I sit here contemplating how to interest you in reading this post on classical music. Experience has taught me that most of you will tune out (pun intended) soon, but that is assuming you have even made it this far. Fellow blogger Steerforth at The Age of Uncertainty once told me that his readers drop like flies whenever he does a post on music. I was even tempted to do a Facebook-type headline: “95% of you aren’t brave enough to read this post…” But I don’t want anyone thinking I approve of that kind of annoying bullshit.
My biggest problem in writing this post is that I don’t quite know what I want to say. It’s too much to try and lay out my own personal history with classical music. It’s even harder to articulate why I think any of you should care. But yet I am compelled to say something. But why?
Recently I got reacquainted with the world of live classical music. I’m always listening to recorded classical music, but it had been several years since I went to a live performance. I used to go all the time. I would get season tickets to the full orchestra season, go to two or three operas a year, organ recitals, choir concerts, you name it. But for several reasons I had been staying away in recent years. I knew that part of the reason was that I have always been underwhelmed by the Kennedy Center concert hall and to a lesser degree the National Symphony Orchestra. I was spoiled. I cut my concert going teeth on the Minnesota Orchestra and Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, both of which are light years better than anything available here in the much larger, more cosmopolitan DC metropolitan area. I also hated the way that concerts at the KC never seemed to start on time. I’d been to concerts all over the U.S. and Europe and never experienced such habitual tardiness.
With all the doom and gloom about orchestra funding and diminishing ticket sales and the general death of classical music, I also found it a little depressing to go to a concert. But I didn’t realize this until a few weeks ago when I found myself back in the concert hall. It occurred to me that that was one of the reasons I had been staying away. And how ridiculous of me. If the art form is indeed going to die, why not enjoy it while I can? For as long as the orchestra was on stage channeling 300 years of musical genius why focus on what might happen? Not to mention the fact that staying away from concerts meant that I was helping to hasten the very death I was worried about.
The catalyst that got me back in the hall came out of plans I was making for a trip back to Minnesota for the end of May. I haven’t been there in years and I haven’t been to a concert there for much longer. I’m taking advantage of the trip to hear both the Minnesota Orchestra and the equal good, but less famous St. Paul Chamber Orchestra on successive nights. This got my ticket buying juices flowing so I decided to see what the NSO was doing here in DC this spring. There was nothing that really jumped out at me but I thought it might be fun to go on a night when they were doing a bit of a mixed bag that I knew John would enjoy.
On this particular night it was four shortish works by French composer inspired by the Iberian Peninsula. The opening was the somewhat inconsequential but wholly enjoyable España by Charbrier. We were seated pretty much front and center and the sound was enveloping and ebullient and sheer bloody marvelous. Although after about seven years in DC, conductor Christoph Eschenbach is already on his way out, I realized that night that I hadn't ever seen him conduct the NSO. I think he has really improved the orchestra…and he started promptly at 8:00. I began to wonder what I had been missing. Was this unalloyed joy I was experiencing?
The concert ended with the old warhorse, well, perhaps chestnut is a better word, Bolero by Ravel. Even if you think you don’t know this piece, you do. In fact we all know it so well that I had a bit of a music school chip on my shoulder and fully expected to just endure one more rendition of it. Essentially it is the same lilting tune repeated over and over for about 13 minutes and gradually getting louder and louder. And you know what? It was blooming brilliant. Performed well and heard live, it was just brilliant. Any residual attitude I had about being too well versed in classical music to really enjoy this crowd-pleasing bit of fluff flew away as I realized I had a fairly big smile on my face.
And speaking of smiles, I have no doubt my experience of the Ravel was heightened by the fact that the timpanist (those are ‘kettle drums’ to some of you) had a totally natural and easy going smile on his face for the whole 13 minutes. If the music hadn’t done it to me already I think his expression would have put me over the top.
Now that I have uncorked the bottle, I realize I have much more to say. But for those of you who have stuck through this to the end, I will wrap up for now. But be warned, I have at least two more musical posts up my sleeve including the story of taking John’s twenty year-old nephew to his first opera, but those will have to wait.