As the North Carolina Symphony opens another classical season this week, the musicians will be elegantly attired and their instruments polished and tuned to perfection. Meymandi Concert Hall in downtown Raleigh will welcome the city’s prominent swells to the opening shows, and Grant Llewellyn, the magnetic Welshman who is the orchestra’s music director and public face, will again lead the symphony in musical triumph, no doubt.
Some will listen from up high in boxes, others will be in the orchestra level. My noble friend Dr. Assad Meymandi, the Raleigh physician who gave $2 million toward the concert hall named for his parents, will lean in intensely as he always does, taking in every note from his box. But all through the hall, in the boxes and above the floor, the spirits of more than 80 seasons past will be drifting and applauding in the hall.
One, of course, will belong to Maxine Swalin, for over 30 years the symphony’s impassioned advocate. Her husband, conductor Ben Swalin, another spirit in attendance, certainly helped bring the orchestra to prominence, saved it some would say, but it was Maxine Swalin who managed things, who went to classrooms all over North Carolina, when that wasn’t easy to do, and helped demonstrate for awestruck students the sounds of different instruments.
She saw in those faces, in all those hundreds or thousands of classes, eyes widen and mouths open at sounds the children had never heard before. Some would remember those sounds all their lives and develop, from that one visit, a passion for music. Yes, lives would be changed.
The symphony, this spectacular symphony, has come far since Maxine and Ben Swalin retired more than 40 years ago, but the nation’s first state-sponsored orchestra had its course well-charted by them and their successors, those other spirits you’ll feel in the hall this season.
It was never meant to be, since its infancy in 1932, a staid and stationary group. In 1943, improbably in a Southern state with rural roots, still with far to go on educating its people, and thousands of miles of unpaved roads, state lawmakers provided money for the orchestra, hardly enough to keep it going but an important symbol nonetheless.
And so Ben Swalin and his successors stayed true to the mission of bringing the symphony to the people, traveling statewide as a whole or in part, to bring classical music (and other forms) to the hamlets and hollows and cities and towns. It is in the memories of the children in those places, tens of thousands of them by now, for the tradition continues, that is found the heart of the North Carolina symphony.
In the memory of the kid from Shelby the sound of the cello offered some kind of inspiration that carried him through hard days at home. In the memory of a fifth grader from Moore County is that unmistakable timpani that brings a smile when she needs it. In the memory of one kid from Rock Ridge was his mother’s encouraging him to play violin after hearing the symphony. Jim Hunt served four terms as governor, but even now can call forth clear memories of his Mama and that violin.
Lives change even if those who hear the symphony as children never gain skills on an instrument, but learn to love music of any kind.
The symphony still goes to the people, still guided by the spirits and by extraordinary leaders who have followed them and some musicians with a dedication to their art that only those with music inside them, rising from their very souls, can have.
Meymandi Concert Hall, state of the art, made a big difference. So did conductors who followed Swalin and each, in his own way, advanced the musicianship. And so did those who are today parents themselves and remember when the symphony came to their town and the musicians came to their school, and now see their own kids inspired and entertained by this next generation of symphony players.
The pioneers paid it forward. But institutions such as this must never be taken for granted, though it’s easy to do that. Without the symphony, or the Museum of Art or the Museum of Natural Sciences or other magnificent institutions that honor and enlighten the people and especially the young people of the state, the color would be drained from this place.
So, Maestro Llewellyn, raise the baton and strike it up, if you please. There still are lives to be changed.