On Oct. 1 and 2, the Eureka Symphony opened its 30th anniversary season at the Arkley Center for the Performing Arts with a program that was aptly titled "Re-Emergence." I was there, at my first large indoor concert after the longest break in indoor concerts I have experienced since I can remember. It wasn't an easy decision. I have, like a lot of you, I am sure, watched and experienced the pandemic desolation that has come in the wake of large public events. However, the draw that clinched it for me was the very necessary and correct measures the organizers took to assure the safety of the public: Vaccination cards and masks were required. Talking to some of the friendly staff in the lobby before the show, I was told there were no issues among the patrons with these rules and the only thing even approaching drama was when one concert-goer had to return to their vehicle to retrieve their vax card, which they did without complaint. My first glimmer of hope that evening was the revelation that, despite what the media, online comment sections, and a deeply stupid protest outside of a local hospital with an at-capacity ICU were all telling me, there are still quite a lot of reasonable adults in our community. As reckless as I can be with my own private life and celebratory habits, I am still pulling for the social contract, public safety and an appreciation of consensus reality. Seeing how polite and normal everyone — both staff and the public — was behaving in the face of such abnormal conditions did a lot to raise my spirits and make me feel comfortable about doing something from the maskless old days.
The opening piece of the night was Elgar's "Serenade for Strings," an early work by the outsider English composer that has a light and almost pastoral feeling in its gentle first movement before opening up to the sort of melodic splendor that would become one of the composer's distinguishing qualities later in his career. The serenade's three movements always uplift and present the listener with an unambiguous sense of muted joy, despite the sometimes complex time signatures and returning main theme. This work gave its often morose and despairing author an early glimpse of future prestige to come, and provided — for me at least — an auspicious and even optimistic beginning to the evening and season. The musicians did an excellent job with this one and I settled in easily.
Introductions now out of the way, the assembled players wasted no time presenting the star of the evening, violinist Otis Harriel, a confident, highly skilled and accomplished talent whose life and career began in Arcata. The next composition of the evening brought the audience back in time and southward to the continent of Europe from Elgar's Albion home, to land in the early 19th century territory of the evening's most prolific and famous composer, the Austrian titan of the tones, Franz Schubert. His Rondo in A Major, which was written when the composer was still a teenager and remained unpublished in his lifetime, is an excellent way to showcase a violinist's talent without overwhelming the audience. Because a rondo is at its core an instrumental round, the melodies are never swamped by the sort of soloist virtuosity often found in more complex pieces of music. That is not to say the music doesn't require technical brilliance — it certainly does — it's just that the melody is never fully subservient to the technical showcasing of the central player. Harriel performed brilliantly on this piece and the symphony rose to the occasion in its playing. After such a long dry period away from this kind of thing, I found myself moved and the return of a long, nearly forgotten, genuine elation came creeping home through my ears and into my head.
The final performance of the night brought the audience even further south geographically and back in time to the late baroque world of Italian composer Tomaso Vitali and his exquisite and mysterious Chaconne in G Minor. I say mysterious not simply because of the quality of the piece but for the enigma of its composition, whose enharmonic modulations carry the work into new key signatures in a fashion that wouldn't become chic until a century later in the Romantic period. This was a wonderful and inspired choice to end the evening with, as the music does an excellent job dividing the players into the concrete support pillars of the chaconne's dominant four-note descending basso ostinato that serves as a buttress for a truly, well, baroque display of technical ecstasy from the violinist. The task laid before Harriel was no small feat and to say that he met it is putting it lightly. By the end of the work, with that ever-present and heavy bassline carrying an otherworldly violin, you have certainly gone somewhere.
I came on the second night of the symphony's opening and this ultimate performance concluded with a quick solo excursion by Harriel, the Capriccio No. 23, aka "The Labyrinth," by Italian baroque violinist Pietro Locatelli. I don't want to sound ungrateful here, but after the excellent conclusion of the previous work, this seemed a little excessive and showy, like the solo violinist equivalent of blasting Van Halen's "Eruption" as an encore. I appreciate the player's great skill but to my ears it wrecked the feeling of the evening's conclusion. However, I am a notoriously grumpy asshole, with a pickiness that tends to live only in my own head, and an informal vote among my friends in attendance afterward registered a split very much in favor of the performance. So I admit defeat and my only objection was one of mood; the piece was played very, very well.
It's a hard thing to consider, returning to a large indoor concert after so many months away and under the shroud of an ongoing plague. I'm glad I did and I am particularly happy this was the show I broke cover for. The staff and musicians all handled the evening with a grace and professionalism that seems superhuman considering the circumstances. Longtime fixture, guiding beacon and star of the Humboldt orchestral music scene, Conductor and Musical Director Carol Jacobson was a delight to see at work again, bringing her megawatt passion to power the program in the concert hall. There is something magical about live music of the instrumental variety played in a place like the Arkley Center, a liminal space is created as if a vast and eternal wormhole is being tapped into. And Jacobson is certainly a magician within that space. For the first time in a long time I felt a sense of hope for a future unlike the dreary decline of our present. Here's hoping the Eureka Symphony lives long and far into that unseen land.
Collin Yeo (he/him) is begging the ghost of LBJ to rise from Hades and beat the everloving shit out of the moribund Democrats whose recalcitrance toward progressive legislation threatens us all with a coming GOP imperium. He lives in Arcata.