Contrasts

By Zachary O’Hagan, French horn

In May and June of this year I was privileged to participate in the UCBSO’s inaugural international tour of Prague, Vienna, Bratislava, and Budapest, a long held dream of mine and my friends since I joined the orchestra in 2007. But I took a unique route in getting there: via Belém, Brazil, where I was similarly privileged to participate in Amazonicas V, a biennial conference on the languages, peoples, and history of Amazonia. Unfortunately this meant that I was absent for the orchestra’s time in Prague; however, the juxtaposition of these two events was a special moment for me, reminding me of how lucky I am (and of how important it is) to be able to fulfill complementary – although perhaps seemingly unrelated – passions simultaneously. This is certainly a hallmark of the UCBSO: some of my friends here are also biologists, chemists, computer scientists, historians, literary scholars… and they actually practice this stuff. They, like, actually bind toxic metals and go to archives and stuff!

I am a linguist, first an undergraduate and now a graduate student in the Department of Linguistics. I spend every summer documenting and describing indigenous languages of lowland Peru and studying various aspects of the history of the individuals who speak those languages. I am also (and in no way secondarily) a musician. You will most often see me in the fourth seat of the French horn section, playing the low parts that have become a particular avocation of mine over the years. This is not always an easy life to balance, especially when orchestras go on tour, but the difficulty does not make it any less worthwhile.

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On May 29, with the UCBSO already in Prague, I left Belém with a French horn in one hand and a bag of books in the other, bound for Brasília, then São Paulo, then Munich (by air), and then Vienna (by train). In total I was awake and traveling for over 30 hours, so when I arrived at Meidling Station in Vienna, I naturally boarded the wrong metro line. Two stops later, at a transfer station, the doors opened, and directly across the platform stood a dozen of my friends in a train headed in the opposite direction. I felt like I was in a movie. We waved furiously at one another, and in my daze I motioned with my hands to deny their visual suggestions that I was on the wrong train and heading in the wrong direction. A stop later I arrived at my “destination”, in fact wholly in the wrong place and compelled to walk back most of the distance I had just traversed.

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Having just arrived from Amazonian Brazil, our rehearsal at Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s) the following morning could not have been more stunning. The cathedral was consecrated in the XII century, at a time when the Omagua, a people among whom I have worked in Peru, were rapidly expanding upriver along the shores of the Amazon River in western Brazil. The cathedral is built on Roman ruins that date to the IV century, a time at which the languages of the Tupí-Guaraní family – to which Omagua belongs – were not sufficiently differentiated such that Omagua could even be termed a distinct language. The Germanic languages from this time, some of which would have been spoken in and around Vienna itself, are similarly unrecognizable to speakers of Germanic languages today (English, German, Danish, Norwegian, etc.), and Germanic languages extinct today, like Gothic, were still spoken!

All of these and similar contrasts were overlaid by the music of a XIX-century Frenchman, Camille Saint-Saëns, and occupied my thoughts for the entire morning and on into the rest of the afternoon. I thought: how fortunate I am to be able to move fluidly between such different environments and cultural traditions, to be able to access such disparate historical moments with only a few days’ separation, to be able to perform with an orchestra capable of creating such a rich sound in a space like this and making my life that much richer because of it. That evening’s performance, followed by a standing ovation that the audience walked up to the nave to give, certainly didn’t disappoint.

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