Friday, July 30, 2004

Good-bye George...Hello Lytton...

Thank God I'm off my George Bernard Shaw kick.  It was fun, but after a while his music criticism, witty and insightful as it was, began to grate on me.  Music criticism is, I believe, a mean profession.  You are judging someone far braver than yourself from the safety of the plush velvet audience seat of the concert hall.   A music critic can pan a performance and perhaps be describing accurately.  But the performer can always say back to the critic in the manner of Winston Churchill  "Yes, I performed badly.  Tomorrow I will perform better and you will still be a music critic."

So -- Good-bye George...Hello Lytton...

Lytton Strachey that is.  Last night I picked up Portraits in Miniature.  Why this affection  (literary affection that is !) for Lytton.  I'll try to figure that out soon ...but now the rain has stopped...its time to put 16 miles on the bike.  The Sad Story Of Dr. Colbatch and  Muggleton will have to wait.  The open road calls!

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Haydn and peanut butter cookies...

Played two string quartets last night.  Haydn's opus 77 no. 2 (his last complete quartet) and Beethoven's  opus 59 no. 1. Quartet playing has and continues to be wonderful recreation for me.  In between movements of these venerable pieces we gossiped and laughed about things far removed from what you might think would be  inspired by the music we were playing.  We touched on politics, recipes, other musicians in town who delight or annoy us.    It was as much a social recreation as a musical one. Perhaps more so.  This is something I have noticed recently.  As I begin my fourth decade of playing chamber music, my quartet friends, their views, their laughter, their idle chatter as we struggle through the repertoire is becoming as important to me as the repertoire itself.  

After we had played, the hostess served us peanut cookies baked that afternoon by her twelve year old daughter.  For some reason, the crumbly richness of those cookies is more vivid to me today than the music that came before.  I'm not saying that opus 77 no. 2 and opus 59 no. 1 are not worthwhile.  They are more than worthwhile. It is those quartets , after all,  that brought us together last night.
But perhaps it's time that I begin to take peanut butter cookies a bit more seriously.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

S.J. Perelman's "Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge...."

And I'm one of her victims. Perelman's first book is uncommon and expensive. Despite that I have two of them. This last one cost a small fortune. So my Perelman collection has every book he ever wrote except for the notoriously "difficult" (as collectors and dealers call books that are hard to find) Strictly From Hunger and The Dream Department.

A collecting mania is hard to explain, much less to defend. But I can say that my affection for Perelman goes back a long way and he has an honored place in my book collection. Westward Ha! I first read in High School. And to this day, it makes me laugh. Hirschfeld's art work only helps the situation. My dad was a big fan as well -- to such an extent that, on his death bed, he asked me to read choice selections from the book. Seven days away from leaving this life, when most mortals who have their wits about them are busy telling their beads or ruminating upon on sacred texts, he was convulsed with laughter as I read, among other passages from Westward Ha! the following description of one of Perelman's maritime adventures on board the Marine Flyer as it carried Pereman and Hirschfeld across the South China Sea:

Mr. Fuscher...was espoused to a lady who, to put it mildly, had been richly endowed. Every time she strode on deck in the pitifully brief halter and shorts she affected, eyes popped like champagne corks and strong men sobbed aloud. It did not seem possible that mere wisps of silk could confine such voluptuous charms; in fact, there were those who lived in the hope, that a truant gust of wind might create a sensational diversion. On one occasion, I lashed myself to the brink of nervous collapse reading the same sentence over and over in Motley's Rise of the Dutch Republic desperately trying to ignore Mrs. Fuscher as she stood silhouetted against the sun in a diaphanous sports dress. I though it rather poor sportsmanship of Hirschfeld, incidently, to show her a sketch of his representing me as a wolf baying against the moon, when he himself was so patently on the prowl.

At the end of his life my dad had a small library of Judaica in his nursing home room. There was Maimonides and Buber. But there was also Perelman.

I and Thou is good. But for my dying father, Westward Ha! was better.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

I suffer a hallucination...

I am an amateur essayist. I'm also completely disorganized and tend to loose things. In an attempt to keep my essays in one place, I'll occasionally place one on this site. I wrote these one a few years ago after playing a wedding job in a place called Beaver Creek....

