All the feels.
It’s a trite phrase, but when so many layers of significance intersect as they did precisely 24 hours ago, it sometimes defies eloquence. At the time, it was a good description.
Those of you who are not Latin scholars may not know the word numinosity. Per the Urban Dictionary:
1. Of or relating to a numen; supernatural.
2. Filled with or characterized by a sense of a supernatural presence: a numinous place.
3. Spiritually elevated; sublime.
4. arousing spiritual or religious emotions
5. mysterious or awe-inspiring
When you make the decision to attend a performance of a piece of music that literally changed your life, in the city of your birth, at the turn of the year, in clothing you have made by your own hand, in the very theatre where you once walked, from a stage from which you spoke as a valedictorian, you’re setting yourself up for a numinous experience. I love the sound of the word, particularly its similarity in sound to the word luminosity, which has to do with light. Numinosity is darker, more mysterious, more a mix of light and shadow, sound and silence.
I am not a religious person, although I have a Christian religious upbringing that has moulded, to some extent, my perception of the sublime. Wherever I go, I feel history all around me, and the infinite above me, the noise of time, the dance of the hours and millenia. As day dips into night, I feel the play of light and shadow, the stars above, the artificial constellations of humanity below. I believe in what I can see and feel that which lies beyond.
Sometimes the universe speaks its mysteries to those who would listen.
I have planned since April of last year that I would be in Columbus on the fifth day of January, 2019. (I would say I have known, but the future is never truly known; there is always uncertainty, even with ticket in hand and hotel reservations made). It was literally the day after I saw my first Shostakovich symphony live, in April (an event which itself rode the precipice of cancellation, as a snow and ice storm had hit the day before) that I decided to cast my net wider than Ontario and began Googling to see any orchestra within driving distance had any Shostakovich on their upcoming season. The first that I checked: the Columbus Symphony. And it was the Seventh, the Leningrad, the one that had started this obsession for me. I hadn’t been home–because it still is home, even if there is no physical presence of that word for me in Columbus any more–since the fall of 2016, and the reasons why were part of the larger story. In so many ways, I felt betrayed by my own country after the elections of that year. Things I had believed in–with a fair bit of realism and sometimes cynicism, to be sure–but yes, believed in–seemed to have had their foundations ripped asunder.
I felt lost, as much as that small voice in my head told me “You knew these truths in 1990, even if you did not know them. That is why you came to Canada.”
Yes, yes. But I have also heard Syrian refugees, safe from the omnipresent spectre of warfare, also express the desire for their homeland, even as they embrace their new life. What had happened in the US was nothing so drastic. So why did it hit me so hard?
Perhaps it was because it intersected with my own fiftieth birthday, just as I was questioning myself about my own life, about the clock that ticked more loudly these days, of dreams lost or altered or subsumed by the practicalities of existence. The sacrifice of joy and the prospect of great sorrow for contentment. The seeming insistence by society that one’s life is defined by one’s career (or for women, in particular, by one’s children, of which I had none). There was a hole there. Not so much an abyss, but a blankness, a numbness, as if I had lost the ability to express these things.
I have written about all of this before, a little less than a year ago. (Those posts, which predate this blog, have all been uploaded here). Suffice it to say that reading a book about the Siege of Leningrad and Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony reopened up, first, a history rabbit hole that dated back to elementary school, and then, a musical one that is nowhere near exhaustion. At the conclusion of the book, I found the symphony on YouTube and listened to it for the first time, imagining, visualizing the history in every note.
There are other pieces of music that evoke historical events, yes. Most were written years after the events in question. Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony was written during those events, finished in the very darkest December days of the blockade, rehearsed and premiered in the city now known as Samara on March 5–yes, my birthday; yes, also the date that, 22 years later, Stalin would die. (Dates are meaningless, but they are also not.) The same symphony premiered in Leningrad itself on the ninth of August later that year, the day Hitler had claimed he would dine at the Astoria hotel in that city. (Also the day that, 33 years later, Shostakovich himself would die.)
It is not exaggerating to say that this all changed my life, and most significantly because for whatever reason, I found words again, and the more I listened–branching out beyond just the Seventh to first discover (or rediscover) all of Shostakovich’s symphonies, and then the concertos, the quartets, the operas, the chamber works, the Preludes and Fugues, the film scores, and the sparkling ballet and dance tunes–the more I found expression in words.
So yes, when I found that concert listing, I knew. Columbus was drawing me back. Back to a place with its own significance to me, to intersect with the more recent significance of the music. The Columbus Symphony had been the first orchestra I had ever seen live. My former violin teacher is still a member. The Ohio Theater had been a gorgeous palace of film and vaudeville, neglected, and then restored to its former glory within my lifetime. And I had walked that stage, indeed spoken from it–my high school graduation was held there, and I was one of the valedictorians.
I wrote two days ago of the changes within a familiar framework I saw in Columbus. The Ohio Theater, across from the Statehouse, is unchanged, but all around it, Downtown is morphing. Lazarus, the storied department store of my youth, has vanished, and so has Columbus City Center, the shopping center that once promised to save Downtown. That promise was unfulfilled, but yet, Downtown is resurgent–but not what it once was. Condos and hip restaurants now stand where department stores once held mid-century dominance.
I wore my 1939 style dress with appropriate accessories and underpinnings and makeup, curling my bobbed hair into something looking like a 40s do. The dress felt right. It hadn’t originally been planned for this concert, but it was done at the right time, and so it was. I also have certain pieces of jewellery, pieces with meaning, that I wear on numinous occasions, though concealed. They were there.
I arrived early enough to hear the pre-concert talk with one of the symphony’s violinists, who had grown up in the Soviet Union, and music director Rossen Milanov. Coming into the theater, I noticed how everywhere there were stars–stars of eight points, the same as my earrings. I was reminded of the sumptuous beauty of the place, with its deep red walls constellated with gold stars. (Yes, really). Gradually the audience arrived, a sold-out show.
When the music came, it was all and more than I had expected. It was clear from the pre-concert talk that conductor Milanov holds the music of Shostakovich very dear (reading the program notes, it mentioned he has conducted the star-crossed opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which says a thousand unsaid words). Shostakovich is sometimes accused of bombast, particularly in the Seventh, but what I took home was the quiet contrasts of the work. I listen to most of my music in the car or on headphones, and these contrasts can be made less obvious by the fact that I have to increase the volume to hear the quietest bits over the ambient noise. In a concert situation (the guy behind me that coughed approximately every three minutes notwithstanding), the full range is more apparent. And the famous “invasion theme” was so soft as to be barely audible the first time through. Twelve repetitions later, all 104 musicians on stage were playing at full volume, and the tempo accelerated. And then, as if exhausted, it all collapses and woodwinds sing a lonely song over short, staccato piano chords that have always reminded me of the far-off sound of anti-aircraft guns.
The final movement started off a little more slowly than I am used to hearing, and as I result lost a little of its urge and frenetic energy. But perhaps that is a thing. The orchestra, at this point, has been playing for over fifty minutes, and descriptions of the first performance in Leningrad state that the emaciated, starving musicians could barely get through the entire symphony–but somehow, in that final movement, found the strength to hold out, to continue. Some even stood up in defiance of hunger and fear to give their last ounce of strength to the final notes. As did the back row of brass in this performance–and then I remembered, and I quietly lost my shit. I have never, ever cried at a concert before.
Unlike at that performance in Leningrad, there was no silence before the thunderous applause, the standing ovation, the shouts and cheers. I never know, when listening to a Shostakovich performance, whether the rest of the audience is “getting it.” (Unlike Beethoven. Everyone gets Beethoven. Certainly everyone at a Beethoven concert does). I really should disabuse myself of this idea, because people get it. How could you not get it? Even if you are not intimately acquainted with the entirety of the story like I am. It’s there in the music, if you have ears to hear.
They were giving out free vodka samples right after the performance, and I drank a silent toast in honour of the music, and the darkness, and the light, and the time and place and the numinosity of it all.
And afterwards, perfection perfected.