Archives for category: Music

A NIGHT AT THE OPERA

 

 

 

 

I turned off the television following a re-broadcast of “Schindler’s List.”  Though I’ve seen it several times over the years it always leaves me speechless for a while.

“That wasn’t much fun,” I finally said to my wife, Katie.

“There’s more to art than just enjoyment,” she sagely responded.

“I know,” I said, like a petulant child. “But who aims to torture the audience?”

We smiled at each other and said, at the same moment:  “Iris.”

 

*****

During a visit to Rhinecliff, NY last summer, our friends, Donna and Rick, invited us to join them to see an opera at Bard, the local college, where a Frank Gehry-designed concert hall anchors a scenic campus.  Though fond of classical music, I’d never attended an opera in person.  When I heard about the evening, I assumed we’d be seeing one of the anchors of the repertoire, something by Puccini or Verdi or Mozart.  Boy, was I surprised!

 

*****

 

“Who?” I said.

“Mascagni is the composer,” said Katie.

“I’ve never heard of him,” I said.

“I’m sure the opera will be enjoyable,” she said.  “After all, it’s a summer college presentation called ‘Iris.’  It’s probably a comedy.”

“That’s true,” I agreed.  Mascagni, I speculated, was probably a pop sensation in the 1890’s.  We shared a great dinner with Donna and Rick and then drove to campus. After admiring the beautiful setting and building, we filed inside.  We found our seats, the lights dimmed and the orchestra commenced an overture both melodic and romantic.

“This will be nice,” I thought.

Suddenly, the melody stopped and a discordant murmur issued from the strings.  The curtain lifted to reveal two performers, a man and a woman, dressed in rags. They appeared distraught, thrashing and wailing while hidden figures above them atop a wall ripped pieces of paper and dropped them, like confetti, on the performer’s heads.  For several moments this activity held my interest. Unfortunately, it continued for twenty minutes.

Katie and I looked at each other and fought the urge to laugh, as though we were Mary Richards at the funeral of Chuckles the Clown.  (If you’ve never seen it, go to YouTube).  The “action,” if that is the right word, never changed much over the next two hours. Rags and debris, cries and moans, deaths and dismemberments.

Occasionally, the music swelled with snippets of melody, but they never lasted long.  What kept us in our seats was the expectation that relief must be on the way.   A happy ending must be just around the corner.  But, no, Mascagni had different ideas.

At intermission, during which a sizable portion of the audience departed, I read the detailed program notes. Mascagni, it turns out, had early success.  His opera, “Cavalleria Rusticana,” remains a beloved favorite to this day.  But he came to believe applause during his operas was insulting and intrusive.  Therefore, he constructed his later works to minimize the possibility of adulation.  Each time the music in “Iris” built towards conventional beauty, Mascagni brought it down with a crash.  Any time a singer appeared to be on the verge of an ovation, he or she retreated offstage to be replaced by a scene both ugly and sad.

“How did ‘Iris’ become popular?” I wondered.

It didn’t, is the answer provided by the program.  Its most recent revival was in the 1930’s in Europe when, perhaps, discordance seemed de rigeur.  Personally, I will be surprised if “Iris” is revived again in this millennium.

As to Mascagni, he was confident his new ascetic aesthetic would become popular.  He felt “purity” was a virtue greater than “beauty.”  It’s not up to me to declare he’s wrong.  Time has told the tale.  Mascagni’s contemporaries, like Puccini and Verdi, are still famous and beloved.  Beyond his youthful “popular” works, Mascagni is forgotten.

 

*****

 

Following the opera, Rick and Donna took us to an on-campus tavern and performance space.  A rock band played loudly while a mostly college-age crowd danced and drank.  Normally, this is not my scene and I would seek a fast exit.  But this time, I enjoyed watching everyone have fun.  The mood was festive.

“Sorry about the opera,” said Rick. “We had no idea.”