Usually I don't look forward to string quartet wedding jobs; the repertoire is, year after year, mostly the same (Pachelbel Canon, Entrance of the Queen of Sheba, Trumpet Voluntary, etc.) and the job I played last Saturday in Beaver Creek promised to be no different. You would think that the Queen of Sheba, poor girl, would get tired of it all. The same music, the same rural "Cream City Brick" church in the same placid little rural town -- and (how could it be)? the very same couple walking down the aisle. Was it possible that Todd and Heather were getting married yet again? Enough is enough you would think. The problem for me here was clearly that I was suffering from a case of WJHS: "Wedding Job Hallucination Syndrome." It had to happen sooner or later. But I had to keep reminding myself: there is some good news. According to experts this malaise can be fought or at least postponed. NO...I had never been in the township of Beaver Creek before. NO ...
This was the first time I had ever seen Heather and Todd. NO... This is the first time I had played the third violin part to Pachelbel's celebrated Canon.

But here is the strange thing. Despite this panic attack, I came away from that church and Beaver Creek thinking that the wedding job was really one of the most remarkable experience of my musical life. How could this be? Certainly the level of musicianship was solid, but that's not enough to make it seem like I had come face to face with St. Cecilia herself. Although I hadn't played with these particular people for quite some time, I remembered them to be all pleasant people and expressive musicians as well. It was as if we were all good friends who hadn't seen each other for a long time and here, in the middle of nowhere (or "East Jesus" as my dear parents used to say) we quite unexpectedly found ourselves, after many years of going our separate ways, together again.

So the musical part of the occasion was nice enough. But certainly not nice enough to make it as memorable as it was. What was going on? There had to be more to it -- something else I couldn't quite get. But then in measure 48 of "Entrance of the Queen Of Sheba," it happened. For it was precisely in that measure, during a convenient rest, that I looked up and saw her. The Queen of Sheba herself. And she wasn't your typical Queen either. This one was not Elizabeth Taylor with lots of cheap ornamental gold jewelry. This one was different: She looked like she was recently arrived from Ethiopia -- and, better still, she wasn't marching. She was dancing. There was joy in her every part as she slowly made her entrance from the back the church exactly three feet above the aisle. Elizabeth Taylor this was not. This was more Odetta than anything. Measure 48 and there was the Queen. Honey...what took you so long?

And if all this wasn't exciting enough, by about measure 62 I made another discovery. She was not the only one. Four others people in that church were dancing as well. It was us; the string quartet. We had come many miles from our homes to Beaver Creek so that we could boogie, in our stilted subrban style, with the Queen.

And we had come to Beaver Creek to dance with each other as well. For do not musicians, (I have come to think) and especially string players, when a certain consanguinity is achieved, become dancers? The retaking of bows in unison, the slight and subtle swaying in time to the tactus of the music, the eye contact shared that helps make a physical gestures happen at exactly the right moment so that the motion itself becomes significant and even radiant. And when we play music do not the fingerboards of our instruments change into dance floors? It is not only feet that can pick up and move. Fingers can do it too. And do. And in Beaver Creek no less. If it can happen there, can't it happen in Peoria as well?

There will someday come a time, I have often worried, that even the most
sublime string quartet will fail to move me. But now I have a different,
more reassuring knowledge. Because even if I know exactly what musically is going to come next in "Death and The Maiden" or Opus 76 #5 , and I don't look forward to it for the mundane reason that I have heard it so many times before, I will still be able to find joy in the dance of the quartet, in my own dance, in the dance of the moment. The music might not be new, but the dance always is.

Should we try to be singers when we play our sonatas and trios? Perhaps. It's nice to think of Chaliapin, or Buddy Holly or Alfred Deller or Melissa Manchester as we go about our work. And we can learn much from them. But there is always that frustrating understanding that no matter how close we come and how well we phrase, they always did it better than we ever could. The greatness of Heifetz was that he was Jascha and not Buddy. Buddy Heifetz just doesn't sound right.

But as dancers we always make it to the church on time. We can always come from Sheba, or from anywhere, and, exactly three feet above Heather's future mother-in-law, start to dance.