Tuesday, August 21, 2012

communicating with the living

During my sophomore year in college, I took an English Composition course from a very talented writer.  But he was an even more talented violinist.

To curry favor, I wrote an essay on Bach writing something like: “You can hear the voice of God in Bach’s music.”  The type of thing you would expect a sophomore to write.

My teacher, who adored Bach’s music, called me in for a conference.  Not to talk about my writing, but my perception of baroque music.

He told me I had fallen into the romantic heresy of believing music stood for something.  I remember his exact words.  “Bach is not program music.  It is an intellectual construct.  Saying it is anything else demeans its beauty.”

I thought of my professor on Sunday afternoon while attending the last performance of the Atlanta Chamber Players.  Over the years,I have concluded he was wrong. 

Music is not merely an intellectual construct.  No matter what form it takes, art is the artist’s method of communicating something to us about our world and ourselves.  And how to make sense of both.

Sunday night’s performance successfully did just that.  Starting with the selection of music.
  • Mozart’s Clarinet Trio in E-flat major K 498
  • Ned Rorem’s Trio (for flute, cello & piano)
  • Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor Op. 66
Mozart was once the prime example of chamber music frozen in amber.  Groups attempted to play his music as they imagined The Great One would play it.  Forgetting that Mozart, with all of his genius, was the most human of composers.  A fact that Peter Shaffer's play, Amadeus, helped remedy in contemporary minds.

The players embodied exactly the right mood in the Mozart piece.  Playful.  Joyful.  Hypnotic enough to make the audience sway along with the clarinet

The Rorem trio was fully modern in its concept and filled with existential angst.  In addition to being a composer, Rorem is also a writer.  And that is apparent in the architecture of is music.

He does what good writers do.  In his Largo (the second movement) he has the flute and cello exchanging soft lyrical phrases while the piano intrudes in the background with rhythmic cacophony.  Until the soft exchanges begin to echo the piano and their tension matches the thrust of the piano.

Edward Albee did something similar in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  And to similar effect.

The piece is technically very difficult.  The players were easily up to the task.  Where the piece called for lyricism, their instruments sang.  But they absolutely excelled in the very difficult syncopation of the last movement.  Playing as one with three voices.

And then there was the Mendelssohn.  He has long been one of my favorite composers.

I suppose I first knew him only as that guy who wrote The Wedding March.  But, somewhere in high school, I bought an album containing a couple of his chamber pieces.  I was hooked.

His piano trio is quintessential Mendelssohn.  Intricate and lyrical, but simultaneously infused with German philosophical concepts.  Allowing the audience to easily imagine Mendelssohn sitting with Hegel and Goethe, bedecked in black frock coats, discussing the very meaning of man’s existence.

The full gamut of the human soul is here.  Melancholy.  Remorse.  Bittersweet joy.  Love unrequited.  Love lost.  Love shared.  Exhilaration.

For me, this was the high point of the three nights I attended.  It was technically the most difficult piece played.  And the players performed it flawlessly.

The first movement is an incredibly physical piece of music.  The violinist is required to play at the very edge of control.  At the close of the movement, you could feel the audience straining to violate the “no applause” convention.  As for me, I was ready to shout “bravo.”

Mendelssohn includes a phrase from a hymn (Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit) as musical quotation in the closing portion of his fourth movement -- weaving it into the theme he develops in the previous three movements.

The players caught that flavor perfectly.  Shifting from the lyrical to the majestic.  Evoking the nobility of man through his subservience to a mighty God.

I wish I could have attended this concert with my writing professor.  There is no doubt that music is arguably the most intellectual of the art forms in its reliance on abstract mathematics.

But music is far more.  And I, for one, thank the Atlanta Chamber Players for being the talented communicators of composers who have something to teach us about who and why we are.


John Calypso said...

 art is the artist’s method of communicating  ..."

Playing someone else's music is a bit like painting by numbers - in the end no two paintings are alike.

Andean said...

It's interesting how sometimes, we can listen to music or admire an art piece and just enjoy it for it's momentary outlet.
Other times we hear or see something deeper, more complicated--or was that the artist's portrayal all along, but it couldn't be really-- art is heard or seen in the mind that contemplates it...

NW said...

Your music obviously did not take in to consideration the worship aspect of Bach's compositions. Many composers wrote their music as an expression of love and devotion to their creator, Bach being one of the greatest. Math, and art aside Bach worshiped.

NW said...

meant "professor did not take in to"  not "music" 

Francisco said...

Although I can appreciate some of the classics, a good melody does it for me.  I think it's the hardest thing to write.  I'm constantly amazed what musicians have done and will do with basically, eight notes.
Even though music is subjective, it's remarkable how powerful it can be.

Steve Cotton said...

The trick, of course, is the finding the composer's voice and making it your own.

Steve Cotton said...

Mendelssohn's hymn quotation was no accident.  He was a man of faith, and the trio is a good manifestation of that fact.

But, as you note, Bach was the master of combination of worship within the Baroque construct.  That connection is exactly what got me sideways with my writing professor.  He knew all about the music, but not the reason for the music.  Which, in the end, means he never really understood Bach's voice.

Steve Cotton said...

Got it.

Steve Cotton said...

I have found myself seeking out more challenges in my music recently.  But, like you, there are times I simply want to listen to a good tune.  The comfort equivalent of macaroni and cheese.

NW said...