Beethoven and the Brain reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Saturday, February 25, 2012. Koerner Hall, Toronto.

Two minutes into the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Fifth, the ominous, first movement DA/DA-TA/DUM motif reappears in the strings and resolves in a joyous outpouring by the full orchestra. As if on cue, the full-house audience in Koerner hall burst into applause, cheering and whistling and shouting BRAVO!BRAVO!

Not “as if on cue,” but On Cue. Conductor Edwin Outwater had told us he wanted this response, and had rehearsed us till we were loud enough to suit him.

Why this bizarre breach of concert-hall decorum? Because it felt wonderful. And it felt right to let go and join in the collective expression of physical joy that it is the music’s whole purpose to make us feel.

“Music communicates emotion to the audience”, said co-presenter of event, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin. Music communicates e-motion to our brains by the blowing, bowing, scraping, strumming and drumming motions of the musicians. These musical moves get electrical impulses moving along specific neural pathways in the brain. We feel these impulses as emotions. Emotions naturally induce physical motions in our hearts, our breathing, and, if conventions of decorum permit, in our bodies.

Imagine a rock concert. Imagine shouts and fistfights and police in the aisles of Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, 1913 on opening night of Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring. Imagine the Rite’s repeat performance in Paris, 1914, following which Stravinsky was carried out into the Place de la Trinité on the shoulders of a cheering crowd. Now imagine a chamber-music recital in your church-basement. You get the idea.

In a polished and charming tag-team display, Daniel Levitin proposed some ideas on how music communicates emotion to the brain. Conductor Edwin Outwater commented in his own words, while also demonstrating and proving each idea in performance by the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra (which proved to be a helluva fine orchestra).

Using audience hand-held electronics to poll the audience and flashing the results on a huge screen, we learned that a concert can be a shared social experience, and that up to 92% of an audience may instinctively ‘get’ the same message the composer is sending. After listening to the opening bars of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, subdued, slow-moving strains in a low register, 92% of the audience chose the same word,— Intensity— to describe the emotion they were feeling.

In a similar experiment with the slow movement of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, a convincing case was made that composers like Beethoven assemble musical elements into motifs that comprise metaphors for particular emotions. An element such as a slow tempo slows bodily motions, contracts the space we occupy. This process is furthered by adding the element of hesitant, stepwise rhythms. According to Levitin’s McGill laboratory research, this combination of musical moves evokes feelings of sadness, and in response the brain elevates the production of the “soothing”hormone prolactin. So it goes.

The Levitin/Outwater tag-team expanded their menu of musical metaphors into pop mode by referencing Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” and John Williams’ “Darth Vader” leitmotif in Star Wars.This Beethoven and the Brain event is already in its second edition and will probably go on the road. This is a class-act and I expect a “hit” verdict because they surely kick music appreciation up a notch or two and more.

My closing argument is that the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra made me feel I was hearing Beethoven’s Fifth for the first time. Imagine!

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