Beethoven needs my praise); Symphony #1 in C major, the Piano Concerto #4 in C minor, and then, the piece de resistance, the Symphony #5 in C minor.

Beethoven’s Fifth needs no enhancement to be dramatically powerful. It stands majestically on its own. But in addition to the brilliance of the orchestra and the music, Maestro Fischer, in a magnanimous gesture, had invited some forty or so students from the Juilliard School of Music to play the remarkable fourth movement of the symphony with the orchestra. The size of the orchestra was already large, but when those students shuffled quickly onto the stage to take their places, there was essentially no room left. The sight itself was impressive, but the sound the “enhanced” orchestra produced was simply overwhelming. My wife and I were both moved to tears by the sheer beauty of what was, literally and figuratively, playing out before our eyes. “Wow,” we kept saying to ourselves. “Wow…” The applause after the performance was deafening.

That feeling of aesthetic elation followed us out onto the street. As we walked along Broadway to our car, I couldn’t help but notice that the balky, arthritic knee that had been bothering me on the way to the concert was not hurting. I have to think that the sheer pleasure and power of the music had released such a rush of endorphins into my system that the music was literally a pain reliever. I found myself utterly amazed, anew, at the power of the arts to lift the spirits, and the body, and remind us of what is the very best about our species.

But things being what they are these days, it didn’t take too long (certainly not long enough) for my mind to be drawn back to the societal reality that surrounds us. Virtually every arm of the performing arts community is involved in some kind of protest against the immigration and travel policies of our new President, from the cast of “Hamilton!” to Golden Globe winners and Oscar nominees and late-night talk show hosts. How sad, I thought, that the arts, particularly orchestral music, representing the purest form of a universal language, might also be held hostage to political considerations. We have, as a civilization, certainly been down that road before, in the dark decades of Nazi Germany. After all, the orchestra we had just listened to was a visiting ensemble, here on visas.and the program it was playing the next night was Beethoven’s Ninth. Have we reached the point where singing “Alle Menshcen werden Bruder” might be considered a subversive protest against the travel bans recently enacted?

As I contemplated this unhappy state of affairs, I was comforted when I realized that President Trump was unlikely to concern himself with questions of high culture and its politicization. The highest culture he has shown himself to reach for so far are the ratings numbers for “The Apprentice.” How very embarrassing a moment for America, not to mention for religion, when he offered encouragement to those attending an Interfaith Prayer Breakfast to pray for Arnold Schwarzenegger, now hosting the “show” Trump had to leave. Yes indeed… Beethoven is safe.

Bravo Budapest Symphony Orchestra, bravo Maestro Fischer, and of course, bravo Beethoven! You have, so magnificently, reminded me of what can, and does, rise to the top when so much of what surrounds us culturally is swimming at the bottom. I have little doubt that, ultimately, some forthcoming executive order or another will seriously threaten the government funding of the arts as “subversive.” The arts are always in danger. The National Endowment for the Arts has long been a target. But with the current team in place, it’s bound to get worse. Gird your loins for that fight…

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.
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