Commentary: Why we yearn to return to concerts, when the time is right

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CHICAGO — For the first time in half a century, I can’t seek balm in the place where I’ve always been able to find it: the listening room.

By that I mean not the den or the home office via the stereo or the computer. No, that’s not where music sounds best, regardless of the technology involved. The only way to hear jazz or classical music — the dual realms in which I’ve spent most of my life — is in the intimacy of the jazz club or the grandeur of the concert hall. That’s where real sound, with all its whirring overtones and plush resonances, its subtle nuances and great waves of decibels, can be savored fully.

I hasten to add that not going to concerts is no hardship at all compared with the miseries now inflicted on humanity by the coronavirus pandemic.

But as this disease silences listening rooms large and small, I can’t help but remember that 50 years ago I attended my first live concert and instantly realized that no recording, no TV broadcast, no movie could compete with how music sounds and feels in a confined space.

The occasion was Sun Ra leading his Arkestra — an avant-garde ensemble of virtuoso instrumentalists and, I kid you not, acrobats, dancers and fire-eaters — in raising hell at the Jazz Showcase. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and seeing, a sensory overload in the most thrilling meaning of the term. My ears and eyes and the pores of my skin were awakened by the spectacle of it all.

From that moment on, my nights were devoted to absorbing music up close, where you don’t just hear it but feel it, whether from the luxuriant notes of a jazz bassist or the sensuous winds of a splendid orchestra. For jazz and classical music offer at once a physical, emotional and intellectual encounter, best experienced in the flesh, not through today’s ubiquitous screens.

After that Sun Ra concert, I could not have imagined what lay ahead, but the revelations kept coming. In 1976, I finally learned what everyone meant when they said Arthur Rubinstein had a golden tone on the piano. Indeed he did when he played the last Chicago concert of his life, during his worldwide farewell tour, at age 89 in Orchestra Hall. A “golden tone,” it turned out, was an understatement for the radiance and warmth of his sound, the poetry of his lyrical lines.

Thousands of concerts later, the sounds I’ve collected in memory still inspire awe when I think of them. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performing Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe,” a torrent of translucent tone color. Johnny Griffin issuing thunderous riffs at a breakneck tempo on his tenor saxophone. Frank Sinatra in his 70s turning the grain and grit of his greatly weathered voice into an expressive tool that had been unavailable to him in his youth. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra producing a depth of tone I’d never experienced in Brahms’ symphonies.

Now all of that is gone, at least for a while. Yes, I listen to recorded music all the time, not as a substitute but to banish the silence and to remember what music sounded like when performed live. I realize, of course, that for long gone masters such as jazz singer Billie Holiday and classical pianist Artur Schnabel, trumpeter Louis Armstrong and violinist Jascha Heifetz, recordings are the only way to try to understand why they captivated the world with the sound of their art.

But their recorded masterworks, which help define the history of jazz and classical music, remain to me pencil sketches compared with what they and other musicians achieve in concert.

And let’s not forget that other essential aspect of live performance — the audience, all of us convening in a single room, which we’re now understandably banned from doing. When 2,500 people collectively hold their breath to better hear a pianissimo in Orchestra Hall, when they erupt with applause at the end of a performance, we realize that music is as much a communal experience as a solitary one: It moves each one of us differently, yet the intensity seems heightened by shared reactions.

One of these days, we’re going to experience that again. I believe that when we do, the music will sound by turns brighter and darker, hotter and cooler, sharper and softer than we realized before it was taken away.

That’s when we’ll know we’re back to life and music as they ought to be lived and heard.


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