“No problem,” I said.  “I suffered for two hours but gained a memory to last a lifetime.”

 

 

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INSTRUMENT OF TORTURE

That Sam would play the oboe seemed inevitable. Someone had to.  He was the youngest of three children, after all, and his two older sisters had both failed at the piano and refused to play the oboe, respectively. With my wife, Katie’s professional-quality, hand-crafted instrument consigned to the back of a closet for decades, he represented the last chance one of our children would carry on her legacy as the one-time second chair of the Connecticut State Youth Orchestra.
“You can take piano lessons, if you prefer,” we offered, knowing he had long-refused to consider the beautiful instrument anchoring our living room, by then reduced to a silent piece of furniture.
“Why do I have to take anything?” Sam protested.
“Because musical training is important, your sisters suffered through it, and it will be good for you,” we answered, more or less. We probably also suggested: “it will enhance your college applications, provide an extracurricular activity in high school, and develop whichever side of the brain might otherwise be neglected.” We figured if we threw enough half-baked rationales against the wall, one might stick.
Sam was in fifth grade when this ambush took place. He had just entered middle school where there was an extensive music program. Each participant received a weekly lesson from the band director. Some students took private lessons, too, but the instrumental program at the school was renowned for developing beginners. Eventually, the talented and/or devoted would feed the award-winning high school band, an institution in our town whose fervent following rivaled that of the sports program. In fact, at Ramsey High School, the home football crowd was known to swell just before halftime and diminish precipitously after the band finished performing.
Nearly all the boys who began lessons in fifth grade chose to play the drums or something brass. We’d bought Sam a drum, at his insistence, when he was five. But he abandoned it after just a few days of sporadic pounding. Nearly all the girls chose the flute or clarinet. Not since the eighteenth century, perhaps, had a ten-year-old clamored to play the oboe. When the band director learned that our household held a prospective oboist, she nearly leapt with excitement.
“Does he already play?” asked Ms. Latronica (“rhymes with harmonica,” she always told the students on the first day of school).
“No,” we explained, “but Katie can teach him the basics, and he’s agreed to practice at least fifteen minutes a day.” We didn’t think it necessary to reveal the arguments and bribes involved in gaining the latter assurance. Suffice it to say, Sam’s ice cream and video games were secure for the balance of fifth grade.
“This is so exciting!” enthused the twenty-something Ms. Latronica. “We’ve never had an oboe before. Sousa wrote some great oboe parts!”
We nodded and smiled, but thought back to our daughters’ failed musical careers.
“I fear,” I whispered to Katie afterwards, “that she is headed for some disappointment.”

*****

Fortunately for me, I was at work when Sam commenced his initial oboe practices after school. One day, I arrived home earlier than usual and heard a braying sound emanating from the living room piano bench, where he sat.
“Do we have geese?” I asked.
“That’s Sam practicing,” said Katie.
“Wow,” I said. “Does it always sound like that?”
“Sometimes worse,” she said. “But he’ll get better, eventually.”
“What if he doesn’t?” I asked.
“He’s already made a lot of progress,” Katie assured me. “He can play a scale.”
“In three weeks, that’s all he’s learned?” I said.
“If he took the French horn, he might not be able to hit a note for a year,” she pointed out.
I nodded in agreement, recalling the unfortunate French horn player in my high school orchestra.
“But, at least a French horn sounds mellow. This sound is irritating; it’s hard to take,” I said quietly, cringing, as several additional honks bounced off the walls.

