Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra performs in the First United Methodist Church in downtown Portland, Oregon. The chapel is high-vaulted in hardwood beams and trim. Along the entire South wall is a full floor to ceiling bank of stained glass panels in red, blue, and rose that reflect the interior glow back onto the instruments on the stage. The effect is a warm and comforting mellowness. I painted “Portland Columbia Symphony Low Strings” at about the same time that I painted “Tuning Low Strings”, the subject of this post. Both paintings focus on the same group of musicians: those who work directly in front of where I routinely sit while admiring my sweetheart through their bows, instruments, and elbows.
One of my favorite parts of the symphony is the activity that takes place before the conductor takes his podium for the concert. There is usually a pre-concert lecture which is essential for providing context for the works that will be performed, followed by the wonderful activity and cacauphony of all of the instruments being tuned. The context of the lecture expands the imagination and my feeling of connection to the composer’s intent, and the tuning builds pregnant suspense in an insect-like swarm of sound. I was sitting there, after Maestro Byess offered some background to John William’s prolific career as blockbuster movie score composer, and I saw a very special glow of soft femininity in the midst of all these men in their sharp tuxes, like a diamond enclosed in carbon and rock. There, surrounded on every side by symphony men, I glimpsed Bethany standing at her harp, her right arm bent upward behind it, tightening tuners with a key, her left hand stretched and plucking at long strings made of gut, copper, and steel. Her left leg is straight while her right dances and kicks expertly at one of seven pedals going from flats to sharps. Tonight her shifting shoulders are mostly bare above the scoop of her black gown. All around were men clothed high up the neck in stiff collars, but within them, and through a window of instrument necks and sculpted cellos, was the soft femininity of a radiant woman poised in elegant work.
I am old-fashioned in my love of contrast, and even here in the unifying nature of the symphony as a single organism, rightly inclusive of all, I love the symphony for the beauty of women and soft curves against hard angular lines and handsome manliness, and glows amid pure blackness. I saw that night a repeating theme of timeless beauty, and although at the symphony, in a church, I ached as a man for this woman’s natural allure in the simplest way.