by Brinton Averil Smith
In May, 2014, Brinton Averil Smith, Principal Cellist of the Houston Symphony, addressed the board and trustees of his great orchestra. His inspiring speech is reposted below with the author's permission.
Ladies and Gentleman of the Houston Symphony family, on behalf of all our musicians, thank you for joining us and welcome at this momentous time in our history. The last 100 years have seen vast changes, but there are still people in this room who knew Miss Ima Hogg. Who could have imagined 100 years ago, when she began a project to bring music to her small city, that her act of faith would grow to become an internationally renown institution serving every citizen of our booming metropolis?
In truth, the degree of success we are enjoying today on so many levels was hard to fully imagine even 8 years ago when I moved here. That was a challenging time, but I was drawn by the passion I saw in the orchestra here, and by the optimism and energy I saw in this city. Houston struck me as a place where people still believe the future is theirs to build, and build it you have.
When I attend board meetings these days I am amazed by how much activity is going on; how the orchestra is planning for the future, and reaching into every part of our city. The criticisms that are often leveled at American orchestras – that they are exclusionary, isolated, out of date or out of touch - are all dispelled by the work we are doing here. We aren’t waiting for a crisis to build relationships throughout our city, or to open our doors and share our music with the broadest range of our population, or to send musicians to bring music into our schools and hospitals. We are doing it now, in good times, because we believe in it. I have not seen a better staffed, better run orchestra anywhere than what you see here today, and I’m extremely proud of our team and all they are doing.
You know already how well the orchestra is playing today. I believe I can say without exaggeration that some musicians in this orchestra are truly among the very best in the world at what they do. And with our growing reputation it can get even better as we add new musicians in the coming years. We are about to embark on a new era with Andrés Orozco-Estrada. His intelligence, charm and blend of European and South American cultures sounds like a marketer’s fantasy, but only great musicianship wins the hearts of the musicians, as he has. I’ve had the good fortune to have worked with almost all the top conductors of my era, and Andrés is one of the most talented and exciting conductors I’ve ever worked with. His time with us could become the symphony’s greatest era yet.
As I conclude my years as a musician’s board representative, it has been humbling to witness how hard and how devotedly our board works for our symphony. It is inspiring to see our leading citizens give so freely, not only of their money but also of their intensely valuable time, thought and energy to build the institution. Your devotion to this cause is a profound testament to the power of what we do. In many other orchestras, musicians rarely, if ever, interact with the board members outside of negotiations. It’s not surprising, then, that each views the other with suspicion and mistrust. In Houston, our musicians and board members are not only well acquainted, but in many cases we are good friends. We celebrate together, know each other’s children and grandchildren - in some cases, we even know each other’s dogs! Familiarity brings mutual respect and an understanding of how vital both our roles are to achieve our common purpose. It doesn’t immunize us against hard times, but it does mean that whatever comes, we can meet it together, with mutual respect and true friendship. So, on behalf of the musicians, thank you to all of you on the board for your devotion and generosity to our mutual cause.
This centennial season has flown by and, for all the amazing concerts of this past year - our televised centennial at Miller Theatre, Renée Fleming on opening night, Yo-Yo Ma and John Williams, Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand, and so many more - there is no concert that better demonstrates the special teamwork between musicians, management and board than the one that wasn’t planned at all. When weather grounded Linda Eder, canceling our Valentine’s Day concert and leaving hundreds of disappointed fans with no plans for Valentine’s night, our management worked overtime to put together and advertise a last minute, free concert of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. To pull it off, musicians had to agree to rehearse and perform on the spur of the moment, some voluntarily returning from their scheduled leave. John Rydman of Spec’s quickly and generously agreed to cover the additional costs, and with less than 24 hours notice, management scrambled to try to get the word out about the free concert. We went onstage that night not knowing whether to expect 20 or 200 people in the audience. Instead, amazingly, the hall was packed - families with their children, young couples on Valentine’s dates, Linda Eder fans, people who had never been to Jones Hall before and some of our symphony regulars as well - all joined together for a moment of great music on a night that otherwise would have been a disappointment and a dark hall. It was not the most prestigious concert I’ve played with the Houston Symphony, but it was my proudest moment as a member of this organization.
We know future challenges will come. Economies go up and down, generations change, technology changes and institutions must change with them. If we want to meet the challenge of Miss Ima and pass on a thriving symphony and musical culture to our descendants 100 years from now, we will need to be forward thinking, flexible and innovative, and we will need support. It is the endowment that best helps institutions weather the hard times and I believe building our endowment is the single greatest step we can take to assuring this institution’s future.
This is an interesting time for classical music. In the west, it has all but disappeared from the mass media, aside for articles announcing its demise. But similar articles written 50 and 150 years ago prove that ‘imminently dying’ is one of classical music’s longest running traditions! And yet, today, there are more orchestras in the US and around the world than ever before. For an orchestra, a ‘good’ year has always been one in which benefactors subsidize the difference between expenses and ticket revenue. But this is true for many public service institutions - what would the admission price be at an art museum if they had to fund all their acquisitions solely through entrance fees? What would tuition be at a university without donors and an endowment? And these institutions are considered to be thriving.