Over the next several months, Sam did make progress. “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” for instance, became recognizable. But he clearly lacked a gift. Since Katie had been an excellent oboist decades earlier and I’m one of those people blessed/plagued with music running through my head at all times, I couldn’t understand our progeny’s lack of musicality.
“They’re all good students,” I said. “And they’re great at soccer. Why do they lack musical talent? We’ve provided nature AND nurture, and received nothing in return,” I continued sourly.
Katie shrugged. “Let’s hope he’ll be happy he tried, someday. There won’t be much pressure. He’s playing third-oboe in the holiday concert.”
I didn’t know whether to be relieved or insulted. “How can he play ‘third’ when there’s no first or second?” I asked.
“Actually,” said Katie, “the third part is what Ms. Latronica thinks Sam can handle. Remember, he’s just a beginner.”
“Fair enough,” I said, apprehensive.
On the night of the concert, we were stunned and impressed to see the middle school band file into the gymnasium before us. Over eighty players made it larger than all but the most august of professional orchestras. Several of the hundreds of parents and grandparents rushed forward to hand flowers to their children. Others stood brandishing video cameras. We remained quietly in our seats, heeding Sam’s request that we “not do anything embarrassing.” Still, we were proud to see Sam amidst the ensemble, though his sheepish posture revealed his desire to be somewhere, anywhere else.
Ms. Latronica, glowing with excitement, took the podium in a form-fitting outfit guaranteed to command the attention of students and audience alike. The band performed a selection of Christmas carols with a Thanksgiving-themed song and a Hannukkah piece mixed in. The skill level was impressive; many of the students played with enthusiasm.
“I can’t hear the oboe at all,” I whispered at one point, though Sam appeared to be blowing.
“That’s probably a good thing,” whispered Katie. “The third part shouldn’t stand out.”
After the concert, while waiting in a long line at Baskin-Robbins (we weren’t the only bribers in town, apparently) we congratulated Sam for his efforts.
“I didn’t play a single wrong note,” he said, smiling suspiciously broadly.
“That’s wonderful,” I said, warily.
“I was just blowing,” he said, “but not hard enough to make sound.”
“Sam,” said Katie. “Why would you do that?”
“I didn’t want to mess up,” he said.
I considered expressing anger or, at least, canceling ice cream. But the latter was difficult because I wanted ice cream, too, and the former would have been hypocritical because I’d done the same thing decades earlier at a high school holiday concert. In fact, what I’d done was worse, since I was the first trumpet, and responsible to carry the melody!

We didn’t let Sam quit the oboe mid-year, despite his requests, but we did move his practice location to the basement. Several closed doors would insulate the rest of the house from the noise.
“He’ll probably be watching television while he practices,” I said.
“Probably,” said Katie.
“Do we care?” I asked.
“Probably not,” she said.
I pondered the situation for a moment. “What kind of parents practically invite their son to goof off when he practices?”
“Realistic,” said Katie. “He’s not gifted and he’s not excited to play. We can’t force it.”
The school year ended with a spring concert. We attended and applauded and didn’t even ask Sam if his instrument was contributing to the sound. And he didn’t volunteer the information. When we arrived home, the oboe reassumed its place in the closet.
As the years proceeded, Sam developed a healthy enjoyment of music. Now that he is in graduate school, on the rare occasions the subject of playing musical instruments arises, I note that my son expertly plays the I-pod and Pandora, and he’s perfectly satisfied with that. Therefore, I suppose, so am I.


