04 April 2015

For the love of Pete, read this


This was not my view. I was downstairs. The interior design of this hall is an unholy mess of trying to do a renovation on a shoestring with the added constraint of having to reuse crystal ashtray like chandeliers that were a gift of Norway back in the 1970s.
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 EspaƱa 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.

24 comments:

  1. I read it! I didn't grow up in a musical family - though we all liked to sing, happily unaware we were off-key. I haven't done much to educate myself musically, so classical music can sometimes feel like a foreign language. I have learned a little from reading - thanks to Alex Ross at the New Yorker, even about modern composers.

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    1. I love the fact that your family liked to sing despite not being so good at it. Singing can be such a joyous thing I don't begrudge anyone doing it. (Unless they are trying to make money at it.)

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  2. Glad that your return visit to hear the NSO was a positive one. We are a fairly musical family. One thing I love about where we live is that the Lyric Opera does an "educational" performance on the eve of every opening. Basically, it's a dress rehearsal for them, but they allow teachers and students to attend for free. You do have to sign up in advance, but through the years we've seen a bunch of them since they include home educators in the program. As a result, all 4 of my teenagers have a fondness for opera that astounds most people. That said, they also enjoy pop music and music across the genres (with the exception of country music...not sure how it is that we live in Texas and haven't produced one fan of country music?). We also enjoy attending a "Sing-it-Yourself Messiah" concert every year. People either bring their own score or borrow one provided. The Choral Society sings and provides the soloists, but the audience is encouraged to sing along. Love it! It's my favorite part of the holiday season. We've only been to one of the Gilbert & Sullivan society performances, but it never fails...no matter which of these things we attend, at the end of every one I find myself asking, "Why don't we come to more of these?" They are always rewarding experiences.

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    1. My next musical post about John's nephew and the opera should be interesting to you not just for reasons of music education but also because he lives in Austin. As for your kids, have they heard any vintage Dolly Parton? Those transcend genre. Most country music today isn't worth the zeros and ones it takes to digitally record it.

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  3. I have always loved classical music; in fact it is the only kind of music that really moves me. I have been to countless live performances (operas, symphonies, recitals) and some of them have been among the highlights of my life. They were pure magic. Nowadays it seems that a love of classical music is considered elitist, and that elitist is just about the worst thing that you can be called. I couldn't care less. So please don't hesitate to write about your enjoyment of classical music. I for one love reading about it. Keep the blogposts coming!

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    1. Oddly I don't worry about the elitist part of it. If someone can pay $100 for a basketball ticket why not pay that for an opera? But I suppose it does take a bit of intellectual involvement. If that is elitist than that's me. I read something the other day that when it comes to mental health and enjoying life the most, it makes more sense to pay for experiences rather than things. The ephemeral quality of a live music performance would certainly support that notion.

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  4. A wonderful post! And a topic that I can't discuss with anyone because all my work friends have a glazed and slightly irritated look on their face when I bring it up. Classical music is the realm of the old rich and stuffy. All three, yes, totally unhip. We get most of the San Francisco Symphony season tickets from a friend of ours. Though I don't attend the concerts to socialize, it is a mixed group. If course, you can see the elderly, the overdressed but we also see people of many walks of life and orientation. The feel from the audience makes a big difference to me and clearly the musicians respond to that, as well. Your comments about the expression on the timpanist's face are totally part of the experience.
    We recently went to the symphony in Berlin, which was entirely unique. Intimate concert hall, a clearly demanding conductor (Sir Simon Rattle) and an emotive group of musicians that moved with the music. Extraordinary!

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    1. I'm trying to remember the last time I even tried to talk about classical music with someone who I didn't already know would be interested. I've seen Berlin in DC and London and Rattle in London, but I have never been to the Philharmonie in Berlin. John and I need to plan a trip.

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  5. Well, this is my profession so I love this post! :) I'm really lucky that in my area, classical music doesn't really seem to be viewed as old, rich, stuffy, or elitist. We have so much going on beyond the traditional evening symphony performance (the symphony has a $5 casual-dress dress rehearsal which is basically "run the program", the opera hosts opera camps and really fun performances in the schools and for the public, and we have so.much.chamber music) -- I see multitudes of non-musicians excited about going to these events; I can't help but have an optimistic outlook when it comes to classical music for everyone.

