Monday, November 21, 2016

Something Thoughful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

It’s happened once again.
Every time I go to a symphony concert I say, “I will concentrate on the music itself. I will. I will. I will.  
I say, “I know I have no musical training. I know I can’t read music, don’t play a musical instrument and have to rely on my musical wife to explain the technical aspects of why a symphony is in a certain key or how counterpoint works.”
I say, “At least I have an ear for orchestration. At least I can pick deftly what school this piece of music came from, or the era in which it was composed.”
But,” say I, “there is this thing called structure, which I really have to crack. I must listen hard, very hard, to understand how a certain theme is developed, why the second movement follows the first the way it does, and how the whole composition hangs together.”
So once the lead violinist appears and is applauded; and the orchestra has tuned up under her direction; and the conductor has taken his place; and momentary silence has fallen bar a few coughs in the depths of the hall, I settle firmly in my seat and grit my teeth and say, “This time will be different. This time I will not be distracted by extraneous non-musical things. I will not – I will not – go into vague reverie. This time I will concentrate on the music itself. I will. I will. I will.”
And I always fail.
Item – we go to an evening in the 2016 programme of the Auckland Philharmonia [sic] Orchestra. They bill it as “The Soul of the Cello” because – after a brief experimental piece, the composer of which is applauded – the main item of the first half is Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, with the German virtuoso Julian Steckel as soloist.
There is the familiar bold and dramatic introduction by the orchestra before the soloist begins to saw vigorously at his cello, with its mature and mellow buzz like old port wine. For a moment I think of how often I have enjoyed recordings of this same concerto - Mstislav Rostropovich or Jacqueline du Pre – but I tell myself that my mission this evening is to follow the structure of the thing and not to be sidetracked by memories of other performances.
So I concentrate.
We are in the second row. Therefore I am able to watch the fingers of Herr Steckel’s left hand working up and down the strings as his right hand makes the bow jump, knock, saw, shudder. This way I can follow how the sounds are made until… how like a demented spider the fingers of his left hand look as they scuttle up and down the strings to the allegro tempo of the first movement…. Until… ah! I see that old, portly, balding violinist in the string section, where most of the violins are wielded by women young and old, including that attractive Asian one in the front row… wait a moment… where was I? Ah yes.
Concentrate on the music.
Let me get back to the cello. Let me return my focus to the earnest, bespectacled young man playing the cello with all his force. At least my errant mind hasn’t totally lost the thread because I’ve heard this particular piece often before, so that I am almost anticipating each bar before it is played. I am still following the structure of the thing. I am still pursuing my sacred mission…. That balding violinist. I always see him here. He reminds my of the cellist I used to see in the NZSO line-up, whom I always thought looked like photos of the philosopher William James… concentrate…. concentrate… there is this music and there is this thing about poetry that I was discussing in the lobby with that literary figure before the concert began …and…
Oh blast! I am not following the music. My mind has gone vagrant and unfocussed. The sounds are being produced. They are affecting my mood and stimulating memories, but I am in an unanalytical reverie once again, vaguely following each turn and bump of Dvorak’s vigorous movement but not seeing it with a rational, critical mind.
And now the movement is nearly ended and I’m having thoughts about once being in an unsophisticated audience where people hadn’t yet learnt not to applaud between movements. They don’t applaud here because most of them are APO season ticket holders and look…. Most of them are such greyhairs that they make me look almost young… apart from a few earnest music students from the university and a handful of Asian schoolkids….
And we’re into second allegro ma non troppo movement and I am into reverie and not into rational, analytical thought.
It is at this point that I surrender and throw away the principle on which I entered into this thing. Very well then, music. You win. I am demoted to the status of those idiots who talk about art or literature or music in terms of “feeling” without ever being able to explain how any given work acts upon feelings. “Oh, I was so moved!”, “Oh, I was so blown away!” – the banal signature tunes of the thoughtless who do not know that any art worthy of the name means skill and structure and an underlying order that can be analysed.
And the finale, allegro moderato, passes and I am in this vague, emotional soup.
Have I enjoyed the music? Of course I have, but only as if it were a force of nature; only as if Dvorak never composed it, but rather as if it just appeared complete, to play upon me as if I were the cello.
Out to the lobby for a brief break, some air, an exchange of pleasantries and then back to the second half. The orchestra plays Carl Nielson’s second symphony “The Four Temperaments”. One hardly ever hears, placed in the programmes of New Zealand orchestras, the work of Denmark’s one canonical orchestral composer. But I do not even try to analyse it. Sleep is catching up with me after a long day. Once or twice I nod off. How pleasant to nod off while listening to orchestral music. I have vaguely registered the fact that each movement is supposed to represent one of the four old “humours”, choler, phlegm, melancholy, sanguine. But the best I can do in unmusical analysis is to perceive that Nielson has not really differentiated them adequately to suggest these four different temperaments. They all sound bouncy and lively.
“Bouncy and lively”.  Now there’s an informed critique.
Perhaps I will listen more closely and analytically next time….
Music has charms to soothe the savage breast”, to misquote Congreve.
I suppose my point is that, without formal musical training, you miss half of what is going on in each piece of complex music in the great Western tradition. My consolation is the knowledge that at least half of the audience of which I am a part are as unlettered in these matters as I am. But I still leave the concert hall slightly grumpy and dissatisfied, as I always do. There is something I am just not getting.
Maybe next time I will get it.
Maybe next time.

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