Saturday, August 11, 2018

scaling the barricades

Chamber music is the people's music.

Or it once was. You certainly would not know it today. Its current image is of snooty liberal elitists sipping Chardonnay and eating organic goat cheese. And that is too bad because the beauty of chamber music belongs to everyone.

Quartet is a rather mediocre film (even with the presence of Maggie Smith). But it includes one of the most brilliant summaries I have heard about the tragedy of elites corralling types of music as their exclusive preserve.

Tom Courtenay's character describes the true character of opera to a group of students far more interested in rap than in opera.
Originally, it was people like you went to the opera. Casual clothing, they took food, they took alcohol, they threw things. Anyway, that was a long time ago that rich people took over the world of opera with their fancy dress, and they took the soul out of it, they made it something that it's not.
Every year I come to San Miguel de Allende for the chamber music festival, I think of that soliloquy. Even though the audiences here do not wear fancy dress, they often wear their best. And the vast majority, many who may know very little about music theory, do know the imposed strictures of theater etiquette.

If a piece has more than one movement, you applaud only At the end of the piece. Applauding at any other time would expose that little secret that you grew up in a trailer house in Wyoming, rather than Manhattan (as all of your friends believe).

And always give a standing ovation, but only at the end of the full performance, no matter how perfect or indifferent it may have been -- as if you were still in high school and your best friend Lisa has just disemboweled "Feelings."

(To be fair, several brave souls broke convention tonight and gave a standing ovation for The American String Quartet's rendition of Dvorak's string quartet #3. It was applause well-deserved.)

Audiences at concerts are every bit as stylized as the social set in an Edith Wharton novel. Think of The Age of Innocence.

It was not always so. Admittedly, chamber music had its birth in aristocratic drawing rooms. But, through the 18th and 19th centuries, it was played for popular audiences who would stomp and applaud anything they liked -- even in the midst of a movement, let alone at the conclusion of the movement.

For a brief moment this afternoon the stylized theater etiquette was steamrolled by the joy of the people.

Amit Peled is known as one of the world's best cellists. The fact that he plays the cello Pablo Casals played is a rather telling credential. He is also a teacher at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore.

He brought six of his international (The States, Czech Republic, Taiwan, Spain, Cuba, and China) to perform at the festival. He combined his Cello Gang with six of Mexico's best cello students to form an ensemble a dozen strong.

With only a few hours of practice as a group, they performed this afternoon at a free concert for the public. A large portion of the audience was Mexican. Some were students. Some were family members. But most were people who had come to hear good music. Many had never before attended a concert.

None of the pieces on the program made any demands on the assembled ears. They were strong pieces, but easily accessible. Bach's "Air on the G String." Piazzolla's "Melody in A minor for Bandoneon and String." Klengel's "Hymnus for 12 Cellos." Strauss's "Pizzicato Polka."

One cello is beautiful. A dozen are celestial.

But, the showstopper was Villa-Lobos's "Bachianas Brasileiras Number 5 for Voice and Cello." The "voice" belonged to Rosario Aguilar, who had won a competition to perform with the ensemble.

The piece gave her adequate space to demonstrate her range and control. And, even though a portion of the piece had her soprano voice impersonating a violin (when, of course, the violin was developed to imitate a soprano's voice), she performed it flawlessly.

So flawlessly that the audience could not withhold their approval. Applause flowed freely between movements, eliciting frowns from the socialized set.

I am with the clappers. The people should reclaim chamber music and show approval the moment it occurs. It is the perfect medium for developing a palate for the appreciation of serious music.

You might consider joining me next year here in San Miguel de Allende. We will storm the diatonic scale together and reclaim the people's music.

Listeners of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chords.

No comments: