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The crowd was flush against the stage, close enough for our conductor to crowd surf, should he have chosen to do so. From the back, behind the timpani I was playing, I could see that the audience was an odd, mud-smeared crew—a mixture of college students and middle-aged alumni-turned-flash-mob dancers. We had waited backstage in Memorial Church for hours before the lightning subsided enough for us to begin performing. It felt reminiscent of some strange Woodstock, and I wouldn’t be the only one to think so.
But I’m no rock star. I am a percussionist in the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra (HRO). We were not about to share the stage with Jimi Hendrix and Santana, but rather with President Drew G. Faust and Yo-Yo Ma ’76. They had visited us earlier to make sure we were staying focused for our performance at Harvard’s 375th birthday celebration on Oct. 14. Members of the Glee Club serenaded President Faust with an impromptu a cappella jam; Mr. Ma called us to arms before our great battle with the ferocious elements in Tercentenary Theatre. Our adrenaline was pumping. Or maybe that feeling was indigestion from the Welsh rarebit HUDS had served at dinner that evening.
In general, being an orchestral musician is not that cool. On more than one occasion, I have uttered the phrase, “This one time at band camp,” because in reality, I’ve been to band camp. In fact, I’ve been to several band camps, on numerous instances even, so I occasionally reference a story that might seem funny as someone who has been to band camp but that, in reality, is deeply unfunny to most everybody else. Sometimes, selling tickets to fellow students for my orchestra concerts is like pulling teeth out of somebody who doesn’t have any teeth. If they do agree to come, I am surprised by such a disarming gesture. Orchestral music is decidedly unsexy, a truth I will just have to accept until the New York Philharmonic is invited to perform at Yardfest. (They had an easier time going to North Korea.)
But while classical music may not always be in style, it is other things: significant, beautiful, historic. This is why HRO and members of Harvard’s choruses were asked to perform excerpts from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 at Harvard’s birthday party.
We began with the second movement. It is fast, upbeat, and likely familiar to many members of the audience. Throughout the Yard, screens depicted images of Harvard over time. Spectators shouted enthusiastically from the front row, ignoring the normal decorum of orchestra concerts. After a brief pause, we started into the famous “Ode to Joy” theme of the final movement. They began to applaud, in a delayed moment of recognition reminiscent of live recordings from “Best Of” albums. The classical music energized the crowd, though the brightly colored lights shooting across Tercentenary Theatre probably helped, too. When the chorus entered for the final two excerpts—a recapitulation of Ode to Joy, then the Prestissimo finale—the audience lost all control. This was their favorite song! At least, temporarily.
Then, to shrieks from the audience, Yo-Yo Ma ascended the stage. A modern-day Elvis on the cello, Mr. Ma is a real rock star among musicians, an exception to the nerdiness often associated with classical music. His appearances at Harvard and elsewhere are highly anticipated affairs. Mr. Ma performed two movements from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1, his amplified cello only enhancing his rock star status. He might as well have been playing “Living on a Prayer.” Instead, he opted to end with own rendition of “Happy Birthday.” The crowd went wild.
After the performance, I maneuvered through the crowd, sizing up the atmosphere at the celebration. Harvard certainly had its own take on the normal sights of an outdoor concert. Thousands of slices of red velvet cake and vendors handing out socially conscious snack bars replaced the Zippo lighters and marijuana fumes one might expect at such festivals. After sinking my concert shoes into the mud apparently serving as a moat for the chocolate fountain tent, I found firm ground on the steps of Widener Library. From there, I had a perfect view of the Jimmy Vali Band, which skillfully performed covers of popular songs by Journey and Michael Jackson. The crowd loved them. Normally, I might have been jealous. But that night, I didn’t resent the band. Because for one evening, classical and rock musicians could share the same stage. For once in my life, I could finally feel like a rock star.
Elizabeth C. Bloom ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.
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