    Looking forward to your future classical music posts!

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    1. There are a lot of programs like that in most places with orchestras and opera companies. Here at the Kennedy Center they have free performances pretty much every night of the week and the offerings really run the gamut. Funny, I just looked up 'gamut' to make sure I spelled it correctly and was surprised to see this for the second definition: "a complete scale of musical notes; the compass or range of a voice or instrument."

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  6. I can't imagine why anyone wouldn't love this post. It is a treat to hear the familiar and have the response you did. There is nothing like live music, no matter the genre. Keeping writing about your musical thoughts and experiences!

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    1. I love that all you music lovers have come out of the woodwork. Certainly will make future musical posts more fun to write.

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  7. As always, wonderful post and keep the music posts coming....I love all styles of music (though Ella is my bedrock) enjoy classical and opera w/out knowing a thing about it and seldom listening. BUT when I first found your blog, i read all the posts over time and discovered 'Allegri Miserere' (King's College Choir) and J. S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto #5 which i have saved in favs. I even bought 'Miserere' on cd and i hadn't bought any cd in yrs. So you never know what your posts may arouse in us and give us these unexpected gifts. So rock on Thomas. And many thanks. Quinn

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    1. So nice to know a blog post of mine encouraged someone to go check out some music. I love that.

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  8. Another vote for more music posts, Thomas! I specially enjoy a concert series at our closest university which supports an ensemble and has done for over thirty years. this has become my favourite musical experience, as I try to prepare by listening to CDs of the works and then I find the performance ever more engrossing and rewarding.

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    1. At this point with all the great comments I am beginning to think I waited to long to write about music. Knowing a piece can certainly make the performance more engrossing. And then of course there are those occasions where you don't know a piece and it hits you right between the eyes in a most astounding way.

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  9. We've had seasons tickets, on and off, over the years to both the local symphony and opera... keep the music posts coming! I'm glad you had such a wonderful evening.

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    1. JoAnn do you go to Eastman for your concerts? When I was at Cornell I only went up there once and I could kick myself now. The orchestra was very good and the hall is so beautiful. And it all felt old fashioned in a really good way. I think it was the combo of the hall and the fact that it wasn't in a huge city. It put me in mind of the days (long before our time) when regional population centers and their homegrown robber barons made them pleasant places to live. Discounting the fact, of course, that many them also polluted the heck out of those cities...but that doesn't fit into my fantasy.

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  10. I read it too! And more to the point enjoyed it. When I write about trips to the theatre I get a similar lack of response but continue to do it because In the end it's my blog and I want it to reflect the things I enjoy. I don't know much about classical music but at least when people like you, and Steerforth, write about it I have points of reference when I want to start exploring.

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    1. Yes! Our blogs should make us happy even if no one reads them. Too many book bloggers these days like to pretend they are doing a job and a service to the world of books. Also glad to know you are sometimes inspired to explore. YouTube certainly makes that easy these days. So many great and unique classical music experiences online.

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  11. I enjoyed this too -- keep the musical posts coming! I've recently reconnected with live classical music in the form of Renaissance and Baroque ensembles that perform in lovely small venues. As an Anglophile, I wonder if you've listened to BBC Radio 3? I've become disenchanted with the limited classical offerings on NPR; all too often they are just recycling familiar melodies. BBC R3's on-air talent and programming are much more diverse and interesting.

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  12. I do indeed listen to Radio 3 and bemoan the dumbing down of public radio in the US. The thing about R3 is that they talk too much for me to listen to it at work. Their programs are fascinating and I love them, they just don't lend themselves to getting work done.

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    1. True ... sometimes we stream their "Through the Night" program (programme!), which is several hours long and almost all music.

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  13. Over here in Englnd, Classic FM on the wireless has introduced many people to music they wouldn,t normally be interested in. It is puncuated by adverts and inane chatter but has the advantage of starting people off on the journey and then inevitably you explore more fully. It is frowned on by the more sophisticated audience of Radio 3 listeners but bite-sized chunks of classical music have proved surprisingly popular.

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