CONCERT-GOING

I found myself at Memorial Hall on the UNC campus last night for a concert by the Israel Philharmonic. They are touring the United States this spring and fit in a date at our local university on their way from NY to Miami. What a thrill it turned out to be!
First, the people. Though I was born when Eisenhower was president, a symphony concert is still a place where I am, relatively-speaking, in the flush of youth. Much of the crowd appeared to have been bused in from retirement and assisted living facilities. Only a tiny contingent, perhaps three percent, were college students. And, judging by the amount of time they spent furtively playing video games and checking e-mail and Facebook during the concert, I suspect most of them were in attendance in order to score bonus points from their Music 101 professors.
My first glance at the program was concerning. There was a piece by Faure, followed by two by Ravel, and finally, Berlioz. While I like classical music, I admit to being somewhat of a meat and potatoes fan, with large doses of the big guys, Beethoven, Brahms and Bach. I prefer discernible melodies and rhythms. I know Ravel, in particular, to be full of atmospherics; his is the sort of music where you aren’t sure when to applaud.
My concern was somewhat confirmed when I noted the orchestra to contain not one, but two harps. More than one harp is rarely a good sign for fans of un-subtle symphonic music.
This being the Israel Philharmonic, in order to access the hall, I had to walk through a gauntlet of demonstrators. These misguided souls are under the impression, apparently, that violinists have a role in setting government policy. They are aggrieved that cultural exchanges are occurring between our country and Israel and feel that Muslim culture is short-changed.
Two things came to mind. First, a troupe of Muslim performers were at UNC last fall, called the Manganyar Seduction. I found their performance to be fabulous and interesting and none of the demonstrators outside were even aware that performance had taken place, much less attended it. Second, as I assured them, if Palestine or Iraq or even Abu Dhabi sent over a world class orchestra, I would be delighted to hear them. In fact, if the Gazans could manage a first-rate string quartet, I’d be willing to listen. In my opinion, to demonstrate against the appearance of the IPO was simply lunatic.
Back to the music: The Faure piece, Pelleas et Melisande, turned out to be familiar. The performance was splendid, subtle but beautiful. It was not dynamic enough to turn the students away from their mobile devices, however. The Ravel selections proved as atmospheric as feared, but still had lovely moments and some surprising risings and swellings of sound. Unfortunately, both pieces were divided into six or seven portions. After each section there was a pause. And during each pause, the audience felt compelled to let loose with a spasm of coughing, sneezing and throat-clearing that made me think I was at a nineteenth-century tuberculosis sanitarium, or in my usual situation on an airplane.
Listening to Ravel afforded me the chance to contemplate. I thought about the experience of attending a concert in Chapel Hill versus my previous home in the suburbs of New York. There, world class performances were always available. Unfortunately, accessing Lincoln Center from Ramsey, NJ sometimes required the logistics of the Normandy invasion, particularly if it was on a weeknight evening. Also, the cost was astronomical, and the crowd seemed jaded and unimpressed.
In Chapel Hill, we attend concerts for twenty percent of the cost, five percent of the hassle, and everyone is excited to be there, except for some of the students. When we go to hear the sixty-piece North Carolina Symphony we never fail to conclude: “Wow, they are really, really good. They are only 90-95 percent as polished as the New York Philharmonic, but for the price and convenience, it’s a worthwhile trade-off.”
But “really, really good” is not the same as phenomenal. Once in a while, it is necessary to be reminded of true greatness, of a full-throated ensemble of 105 off-the-charts-amazing musicians, working together as one to deliver a timeless performance. The second half of last night’s concert, featuring Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” was such an event.
From the first notes, the performance held the hall in rapt attention. The coughers were suddenly cured, the few students who had not escaped at intermission looked up from their smartphones. The music rolled, like waves, from section to section of the orchestra. Bells tolled, drums boomed, strings flowed in unison.
The familiar piece, so well-known as to seem dull to me on the radio, was thrilling to see in person. Who knew there was a timpani quartet in the middle of the final movement or that an improbably bearded, yalmulke-wearing orthodox percussionist could play a snare drum with such aplomb? When the last blasts from the brass section sounded like cannons it was as though we were transported to another dimension, where sound-waves vibrated every wall, every seat, right through to the bones.
When the final chords subsided, there was a pause before the audience realized they were still on this earth, at a concert, and it was time to applaud. The sound welled up quickly, with people shouting “bravo” and rising as one to provide the deserved standing ovation. The crowd refused to stop cheering until the conductor returned and led an encore.
“Wow, these people are starved for culture,” I imagine some of the musicians were thinking. But, no, Chapel Hill has a laudable amount of culture. We have many very, very good performances to enjoy. We just don’t often have a world class orchestra in front of us. And we didn’t want to let them go.