Sunday, February 15, 2015

staging the day

Valentine's Day is one of those holidays that is far more hype than hip.  Almost entirely a creation of Hallmark.

That may be because I have not celebrated the day with anyone for so long I can no longer see the borders of Curmudgeonland.  But I am aware which side of the line I live on.

That is until yesterday.  I celebrated the day with my mother and brother.

We did not go out to a fancy restaurant.  Instead, we dug into plates of one of my favorite meals -- shepherd's pie.  Well, it was really cottage pie because we used beef, rather than lamb.  But this is Valentine's Day where I will even cut myself a bit of slack.  Probably, just enough to hang myself.

Because she is the grande dame of the family, Mom received a large vase filled with yellow roses.  And, yes, I know the color is supposed to be red.  But we Cottons tend to be a little perverse in beating tradition to death with a different drummer.

And the entertainment?  An evening of chamber music in Bend's restored Tower theater.

It was a rather short program -- with the contrived conceit of presenting music for lovers.  The group was the Crown City String Quartet.  A southern California quartet with roots in the Pacific Northwest.

I would hate to put together a program of chamber music designed to fill a theater with paying customers.  Especially, on a holiday based far more for its fluff rather than its substance.

The group succeeded with its limited target.  None of the pieces required much work from untutored ears.  But the pieces were good choices.  All of them readily recognizable and accessible.

During the summer of 2013, I told you in old times there are not forgotten, I had been re-considering Aaron Copland's three categories of how we listen to music:

  • the sensuous plane -- our emotional response to music where we let it wash over us (often while we are engaged in other pursuits; the way everyone experiences music at a rather basic level)
  • the expressive plane -- where we try to determine what the composer's music means
  • the sheerly musical plane -- where we listen to the music as an abstract art form; or, in Copland's words: "the notes themselves and of their manipulation"
I suspect most people who attend concerts these days fall into the first category.  And that is fine with me.  I would rather have people listening on that level than not listening at all.  Without those listeners, live music would be as dead as Moussorgsky.

Anyone who has a nodding reference with chamber music will recognize the three pieces the group performed last night.

The first was Hugo Wolf's Italian Serenade.  I suppose the piece was on the program because of the adjective.  After all, if you buy into profiling, you know Italians are romantic.

It turns out Wolf added the "Italian" modifier after the work was completed.  It is about as Italian as Queen Elizabeth is English.

But it is a perfect piece for string players to show their chops.  Its lilting pace gives each performer a shot of presto-digitation and some rather snappy bowing.

The second piece is also a regular: Mozart's String Quartet No. 19 in C Major.  It is one of six string quartets composed in honor of Haydn.

But that is not what makes it such an interesting concert piece.  Its nickname is "Dissonance," and it is well-named.  The cello's opening C is met with a series of dissonant chords from the viola and two violins in the first 21 bars that set the theme for the rest of the work.

Some "experts" of the early 19th century were so unnerved by the dissonance that they concluded Mozart had made transcription errors.  Their solution?  Fix the errors.  These people still walk amongst us as politicians and regulators.

The group did a great job of adding new life to this warhorse.  Rather than try to move across the dissonance quickly, they reveled in it.  To ears accustomed to Schönberg, the tonal battle seems mild.  I can only imagine how it sounded to 18th century ears.

To our ears, it was joy.

The final piece was a perfect choice for Valentine's Day.  When Alexander Borodin wrote String Quartet No.2, I am certain he had no idea he was providing raw material for 1950s Broadway.

What he did produce was a brilliant piece of lyricism and contrapuntal structure.  But, I will admit, as hard as I tried, it was next to impossible to keep the score of Kismet from intruding.  The theme lifted by Wright and Forrest as "Baubles, Bangles, and Beads" underlies the Scherzo.  And the main theme from the Nocturne comes to us as "And This is My Beloved."

Neither tune, of course, has retained the magnificent variation of texture and chordal construction as the original.  And, even though hearing the show tunes felt as comfortable as slipping on a set of ragged underwear, what we heard was something far more challenging and beautiful.

Did I leave the theater feeling as if I had been pushed to learn something new about the abstract nature of music?  Probably not.  It was not a level three listening experience.

But it was a great night to celebrate Valentine's Day with my two closest relatives.  And that is good enough for me.

I hope your day was every bit as pleasant.

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