Another argument you often hear is the implication that music written by ‘dead, white, European, males’ will have little place in our increasingly multi-cultural society. This argument rather condescendingly assumes that instead of cultures melding together, combining the best of what each has to offer, that each culture must live ‘separate but equally’ and enjoy only their own music. Fortunately, reality doesn’t care about the opinions of arts journalists, and classical music has never been more popular with more people, in more cultures, around the world than it is at this moment. Japan and Korea are major established centers of classical music. In China, nearly 100 million people are studying classical instruments and their biggest stars play in sold out stadiums. South America is rising fast, not just with El Sistema in Venezuela, or Andrés’ Colombia, but throughout the continent. Astoundingly, even in a desolate Paraguayan slum, children raised in the most dire circumstances are changing lives, playing in an orchestra with instruments constructed out of salvage from a trash dump. I urge you to watch this so called “Landfillharmonic” video and see the passion in their eyes. I saw a similar passion first-hand in Natal, Brazil last year, where one of the students who played for me sold fruit by the freeway during the day so that he could afford to study the cello.
In the middle east, Qatar has begun an major orchestra, and a few years ago I met volunteer musicians from the Iraqi National Symphony who literally risk being shot on sight for carrying their ‘Western’ instruments to rehearsal, but refuse to give it up. India and even Africa are beginning to awaken too. Today in perhaps the most unlikely place in the world, in Kinshasa in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo, a volunteer orchestra with almost no outside direction trained themselves to play their instruments to the point where they are performing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony quite well. They rehearse almost every day, with some of the volunteer musicians walking for hours through dangerous countryside in order to get to rehearsal. If you watch the 60 minutes story you can see their intense dedication and poignant joy amidst the outside chaos of their war torn country. If you need any further proof that truly great music - no matter who wrote it, or when - is the one immortal language that binds us all, just look into the eyes of those children in Paraguay, or the volunteer musicians in the Congo, or of the young students we work with here in Houston.
A symphony is not designed for efficiency. It requires up to a hundred highly-trained virtuosi from around the world to come together and rehearse a program for a week, in order to play it for just a few thousand people. Some in that evening’s audience may have a truly transcendent experience, but how much time and how many resources were invested to bring them there? Could it be worth it?
I love the space program and often think about what it must have been like for Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard to be the first human eyes to see the Earth from space. How many billions of dollars, how many lives and resources were invested just to bring just these two people to that one moment? And yet as they viewed, for the first time ever, a single vision of the entire world, where every human, every thought, every nation, every people in history has lived…as they absorbed that view, it revealed for all of us a new outlook on our world - a fundamental truth that had always existed, but which we had never truly understood until that moment.
In a different way, great music can do the same thing. When you find that moment - that musical epiphany - it changes your view of the world. When you realize that the sounds that move you at this moment similarly moved men and women distant from you in language, culture and time, then the eternal nature of its beauty reveals a deeper reality, beyond the confines of our own consciousness. Somerset Maugham once wrote “Each one of us is alone in the world. He is shut in a tower of brass, and can communicate with his fellows only by signs, and the signs have no common value, so that their sense is vague and uncertain. We seek pitifully to convey to others the treasures of our heart, but they have not the power to accept them, and so we go lonely, side by side but not together, unable to know our fellows and unknown by them.” We are shut off, alone inside our minds, but where words fail, music is the sole common value that can pierce those towers and convey the treasures of our hearts.
I wish I could share with you the experience of what it is like to play music. We spend our entire lives trying to improve, to get closer to the ideal. Clumsy human hands and mind never do it true justice, but as you inch closer, you begin to sense the existence of a perfect beauty, even if you can’t entirely make it real. Just as Michelangelo quipped that he started with a block of marble and simply removed everything that wasn’t David, so we begin to understand that the composition is not the origin of beauty, but rather that it is making concrete a beauty that already existed unseen in the world. As a performer, you try to capture that essence and share it with the audience, and if you do come close for a moment, it is a feeling of transcendence. You have slipped your earth-bound vision and briefly glimpsed a higher truth, and at that moment you, your ego, your instrument or any of your worldly problems don’t matter.
In a time of unprecedented wealth, health and longevity we have many noble charities dedicated to enriching public health and income around the world, and these are wonderful, deserving causes. But it will be a tragedy for our age if we fail to support the spiritual side of life as well. Ultimately, our brief lives are measured in quality more than quantity. Today we are lucky enough to live far longer than even our grandparents, and we have access to comfort, technology and information beyond their wildest dreams. And yet somehow we seem to allow ourselves to feel much less; we shy away from dreams of beauty, from bold passions. We live in an age where cynicism passes for philosophy, irony debilitates art, lust supplants romance, and it is considered naïve to think that there could be more meaning to our consciousness than a mere a series of electrical impulses in our brains. I love science, but the greatest scientists I know are not jaded by what is already discovered, but humbled and impassioned by the profundity, complexity and beauty of our universe. This also is my feeling about music. If you believe that the gift of culture is meant to uplift souls and open minds, then we must stand together now and find a way to cut through the noise of modern life, to convey this gift to the next generation. It may be the most important thing we could ever give them.
Let me end with words from one of the people I admire most. Alice Herz-Sommer died this year. Born in 1903, she was, at 110 years old, the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor. Alice was also the world’s oldest pianist. She said of her time living in terror and starvation in the Teresienstadt camp, “Whenever I knew that I had a concert, I was happy. Music is magic. We performed in the council hall before an audience of 150 old, hopeless, sick and hungry people. They lived for the music. It was like food to them. If they hadn’t come [to hear us], they would have died long before. As we would have.” Alice was an amazing and profound woman. “Only when we are so old, only [then], are we aware of the beauty of life” she said. She practiced for hours every day until the end, finding more meaning and beauty in music with every passing year. Alice lost most of her family, and her entire world in the camps. She faced things no one ever should have to, and yet she lived a life of gratitude and profound happiness, because in music she found beauty and true joy. Ladies and gentleman, I wish for you, for your loved ones and for all those who will live in this city during the next 100 years the same joy and beauty that Alice had in her life. Thank you for all you do to make it possible…