Many of Bethany’s musician friends perform with Newport, Oregon’s Symphony. It is a rather small symphony and, thus, very intimate and much beloved by its small, tight-knit coastal community. I have accompanied Bethany several times when she has performed as second harp, to her friend, Martha Griffith. The best conversations I have had in the audience have been with Newport Symphony’s friendly patrons. I am quite shy but someone has always engaged me there. Newport was one of the very first symphonies that I approached with my idea to do an oil painting to auction off as a fundraiser. I was thoroughly vetted by the symphony executives before I was given access. What came next was a feeling of inclusion that gave me chills from the center of my bones to the surface of my skin.
Just prior to the last concert of the 2017-18 season, Newport had seen the passing of one of its favorite people, Mr. David Ogden Stiers, aka Major Charles Emerson Winchester III from MASH. He was much beloved as a Conductor-in-residence for the symphony, and when concert time came the community was still grieving. Maestro Adam Flatt conducted a moving musical tribute to him that I observed from the side of the stage. As I watched, I was able to feel Mr. Flatt’s passion. I had told Flatt before the concert that I thought the best perspective for the painting might be looking toward him from the left side of Tubist, Jay Steele. At last, and as agreed, I climbed the several steps to stand beside Jay and his tuba for the final piece. My heart raced to study and film a conductor from within the symphony, albeit the back corner in the semi-dark where I stood wearing all black and with my camera raised. I was thrilled and moved. It is one of the most precious sensory experiences I have ever had. I hoped to paint Flatt’s intrinsic action and command. I hoped to portray the human individuality of the musicians, and I hoped to create a painting that would convey the architecture of this community’s ties, and their elemental relationship to their place.
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.
I went to the symphony a few times in high school and I really loved it. And then I never went again until I started dating a symphony harpist twenty-five years later. I lived in Walla Walla and Bethany lived in Salem, Oregon. Whenever she had a Friday night concert at Portland’s First United Methodist Church, with Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra, I would have arranged to leave work at Walla Walla Foundry midday on Friday. I would drive 3 1/2 hours west through the beautiful Columbia River Gorge so that I could get to the church in time to change out of my jeans, T-shirt, and steel-toe boots and into dress slacks, a white button-up shirt, black dress shoes and a blazer. Every time I sat near the front row and slightly to the right, directly in view of the harpist. She was often nestled behind the cellos and bassists or sometimes she was situated in the front. My first symphony painting was in my choice of medium at the time: rattle-can off-the-shelf spray paint. I don’t think I had even noticed yet that the harp has seven pedals, but I had painted Bethany at her harp almost immediately after my first experience seeing her there.
My first symphony oil painting was “Salem Symphony”, where she was out front on a slightly lower platform than the rest of the symphony. My second full symphony painting was “Portland Columbia Symphony Low Strings” that places her so prominently, and accurately to my vantage and affection, that the rest of the symphony seems to fade into the distance. But I love this symphony and I am making friends there.
And so, based on the core of musicians directly in front of me, is the following cropping:
I look forward to painting Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra again, but next time I intend to show just a little less harp-centric bias.