Summer Symphony

One delight of a blistering Philadelphia summer is the concert series of the symphony orchestra in Robin Hood Dell. Some regard mass popularity of these free outdoor concerts as evidence of the high culture of Philadelphia. Having been raised in a Philadelphia row house, I would credit the high humidity. Old residents who used to sit on the front steps now sit on a bench in the park and cool off to music.

Beethoven, Brahms, Strauss, or Stravinsky—it’s all cool music as it comes floating back from the twelve speakers of the orchestra shell. Starlings and sparrows plunge into the sunset through the rising waterfall of melody, while the flag begins to ripple above the violins. Colorful patches of people on the hillside across the Dell compose a Seurat painting in the stillness. As the light fades, they become a misty vision by Monet; at last only cigarette-lighter fireflies punctuate the darkness.

Under the stage lights a pianist is playing, his fingers flying with the blurring beat of insect wings, and escapes the pounce of the brasses. His ecstasy subsides and the clear silence of thousands hangs on two fingers twinkling in an upper octave of the keyboard.

The concluding coda of the full orchestra breaks the spell, and the magic ends in applause. The stadium lights go up. Vendors leap into the aisles: “Who’ll hev ize crim, body-buildin’ ize crim.…” The intermission crush presses a bearded student against a portly woman in a purple dress, purple earrings and a purple pansy hat.

Yet I know that somehow Beethoven has put a religious question, perhaps in spite of himself. Music is more than summer mystique, and it is also more than cooling reverie. It opens meaning for man.

After the intermission the orchestra played ...

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